Angels & Demons: Bulgarian History Up Close and Personal


Sometime in the 10th Century, a fellow named Sveti Ivan Rilaski wandered into the mountains of Southeastern Bulgaria. He had lots of good reasons, but mostly he wanted to be alone and to escape what he saw as the moral decline of modern society. Picture1An American named Henry David Thoreau would do something similar 800 years later in the woods of Massachusetts, but when Henry left Walden Pond all he had was a puny little book and a reputation as a crackpot. Sveti, however, never left those mountains and became a saint.

St. Ivan of Rila (as he is now called) became the reluctant leader of a band of followers who did believe he had the answers to Big Questions, like maybe the meaning of life. Together they carved a monastery out of the thick woods, surrounded it by 30-feet high stone walls, and began a tradition of worship and protection that has continued ever since.IMG_4726 Thoreau also did eventually attract a group of dedicated followers, but when he died I don’t think anyone cut off pieces of his body.

They did with St. Ivan of Rila. When he died in 946, they cut off his hand, lopped it right off his corpse, and put it in a tiny casket. His followers believed that the venerated man’s body had healing powers and so kept his hand as a means of prolonging his healing spirit. The hand now rests (can it do anything else?) near the altar of the main church at Rila Monastery, one of the oldest and most revered monasteries in the world.

IMG_4724When I walked into that church last weekend, I was really hoping to see that hand. However, it was covered by an ornate cloth (apparently they now bring it out only for special occasions). I would post a photo of the tiny casket but they wouldn’t let me take pictures inside the chapel itself.

Outside was fine, I could photograph the impressive architecture, lots of archways and strong somber staircases (examples of the Bulgarian National Revival). IMG_4665 I wandered around the monastery walls, the thick buttresses that guarded the oldest building, a large tower constructed by feudal lord Hirelyo Dragoval in 1334. IMG_4706

But without pictures I cannot adequately describe all the gold or the incredible art work that covered nearly every inch of the vaulted and domed ceiling of the main church or how ornate were the oldest hand-carved chairs I’ve ever seen (or been allowed to sit in).

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In fact, that was what surprised me the most, how the history of Bulgaria is made so accessible. The Rila Monastery has survived centuries of war and feudal bickering, a medieval marvel now protected by The United Nations. But they let people sit on chairs older than the United States has existed. The outside walls of the Church of the Nativity are adorned with Biblical icons painted in the 15th Century, but they let me get close enough to see the paint strokes, to actually run my fingers across them.

What also surprised me was all the horror depicted in the icons. IMG_4639This might just be my ignorance of Christian mythology, but anyone who might come to worship at this church is first greeted with the threat of dismemberment, beheading or other terror that might befall them should they become a sinner.

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It was the faces that got to me, the faces of those doomed by their failure to obey God.

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They were scared, but of course, but to me they also seem a little confused, like maybe they were surprised that the demons of hell were in fact real demons.IMG_4646 (2)

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Inside the church I was allowed (encouraged) to light candles for the spirit of the living or for the souls of the dead. I kept one of the candles, however, put it in my pocket. I thought perhaps I should, just in case I need it to lift my own spirit or perhaps enlighten my own soul. I don’t think St. Ivan would mind.IMG_4658

My Life In Celluloid, No Script Allowed


I sometimes think I’m living inside a movie. A spy thriller, for sure. James Bond, Mission Impossible stuff, perhaps John Smiley tracking down Karla. My knowledge of Europe, besides what I learned in school or from my own interest in history and politics, is mostly from dark tales of espionage, a genre that, for me, never grows weary. Jason Bourne might have be just another American cowboy (albeit one with amnesia), but he is an American cowboy in Paris. Moscow. Istanbul. Places I’ve never been, doing things I’ll never do with a backdrop totally unlike anything I have ever seen outside of travel brochures and wildly entertaining day dreams.

The thing about America is that, no matter how far you travel, you are still in America. And I’ve been almost everywhere, Chicago to California, Arizona to Florida. I skinned my knee on Stone Mountain in Georgia, paddled a canoe in the Appalachians, and swam naked but not alone in Lake Tahoe. But no matter how drastically different the purple mountains might be from the golden prairies, when everything was said and done, from sea to shining sea, I could always find a store and get a grape Popsicle. The clerk always knew what I wanted, and the change she gave me would always be familiar.

But now I’m not in America. I’m in a movie, the lead character caught by mysterious circumstances inside a plot with no  direction, everything choreographed on the fly, working without a script or, more importantly, a stunt double. Living on the edge is an apt expression that might fit here, but in this case the edge is invisible. I just know that, any minute now, I’m about to step over it.

To really understand, you’ll have to picture it with me. Imagine waking up and finding yourself in a modern bedroom in a modern apartment.


Everything is familiar; the water heater mounted on the bathroom wall is a little odd but you at least know what it’s for. The toilet looks normal enough. You have to flush it by holding down a button (two buttons if you need to, uh, double your punch), but it does flush.

If you look outside your bedroom window, all you see is the house next door, a building only a few feet away. It does not seem to fit with your modern apartment.

And from here all you really see is something sticking (sliding?) on your neighbor’s upper window sill, something you can’t identify and, honestly, don’t really want to know.


It is the main reason you always keep your bedroom blinds closed tight.

Stepping out on the balcony you get a close-up view of your neighbor’s house. It is, you now see, very old and in the throes of total disrepair. From here you see how the neighborhood is in transition, how it is that your neighbor’s house — with rotten boards falling from the eaves, the clay tile roof barely holding on — is truly stuck between your modern apartment on one side and another piece of the future on the other.


