Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I am sitting in my room at the Orphey Hotel in Bansko. Bansko is a little skiing town at the base of the Pirin mountains, which are strikingly beautiful and loom over everything. Right now it's the off-season, but there are still lots of tourists here for the Bansko Jazz Festival, going on this week. It just so happened to coincide with the Fulbright International Summer Institute here at the hotel so we've all been enjoying going out on the plaza at night to listen to music and people-watch in the crowds.

I only arrived in Sofia last Thursday but it feels like I've been here much longer than that. I spent one night there, meeting two other Fulbrighters and attempting to set up my cell phone, then we got on a bus to come here for the conference. There are 11 English Teaching Assistants in Bulgaria this year, including me. We're all scattered across the country in different towns and villages. Only 8 of us are here along with a couple of researchers who will be based in Sofia for the whole year. It's been great getting to know everyone. I think we all have similar interests and are very excited to be here.

I found out why they increased the number of ETAs this year (last year there were only 2). The America for Bulgaria Foundation, which is fairly new, donated the funds to send 10 Americans to Bulgaria to teach English at local language schools. It's part of their program to develop higher education standards for high school students so they can be more competitive in their university applications. I've learned a lot about the Bulgarian educational system in the past few days, and it seems that educational reform is a really hot topic here. A lot of people want the universities to promote higher standards for their students but the tests to get into university, especially the University of Sofia, are outdated and mainly based on repetition of facts rather than critical thinking. It's interesting getting to know more about the issue but it is very controversial right now.

In Bansko there are a lot of restaurants, mostly mehanas, which are taverns that serve traditional Bulgarian cuisine. I've eaten almost all of my meals at the hotel restaurant (because it's free!) and the food here has been really delicious. There are some Mediterranean and Turkish influences, with a lot of salads, potatoes, grilled meats and my favorite: sausages. The cheese and yogurt are great here, too. For breakfast they serve a goat cheese that is just like feta, and usually for dinner there are fried cheese balls. Needless to say, I'm definitely not going to have a problem getting used to the food here. In town we've gone out to a couple of bars and the drinks are surprisingly less expensive than I'd imagined. Usually you can get a half liter of beer for about $2, and that's expensive for smaller towns in Bulgaria. The boxed wine they serve at the hotel is great, too.

Last night was the welcome dinner for the Summer Institute and it was served in a "traditional setting," in a hall downstairs with wooden beams and lots of folk dancing and music. It was definitely entertaining, although parts of it were a little strange because I'm not familiar with the meaning of the songs. It would be really great if I understood Bulgarian, although most of the other Americans here don't speak it, either. I'm going to try and get better at some basic conversational stuff before I leave Bansko.

FISI is the only Fulbright summer program of its kind in Europe. This year there are about 100 participants from all over the world, mostly a lot of students my age from the US, Bulgaria and around Southeast Europe. I'm taking a Bulgarian Culture course, which is the only required one for us, and so far it's been a history of archaeology in the country, which is really interesting. I didn't know that civilization in Bulgaria went as far back as many millennia as it has; the oldest gold objects were found here and they're over 5,000 years old. It's definitely a complex history, with a lot of different cultures intermixing, so I'm excited to learn more about in the the next two weeks.

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