Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Money & Me : Walk and chew gum

My middle school was a good mile away from home. By the end of my daily classes, I would be tired and hungry. Breakfast was long digested and forgotten, recess snacks were not a big part of Eastern European culture. But thank God for the gypsies! Most school days, when the weather was nice enough, a voluptuous gypsy woman was waiting by the schoolyard’s gate, selling sunflower seeds and packs of chewing gum.

The sunflower seeds were home-roasted, generously salted, and packed in long, narrow cones from a tightly spun newspaper. Salt clumps and hygiene standards aside, sunflower seeds were a treat! Especially after six lessons in math, literature, and whatnot. I just needed something to tide me over until I got lunch at home.

Back in the day, gypsies would trade with the Turkish seasonal workers across the Bulgarian border. That was their secret to stocking and selling Turkish chewing gum. Turkish chewing gum was way superior to the Bulgarian one. It was bigger, flavored, colored, and sweet. Most importantly, under each wrapper was a second wrapper - a photograph of a Western car, and that’s what the boys wanted. A chewing gum’s cost was twice that of the sunflower seeds, so I had a tough choice to make - get some seeds for the half-hour walk home, or buy a chewing gum and appeal to a boy I like by offering him my car photograph. Not that money savvy at my age, most days hunger won, but on a love-ridden day, I would spend twice the money and learn to walk and chew gum, on an empty stomach. Because who said money can’t buy you love?

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Money & Me: Money is sweet

Image by valuavitaly on Freepik

In 1980s Bulgaria, where I grew up, three generations would traditionally share a roof, as did we. I was my grandfather Ilya’s namesake and his favorite grandchild. I was not yet of school age when Grandpa started sending me to the corner store to buy him cigarettes, and generously let me keep the change. “Get yourself a sweet!”- he would say with a smile. Most often Grandpa would give me a 20 cent coin if he asked for the filterless, cheaper brand smokes costing 15 cents. 5 cents change was enough for a butter cookie or a wafer. But on a very good day, when he felt like indulging on 35c filtered slim cigarettes, he would hand me a 50 cent coin, which left me with 15 cents change. That was two chocolate dipped wafers, or a slice of cake! I was in sweet heaven while my Grandpa was poisoning his lungs.

I don’t know how long it took me to realize it but one day the light went on. If I was sent for the fancy cigarettes, but they were sold out (or I just say so!) I could buy the cheap ones instead and end up with lots of change. Lots in the eye of a child of single digits age. Even when Grandpa would give me the exact amount of coins for the more expensive cigarettes, if I bought the filterless fags, I’d have the upper hand.

Grandpa loved me so much. He loved smoking too. I doubt he ever got the drift of my little shenanigans. But with a bit of math I learned money’s top attribute - money is sweet!

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Money & Me: The Beginning


Susan Sheldon / Eyeem | Eyeem | Getty Images

“In the beginning, there was…” barter. Money came later.

“Scientists have tracked exchange and trade through archaeological records, starting n the Paleolithic, when groups of hunters traded for the best flint weapons and other tools”, claims anthropologist Chapurukha Kusimba. “At first, people bartered, negotiating exchange deals between two parties for desirable objects. Money came later and its form evolved over the millennia – from natural objects to coins to paper to digital versions. “

Mother-of-pearl shells, amber, obsidian, copper, iron, silver, and gold have served as currency at different times. The Mesopotamian shekel - the first known form of currency – emerged nearly 5,000 years ago. The earliest known mints date ~600 B.C. in Asia Minor, where the leaders of Lydia and Ionia used stamped silver and gold coins to pay armies. 

Having been around for so long, one would think money is a settled matter. But money is a fickle thing. 

I was introduced to money only half a century ago, yet in this relatively short period of time, I witnessed three redenominations of the Bulgarian lev in my home country. Nineteen European countries underwent currency substitution during the formation of the European Union. I lived in four countries after leaving home and I dealt with four different currencies. Moreover, I witnessed different attitudes toward money around the world.

Want to read about how I got to know and value money? 

Follow my "Money & Me" adventures (and misadventures!) in the next several weeks.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022


Two years ago I decided to organize "Poetry for the senses" - a traveling exhibit for poetry in Braille. I had the pleasure of working with a number of great Chicago writers. The exhibit was generously hosted by two Chicago Public Library branches and two communities for the blind and visually impaired.
The exhibit opened on World Sight Day. Unfortunately, three months later, Covid put an early end to it.
Nevertheless, we were very pleased and proud of what we did.

I am remembering this today, on World Braille Day, 4 January. 
* * *

Poetry for the Senses - a traveling exhibit

October 10, 2019 – October 25, 2019
2100 S. Wentworth Avenue
Chicago IL 60616

November 5, 2019 – November 20, 2019
Albany Park Branch, CPL
3401 W. Foster Avenue
Chicago IL 60625

December 5, 2019 – December 30, 2019
Friedman Place - Community for blind and visually impaired adults
5527 N Maplewood Ave
Chicago IL 60625

January 21, 2020 - January 25, 2020
Chicago Lighthouse
1850 W Roosevelt Rd
Chicago, IL 60608

Poetry is art. Art is a sensuous experience that belongs to everyone.

This exhibit aims to let us experience poetry with all of our senses and bring awareness to the limitations the visually-impaired face. Written by Chicago residents, each poem is displayed in print, Braille, recording (scan QR code with your smart device), and is accompanied by a scent. 

“The POETRY FOR THE SENSES exhibit was inspired by meeting and working with Peter Rayner, a blind by birth Australian scientist, and - more recently - by taking a Memoir writing & teaching class from double award-winning memoirist and visually-impaired teacher, Beth Finke.”  
 - Iliana Genkova, exhibit curator

This exhibit, much like good writing, aims to deliver poetry to all of our senses. 


Frank Bonacci grew up in Schiller Park and now lives in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. He is grants manager for Catholic Charities in the Joliet Diocese and an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Matthew J. Lawler, a Chicago original, grew up on the Northwest Side of the city. He began writing poems in his teens. He is the author of “Concrete Oracles,” a full-length poetry collection.

