Macedonia: The Unknown Country

[Writer interrupted: I wrote most of this entry some time ago but never got around to posting it, busy as I was with teaching and advising and my other writing. Oddly enough, as I post this now I am in Athens, Greece, where I have been invited to present a paper at a global arts conference. I will write about this trip to the birthplace of western civilization another time, but I find it mildly amusing that I am now posting my Macedonia entry while in the country that refuses to acknowledge Macedonia’s existence. Politics, what fun.]

As a country, Macedonia does not know who it is. 20151104_180237

It is either very old – history takes it back to the 6th Century – or very young (its most recent civil war was in 2001). In fact, it’s not even sure about its own name. Because Greece is still pissed about the country claiming the name of a long-standing Greek province (and more than a little perturbed about Macedonia declaring itself the true home of Greek hero Alexander The Great), officially Macedonia is represented in the United Nations as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or more affectionately “FYROM.”

The people who live in FYROM, however, are very clear about their identity. They call themselves Macedonians and say their language is Macedonian, although they seem to quietly ignore the fact that the Macedonian alphabet and most of its vocabulary is Bulgarian. And given all their ancient but frequent history of being conquered and divided by Bulgarian tsars or being repeatedly told by their former Soviet Union masters that their only real enemy is the Imperialist Devil (aka, the United States), please understand my trepidation recently when I – an American living in Bulgaria – walked into several Macedonian high schools to preach the gospel of a liberal arts education. 20151104_154056 20151104_154056 (2)

Officially, I was there on a recruitment tour on behalf of a university I hardly know. Unofficially, I was there to once again be a student of the world. I will probably never know if my official business was at all successful (though my handlers suggested I put on a good show), my attempt to once again travel and learn what I can about some of the world’s oldest civilizations was tremendously successful. I saw ancient fortresses,

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walked across a bridge built around 500 BC,20151105_094630 20151105_094653

 

 

 

 

 

strolled through a beautiful ancient market that was a probably a beautiful market when it was new, 20151106_092040 20151106_090222

20151105_094748visited the house of a woman known as Teresa before she grew up, moved to India, and became a saint,

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and partied with a group of young people who taught me a lot about Macedonian beer, slang and other contemporary traditions.

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Macedonians Helping Me Understand Macedonia

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I stayed in the old section of the nation’s capital, Skopje. If it was in the United States, the Hotel Kapistic might be called a ‘boutique’ hotel. 20151104_081947 Here, it’s pretty normal – beautiful architecture, just a few floors, no elevator, all of the furniture (including the televisions) very old. I would have said the most modern part of the hotel was the bathroom, but only because it had a shower stall with real sliding doors. But the bathroom had a near-constant odor, something I might politely identify as sewage, a smell that reeked so badly that it woke me up in the middle of the night (that bathroom exhaust fan helped, but the fan was outrageously loud, almost unbearably so.

The owner’s wife laid out a pretty decent breakfast buffet each morning in a very charming and rustic nook/café/dining room. It was mostly the standard Eastern Europe fare of yogurt, fruit and raw vegetables, but on my first morning, as I was trying to see if a very old toaster might actually give me some toast (it did, but it took a long, long time), she poked her head out of the kitchen and asked me, “eggs?” I have long stopped wondering how people know I’m an American at first sight, but I nodded enthusiastically and very soon she brought me a large bowl of scrambled eggs.20151104_071552 I ate in a beautiful antique-laden room overlooking the street and the nearby Embassy of the Republic of Iran.

I ate there every morning for four days, not once did I see the Ayatollah.20151104_085814

The Greek dispute is probably not going away anytime soon, especially since Macedonia built a gigantic (gigantean?) statue to Alexander the Great in the heart of Skopje.

20151105_094229 Really, it is enormous, maybe 20 stories high, and adorned with a circle of truly over-the-top bas reliefs depicting the history of old Alex’s relationship to Macedonia (not Greece, by God!).

 

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Alexander is on a horse, of course, and is shown with sword raised, clearly ready for battle. Macedonia is not saying anything otherwise, but the general conspiracy theory is that it’s not a coincidence that his sword is raised toward the general geographic direction, as it were, of Greece.

We visited seven high schools. Each was very different, but in every case we met with a teacher and/or administrator who spoke some level of English (the most fluent by far was a fascinating English teacher who, in another life, was an official translator for the U.S. Army during the Albanian / Kosovo conflicts). 20151104_130609

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We then met with either a large or very small group of kids who had been studying English for practically their entire lives. They all signed up to meet with us because they had some interest in studying abroad, and while going to an American university in Bulgaria is probably not at the top of their foreign university wish list, the financial reality of life means that, for many of them, AUBG might be as close as they will actually get to attending an American school.

My role at these sessions was essentially show-and-tell. The official AUBG recruitment officers were very good in selling the school (in several languages); it truly was a pleasure to watch them work. And then after the sales pitch, it was like the circus finale: “And now to prove we’re not making any of this up, here is a real life American professor!” All that was missing was a gong or cymbal crash.MACEDONIA_Korchagin HS (22)

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And so I talked to them about the American style of college education, which I was surprised to learn is actually fairly rare in Europe. Kids generally go to college and study one subject. Taking classes in both science and humanities or having a double major is just not done (AUBG is, in fact, the only liberal arts college in Bulgaria).

 

 

 

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My AUBG Handlers / Road Crew / Hosts

 

But mostly I answered questions about writing and about Chicago, specifically about the Chicago Bulls. The knowledgeable in the crowd knew that Michael Jordan retired a long time ago, but that didn’t stop them from asking if I ever saw Jordan in person (yes I did), if he still lives in Chicago (sometimes, though I’m not sure) or how big was the statue to Jordan outside the United Center (not as big as the one to Alexander the Great). The last one got a few laughs, but I have to admit it made me think about which direction Jordan is facing as he makes his bronze leap over some imagined opponent. Perhaps he is facing the general direction that is, I don’t know, New York? Fans of the New York Knicks should probably look into that.

