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A single regret, a visit to a monastery, then off to Latvia

After nearly a week in Bulgaria and now two days in Latvia, I have only one regret. It is that I had only a few minutes to stop at the junk shop pictured above.

I was on my way to see the Rila Monastery with Matt Hagengruber, my old Gazette colleague now working in Sofia, Bulgaria, as a U.S. Embassy cultural affairs officer. We were on our way to the American University in Bulgaria, a private university in Blagoevgrad, about an hour south of Sofia, and we had only a short time to make the detour to see the monastery.

On the narrow, winding road leading to Rila, I spotted what looked like a junk yard full of ancient, dust-covered automobiles, so I asked Matt if we could stop on the way back for a couple of photos. Well, as soon as I got out of the car and stepped under an archway into a kind of courtyard, I knew it was no mere parts junk yard. In addition to the old cars — the Soviet-era clunkers I had half expected to see still clogging the Bulgarian roads — there were old implements and tools, weapons, toys, hardware and knick-knacks beyond number.

If I had to choose between a museum, an art gallery, some natural wonder like a waterfall and a good junk shop, I’m afraid I would always choose the junk shop. If I were in America and I were to stumble upon a place like the one pictured above, and I had only a few minutes to spare, I could at least carry around with me like a gift the consolation of knowing that I would one day return.

More antique clunkers inside the barely explored junk shop.

But a place on the outskirts of Blagoevgrad in far-off Bulgaria, crammed with outlandish artifacts? What were the chances of my ever coming back to it? I do want to return, but life is short, and I may go to my grave wondering what treasures were buried under those heaps of oddments and blankets of dust. And yes, that is a bust of Stalin glowering inside that ancient vehicle. (Side recommendation: On the flight from Newark to Frankfurt, I finally got to watch “The Death of Stalin,” undoubtedly the funniest movie ever made about mass murder. As you might imagine, the humor is a bit on the dark side.)

In the few minutes I had to take photos, a man driving a small tractor with cart attached to the back came rumbling out from the rear of the place, waved at me and pulled over. I asked him if he spoke English and his wagged his finger to indicate “No,” then walked into a shed and emerged with a small sign explaining, in three languages including English, that this was indeed a junk shop, with some information about when it was open at different times of the year. “I’ll be back!” I said to him, knowing he couldn’t understand but hoping by saying it aloud I was making some kind of compact with the cosmos, or myself.

And so on to the monastery, where we had about an hour to poke around and soak up its medieval splendors. Like all the Orthodox churches in these parts, photographs inside the church are prohibited, as are scanty or otherwise disrespectful clothing and behavior. I hope this photo from the outside of the church will give you some idea of what was inside:

Living quarters for monks are visible beneath the arches of the church inside the Rila Monastery.

Really, though, you can hardly imagine the inside unless you’ve been in an Orthodox church yourself. Every single inch of the walls and ceiling are covered in gorgeous murals and icons, depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints, and no end of depictions of the horrors of eternal punishment in that world below. The icons, or portraits of saints and other holy figures, are festooned with detailed ornamentation of carved wood and worked silver and gold. Then there are elaborate candelabra and chandeliers just as richly and expensively ornamented.

The last measure of magnificence, though, is always saved for the iconostasis, the wall bearing icons that separates the congregation from the mysteries of the mass. In Catholic churches when I was a boy, the priests prepared the materials of the sacrament of communion with their backs to the congregation, but in Orthodox churches, a goodly portion of the long service is given up to such preparations, all done in privacy behind the iconostasis. Church-goers pass the time listening to the intricate intonations of the choir, or feasting their eyes on a form of art that existed for the sole purpose of inducing exaltation.

At the monastery, a glimpse of the torments of the damned.

All of which makes it even more difficult to admit that had I known what lay down below, I might have spent an hour in the junk yard and dashed into the monastery for a few photos afterward.

