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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bulgarian man rejects, dispels myths Bulgarian man rejects, dispels myths
Bulgarian man rejects, dispels myths
Times photo by Dave Schwarz,
Plamen Miltenoff keeps plants from his mother's garden in Bulgaria at his office in the Miller Center at St. Cloud State University. Miltenoff's mother believes the plants help reduce harmful rays from his computer screens.
Bulgarian man rejects, dispels myths
By Tracey Compton

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In 1989, the United States was the last country Plamen Miltenoff wanted to seek political asylum in as a Bulgarian refugee.

Born and raised in Bulgaria, he was led to believe America was a place of wild capitalism, where it is very hard to survive.

Well you know, you realize later that youre brainwashed practically, Miltenoff said.

Miltenoff has been an American citizen since 1996.

His original impressions were true, but its not as hard as it was described, he said, sitting in his office at St. Cloud State University.

Not only has he thrived in the United States enough to dispel his former ideas, but he now corrects similar misconceptions about his former country.

When met with Cold War descriptions of Bulgaria, he treats anyone whos curious to updated images and faces of the place he calls home.

Its a fact that all of the stereotypes from the Cold War still persist and nobodys taking care here to un-cloud them, he said.

Miltenoff is a librarian at St. Cloud State and teaches an honors class on the Balkans when hes not working toward his doctorate in education.

In Bulgaria, he grew up under communist rule in a system of no free elections and little room to express political views. He left for Austria in 1989, the week before Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed. Because of the political unrest in Romania, he feared for his life as he traveled through the unstable country by train.

He stayed in Austria for two years and had a job with the Austrian National Library. Not being able to secure residency, he began the search for his new home, eventually settling on the United States.


When I was growing up, it was imperative to know what America was about because they didnt want you to know, Miltenoff said.

Despite his efforts to expand his global education, some communist-fed stereotypes about the rest of the world persisted.

Today, hindsight has him worried there are generations of Americans that dont understand Eastern European countries or the Middle East because of little knowledge of their histories. During the years hes watched more and more cuts to collegiate humanities programs.

The United States is the only place schools of thought die after a conflict or person dies, he said, citing Cold War studies and interest in Arabic countries.

In his opinion, American confidence in business and industry too often fuels a false confidence in knowledge of world affairs.

For god sakes, open your mind. I think this is the ultimate price you pay for not having humanities in your curriculum, said Miltenoff, reflecting on the current situation in Iraq.

Miltenoff appreciates the freedom to be expressive in the United States.

Im trying to explain to people that criticizing doesnt necessarily mean that you dont love the country, he said.

He calls the United States a country of mavericks, saying the ability to achieve goals is what makes it great.

Bridging the gap

A fan of technology, Miltenoff uses it to stay connected to friends and family back home and to introduce students to Bulgaria.

He talks to his mother every day via Skype, an Internet-calling system that allows for audio and uses MSN Messenger to send video. He uses some of the same systems to connect students with people in Bulgaria.

Home movies he shares capture his mother making tomato paste and his father gathering fallen apples, pears and figs for his homemade moonshine.

No matter how hard hes tried since hes been in the United States, Miltenoff has not been able to grow tomatoes as sweet as the ones from his mothers garden in Varna.

His cinematography reveals a neighborhood in late fall with snow-dusted roofs, barren trees and cobbled-stone driveways leading to rustic homes.

These arent the only scenes that transport him home virtually. Miltenoff is quick to note Bulgarias underappreciated beaches. When presented with a map, he gets caught up talking about the differences in landscapes as one travels up and down the coastline from neighboring Turkey.

Nothing can compare with the beach that I grew up on, Miltenoff said.

He misses swimming perpendicular from the shore with nothing to fear but the Black Sea Shark, which, he gestures, is smaller than his arm span.

Fitting in

Having lived in Vermont and Florida before St. Cloud, Miltenoff said he still has a tough time adjusting to the Midwest.

Reflecting on his six years in the community, he said after networking it takes awhile to gain the respect of locals.

They have their extended families, they have their friends and practically they dont need anybody else, Miltenoff said.

He picked up early on the difficulty of trying to integrate into what he calls a tightly knit community.

But it becomes a problem when someone like me comes and wants to become a part of this community, Miltenoff said.

