Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Well, we are TEACHERS as well as travelers...

A little reflection on one of my favorite teaching epiphanies from this time in Bulgaria...

For the Love of the Library

I’ve read The Odyssey, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and Madame Bovary. I’ve sampled Thoreau, Wordsworth, Morrison, Silko, and Chauce. I know the canon, I see its beauty and its depth.

Yet my 10th grade students here in Bulgaria, most in their third year of education in English, have reminded me of why I first fell for English. Like them, I love it for Ender’s Game, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, The Secret Garden, Under the Tuscan Sun, Persepolis, Into the Wild and Slam. Since moving abroad, I’ve realized that every word a student reads is a word in the right direction – towards literacy, towards understanding, towards university.

After finishing Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone last fall, I decided to make time for free choice reading in my classroom. I went on a book-finding mission, choosing dozens of books from my own and other teachers’ shelves to create a set of sure hits. Each week I returned to the library, peeking out at the sighing librarians over my gigantic stack of books. I let students shuffle through their pages, read the backs, and chat with me about the content. I pitched The Joy Luck Club and The Hobbit, plied The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Little Prince. Then they chose. They read. They delighted.

Each week we devoted a period in class to free reading, finding cozy spots around the school where we could curl up and read. I checked in now and then to see how everyone was coming along. They almost all liked their choices, and looked forward to reading. It was music to my ears. One student got so into his Orson Scott Card novel that he would sprint for the bookshelf every time he finished an in-class activity. I could sympathize – I’ve read it four times and listened to it twice on audio. Why had it never occurred to me to share it with my students at my school back in the United States? I had been too busy with Hawthorne and Chopin to save time for Hornsby and Card.

I organized a reading contest, put up posters with faculty book recommendations, even started a blog for the students to share reviews online ( I picked out teen favorites for our library at home in Minnesota and scoured a used bookstore basement in Vermont for literary gold. Slowly, I built up our class set. As the kids fell in love with it, I took them for a swim in wider waters, spending a class period in the dusty bliss of our school library.

Suddenly they were enjoying the library, getting to know its secret corners and hidden treasures, just as I have always done. I wanted them to love the library, imagining to myself all the wonderful repercussions in their lives. A student addicted to Harry Potter would soon finish the series and move on in search of more, discovering the location of the research books on WWII, the travel guides to Peru, the Idiot’s Guide to Astronomy, the stacks of National Geographic and The Economist. Even, if I was lucky, the classics of English. I imagined them spending free periods at the library, hunting for more.

When two students read over 3,000 pages in our Month of May reading contest last spring, and three finished their first (long) books in the first week of school this year, I shared their joy. In trying to inspire a love for English in my students here in Bulgaria, I've remembered why I first loved it myself. I’ll never forget again. From now on, my students will enjoy many kinds of great books – inside and outside the canon.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Parting Shots of Meteora

Agia Trias

The monks' garden at Anapfasas

The nunnery

A 12,000 liter barrel at Anapfasas -- not sure what they kept in here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Quick Guide to Dining out in Sofia

A Restaurant Table featuring a Traditional Bulgarian Tablecloth and Local Pottery
(photo courtesy of Shannon Savage)

After one year in Sofia, we've visited quite a few great restaurants. So in case you're in the area, here are some recommendations...

Olive's: This chain would seem kitchy in the United States - kind of along the lines of T.G.I. Fridays - with fake antiques littering the walls. But for a slightly blue ex-pat missing home, it's great. Try the rosemary sea salt focaccia as an appetizer and then dive into a pizza "ce mozzarella" or one of their famous burgers.

Annette's: Annette's Moroccan food is a fabulous find. Enjoy hummus and pita, couscous and kepap, even traditional hookah pipes. You'll sit on lavish cushions and enjoy the ambiance of dozens of sparkling lanterns.

