Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Way back in March, when Betsy and I were cavorting with other prospective candidates at the Boston job fair, we had a crucial meeting with Tom Cangiano, head of ACS, and Maria Angelova, assistant head.  During this meeting, we were offered a position in English (for Betsy) and English as a Second Language (for me).  This was not exactly what I was expecting, so I balked.  And Tom picked up on this.  Very quickly, he and Maria explained to me the benefits of teaching ESL.  First, the school only accepts students in 8th grade, and then they spend half of their curriculum learning English, so that they can take a full-on English schedule 9-12.  So it's vitally important to their education.  More appealing to me, however, was their description of the 8th graders.  

According to Tom and Maria, the little cherubs are the most enthusiastic students in the school.  They have emerged from a highly competitive selection process, and now face five years at one of the best high schools in Bulgaria.  They are excited to have the opportunities that ACS provides.  And despite having to leave friends behind, the public school system in Bulgaria is deteriorating, and far from progressive.  I said I'd think about it.

That night, I began to embrace the idea of teaching a highly enthusiastic group of kids who were just thrilled to be there.  Very few entitlement issues, just gratitude for this chance.  The next day, when we met again, Tom mentioned that he had spoken with folks at the school, and that if teaching ESL had become a deal-breaker, he would put us both in English.  By then, however, I had begun to wrap my head around this idea.  I fondly recalled my days teaching ESL to 8th graders in Japan.  I remembered the complete loss of pride that an ESL teacher must develop (to teach what a cow is, you don't explain it -- you get down on all fours and moo), and also the mutual dependence that develops between teacher and students as they rely on each other to 
understand their respective languages.  I remembered the kind of non-verbal communication that takes place, often playful, that seems to suit my style of teaching.  And I also thought about how every other major part of my life was changing (marriage, country) -- why not my job description?  So I told Tom that they could put me wherever they needed me most.  ESL it was. 

And then I met my classes.  It is possible that Tom and Maria underestimated how enthusiastic these kids are.  I am genuinely excited to go to school every day.  The only issue of classroom management is getting them to pipe down so I can hear one person talking.  I have decided that 14-year-olds (the kids are one year older here) are definitely my demographic.   

Monday, September 29, 2008

Art Matters: The Case of Edi Rama

Edi Rama took a country destroyed by politics and re-painted it. Literally. When he became mayor of Tirana, Albania, he fired 500 corrupt civil service workers and hired a huge team of artists to repaint the blocky gray buildings strewn across the city. Did I mention he tore down hundreds of illegal buildings and turned their rubble into parks? Reading his story gives me hope for countries, like Bulgaria, struggling with corruption and some tough social grandchildren of communism. I like Rama's vision of aesthetics creating social change. To me, environment and beauty of surroundings has always seemed important, whether in decorating my classroom in intricate ways or setting flowers on my desk before starting a paper. As a student, I always wanted to create multicolored exam notes and frost cookies with four different colors and six different toppings. And these days, I believe that art in the classroom is vital, not a throwback to elementary school, despite some students that I know would like to argue the latter. So anyway, what I'm saying is, take a few minutes to read one or both of these articles on Edi Rama if you have time, and see what the story makes you think of... it started me off in about a dozen directions, all of them good.  I consider him a true leader of the modern world, combining politics with something more to produce results history could never have imagined. 

Culinary Adventures, or at least, Adventurettes

As I walked down our hall tonight and inhaled the sweet smell of pepperoni pizza coming from the oven, I found myself reflecting on the culinary adventures of the past few months. Or rather, the refreshing lack of culinary adventures. I went from pita and string cheese in California, to farmhouse cheddar and baguettes in Oxford, to large white loaves and Babybel cheese in Sofia. I traded in Honey Bunches of Oats for Frosted Shreddies for Bulgarian granola. I exchanged chocolate chips for chocolate chunks in my cookies and Celsius temperature controls on the oven for Fahrenheit. I swapped mango mojitos for hard cider for peach cherry collins. We even ate Thai and Mexican in England, as well as summer pudding and pasties. So basically, I've been able to stick to my intensely picky habits throughout our tour. Aren't you happy for me? Ha ha. Anyway, to get to the point of this little intro, I thought I'd give you my eight favorite food discoveries in Europe so far (what's so great about ten?). Just for fun.

8. Apricot scones as sold on the street by the River Bosphorus in Istanbul. Thick. Crumbly. Sweet but not too sweet. Let's just say when I realized the treasure I had discovered, I was sorry I hadn't bought ten to carry me through the next two weeks.

7. Grated carrot-honey-apple salad. The name pretty much says it all. This proved to be an incredible starter at our first favorite Bulgarian restaurant in Veliko Tarnovo.