Jerry Pendergast grew up in Lincoln Park and now lives in North Park with his wife Kathleen Craine. He is active in Chicago-Cinquera Sister Cities. Most recently he was published in After Hours, Children Churches and Daddies and EXTREME Anthology of Poems with a Social Justice theme.

Myron Stokes lives in Chicago and works as a Counselor at the Oak Park VA Center.

Barry H. Mansfield is a Chicagoan, poet, and the author of “Thrown Out of the Garden – For Those Who Have Eaten the Forbidden Fruit or Would Like To”.

Iliana Genkova is a scientist and has a passion for the arts. She dabbles in poetry and creative non-fiction writing. She runs a writing group in Uptown and facilitates memoir workshops from time to time.

Iliana Genkova and Julie Morley

To learn more about the visually impaired community and allied services in Chicago, 
please visit:
Sincere thanks to Chinatown and Albany Park branches of CPL for their enthusiastic reception as exhibit hosts. Many thanks to Beth Finke for her invaluable input on the exhibit content. Thanks to Ryan Baker for the audio setup, and to the authors for their contributions. 
Want this exhibit in your library branch or another community space? 
Please inquire with ilianagenkova@gmail.com

Saturday, May 08, 2021

How to be Single


On the Art of Living Alone

Being the peripatetic scientist that I am, every now and again I have to fill an Emergency Contact Information section on a form.

Identifying one such person can be challenging at times and it inevitably makes me question my choice to live alone as a single woman.

Much is written on the perks and perils of living solo ranging from glorifying it (usually in a humorous manner) to the everyday downsides of it.

Here is my offering to the Encyclopedia's chapter on being single and living alone.

I grew up in a family of six - my sister and I, Mom and Dad, and my grandparents. My sister and I always shared a room (and a bed for that matter), therefore sharing my living space with someone seemed the normal thing to do. During my college years, I always had a roommate (separate beds!). When I graduated and got a job I moved in with my boyfriend. We habituated a studio first, then a one-bedroom apartment. Later I married and upgraded to a house. Then one day I had to get a job out of state, the hubby didn't join.

I chose to live in a shared apartment. Three of us had our own bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, but we shared a living room and a kitchen. I had some company every day, yet I had privacy too for when the hubby would visit.

Life then threw a wrench in the family works and I found myself 33 y.o. and divorced. I compounded the problem by getting a new job and relocating to a new city.

In a vulnerable state driven by a romantic betrayal (divorce was imminent) and interrupted identity, I chose to live alone. Living with strangers seemed like too much to take.

I felt like I needed some time to lick my emotional wounds and heal before I open up and trust again. I choose to stay single for a while.

Research shows that America is the leading country in the living alone approach and it has embraced this fashion only in the last half a century. The number of people going solo has tripled since 1950 and Manhattan and Washington, DC are the front runners in this modus operandi. I lived in Washington, DC on my own. I was part of the phenomenon. I accepted it as my new normal. It has become part of me, to the point that when I moved to live in the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia, in my thirties, I found it boggling that professionals of my own age would still live in shared houses or apartments, sometimes four or five of them in a house with only one bathroom. 

I am sure we all have our reasons to live the way we do. I am certainly not alone in a boat of my choosing. Here is my take on being single and living alone.

What I love most about being single and living alone

1. I can listen to music 24/7.
Not only I can listen to music any day and any time, but I can choose tunes that fit my mood. I also tend to enjoy my music loud. Or at least as loud as my neighbors tolerate. Blasting a favorite Bulgarian folk song on a Saturday morning at 8 am once lead to someone knocking angrily on my door. I stopped the music but didn’t open the door.

2. I can spend as much time in the shower as I like.
I know very well that what I do is wasteful, but I simply love standing in the shower and feeling the water hitting my shoulders, back and face. It soothes me. It’s the second-best thing after being hugged.

3. I can live on salads and sandwiches, and fruit.
Eating raw food is healthy, and I save on energy bills (and time!) by not cooking. When living with others I get a bit embarrassed from my rabbit diet.

4. I can give in to my OCD streak.
Yes, I’m a bit of a clean freak. At times I would allow for a huge mess to build up, solely for the indulgence of having something major to clean. 

5. I can dance like nobody is watching.
I not only dance at random times and at random tunes but with random moves too.

What I hate most about being single and living alone

1. Walls are nice to stare at, especially when there is a piece of art on them, you can even talk to them, but they never answer.

2. There is nobody to share house chores or bills with.

3. There is this patch of about four cm^2 on your back, that they say almost no one can reach and scratch (unless you are super flexible). But it itches at times!

4. You can’t make jokes when nobody is around to hear them.

5. Waking up in the silence of my own place gives me panic attacks at times.

Despite the second group of five reasons, it’s not all gloomy and sad.

What I have learned from living alone

1. I learned to budget better, keep track of bills easier, be financially more sound.

2. I learned to cook better - because cooking takes your mind off things.

3. I discovered I have an introvert side too, and I can tap on it when needed.

4. I became my best friend.

5. I learned to be agile when plans change unexpectedly.

Some of you might be perfectly fine living alone, just like I am (most of the time!). But I can also hear some of you mumbling '...it’s easier said than done'.

Actually, it is easy! 
Here is my cheat sheet for you, the wisdom of 12 years of being single and living on my own.

How to handle living alone at first

1. Try to establish a routine for yourself. Mix the activities you like to do with the chores you need to do, set some balance. Stick to this routine for a while at least, it would give you a sense of familiarity, predictability, and being in charge.

2. When choosing the location of your new abode, pick a lively neighborhood. Walking on a street surrounded by people, when there is nothing else to do, has always been a favorite backup plan of mine. Do some people watching while at it. I even go a step further and try making eye contact with strangers, just for the fun of it.

3. Find one decent coffee shop and a pub within crawling distance. Do I need to elaborate?

4. They say a healthy spirit lives in a healthy body - use these first weeks in a new city to visit the doctor, the dentist, have a massage.