 

The Wedding

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It was not the easiest trip, but my son’s wedding was incredible, inspiring, humbling and the coolest nuptials I have ever seencake1 Casey and Nicole were married Oct. 31, 2015, Halloween Night, and no matter the archaic notions surrounding that date – the night of the living dead and all that – the wedding was nothing but a really fun party. In costume. In the woods. In the dark.

But I cannot describe the experience without talking about the Major Fuck Ups. Not anything caused by the bride and groom, mind you; I’m sure there were a million things that did not go as planned (has there ever been a flawless wedding?), but from the perspective of a single guest everything seemed to be about perfect. No, it was the trials and various obstacles that tried, unsuccessfully, to stop me from being there.

MFU 1: The Absentee Father

I live in Bulgaria. No easy task, living in Eastern Europe and trying to help my son in Illinois. Long-distance assistance is tricky when separated by a gazillion time zones and communication is limited to digital text messages. I am certain I did not help him as much had I been a father living under the same roof (or at least in the same country), and I understand how it might have seemed to him and my daughter-in-law – that only a selfish bastard would move to Bulgaria a few months before their wedding. Even if my coming here was a life-changing opportunity I could not turn down, I appreciate that my doing so contributed immensely to the resentment members of my immediate family might have felt about my decision. I helped with the wedding financially, and despite many obstacles I did make it to the wedding as promised, but living on the other side of the world did not make it easy for me to be a traditional father of the groom. I am deeply sorry if people expected otherwise.

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Me in Bulgaria

MFU 2: Wrong Flight

I made my wedding travel plans last July, before moving to Bulgaria. Because I had so many things to work out – like what country to fly out of and when – I decided to use a professional travel agent. Online travel sites could assist me, but I wanted there to be no fuck ups.

But two things went wrong. The agency did not schedule the right date, and I trusted the correspondence that said they did. And so it was that I traveled from Blagoevgrad to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, a day early. I went to the airport anyway, hoping I could switch flights, but Iberian Air could not accommodate me. I spent most of my extra day in Sofia texting everybody in America and reworking my carefully-planned schedule – from when my brother picked me up, to renting a car and to seeing Casey and Nicole the night before the wedding. Given that the tiniest fluctuations in my plan could prevent me from getting to the wedding on time, that extra day in Sofia was one of the longest and most frustrating days of my life.

MFU 3: Layover in Madrid

The next day, I did indeed fly very early in the morning from Sofia to Madrid.  After a one-and-a-half hour layover I boarded a British Airways flight to Chicago. And then I just sat there. For more than an hour the plane did not move. Cryptic messages from the cockpit suggested there was some problem with a runway we had to use, but a jumbo airplane packed with weary and very-hot travelers is not a fun place to sit for an hour.

When we finally took off, the captain informed us that the delay could affect passengers who needed to transfer to another flight in Chicago. And that would be me. If we were on time, I only had 45 minutes to catch a flight to Rochester, Minnesota. But we were not on time. We were at least an hour late.

I had my laptop and one carry-on bag, but I had checked a nearly empty bag in Sofia that I had been told I would need to pick up in Chicago and transfer to the flight to Rochester. I had brought along the extra bag so that I would have room for various grocery items I wanted to pick up in America (like Bisquick and Lipton tea!), things I could live without but would make life in Bulgaria a little more pleasant.

I was impressed with my hometown airport. O’Hare is a monstrosity on steroids, but there were people waiting on me when I arrived, nice people with expedited transfer tickets to help me get my checked bag, get me through customs and security, and get me to a completely different terminal. I ran most of the way. The gate for boarding my next flight was already closed when I got there, but the nice people of American Airlines let me on anyway. Thanks.

MFU 4: Lost Luggage

I made it to Rochester on time (albeit a day late), but my checked bag did not. My brother Mike, a handsome devil with a disarming lack of worries about anything, told me it was all good. I had things in that bag I really needed for the wedding (like a shirt and tie!), but Mike said he would take care of it. I was totally exhausted, jet lag being what it is, and Mike took me to his house where I could shower and sleep for about 10 hours. Which I did. The next morning, the day of the wedding, my missing bag was there waiting on me (thank you, big brother) and I took off in a rental car for Black Earth, Wisconsin (stopping first at Target to buy some black shoes!).

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My Rental Car in Front of My Brother’s House

MFU 5: Finding the Middle of Nowhere

Getting me to Black Earth, Wisconsin, was not a problem for my smart GPS-tracking phone. Getting me to the wedding site, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, was a different matter. There is no cell-phone or Internet service out there in the lonely woods of Wisconsin, but with the help of some nice people at a Black Earth filling station, I managed to find this very isolated place essentially in the middle of nowhere (I first missed the little tiny sign on a one-lane dirt road, but it was a tiny sign).

20151108_135930It was raining and so I found Casey and Nicole adjusting their outdoor wedding plans for indoors. It was great to see them again, and I was happy they had many friends on hand helping them. I felt bad about the weather not cooperating, but the wedding couple were in good spirits and seemed well prepared.

MFU 6: No Tie

I helped how I could with moving tables and chairs, but I had to get to a hotel in Middleton, Wisconsin, to get ready for the wedding and to meet up with the other Wigintons coming in from Minnesota. Although I made it to the hotel thirty minutes before we were supposed to take a shuttle bus back to the wedding site, that was when I discovered that, in my haste that morning, I had left my tie at my brother’s house. Mike and I were going to the wedding dressed as The Blues Brothers, and that wasn’t going to work if I didn’t have a black tie! And so I raced to a nearby mall, found a men’s clothing store and convinced some nice customers to let me cut in line. “I’m on a mission for God,” I told them. I’m not sure if they believed me but I got the tie and made it back to the hotel with only minutes to spare.

