Berlin Fulbright Seminar

Back in March, I had the pleasure of representing Bulgaria at the 61st annual Berlin Seminar—a weeklong conference that provides Fulbright grantees from all over Europe the opportunity to network and exchange experiences from their teaching or research roles. Interacting with such a diverse group through a variety of panels, small group discussions, and informal conversations was invigorating.

While the week was jam-packed with interesting and informative events, the highlight for me was having the opportunity to share my own personal experiences in Bulgaria at the European Dimensions panel. Representatives from Spain, Turkey, Andorra, Finland, and Poland joined me in giving short presentations to ~250 European ETAs and researchers.

Going into the presentation, my goal was to provide a mix of Bulgarian geography, history, and culture while also sharing some of what I’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom. To start my speech, I presented the two questions my friends, family members, and co-workers back home had asked me when I first told them I’d be moving to Bulgaria:

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While the first question is completely fair, the second was more than just a little misinformed. But the truth is that the vast majority of Americans I told about Bulgaria had no idea where it is located. It was often confused with Bolivia, Bangladesh, or Botswana, amongst other places.

I continued poking fun at Americans’ spotty geography by flashing a blank map of Europe up on the presentation screen and asking the audience to raise their hand if they could confidently come up and identify Bulgaria (could you?). I’d guess that about 30% of the audience raised their hands (more than I expected), at which point I highlighted Bulgaria on the map.

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What is your guess?

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Make your guess before scrolling down!

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Unveiling the answer…or am I?

I waited until I saw some audience members nodding their heads and bragging to their neighbors, “I knew that,” before letting them know that it was actually Romania I had highlighted. I felt a little bad tricking my audience, but it helped prove my point that many Americans aren’t very familiar with this part of the world. And while I’m picking on some people, the truth is that I would have lumped myself right there with them not long ago. You can see Bulgaria’s real location directly below Romania on the map below (Thank you John Oliver for the inspiration on this one).

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Crossroads of East and West

The reason I wanted to start with a brief geography lesson was because understanding Bulgaria’s position at the crossroads of East and West is fundamentally important to understanding its history and culture. I elaborated on how being part of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, and Eastern Bloc influenced today’s Bulgaria, a young democracy combating corruption but proudly maintaining its national identity.

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The lovely Silistra

After giving an overview of my hometown Silistra, I switched gears and gave a quick overview of Bulgarian cuisine, industry, holidays, and traditions. It’s impossible to cover such a rich and interesting history in just a couple of my slides, but I did my best to hit some of the aspects of Bulgarian culture that had made an impact on me. I especially enjoyed sharing about Baba Marta, a Spring Holiday that had occurred shortly before my presentation.

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After giving a brief explanation of the Bulgarian alphabet and language, I focused on some of the lessons I had taught that seemed to work really well with my students. The whole point of the week was to exchange ideas, and I hope some of my lesson topics proved useful to my colleagues teaching in other countries.

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Finally, I talked about how enriching my life in Bulgaria outside the classroom has been. I gave lots of credit to the founders of BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournaments) for the work they’ve done to create an amazing organization that promotes critical thinking and English Language skills. I talked a little about the BEST chapter I had created at my school, but really wanted to focus on the larger impact the organization was having on the country. The audience also seemed amused when I described my peculiar, but meaningful friendship with my 60-year-old neighbor Krassy who doesn’t speak any English.

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Our presentations were followed by a short question and answer session, and I was very pleased with how interested people were in Bulgaria. Many of the questions were directed at me specifically, and I was encouraged by the audience’s desire to learn more.

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Q&A Panel

Part of what made this week so awesome was the great company! I was joined by fellow Bulgarian Fulbrighters Anna, Asher, Bobbi, Chase, Julien, and Rada. In addition to growing closer as a group, we branched out and had a fantastic time meeting colleagues from all over Europe.

Berlin Seminar crew

Asher, Chase, Michael

Chase and me

Chase, Michael

Last but not least, it was awesome to see great friend and former Minneapolis roommate Adam Root. He’s currently working in London, but we were able to link up in Berlin for a couple days before the conference started. Additionally, my close friend and PiKapp little Stephen Temple happened to be in Berlin on business the same week as the conference, so we were able to explore the city together as well. He came back to Silistra with me too, but more on that in a later post!

Me Adam

Michael, Adam

me stpehen

Michael, Stephen on Silistra ferryboat

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Not your average birthday

What did you do for your last birthday? Dinner with family or friends? A small family celebration with more cake and ice cream than you knew what to do with? A night out on the town? Those are the sorts of birthdays I’ve enjoyed for twenty-six years. My 27th, however, would prove to be quite different.