5. Enjoy all of these one-person-only suitable activities - swim, run, do yoga, visit museums, read, go to the movies, go to a comedy club.

6. On a nice sunny day when the muse strikes make a list of everything you like to do and put this list on your fridge or another easy-to-see place. Check the list when things get rough and you draw a blank on what to do next.

7. Call your parents or good friends far away - they will most certainly appreciate it.

8. Try to get to know your neighbors or get involved in the local community.

9. Take a nap.

10. Just be.

"The thing about being single is, you should cherish it. Because, in a week, or a lifetime, of being alone, you may only get one moment. One moment, when you're not tied up in a relationship with anyone. A parent, a pet, a sibling, a friend. One moment, when you stand on your own. Really, truly single. And then... It's gone."

Having just handed you the key to the "Being single and living alone could be fun" kingdom, I must warn you. Mastering the skill of living solo can be dangerous. We set in our own ways and forget that they are not the only way. I challenge you to also have overnight visitors from time to time, allowing you to see what shared life could be and appreciate both sides of the medal.

After everything is said and done I have to admit - to each their own. For me personally, living alone is fine yet I appreciate the alternative too. Maybe I had enough of being single and I'm curious to learn new tricks? 

* * *

I wrote this piece in late 2016. Then I saw the movie 'How to be single' and said to myself "Oh yeah, I rock this single lifestyle!"  But you know how they say "it would happen when you least expect it"?  No more than three months later I met my boyfriend and I am now exploring how to be in a relationship after 12 years of singledom. We have been together for four years now. Is another phase of singledom in the cards? Only time will tell. Whatever your social status, by choice or not, do put in the effort and make the best of it! 

Friday, May 07, 2021

Typing at the American Writers Museum

Back in 2018 I started visiting the then recently opened American Writers Museum in Chicago. I fell in love with the place immediately - the content of the exhibits, the interactive elements, the temporary installations that brought something fresh every few months... And all that at the cost of a very reasonable membership. For $40 I could go as many times as I'd like and even get to share this goodness with two guest passes!

One day I played on the typewriters in the Writer's corner and typed the text in the photo above. A few months later I was delighted to see my own scribbling to have made the selection and be shared on the museum's webpage. One small writing, one true joy!

My entry --
On my way out of my session with the therapist I saw the Museum sign – American Writers Museum. Always aspiring to be one, but born outside of America, I wonder, if when I make it one day (hopefully soon), would I be considered an American Writer? Most of my most amazing stories happened because I made it here…So, why not? 🙂 Emojis on typewriters are tricky 😉

I picked to type on this sheet because, ever so gently, someone had already typed “happiness” on the top, and that is all we seek. Thank you, Chicago, for opening this space, it will be my new favorite place, in my most favorite city in America.

Looking forward to returning – the danish design stacking chairs, the copy of Algren’s book, Hemingway’s photo…each meaning something to you, but each a story to me…

Cheers to many happy writings 🙂

Museum's comment --
Iliana, if America is your home, you are an American. It is our diversity that makes us great. We’re so glad you found inspiration here, and hope you’ve continued to write. Best of luck!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Long live [with] Lactobacillus Bulgaricus!


Travel Through Food Destination: Bulgaria

Today's Google Doodle (above) celebrated the birthday of Bulgarian scientist Stamen Grigorov who in 1905, while working in Geneva, Switzerland, discovered the bacteria responsible for making yogurt. Yogurt had been around long before but only when Grigorov looked at the homemade yogurt under a microscope he discovered a previously unknown bacteria, now called Lactobacillus Bulgaricus
Stamen Grigorov, in the middle, as a student in Geneva, Switzerland (credit  Planet Lactose)
I do not know a Bulgarian who does not like yogurt. We grow up with it, we eat it on its own, we add it to our food, we cook with it, we drink it, we have it as a desert. And we don't shy on the amounts! Yogurt is notorious for its health benefits and longevity, and has been a staple food in Bulgaria for centuries. It promotes healthy digestive track, it is high in protein, aids weight loss, is good for your bones, and the list goes on. As a Bulgarian, it tickles me that yogurt containers around the world have Lactobacillus Bulgaricus stamped on them.

Curious Fact No 1
What many may not know is that most Bulgarians prefer their yogurt rather sour or tangy. Also, we like our yogurt light, with no thickeners. Some yogurt makers use pectin, gelatin, corn or tapioca starch to give low fat yogurt the sensory equivalent to thick whole milk yogurt. That, however takes away from the goodness of yogurt.  See, fruits, nuts and honey we happily add to our yogurt for extra Yum!
Curious Fact No 2
What most people know as Greek yogurt is actually strained plain yogurt. It may appeal with its thickness, however by straining it you remove some of the most beneficial ingredients, the whey. The whey fraction contains the highest quality protein in milk, along with a number of essential minerals, like calcium.

I chuckled at the Google Doodle today because it reminded me of me. I have lived in four countries and every time I have crossed borders the same yogurt tasting ritual takes place. I buy as many different brands of yogurt as I can find (remember, their label should indicate live Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and no additives!), I open them all up, take a spoonful of each, looking for the one that taste like a true Bulgarian yogurt - light, tangy, silky smooth. Once the winner is identified, that's the brand I buy going forward.  I love yogurt!
In the United States, where I currently live, my favorite yogurt brands are Maple Hill and Brown Cow. If however I could find Trimona yogurt, that would be my first pick. Its founder, very much like Stamen Grigorov, used homemade yogurt (imported from Bulgaria), to start his yogurt business. It doesn't hurt that it is named after the old Roman name of my home town - Trimontium, now Plovdiv.

If you are more adventurous you could make your own home made yogurt. I have tried, it works!

One of my favorite ways of eating yogurt is with honey and walnuts.  Scoop some chilled yogurt into a small bowl, drizzle honey and sprinkle chopped walnuts on top. It is crunchy, delicious and so healthy!