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The Blues Brothers (wearing my new tie)

MFU 7: The Wayward Bus

About 20 of us (in costume!) got on a big yellow school bus at the hotel. The driver was a local fellow and though I told him we had only about 20 minutes to get to the wedding, he was not in very much of a hurry. When we finally took off I quickly became suspicious of the route he was using. I had been at the wedding site only an hour before and the driver was certainly not going the way I had gone. But I stayed quiet. After all, it was his town.

But when he pulled into a state park in the middle of an urban area, I realized there had been a tragic mistake. He had taken us to the wrong park, at the wrong time in the wrong town. It took several minutes before I could convince him of the mistake, an act of persuasion not helped by his lack of phone service to his base or him not having any kind of GPS system on the bus.

To make matters worse, once the driver finally agreed to drive us to Black Earth he admitted that he did not have enough fuel to get us there and that he would have to stop in another town to get the propane he needed. I was in touch with Casey, keeping him aware of the situation, and I could tell he was close to panicking. I assured him we would make it. I had traveled 6,000 miles over two days and after all the fuck ups I had already dealt with, there was no way I was going to miss his wedding because a damn school bus needed gas.

Thankfully, my son and daughter-in-law are calm and understanding people. They held up their wedding for nearly an hour so that I could help the bus driver get his gas, meet the needs of everyone on the bus (people had been drinking, it was a wedding party), and then navigate his own country. The narrow dirt road going through the hills of a Wisconsin forest made him jittery, but I kept telling him not to worry, just drive, and so he did.

 MFU 8: The Debit Card

I hated having to add any wrinkles to all the planning that went into this wedding (see Major Fuck Up 1), but my American bank account had sent a new debit card to my house in Illinois. Casey and I had worked it out in that he would bring me the card (and a few other requested items) when we meet up before the wedding. So, yeah, bless his heart, he remembered everything but the debit card itself. Oops.

The problem is that I pay cash for everything in Bulgaria, from my rent to the light bill. And to get cash I need a debit card. Thinking I would soon have access to an ATM machine, I had stuffed all the cash I had in an envelope for Nicole and Casey. After much hand wringing with Mike and Coleen, I solved the immediate problem by getting a cash advance on a credit card.

That money got me back to Chicago and then to London and then on to Eastern Europe, but unfortunately I had to get Casey to stop by a post office on his way to his honeymoon. My new debit card arrived in my university mail box eight days later.

THE WEDDING:    Marvelous, fun and seemingly flawless. Everybody everywhere should have a wedding like this. I cried, laughed and was humbled by Nicole and Casey’s impeccable love and grace. It was a perfect evening. An elegant Star Fleet Captain officiated, and the ring bearer was, of course, Frodo Baggins.

Shots of apple cider (from IV tubes) and a wedding cake with bloody icing were delicious, and the smoke machine made the dancing under spooky lights all the more eerie and fun. I would never have expected my son and daughter-in-law to have anything close to a traditional wedding, and with that he and Nicole were true to themselves. It was picture-perfect, no fuck ups could have made it otherwise, and I remain a very proud father.

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Nicole Reading her Vows (I started crying the moment she started)

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The Ever-Cool Mike Wiginton

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Me and Joel and Heather

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Me Leaving the Wedding

Istanbul Two: The City

Walking along a street overflowing with humanity and greed and desperation, the smell of burning meat and sweat hardened by determination and fear, the sounds of sellers and buyers in every language selling and buying everything from a space each has claimed in soiled gutters, this is what I learned about Istanbul:

Istanbul is a rock concert without the music. If there is any singing, it is the morning or afternoon call for prayer, a swaying and soulful chant ordained by heaven, broadcast across the city from mosques older than God but mostly ignored by the few and the many.

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Istanbul is old as fuck. History books taught me all about Constantinople before I got there,IMG_4972 but only by crossing the threshold of a home built for kings thousands of years ago do I really understand what it means to be walking not just through history but inside it, to see and feel antiquity not as it is studied but as it is lived.

 

 

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IMG_5119The palaces where sultans ruled the vast Ottoman Empire are still used for prestigious state functions IMG_5106 (although I doubt few presidents or prime ministers are permitted into the Sultan’s private bathroom, a large room of marble and gold highlighted by an ornately-carved hole in the ground), but it was the Ayasofya Mữzesi (Sophia Museum) that impressed me the most. IMG_4912Considered the 8th wonder of the world, this cavernous church-turned-basilica-turned mosque first opened its doors in the year 532. Those actual doors, first opened by Roman Emperor Justinian, might or might not still be there, but I crawled up stone ledges and past ancient barred windows that will probably remain the oldest cultural artifacts I will ever have the privilege of seeing or, better yet, rubbing my hands upon in truly astonished wonder.

 

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An angel lives in one of the ancient pillars of this church, and a king once stuck his thumb inside the pillar and convinced the angel to turn the entire building around. As the legend goes, if you put your thumb into the pillar and make a complete circumference, your dreams will come true. 

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Istanbul is crowded as shit. A city of 16 million people, the third largest city in the world, does not leave much room for quiet solitude.IMG_5028

You can find it, in the eyes of a fisherman sitting alone on the banks of the Bosporus or in the cave-like stare of a woman selling corn nobody wants to buy, but for three days I never saw an empty street or a shop without a line waiting to get in.

IMG_5119In the open-air markets, which crowd every side road not dominated by skyscrapers, people must compete with motorcycles speeding on the sidewalks or young men pulling gigantic and heavy-loaded handcarts as fast as they can, IMG_5008 working I now see as human delivery trucks on passageways with no room for delivery trucks.