6. Dessert cups. Every kind is delicious. Coffee frappe or chocolate pudding with whipped cream on top, vanilla pudding with chocolate upper crust, creme caramel custard with a constantly refilling internal spring of sauce exploding up from within. These little beauties literally line the refrigerated shelves of English and Bulgarian grocery stores. They shatter the competition - those dinky lunch time snack packs in the U.S.

5. Porridge. But only at Bill's cafe in Brighton. Bill (or one of his peons) packs it with berries, currants, chopped hazelnuts, and maple syrup. And the kicker is that he bakes in the cream. No milk necessary when you carve into this puffy fruit-filled sensation.

4. Shopska Salad. No one from Bulgaria buys less than twenty tomatoes when they hit up the fruit stands. The owners of the stalls must be snorting into their sleeves as they sell me my one pathetic little tomato. Why? One of the most traditional of all Bulgarian dishes is the Shopska salad, and it is way better than it sounds. Not that it sounds so bad. Shopska, as served by quality restaurants everywhere, fills a HUGE plate with giant hunks of fresh tomato mixed with hefty slices of cucumber. A little (or a lot of) white cheese is sprinkled over that and the happy consumer douses the whole thing with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. Voile. Taste sensation, and cute, too.

3. Fry's peppermint cream bars. There's really nothing else to say. Creamy milk chocolate surrounds peppermint fondant. I'm still bitter it didn't come #1 at the candy bar potluck. Ah well, I'm not giving it number one here either...

2. Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice. OK, so this isn't actually a new discovery if you want to get technical; my mom has been making it for me since I was old enough to hold a sippy cup. But here you can order a tall glass of fresh squeezed orange juice at bars, restaurants, and cafes, and my but it does hit the spot. I've sipped its sweetness in France and Serbia, and now I've purchased a lovely cheap yellow plastic juicer which, amazingly, has a strainer to catch the seeds before they fall into the final product. What a revolution! I may have to bring one home to Cooke St.

1. The brioche loaf the size of a cow in a back alley in Paris, from which a large man sawed off a rock sugar freckled hunk as per my specifications. Also, the bakeries stuffed with lines of every kind of tiny delicate sandwich cookie you can imagine, sharing flavors with fancy soap lines - lavendar almond, ginger orange, cocoanut, maple. Also, every other dessert in Paris.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Yep, I'm a liberal

First, watch this:

Then, watch this:

Finally, watch this:

And, to wrap up:
VOTE BARACK OBAMA 2008! Whoo hoo Obama! Three cheers from Bulgaria for Obama! 

Welcome to Fun City

It was a cold gray Saturday in Sofia, but things were warming up inside "Fun City", the bowling alley above the Outlet Mall in Mladost 2. That's right, it was the first annual face off between the ACS Science and English departments. Each side had brought in a ringer; Science had recruited Ivo, the man in charge of just about everything  at ACS, from driving new teachers to Greece to persuading boarder officials to let through packages of outside world goodies, and English had claimed Brett Potash as one of its own, arguing he would be teaching an English elective in just a few short weeks. 

Bulgarians, Americans, and Canadians alike, looking snazzy in red and gray velcro bowling shoes, faced off against the dreaded pyramid of pins with a brilliant array of fluorescent bowling balls. Of course not everyone looked as intimidating as Brett, who had on his usual lucky Winnie the Pooh bowling socks. Score was kept by Japanese computers, whose monitors were just as good at making those little taunting images when someone rolled a gutter ball as American computers. It was a bit tough to figure out which buttons to press when something went wrong, since the directions on the screen and touch pad were in Japanese characters, but the Bulgarian teenagers working the place seemed fluent. 

Since we left long before the intense competition came to a close, I couldn't really say which department won. But the main thing is, I almost broke 100. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Teaching Life

I have a student who just won the Australian math contest. I have a student who lives in her own apartment in Sofia, as a 10th grader, so she can go to the American College; she appreciates the quiet away from the dorm so she can study more effectively. I have a student who has won national level triathlon competitions. One who collaborates to write Scifi stories with a friend living a couple hundred miles away. One who loves P.G. Wodehouse books, which, if you have not read them, satirize the English gentility of the early 20th century. One who has danced traditional Balkan dances for more than a decade, another who is serious about ballroom dance, another who plans to pursue opera study in Italy when she graduates. Every member of one of my tenth grade classes has visited at least five countries already at sixteen. Another class has a Katerina, a Kala, a Kalina, a Kali, a Ralitsa, and an Elitsa. (Don't worry, I'm getting it down). About half my students seem to appear at least once a week at their tables with Onda coffees in hand - vanilla dream, cinnamon sunset, perhaps frosty mint cappuccino. They are mature. They are committed to their own education and the opportunities it will give them. They like coffee. 