I don’t typically like calling attention to my birthdays. It’s certainly nice when people remember and reach out to me, but I’ll never be the one to broadcast that it’s my special day. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been like that. As such, I hadn’t really told many of my Bulgarian friends that my birthday was this past Saturday. Outside of expected calls from Lindsey, my family, and some close friends, it was a pretty quiet day. I spent the majority of it reading and indulging in a mini-marathon of The Office.

Thanks to Facebook though, a steady stream of messages also kept me entertained. In addition to hearing from a number of friends and family members back in the states (THANK YOU!), many of my students reached out to me too. I don’t know what it is, but Bulgarians take their birthday wishes very seriously, and it’s actually really nice. I keep a separate Facebook account for my students, and it was pinging me all day.

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I don’t care what you say, but that’s going to make your birthday more than all the cake and ice cream in the world (except for maybe ice cream cake…YUM).

Otherwise though, my birthday was pretty quiet. At around 7:00 in the evening, I knocked at Krassy’s door and offered him a chocolate for my birthday. Now I know I said I don’t like calling attention to my birthdays, but in Bulgaria it’s customary to give chocolate to friends, family, and neighbors on your birthday. Ask any of my fellow ETA friends, and they’ll tell you that it’s rare to go even a week without a student offering you chocolate for their birthday or name day. My Grandpa Thomas would have loved this tradition; he never missed an opportunity to “pass the chocolates.”

After scolding me thoroughly for not telling him about my birthday in advance, Krassy insisted I speak with his wife Nadia on the phone as well. After a brief chat, Krassy, Peshoo, and I moved on to the main event of the night: watching “A Time to Kill” in Bulgarian. Initially, I felt pretty good about how much I was able to understand, but Krassy kept pushing wine on me, so the second half was a bit more confusing than the first. Fortunately, the fact that I was easily distracted allowed me to capture a sneak shot of Krassy in his normal spot on the couch.

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I’ve grown quite accustomed to the flannel pajamas and vest, which are certainly the norm. However, he usually reserves “The Thinker” pose for programs he finds particularly interesting–namely shows about UFO conspiracy theories, interesting animals, and occasionally Като Две Капки Вода, a hilariously bizarre reality TV show in which Bulgarians artists aim to mimc famous music videos. I guess Krassy felt Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Spacey did a nice job.

My only plan for the next day was an afternoon picnic with 10A, the class who successfully raised $28,000 to build a school in Ghana. I presumed they had planned the picnic to celebrate this great success (and rightly so), but started to get slightly suspicious that they were up to something when three different students reached out to confirm my attendance. I set out for the picnic and was enjoying a part of town I usually don’t walk through when a cab pulled up behind me. Two of my students (twins Denitsa and Raya) popped their head out the window and offered me a ride the rest of the way. Denitsa and Raya on time for something? Another red flag!

My suspicions were confirmed when the cab pulled up ten minutes before the agreed upon meeting time and the entire class was already there. If only I could get them to class with that sense of urgency!

10A surprised me with a shirt imprinted with our campaign logo, a pencil stamped with “Pencils of Promise,” and even a birthday banitsa! It was such a great surprise, and made my birthday weekend really special. We then spent all afternoon relaxing, playing games, and enjoying delicious food. My students took literally hundreds of pictures, but I pulled out some of my favorites to share!

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Surprise!

bday banitsa and shirt

Build them a school, Build them a future

hiking up

Starting hike up to Ottoman Fort (highest point in Silistra)

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Before the hike

vasi christian

Зеле!

break from hike

Quick rest!

sassy

Shhh…

ivana goofy

Ivana was one of several who made delicious snacks

meli goofy

Meli unpacking

yummy

Not a bad spread

snacks!!!!!

Veronica found the snacks

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Not a bad spot to spend the afternoon

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Relaxing

piknik

Group shot

power of salsa

Celebrating salsa

passing bday chocolates

Passing the birthday chocolates

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Borderline sadistic game where you slam the ball on the person sitting in the circle

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Caught in the middle

Group shot fun

Another group shot

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Ladies from 10A

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Ladies from 10A v2

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So many pictures

goofballs

The sun was really bothering Kremena

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Front of shirt

shirt back

Back of shirt

funny selfie

Selfie

fun but crop

Badmitton…sort of

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Another selfie

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Preslava and Mariella

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Soccer with Hristian

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Action shot

Group shot

Sing-a-longs

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Such a character! 🙂

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Miriyana, Mariella, Daniela, and Me

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So many talented musicians in this class; Preslava also sings and plays the piano

Small group

Group starting to dwindle

Goofy

Goofy shot

heading home

Heading home

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End of a great day! This is my favorite spot in Silistra.

Fulbright Wrap-up Seminar

A strange feeling overcame me as I walked up to the Vitosha Park Hotel in Sofia on Wednesday. My last stay here had been for our Fulbright orientation almost nine months ago, and the familiar setting caused memories from my first few weeks in Bulgaria to come flooding back.