Istanbul is dangerous as hell. Before leaving for Istanbul I did see warnings issued a few days earlier by the U.S. State Department:  U.S. government employees continue to be subject to travel restrictions in southeastern Turkey. They must obtain advance approval prior to official or unofficial travel … the Embassy strongly recommends that U.S. citizens avoid areas in close proximity to the Syrian border…terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. interests in Turkey, as well as at sites frequented by foreign tourists. We strongly urge U.S. citizens to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings. IMG_4989My visit did mark the first time I was inside a country at war with its neighbors, and while I was in Turkey there was a terrorist attack in the nation’s capital, killing 865 people. Still, I did not avoid sites frequented by tourists, and I could not, no matter how hard I might have tried, avoid any large gathering. But other than the sight of armed soldiers near every major building,IMG_4976

IMG_4974 the only time I experienced any real fear was for a quick moment when I realized I was totally lost (Google maps eventually found me 2.5 kilometers from where I thought I was – oops).

 

 

Istanbul is ugly and gloriously beautiful. The French poet, Alphonse de Lamartine, once described it like this: “If you are forced to look at the world once, just look Istanbul. There – god and human, nature and art – are together…” And for a brief piece of time, so was I.

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Istanbul One: The Tour

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Given all that I went through just getting on the last bus to Istanbul, I honestly was not surprised that the bus ride and tour itself would be everything that encapsulates my life in Bulgaria so far: strange, comical, ridiculous to a point just south of idiotic while still, however clumsy it might be, warmly heartening. Bulgaria is a beautiful country with kind and endearing people, but it also adheres to ideas that not only frustrate my American sensibilities but also leaves me internally grateful for those sensibilities.

The group of about 50 people that left Blagoevgrad at 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday night essentially consisted of three distinct groups: (1) about 25-or-so mostly international AUBG students (a few from Bulgaria, one or two from the United States, the rest from everywhere else, all of whom knew somebody else on the bus); (2) about 25-or-so Bulgarians, mostly women, nearly all of them from Blagoevgrad and many of them close friends; and then (3) me, the professor and Amerikanski who didn’t know the language or anyone on the bus.

I at first thought it a smart plan to leave at 8:30 at night for the ten—hour ride to Istanbul, thinking we would sleep most of the way. But, no, of course that’s not what happened.

The college kids in the back of the bus did what college students do anywhere when left relatively unsupervised on a midnight road trip: Party! Our Bulgarian tour director confiscated a nearly empty quart bottle of tequila, but I suspect there was more she didn’t find. That they got drunk should have been expected, and when people drink they tend to have frequent need of a restroom, which also should have been expected. However, the lavatory on the bus was broken, something the kids discovered in agony and loud outrage. That the bus driver and tour director did not immediately stop the bus every ten minutes or so only added to their indignation. The kids eventually passed out after hours of football soccer chants and squeals of outrageous delight to everything anyone said even remotely amusing.

So that kept me awake half the night. And when the racket subsided, I quickly grew weary of the music coming from a speaker right over my head. It was Elton John, a greatest hits album I believe, playing over and over. I didn’t complain, however, until the music was switched to American techno dance hip-hop. It was about two in the morning when I politely asked the only member of the tour entourage who spoke English if they could possibly turn the music off or, at the very least, turn it down. They apparently tried to turn it down, but moved the knob the wrong way and instead turned it up. When the bus driver realized his error, he turned the volume back to where it was.

I let it go until, honestly, I couldn’t take it no more. A female singer, I think it was Beyoncé, lamenting over and over again that “Baby I can’t get you off my mind mind mind mind mind, I can’t get you off my mind mind mind mind,” propelled by a synsithizer turned up to 11, is not normally what I listen to when going to sleep. So I complained again, something pretty rare for me. A member of the Bulgarian tour entourage actually came over to my seat and leaned in so she could hear what I was complaining about. She was a young woman, in her 20s, and I could tell she did not have a problem, no problem whatsoever, with listening to American techno dance hip-hop at 3:30 in the morning, but nevertheless she had the music turned down. Not off, mind you, just down enough that it was now just a slightly dull pounding.

The 10-hour bus ride actually took about 12 hours, what with all the bathroom breaks, and so it was about 8:30 when we finally stopped on a very busy street in Istanbul. It was then announced (in Bulgarian and English) that we would now begin, as promised on the travel brochure, our “panoramic tour” of the city. I’m nearly drooling from total exhaustion when a nice Bulgarian gentleman boarded and was introduced as a citizen of Turkey and our professional tour guide. We then spent the next two hours driving around Istanbul with our tour guide narrating the trip in crisp, clear Bulgarian and, obviously, keeping me awake.

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Since the tour was in part an AUBG-sponsored event, a staff member from the AUBG International Student office went along, ostensibly to be the AUBG-liaison but also to be the designated English translator. The staff member, his name is Viktor, is a super nice young Bulgarian man who speaks English well enough to have a decent conversation in English: a lot of mispronunciations and syntax issues but well enough to understand what he is saying.

On the guided tour of Istanbul, however, Viktor frequently tripped over his language limitations. The Bulgarian tour guide would speak long and I guess elegantly about something, and often the Bulgarians on the bus would laugh at some joke he made, but Viktor would take the microphone and offer this translation: “There is a building on the left. It has a green roof…” I wrote that quote now, giggling quietly as I did. “On the right you can see the main train station. That’s where to go if you need a train…” Honestly, that was what he said. Another line I wrote down was this: “We just passed a mosque, you can’t see it now, but it’s very old and important.”

So, yeah, my panoramic tour of Istanbul was me just looking out the window and checking out the scenery as we drove past. Beautiful, crowded, incredibly old. That’s what I saw.

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The bus finally stopped and we all got off and hiked up a narrow cobblestone street in what I was told was the old part of Istanbul. I could guess that from the rock-encrusted castle walls or the occasional small but crumbling fortress we would pass. As soon as we got to an area full of shops and restaurants, all of the students took off on their own. I stayed with the Bulgarians because, well, what else was I going to do?

