Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | May 12, 2014

It happened again — another year in the books

We gear up for graduation!

It’s about time we gear up for graduation!

About 10 days ago, I dug into 21 stories produced by my students in “Specialized Writing.” I’m not going to lie to you. Reading 21 5,000-word stories took some time. Hours and hours and hours. But this was not like reading academic writing (with apologies to those who like academic writing). These were stories. STORIES.

Here’s what they were not. Typical.

My student reporters did not just gather quotes and facts and compose news stories (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They didn’t craft soft feature stories about easy-to-access topics. These stories (the best of them, especially) are personal, compelling, and rich with detail and intrigue. They have characters, plot, dialogue and scenes. They’re the kinds of stories that appear in great magazines. The kinds of stories that are turned into books, and movies, and TV shows. They keep you reading because you want to find out how they’ll end.

A sampling of the topics reveals the range and ambition of these storytellers. A young boy survives a harrowing couple of weeks during the war and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. A young Russian student, at a time when his country has turned against gay men and women, reveals his own journey of self-discovery. A Bulgarian man who leads an elite anti-terrorism squad — and who also happens to be a former martial arts champion — cracks a big case. A Bulgarian Roma woman, unspeakably violated as a child, tries to maintain her dignity in a cruel world of unrelenting poverty and deprivation while providing what she can for her young family. An English couple, relocated to Bulgaria to escape the crassness of Western European life, finds a way to give all of themselves to Syrian refugees.

The best of the writing was unexpected and riveting. Here’s a scene from the anti-terrorism squad trying to resolve a child kidnapping case:

After 40 minutes of uncertainty, Saladinov went up to the interrogation room where two of his superiors were trying to elicit information of the child’s whereabouts. He entered the room and was shocked to find the officers talking quietly to a man who was their only lead in the kidnapping case. Saladinov found the amiability in the room unacceptable. Knowing that the suspect’s cooperation was crucial, he approached one of the interrogators, a chubby 60-year-old man with a cigarette dangling from his lips. This was his immediate superior.

“What is he saying?” Saladinov asked, fixing his gaze on the suspect.

“He says he knows nothing,” the supervisor replied.

“Chief, give me five minutes with him.”


Here’s another scene, from the Kosovo story, where the boy and his family are running to safety:

There was no time for thinking. Everyone rushed into the creek. The water level reached their waist – too low to let them swim, but high enough to make it hard to walk. Each family member waded into the stream, making small steps, slowly moving forward. The coat Drilon wore soaked up the water and dragged him back, like an anchor.

“It was March already,” he said. “But I had a coat on in case we had to run during the night, when the temperature went down.”

The water was cold, and the boy felt as if thousands of tiny needles pierced his body at the same time. His feet started getting numb, and his teeth chattered. But his desire survive was stronger than ever. He moved forward. Step. Step. Step. Pushing the water back with his arms like paddles.

And this one, about the Roma woman and her own survival instinct:

Her eyes widened, her palms perspired, her heart throbbed. Her even breathing morphed into audible gasps for the muggy afternoon air. For freedom.

He was inside. She could hear him. The slam of doors. The scratch of furniture jostled around on the planked floor.

She could sense his boiling ire. “Rumyana! Rumyana! Where are you, bitch?”

“God, I know you can hear me,” she murmured. “Tell me what to do. He will kill me once he goes outside. God? God? Do not turn your back on me.”

Her chapped lips whispered prayer after prayer. Her strength dwindled. Her body wavered. With her back against the brick wall, she slumped onto the dusty ground and disappeared behind the nearby pile of cardboard boxes.

I hope to take the best of these stories and publish them on our website — and hopefully help our students find other publications they can pitch their stories to. This class has been a profound joy — the students worked hard. They found compelling stories. They reported, they wrote. They rewrote. The re-rewrote. Hell, some are still rewriting even though the class is done and the grades have been registered.

So, anyway, things are good. And hopefully, next year, we’ll reprise this class with a new batch of students eager to tell stories.

Since I haven’t written for a couple of months, I want to empty my “notebook” of a few things that have touched me this year.

JMC students honored me with wine; I stuck with the beer, though.

JMC students honored me with wine; I stuck with the beer, though.