At the American University in Bulgaria, Matt and I first had dinner in the cafeteria of what I suppose was the student union building, or its near equivalent. It was a beautiful, modern building, constructed with American funds, public and private. There are those who begrudge every dime spent overseas, just as there are those who begrudge every dime spent on “nonessential services” at home, but I felt stirrings of pride at seeing some of our money going to help a country that has been subject to invasion and occupation almost since the dawn of civilization. When I was much younger, during the Cold War, Bulgaria to me was a sort of Monty Python-like backwater of low intrigue, secret police and cars that would eventually kill you with pollution if they didn’t fall apart and kill you on the highway first.

Now its ancient ruins sit alongside gleaming glass mega-malls and its highways are crowded with Mercedes, Hondas and Subarus, and its comical but deadly cars are found only in roadside junk shops.

In the cafeteria, we were joined by two young women who were studying journalism at AUBG and would also be attending the presentation, but wanted to talk more in depth beforehand. They were, like so many of the people I’ve met here, a real tonic. They were bright and articulate, hopeful and yet skeptical in a healthy, youngish way, and their English was impressive, as they had both been to the United States on work visas. One of them knew the language well enough to have a kind of American edge to her humor, a quickness on her feet that is only available to the fluent.

I then made my presentation to an audience of 20 or 30 students and faculty, including an English teacher from Maine who was full of good stories. Once again, I dare say the most effective part of the talk was the portion devoted to a sketch of Montana history. I show them a couple of slides of Glacier and Yellowstone, all the touristy beauty that most Americans associated with the Big Sky State, then jolt them with a black-and-white photo of the Butte Hill at the height of its wretched glory, followed by a history of Anaconda domination of the press, society and politics. Some of what I have to say is a bit generic and could perhaps be delivered by any visiting journalist, but the Montana stuff is a revelation to them, and I have not yet got tired of watching eyes grow wide with wonder.

And of course I love talking about Last Best News. I may have pandered somewhat by going into some detail about one of the last big stories I worked on, the one involving the cops busted for having on-the-job sex. Even the few students who were nodding off by then suddenly sat up straight, all ears. And it really was a good story to talk about in a place where bad news about any branch of government is avoided by a majority of news outlets.

That was my last full day in Bulgaria. Matt dropped me off at the hotel, we said our goodbyes, I thanked him for being the catalyst of this mind-boggling adventure and I left the next morning on an early flight to Latvia. That was yesterday. I arrived here about 2 in the afternoon and it is now 10:30 the next night. But so much has happened that I don’t dare begin to describe any of it, since I have one more day of activities tomorrow, after which, two days entirely on my own in the capital city of Riga, then home on Monday. I will pick up the thread of my travel narrative  tomorrow or on Saturday. Here’s one more look at the monastery:

And here’s a quick update: because I had already posted on Facebook a link to a radio interview I did, I completely forget to mention that before Matt and I went to AUBG, we stopped in at the studios of Bulgarian National Radio Blagoevgrad, where I met broadcast journalist Eleonora Tahova. You might get tired of my saying this, but here was yet another bright, young, curious Bulgarian, whose questions on and off the air were articulate and to the point and whose English, despite her protestations, was excellent. I hope I sounded half as good as she did. Thanks!

A full day, a humbling experience

It used to be when I traveled that I always brought a Moleskine journal with me, and I would usually end the day, or sometimes begin it, by writing down everything that had happened since the last entry. This trip has been such a whirlwind that I barely have time to write a blog post, and I’m much faster on a keyboard than I am with a pen or a pencil.

So bear with me. I’ll try to provide more updates from Bulgaria and from Latvia, where I go tomorrow, and then will probably continue for a while once I get back home, until I’ve sufficiently unburdened myself of descriptions, recollections and reflections.

Yesterday was a very busy day, though I passed through it in a slight fog, thanks to having gotten only five hours of sleep the night before. I’d gotten more than 11 hours of sleep the previous night, still a long way from catching up with my jet-lag sleep deficit, but I thought that having slept for 11 hours straight I had finally adjusted my internal clock to Bulgaria. Until I tried to sleep Sunday night and lay there, wide-eyed, for three hours before finally falling asleep.