Hes been snowboarding, but he didnt like it. He accompanied a friend hunting, but just to take pictures. What he really wants to do is try snowshoeing.

After the birth of his daughter, Anna, now 18 months old, he became even more active to keep up with her. On campus during lunch, he tries to run or swim at the recreation center.

Another change he noticed is a deeper appreciation for where he came from. After he came to the United States, he said, he wasnt homesick for a long time. Then one day he heard an Internet broadcast from Sofia, Bulgarias capital.

At first it was news updates, which he cant follow anymore not knowing the politics.

Next it was the weather report.

He was saying its 12:13 p.m., there is a slight snow and temperature is like 24 Fahrenheit, not Fahrenheit, but Celsius like 2, minus 3 Celsius, and I really want to cry, Miltenoff said.

That was the turning point that brought his past life into the present.

And now with Anna, I mean, I really want to give her everything I had Bulgarian, he said.

About Miltenoff

Who they are: Plamen Miltenoff, 44; partner Maria Mikolchak; daughter, Anna, 18 months. Mikolchak has three children from a previous marriage.

Where they live now: Miltenoff and Mikolchak live with their four children in St. Cloud.

Came to the U.S.: Plamen Miltenoff was born and raised in Shoumen, Bulgaria. He emigrated to Austria in 1989 and then to the United States. He lived and worked in Vermont and Florida before coming to St. Cloud. He has lived here six years. He has been a U.S. citizen since 1996.

What they do: Plamen Miltenoff is a librarian at the James W. Miller Learning Resources Center at St. Cloud State University. He teaches an honors class about the Balkans and is earning his doctorate in education. Mikolchak is a faculty member at St. Cloud State.

Activities: Swimming, running.

Favorite U.S. holiday: No favorite. The family marks Christmas but not in the Christian tradition.

Favorite holiday from home: Easter is typically a bigger holiday in the Eastern hemisphere.

Favorite U.S. food: Miltenoff said he can't resist pizza and McDonald's.

Favorite food from home: Miltenoff's mom makes a dish she calls mishmash. It's chopped tomatoes, feta and pepper fried together.

About Bulgaria

The Bulgars, a Central Asian Turkic tribe, merged with the local Slavic inhabitants in the late 7th century for the first Bulgarian state. Northern Bulgaria attained autonomy in 1878, and all of Bulgaria became independent in 1908.

Bulgarians began moving toward political democracy and a market economy while fighting inflation, unemployment, corruption and crime.

¦Location: Southeastern Europe, bordering the Black Sea, between Romania and Turkey.

¦Size: Slightly larger than Tennessee.

¦Capital: Sofia.

¦Climate: Temperate. Cold, damp winters with hot and dry summers.

¦Population: 7,450,349.

¦Life expectancy: 72 years.

¦Birth rate/death rate: 9.66 births/1,000 population; 14.26 deaths/1,000 population (2005 estimate).

¦Literacy rate: 98.6 percent. Male: 99.1 percent; female: 98.2 percent (2003 estimate).

¦Religions: Bulgarian Orthodox, Muslim, Christian and other.

¦Ethnic groups: Bulgarian, Turk, Roma, Macedonians, Armenians, Tatars and Circassians.

¦Languages: Bulgarian, Turkish and Roma.

¦Currency: The lev.

¦Agricultural products: Vegetables, fruits, tobacco, livestock, wine, wheat, barley, sunflowers, sugar beets.

¦Industries: Electricity, gas and water, food beverages and tobacco, machinery and equipment, base metals, chemical products, coke, refined petroleum, nuclear fuel.

¦Environmental problems: Air pollution from industrial emissions, rivers polluted from raw sewage, heavy metals, detergents, deforestation, forest damage from air pollution and resulting acid rain, soil contamination from heavy metals from metallurgical plants and industrial wastes.

¦Radio stations: AM 31, FM 63, shortwave 2 (2001).

¦Television stations: 39 (2001).

¦Cell phone users: 2,597,500 (2002).

¦Internet users: 630,000 (2002).

Source: CIA World Factbook.

Key phrases you should know

Hello! How are you?

Zdravey! Kak si?



Thank you!


My name is Plemen. What is your name?

Kazvam se Plemen. Kak se kazvash?

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