I have students who have decided to return, after further education, to Bulgaria - to buoy its society and infrastructure with their knowledge and enthusiasm. Also students who believe they can discover their vocation elsewhere, but will always stay connected to their culture, though they are in the minority amongst my seniors in "Conversation class."  

One of my students brought a box of chocolates to share with her classmates on the first day. She is a serious creative writer who hopes I will help sponsor a literary magazine at the college. 

There are some things about ACS that can be a little frustrating, but as I sat in my classroom today with Roxanne's miniature space heater blow drying my feet and an Onda vanilla chai latte warming first one hand and then the other, searching for interesting projects to tempt my 10th graders into outside reading, I felt a pleasant sense of belonging. My students are worth making adjustments to a new and sometimes strange system. They are even worth the cold. Always assuming the government flips the switch by Thanksgiving; I don't think I'd like teaching as much in a snowsuit - it very nearly ruined trick-or-treating, back in the day. No one could see my tutu... 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interesting Fact for a Tuesday

Today it was a bit chilly in my classroom. Last night it was a bit frosty in our apartment. I noticed it was a bit nippy during my Bulgarian lesson. Hmmmm, I wondered. I see heat vents everywhere, but where is all the heat? Laura, my Bulgarian teacher, was the first to explain. She said the temperature had to be below a certain level for a while before they would turn on the heat. I left her room unsatisfied. What level? "They" who? My friend Roxanne supplied the missing details when she came shivering into my room a few minutes later. "The government controls the heat for the whole country. It has to be below ten degrees for three days in a row before they turn it on." 

Whoaa. I never would have guessed. Luckily, I have a lot of sweaters, and at the rate we're going, the government will be able to flip the switch in two more days. 

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mist in the Air

Can you spot anyone you know in this picture of a riverboat cafe? Hint: we're very small.

A shoelace stand.

A Youth soccer game, stands were set up in the middle of town and many spectators stopped by to cheer.

We stumbled off our night train and into the Belgrade rail station. Nine Americans puffing little clouds of steam into the misty morning air of Serbia. Early morning air. 6:30 a.m. air, to be exact.

By 8, Brett and and I were perched at the counter of a corner bakery, splitting a hot white curl of bread, the snowy dripped exterior of which we had wrongly taken as a sugar glaze. In fact, a salty glaze. Pretzel bread abounds in Serbia, and it is oh so good, soaring over the Bulgarian competition, cheesy bread.

Walking along the ridge of the Kalemegdan fortress in the corner of Belgrade, the Danube and Sava rivers converged far beneath us in a peaceful fall scene. The canyons of the military museum lay in rows behind us at the top of a hill strewn with buckeyes.

Sitting down to a meal with Brett's former students, MIna and Dusan, and their parents, we shared a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Beginning with homemade cherry brandy and Rakiya, we moved on into wheat rolls shaped like small flowers, slices of warm aubergine, a cucumber and potato salad with yoghurt, and baked red peppers with olive oil. Then came a soup made with more than eleven kinds of vegetables (Mina told her mom I might be vegetarian, so in one small example of the family's thoughtfulness, vegetables were literally everywhere to be seen). The main meal consisted of pork, fish, more salad, another vegetable dish, and another kind of bread. And finally, Mina's extraordinary cake squares, a delightful swirl of liquidy chocolate and cream sandwiched between shortbread crusts.

Inside the Kontra Bar we sit on high stools and choose between pina coladas, mojitos, Mexican flaming beaches, and any number of other incredible cocktails. Here the revered Serbian nightlife comes alive before my eyes. With a rainbow of drinks at our lips we talk about Serbia joining the E.U. - Dusan thinks now is not the time. Mina's enthusiasm pours out to all of us and we sit talking until I can barely keep my eyes open. Our hosts walk us home and we are delighted to discover our cozy bed and breakfast is just a few blocks away. Belgrade is easy to get to know with friends to help us find our place.

On Sunday afternoon the pedestrian mall fills with shoppers and light hearted strollers. Vendors sell books, music and postcards in stalls and stands, but more importantly, two enthusiastic jugglers have drawn a crowd of children to one corner. But what's that behind the crowd? A cake stand! And behind it, a cookie stand! An older man grills kebabs and a young woman plies samples of strawberry juice. It is a miniature culinary festival, with no particular name or holiday attached that we can discover. Soon I am armed with a box of varied Serbian sweets - pinwheels stuffed with carmel and nuts, whipped cake squares with rainbow sprinkles slowly soaking colors into their white meringue topping, poppyseed layers peeking out around small balls of something delightful.