A well-used path, shadowed by a tunnel of vines, leads to a small, decrepit building behind your neighbor’s house, something you might think is a shed until you see the small smokestack butting out from the broken roof.


People used to make a fire in that building; might still do, winter is not yet upon us.


Leaving the apartment you step out on a narrow street lined with a mix of very old or very new buildings.20150824_173449

Though it is not a one-way street, cars can only go one way; there isn’t room for cars to pass and so all the traffic flows to and from the end of the block where there is a large outdoor café surrounded by tiny shops and even smaller cafés. No matter how small the shop (some barely have room for one customer), all of them have a table on the sidewalk out front.1a

Regardless of what’s inside or the time of day, there is always someone sitting at the table drinking coffee from a cup no bigger than what you might find in a toy kitchen accessory kit.


Even if the cup is tiny, and then the server only puts about two swallows of thick black espresso into the cup, people will sit there and sip from that cup for hours.


Pass the large café is a busy street (if you use the crosswalk, the cars will stop, but only if you use the crosswalk), and that leads you to a beautiful park with cobble pathways leading every which way.

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No matter which way you go, you will quickly come across an outdoor café.

There are park benches lining all the paths, and there are always people sitting there, always smoking and talking with quiet animation.

You see small signs telling you things in a language you can’t read, or giving you directions to places you can’t recognize.



If you go through the park a short ways you will see, off to your left, another cobblestone pathway. But this one stands out because, hanging from the trees are a hundred umbrellas, the kind of umbrella you might use on a rainy day. IMG_4357

They are yellow umbrellas and red umbrellas and all of them are open, just waiting to shade you from whatever is overhead, wet or dry. Going into this parasol tunnel you realize it is, for lack of a better description, a strip mall.


But it is unlike any strip mall you’ve ever seen. Shops selling everything from high-end fashion purses to the newest in designer footwear seem familiar enough, but then you come across the vender selling macaroni and cheese – to go. Next to a pizza restaurant is a currency exchange, and beside the walk-in pharmacy is a gypsy with one leg, playing the accordion.

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Following the umbrellas you go down another path (nothing but outdoor cafés) and then it opens up into what is clearly the town square (surrounded, of course, by more outdoor cafés). In the center of the square is a large monument, a tall serene hero carrying a grim look and a rifle.

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Apparently he was one of the guys who helped overthrow the Ottomans.


Most people pay little attention to him, except the little girls using his pedestal as a make-believe Barbie house.


This would be the place James Bond would meet his contact. You search the faces, looking for someone who might be a double agent.

The old man feeding the pigeons might actually be a contract killer,

IMG_4416 but then you see he is just a nice grandpa, taking the baby out for a stroll.


The man over there is wearing a familiar cap, but he seems too interested in his newspaper to pay you any attention.IMG_4419 The headlines seem dramatic in any language.

Another man catches you eye, and you glance away. When you look back up, he is gone.IMG_4467

Might be time for you to move, too.

Crossing a bridge over a bubbling creek, you notice iron plaques along the bridge fences.

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Here, even the horses are menacing.IMG_4426

You cross through old irrigation canals, aqueducts perhaps, the ones built by the Romans.


You take the side streets, finding more monuments to more dead soldiers, all fierce in drab concrete and menacing stares.IMG_4435 IMG_4430

 A foot-fountain at first looks very inviting, IMG_4385

until you notice the playful imps are not really all that playful.IMG_4386 (2)

The back roads seem familiar, the houses like ones you have seen in New Orleans or Savannah, also very old cities that, you now remember, are famous for their European influence.

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Back into the park, you run into more monuments, this time not so sinister.IMG_4473 They are men (always men) wearing ties and, sometimes, carrying a book. One you learn is actually a famous poet.IMG_4412


 From the park you cut back toward the center of town and the square that now opens up even wider, a long brick and marble corridor leading to an imposing building. Fountains lead the way, always kids frolicking nearby, people stopping to take photos.




The monuments here seem friendlier, almost whimsical.

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You don’t know what this guy is holding, but he seems innocent enough.20150824_125452

The fountain corridor leads into a deep crater of marble, the largest of all the fountains splashing against large slabs of granite.

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The artwork surrounding the center fountain, however, does not look that inviting. IMG_4390



This guy never seems to take his eyes off you.

This would be the place for the climactic battle scene, paratroopers slamming into the deck, the gray army firing missiles, tanks crashing through the trees.


You run toward the big, imposing building, something about it seeming to draw you in. It looks exactly like what it once was, headquarters for the Communist Party, built, no less, on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

But now it seems not that frightening. A foreign flag flies above the crusted bronze words embedded into the building, but alongside that flag is one with stars and stripes.

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 You get close and see a large billboard-sized sign, what appears to be a pretty clever marketing strategy.



Looking at all the square-boxed windows (a few, but only a few, include an air conditioner), you know that this building, protected by armed guards, metal detectors and a security-card entry system, is your safe house. Although you can’t see it from here, you know that, looking out the window of your designated space is, inextricably, a pink flamingo.


