Sep 22, 2014

Growing up in Missions, Memoir Project Excerpt 3: Arriving

The political situation settled down, the best-we-could-do language lessons around Grandma’s table came to an end, and we got ready to fly.  All our stuff that wasn’t stored, sold, or crated went into oversized suitcases and heavy-duty gray-blue footlockers.  We got on the plane and headed over the ocean--it was a big 747, and in those pre-9/11 days, the Air France stewardesses woke me up and took me upstairs to see the cockpit.  “How neat!” said Dad.

We landed in Paris for a twelve-hour layover--I’ve since been back to Charles De Gaulle and hated it, but at the time it was too big and too much on too little sleep to form anything like an opinion of the structure as such.  Architecture aside, the experience was amazing.  Barely had we gotten off the plane when we saw a Givenchy billboard, a blue-tinted artsy thing in which the model held up a bottle of perfume next to her naked breast.  Welcome to Europe!  My passport received its first stamp, which I looked at with great admiration.  As we wandered through the place debating a course of action, we got to stand behind police lines and watch airport security destroy someone’s unattended luggage with a heavy blast cover and some kind of small detonation, and across from the detonation?  Another Givenchy billboard.

From bombs to breasts the airport was amazing, but my first encounter with jetlag wasn’t going well.  The original plan had been to get a hotel room, leave our stuff there, and spend a few hours in Paris.  The first two bits went all right, but when it came time to leave, everyone was asleep, and even making it back to the airport on time was a struggle.

We flew in dress clothes.  I’ve since learned that this custom was a carryover from the days when flying was a luxurious experience reserved for the upper class.  By the time we flew, the back end of a 747 was about as far from that as you can get without sleeping in the luggage bin.  At first I just accepted that you flew in dress clothes because you flew in dress clothes.  Later in my teens I rebelled against it and demanded a reason; Mother replied, in so many words, that this way if the plane went down I wouldn’t die looking like a plebe.  I envisioned the charred ashes of my corpse in the mangled remains of an airplane and tried, not to care whether there were buttons melted into the blackened ruin of my shirt, but to imagine what it might be like to care about such a thing.  Couldn’t quite manage it, funnily enough.

At the time Bulgaria was a cash-based economy.  There were no personal checks, no one knew what travelers’ checks were, not a single establishment in the whole of the country accepted credit cards, attempts to describe ATMs were met with blank stares.  Wire transfers from the West were a tortuous affair, in-country transfers between competing banks were often impossible, and even at the bank where we eventually settled, the simplest transactions were a bureaucratic nightmare of running back and forth between various counters, windows, and cashiers to dot all the i’s on triplicate authorization forms.

These two asides intersected with the story at hand when Z and I found that certain pockets of our nice flying clothes were sewn shut.  We felt them, puzzled, worried.  “Mom there’s something in my pocket!” said Zachary.
“Shhht!” came the replied, in wide-eyed, panicky anger, as if that wouldn’t draw way more attention.
“Mom I think it’s--”
“SHHHT!” louder this time, eyes opened wider, head quivering.

They had sewn thousands of dollars in crisp new hundreds into our pockets.  Welcome to missions!  You are now a helpmeet to your parents’ calling; your identity, time, social life, personal space, and possessions are now irrelevant, and just forget about trifles like “right to be told what’s going on around you” or “input,” let alone “consent.”  If Mom and Dad need you to smuggle currency, then smuggle currency you shall, and it’ll be a funny story to share with their supporters in the decades to come.  “Hey kids!  Remember that time when we first came to Bulgaria and you found the money in your pockets!  *Snrk*!”  A day of awakenings: I saw my first tit AND played currency-mule for Jesus.  At least it was sewn pockets and not condoms up the ass.

It was a long flight in the dark from Paris to Sofia, and mostly empty.  In one lucid interval between naps I moved to the front of the plane, ahead of my brothers, so that I would be the first one across the border and the first Southern Baptist MK in Bulgaria.  The plane touched down close to midnight on the second night of our trip.  Passport control is a blur--I vaguely recall trying to be the first one through here, as well, but couldn’t tell you if I succeeded.  We got to the luggage carousels, and James Duke met us.  James was the pastor of the International Baptist Church in Sofia, a heavy-set, 6’3” Texan in a trenchcoat who had the habit of flashing his American passport amidst a torrent of thick Southern banter to circumvent whatever rules he found inconvenient, such as ‘wait for passengers on the other side of customs.’
Our luggage didn’t come.  And didn’t come.  And didn’t come.  It was getting close to two o’clock, and I was staring around the dingy room reading and rereading the Cyrillic signs.  Паспорт контрол.  Obvious enough.  Митница, said another--’Customs’ read the English above it.  Мит-нит-са, I sounded it out to myself (not entirely correctly), trying to remember it.  “Can you read them?” asked James.  I nodded.  “That’s good,” he said.  “It’s a good start.”  Through the occasional openings of the clouded glass doors we caught glimpses of the rest of the welcoming party: a middle-aged American woman of the Southern variety--big brown hair, affectionate and hospitable--Audrey Duke, James’ wife.  Teodor Angelov, a darker-skinned man with a large stomach and average height, bald on top but with ample grey hair in the back and sides and the deep brown Byzantine eyes so typical of the country--pastor of the Sofia Baptist Church and President of the Bulgarian Baptist Union.  Ani Angelova, his wife, almost as tall as he was, with her shock of short, thick black hair and pale, severe, almost Russian face.

We made inquiries about the luggage--it was coming, it wasn’t coming; it was on the plane, it wasn’t on the plane.  James spoke no Bulgarian, we spoke even less, and what few of the hired-under-communism customer “service” folks who were still around at two in the morning were neither knowledgeable, helpful, or particularly versed in English.  The carousels stopped; still nothing.

Around 2:30 or so the problem was discovered: the unloading crew had thought that our footlockers were some kind of shipment rather than luggage, and hadn’t sent them up the conveyor belt.  The carousel kicked back on (we were the last flight in that night) and up they came, at last.  We stepped through the doors to customs like caravaners with our baggage train, finally met the rest of the welcomers, loaded everything in the Baptist Union van and took off.

Sofia was a city at night--sulphur-vapor lamps turning empty streets orange and gray.  I’ve no head for directions and was half-asleep, but I learned the layout in the years to follow, and we went straight through the middle from the south-eastern airport to our apartment in the west-southwest, about a block back from Стамболийски where the 10 tram used to run.  At the time it was a blur--a random parade of turns past the ugly, rectangular Communist architecture that was still utterly new to me.

We made it “home” at last, staggered in the front door, and piled in the elevator.  It wasn’t big enough for all of us, the single, exposed light bulb was forty watts if that, and there were no inner doors.  No. Inner. Doors.  I was twelve years old, it was three o’clock in the morning on the second night of my first intercontinental flight, I had just moved to Eastern Europe (in 1994, mind you!), and there were no inner doors on the elevator.  The push-to-open doors to each floor ambled lazily by as we ascended, separated by concrete slabs.  You could just reach out and touch it!  You could drag your finger along it!  You could get your finger caught in something!  Of all the things I had seen since liftoff, that was the detail that broke my mind.  I extrapolate that Dad, Teo, James, and the Baptist Union driver must have brought up the baggage, and I must have gone to bed at some point, but my memories of the evening end with staring bug-eyed out the open nope-totally-not-a-door-here of the elevator as the wall rolled slowly past.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting story. Looking forward to reading more!