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:
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.
Make your guess before scrolling down!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!