Long live [with] Lactobacilus Bulgaricus!

Friday, February 14, 2020

Marriage story

He wakes up with the first sun rays lighting up our windows. He drinks protein shake first thing in the morning. He likes to read on his computer in the quiet morning hours. 

I wait for the sun to climb up and aim its shine at someone else’s windows. I start the day with coffee. I like to chat. 

The Nespresso machine drones. The coffee stream fills up the cups and the aroma of fresh coffee awakes me. I go over the logistics of our day.

“You are going to Springfield for Lobby day today, right?”
“Uh huh.” 

“You wanna go grocery shopping tonight?”
“Uh huh.” 

“Can you help me make a list?”
“Can you help me make a shopping list?” 
“I’m going to Springfield.”
“I know. Now tell me what you need from the grocery store.”
“Nothing, I’ll be back on Thursday.”  

Today is Tuesday. I place the coffee cup on the counter and glance at him. 

“Thursday? What about tonight?”
“I’m in Springfield.”  

We are going in circles.

“You are in Springfield today.”  I annunciate today.
“And tomorrow. And coming back on Thursday.“

“You never told me that!”  Falsetto pitch activated.
“I told you I’m going to Springfield.” He insists.

“But you didn’t tell me you plan to stay two nights there”. I defend my grounds.
“I didn’t?” He finally turns away from the screen and towards me, spaced out and oblivious to the imminent word storm. 

Did you?”

All of a sudden a scene from the "Marvelous Mrs Maisel" flashes in my head.

Miriam’s father, Abe, is alarmed that his wife is not home. They live in Manhattan.

- I don't know what to do. I don't understand what's happening.
- What's the problem?
- It's your mother.
- Mama? What's wrong with Mama?
- She's not here.

- Well, where is she?
- I don't know.
- You don't?
- I mean, she went to Paris, but she was supposed to be back by now.
- Paris? She went to Paris? When did she go to Paris?
- A few days ago. She was going on a shopping trip or something.

- Papa, what did she say?
- That she was going to Paris, and she'd be back before the party.
- She said that?
- Yes. Well, I assume she said that.
- Assume?

A flashback takes us to the real conversation.  

I'm going to Paris. I don't feel like I have a life here anymore. Everything and everyone that I always counted on has let me down. I don't know what my place is here. You don't need me. Miriam doesn't need me. I serve no purpose. I'm unhappy and I'm tired of being unhappy, so I booked myself a flight for tomorrow night. Zelda's making lamb for dinner.”

“Lamb's good.”

One day a TV show makes us laugh. Today we are the show.

We clarify who’s doing what and move on with our days. Only I don’t. This is happening only eightheen months since we moved in together. It is too soon to be distracted, not listening when the other one is talking, not be present. I pride myself on my genuine attentiveness. I guess I slipped. Maybe it’s just aging memory. 

Later that week I share what happened that morning with my cousin, a twelve years junior. She laughs.

“I just visited my sister. I wonder how her marriage survives. Nobody listens, nobody hears. All weekend long I had to repeat what one had said to the other.”  

I chuckled, the worry still lingering. 

We spend years in efforts to find the One. And then we go back to what we know. We are living our own lives, but in a marriage. It’s easy to take what we have for granted.

Maybe he just forgot to tell me of his overnight stay. Maybe I just did not hear what he told me. But it’s also possible that these daily doses of miscommunication would build up to feeling neglected, disrespected, and bitterness sets in.
I still remember the words a man told me on a date.

“The problem these days is that nobody listens. What’s worse, instead of listening we try to guess what the other person will tell us and we think of what to say back. In missing what they actually tell us, we give our assumptions importance and power”

Is that how the marriage cookie crumbles?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Get to know them

I have always been curious about people and their inner worlds. What does my doctor enjoy doing in her free time? Is the actor playing a villain a kind soul in his daily life? What goes through the mind of a rock climber when the rock underneath his foot gives in? Why did my sister preferred reading books to playing with me as a child.

I met Beth Finke, an award-winning author of Writing Out Loud, teacher, and journalist when I took her memoir class for seniors in the Fall of 2018. Flattery may take you anywhere, but a lie about my age got me into her writing class. And so it began, an unexpected fascinating journey into the lives of retired Chicago folks. With every writing assignment, a different layer of a personality revealed. Vulnerability gave way to openness and intimacy. Strangers shared personal stories for no other reason but reflecting upon life and passing on their legacy.

In these classes Beth taught, guided and encouraged us writers, yet rarely shared much about herself. I challenged the status quo and asked Beth for an interview. On a crisp January morning Beth and I found ourselves in the cozy recording studio of Story Corps’ where I tried to get to know her better.

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. I wrote about the experience a few months ago. Recently StoruCorps’ launched an on-line archive and now you can listen to my interview with Beth - 42 minutes of shared life experience I deeply cherish.

In the middle of this Holiday Season, I invite you to give the gift of your time and attention to the people in your life--family, friends, strangers. Get to know them! And you might open a door into a world of marvel.

Today is Beth’s birthday and I dedicate this post to her. Happy birthday, Beth!


4:12 When Beth was 25-years-old she started seeing spots from diabetic retinopathy and eventually became blind. She got married at that time too.

6:40 Iliana asks what advice Beth has for people when going through early stages of trying to save their sight. Beth says she should have gone to Europe with her husband like they had planned but instead she kept having surgeries for naught and didn't go. She says not knowing what's going to happen during the surgeries was the worst part.

8:15 Beth talks about writing her memoir and learning only then about what it really felt like to learn there was no hope for her sight. She says she felt relief to give up.

14:30 Iliana asks if teaching senior citizens memoir writing is difficult knowing they could die. Beth says it happens. She keeps them alive through their stories. She says the essays they write in her class are often read at their memorial services.

20:00 Iliana asks what Beth would like Smartphones to do for blind people. Beth suggests a way to translate sheet music.