Once inside you can relax, surrounded by books and people in honest pursuit of an education. Here you can do what you do best, teach and write and listen for the muse. You are safe, for now. Soon you will have to leave and once again walk along some invisible edge, but there is time enough for that. After all, it’s just a movie, isn’t it?20150804_105726

New Friends, New Food


I have been documenting the oddity of Bulgaria, the experiences of an American not in America, and there are moments nearly every day where I do pause and ponder either my own naiveté or the very backwardness of a culture that accepts warm milk as normal or still believes you can indeed get sick from a cold draft. Over here, you have to push a door open when you think you should pull, and the whole shower-bathroom thing still confounds me like no other.

But while my observations are often just weak (and smart-alecky) attempts to compare and contrast the differences between two cultures, I must also take note of a Bulgarian trait that continues to impress and surprise me in the most profound ways. These people are extremely friendly, especially to a foreigner. Even though I consider Chicago one of the friendliest cities I have ever lived, too often I have seen discrimination and general intolerance toward people who do not speak English or who are seen, by various prejudicial social definitions, as somehow having less value than the native born. Though it is truly a land of immigrants, America’s continued intolerance of immigrants should astonish everyone at the level of personal embarrassment, like maybe getting caught with your pants down. I sometimes wonder if people who support English-only laws or who think Mexicans are nothing but rapists and thieves ever consider their own ethnic genealogy. At some point in American history, everyone was The Other.

I’m now beginning to think all of us should spend some time in a foreign land. Living in Bulgaria has not changed my general open and liberal attitude toward others, but it certainly has given me a new found respect for the immigrant experience. I am generally treated with amused curiosity by the locals, a level of overall kindness and helpfulness mixed with seemingly genuine affection. They seem to like that I am here, and are clearly determined to help me adjust.

Leading that mission is my new friend, Joseph Pilov. Like me, he is a new visiting professor at AUBG, coming here from Dallas where he was something of a computer whiz for Microsoft. However, he is also a Bulgarian native and former AUBG graduate. This means he knows the language and the local landscape, the two most glaring weaknesses in my new-found status as an expatriate. We meet my second day here and, despite me being about 20 years older and coming from a completely different discipline, we immediately hit it off and have talked or hung out nearly every day.

He has been more than helpful, what I could only call way beyond the call of duty as my cultural guide and confidant. I’m not exactly sure what he is getting out of our relationship, but he continues to reach out, sometimes for nothing more than conversation. I truly believe he sees me as a friend, and my life is enriched by it.


Joseph, my new friend

It was Joseph who helped me become mobile. When he learned that, like him, I wanted to buy a used bicycle, he made it a priority. Earlier this week he and I spent an entire day calling around and visiting various shops or going to see locals with a used bike for sale. Our search was limited to people who had more than one bike, but Joseph made it clear that, if we only found one, he wanted me to have it. Luckily, we found a guy who literally was selling bikes from the back of his truck. We eventually selected two decent bikes, went to a bike repair shop for adjustments, and even found some good locks at Kaufland. My new bike is an old 10-speed, rusty with a slightly warped front wheel, and has the step-through frame designed for women. I don’t mind. It works well enough, cost me only 100 lev (roughly $60) and gets me around town pretty quickly.


Going Mobile: Mine and Joseph’s new bikes

But what’s been really cool about Joseph is him turning me on to local eating spots and Bulgarian cuisine. He has literally taken me to places far off the tourist path. A local bakery that specializes in banista, a flaky pastry with fruit or cheese, has become my new favorite breakfast place. In Old Town, the oldest part of this very old city, I learned that tarator is an excellent cold yogurt soup, very refreshing on a hot day. And at a roadside stand I had my first kebaptche, literally a long sausage meatball on a stick, a far more interesting choice for fast food than anything I ever got at McDonald’s. I would like to think I would have made these discoveries on my own, but having Joseph along for the journey has made it immensely more enjoyable.


My First Kebaptche

Another example of local friendliness came the other night when a neighbor knocked on my apartment door at about 9 p.m. He was a big man with a big burly mustache and looks like what might be a caricature of a classic Bulgarian. As soon as I opened the door he immediately began telling me something that I could tell was, for him, very, very important. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

“Ne razberiam,” I told him, practicing what little Bulgarian I know by telling him I did not understand. “English?” I asked him. “Do. You. Speak. English?”

He looked at me for a second, clearly understanding our predicament, but then immediately started up again, speaking Bulgarian in quick animated sentences. He starting pointing down the stairs of our apartment building and using his hands to illustrate something I could not possibly understand.

“Ne, ne,” I pleaded. “Ne razberiam. Ne Bừlgarski.” I pointed at myself. “American. Ne Bừlgarski!

I gestured for him to wait a second while I ran for my phone, thinking if my Google translator didn’t work that I could call Joseph. But when I got back he had been joined by what I now know was his wife. She was talking on her phone which she then handed to me.

“Hello?” I said hesitantly. The person on the other end quickly identified herself, in perfect English, as the couple’s daughter who lives in Sofia, the national capital about 100 kilometers to the north. She told me her parents were worried about my bicycle, which I had been parking – at my landlady’s request – in a secluded area behind our apartment building. Even though I had my new lock on it, her parents were certain it would be stolen. “They think gypsies will take it,” she said.

As it turns out, the daughter is a 2012 AUBG graduate and a little embarrassed by her parents continued fear of gypsies, a segment of the Bulgarian society apparently descended from Indian slaves dating back to the brutal Ottoman Empire about a thousand years ago. I’ve seen them, salvagers mostly in horse-drawn carts, sometimes begging in the town square, no different I suppose than any other economically disenfranchised group anywhere in the world, just people who got the short end of history’s advantage stick.

