I did finally make it to Bulgaria, despite the delays I mentioned in my last post. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to make it to Sofia in time for my first scheduled event, which was a reception at the residence of Eric Rubin, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, but my plane touched down Wednesday a little after 1 p.m., with five hours to spare before the event.
The reception was held in conjunction with the opening of an ETA Seminar on Media Literacy, which was offered to 80-some young Americans working as Fulbright English teaching assistants in high schools and universities across southeastern Europe. I am scheduled to give two presentations to the young ETAs tomorrow, before beginning a round of talks to journalism students and working journalists in Bulgaria and Latvia.
The photo above was taken by my old friend and former Billings Gazette colleague Matt Hagengruber, the cultural affairs officer for the embassy in Sofia, who arranged this whole unexpected trip. The photo, as you may have guessed, shows me (on the right) shaking hands with the ambassador. We had already had a chance to speak to the ambassador for a while, long enough for me to be able to assure American taxpayers that we seem to have a highly competent and engaging envoy in Bulgaria.
This was my first encounter with an American ambassador, I’m pretty sure. Indeed, the last time I was photographed shaking hands overseas with a dignitary of any kind was in 2008, when I had the honor of meeting the mayor of Leonidio, Greece, during an outdoor festival. In that case, I was not there as an official representative for anyone. But when I was told that the gentleman in question, the only person in a large crowd wearing a tie, was the mayor, I took the liberty of introducing myself as the City Hall reporter for a newspaper in Montana, and offered to shake his hand. I recall showing the photo to then-Mayor Ron Tussing when I got back home. I don’t recall whether he was impressed.
Wednesday’s reception was also the first time in six or seven years that I wore a tie, for which I must give thanks to Montana Vintage Clothing on North 29th Street. They helped me look semi-respectable, on the cheap.
In just a couple of hours at the reception, I met all sorts of interesting people, including Ana Todorcheva. Besides being Matt’s assistant, she told me she was the daughter of a man who used to be the most prominent Bulgarian journalist working in the United States. For years, she said, this reporter and radio correspondent was the window through which most Bulgarians formed their impressions of the United States. She said he was the first European journalist to report the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and he also covered the funeral of Martin Luther King.
I also met Ivan Georgiev, a reporter for Bulgarian television network bTV, who spoke to the American ETAs this morning (it’s eight hours later in Sofia) about the state of the media and press freedom in the Balkans. He also showed an excerpt from a powerful documentary he helped make, about the alarming degradation of press freedoms in Turkey. We think, and we are not wrong to think, that these are strange and troubling times in the United States, but most of us can hardly imagine how much worse things are in so many other countries.
Others I met included Nancy Schiller, president and CEO of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, and Boryana Dzhambazova, a freelance journalist who is based in Bulgaria and writes for the Economist and the New York Times, among other publications. None of them, as far as I could determine, had heard of Last Best News. Go figure.
The most interesting person I met, though, was a young journalist whose name was Geargona, or Girgana (Update: it’s Guergana), based on my barbaric interpretation of what I heard. She reports on economics for Capital, the largest newspaper in Bulgaria. She is whip-smart and passionate about her work, and in short order asked so many penetrating questions about everything I had to say about the state of journalism that I realized I had better get to work on refining my proposed talk to regional journalists.
I would like to say more, but I would also like to take another whack at catching up with jet lag. Good night.