FISI Conclusion and “Local Americans”

Saturday marked the end of the Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI). The fact that I’m still standing (albeit hardly) after two of the most fun, socially invigorating, and intellectually stimulating weeks of my life feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. Somewhere in the blur that was FISI, I managed to:

  • learn how to say “cheers” in Bulgarian (Nazdrave!)
  • develop an understanding for the complex ethnic tensions that exist in the Balkans
  • pick up on the basic rules of “belot,” a popular Bulgarian card game
  • study tactics for successful conflict resolution in both interpersonal and international disagreements
  • eat dessert after just about every single meal (I know this one is especially impressive)
  • teach Bulgarian friends popular American card games and expressions
  • hear directly from Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors regarding the conflict in Gaza
  • nearly burn my face off in a sauna (thanks, Pradeep)
  • meet the lead actor from Don Giovanni
  • beat a Bulgarian friend in table tennis
  • lose to that same Bulgarian friend in table tennis more times
  • disagree on potentially contemptuous topics with tact
  • laugh…a lot
  • dance a traditional Bulgarian dance
  • listen to a Mozart symphony
  • learn enough Bulgarian to make a presentation about myself…IN BULGARIAN!!!
  • and most importantly, walk away with a handful of lifelong friendshipsunnamed

FISI friends before dinner

To celebrate the program’s completion, everyone had dinner at the hotel’s Golf Club.  After dinner, the dancing started almost immediately with the traditional Bulgarian “Horo.” The Horo is incredibly fun, and is popular at weddings, festivals, parties, and other social gatherings. As you can see in this video, dancers hold hands and follow the steps of a leader who snakes and weaves all over the dance floor. I found I could keep up with the simple patterns pretty well, but once the steps got complicated, the Bulgarians were in a league of their own. I’m hoping that with enough practice, I’ll be able to keep up in the future!

Saying goodbye to my FISI friends was difficult. I didn’t anticipate getting so close to new friends so quickly, but that’s exactly what happened. One thing (of many!) I really enjoyed about the smaller group of friends I spent the most time with was that despite being from all walks of life, we each put forth a genuine effort to understand each other’s backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, and to share our own. My Bulgarian friend dubbed the Americans in our group “Local Americans.” Unsure why, I asked him to explain what he meant. He said that he could tell we had a strong desire to really understand Bulgarian people, language, and culture, amongst other things. While some other Americans at FISI and otherwise had hung out with exclusively other Americans, he appreciated our curiosity and desire to bond with locals. I’d encourage others to “think local” when they travel. Try local food, learn some phrases in the local language, and strike up conversations with local people; so much can be learned this way.

I went on two tours today in Sofia, that I hope to post about soon. Tomorrow, I head to Macedonia for a couple days, where I will work hard to continue living up to my “Local American” nickname.

Learning Bulgarian

Bulgarian is tough. Really tough. My class here moves quickly, and as one of just a few students without some prior experience with Bulgarian (or something similar), I find that I’m having to work very hard just to keep up. For instance, today I accidentally told my class that the capital of North Carolina is Greensboro. Now I’ve lived in North Carolina since I was 6 years old, so obviously I know the capital is Raleigh, but I misunderstood the exercise, and told everyone where I was from instead. It’d be easy to feel embarrassed (note: I did), but I try to remind myself that this is brand new for me, and it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop new language skills. Fortunately, my Bulgarian friends are all eager to help!


My friends Valentin and Alexander have been great resources for learning Bulgarian!

Now for a little more on the language itself…Bulgarian is a Southern Slavic language based on an entirely different alphabet called Cyrillic. The Bulgarian alphabet has 30 characters, including several unique sounds and letters that we don’t have in English.

Bulgarian Alphabet

As a native English speaker, there are a few characters that are especially confusing. For example the Bulgarian character “H” makes the sound I’ve always associated with “N,” and the Bulgarian “X” character makes a sound similar to what I’ve always associated with “H.” Not to mention that several characters are entirely new such as Ж, щ, and я. If you aren’t already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, I’d encourage you to watch this video for a quick lesson! One other thing that I’ve found very interesting is that in Bulgaria, there is no infinitive verb form (in English that’s the equivalent of putting “to” in front of any verb).