33:00 Beth says it's a gift she lived part of her life sighted because she can understand both pretty well. Beth says, "I feel watched a lot. I'm still me but I'm not me because I can't see anymore so it's hard to figure out sometimes how to act. I think getting older I quit worrying about it and I'm just me."

Monday, December 09, 2019


My parents wanted me to be a wife and a mother,
My school wanted me to be a straight-A student, and not a bother,
My bosses wanted me to get the job done, quick and well ,
My friends wanted me to be like them or go to hell,
My boyfriends wanted me a little slimmer, a little taller,
My country wanted me to be obedient and loyal.
I gave them all the finger, laughed and I left.
Life and I alike are so bereft
of perfection!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Guest post: Fall Return

It is my pleasure to introduce to you John Caruba, a true Chicagoan, and his memoir essay “Fall Return” - the first guest post on Life On the Go. It is as much of a memoir story as it is a travel adventure.

Fall Return
by John Caruba  

It was an ominous-looking Autumn day. The crisp cool October wind whirled through the trees: Nature’s original leaf blower was in full force.

Whitecaps cast highlights on the waves that rhythmically rolled rapidly onto the Shore and crashed into the sea walls. Reluctant to face the elements, yet fueled by the passion of necessity, we headed down to the harbor for the fall trip to take the Panache back to dry dock.

We boarded the Islander 36 and began to make ready for our journey. The procedure, similar to pre-flight check-in aviation was quite methodical. First, the Shore power was cut, and the power cable was neatly wound and placed in its designated hold. Next, all of the lines were brought in and secured. This was followed by the engine start, radio check, life preserver check, placement for easy access, and a final check on weather conditions on the lake.

The marine forecast promised a steady rain and choppy seas with waves up to six feet. We untied the docking lines and disembarked to verify firsthand the validity of that forecast. It was accurate!

As we headed out of the harbor, a light rain began to fall, and the small wind-driven droplets stung my bare exposed skin like scorpions. We cleared the mouth of the harbor and ventured out past the breakwater. The waves increased substantially in height and intensity challenging our sea legs, our fortitude, and our courage. Periodic swells washed over the hull and across the bow, violently jostling us about.

When we rounded the point at Navy Pier a strong gust of wind took command of my cap and blew it into the raging sea. I struggled to pull the hood of my jacket from underneath my coat over my head. Tying the cord below my chin while steering us through the chop was quite a struggle. Maintaining my balance while standing at the helm proved most challenging at times, particularly in the larger swells.

We had now past the 31st street harbor; the last remaining port of refuge between our original dock and our destination some 20 nautical miles away with about 10 miles to go. The only crew I had on board was my good-hearted neighbor who had responded to the post I had placed on our condominium bulletin board. She was seeking adventure. This was only her second time out on the Panache and her frightened expression screamed louder than the four words I knew were spinning around her head: “What was I thinking?”

As we continued our journey, Iliana started anxiously anticipating our arrival, keeping a close eye on google maps. As she charted our progress and kept me apprised, hope and optimism slowly displaced fear and uncertainty. At last, we passed the breakwater at the entrance to the Calumet River. Just beyond the breakwater, the lake calmed, the winds subsided, and we watched in wonder as the first draw bridge was raised to allow us passage. After passing the second bridge we pulled into dock one final time that Fall.

Monday, July 29, 2019

From ESL classes at the YMCA to publishing a novel—one exophonic writer’s journey

Daniela Petrova's debut novel, Her Daughter's Mother, hit the stores on 18 June 2019. The intriguing part for me is that Daniela learned English and took writing seriously after arriving in the United States. I am thrilled to speak with her about her journey and share her experience with ESL writers everywhere.

IG: Hello Daniela. First of all, congratulations on your book!

DP: Hello, thank you.

IG: Tell me a bit about yourself and when did you first start writing?

DP: I first started writing as a kid in Bulgaria. I believe I was in 3rd grade. I wrote my first poem by chance. We had an assignment in school [to learn a poem by heart] and I forgot all about it until the night before. Lying in bed, wondering what to do, I made up a short poem, four stanzas. When I recited it the next day, I was shocked that nobody noticed that it wasn’t an actual poem. I had a great time so I continued to write poems. As a teenager, I wrote some short stories. When I moved to the US in 1995, I had to give up on my dream of becoming a writer because I barely spoke any English. Going back to school seemed impossible. Having the opportunity to write one day seemed inconceivable.

IG. What came first, improving your English just to speak better, or the motivation to be able to write? 

DP: Writing was not the first thing on my mind, but the two—improving my English and writing—kind of went hand in hand. I kept writing poems even back when I barely spoke English. I look at them now and it’s embarrassing. I couldn’t even string words together into a proper sentence. The audacity of youth, you know. I wasn’t thinking much. I was putting down on paper thoughts and impressions in the form of poems. Writing wasn’t quite on my mind, but writing poetry just happened, especially as it didn’t require that much time.

IG. How did you go about improving your language skills and your writing skills. I am asking this on behalf of a writing group with ESL adult students I lead. I often hear that my students would like to share their stories, but that they are intimidated by writing.

DP: When I was finally able to go back to school, I went to Columbia University, where I decided to major in Philosophy. In my last year, I was finally brave enough to take creative writing classes. It was very humbling. Surrounded by writers who were native speakers and also beautiful writers, I felt very intimidated at first, but I kept taking classes over the years and wrote on the side. Eventually, in 2006, I published my first essay in the Cristian Science Monitor, that was huge for me. And then, a short story here and there, little by little over the years, it took a lot of time. I first came to the States more than 24 years ago.

IG: How were you accepted in your writing classes, the ones outside of college, where most students are native English speakers? Any judgment on having an accent?

DP: I never felt that. Everyone was supportive, even too nice. I was very self-aware of my limited English at the time, but people were very supportive throughout the years. Maybe I have been lucky. I definitely notice that, because I have an accent (I came to the USA at the age of 22), some people outside of the writing world sometimes assume I’m less intelligent because of the way I speak.