So, yesterday I spoke to a large class of journalism students at Sofia University, met with the editor and political writer at a daily newspaper (after which I was interviewed by the reporter), then ended the day by giving a talk, my first with a translator, at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. It was exhausting but exhilarating, and it was also humbling. Everywhere I’ve been the people I’ve spoken to are so receptive and respectful, so serious and full of questions.

At the Red House, where I more or less apologized for being yet another American traveling abroad to offer people advice — all the more daunting after having visited Plovdiv, with its 8,000 years of history — a man came up and told me, in quite good English and at considerable length, that it really didn’t matter that America was so new. The fact was that America has been a capitalist, democratic society for more than 250 years, he said, and people living in post-Communist Bulgaria have a great hunger for information that will help them rebuild a society founded on the rule of law.

This was my audience at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. This was during the Q&A afterward, when six or seven people had already left.

I heard similar things while visiting the offices of the daily newspaper, rendered as Sega, or Now, in English. The editor-in-chief, Teodora Peeva, explained that 90 percent of the media in Bulgaria is controlled by one man. She also said, and I hope I’m getting this right, that this man’s family was not particularly rich, but that the government funneled billions of dollars to his mother in secret banking transactions, which allowed this man to establish himself as the press lord of Bulgaria.

Sega itself, meanwhile, is entirely funded by its owner, an independent businessman. Yesterday’s edition of Sega, 24 tabloid pages, contained exactly one advertisement. Teodora said the paper loses great gobs of money and has had its staff seriously reduced in recent years, like papers everywhere, but it continues to publish and though relatively small is the most respected newspaper in Bulgaria because it is the only paper that publishes the truth and criticizes the government, which has tried in vain to shut it down and to ruin its owner’s businesses. One has to deal with the situation one finds oneself in, but everything I heard made my complaints about Lee Enterprises and American media generally seem like small potatoes. We are, I hardly need to tell you, so privileged to live where we do.

In the Sega offices, I felt more than a little foolish taking up the time of people involved in such important, perilous work, but once again I encountered that hunger for information, for recognition, for hope in the future of Bulgaria. After the political reporter, Svetoslav Terziev, interviewed me, I said to him, “If there’s not enough there for a story, don’t worry about it. I’ve been there.”

“On, no,” he answered. “Full page.” I will be on a plane for Latvia when the next edition of Sega comes out, but Matt Hagengruber, my host and cicerone, promised to send me a copy of the paper. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything that will cause an international incident, but I guess we’ll see.

At the newspaper we also met the resident cartoonist, Christo Komarnitski. We were told that he is one of the most famous people in Bulgaria, hated by the powers that be for his brutally funny depictions of them, and loved by the common people for the same reason. He had his own office, stuffed with art supplies, books and back issues of the newspaper. That’s him above, handing me and Matt copies of a satirical journal that just came out, with his cartoon on the cover. He looked a bit like and reminded me of the late Roger Clawson, who wrote a column for the Billings Gazette and later the Billings Outpost, and who was similarly worshipped by discerning readers for his brilliant writing and his lampooning of bigwigs and blowhards. We weren’t long in the presence of Komarnitski, but I went away with the distinct feeling that we had met a world-class character.

This sign, encountered in a restaurant’s toilet, evidently was emphatically instructing me not to do something or other. I hope I didn’t.

At Sofia University, where our day began, I was powerfully impressed by the young students, from all over Bulgaria. Two students introduced themselves to me as natives of the town of Montana, Bulgaria, and one of them told me she even had a Montana Grizzly sweatshirt, which I thought was pretty cool. I was told by the professor, Maria Popova, that her students knew English well enough for me to lecture in English. A few of them seemed a bit lost, but the rest, numbering about 30, seemed to be listening carefully and had the appropriate reactions at the appropriate times. And when I asked for questions afterward, everyone who spoke sound quite fluent.

