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.
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.