Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Long live [with] Lactobacillus Bulgaricus!


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. Enjoy!

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.

White caps 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 a 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

Monday, December 04, 2017

One Word for One Year

I was ecstatic to get a job with the world's leading weather forecasting center. I was going to work for an international company with the best in my field, I was going to live just outside of London, I was offered a very generous wage, I had just started online dating a European man. Everything was lining up nicely. It was the Fall of 2008. And then within a week of setting foot in the UK, the reality proved to be different, in an unpleasant way. I lived through 2009 trying to be strong, to make it, to adjust my attitude. But I ended up depressed, drinking lots, and getting away from the UK whenever possible.

I changed jobs again and I was going to start 2010 with a new job in the Netherlands. With disappointment and bitterness still lingering around, I could not build my hopes up. So I decided to focus on one thing, and one thing only - let life happen and just observe. Yes, I committed my 2010 year to just observing with the curiosity and open-mindedness of a child.  Observe was my word of the year.

This is how it started for me - a simple tradition that takes away the pressure of New Year's resolutions and gives me focus, by choosing One Word and inviting it in my life for One Year. And year by year I cultivate valuable and lasting skills - I learned to observe without emotional attachment, to accept without judgment, to embrace without fear.

Would you like to try this? Would you like to know my One Word for 2018?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

One Scientist Marching for Science

I never thought I would be a Scientist one day. May be a high school math teacher as my parents would have liked, or an engineer - as I decided as an alternative to a musician (my first career choice, curbed by my parents). But when faced with the prospect of another year working as a seamstress or switching  to a refrigerator store manager, I started to warm up to the idea of pursuing a PhD. It was my Master's degree advisor's idea and my mom enthusiastically encouraged me. Four years later I was a Philosophy Doctor in Environmental Sciences and a budding expert in Remote Sensing of Clouds and Satellite Winds.

Science is a cruel mistress, and I can attest to it. Throughout my career I have been plenty enthusiastic and motivated, but also frustrated and bitter to the point of quitting. I have worked with some great people, scientists with integrity, passion and expertise, but have also dealt with ego, politics and unfairness. Somehow the curiosity and care for nature, the admiration for technological progress and the frontier nature of science, together with the conviction that I can do it (even if not the most industrious of scientists) have taken me through 17 years of Atmospheric Science.

I signed up for the March for Science 2017 about a month ago. Reading all the posts on the Facebook page - the personal stories of why scientists became scientists, kids' first steps in scientific activities, gratitude for science saving lives, and looking at the variety of signs in the Chicago march I grew a new appreciating for science - one that we are many and we are strong, that we can make a difference in this world in the face of political and economical challenges. Following the wave of marching friends scientists around the world strengthened my believe that we are strong together and we can safe this planet Earth!

    Melbourne, Australia (Paul G.)

    Paris, France (Christelle C.)

    Portland, Maine (Jaime O.)

    New Haven, CT (Ash H.)

    Los Angeles, CA (Jenna K.)


Chicago, IL

   PS. I dedicate this post to my parents and a few scientists I have worked with that have guided me in the world of science and made me the scientist I am today - Vitchko Tsanev, Erwin Ferdinandov, Roger Davies, Chuck Long, Tom Ackerman, Lary DiGirolamo, Paul Menzel, Chris Velden, Peter Bauer, Peter Rayner, Peter Steinle.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A tea cup full of love

Wind brought the seeds from somewhere. Rain grounded them. Sun caressed them all Summer long and a field of herb flowers grew in the mountain valley.
Bees traveled every day, made love to the herb flowers, leaving pollen behind – saving the herb’s life, taking away nectar, returning loyally to the Queen bee and the hive. Honey was made out of that love.
I put a spoon full of golden honey in a cup of freshly brewed mountain tea, and as I close my eyes and take a sip, I inhale the scent of beautiful herb flowers and hear the bees buzz. My cup is full of love.

August 24, 2016

Life’s demands

Yesterday Life wanted me to be strong – for the friend who confided in me she is considering a divorce, for another friend who finally lost it at work and quit her job, and for the one who needed no preamble to tell me  “My Dad passed away”. I was strong and there for each one of them.  As ‘there’ as one can be thousand miles away. I sincerely wished the world was smaller so I could offer every one of them a real hug.

Today I didn’t have to be strong. The aftertaste of yesterday made me feel vulnerable. It was my turn to call a friend and say “I miss you. A hug would be nice right now.”  