Their professor thanked for me emphasizing that now more than ever, newspapers should be in the business of finding and reporting facts and straightforward information, and doing less and less opinionating, since in the era of social media if there is one thing the world does not lack it is opinions. When she asked her students at the beginning of the year why they were interested in journalism, Popova told me, almost every one of them had the same answer: “I want to be able to give the world my opinions!”

In the classroom and in the lecture hall in the evening, I gathered that people were genuinely fascinated by what I told them of Montana history, about Anaconda Company control of the state and nearly all of its daily newspapers. I had decided to include that historical sketch only after arriving here, as I explained in the same post I linked to above, and it has proved to be really effective.

People are fascinated by this notion that a corporation could effectively impose censorship on an entire American state, in an era not all that long ago. At the Red House, three or four people kept pressing me for more details on how the Anaconda Company was induced to finally sell off its newspapers to Lee Enterprises. They wanted to know if there was political pressure involved, or whether the pressure was exerted by common people, etc. In short, they wanted to know how they could begin to move their country, with its unique challenges, in the same direction.

As an aside, it was ridiculously entertaining to hear people asking questions through my translator, Bistra. All I would hear was a burst of Bulgarian (to me) gibberish, interspersed with the word “Anaconda.” Bistra, I have to add, was amazingly good at her work. Sometimes I would be so lost in admiration of her translating prowess that I would almost forget to go on speaking when she finished translating what I had just said. It was a strange experience, a first for me, of speaking through a translator. I had to cut my presentation in half, on the fly, for one thing, and I had to remember to keep my remarks segmented into bite-sized bits, so as not to lose my audience or my translator.

And here I don’t even have time to talk about my first real excursion on foot into the heart of the city center. That will have to wait for a future post.

 

An ancient city, Montana history and some fine music

“Old! Very old! Very old!”

So our guide told us over and over, and so we could see with our own eyes everywhere we looked. Matt Hagengruber and I were in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria, about an hour and a half east of Sofia. As we had learned by watching a short video inside a visitor center built over the remains of a fifth-century basilica, when Plovidv was called Philippopolis, the city is as old as Jericho, permanently inhabited for something like 8,000 years.

During that time, it has been conquered by virtually every empire worthy of the name. That would explain why, as a woman named Illyana told me the night before, that Bulgarians never expect current conditions to linger long. They have learned that any system, any culture, any civilization, is apt to become something else in due time.

The ancient Roman theater, Plovdiv.

And I should mention that our guide, so-called, attached himself to us by jumping up off the back stairs to another ancient church and offering directions to a high point from which we would have a “fantastic panorama” of the city (see photo above). Before we knew what was happening, he was leading the way, chattering nonstop, ordering us to take pictures of this or that house — “Old! Very old!” — and continually assuring us that the street paved with heavy stones was “original, not renovated, no Bulgaria, no Turkey, Rome!”, and letting us know, in case we had forgotten, that “I love United States!”

We knew that he was eventually going to ask for money, or perhaps even lead us into some kind of ambush, but he maintained such a steady pace of both walking and talking that we never quite found the opportunity to disentangle ourselves from his presence. As it was, he did take us to the fantastic view of the city, and through some of the most picturesque sections of the Old Town, and in the end he accepted my offer of 10 leva, or about $6, with only a small amount of grumbling.

We saw just enough of the city to make me want to go back some day and spend at least three days exploring the place. It has, as we also saw in the video, temples, mosques and Catholic and Orthodox churches rich in ornamentation, of which we poked our heads into only the Orthodox church. I had already felt a little embarrassment at the idea of coming halfway around the world to give Bulgarians advice about journalism, thinking that sometimes the United States ought to take some advice from cultures that might possibly have learned something in the course of seven or eight millennia. I felt it even more acutely in Plovdiv.