Apparently my neighbors’ hand gestures were his way of suggesting that I park my bike in the hallway near their first-floor unit. “They know you are a new American professor,” the daughter told me. “They want you to be okay in Blagoevgrad. It’s a good town, they don’t want anything bad to happen.”

I gave the phone back to my neighbors, who had been watching me talk to their daughter with a look of parental pride I could recognize anywhere. I thanked the man, in both English and Bulgarian, and we shared a genuinely strong handshake, just two men anywhere coming to an understanding. After they left, I immediately put on some shoes so I could go and move my bike. However, by the time I got down to the first floor, there was my bike, still locked and now leaning neatly against the wall near my neighbor’s apartment.


My Bike’s New Safe Place

Kindness is universal, I know this, but it was such a cool moment for me because of my general anxiety toward being so much out of place. The language, the customs, the general foreignness of my new life here, I found this act of kindness so comforting, yet another example of why I know I will be fine. My landlady taking me grocery shopping, Joseph taking me under his wing, the neighbor moving my bike for me, all I take to be signs of a genuine acceptance I honestly had not anticipated. I am a born cynic, hardened even more by my years in journalism, but these people are quietly convincing me that I have little to fear here. I still can’t get used to having to turn on the water heater whenever I need hot water, and doing my laundry in the kitchen is just kind of weird, but I do not regret moving here. It might always be a strange land, but the people here might not always be strangers.

Getting Cable: Have a great day!!


I’m guessing the Chicago Cubs will eventually let me down,  and I certainly should not put much money on Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, but my attempts to watch American sports on either my laptop or on my tiny flat screen television has been both tremendously entertaining and incredibly frustrating. Apparently I can get all the Russian news shows I want, and channels with people dancing and singing are a dime a dozen (whatever that means), but it appears that the American television services I already pay for are only for Americans who are actually in America.

One of the reasons I took this apartment was that it had cable television and Internet service, or at least that was how it was sold to me. I honestly don’t care that much to have 114 channels (either in Bulgarian or English), but I discovered last summer during my Florida sabbatical that it’s hard to live off the grid. I don’t just want WiFi at home, I need it. And I certainly can survive a year without watching the Cubs or Bears, but I have long been invested in both their stories and I hate not seeing how a story ends.

Despite how it was advertised, when I moved in there naturally was no cable or Internet. Through my interpreter, Stoyan, the landlady promised me these would be installed “very soon.” A week later it was finally communicated to me that if I was at my apartment at 10:00 that morning, the cable people would be there to install my services. Naturally they didn’t show up until 11:00 (it seems ‘cable time’ here is the same as in America).

At first it was three young me in an unmarked panel van. I could tell they were the cable company because they were wearing matching blue shirts that said “Netsurf” on the front. I met them at the locked gate entrance to my apartment building (well, it does lock and there is a key that makes it lock, but I have been told to just leave the key in the lock and so I do). Once we got past the language barrier and I showed them my apartment on the third floor (it is actually on the second floor but this is Bulgaria and so I live in apartment 3A), they went to work on the outside of my building.

Mostly, however, it was two guys watching the third guy do something with a big roll of cable. Here’s how it looked from my balcony:



After they spent about a half hour looking at the building and the roll of cable, two more men showed up. They came into my apartment again and looked at what is clearly a cable-outlet in my living room and then they stared for a long time at an electrical box in the hall. They had a very animated conversation that, from the outside, seemed to indicate they were quite puzzled as to actually install the cable. They went back outside and worked again on the building itself. One of the men even retrieved a pick axe from his truck and then disappeared around the back of the building.

Mostly, though, they stood around and looked at things and talked.


Finally, after about two hours, a man not wearing a blue Netsurf shirt showed up. It became clear very quickly that he was some kind of supervisor. He was wearing a stripped dress shirt, denim shorts and flip flops. From my balcony perch I could watch and hear him speak very loudly to the others, one or two of whom rolled their eyes at one another. The supervisor had also brought what was clearly a home-made ladder and, after inspecting the outside electrical box, began barking orders and soon everyone was off, very quickly, to do whatever he suggested. I saw one of them walking to the back of the building carrying what was clearly a car tire attached to two wooden boards. The guy with the pick axe followed him. Again, I am not making this up, they needed a pick axe and a car tire to install my cable.

I was going to go around back and see just what the hell they were doing but right about then my landlady showed up. I call her Christina because that is the closest approximation I have to how her name is pronounced, but on my lease (in Bulgarian and English) it is spelled Hrciuecha (although this is my English translation of the Cyrillic alphabet my keyboard cannot duplicate). Anyway, Christina had words with the man in the stripped shirt and then she explained (to my phone) that “big problem” was being fixed “very soon.” She then pantomimed putting a gun to her and head and pulling the trigger. Some things don’t need translation.

Christina and I sat in my apartment for another two hours. Given that we cannot talk to one another except through a phone, we began showing each other pictures of our children. Six people were coming in and out of the building, my apartment and, for a long time, in the hallway.



The workers watch the supervisor (on his ladder) working in the hallway and in my apartment.

A couple of times the supervisor came in and talked to Christina and then, once, he smiled at me, gave me a thumbs up, and said “have a great day!” He then drove off in his BMW sedan.