IG: What was most instrumental, most propelling for you in the process of making it as a writer? Who gave you the most encouragement - a teacher, a fellow-writer, agent, editor a friend? How did you choose your publisher? For beginners who are not confident and are more cautious, where should they look for support, nurturing environment to write and go on?

DP. Again, I was very lucky. I had wonderful teachers who have been very supporting. Leslie Sharpe, whom I met at Columbia, invited me (after I graduated) to join a writing group she taught. It was very very helpful, very early in my career as a writer. Everyone in the group was so encouraging, it helped build my self-esteem. My writing teachers since then have been also very supportive. For example, I took a class at the Iowa Summer Writing festival with Curtis Sittenfeld, who was very encouraging of my writing. Years later, when I interviewed her about her latest book, Eligible, she asked me if I had an agent and recommended Lisa Grupka, who eventually became my agent. The last class I took was last year with Taylor Larsen at Catapult. She was very supportive and instrumental in helping me fine-tune the latest version of Her Daughter’s Mother, before I submitted it to my agent. I also took a class on writing essays with Susan Shapiro who is also extremely supportive of her students and their work. I’ve been very lucky to have the support of so many wonderful teachers.

IG: Now that you are a published author, would you go on with classes and continue developing your writing skills?

DP: One can always learn, right? I don’t think you suddenly stop learning. Just like Olympic athletes don’t stop practicing after a gold medal. It’s a constant learning process and we continue to develop as writers. I still read books on craft and hope to join a writing group again. Writing is such a solitary experience; it’s good to have feedback from other writers and readers. In fact, having feedback from readers early in the process is very helpful.

IG: What does it feel like to be published, especially in English, and making your dream comes true?

DP: It feels wonderful. It’s amazing if still a bit surreal. It’s three weeks today since the publication of Her Daughter’s Mother, and I'm still in the clouds. Busy with promoting the book. It’s incredibly exciting.

IG: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome in the process of writing your book?

DP: Her Daughter’s Mother is told from the point of view of three narrators in two shifting timelines. My greatest challenge was arranging the chapters in a way that didn’t compromise the suspense but on the contrary—it strengthened it.

IG: Why suspense and crime as a genre?

DP: For this particular book, the suspense story line was perfectly suited. Because when trying to get pregnant, month after month for years, you never know what’s going happen. It’s a mystery. Will you get pregnant? If you get pregnant, will the pregnancy stick? Or will you miscarry? I thought this process parallels suspense stories. I also happened to love suspense novels, psychological thrillers and mystery novels. I like solving a puzzle.

IG. Is there any writer alive who you would be thrilled to meet and talk with about their writing process?

DP: So many! I’d love to meet Joan Didion; she is a beautiful writer and I adore her writing. I’d love to meet Tana French, whose books I love. And Lisa Jewell, one of my favorite suspense writers. I was lucky to meet Megan Abbott at an event in NYC but it was very brief. I would love to learn about her writing process. But there are a lot more authors I’d love to meet.

IG: What would you tell other ESL aspiring writers? Any word of advice?

DP: I very much recommend taking classes or joining writers groups. But most importantly, read a lot, online and books. We learn so much from those before us, it’s very helpful. Just work on the craft and read as much as you can.

IG: What do you work on these days? Are you already working on your next book or are you still enjoying the energy of the moment, the marketing, the fame, this is your moment, right?

DP: You are right! I’ve started working on my next novel and am looking forward to getting back to it after I finish promoting this book.

IG: Daniela, it is really exciting for me to have met you and spoken with you. You are such an inspiration for ESL aspiring writers. Thank you for your time and again congratulations on your first book! 

DP: Thank you!

Friday, May 24, 2019

42 minutes with Beth


Innately curious about people, I invited my memoir teacher, Beth Finke, for an interview at StoryCorps. Beth is a Chicago-based award-winning author, teacher, and journalist. She is the author of two memoirs, 'Long Time, No See' and 'Writing Out Loud’. She happens to be blind.

Read about my interviewing experience on Beth's blog (original post) or here.

The first time I stumbled upon StoryCorps I was meandering through the Chicago Cultural Center. I was drawn by their bright red, cursive sign. After listening to a couple of stories about love and forgiveness, I left the place charged with hope. I was reassured that despite our differences and how diverse our lives are, we all want the same: to be loved, accepted, and understood.

Since then, every time I pass by the Chicago Cultural Center I would try to think of someone I know that has a story worthy of sharing with StoryCorps. In anticipation of taking a memoir writing class with Beth Finke, I read her memoir Writing out loud. A few chapters in, the light bulb in my head went off. What a spirit she is; she would be a great StoryCorps guest. Luckily, she agreed to be interviewed.

I really wanted to do this. I worked diligently on thinking up good questions for the interview. I ran them by a teacher I had for an interview class. Yet, there I was on the day of the interview, nervous, questioning if I was right for this.

When Beth arrived to StoryCorps we first had to fill out some paperwork. I offered to help. The last question on the form, “How would you describe yourself in a sentence or two,” was a perfect segue to our interview.

The recording studio is in essence a wooden cube with a three-yard long side. Stepping in felt like jumping in at the deep end. Once in, however, it’s dimly lit, incredibly quiet ambiance gave a sense of intimacy and safety. I began asking questions in the order I had them written down. But interviews do not always follow order. I skipped, returned to, and improvised questions.

I’ve been taught to be an active listener, to nod occasionally, keep eye contact, smile and use facial expressions, but Beth wouldn’t see that. I’d like to encourage the speaker with verbal comments like ‘yes’ and ‘uh huh’, but the StoryCorps facilitator warned us the microphones are very sensitive so when one of us speaks the other must be quiet. I was struggling to adhere to the rules.

I reached the more personal questions. After hearing the first one Beth paused, adjusted in her chair, looked right at me and responded with honesty. I could see this was emotionally taxing for her. This was exactly the bravery that I was hoping to hear about, the strength to deal with life’s unfairness, the resilience in the face of adversity. The life experience gets relived briefly, the feelings from the past may resurface for a moment, but the story of the human spirit’s strength is told. It’s stories like this that inspire and encourage us.