Last night, I was sitting around with some friends and classmates while working on my Bulgarian homework. I was incredibly impressed with how seamlessly the conversation flowed between English, Spanish, German, Russian, and Bulgarian. If a word or phrase was forgotten in one language, it was quickly provided in another, and the conversation continued. This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this at FISI either. In fact, it was only one of many similar instances I’ve encountered over the last week and a half. As I sat there struggling to learn Bulgarian, it struck me that a situation like the one I described above would be incredibly rare in the United States. From my vantage point, the “normal” American foreign language experience consists of a handful of years spread out across high school and college. By contrast, I was talking to a Bulgarian friend today who started learning Russian in first grade, English in second grade, and has also studied Spanish and German. He described his experience as typical for all of the language schools in the country. Having studied some developmental psychology, I know language acquisition is much easier at a younger age. It seems that we have the opportunity to put a larger emphasis on learning new languages much earlier in our education.

A few things that I feel are important to note:

  • I realize that my Bulgarian friends here at FISI are a small sample of the rest of the Bulgarian population, and a very accomplished group, at that. I’ll be curious to see if my observations here hold up in other parts of the country.
  • I’m sure part of the reason for my thoughts can be explained geographically. In America, you are bound to encounter fewer foreign language speakers, and can easily get by just fine your entire life without learning a second or third language. However, in Bulgaria and surrounding countries (and Europe in general), many more languages are spoken by sizable populations.
  • There are certainly many Americans with a passion and talent for learning languages. My thoughts above are more generalized, and I don’t mean to take anything away from those who work hard at language acquisition.

Because I enjoyed the last poll so much, I’ve got another one for you. I’d love to hear some reasons behind your vote in the comments section below!

Correct or not, there is a notion in parts of the world that learning new languages isn’t very important to Americans. While I know many Americans commit themselves to learning a new language, I also think the value of being multilingual is often overlooked in the United States. Either way, I am a firm believer that connecting with people from a variety of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives is important. Language is an essential tool that helps us do this effectively, and learning a new language directly increases the number of people we can exchange ideas with (this link is for you, Ed Finley).

P.S. A Bulgarian friend told me that Bulgarian and Macedonian are similar enough that if you learn one, you essentially learn both…more motivation to learn Bulgarian!

Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI)

Zdraveyte (Hello) from Pravets, Bulgaria! I’ve just finished my first week at the Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI), and it’s been an incredible experience so far. FISI is a two-week academic and cultural program that offers courses on a wide variety of topics including, but not limited to politics, international relations, science, art, culture, education, and communication. With attendees from all over the world, FISI’s learning environment is invigorating because it brings together diverse perspectives and experiences.

I have signed up to take four classes, two of which I completed this week. I’d encourage you to explore the full course descriptions here. I am taking:

  1. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution – This class aims to help students become better negotiators, and covers topics such as negotiation strategies, legal and ethical frameworks for negotiation, traps that arise during negotiation, and cross-cultural negotiation. Unfortunately I may have to drop this one if I opt to continue taking my Bulgarian class the second week.
  2. Ethnic Conflicts, Human Rights, and Civil Unrest in the EU and Its Neighborhood– This course provides an overview of ethnic conflicts, human rights, civil unrest issues in the EU and its neighborhood, including international as well as internal dimensions of these problems.
  3. Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution in the 21st Century – This class explores the concepts, principal determinants, frame of analysis, and theories of peace and conflict dynamics.
  4. Introduction to Bulgarian Language – An overview of the Cyrillic alphabet as well as Bulgarian conversation, vocabulary, and grammar.

I thought this could be a good opportunity to try out the polling function. Which of these courses would you be most interested in taking?

The highlight of FISI has without a doubt been the people. It’s amazing how quickly friendships can form, and I feel very fortunate that I’ll be leaving next week with new friends from all over the world. It’s apparent how overwhelmingly alive the Fulbright’s aim to increase mutual understanding is here, as I interact with people from Bulgaria, Pakistan, Denmark, The Netherlands, Russia, and India, just to name a few.


Hiking in the mountains surrounding Pravets

While this week has been amazing, it’s very clear that I have yet to experience the real Bulgaria. The institute is being held at a beautiful resort in Pravets, Bulgaria, but jogs through the surrounding town have opened my eyes to the real Bulgaria–one in which there is a huge wealth disparity, and lack of a middle class.


Hotel Riu – Pravets, Bulgaria

Leave me a comment if you have any questions about the classes I’m taking. I’d be happy to share more about what I’m learning with anyone who is interested! For now, I have to go work on my Bulgarian homework!

First impressions

So I’ve been in Bulgaria for just about 24 hours, and several things have jumped out at me right away.

1. The people here are awesome. I’ve already had very pleasant conversations with my taxi driver, the hotel concierge, the check-out lady at a small grocery store, and waitresses at a local restaurant and coffee shop. While their English abilities varied greatly, they were all very willing to help me navigate Sofia. My favorite part was getting a little Bulgarian lesson from my coffee waitress this morning. I can now order an espresso, a necessity as I battle jet lag!