Stag mosaic, ancient basilica, Plovdiv.

The trip to Plovdiv took place on Sunday, my one full free day here. In 45 minutes it will be Monday in Sofia, and tomorrow I have my busiest day yet — a talk in the journalism department at Sofia University, a visit to the newsroom of the Sega Daily and then a lecture at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. On Saturday, I gave two presentations to Americans working as Fulbright English teaching assistants in countries all over southeastern Europe.

I had kept my presentation only loosely formed until I got here, thinking it would be foolish to come up with something formal until I had had a better chance to learn a few things on the ground. I’m glad I waited. After listening to a leading Bulgarian journalist’s lecture on the state of press freedoms regionally, I decided to start my own presentation with an introduction to Montana history.

Yes, strange as it may sound, I thought it might be useful for those young Americans, and even more useful for Bulgarian journalists, to learn that Montana wasn’t just a pretty place of mountains, wildlife and winding rivers. So I told them about Butte, about the conflicts between the miners and The Company, about the Sedition Act and the occupation of Butte by the National Guard. I told them about the Copper Kings and the newspapers they bought or founded to fight their personal battles, followed by decades in which The Company owned most of the newspapers in the state and tamped down dissent and tumult by reporting almost nothing of importance about state and local affairs. I told them of the “great gray blanket” that covered Montana in those bad years.

I acknowledged that Lee Enterprises did a great thing by purchasing the company-owned newspapers in Montana, by allowing the publication of meaningful reporting that help usher in much-needed changes, including a new constitution. But I also had to tell them how Lee Enterprises, under pressure from market forces and its own bad decisions, gradually erased most of that goodwill, prompting, among many other things, my departure from print journalism into the world of online news.

Basically, I just want to let people know, as Illyana already knows, that everything is subject to change, sometimes from bad to better, sometimes from bad to worse, and that in this era at least, newspapers are vitally needed as a check on the power of governments, corporations, powerful private interests and, in some parts of the world, oligarchic strongmen. I’m still struggling with what I will say when asked, as I’m sure I will be, how anyone in a place like Bulgaria could possibly start an online newspaper when reporting on official corruption might lead to prison, or worse.

But before I turn this post into a lecture, let me just mention a few more of the diversions we had over the past two days. On Saturday, Matt and his wife went to the Marine Ball, while I accompanied the 80 or so American ETAs to a dinner at the Vodenitzata restaurant in the hills above Sofia. I learned on the way out of the restaurant that it is a fairly famous place, judging from a series of photos showing former patrons enjoying themselves there — including Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ben Kingsley, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

A stuffed fox, posed as a maitre’d, greets diners at the Vodenitzata restaurant.

The food was superb, but the real attraction was the display of Bulgarian folk-dancing and singing, followed by a display of fire walking, a custom that apparently dates back to pre-Christian pagan rituals. I loved the music, especially that produced by the gadulka, an outlandish looking thing with four or five main strings stretching over half a dozen or so resonating strings. The top strings are bowed and the strings themselves given their tone not by pressing them into the neck, but by bringing them into contact with the fingernails, or so I was given to understand. It has a frenetic, otherworldy sound, as did the voice of the female singer who accompanied the band on several numbers.

The fire dancers did their thing by tending a wood fire on a stone patio behind the restaurant while we ate, then raking the coals into the shape of a cross, allowing them to burn down still more before scattering them around a broad circle. The man and woman, dressed in traditional customs, then cavorted through the coals barefoot, more or less sweeping the embers aside as they dashed around in circles, occasionally picking up sticks with glowing ends and waving them around, as we Americans do with sparklers on the 4th of July. I wish I could give you a better description of the proceedings, but the only light was that of the embers, and there were so many people watching that I was standing a good distance away, too far to see much in detail. Still, it was exciting and enchantingly heathenish.