It was an honor to interview Beth for StoryCorps. I doubt the 42 minutes we had in the recording booth would do Beth’s story justice, but I’d like to believe I gave it a chance to be heard by sharing some of her experience, highlighting her incredible ability to take things lightly, and proving that attitude and humor make life a bit easier.

I hope the interview piques the listeners’ curiosity and they read her books, take her memoir writing class, and maybe, hopefully, make Beth’s dream — to teach her Memoir Teacher Masterclass around the world — come true. I, personally got to know Beth better and that is something to cherish.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

18-word memoir

My entry for the Gotham Writers’ 2018 18-word memoir contest. Underappreciated.

         Fifty moving boxes—single life's ending.
         I worry.
         He winks. 
         Is third time the charm?
         We shall see.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A 40-year-old virgin

First-time sex for most Americans happens at around age 17. Yet, recently I met not one, but two men who remained virgin late in their 30ies. One of them shared his story.

The first mention of sex was his father’s “drunken sailor” talk and uncomfortable off-color jokes. Pornographic movies, school, and media expanded his sex knowledge throughout adolescence. “Watching porn felt naughty, but I was curious”. Yet, sex was among many topics of curiosity.

It was a long road. High school would have been the easy time to make out, but he wasn’t the coolest of kids. He went to college and connected with people, but soon he left off to start a startup company. “It was a different environment. There were a lot of hot women, but they were much older and inaccessible.”

Ten years later he moves to Chicago. Most of his new colleagues are married, which isn’t boosting his social life. He admits he was not keen on pursuing social interactions just for the sake of it, not obsessing about sex, even thinking it wasn’t worth the effort. Pressure from different sides added up. 

A shred of regret in his voice tempts me to ask if he ever felt peer pressure, sadness or depressed about his virginity. No, he perks up, because nobody knew. I start to believe that it was all circumstantial - people assume he is like everyone else and he lets it be- a convenient protective shield. But he adds something that links to the beginning of our conversation. 

“During my time at the startup, things could have been different, but the co-founder was over the top always trying to impress - sexually and otherwise, he reminds me a little bit of Trump.” 

He chuckles. I am careful, “You mean that in a putting off way, he was giving sex a bad name?”

What he adds after a pause is more to reassure himself rather than talking to me. “Yeah. It definitely feels like a number of things were tilted in different directions, just happenstance”.

But he liked a coworker. When he learned that she was engaged, with a quite healthy sex life the light bulb went on – the lack of sexual experience might be a block in pursuing a relationship of his own. Seeing a sex therapist and a dating expert came to the rescue.

Having sex for the first time later in life was neither a choice nor a condemnation. He was comfortable with focusing on his business first and letting sex enter life in its own time. Sexually active for a few months now, he finds it hard to disentangle sex and being in a relationship - he is dating his first sexual partner, and that’s big for him. 

“It’s really not that difficult if you find somebody that is willing to go through that first experience with you. And it’s ok, it’s not like you are going to be a million years behind everybody.” – he smiles.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

How I met my Brother

I couldn’t take Mette’s words out of my mind - ’Why do you insist on staying here? You lost your job, you don’t have a boyfriend anymore, you are running out of money and you don’t even speak well the language.’ I knew she was right and meant well. She was one of my best friends and she cared for me. Yet her words stung. I hopped on my bike and cycled aimlessly for hours until the answer popped into in my head.

Why did I want to stay?

Because life is not about your job, boyfriend and money, nor speaking the local language. I was surrounded by good friends, I lived in a beautiful city, I had settled down nicely, I was enjoying myself, I was happy. Yet I didn’t have the money to afford my studio’s rent and the bills. Living in the Netherlands was a dream come true. I had vivid memories of the exhilaration of arriving and moving in, the first wild weekends. I was not ready to let go off my dream. It was almost a year since my apartment was broken into for the second time, boyfriend replacing me with another girl and my employer asked me to leave. I now house-cleaned for two families and babysat occasionally. I was barely making ends meet. With my credit card maxed out and zero savings I needed a better plan - immediately!

It was late March, winter was over. I decided to sublet my studio temporaryly and camp in the garage or sleep in the car, whichever works out better. I didn’t think through all of the details yet I put the studio for rent. I was doing to set things up in the garage while waiting for prospective renters to call. The first caller was an Italian girl - she didn’t like the open plan of the studio and sharing the living area with me. A friend helped me put a make-shift wall a sliding door. In a nutshell, two rails were attached to the ceiling and the floor with nothing better but two-sided industrial strength tape, and a large sheet of plywood sliding through them as a wall/sliding door. Yes, it was not the best of architectural solutions, but budget was tight and time was short. Caller number two was a Neurology researcher from Sweden - he was looking not just for a room, but an office space too, and he liked cooking. My place did not fit the bill.

Frustrated with the futility of my plan, I headed out of town to visit friends for the weekend. No more than an hour into my getaway I got a phone call - a Spanish guy, Hector, wanted to see the place. ‘Sure, but I am in Groningen for the weekend (2h train ride away). Can you come on Monday?’. No, he couldn’t, he needed to leave his current place immediately and find a place as soon as possible. He sounded motivated and why wouldn’t he, I was renting my studio for 400 euros, while every other room in town was at least 500 and located in the city’s outskirts, while I offered prime location. I hopped on the next train to meet Hector.

He arrived right on time - well built, clean and nicely dressed, averaged guy, married. Hector inspected the space in less than a minute, heard my spiel about my sleeping in a room in the garage, but sharing the living area, kitchen and bathroom with him, and tells me ‘Great! I’ll take it. Here is the first month rent and deposit.’ I couldn’t believe it - what did just happen, can it be that quick and painless?! My stuff was still in the wardrobe, my sheets were on the bed, I haden’t even secured a tent for my garage living shenanigan, but Hector was placing cash in my hand and I couldn’t say no, so we had a deal. I gave him a set of keys, striped the bed and put on fresh sheets. He was ok with me emptying the wardrobe later, he wouldn’t need it right away anyway. He left to pick up and bring home his bags. My head was spinning, but there was no going back. I got a motivated renter with money. On the way back to Groningen - my weekend getaway, I wondered how stupid exactly that move was, but it was too late. I focused on seeing my friends and having a good time. After two breaking and enterings, things could hardly get much worse. Right?