Taj Majal and Ramayana: While we've eaten their food only as takeout, if the takeout is that good, so is the restaurant. Get yourself some panak paneer or chicken tikka masala (it's hot), drag some naan (garlic, plain, or cheesy) through it, and then call it a (very good) dinner.

Oogo's: This place competes with "The Spaghetti Company" for the modernista award. But while Spaghetti Company leans toward IKEA, Oogo blends restaurant with disco. The colored lights on the walls change with the evening, and the giant photo gracing one end upstairs appears to pulse ever so slightly - or is that just a trick of the imagination? Nevermind, order the pear and avocado salad with candied walnuts and the tiramisu. Maybe a pizza too - choose what suits from the four pages of options.

O'Nice: Well, maybe not a romantic night out, since it is a bagel place, but it's a darn good bagel place. Enjoy a smoothie, a salad, the Thai chicken bagel sandwich, and maybe even one of those square chocolate tarts catered by Caramel, the local French bakery. While you eat, chat with the friendly ex-pat owner or catch up on the latest ex-pat news in one of the available copies of "Programata" or "Vagabond."

Pod Lipite: Probably the best Bulgarian cuisine I've had here, but really the coolest thing about this place is a toss up between the pottery spice buffet in the middle of each table and the incredible sink-fountain in the bathroom. Oh, and the giant marble slab tables in the courtyard are pretty cool too. Whatever you get, and there are a lot of options, be sure to compliment it with a miniature loaf of warm pitka - white or wheat.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sladkarska Kushti: Highly Recommended

Part I: Fall Comes to Sofia

A Walkway on Campus

A Flower Vendor downtown

Sofia Street Musicians

"Mama" Dog, beloved by all of campus but always looking sad

Part II: We go to the Greatest Bakery in Bulgaria

Introducing: Sladkarska Kushti (House of Sweets)

These might be the best cookies in the bakery

But these are darn good too...

And then there's these...

We decided we couldn't take any risks.

On a warm beautiful day in Sofia, one must choose between many good options. Go to the mountain? Wander a park? Shop the fruit markets? Play tennis? Do laundry so it will dry quickly in the sun? Gather fall leaves and buckeyes for the windowsill?

Today, we fit in as many of those as we could, beginning with a lap of downtown. We cruised along Graf Ignatiev, stopping to admire the last raspberries and the first butternut squash at the fruit market, sidled through Slaveykov Square book market, noticing a new copy of Eragon in Cyrrilic, then stumbled about in search of our latest and greatest food discovery in Sofia - "The House of Sweets" on Rakovski boulevard.

If you are living in Sofia, or even Belgrade, Athens, or Bucharest, stop what you are doing. Find the nearest public transportation and head for Sofia. You need to eat these cookies. You need to experience for yourself the joy of walking down a not-that-nice street, looking in fairly random shop windows, when suddenly... literally thousands of cookies in perhaps a hundred varieties wink back at you from behind glass. You walk in, and you are the only one there. How is that possible? You choose from chocolate filled butter cookie shells, tiny baklava triangles, vanilla cream cones, miniature walnut tarts, "night and day" chocolate and vanilla cookies, garishly colored sugar balls that you're sure will taste better than they look, jam sandwich cookies that couldn't possibly taste better than they look, and so many more. Finally, after choosing perhaps thirty cookies, you stop, exhausted. The final bill? 7 leva, or about 4 euros, or about 5 dollars.

What's not to love?

Sladkarska Kushti
Rakovski Boulevard, near Slaveykov Square

Misty Meteora

When we first arrived in Meteora, the mists were obscuring much of the landscape, drifting in and out of monastery views, floating between gaps in rock formations, and giving the place a different feel than what we would experience later in our stay.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meteora: Just a Difference in Scale

A monastery on a rocky perch

A Monastery on a rocky perch

The Hermitages

When the first monk came to Meteora in 985, he lived in a cave. This cave later became a system of hermitages, and then monasteries. Though some of the monasteries have been destroyed, others are open to the public (see posts below). In this particular case, a new monastery, Agios Antonios, was built right next to the age-old hermitages.

