Sunday, June 30, 2024

Money & Me: Bump in the road (8/12)

Luck and other factors have clearly had a role in my life path. Succeeding in America however, was mostly my own doing. I studied English diligently for a year before I came to the US. I spent my mornings in intensive language school, six hours five days a week. My afternoons and evenings were spent in the lab doing my PhD research, eight hours a work day. Breakfasts and lunches were had on the bus, in transition. Dinners were accompanied by writing homework. Social life and sleep were competing for my attention on the weekends, for 12 months.

I spent weeks looking for and finding the right institutions where I could apply my degrees and my expertise. The dial-up internet was not fast. I reached out to more than a dozen scientists to establish some collaborations. I trusted friends to lend me money for rent, bills, and daily expenses until my first 2-month late paycheck. My first job as a researcher of clouds and solar radiances at the University of Arizona was an uphill battle to make it, impress, and make a name for myself, was a success. Armed with great references I landed a longer-term position with a national lab, Battelle National Lab in the Pacific Northwest. There I learned to believe in myself. I collaborated with colleagues from NASA, organized an international field campaign, and traveled far and frequently for work, I was appreciated. After that, it was easier. I worked at the University of IL - IL-Urbana-Champaign for a year and then moved to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I traveled plenty and had fun, bought and sold houses, and got married, twice.

Life was unfolding rather well. Until I hit a bump.

According to the statistics, in the US ~45% percent of first marriages end in divorce. I was part of that number. We parted amicably. I remarried. I contributed to the statistics that 60% of second marriages end in divorce as well.

Money was not a reason for either of my divorces, but money turned my second divorce into an ugly affair. It took us 18 months to reach a settlement agreement. I chose to keep the house (a mistake!) and in exchange, I took a hit assuming the credit card debts and the car loans. All of that and the divorce attorney fees added up to more than a yearly salary.  Half a year later the housing bubble burst and my home lost a third of its market value. I found myself in a lot of debt and alone. It took years to recover.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Money & Me: $200 (7/12)

Much is said about desperation and opinions are polarized. Henry David Thoreau said “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things”. But desperation is a powerful force and many times it has fueled major life decisions for me. Ccoming to America was one of them.

I graduated from a top Bulgarian university with an Electronic Engineering degree. I minored in Medical Engineering. I then obtained a PhD degree in Environmental Sciences in the hope to secure a job in my field. But post Cold War Bulgaria would need tens of years to make that possible. I couldn’t wait that long.

I was tired of temporary, low paying jobs - a secretary, a seamstress, a phone operator. I was tired of unreliable public transport, power outages, cold nights and life uncertainty in general. Two years after completing my postgraduate degree, I packed my bags, used up my savings for a ticket to America and with $200 in hand I landed in Chicago. 

It was a crisp but sunny Christmas morning 1999. As the world was nearing the end of a century I was full of hope for a new and better life. Six months prior, I had applied for a National Science Foundation fellowship. The stars had aligned just right. After a couple of months in Chicago, staying with friends, taking evening classes in English, I moved to Tucson, AZ for my first full time job in America. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Rain - my poetry book is out!

The rain was coming down in sheets. The street was a muddy mess. Playing outside wasn’t going to happen today. Staring out the window, still, I was coming to terms with a good summer day wasted.  Drip, drip! The rhythmic splashes on the window sill cut my daydreaming short and brought a tune into my head:

 Drip, drip, drop!
 It’s raining outside.
 Drip, drip, drop!
 We have to play inside.

I sang my little song to Mom. She didn’t care much, nor she knew how to write sheet music, so I settled for writing the words into a notebook.

I began writing poetry because my parents would not support my interest in composing music, and poetry was the closest to music. I wrote about 50 poems between the age of 10 and college. Many got lost and college hit the pause button on my writing.  Boys became the poetry.

Recently, I selected twelve poems from what was saved and self-published them on Amazon. I simply had to do it for my 10-year-old self.

When I first re-read my poetry from 40 years ago I was blown away by a realization. As much as I love the big city now, I grew up a countryside child. Perhaps it is because I grew up in the slow-lane countryside that I had the time to observe my surroundings, to develop curiosity for what else is out there, to get inspired to write.

Amazon rejected my book at first. My native Bulgarian was not among the 46 supported languages. I  translated my poetry into English to accompany the originals so I could publish them.  The illustrations were drawn by children of ages similar to mine at the time of writing the poems, and they came from around the world. The title is an homage to my first-ever poem - Rain. A Dutch boy drew a green field and snow-capped mountains hovered by clouds. It is raining and there is a bright yellow flash in the middle of the rain, connecting the clouds and a mountain top. The book cover features this drawing on a yellow background, my favorite color.  

It takes patience to write a book, even if it’s only a dozen pages and self-published. It takes strong attention to detail visually and solid proofreading. It takes creativity to translate rhymes. But the hardest of all was the wait for Amazon’s acceptance of my bilingual book. If they had said no, I would have found another way to let my poetry see the world. Because it is an inspiration to recognize and nurture creativity, a reminder for anyone young and old to follow their passions.

I have read that creatives sometimes let fear of success get in the way of putting themselves out there. I thought I was immune to it, but when all the text, the illustrations, and the cover were carefully combed, reviewed, and uploaded, my heart skipped a beat before I pushed the “publish” button. Butterflies in my stomach whispered, “What now?” My inner child replied, “Life goes on.” I smiled.

Within 48 hours of sharing on social media that I had published a book, I collected hundreds of hearts and dozens of congratulations. My 10-year-old self was jubilant!

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” said Anais Nin. Publishing an old writing double-folded on that idea for me - I reconnected with my child-self and made both her and myself happy. How am I dealing with it all? I guess life goes on and I won't let anything rain on it.  