2. There is graffiti everywhere. At least in the part of Sofia I’m in, it’s difficult to find a wall, store front, or dumpster that’s not covered in paint. I scoured the internet and learned that there is a big graffiti culture here. From what I could find, most of it is artistic in nature as opposed to malicious, and there are several big graffiti festivals in Bulgaria and surrounding countries.

3. I’m not sure yet if there are more stray cats or stray dogs, but there are a ton of both. I walked around the city this morning, and saw at least 5 or 6 of each within just a 3 block radius of my hotel. Fortunately, they all seem pretty docile and I didn’t have any problems, though one cat seemed pretty interested in tasting my espresso.

4. The bathroom situation will take some getting used to. The plumbing isn’t fantastic in Bulgaria, which means some toilets can’t handle toilet paper. This is the case in my hotel. Fortunately, living in Peru prepared me for this, but I’m hoping that at least my apartment and school in Silistra are a bit more Western. Also, there is no ledge separating the shower from the rest of the bathroom. That means that if you’re planning to shower, the entire bathroom floor is going to be soaked.


“Do not throw anything in the toilet!”

Overall, things are going really well so far. I slept about 11 hours last night, only waking up a few times. I’m still a bit tired, but I’ve had much worse jet lag than this. I had my first shopska salad this afternoon. It’s a popular Bulgarian salad made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, white brine cheese, and parsley.

DSCN0214Shopska Salad

I have to check out of my hotel room in about 20 minutes, and then I’ll explore town a bit more before catching my shuttle to Pravets at 5:00 this evening.

My journey begins

Well folks, it’s finally here. Departure day. It’s been almost 4 months since I first received my grant confirmation in April. Since then, I’ve left my job with Target, run more errands than I can count, traveled for several fun vacations and wedding celebrations, and said numerous goodbyes to coworkers, friends, and family. With so much going on, those 4 months flew by, and it’s hard to imagine that today is actually here. The first leg of my journey is behind me, and I’m sitting in Chicago awaiting my flight across the pond. I fly from here to Warsaw, Poland where I’ll connect to Sofia, Bulgaria.

DSCN0182Before: Clothes laid out to pack


After: Fit ~60% of what was laid out in first picture

It’s hard to articulate how I feel right now. I’m excited, sad, eager, and anxious, all at the same time. I know the anxiety will subside once I arrive and am forced to be sharp as I navigate a new country. I’ll spend my first night at a hotel in Sofia very close to the airport. On Sunday, a shuttle will take me to Pravets where I will participate in the Fulbright International Summer Institute (unfortunately nicknamed FISI) for two weeks. I’ll share more specific information about my classes and the experience in a later post.


Visa and Flight path: MSP –> ORD –> WAW –> SOF

As a parting thought, when I was at the airport in Minneapolis, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the news story on the TV at my gate: U.S. begins airstrikes in Iraq. For me, it was yet another reminder of why the Fulbright’s mission to enhance mutual understanding is so important. With unrest in Ukraine and rockets in Gaza, the need for reciprocal awareness and tolerance between nations, ethnicities, religions, and people is abundantly clear. Learning about your neighbors and seeking to understand their motivations can go a long way, and ultimately help prevent or resolve conflict. As a cultural ambassador, I’m excited to play a small part in fostering this way of thinking.

Thanks to everyone for your texts, calls, e-mails, facebook messages, and blog posts. Each one energizes me and instills more confidence that I can make a real impact on the world.

My favorite things…

Minneapolis sent me off with a bang last week. A big thanks to Lindsey and Lisa for planning my going away party themed “Michael’s favorite things.” While Julie Andrews from Sound of Music might (and I’d emphasis might) be a better singer than me, we have vastly different interests–raindrops on roses don’t really do it for me, and I happen to love a good dog bite or bee sting from time to time.

The party featured plenty of Duke gear, Cheerwine, a Mulan lookalike, Shark costumes, 80’s gear, and even a live rendition of my favorite youtube video. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine. Thanks to those who came to celebrate with me. It was fun seeing everyone, and you all are the reason leaving Minneapolis will be so hard. 

Going Away Party
Notice the Bulgarian flag cupcakes!

On a more serious note, brainstorming all of my favorite things for the party invite was a reminder of everything I’ll be going without for the next year. Fortunately, I don’t think finding new things to keep me happy in Bulgaria will be difficult, as travel, cultural immersion, and teaching also top the list of my favorite things.

I’m wrapping up a great visit with family and friends at home in North Carolina this week, and am looking forward to one more week in Minneapolis before I leave on August 8th!