I assumed this meant ‘big problem’ was fixed, an assumption endorsed when three of the workers came into my apartment with what was clearly a modem and router. They moved my furniture around, drilled holes and at one point began cutting and pasting together chunks of the baseboard they had earlier removed. It looked like this:


Finally, at about 6:30 p.m., the men packed up their tools and I thought any minute now they were going to show me how to log onto the Internet. Instead, they spoke to Christina who then told my telephone that “television good, Internet not good,” and that the men would return the next day. “You be here at 11?” she asked my phone. “Absolutely!” I responded. Abconhotho!

Naturally they didn’t show up until 12, at first three men, then two more and about an hour later the man in the same stripped shirt. Two hours later Christina returned, I believe someone had called her, perhaps the supervisor who then immediately left. She and I waited for a long time out on my balcony.


The ever-patient Christina sitting on my very-small balcony.

Finally, the youngest of the workers came into my apartment and turned on the TV. The very first image was of people dressed in traditional Bulgarian outfits and dancing what looked like the Polka. The cable guy then showed me some functions on my remote control, including picture-in-picture. And when the tiny second picture came on, it was of a man and woman having graphic sex. Everybody laughed so I did, too. It took the worker a second to switch to another scene of people dancing.

And then he showed me how to get on the Internet. My network is called “RON” and my password is a bunch of numbers and then “RON.” It worked just fine, everybody left, and I was left to surf the web how I pleased. All total, installing my cable took about 10 hours over a two day period. But I was tickled pink because now, I figured, I could use my laptop to tune into ESPN or WGN and see how the Cubs are doing.

“Your provider is not equipped to steam this video,” the message said. I tried every service where I have an account, like Hulu Plus or Comcast Xfinity. They all gave me similar messages, that the shows I wanted to watch are not available outside of the United States. That can’t be right, I thought. This is the World Wide Web, why can’t I watch anything in the world?

And that’s how I wound up, around midnight that night, having a typed conversation with a man in India. To get American television in Bulgaria I had to go through India. Global village, indeed. I had gone on to the Comcast website to find out if there was any service they offered that would let me upgrade my already-existing Xfinity account to get streaming video in Bulgaria. We chatted for a long time and I kept a transcript of our conversation. Here is an edited version:

Nitish: Hello RON, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Nitish. Please give me one moment to review your information.

Nitish: It’s a privilege to have you here on chat and I am looking forward to provide you excellent service!

RON:  Hi, I am currently living in Eastern Europe but would like to access my Comcast Xfinity online service from the United States. I know you guys are not currently available outside of the US, but I was wondering if you might have any suggestions?

Nitish: Hello, Ron. How are you?

RON: Good. It’s just that the Chicago Cubs are having a good year and I sure wish I could see them. Any chance of that?

Nitish: Great to know it, Ron. May I know which service you want to use?

RON: Hmmm. Internet streaming?

Nitish: Ron, I wish I could suggest something on this. I am afraid to tell you that you cannot use internet streaming in Eastern Europe, as the internet connection work thru Modem/router and Cable connection. I would like to tell you that you can Watch T.v online everywhere online.

RON: Rats. That’s what I figured. I cannot get ESPN here and, honestly, that leaves a void in my life.

Nitish: May I know what error you are getting while trying to watch ESPN channels?

RON: I get a general error message that says streaming is not available, to try again later.

Nitish: I am sorry to hear that you are facing issue to watch ESPN online. Do not worry. I will do my best to resolve your issue by the end of this chat.

RON: Hey, thanks! I was hoping I could upgrade or something like that?

Nitish: Sure, I will also provide you the best deal for you. Sounds good?

RON: If I can watch American baseball and American football, I will pay good money for that.

Nitish: May I know the channels name, you would like to watch?


Nitish: Thanks for confirming.

Nitish: Please allow me 2 minute to check your account information. How’s your day going?

RON: Well, been a long day. It’s been exciting and very interesting living in a foreign culture. About the only things I’m really missing are baseball, good coffee and peanut butter.

Nitish: Even I like peanut butter.

RON: Are you in the United States?

Nitish: I am from India, Ron. Have you ever visited here?

RON: Not yet, it is a place I want to go. One of my good friends is from India. He is a great guy but is kind of lousy at poker.

Nitish: Great! I hope you would visit India soon, and taste the great food of here.

[He had me switch from Google Chrome to Internet Explorer and then asked about the local Internet provider]

Nitish: Please open Then enter your user name and password to log in, then please try to watch ESPN.

RON: Hang on, I’m trying it again.

Nitish: Sure, please do. The best deal for you is Starter XF Triple Play in which you will get 140+ Cable Channels and 75 mbps Internet Speed & Unlimited Nationwide Talk and Text in just $99.00/mo for good 24 months.

RON: Isn’t that what I have now? Only, without the phone service?

Nitish: Yes, you internet and Cable will remain same, you are getting new service which is Phone with free nationwide calling.

RON: But I don’t need free nationwide calling, I’m not in the nation. I’m outside the nation, so why do I need free nationwide calling?

Nitish: I apologize for the inconvenience. Please allow me a minute to check it for you. Also please provide me your best contact number, I will also esclate your this issue to the higher department, as I too do not want you to face any issue by watching T.v online.

RON: That’s okay, Nitish. I know you are trying to help me and also sell something your bosses want you to sell.

Nitish: I must say you are the coolest, talkative and cooperative customer I have ever assisted. What is the best time contact you?

RON: Thanks. I don’t think Comcast is going to help me with this problem. If they cannot stream globally, then I will have to approach this another way.

Nitish: You’re welcome. I truly want to help you, Ron. I hope you will give me a 1 change to make your negative experience into positive one.