Walking down an alley towards the river a coppery steeple perches on the roofline above us. Djordje explains that the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, their version of the pope, operates from this building. I ask if many Serbians practice religion, and Djordje reminds me that during communism religion was basically illegal. It will take a while for it to make a comeback. A few more steps take us to the "?" restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Belgrade. We peek inside to see six or seven wooden tables in a small but cozy room.

We find ourselves driving through "New Belgrade", formerly seen as a stain on the city, until suddenly a business boom brought new growth to the area and young professionals poured in. Less than a decade after bombs fell on Belgrade, the wreckage from which can still be seen along one of the main streets, businesses are thriving and young people have their choice of jobs. Djordje takes us to visit a vandalized church high above this half of the city, and we look across a deserted rooftop cafe over the red roofs of houses to the Danube river. A few minutes later we are standing on the river's edge, choosing among dozens of beautiful cafes literally floating before us. We choose one and walk down its gangway. My tea arrives with shot glasses of fresh pulpy lemon and honey; Brett's hot chocolate is literally thick melted chocolate with a tiered dome of whipped cream on top. We watch the ducks and sailboats float by in the windows, giving the general impression that we are enjoying refreshments in armchairs on a dock, except we are warm and a football (soccer) game is playing over the bar.

I didn't know what to expect when we arrived late Friday night to board a train for Serbia. The first week of school had left me only a few minutes for research, and I felt strange to be headed somewhere about which I knew almost nothing. As I slept in my bunk, waking up only for four different officers to check my passport in the night, I little dreamed that the city would enchant me so. The grayish mist of late September could not veil the life of Belgrade. It is a city with a vibrant undercurrent, filled with people enjoying each other's company in the many secret spots sown throughout its streets and along its rivers. Behind every door and atop every hill exists a world worth discovering, in the company of friends. We were lucky to have such good ones to share it with - thank you Mina, Dusan, and Djordje.

As Promised

The Milicevic's prepared a wonderful lunch/dinner for us -- another reason we'll go back.
Followed closely by Mina's foray into baking -- wow.

And then out to drinks where we joined Djordje.

In front of St. Sava's cathedral -- Betsy will upload better pictures of the actual building in her post.
About seven years ago, when Dusan Milicevic was graduating from Olney Friends School, he made me promise to come visit him in Serbia. One year later, when Mina and Vesna were graduating, they made me promise the same thing. And then Djordje, and then Iva and Tanya... I was told when I first started teaching never to promise anything to students -- too risky. But I promised them, because we had all become too close to lose touch. Dusan was a VERY confident high school senior who liked to wink at people to let them know he completely understood and had things under control. He had a certain charisma that was hard to resist, even when he wasn't following the rules. Years later, he is holding powerful government officials under his sway, in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars while organizing an international sports festival. He will finish his dissertation tomorrow. Well, knowing Dusan, maybe sometime in the next few weeks, even though it's due tomorrow, and he will call his professor and wink at him, and everything will be fine. Years ago, Mina (Dusan's sister) was an energetic dancer with a commanding presence -- the only student I was willing to put in charge of directing the class play. She had a wide smile and made everyone else in a photo look better just by standing next to them. Today, Mina OWNS her own dance studio, and is also finishing school within the next month, perhaps moving to Barcelona when she finishes. She still has that contagious smile. Djordje, a quieter student, is just as successful, having just finished school (ironic since he is the youngest of the crew) and is now working in banking. One of the most remarkable things about the visit was how little we had all changed, and how famously we still got along. It was like we had just seen each other yesterday -- always the sign of a strong friendship. And yet it was so fulfilling to sit across the table from these enthusiastic faces and see how happy, driven, and involved they all were. I am so proud of all of them, and Betsy and I have already promised to go back to visit them again. We were so taken by their charm and vivacity. This time it won't take seven years.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

School Opens... plus I'm famous!!!

The ACS Student Body cheers for the new 8th Grade class in the Auditorium on Day One

There they are, the Prep Class, fondly referred to as "The Rabbits"

The different school houses competed in various games after the assembly in a kind of mini-Olympics. I coached/advised/attempted to rally cheering for Burgandy House, way on the far left in this photo.

Here are the house competitors preparing for the "Mini Bike Race." The theme from Chariots of Fire was pumped into the course via speakers as the rain poured down. I am not kidding. It was awesome. 

The school year is off to a good start. And we are off to Serbia for the weekend. If we can ever convince the rail company to let us give them money in exchange for tickets...

On another note...


Well, there are all kinds of fame. I am excited to see my name in print at a website where I've frequently searched for lesson ideas over the years. If you want to share my joy, click on the link below: