Soul Food

[Chicago, IL]

After several days of feeding my body (really, really well), it was time to feed my soul. Bulgarian Folk Festival Verea was one of the reasons I had extended my work trip. Now in its fifth year, it is a festival where Bulgarians living all over the US and Canada come together to perform traditional Bulgarian dances (called horo) and songs. But I am getting a little bit ahead of myself.

I had originally planned a nice, leisurely Saturday morning followed by an afternoon of Bulgarian song and dance at the festival. Alas, what actually happened was a last-minute jaunt to The Field Museum of Natural History. A friend posted a picture of a giant T-Rex skeleton on my wall, and of course I had to go see that for myself.

The T-Rex is one of the highlights of the museum for sure. Sue, named after the paleontologist who found her in South Dakota in 1990, is the largest, best preserved and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found. She measures 43 ft from head to, uh, tail, and she is 13 ft tall at the hip. Her skeleton is 90% complete. Her head weighs 600 lbs (272 kg), and so its too heavy to be displayed with the rest of the skeleton. A replica was created instead, while the original is housed on the balcony above. Her skeleton is by far the most photographed item here, and I was thankful to have arrived just shortly after the museum opened at 9 am – I got a few shots with no people in them! The skeleton is astounding, indeed. It gave me goose bumps, and I can’t even imagine how formidable this animal was when alive.

The rest of the Field Museum was just as fascinating. I visited a couple of the special exhibits, where I learned more about Vodou – the Haitian religion (related to but not the same as the set of beliefs and cultural practices in New Orleans known as Voodoo) as well as the Vikings (did you know they were not exactly the cave-men-like barbarians with horns on their helmets?). I was really fascinated by the Haitian Vodou. Vodousts believe that everything is interconnected (a view that I share). Reality, therefore, is much more than what we can perceive with our minds. It consists of many spirits and entities, and their energies flow through all things. The circulating of these energies is sometimes out of balance, and communicating with the spirits (lwa) and serving them is essential to restoring the balance. The customs and traditions involved with communicating with the lwa are what gives rise to what we (Westerners) consider magic.

In the African hall, I saw many of the animals that inhabit that great continent. The Field Museum has an enormous collection of taxidermied animals, and I found many of them here. My favorites were the herbivores like sables and antelopes, the big cats and the owls. I loved learning about the Man-Eaters of Tsavo – a pair of lions that terrorized a group of railroad workers who were constructing a bridge over the river Tsavo in Kenya in the late 1890s. The lions killed (and ate) 140 workers. Yes, you read that right – 140 workers. Attempts to track down the lions were unsuccessful and workers, fearing for their lives, refused to work on the bridge. Finally, British soldier and hunter John Patterson hunted them down and killed them. He wrote a book on it, which subsequently became the inspiration for a few movies, the last of which, The Ghost and the Darkness (a1986), starred Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. The Field Museum acquired the lions’ skins, which by that point had been cut down to make rugs. Nevertheless, the museum’s taxidermists managed to restore the lions to their former glory, although the ones in the exhibit are apparently smaller than the real ones were.

Last but not least, I saw an incredibly well-done 3-D movie about the mummies of ancient Egypt. It detailed the mysteries of the mummification process and explained some of the customs and belief systems involved with it. I didn’t know, for example, that Egyptians believed their hearts are the seat of their consciousness and, come judgment day, the weight of their heart would be compared against the weight of a feather (the feather of truth). If they had lived a truthful, honest and good life, their heart would be as light as the feather, and their mummy would resurrect so that they could start their life in paradise. This is why, during the mummification process, most of the internal organs are removed but the heart is always left. I also did not know that the mummies of the pharaohs, originally buried in the Valley of the Kings, had been hidden by priests further and further down the Niles river to prevent their pillaging. Scientists hope to be able to remove DNA from these mummies to perhaps uncover cures for diseases that still haunt humanity. If that happens, the mummies would fulfill their prophecy – to give the gift of life.

I could have stayed at the Field all day. Alas, I had Bulgarian Folk Fest Verea awaiting me. I learned about it from the Bulgarians I practice horo with, as they performed at the festival. Verea festival started out as a get-together for just a few groups 5 years ago but has now grown into perhaps the biggest Bulgarian event in the US, with 35 groups performing this year. I may have only known a handful of the songs but I felt connected to my homeland more than I ever have in recent years. I loved seeing dancers wearing traditional costumes from all over the country – some black, some red, some white, but all beautifully embroidered and handmade. I also loved seeing many kids perform, of all ages. I was surprised, as I thought most kids (especially those born here) would see traditional Bulgarian song and dance as this odd thing that their immigrant parents make them do (big kudos to the parents for instilling in them a sense of where they came from). Adults could feel awkward about our traditions, too. I think sometime after communism fell there was a period of denouncing our traditional song and dance as “outdated” in favor of the more moderns forms of expression that were flooding our previously closed off TV screens and radio frequencies, but now there is a renewed desire among Bulgarians to preserve our artistic traditions.

At any any rate, the group I practice with, Horotroptsy, did fantastic. They performed twice and the public loved them as well. I was delighted to see my friends and so many others perform, and, who knows, perhaps I’ll be on stage next year as well.


One Comment on “Soul Food

  1. Pingback: A Sky Ledge, a Michelin Star and “American Gothic” – Balabanova All Over

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