RON: Okay, but how? Another department is just going to tell me Comcast is not available in Bulgaria and then try to sell me something I can’t use.

Nitish: I will first do some remote troubleshooting from my system. Then if it won’t get fixed. I will escalate your issue to the higher department.

RON: Okay, I don’t mind waiting, but I don’t want to waste your time. You probably have better things to do.

Nitish: Ron, I will be more glad if I will fix your issue on this chat. However, I would be happy to escalate your issue to the higher department as I want you to watch ESPN.

Nitish: I am working on your account, Ron.

Nitish: I have done all the possible steps from my system. May I please ask you to check it again now?

RON: Thank you very much, but it’s not working. It’s kaput, nada, a big nothing.

Nitish: It is my pleasure to help you, Ron. Could you please provide me your best contact number?

RON: Okay, but I don’t know if anyone in India or American can call me. I don’t have an international number.

Nitish: I really apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for giving me your contact number. May I know what time of day is best to contact you?

RON: Hmmm, your time or my time? For you it might be three in the morning.

Nitish: There are no additional steps needed to resolve this issue. Our technician team will handle any troubleshooting and resolve this for you. You will also get a call. They will surely help you in this.

RON: I kind of doubt that, but, hey, thanks for trying.

Nitish: You’re very welcome, it’s my pleasure to help you. Thank you for choosing XFINITY and have a great day!

POSTSCRIPT: Comcast did call the next day at 11:45 p.m. my time. The very nice lady suggested I should not cancel my Comcast account even though it will be impossible for me to get Comcast in Bulgaria. I thanked her for calling. She said, “your welcome.” I then followed the advice of others from campus and downloaded a Virtual Proxy Network that masquerades my computer’s IP address so that, to another computer, it appears that I am in the United States. I haven’t been here two weeks but I’m already a cyberspace criminal. Will the Cubs be worth it?


Update: Food & Maps

My most recent post regarding my search for a map was actually written several days ago; I still don’t have the Internet at my apartment. Since then I discovered a small grocery store near my apartment. Look what I found:


Yaaa! Apparently my problem was that I was looking for milk in the dairy section or in some refrigerated area. This being Bulgaria, the milk is packaged in a heavy-cardboard box and is kept near the soft drinks and liquor. Yes, it is warm. According to the package directions, you are supposed to put the milk “in a cool dry place” once it is opened. I assume they don’t mind, but I now have my milk in the fridge.

Another grocery item I needed was tin foil. Here was my first attempt:


Well, it looked like the kind of package we use for tin foil back home. But instead it was the Bulgarian version of Saran Wrap. Okay, I said, I needed that, too. I went back to the store the next day and found this:


I don’t always do a close read of package labels, a trait that still irritates my kids, but when I saw the word ‘foil’ I thought it was indeed foil. Wouldn’t you. But no, of course not, it is another version of Saran Wrap. Of course it is.

Still no peanut butter, a quest I have not abandoned, but my visit to the southern campus bookstore did indeed produce this:


As the cover makes clear, the map is in Bulgarian AND in English. Yippee. The cover also features an artistic rendering of the town square and basically shows the view outside my campus office window. Way cool. I’m now that classic tourist dork walking around town, folding and unfolding a paper map. I think the image kind of suits me.

You Can’t Get There From Here


In philosophy or linguistics, the concept of ‘here’ seems to be a constant. When we talk about getting from here to there, geographically or socially, the only thing we care about, the only thing we are really talking about, is there. Language does not allow us to even exist without here. In other words, we can’t get there – can’t even talk about it – unless we are first here. Even if we don’t know where the fuck here is, like right here right now on this spot, we still can’t go over there, can’t take that first baby step, without first moving away from here. In that way, here is a constant, an unchanging phenomena that in essence defines our very existence. I am here because here is where I am.

Unless, of course, you find yourself in a foreign country without a map. I have been in Bulgaria for nearly a week now and I still (still!) cannot find here, there or anywhere. In a very real way, all I do is take up space. And, at the moment, that space is limited to just two physical locations: my apartment and the Main Building of the downtown AUBG campus. This is my life so far: I get up early (7ish), wander over to the campus one block away, and work on whatever agenda I have set for myself that day (mostly still learning how things work; yesterday I figured out the central printing system and getting a campus security ID). When I leave campus depends on the work and other circumstances (people, usually), and then I resume my ongoing quest to become hopelessly lost.

Basically, I started out by walking in a circle around the Main Building, and each day that circle gets wider. This is how I have discovered just how incredibly beautiful is Blagoevgrad (still can’t pronounce it, by the way, I think of it as ‘Blago,’ a fun inside joke that always makes me think of Blagojevich, the most recent Illinois governor to go to prison). I will eventually post a photo essay of the really cool sections of town, the parks and tiny shops, but for the moment each day my wandering has a particular objective: FIND A MAP.

Not just any map, but a real live fold-up paper map. The one kicker is that I want it to be in English.  I honestly didn’t think it would be this hard, but follow these steps with me. If you wanted a map, where would you go?