Jan.28, 2016

No Exit

It’s a beautiful summer morning and it’s Friday. Having just read ‘An Actually Useful Guide to Madison, Wisconsin’ I set on an ambitious journey of trying every single place it recommends for food, drinks and entertainment.
The article is written by Elissa Goldberg for BonApettit.com, but the low down of what to do in Madtown is given by Trevor Gruehn – the director of Bradbury’s Coffee.
Bradbury’s Coffee is claimed as one of the best three in town, so why not start my exploration there. It is located in a quaint corner space with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and it offers a pleasant view of The Children Museum and the busy crossing of Hamilton and Dayton streets. The cafe itself has an industrial feel with its bare concrete walls and high ceiling, with dark wooden tables and asymmetric tables layout. So far so good!
The barista I order my cappuccino from seems a tad melancholic (may be only in comparison to my super high energy level this morning), so I pretend not to hear what he says – he has to repeat his words to me and this tiny effort brings him in the moment, makes him conscious. This trick always works!
I sit on the one end of a long to-share table, a family with two toddlers in the other end. On my other side, two young professionals are conversing. As I sit down and exhale I realize this won’t be a lovely, quiet coffee time. ‘…there isn’t enough chocolate on it. I can’t taste the chocolate from too much banana’ – the blond 4 y.o. complains. “…this crepe is too thick” – he goes on whining. ‘…I’ve been working so hard on this article and I’m so glad it’s finally been published…My students are keeping me so busy all summer long…’ – the young man on my right switches between bragging and bitching with the same annoying high pitch voice, and loud, so unnecessarily loud.
And then I notice the guy in front of me, he is reading a book. Actually, it’s his book that catches my eye (ok, the guy is handsome too!) – ‘No exit’ by Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m in love with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s love story.
The irony of the situation however is that ‘No exit’ contains the famous Sartre’s quote ‘Hell is other people’. Is it really? And when we find ourselves in hell, do we want to have an exit, or no exit is just fine? Is human hell good for us, will it build character?
My cappuccino arrives, Trevor himself brings it to the table – he appears friendly and very professional. I take a sip – Bradbury’s Coffee is truly as good as they say, as the rest is now just white noise…and No Exit is needed for now.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

What if ? - a cancer scare story

15 August 2014, Friday, 2:15pm

My phone rings. It displays an unknown number. I let the phone rings and continue working thinking 'If it's important they will leave a message.' The caller does leave a message. I listen to the message as I head to the cafeteria. 'Hi, this message is for Ms.A I'm calling from Dr. Groover's office regarding your mammogram. If you can call us back, the doctor wants you to come back for additional views. The number here is 212....' 
Did I hear well? 'Come back for additional views' ? I halt in my tracks as if waiting for the message to continue, for a clarification of sort. But the only thing I hear is the phone number for contact and a courteous 'Thank you'.  There is no mirror in front of me, but I can tell the blood had pulled away from my face. For a moment.

A wave of rage overwhelms me. WHAT?! That's ALL?! They can't just say 'come back' and not elaborate! I'm furious. For a moment.

Common sense returns. I touch the 'call back' button and take a deep breath. I don't have to wait long for a receptionist to pick up. I try to be calm - the receptionist hasn't done me any wrong. I can't help it but to hear a mix of panic, fear and anger in my voice. I tell them my name and why I call, they tell me we need to schedule another mammogram and ask if the following Friday ok. Yes, it's ok. 

Nothing is ok right now! I ask why I need to go back, is the quality of images poor, or is there anything wrong they've seen. The moment I say this I realize how ridiculously scientific I sound. But the receptionist doesn't mind - she says she would put me through to speak with the radiologist technician. A moment later, the technician tells me something which I don't understand fully because of her thick foreign accent and my temporary insane state. She tells me not to worry and with that the conversation is over. I look at my phone in disbelief. It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare. But the realization that the nightmare is only starting slowly gets to me. 

I am quiet for the rest of the day. The weekend mood is killed. I'm left alone with my own thoughts, digesting the news. I spend the evening surfing the net reading page after page on breast cancer early diagnosis. I read through forums and multitude of personal stories. I don't think of anything but just read, read, read myself to sleep. I wake up the next day and I know there was no nightmare - I do have to go in for a second mammogram. I have educated myself what the possible next steps are - second mammogram, sonogram, needle biopsy, incisional biopsy. I didn't have the strength to read what follows after. I am very calm. So calm that it terrifies me. Saturday goes on as if nothing happened. Sunday too. By Monday morning I can't hold it to myself anymore. I email a radiologist friend of mine - she says this sounds like a routine process, not to worry. Easier said than done, but ok, I try. In an attempt to distract myself from my own problems I reach out to people I barely know - it's easier to tell a stranger your secrets, right? I also confide in a couple of close friends, their support means a lot.