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Money & Me: Beggars can’t be choosers (6/12)

My two-year-older sister and I went to two different colleges in the same city. She studied chemistry, I studied engineering. Introverted by nature, she liked living alone, renting quiet private rooms. I loved living in the dormitories across town, surrounded by college students, partying quite a lot. It was no surprise that her weekly money allowance (same as mine) lasted longer, at times not even all spent. In my eyes she was rich!

Mid-way through college, Bulgaria got its first McDonnalds, right smack in the center of the city. One Friday evening my sister offered to take me there for a treat. I was at the end of my financial rope so I accepted. Free dinner, what’s to refuse! Once we got there, a brand new, shiny, high-end restaurant (seemingly to us), was awaiting. I glanced at the menu, overcame my ego and said - “Instead of treating me to one dinner here, can I have the money for it. It will get me through a a few dinners purchased elsewhere.”

It felt wasteful to eat at McDonalds when I had no 2 pennies in my pocket. I thought it was a perfectly reasonable request. “Well, it’s my money and I don’t want to eat alone, so you either stay and eat with me, or not. But I am not giving you money and eating alone.” - her reply stung. I felt awkward and a bit ashamed - was I just a dinner companion? not treated to dinner by my sister? As I was munching on my burger I swore never to rely on family for money and financial favors.

Shortly after I brought my Mom’s old sewing machine to the dormitories and set up an alterations shop. Fixing a piece of clothing every couple of weeks upped my monthly budget by half. I was thrilled - doing something I liked, meeting more of college kids - my clientele, and not feeling like a beggar ever again.

Money & Me: Learning to Budget (5/12)

Credit Fidelity

Before the end of WWII, both sides of my family were quite well-off. My Mom’s family had a shop for agricultural tools imported from Germany and owned sheep and goat farms. My Dad’s family had a decent amount of land. Great-grandpa was the tax collector for the county, a well paying post.

The communist takeover in 1945 was a financial hit for both families. Without much education and not willing to join the communist party, all my grandparents were offered jobs with mediocre pay. My parents went to college and worked as teachers, but their wages were average. I was not cognizant of our economic status until I started college. 

My college was in a nearby city but I was not commuting. Instead I was living in the city, in the students dormitories. I received 5 Bulgarian leva per week from my parents and I was expected to go home for the weekend. I liked my independence, being a big girl in a big city, and I didn’t want to go home on the weekend. But I was running low on money by the end of Sunday. 

I started borrowing a lev or two from my wealthier roommate who had twice as big weekly allowance. I would return the loan promptly on Monday morning when I return from a home visit. This must have gone for a while. One day she asked:

Almost every week you borrow 1 lev from me, then you return it and you are again 1 lev short the following week. Couldn’t your parents give you that extra 1 lev for the week? Or could you split your 5 dollars over 7 days so you don’t have to borrow money?” 

 She said it so simply and well intended. How come I didn’t think of it?! I did what she suggested and I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to budget! I would still run short on cash occasionally 
but the idea of planning how to spend the money I have was forever planted in my head.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Money & Me: School uniforms and Red lipstick (4/12)

My high school, "Malchika", was in the city of Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. It was five miles away from my parents’ town. It was strategically located two blocks away from the main pedestrian-only shopping mall. During school recess, we would lose track of time checking the fashion trends in the apparel stores. At that time, high schools required uniforms. Every high school girl across the country wore the same boring dark blue cotton apron with an oval white collar, and two pockets, tight with a belt. You could wear whatever you want underneath it as long as it is neatly covered by the apron. 

Identity was only to be found in personality, not in appearance.

One December, a traveling carnival set the stage on the vacant parking lot by my school. Oddly, the shooting stall also sold lipsticks and nail polish. Committed to standing out in school despite my dull uniform, and because my personality was not quite colorful yet, I decided to buy lipstick. I skipped buying lunch for two weeks in order to afford the coveted beauty product. And even though I only could enjoy wearing it in recess, when school rules didn’t matter, or on a secret date with a boy after school, I was giddy to liven up my dark blue uniform with fire engine red lipstick. 

Most rewardingly, I had learned that if I wanted something I could make it happen, with enough financial discipline and sacrifice.

Money & Me: Found at home ( 3/12)

Photo Credit Drazen_

Do you remember the first time your parents sat you down and talked to you about money? 

For me, that was one summer, halfway through middle school. 

The three months of summer vacation were filled with summer camp, helping in the garden, playing with friends, reading books, and from time to time, I liked exploring the world of my parents, a.k.a their bedroom. Putting on my Mom’s jewelry and browsing through the photo albums kept on one of the nightstands. That’s when I found a shoe box with some documents, receipts, and a few notes and coins. I started helping myself to a few coins from time to time. 

It didn’t go unnoticed that I was buying snacks costing more than my daily allowance. One day Mom asked me about it and I explained how I had found money in the house. What I learned that day, luckily in my Mom’s calm voice, was that money found at home is not lost nor found, but that it belongs to us. That is the money we live off, what puts food on the table and pays the bills. They are earned by working. They are not mine to spend if I am not given this money. 

She also explained the concept of saving money, which for some reason intrigued me. I started saving coins in an orange beaded purse. It was almost full when I lost it. I am sure there was no more than a couple of dollars in it, but it was my first savings, my treasure. I never took it out of the house, so it was not really lost, just misplaced, but I also never found it. To this day I think my sister must have found it, and maybe, just maybe, she hasn’t heard Mom’s lesson about money found at home, yet.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Money & Me : Walk and chew gum (2/12)

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 (1/12)

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 (0/12)


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

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 '’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!