  • The campus library? Nope, they don’t even have a map of the campus, in English or Bulgarian.
  • The city tourist center? Nope. Not only do they not have any maps (of Blagoevgrad or even Bulgaria), they have no literature of any kind printed in English. All of this was explained to me by a pretty young woman behind the counter who spoke relatively-good English while constantly mopping her face with a towel (no AC, remember, and it was 92 degrees outside). I thought it rude for me to ask her how she could be running a tourism bureau and giving tourism advice without any maps, especially a map of the city she is promoting, but I just thanked her for her time (and her suggestion to try the library).
  • A general-interest bookstore? Nope. I found this place at the suggestion of Stoyan, the AUBG faculty coordinator (by the way, although he must deal with new American professors all the time, he still seemed surprised when I asked him about finding a map). He was right, though, the bookstore did have some maps, including a huge road map of Bulgaria (in Bulgarian, of course), but no maps of Blagoevgrad, which is the one I really want. Though I have no intentions of ever driving anywhere (that would indeed scare the crap out of me), I bought the road map of Bulgaria, mostly because I felt bad for the woman behind the counter who seemed to suffer my phone translator with little amusement.
  • A travel agency? I really thought this would be the ticket. A place that deals with traveling would surely have maps. Even if they had none to give away, I thought I could just take pictures of whatever maps they did have. But, the two women running the place seemed very surprised by my request, as if they had never heard of such a thing. They had, between them, very limited understanding of English, but my trusty smartphone worked well enough for me to understand they had maps of Greece and they had maps of Turkey and they had maps of Eastern Europe. But Blagoevgrad? In English? What a novel idea!

Still, they were genuinely interested in my quest and elected to join the fun. Both of them got on their phones and began calling around town. I could tell they were getting nowhere, so finally one of them gestured for me to follow her outside. You have to remember, it is hot as hell and this travel agent is in a dress and high heels, but we walked in silence for almost a full city block, our path of splintered cobblestones becoming very narrow, until we came to a tiny children’s bookstore tucked between a coffee shop and what I think was a casino. The woman in that bookstore also had bad news, no maps of any kind. However, she had an idea that my travel agent companion seemed to agree with.

Back outside, the travel agent pointed to a tall white building I had walked past a few times, not that far from campus. It looked like what in the states would be a standard office building. A sign on the building said “Largo.” She pointed that way again and said, “Largo. Three.” She then pointed up. “Three.” Using my phone, I asked her, “Largo building? Third Floor?” “Da,” she said, shaking her head yes (nodding here means no, another troublesome incongruity about Bulgaria, nothing here is what it seems). My phone thanked her very much (“blagodarya ti mnogo”) and we went our separate ways. I regret not being able to thank her in person.

And that was how I found the town mall. Other than the word Largo across the top, there were no other signs or any indication of what the building might be, not even a marked entrance way. I just timidly followed some people toward a door that opened automatically and then, bam, there I was, inside every mall I had ever been to in the states (the main anchors here are H&M and Gap). I took several escalators up to the third floor and, finding nothing that looked like anything that would have a map, I remembered where I was (nothing is what it seems). So I took another escalator up to the fourth floor and right away I spotted a bookstore.

Eureka! The woman behind the counter said “da” when my phone told her what I wanted. She had me follow her to the map section and she proudly pulled out a map sealed in plastic that said “Blagoevgrad” on the front. It was sitting right next to some books that proclaimed “Learning Bulgarian is Easy!” The irony was not lost on me but I don’t think she understood what I thought was so funny.

But here comes the sad part of the story. When I got home, I discovered that my new map, the one with a cover that boasted, in English, that it is “The Regional Travel Guide,” is in fact not written in English. It is in Bulgarian. Of course it is.


My New Blagoevgrad Map

(The white and green area in the center is the town square, home to the AUBG downtown campus; the only English you see is for a real estate advertisement on the left and then, on the right, is Largo — just in case I really needed to know where I bought the map)

You might ask (as everybody did), why I didn’t just download a map on my phone. And this is where the idea of who I am kicks in. I did in fact find a good map online, already have it downloaded and bookmarked on my home page, and it has an excellent navigational GPS system that shows me exactly how to get from here to there (even how long it should take walking [or riding a bike, my next big quest]), but getting directions is just half of what I expect from a map. It might be that I’m old school, like preferring to read a book printed on paper rather than in cyberspace (except for those excellent e-books by Michael McClelland, a good friend who gives me no kickback whatsoever for promoting his novels) but what I want to do is study a map, to look at the index and let my eye wander from one area to the next, quickly, to see other routes besides the one my phone has scientifically configured to be the fastest or most efficient. I want to see my apartment’s location in relationship to everything else, not just in quantified numbers of longitude and latitude calculated by a satellite flying overhead. I want a map of me in the here and now, not what my life will be like 20 minutes from now if I follow a certain course. I want a map of me but also for me. And, if it’s not too much to ask, I want it in English.

Tomorrow I plan on going to the campus bookstore (on the southern campus). I want to check on my class book orders, but I’m thinking that at a university whose student body is totally international, surely they must have been asked once or twice about a map. But, then again, that might be too obvious. After all, this is Bulgaria.

The Shopping Trip

For a short period of time, Elmhurst College had a professor-exchange program with a university in India. The second (and last) participant in that program was a theologian who seemed competent in many areas of academia. Real life, however, was not within his area of expertise. Within a few weeks he abandoned his classes and returned home, I imagine carrying with him all the facial contours that would truly illustrate the oft-used expression “to flee in horror.” He was a brilliant teacher but had totally underestimated his ability to navigate a foreign culture, in this case the ins-and-outs of life in a caste-less society. He had expected people to do things for him (laundry, cooking, etc.), a domestic arrangement he had enjoyed, apparently, during a life of privileged ignorance.

