33 thousand feet in the clouds
Depth tells the best stories
For a few hours I'm 33 thousand feet tall. A new landscape unfolds bellow my wings. The snow adds a layer of depth to the unfolding; depth that sets the tone for the journey ahead. Depth tells the best stories. Chicago will be about being 33 thousand feet tall, about words that become images, about meeting old friends and making new ones.
A gay couple greets me warmly. They are my Airbnb hosts, an hour away from downtown Chicago. The film premiere is in a different suburb. When I was booking a place to stay I didn’t realize Chicago yawned and stretched so far and out. An hour later an Uber driver picks me up. We talk about the US and the world. “The deep State runs everything. They have put a shadow government in place,” she tells me. I listen and ask questions. “One person refused to get in the car because of my Trump sticker. I didn’t get mad. It’s a free country to do as you please.” “Do as you wish, as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” I add. She nods. She is afraid to put out most Trump souvenirs, she gets them from a different state (she points to a big box in the front passenger seat). She will sell the contents of the box at a swop market over the weekend. I learn that the election was stolen, Trump is the sitting president, he controls the Navy and the Air Force and has access to… “the what do you call it, the suitcase…” “The suitcase with the nuclear codes?” “Yes that one,” she confirms. Before I get out I ask, “Do you think he will win the election?” She doesn’t think so, drives away, Trump’s head plastered on the back window. I tip her in the Uber app.
The waiter at the Bulgarian restaurant keeps switching between English and Bulgarian when talking to us in loud, exaggerated, half sentences. I’m there to have dinner with a Bulgarian immigrant. I fall in love with his paintings, he’s also an author. “Two of my great-grandparents died in Macedonia. They inspired one of my books,” he tells me. He is a History buff. He warns me to stay away from Macedonia this summer. They think of Bulgarians as oppressors and fascists. This is news to me. Propaganda - it depends who you ask. I tell him my roots reach and wrap around Ohrid in Northern Macedonia. My great-grandfather belonged to the VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) and died in a gunfight in the 1930s. But that’s a whole other story…
A young man was beaten up a few weeks prior in Macedonia for his pro-Bulgarian views. The assailants break his jaw, he needs reconstructive face surgery. The police do nothing. The hospital discharges him without treatment. The Bulgarian government sends an airplane to pick him up, he is treated in Sofia. “It's not safe to go to Macedonia now. But when this passes you should visit…” and the painter names all the places to go.
33 thousand feet take me back to the gay couple. They offer me a glass of wine - they’re both flight attendants, 55 and soon to be 61. The younger is from Puerto Rico and speaks with a slight accent. He’s the baby, the youngest of eight sisters. He has a few more siblings from the first marriage of his father, before his father’s young wife died and he remarried - to the babysitter. A sister calls while we talk. She lives in Spain. He was brought up Pentecostal. I learn Pentecostalism fosters a direct personal experience with God. He tells me his family was very conservative: Women and men didn’t shave; women wore only dresses; everything had to be natural. He didn't come out until he was in his 30s after 18 years of being married to a woman. He divorced her when his father died in his 90s. "I would have killed him.” “You mean, telling him you were gay would,” I clarify. “Yes, it would have been the end of him.” He is a father too. A few years back, his son, who is very religious, tells him he has had a vision and can't accept his father being gay. They haven't talked since.
His partner, the older of the two, was an altar boy, brought up Catholic, wanted to be a priest. Instead, he became a funeral director in the mid 80s and retired in 2012. He's very comfortable talking about death. Suffering from postnatal depression, his sister-in-law… he makes a gesture and slits his throat with his index finger. He ends up raising his two nephews for the next six years. “How are the children today?” “Oh, married, in good careers, thriving.”
I ask them for their opinion on the recent gender movement. "You're either straight, bi or gay," says one of them. “Your name should be enough to define you, the rest is private and nobody’s business.” We're all human in the end. I find out they are deeply rooted in their faiths and believe life happens as ordered from above. The older one says, "My co-workers keep saying The Universe this, The Universe that - if that's how they want to refer to God, so be it." One of them really wants to visit… “what’s the name of, that country...” His partner and I start naming countries. “Dubai, that’s it. The United Arab Emirates.” The airline he works for has issued a statement - “They told us that if we choose to fly there or venture beyond the hotel, we’re on our own.” In Dubai, they behead people for being gay. Some parts of the world are off limits to my hosts and I'm surprised to learn an other such place is Jamaica - the land of dreads, reggae and weed. “We don’t work those flights. They’re very conservative there.” “How is it in Bulgaria?”
Trump comes up again, but this time as ‘you know who’. “We will never recover from the damage he inflicted. He gave people a license to say whatever is on their mind,” they say, one more passionate than the other. “But even before him, people were not any different, right? They were having the same prejudiced thoughts, but didn't voice them…” Both agree, with some objections. I feel very comfortable speaking my mind around them, “Is it possible he exposed our shadow?” We briefly discuss Carl Jung. How do we measure the health of a society? What is the metric? Do I want to live a life where my neighbor has destructive thoughts about me, but keeps smiling? Do I want my children to grow up in such a society? Perhaps we have been given this challenge to turn language into medicine.
The night finishes with their observations on cell phones and how, as flight attendants, they regularly confront parents who don't know what to do with their children offline. "Read a book," adds one, rolling his eyes. “My airline just reintroduced coloring books,” chimes in his partner. The next morning they're watching a movie on the Hallmark channel. Observing them I get warm and cozy inside.
33 feet above takes me to the premiere of "Kaval Park". I learn we're sold out and our hosts have had to turn people away. An audience member sums up the mood.
“This film is a lesson, at least for me, it is a painting. Just as an icon tells about the life of a saint, so here, in one image, are concentrated key notions about the time in which we live, have lived and will live...
But how to live? Do we have Alexander’s courage not to be spiteful, vindictive, to forgive in search for only perfection?”
After the premiere, several Bulgarians come up to offer their services and ideas to help the cause… And I tell myself that nothing can replace being a part of a community. The volunteers are putting chairs away. A few guests linger talking, checking out books from the Bulgarian library spanning an entire wall. The donation box is full. A man tells me he came already in a positive mood, but the film has taken him beyond happiness… and his words trail away and they become images I wish to capture. I smile. The following weekend, 33 thousand feet up in the clouds, I will fly again…
See all the photos and a video from Chicago here
This Sunday and Monday we will post all the photos from Philadelphia here.
Are you Bulgarian?
We have an exciting new blog post for you in Bulgarian here.
Next “Kaval Park” showings & tickets
We keep adding destinations so be sure to scroll down next time and check!
Vancouver, BC - February 25th - Buy Tickets Now
Chicago - April 27th - More information
New York - May 18th - More information (The showing is at the Bulgarian embassy and it’s without tickets. Please RSVP by replying to this email to reserve a seat.)
Seattle - May 21st - Buy Tickets Now
Greetings from Philadelphia!