We eventually ended up at the Roman Hippodrome, the actual spot in Istanbul where they once had chariot races and the occasional slaughtering of slaves. In the middle of what was once an arena now stands the Obelisk of Theodosius, a four-sided concrete obelisk originally built for Tutmoses III in Egypt about 1450 BC but later moved to its current location by a Roman general, Constantine the Great.  Our Bulgarian tour guide probably talked about all that, but I didn’t understand anything until I found a large plaque that explained, in English and five others languages, what was going on.

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That’s when it hit me. Holy shit. This obelisk, which still has very-clear Egyptian hieroglyphics, belonged to King Tut! The Egyptian pharaoh! Three-thousand years ago!! Holy crap, it was probably as close to a truly authentic oh-my-God moment as I’ve ever had. Holy motherfucking shit, really. I still freak a little thinking about it. I was standing next to an artifact from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, confiscated (stolen?) by the son of Caesar and Helena of Troy. Holy fucking shit. Constantine placed the obelisk in the center of Byzantine, the city he claimed and later renamed after himself, Constantinople, which then became the capital of the Roman Empire for a thousand years. And there I was, a very tired American on a Bulgarian tour in the city of legends, standing next to a true piece of human history. Holy fucking shit.

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IMG_4932 IMG_4929 (2)IMG_4935 IMG_4935 (2)So, yeah, I ditched the Bulgarians. Nobody seemed to miss me. I kept visual sight of them (for one thing, they knew where the bus was parked), but on my own I toured the Blue Mosque, IMG_4947ate some very dry bread with olive jam (hey, I thought it was mint), and generally had fun sneaking into the many different tour groups canvassing the area. Each group had a guide carrying a small flag from their home country. Norway. Japan. Iraq. Russia. It was an almost surreal melting of man, each with their own language but everyone connected by a joined adventure, and I was the international interloper, belonging not to geography or ethnic origin but instead only to this moment, my place, as it were, in all this history.

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The Bulgarian tour group poses for a group photo. They didn’t seem to mind (or notice?) that I was not in the picture.

And that was how I spent the next two days. By myself, walking, getting lost, navigating the trains and language of Turkey as best I could, eating food I did not recognize at great restaurants and out of food carts on a sidewalk.

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An Istanbul train (I managed without getting lost)

The hotel was small but okay (Viktor was my assigned roommate, but I saw him only in passing). There were many planned group outings, but the only one I joined was for a boat tour on the Bosphorus Strait, the actual body of water separating Europe from Asia. And even then, I grabbed a corner spot along a back railing and literally tuned out the Bulgarian narrative guide. I knew we would be passing something important when everybody starting taking pictures, but I mostly just enjoyed a nice boat ride along the beautiful Turkish coast.

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A selfie from the back of the boat on the Bhosphorus

I did not say anything to the university (except, I guess, for now when they read my blog) about how superbly uncomfortable and annoying it was to pay for a tour of Istanbul that I could not participate in nor enjoy. Istanbul is now part of my life journey, and I appreciate the opportunity that got me there, but the tour itself was frustrating and, at times, downright stupid. I guess a good example is the nice looking gold-colored ink pen I was given when I first boarded the tour bus in Blagoevgrad. Everyone on the tour got a pen, our names stenciled on the side next to the tour company logo, a nice little piece of merchandising swag. I clipped the pen to my shirt pocket and forgot about it. However, when we got to Istanbul and I decided I wanted to take notes on the truly funny translations of our panoramic tour, I tried to get the pen out of my pocket. However, very poor craftsmanship had left a tiny piece of metal casting on the edge of the pen’s clip. And in a nice bit of metaphorical representation of all my interaction with the Bulgarian way, when I finally wrestled it out of my pocket, the pretty little pen had ripped a hole in my shirt. ‘Nuff said.

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Last Bus to Istanbul

[Writer Interrupted: Not sure if it matters much, but I did not intend to have all three of my Istanbul posts published at once. I actually wrote this one weeks ago, even thought it was published. But I still don’t know how a blog works, all these options, and I apparently pushed one button when I was supposed to push two (I think, maybe three). Sorry]

10-04-2015

I will be leaving in a few days to visit a city that was a metropolis 600 years before Jesus was born, but I didn’t know it was going to take me 600 years to get there. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but getting there (if I actually make it) has taken me through so many loops and bureaucratic circles I could only summarize the whole thing as being kind of looney.

Quick History 101: Back in the day, it was called Byzantium, one of the most significant cities in history. But its fame really took off when it was reestablished as Constantinople and became the center of the known universe. It was the cultural center of the Roman Empire (330 – 1204) and then the Latin Empire (1204 – 1261) before the Ottomans took over and turned it into an Islamic stronghold and made it the epicenter of the Ottoman Caliphate, a status it held for 600 years. It was in Constantinople where the sultans ruled from golden palaces and lived the most lavish and brutal lifestyle ever practiced in human history. When the Republic of Turkey was formed in 1923, the city on the Bosphorus strait (basically the official border between Asia and Europe), was officially named Istanbul.

Now picture this: A poor kid riding his bike through mud and stupidity, a strangling chokehold that for him was the backwoods of rural Arkansas, just so he could sit in a tiny one-room library and read about Constantinople and the great empires of Europe, places for him that only existed, now and forever, in books he could never afford to own. And so how cool is it that he will be in Istanbul for four days next week? Just how fucking strange is this life I’m living? How much more fantastic can the tiny steps of one life come to be?

Well, just a few minutes ago I had to stop writing this post so I could respond to an email from the Athens Institute of Education and Research. They wanted me to confirm my acceptance of their invitation to present a paper at the International Conference on the Humanities and the Arts in a Global World. So, yeah, come January I will spend four days in Athens, Greece, perhaps the birthplace of human civilization.

And on Monday I will meet with a woman to discuss me accompanying her on a five-day tour of the former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia as a quasi-Goodwill Ambassador for liberal arts education. Later this week, I will conclude my plans to spend some of my Thanksgiving break with my good friend Pat MacEnulty in Rome, Italy. And when I make a very quick trip back to the United States for my son’s wedding at the end of October, I will visit Frankfurt and Madid. In other words, I’m not done yet with this poor-boy’s life. What did Robert Frost say: I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep?