I returned home early Monday morning. Hector greeted me with a smile, still in his dark blue pajama, smoking a cigarette in the tiny backyard between the house and the garage. A bit of a small talk and I would have been on my way to who knows where to get a tent and perhaps an air mattress...but Hectors asked me ‘Well, where exactly is your room in the garage, because, pardon my curiosity, I looked in the garage and there is no room there.” I exhaled caught red-handed. “You are right, Hector, there is no room in the garage, I’ll ‘make one up’” - I smiled nonchalantly. He raised his eyebrow: “How?“ Really? Did I owe him an answer? ‘I’ll figure it out’ - I said with a reassuring smile and tried to leave the scene, but he woudn’t let me go…’Does the garage have a key?’. Actually, no, the garage didn’t have a key…Good job, iliana! Safety was not considered a priority.

I made coffee, we sat down and I told him what the reality of my situation was. As I wrapped up sharing my story I realized I was talking to a complete stranger, someone I just met and let live in my studio. And it was too late to back up. He had paid his share of the rent and I couldn’t afford not having him. He listened quietly. I caught myself anticipating his reaction. There must be some reaction to the insane plan I just laid out to him. He let a cigarette puff out and said with confidence: ’I’m a civil engineer. I know how to build houses. Let me help you.’ ‘That would be nice.’ - is all I could muster. I headed to the hardware store to buy paint and a few other things. By the time I got back, he was half way through rearranging the stuff in the garage opening a large space next to where my car would be parked. We swept and vacuumed, taking out buckets of gravel, dust and crumbling ceiling material. We sprayed with insect repellent sprayed, connected an extension cord, put a bright light bulb - the things you need to make a place livable. By the time we got ready for painting, it was the middle of the afternoon and his pajama was not dark blue anymore. It looked grayish, all covered with dust. So was his hair. I smiled - this stranger I just let in my home was spending his day putting my mad plan in action. We stopped for a little bit of a break, a friend of his passed by to see him, and brought pizza. How thoughtful, he must have told her to do so. I was deeply humbled. We ate, had some beer, then painted two of the walls forming the corner of my new ‘room’. We hanged old thick curtains to make-up the other two walls and that was it. I threw an area run on the cement floor, and my bedroom was ready. We moved my sofa in, and there you go…life could resume!

Hector left me to handle the rest of it - moving my clothes into boxes, taking them to the garage and setting one as a nightstand. We made dinner together - I made salad and he cooked pasta - his specialty. As we ate we talked about life, our families, his wife, my sister, our parents. We laughed and it all felt so normal. As if we have met after many years apart. I still occasionally reminded myself that I do not know that man. But I also did know him - for about 48 hours already.

The next two weeks went smoothly. And then came the rain - it rained for 6 days straight. The garage roof started leaking here and there, luckily it didn’t drip on me. There wasn’t enough room to move the sofa in any other direction, so I just patched the ceiling with plastic. Not only it rained hard for days, but it got cold too. One early morning I hopped in the shower to warm up. When I got out Hector was sitting by the dining table looking serious. ‘iliana, that’s enough. We are moving the sofa back in, you are not going to sleep in the garage anymore. You can sleep in the living area and I’ll be on the other side of the wall.“ - he said with a voice that would not take ‘no’ for an answer. I suggested we wait out for another day or two, perhaps weather would get better, but he shook his head and didn’t want to hear it. I moved back into the studio.

Most mornings we would have coffee together planning our days, then each of us went about their days. As if an unspoken agreement existed to give each other plenty of space. And there was peace and balance in that dance of care for each other. I thought he would be helping me financially with the rent, but he was helping me in more ways than just with money. I had met an amazing person. Gradually Hector introduced me to his Mom, wife, aunt, brother, all via Skype. I felt like part of his family. We talked about everything - our job hunts, the past, the future, life, romance, shared dreams over wine.

When his wife Suzana came to visit, the first thing she said was ’Hector has told me so much about you. Thanks you so much for taking care of him’. I was moved - it was more like the other way around - he was taking care of me. Well, there was no need to explain. I thanked her for the kinds words, and for trusting me and him to share a room more or less, with a sliding wall-door in the middle.

During the first nights sleeping in the garage, I couldn’t help it, but think of the irony of life - some years ago I was traveling and staying at Hiltons and Maryots class hotels, getting turn-down service with chocolate on my pillow and room service coffee and OJ in the morning. Now if rain wasn’t dripping on my face or a spider crawling on the wall next to me, I considered it a good night. But soon my thinking shifted to Hector - how blessed I was to have met someone so wonderful, with heart, integrity, and dreaming big. His wife was on a job assignment in Turkey, he was job hunting in the Netherlands, all in the pursuit of making enough money to be able to go home one day and build a house on his family land on Canary Islands.

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures. We certainly were desperate. Hector would occasionally call me crazy for doing what I did. I always replied that only crazy people reply to crazy rental arrangement ads. And then we would laugh. But we bonded over that desperation to make it in life, we both took a leap of fait to trust a stranger and help one another in a time of hardship.

I didn’t succeed staying in the Netherlands. Two months later I got a job in Australia, and Hector got employment by a Belgian company with a working site in Irak. We parted in pursuit of our next adventures, but we promised to stay in touch. For a long time I missed his ‘Good night, hermana!’ from across the make-shift wall. That’s how I met my brother.

PS. These evens happened in the Spring of 2011. Hector now splits his time between work projects in Irak and living in Spain. Susana moved from Turkey to Belgium, and then to Canary Island, where she is raising their two sons. They did buy a four-unit apartment building near the beach.
23 Sept 2016