In Plovdiv we also heard some fine Bulgarian folk songs, played by two elderly gents with Spanish guitars. As I told Matt, it was good and would have been excellent had they taken the trouble to tune their guitars. But even musicians get old, and their hearing sometimes weakens. I can just hear some of you saying that the problem may have lain with the impaired hearing of the aging musician writing this post, but no. The guitars were out of tune.

Inside the restaurant, our regiment of young Americans took up two large rooms, and the din created by 80 exuberant voices drove me out of doors two or three times, just for some quiet. At the embassy the other night, I was talking with some Bulgarians and with some older Americans, and all agreed that young Americans are the loudest people in the world. Matt told me that Bulgarians, when they are in a large group, actually lower their voices to avoid creating a din, the better for all to hear one another. What a concept! Didn’t I say that we Americans could learn from other cultures, if only we would listen?

In Sofia, envoy for a day

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.

Parlor

This parlor in the ambassador’s residence in Sophia was the only place I could hear anyone above the din of dozens of loudly chattering young Americans. If somebody really wanted to talk, I asked them to step in here.

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.

A slow start to a long trip

Almost 24 hours into my trip to Bulgaria and Latvia, things are not quite as exotic as I expected. But then, I have only made it as far as the city-state of Denver, where they speak a dialect of English very similar to that spoken in the civilized parts of Montana, and where they appear to worship a god represented by the head of a handsome horse.

I got on a Lufthansa plane yesterday evening in Denver, supposedly bound for Frankfurt. We boarded an hour late and sat on the tarmac for three hours before the captain announced that the mechanical problem the crew had detected was more serious than originally thought and might even require the services of a technician flown in from Germany. The strangest thing was, after we’d been on the tarmac for a couple of hours, and having undergone de-icing, the captain announced that we might as well refuel while we were waiting, as if the mere matter of taking on a fuel was a minor afterthought. But I don’t want to be a small-minded traveler questioning the customs of foreign persons.

After some delays — to be expected when a giant plane disgorges some 300 passengers all at once — I climbed into a crowded shuttle to be taken to the Quality Inn & Suites, 15 minutes from the airport, right on the freeway and without a bar in sight. We had all been expecting to eat on the plane some five hours earlier, a circumstance that only slightly sharpened my appetite for the frozen food products we were offered at the motel, courtesy of Lufthansa: embalmed burritos, a pork sandwich that looked as though it had been regurgitated, charmless cheese sticks and other delectables. “Quality” is a degraded word.

Hockey gear, bound for Turkey and points east.

But I’m not complaining, damn it. Uncle Sam is paying for my trip, so I can live with minor inconveniences. A few asides from the first day:

♦ On the shuttle, a short, stocky chap had trouble getting aboard, which he blamed on a hockey injury suffered just a day earlier. I later found out that he was 74 and going to Turkey and several -istan countries to play hockey. I never did determine what level of play was involved, but I was impressed. I also learned that he was from Spokane, and he mentioned that his team plays against the Mules. “The Missoula Flying Mules!” I said. “I was a founding member of that team in 1974.” It is even possible that he and I played against each other decades ago, because he used to be on a cops-and-firefighters team, one of our frequent opponents.

♦ Waiting in line with 300 passengers seeking instructions about the future from four Lufthansa agents, I was unusually calm, partly because I was near the head of the line and also because, as I mentioned, Uncle Sam was being so good to me. The gentleman right in front of me was not so calm. He kept calling people at Lufthansa to berate them personally and their company as a whole, and to threaten them with dire consequences if he was not treated like the prince he evidently thought himself to be. He was a doctor, I learned when he introduced himself to another doctor in line, having been drawn to him by animal magnetism, or the scent of ether. To his fellow medico he kept saying, in a very loud voice, that the situation we found ourselves in was “unacceptable,” as if by repeating that word as an incantation he could magically put us all on an airplane bound for glory. It didn’t work.

♦ I must be ready to experience exotica, having last traveled abroad in 2011. A woman on the shuttle, speaking with a beautiful French accent to someone on the phone, said, “I need to be in Geneva as quickly as possible,” and it sounded to me like a love poem.