But this is one of the reasons I moved to Bulgaria in the first place, a chance to see the world beyond the suburban strip malls of America. Just getting here was a trip and a half (see posts 1-3), and I’m still not official official (I get my residence card next week). The trip to Istanbul came about as part of a college-sponsored tour, but before I could confirm the reservation I had to find an out-of-the way travel agency (see my most recent post). Once I did push open that hidden door I encountered three very-busy women who had no idea who I was or what I wanted. That nobody spoke English only complicated matters, but I managed to get them to understand I was there for the trip to Istanbul.

“We have no more seats on the bus,” a very impatient woman told me through my Google translator. “Ne,” I said. “I’m the guy who got the last seat!”

After checking my passport they did indeed find my name at the bottom of their list. They made copies of my passport and told me the bill was 179 leva. I had anticipated that price and came with the necessary Bulgarian currency, but I also had been told by my school’s travel coordinator that I would have the option of paying in advance for several excursions not included with the tour price. I would need to pay for them in European Union currency, euros.

Before going to the travel agency, I looked up various options and the price for each in euros, scribbled them down on some scratch paper. I did some math in the margins, including currency exchange rates, and came up with a single figure, 118 euros, which I circled. Meanwhile, on the back of my notes I jotted down a few items I needed to pick up from the market.

When the travel agent asked me for 179 leva, I made her understand I also wanted to pay for the extra excursions. I used my sheet of notes, which was written of course in English and had several things scratched out, to help her understand which ones I wanted. She then told me I owed her 463 leva. She even wrote out this receipt:

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“Ne,” I said. “Euros, not leva.”

“Ne,” she insisted. “Leva, four six three.” She pointed to the receipt.

My translator helped me explain that I had been told the excursions were to be paid in euros. “I did not bring 463 leva,” I told her. “I brought euros.”

She spoke for a while with one of her colleagues who, armed with a calculator, gave me a new figure: 179 leva and 263 euros.

“Ne,” I said. “Ne 263 euros. I did not bring that much.”

By now everybody is getting pretty annoyed. I once again pulled out my notes and showed both of the agents my chicken-scratch mathematics. I pointed to the 118 euro figure I had circled. Both women then looked over my notes, compared the prices I had calculated for the various excursions – figures I had gotten from the official Turkish tourism website – and they decided I did not owe 263 euros after all. Instead, I owed 127 euros.

I decided that paying the extra nine euros was worth it if it meant me getting the hell out of there. I paid the bill and was folding up my sheet of notes when one of them stopped me. Through a little game of charades she made me understand that, under the circumstances, she was going to keep my notes. I hesitated for a second, thinking about why they might need a list of words and figures in a language they could not read, before I said “No problem.” It could be they really needed my grocery list on the back, and who was I to argue with that?

Armed with my sort-of confirmed reservation, I began working on getting a Turkish visa. I had been told that it would be very easy, something I could do online, but it was a Bulgarian who told me this. I should have remembered my mantra: In Bulgaria, nothing is what it seems.

The e-Visa system on the Turkey Bureau of Tourism website was pretty easy, ending with instructions for me to wait for a confirmation email at which time I could pay the $20 application fee. I was supposed to get the confirmation email within 15 minutes. When that didn’t happen, I applied again, thinking maybe I gave them the wrong email address.

Nothing happened, at least not that day. However, when I woke up the next day I saw that I had received this email in the middle of the night:

This e-mail message has been sent to verify the e-mail address that you have provided for your e-Visa application. Please ignore this message if you did not make such an application.
Please note that if you do not respond to this confirmation e-mail within 1 hour, your application will be cancelled. Likewise, if your e-Visa application is not completed within 48 hours, it will be deleted from the system. In these cases, you will need to create a new application.

So I completed another application. I got no response. And then I did it again the next day but, still, no response. On the official e-Visa website was a box it said I should use if I had any questions, so I sent them this note:

Hello, I have been trying to use your E-Visa system but once I submit all the required information I do not receive a verification email (or I receive it in the middle of the night and so I miss the one-hour window for confirmation). I am scheduled to arrive in Istanbul on Oct. 8. I am certain that I have been following directions and I have been checking my spam email folders. Can you please advise me on how I can complete this process? Thank you, Ronald Wiginton

The next day I got this email in response:

Sayın Ronald Wiginton,

For your further questions or comments, please use Contact Us form on http://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/feedback/

En iyi dileklerimizle,
Dışişleri Bakanlığı

Given that I had used the “contact us” form to explain my situation, I found it pretty odd that I was now being told I was using the wrong form and that, instead, I needed to use the ‘contact us’ form. So I did. Within a few minutes I got this response:

Dear Ronald Wiginton,

We need the applicant’s passport / ID card number to be able to assist you.

Best wishes,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey

The “Contact Us” form had asked for a lot of information but my passport number was not among the pulldown menu options. However, I filled it out again and added my passport number. The next day I got this response:

Dear Ronald Wiginton,

Your email address may be preventing the emails coming from us. Thus, please either check and fix your email settings or make a new e-Visa application using a different and valid email address. If you still cannot get through please check with your email provider. You are advised to use an email account from hotmail or gmail.

Best wishes,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey

Now I am really confused. They were contacting me through my valid email address to inform me they could not contact me at this address. Hmmm. I did appreciate that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey was continuing to offer me ‘best wishes,’ but what I wanted to do was write them back and say “what the fuck?” But, hey, what do I know about technology? So I created a new Gmail account, crossing my fingers in hope that it was valid enough, and applied for a Turkish visa for the sixth time.