I thought of my lost colleague the other day when I went shopping for things I did not recognize in a store where everything was written in a language I could not read. That I was being guided by a woman who speaks no English only added to the surrealism. I told everyone I was moving to Bulgaria for the adventure, but I didn’t really expect that to start in a grocery store.

My apartment, only a block away from the AUBG campus, is in a new building that is still partially under construction. Apparently I am not only the first person to live here but it seems I am the only resident in the entire 4-story building. This means things are still being installed, like air conditioning. From the looks of it, they don’t believe in central heat and air in Bulgaria (not one place I have gone, not one apartment, not my office, not the classrooms where I will teach, have central anything).

And so today my landlady showed up with some technicians to install an air conditioner unit in my bedroom. It is not a window unit like we have in the states. Although it is not much bigger than a typical window unit, they installed it right into the wall (at my request, they put it right over my bed). Big drill, big holes, big mess. I’m not sure why they built the apartment without air conditioning, but I think the owners were simply waiting for some American to move in and ask for it. When I first toured the apartment with Stoyan acting as my interpreter, the landlady asked me if I wanted it. It was like 89 degrees outside, probably closer to 100 inside, and I was sweating profusely. I don’t think I said “duh” in response to her question, but Stoyan gave her a quick answer.


My New AC Unit

After she showed up today with the technicians, we played a little game of charades when it became clear that nothing I said made any sense to any of them, just so much gibberish all around. And so while the workers went to work, my landlady (I cannot pronounce her name and I will not presume to try to spell it here) sat on the couch and practiced the art of living in polite silence.

Finally, I showed her my Bulgaria travel book, the one I had been using to learn about the country and certain Bulgarian phrases. She liked that a lot, turning the pages and talking and pointing with great animation toward certain destinations that she was clearly insisting I needed to go see. Before leaving the states, I hired a student, Nora (Ahinora Georgieva in Bulgarian), to teach me certain phrases and this morning I tried a few of them on my landlord. She corrected my pronunciation a couple of times, but she was clearly impressed (thanks, Nora).

The cultural divide was jumped considerably, however, when I pulled out my ‘telephona’ with a real-cool translation application I had downloaded at the suggestion of Chris Travis, the world language chair at Elmhurst. It could not recognize everything she said (accents, I suppose), but it did fairly well with changing my English into something she understood perfectly. I shared her delight as we sat there and had a fairly good conversation about how I liked the apartment or how hard it was to learn a new language (she had taken some lessons in English a long time ago but found it too difficult; all she remembers now is “no problem.”)

And that was how I was able to ask her if she could give me directions to a store where I could get food stuff but also other necessities, like towels and an electric fan (my sweating had continued unabated and I had little faith in the little AC unit they were putting over my bed). Using my phone she told me she would take me to a store when the workers were finished. I thanked her (“mersi”) but told her she didn’t have to do that. If she could just point me in the right direction….

“Ne,” she said, pointing at me and herself and then holding onto an imaginary steering wheel. “No problem.”

And that was how I found myself in Kaufeland, the Bulgarian version of Walmart, with a woman I could not communicate with except to point and grunt (my phone translator died for lack of connection). I can only guess what we looked like, a smartly-dressed native and a big sweaty doofus in baggy shorts, walking around pointing at things and grinning as though everything was tremendously funny.

She was clearly enjoying herself as well, essentially teaching me what it means to be Bulgarian (the bananas go in a plastic bag, never into the cart itself, you always grind your own black pepper, and when you buy something electronic, like a very small, cheap iron, you immediately go to the service desk to authenticate the warranty and to, of course, plug it in). A lot of things I recognized (pasta here looks just like pasta back home), but most everything else was a complete mystery. I did find strawberry jam, but peanut butter was not anything I could pantomime. I held up some bread in one hand, the jam in another, and tried to tell her something in the middle was missing. She just smiled. “No problem.”

I now have items in my cabinets that I do not know what they are. She simply put them in my cart, including what I thought was a pound of hamburger meat (well, it looked like hamburger meat but instead is some kind of bologna that tastes a lot like Spam). When she realized I wanted to make spaghetti, she grabbed some little bags of various spices that I still need to look up. I think one of them is oregano, but there are four others I cannot recognize. And I don’t know what to do with them once I open the little bag (I saw no bottled spices like the ones that line American shelves).

The only real disaster (so far) was the milk. When we were in the dairy section of the store, I did not see any gallon jugs of anything. Instead, there were small plastic bottles of what looked like milk. I had found some cereal and so I held up the cereal box, pointed at the dairy section, and tried to pantomime eating a bowl of cereal. My only guess is that Bulgarians don’t eat their cereal the way we do because the bottle she picked out for me, I rudely discovered the next day, was a quart of buttermilk (I had already gone to a shop near my apartment and bought what I thought was chocolate milk, I’m still gagging from it).

I also have two different kinds of butter (she insisted), pepper but no salt, and a large carton of what I thought was yogurt but is instead something I cannot identify (it tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten, but given the large quantity of it at the store it is very popular in Bulgaria; I will throw it away once I find a hazardous waste dump).


Not Milk

It is patience, I believe, that the Indian professor lacked when he attempted to live and work in America. He could neither understand nor forgive the foreignness of everything around him. I believe my first attempt at grocery shopping was mostly a success but I recognize it for what it was, a newcomer learning his way around. I am indeed a stranger in a strange land, but I believe, with practice, I will learn how to buy milk. It might be I will have to live without peanut butter, but I do not feel the horror of being totally lost. I’m going to be fine here. No problem.