1. My parents came to visit a couple of weeks ago. It was their first trip to Bulgaria and they had a good time. Several big events were happening, including our annual “JMC Rocks” party, which celebrates the major. The students organize and coordinate the night. They have a program, they honor the seniors and they celebrate all the good work done by student media. They also honor a professor each year. That honor fell to me this year. … They said some really nice things and also quoted a few passages from this blog, which was touching. Because my parents were here, it was doubly special. I’ll just say that their acknowledgement of me (and Melody, for that matter — who was honored two years ago and continues to pump her heart and soul into her work here), is among the things we’ll remember most whenever we reflect on our time here. So thank you, JMC students. You really are a special group. Here’s the episode of the AUBG Bubble, the weekly news program produced by Melody’s TV News class, that featured that big event — among the other happenings on campus.

Starfish were thrown in Greece.

Starfish were thrown in Greece.

2. We’ve had a great year and met lots of new friends — at AUBG, in Sofia — and, really, throughout the region. We have great friends all over Europe, but especially throughout the Balkans. We’re lucky — in soooo many ways. In addition, we had a great birthday party in Sofia for Melody, a trip to Greece to celebrate the launch of a movie Melody is producing with Jesse Roesler — The Starfish Throwers, trips to a small village in the south of Bulgaria — and so many other experiences it’s hard to catalogue them all. In the past year, we’ve visited friends in Amsterdam, London, Bristol and Wales, we went on a month-long trip to Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Croatia. We attended a conference in Romania, and a wedding in Costa Rica. We visited family all over the U.S. and we hosted Jenna and a couple of her friends at Thanksgiving. That group expanded with a quartet of crazies from Wisconsin who made our Bulgarian Thanksgiving one to remember. We had visits from several other friends and we’re ready and eager to host more. So, come already!!

3. On a less cheerful note, one of our favorite people (and my most loyal blog respondent), Ava Dale Johnson, passed away earlier this spring. Ava Dale was our next-door neighbor in Minnesota for 19 years and was an incredible lady. Her obituary is here. But even more remarkable — and definitely a worthwhile read — is a book of historical fiction written by her son that chronicles Ava Dale’s life as a missionary in the Belgian Congo in the early 1960s: If the Rains Don’t Cleanse. You can hear an interview with Ben Patrick Johnson here. He describes her incredible life and the journey of producing this book in that short interview. When we moved in and met Ava Dale (and her husband, the late Charles Johnson), we were charmed by them immediately. They were among the most interesting people we’d ever met. Their life, their experiences and how those experiences guided them throughout their life were evident. Ava Dale’s quiet grace and determined grit were never out of sight. She was a master gardener, a brilliant writer in her own right and an active anti-war protester. She and Charles were selfless and generous. Loving and kind. We loved them like grandparents and they were pretty much the perfect neighbors. Quiet and respectful, yet tolerant of our sometimes noisy back-yard gatherings — of kids bouncing on trampolines, dogs barking, and adults talking and laughing late into the summer evenings (until the mosquitoes chased us inside). After we moved to Bulgaria, Ava Dale remained a constant presence in our lives by reading and responding to our blogs, always asking about our parents and Jenna, and occasionally dropping a wonderful and thought-provoking email into our inbox. I’m going to miss her, but I’m sure pleased she was a part of our lives. That kind of good fortune, of landing next door to someone you’ll love like family? Doesn’t happen too often, does it?

4. Anyway, we’ll be bidding farewell to another group of seniors on Sunday, then we’ll fly back to the States for all kinds of visiting. Then a quick two-week trip to Estonia for its national song festival (a once every five years phenomenon) with pitstops in Finland and Iceland. Then a few weeks on the East Coast and then, before we can blink, we’ll be back here to start our fourth year at AUBG. It’s really quite amazing. I never thought we’d be here this long. … But here we are. So when are you coming for a visit?

Sorry for the lengthy post. … It would probably be better if I wrote more often — and in smaller bites. … But, hey, it’s my blog. I can try for more and smaller posts next year. … I think I need to come up with a theme for next year. … I’ll be thinking about it this summer while we’re visiting the States. Hope we see you!!



  1. Reblogged this on Melody Moves to Bulgaria and commented:
    My husband pretty much says it all (and way better than I ever could) so I’ll just reblog his post for now 🙂

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