Welcome to Travels with Xavi

The first thing you need to know is that Xavi is our dog, and that his name is pronounced Cha-vee. Steinbeck was my first literary hero, many long years ago, so Travels with Xavi seemed the perfect name for a blog devoted to travel, diversions and miscellany of all kinds.

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Xavi

I don’t know how much actual traveling I’ll do with Xavi, but I have been thinking of taking him along on some extended road trips, and in any case I intend to haul him around on some of my shorter jaunts in Montana. If you’re wondering, Xavi is a Lab-Cocker Spaniel mix, as far as Doc Berst down at Billings Vet Service could figure. Daughter Pari found him on Craigslist about nine years ago. He apparently had been abandoned along the river near the water plant. And since the World Cup was underway and Pari was fond of a Spanish soccer player named Xavi, she bestowed that name on our new hound.

I had thought of starting a blog soon after shutting down Last Best News on July 1, but the happy fact is that I was having too much fun to get around to it. Which was too bad because I really wanted to tell people about my trip to the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Virginia, back in August. The Galax convention is the oldest and largest of the many mountain music and bluegrass gatherings in the country, and for this longtime fan of old-time music, it was the trip of a lifetime.

The music on stage, at the Galax Fairgrounds, involved hundreds of contestants competing in a variety of categories, and I heard a lot of incredible music, some of it from elementary-age kids. Down in that part of the country, I gather, kids are shown the fingering on a guitar, mandolin or banjo a couple of years before most of us Yankees are teaching our children how to tie their shoes. But the real joy was just floating from campsite to campsite in the evenings, where some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard were jamming out on bluegrass, mountain music, country, swing, Gypsy jazz and Cajun, among other genres.

That trip also included a week in Philadelphia, visiting daughter Jessie and her family, and a few days in Washington, D.C., which I had previously seen only during a whirlwind reporting trip when I accompanied an Honor Flight of World War II vets. This time, I finally got to see some of the sights, including an extended inspection, at the Library of Congress, of Thomas Jefferson’s library. This was as moving as the music in Galax, in a different way. I must have spent almost an hour and a half looking at his books, all behind thick glass, trying to read as many titles as I could, marveling once again at the breadth of Jefferson’s interests and his learning (and his love of well-made books).

Before that Philly-D.C.-Virginia trip, meanwhile, immediately after pulling the plug on LBN, I also went to Seattle to see my nephew get hitched, then spent a week at Flathead Lake with the whole family. Then, over Labor Day, Lisa and I went to Salt Lake City to visit Pari. I finally got to see the Great Salt Lake. Those are my feet, in that lake, above.

What finally inspired me to start the blog was the trip I am just embarking on at the moment. I am in the airport in Denver, on my way to Frankfurt and then to Sofia, Bulgaria. My old Gazette colleague, Matt Hagengruber, who bailed on journalism and joined the State Department years ago, is currently stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia. About 10 days ago Matt got a hold of me and asked if I could be an emergency substitute for a person who was scheduled to speak on journalism ethics, media literacy and online journalism at a series of events in Bulgaria and Latvia, and who had to drop out.

Of course I said yes, putting in motion preparations that involved phone calls, texts, Facebook messages and many dozens of emails. The main problem was that my most recent passport expired six years ago, meaning I had to proceed as if applying for the first time. But this is the State Department, right, and man did they hustle to get everything done on time. This morning, five hours before my flight was to leave, UPS delivered a packet of documents and a supplementary insurance card. An hour later, FedEx delivered my passport. Whew!

I didn’t dare write about the planned trip until everything finally fell into place. I am incredibly excited about this opportunity, even as I fight off fits of paralysis brought on by impostor syndrome. I’ll be in Sofia and a couple of other Bulgarian cities for about a week, and then in Riga, Latvia, for another five or six days. Please stay tuned.