Ruins of an old monastery
Agios Antonios, next to the old hermitages

Playing with Perspective

After Betsy took her growing pills, she didn't find Varlaam Monastery quite so impressive...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Matter of Scale

The monasteries of Meteora hide among the scattered rocks jutting up from central Greece. Below is the monastery of St. Nikolaos Anapfasas, framed at various distances. It is one of the lowest in Meteora, but still requires hundreds of steps to climb. The structures seem to grow from the rocks, taking their forms from the lines and limitations of their surroundings. Though they cling to the cliff, the inside is stable, buttressed with wood beams and stone walls. Most of the monasteries consist of a worship room, a place to hold wares, and some private quarters, in addition to hallways and staircases connecting the various levels. Before they were easily accessible by walkways and staircases, the monks would hoist their wares, and even themselves, up with ropes and nets. The modern pulley system can be seen in the last picture.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Meteora Views

The upside of rain?

When we woke up to a second day of rain in Greece, Jeff mentioned he had always thought of Greece as warmer. Haven't we all. The Greece of "Mamma Mia" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" has more in common with the Caribbean than the Midwest, but Northern Greece, land of high flying monasteries and Mount Olympus, is a whole other color on the weather map. Luckily, all the rain seemed to make for lush landscapes and green hills, sprinkles of flowers and roses climbing whitewash.

Hiking through History

Listening to the clank of donkey bells winding through the mist below, we journeyed up Mount Olympus with history as our companion. We couldn't see the crowning peak where, according to Greek mythology, Zeus and his army of gods defeated the Titans. But we knew it was there, far above us, just another few thousand huge steps up away.

The night before we had stayed at "Summit Zero" - a hiker hostel on the Aegean sea at the edge of the city of Dion. Dion, from Dios, meaning "of God." We weren't there because Olympus was the prettiest mountain, or the tallest, or the quaintest. Or at least I wasn't. I wanted to see what had inspired the ancient Greeks to create such a beautiful and detailed set of stories, stories I have taught to 9th grade students and read references to my entire English-studying life. Was it the swirling fog that inspired creative thinkers to pinpoint the origin of the world on this mountain? Was it the sheer rocky crests? The impossibility - back then - of ever climbing to the top and seeing what was there?

One foot after the other, we plodded up the mountain, switching and switching back in an endless zig zag. We fueled ourselves with salty cashews and drawn out games of Boticelli, taking lots of pictures of mountain bits poking out of mountain mists, all of which seemed to look the same. An orange breasted bird sang from a pine tree, springlike purple flowers popped up here and there, but mostly Olympus shone soft in grays and browns.

When we arrived at the refuge just before the end of the treeline, it began to rain, and we discovered the refuge beds were full. Jeff, Brett, and I made a final attempt to see up to the top, if not to actually get there - hiking up the steepest section yet despite the screaming protest of our calf muscles. But the higher we went, the clearer it was that it wasn't going to clear.

Apparently Zeus and Hera wanted their privacy. Maybe some other day we'll emerge above the clouds and see where the world was won...

Varlaam Monastery

After a calf-burning session on Mt. Olympus, we drove a couple of hours to Meteora, Greece, home of a stunning collection of monasteries perched impossibly atop rock precipices. The seeming inaccessibility of the rocks was no doubt a draw for solitude-seeking monks, the first of whom arrived in 985. He was followed by others, until a monastery was built in 1336. At one time, there were twenty-four monasteries spread over the various rocks, but now there are only thirteen. Below you see various angles of one monastery, Varlaam. More to follow.

In the foreground is Roussanou Nunnery. Varlaam is in the upper right, high on the cliff, and Agios Nikolaos Anapfasas is in the background.

The winding stairs leading up to Varlaam

This was taken the following day, after the weather cleared a bit, from below Varlaam.