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.


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!

bday 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)

goofy 3

Before the hike

vasi christian


break from hike

Quick rest!



ivana goofy

Ivana was one of several who made delicious snacks

meli goofy

Meli unpacking


Not a bad spread


Veronica found the snacks

pic shot

Not a bad spot to spend the afternoon




Group shot

power of salsa

Celebrating salsa

passing bday chocolates

Passing the birthday chocolates

sadistic gme 2

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

sadistic game

Caught in the middle

Group shot fun

Another group shot

den maria miriyana

Ladies from 10A

women of 10a 2.0

Ladies from 10A v2

women of 10a

So many pictures


The sun was really bothering Kremena

shirt front

Front of shirt

shirt back

Back of shirt

funny selfie


fun but crop

Badmitton…sort of


Another selfie

preslava mira

Preslava and Mariella

soccer action

Soccer with Hristian

christian action shot

Action shot

Group shot


preslava guitar funny

Such a character! 🙂

mary marie daniella me

Miriyana, Mariella, Daniela, and Me

preslava guitar

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

Small group

Group starting to dwindle


Goofy shot

heading home

Heading home

fav spot

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

Cooking with Krassy – Banitsa!

So by now, you’ve heard all about my friend Krassy. Ever since my family complimented his cooking during their visit, he has insisted that I learn his recipes and send pictures and instructions back to my Mom. What better place to start than with banitsa (банитца)–a traditional Bulgarian food (often eaten for breakfast) made with eggs, Bulgarian white cheese, and pastry. Here is Krassy’s banitsa recipe!

Step 1: Put on favorite flannel pajamas. Cooking banitsa requires extreme dexterity, so comfort is of paramount importance.

Step 2: Gather ingredients. Point at each ingredient multiple times and make Michael repeat the name after you. He learns slowly, so be patient! Ingredients: five eggs (пет яйца), Bulgarian white cheese (сирене), pastry dough (тесто), soda water (газирана вода) and oil (олио).

Krassy's kitchen

Krassy’s kitchen

Step 3: Remind Michael that he must write down every step so that he can send it to his Mom. Double-check his progress throughout the recipe to ensure each step is properly documented.

Step 4: Spread oil on bottom of circular pan.

Pan with oil

Pan with oil

Step 5: Open pastry dough, and cover bottom of pan with thin layer.


Step 6: Cut chunks of cheese and spread evenly across layer of pastry. Don’t be shy with that сирене!

Krassy cutting the cheese (tee hee)

Krassy cutting the cheese (tee hee)

Step 7: Add layer of pastry dough, covering the first layer of cheese.

Step 8: Repeat steps 5 and 6 until entire package of pastry dough has been used.

Step 9: Crack eggs and dump into mixing bowl.

5 eggs

5 eggs

Step 10: Throw all eggs away upon realizing that one egg had gone bad.

Step 11: Crack new eggs and re-dump into mixing bowl.

Let's try that again...

Let’s try that again…

Step 12: Add half liter of soda water to egg mixture, and stir until evenly mixed.


газирана вода

Step 13: Pour egg and water mixture over layered cheese and pastry dough. Cover entirely.

Step 14: Suddenly remember that you forgot a cooking essential–your apron! Consider starting the entire recipe over, but decide to press on.



Step 15: Put pan in the oven at a “very hot” (много горещo) temperature. Tell Michael the actual temperature isn’t important, or else you will have to go get your reading glasses from the other room. Oven font is small.

Place banitsa in the oven

Place banitsa in the oven

Step 16: Drink rakia and eat shopska salad while you wait for delicious banitsa to cook.

Rakia and Shopska

Rakia and Shopska

Step 17: Squat in front of oven and smoke 2-3 cigarettes.



Step 18: Explain Bulgarian talk show to Michael while eating.

Bulgarian TV

Bulgarian TV

Step 19: Finagle with temperature incessantly to get that crisp brown banitsa.


Step 20: Take many blurry pictures of Michael with finished banitsa, so he can send to his family. Make him wear apron because his Mom will surely love that.




Step 21: Feel sorry for Peshoo because he is stuck with rabbit food.

Poor Peshoo!

Poor Peshoo!

Cooking Banitsa with Krassy was a (delicious) blast. A few days later, we also made some cheese pastries (I can’t remember the name) and a dessert cake (торта)–pictures below! This is as domestic as I get, folks.


Making pastries


A work in progress


In the oven


Cooling on the porch


Finished cheese pastries!


Torta ingredients – pretty simple!


Chocolate glue


Spreading the chocolate evenly