Recalling my initial interactions with the other English teachers in my group was fun. I remember the enthusiasm everyone exuded as we eagerly learned about each other’s interests and backgrounds. At our wrap-up seminar this week, those conversations were replaced by talk of future plans and the imminent, tearful goodbyes that awaited us in cities that just a few months before we had struggled to even pronounce.

Thursday and Friday were busy. Instead of the Bulgarian language classes, mock lesson-planning sessions, and cultural overviews that had comprised orientation, we would each attempt the impossible:  summarize our Fulbright experience in a short, fifteen-minute presentation.

my speech

My speech

Listening

Engaged audience

I really enjoyed hearing my peers share the many things they learned this year about Bulgaria, about teaching, and about themselves. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one who viewed our time here as a truly transformative experience. I’ll share more about my personal takeaways from the program closer to my departure date (school doesn’t end until June 30th), but I did want to highlight some of the awesome work my fellow ETAs have been doing in Bulgaria. A few things that stood out to me:

  • Mary helped empower girls at her school by leading a Women’s Club in Varna
  • Chris recently worked with his students in Pernik to clean public parks, so they could be more fully enjoyed
  • Anna has launched a volunteering initiative to provide much-needed support and education in Bulgarian refugee camps
  • Athena, Ettie, Alex, and Sarah are leaving behind what I think is one of the most impactful organizations in Bulgaria—BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournaments); this group has taught thousands of Bulgarian kids important lessons about confidence, hard-work, sportsmanship, and critical thinking, and promises to reach thousands more in the future
  • Chase has shared his passion for lacrosse by starting a team in Burgas and promoting the sport all over Bulgaria

I want to elaborate a bit more on Chase’s efforts because on Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to watch his team—the Burgas Titans—take on the Sofia Ninjas (currently the only other lacrosse team in the country). I’ve admired the work Chase has been doing all year, and was thrilled to learn I’d be in Sofia for one of their matches.

My friend Caleb and I took a cab to what we expected would be a relaxing afternoon of watching lacrosse. After about two minutes as spectators, that thought was shattered. Following the injury of one of his players, Chase ran over to us.

“Do you guys want to play?”

Despite having never played lacrosse and not being familiar with the rules, Caleb and I both eagerly accepted the offer. We quickly threw on the extra uniforms Chase had on hand, and became Burgas Titans for the next hour or so.

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I only had the chance to ask two of the thirty or so questions I had about lacrosse before being thrust into action. As a defender, it was my responsibility to mark an opposing attacker, and thwart their efforts to score. Unfortunately, that becomes pretty hard to do when you’ve never held a lacrosse stick. Even though more than just a couple goals were scored on my watch, I had an absolute blast. We lost 10-14, but it was a big improvement from the last time the teams competed (the Ninjas had won that match convincingly with a final score of 24-3).

Action 4Action 2 Action 1 ball hand It was really fun to see Chase in his element too. It became very clear to me that spreading lacrosse, a historically Native American sport, is a great way to fulfill the Fulbright’s mission to “enhance mutual understanding.” In addition to teaching about a sport with American roots, Chase is instilling important values about sportsmanship, teamwork, leadership, and community.

Exasperated Chase

Coach Philpot considers making some strategy changes

Inside the huddle

Inside the huddle

Here are a few thing that stood out to me from my experience on Saturday:

  • Sportsmanship – Chase sets a great example for his team by loudly cheering for every goal scored, even if it was scored by the opposition; he also led the group in cheers to rally our goalie after an injury and to congratulate the Ninjas on their victory
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Shaking hands after the game

  • Teamwork – Individual and team feedback was delivered constantly to talk about how teammates could work together better and function as a unit; although he’s very skilled, Chase has committed to not shooting, preferring to set his team up for scoring opportunities instead
  • Leadership – Chase challenged his older, more experienced players to lead and help coach the younger, more inexperienced ones
  • Community – It was very apparent that Chase has successfully created a strong lacrosse community:  parents beamed as their children ran off the field at the end of the game, the rival teams solidified plans to go bowling after the game, and locals sat along the sidelines, intrigued by such an unusual sport
Locals

Locals gather to watch this strange, new sport

Team Photo

Burgas Titans (left) and Sofia Ninjas (Right)

Titans–thanks for letting me play with you on Saturday! Your energy and enthusiasm were infections, and I had a great time learning about lacrosse.

On Friday night, we had our wrap-up dinner and celebration at Tavan Restaurant. While I hope to see my Fulbright friends again soon, I realize this weekend was probably the last time we’ll all be together as a group. I’m excited to stay in touch and hear about the many great things they will most assuredly accomplish in the future!

Fulbright peers

Fellow Fulbrighters

Iliana and Blaine

Me, Blaine (ETA, Razgrad), and Iliana (ETA Program Officer)

Venue outdoor

Dinner venue

View

Balcony View 1

View 2

Balcony View 2

Some fulbrighters

Fulbright friends