22 August 2014, Friday, 11:30am

A week has passed and I'm again in the waiting room of Dr Groover's office, 15 min early. But I'm not called early, so I wait patiently. A radiologist technician comes to the reception desk and calls two names - mine and Ms.B's. I'm surprised that they call in both of us at once. Ms. B, a well dressed, good looking woman in her late 50s, nervously asks 'Shall we both come in?' . 'Yes' - the technician replies and turns around the corner. We both rush after her, like students late for class. We occupy the two changing rooms in another much smaller waiting room, just as we are instructed. I am called in first. 

The technician looks at the paperwork as I get in front of the apparatus. She rubs her nose with her finger, she seems confused. 'Did they tell you what you are back for?' 'No.' - I reply. 'I'll be right back.' - she says and leaves the room. Some time passes by - may be 5 minutes, may be 10, she returns and looks again at the paperwork - her confidence, or rather lack of, is not helping. She looks one last time at the monitor with my patient's profile and concludes - 'OK, I know what I need to do.' Did she say this to me, or rather to herself? Because if she tried to calm me down, she failed. I'm more nervous now than when I arrived.  She takes a couple of images and says - 'This was it - you can go ahead and sit in the waiting room. I will send the images to the doctor. If everything is ok I will let you know and you can go home. If they need to do a sonogram exam, someone will come for you.'

I go and sit in the tiny waiting room, while Ms.B goes in. Meanwhile another woman has joined us in the waiting room, already in a blue exam gown. I say hi and stare in the floor in front of me, hoping that nobody comes for me, wishing that this all will be over soon. That everything will be o'right!
Because, what if it isn't?
And that's when the seriousness of the other possible outcome hits me.

I'm 42, single professional. I just moved to this city 7 months ago. My best friend lives in town, but that's about it. I don't have a boyfriend. I don't have a network of friends yet. I haven't felt at home yet. All my relatives are thousand of miles away. And how would I even tell them? Mom is a breast cancer survivor. How would she and Dad take it? What about my job - would it pay for the treatment? Who would be by my side? How would I go through that? Would I make it through? I'm starting to panic, my heart thumping.    

'Your perfumes smells really nice!' - the soft voice of the lady sitting next to me jerks me out of my whirlwind of thoughts. 'Thanks.' - I barely utter and attempt a smile. 'Where are you from? I hear an accent.' - she adds.
And that's when I burst into tears - quietly, but so emotionally. The build up of a week long fear for my life finally finds a way out. It's an emotional climax that takes me by surprises, but it urges me to face the facts.

What would I do if I have cancer? 
I'd get the hell out of this city where I feel lonely, I'd quit my job, I'd travel and write, I'd surround myself with the people I love and the ones that care about me. I'd laugh as much as I can, I'd enjoy every day and be true to myself…

I'm lost in my thoughts and I don't notice that another technician has just come to the waiting room. She is young and pretty, and calm. She calls my name. Nothing more. And I know I have to follow her for a sonogram. My knees tremble, I am surprised I am not fainting yet. The sonogram exam goes in total silence. What is this - some pact of saying as little as possible, not engaging in any conversation with the patient?! I lay there for who knows how long, watching the ultrasound monitor, not sure what I'm seeing. I only know that what I see is actually under my skin. Odd!

I don't dare to say anything, nor to ask questions. I'm waiting for the final verdict. At last, she takes a deep breath and blurts 'Well, I don't see anything at all.'  'Really?' - is what I say back to her, but what I actually want to do is jump for joy, hug the technician and do a very happy dance.  'I'll go report to the doctor and show him the images I took. He will come with the final report' - she says and leaves the room.

I dress up and wait again, really impatient by now. The doctor enters the exam room and hands me over the medical report. 'Everything looks fine. See you in a year time for your next basic screening.' - he says and smiles. 'Thanks.' - is all I reply and rush out of this place, which out of sudden lacks the amount of oxygen I need. 

Once on the street, I take a deep breath and I find myself in tears again. Light drizzle raindrops mix with my tears. I'm exhausted and utterly relieved.

What now? - I ask myself…

Get away from the places that make me feel lonely, change my job, travel and write, surround myself with people I love and the ones that care about me. Laugh as much as I can, enjoy every day and be true to myself. 

PS. This story may or may not be inspired by true events. Any resemblance between the characters and anyone you know is to stay unconfirmed.