Six times the charm, I guess. I got the confirmation at my new address, gave them $20.70, and within a few minutes I received an electronic visa. Looking at my official permission to enter Turkey, I wondered about all those thousands of Syrian migrants who are streaming into Turkey by the boatload. Perhaps they are having to enter the country illegally because, like me, they didn’t have a valid email address. Perhaps the world would run a lot smoother if everybody was issued a Gmail account at birth. Perhaps Robert Frost was wrong, maybe we don’t have miles to go before we sleep, just a few emails should do it.

“signs, signs, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind”

09-27-2015

 I don’t know what Bulgaria has against signs. My friend Joseph, the Bulgarian from Texas, says it is a deeply-rooted historical vendetta. “They just don’t care,” he told me last week. “People in Blagoevgrad don’t use street names, they just say near that store or church or whatever. But where exactly? People here just don’t think like that.”

During my first few weeks here I made a big deal about finding a map of Blagoevgrad (see post #5), but honestly it was an almost pointless quest. While the map does list street names and such (in Bulgarian, naturally), there are no actual signs telling me which street is which. I have to count the blocks and then use the map to tell me how many blocks I need to go before turning west (or what have you), and that usually gets me in the general vicinity of where I need to go. But even then, if I find the place I think I need, there will not be a sign on the building telling me what building it is.

So, yeah, I got as lost as I’ve ever been the other day trying to find a particular travel agency. My university had reserved a block of tickets for a three-day trip to Istanbul and I managed to snag the very last reservation. All I had to do was go to the travel agency and pay for the trip (using what turned out to be a complicated mixture of Bulgarian Leva and European Euros, all of which I tried to negotiate with people who didn’t understand anything I said, but that’s another story).

 Even though the university liaison officer gave me a well-marked map, it listed the street names I was supposed to follow.map1Street names? What street names? Getting directions to turn east on a street called “Tsar Ivan Shishman” is a fine idea, but if there are no signs identifying any street anywhere, and if many of the streets look more like alleyways, then where exactly is Tsar Ivan’s road?

In the town square, Blagoevgrad is very happy to put up a sign that tells you which way is Blagoevgrad, but otherwise you just have to figure it out.sign1

Here’s what I mean. As I’m learning is pretty typical in Europe, most of the major intersections here are roundabouts with no street lights. But in Bulgaria there are also no street signs. Five or six streets might intersect at the roundabout, and even though there will be signs telling a motorist which way they cannot go, there is no sign telling which way to go for anything else. I guess you are just supposed to know?

 IMG_4829 IMG_4827 IMG_4818And when you do get to where you think you are going, how do you know you are there? I don’t really miss all those giant billboards that dot nearly every major road in and around Chicago, and so Bulgaria’s indifference toward showy advertising is kind of nice. But what if you were looking for one placer in particular?

It’s like this: See the little red sign behind the trees in a gravel parking lot?

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Would you believe that sign is the only advertisement for the best restaurant in town?

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Now look at the big imposing building in the photo below. Do you see that little sign in blue?

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You would have no idea that it is the police station until you get underneath and can see the tiny Blagoevgrad City Police Headquarters sign (but only if you read Bulgarian).

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Chicagoans would find it hard to imagine Yorktown Mall or Oakbrook Center not advertising itself, but in Blagoevgrad, you see a door like this one and you can only guess what’s inside,

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Only when the door slide opens does it look like what it is, the largest mall in town.

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Sometimes you can find little-bity signs pointing you toward a particular place. This sign for example leads people to Billa, the second largest grocery store in Blagoevgrad.

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But when you go in the indicated direction, the street looks like this.

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And if you keep going, if you look very, very carefully, you might see a yellow “B” hiding behind some trees.

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That’s Billa, inside that red door.

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And near Billa is a little strip of shops and cafes. It looks like this.

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Can you see the office for Alfatours? Look again. Can you see it?

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I didn’t, and I was looking really hard. I walked past these shops 10 times and never saw it. I asked Google maps to find it, but it started sending me somewhere near the train station (trust me, I walked almost the whole way, really, really far before logic told me that my university would not have given me such a bad map). So I jumped into a taxi, showed the driver my school-issued map, and he immediately began taking me back toward the Alfatours near the train station. “Ne, ne,” I protested. Looking at my map again, he pulled over and asked another taxi driver where it was. Remember, my map had all the street names, clearly identifying the intersections nearest the agency, and this grizzly veteran taxi driver had no idea where it was.

But he then drives me toward the little shops near Billa, exactly where I started, and he points that way. “Go,” he said. “Merci,” I said.

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So I walked past the little shops again, looking closely this time for anything that looked like the travel agency logo on my map.

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And then I saw a rusty metal sign, which I could not read, but I saw the logo.

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And then I saw the logo again at the bottom of a door almost totally hidden beneath a nearby small porch awning.

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Still, I was only guessing when I pushed the door open and found a very small travel agency staffed by three women who did not speak English. But, like I said, that’s another story.

First Week of Class: Aching Feet / Writing A Blog

9-11-2015

My feet hurt. Usually when I finish teaching a week of classes, my first reflection is not about my feet. But this has not been a usual week. Teaching in Bulgaria is already unusual, and certainly having class with students who mostly speak English with heavy accents is something I’ve never dealt with, but it is the ache in my feet that really tell me this is not going to be a normal semester.

In the 20 years or so that I have been a college professor, standing up and lecturing back-to-back classes and then walking across campus back and forth several times and then climbing about a zillion stairs will indeed make me pause at the end of the day and notice my feet. Usually it just means my feet are tired, like I actually notice how much better it feels to have them resting comfortably in my reading chair or reclining on my big leather sofa.

But not this time. Now they hurt, a dull headache kind of hurt, bruised even, like maybe it would be good if I could soak them in a warm bath (not having a bath to soak them in just drives the point home). Quickly now (cause who really wants to read about me feet?), here is what happened:

The American University in Bulgaria has two campuses, the Main Building downtown (near my apartment and where I have an office) and the Skaptopora Campus (where I have all of my classes). I have not yet learned how to measure things in kilometers, but I would think the two campuses are about two miles apart (not as a bird flies, more like as a man walks, a zig-zag pattern down alleys, through a park, around buildings, over a river, etc.). For several days we had Faculty Orientation, just a lot of meetings dealing with a lot of stuff I didn’t know anything about. I met many of my colleagues, fascinating people from all over the world, and there were several mini-lectures that crossed all disciplines and were truly entertaining. I rode my bicycle most of those days, making the trip once or twice a day.

One day we had a reception at a fancy hotel several miles away, and then we had a campus picnic another day at Skaptopora (I took a taxi with a colleague to the reception, rode my bike to the picnic) and at one point I had to go with a human resources officer to the local immigration office to have my picture taken for my Bulgarian Resident card (we walked, very quickly). I had to walk on the first day of class because I had to carry my academic robes for the convocation that afternoon (the convocation lasted less than a half hour and was highlighted by the Provost giving a speech about the Eagles rock band). I walked home after convocation but then rode my bike back to Skaptopora that night for another event.

Finally on Thursday (yesterday) it was raining so I didn’t want to ride my bike. In the morning I walked to my office to meet with the student president of the AUBG Daily (I accepted her invitation to serve as the newspaper’s faculty adviser). I then walked to my first Writing for Media class, which I think went well, and then immediately afterward had to fast-walk back downtown for a language class I’m auditing (Bulgarian 101) and then immediately afterward had to fast-walk back to my second Writing for Media class (I barely made it on time). After that class I walked home, where I had a quick bite to eat, but then had to walk back last night to Skaptopora for a department meeting. It was fairly late before I walked home.

So, yeah, this morning (as I was walking to my office to meet with the editors of the AUBG Daily) I noticed that my feet really hurt. Over the past week I have probably walked more than I probably normally walk in a year (and rode my bike more than ever). My feet, my knees, my calves, everything is telling me, in a very distinct and painful language, that this is going to be tender, this teaching in Bulgaria. I’m already thinking I need to learn how to use a taxi. Either that or get some better shoes.

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I’ll write another time about my classes and how cool/strange/weird it is to be a foreigner in my own classroom, but I think I should acknowledge what is happening with this blog. People are reading it. I know, that was the whole idea, that I would put my writing online for the world to see. But I guess, deep down, I never thought the world would actually read it.

I had hoped that my friends would see it (and many of them are, thanks for the emails and nice comments) and I wanted my family to have a way of seeing what Dad is up to halfway around the world. My brother is getting a big kick out of it, and many former students in the United States have signed up as followers.

But as of this morning, over a thousand people have read my blog. Most of the views cataloged by WordPress are from the United States, but apparently I’m getting real popular in Russia. Fourteen people in Japan checked it out, and it’s beginning to look like I will soon have more readers in Bulgaria than back home.

I don’t know why or how this is happening. I have applied no tags whatsoever to my blog (mostly because I don’t know how) and I personally invited no more than 20 people to check it out. And yet, three people in Canada are now following me and some people in Australia ‘linked’ me to other pages. My guess is that people have gone online to get information about Bulgaria or specifically about AUBG and somehow stumbled upon my rambling narrative, but why they keep reading it can only be explained by a damn scary thought.

People in Blagoevgrad are following me. My students, my colleagues, perhaps my neighbors. I have discovered this in odd ways. The first time was when someone in Russia posted a comment about my search for milk. He said he was an AUBG student. During the faculty orientation, I was being introduced to the university provost when he stopped and said, “I already know who this is. My son is reading your blog.” I made some embarrassed joke about how boring that must be for him, but the provost said, “Oh no, to the contrary. He says it is very entertaining.”

At the campus picnic, I was in the food line with Joseph, my friend and fellow new professor, when a student walked up and asked if I was Ron. “I’ve been reading your blog,” he said. I might have said “oh no” or something like that, but then he said “I’m enjoying it very much.” I was a little speechless and so couldn’t find anything clever to say, but Joseph wouldn’t let it go. He followed the student and asked him why or how he found my blog in the first place. The kid explained that he had been online checking out new AUBG professors. “So you also know who I am?” Joseph asked. And the student explained that even though he found my blog he didn’t know who I was until he saw Joseph with me. He had seen Joseph’s picture in my “new friends” posting and so just figured it out when he saw us in line at the picnic. “You’re getting famous,” Joseph joked with me. “But I’m more famous!”

Many times in my professional writing life I have been surprised when a stranger recognized me. My picture ran with my Sunday political column in Florida, and sometimes people would stop me and say something. The same with my lifestyle column in Chicago, and even though my essays on Chicago Public Radio were clearly just for listeners, people did sometimes recognize my name at some public function and would come over to shake my hand.

These were all very odd moments for me. A writer works in the dark. Even though I do picture a reader in my head, they are not real people, just someone I’ve engaged in a strictly one-sided conversation. Meeting a reader (or listener) was always a little thrilling but also embarrassing, like maybe somehow a magical line got crossed. The man behind the curtain is supposed to stay behind the curtain, no peeking allowed.

But somehow this whole business of writing online is changing the rules. Working in a public space means there is no curtain to hide behind. Here I am, I must be saying, hey everybody, look at me.

My first response to this discovery that all these strangers (or students or colleagues) are reading my blog was that I should now be careful with what I say, that I probably should stop making fun of this strange culture or maybe I should not reveal my honest thoughts about AUBG or some of the people here. But, there it is, I can’t do that. I started this blog as a way for me to record my life in the here and now, to really say, “Okay, now I’m doing this,” and to say it very loudly. It would be a dishonest discourse if I treated it any other way.

And so I will continue writing as I have been, just this big dumb American tripping through Bulgaria with a camera and a blog. I hope my readers respect my honesty even if they don’t like what I say. As a general disclaimer I will admit that I mean no harm to anyone or anything personally, but if I point out how really weird it is that people here don’t eat bacon but enjoy cold potatoes, then I’m just being truthful. It is weird. Sorry.