Escape from the Republic of Georgia, Act I

July 4, 2016, was Margot’s Independence Day.

It most reminded me of the aftermath of an exquisite wedding rehearsal dinner of Alfredo shrimp when I was sixteen: the kind of aftermath one remembers twelve years later.

Just when I thought the next push or two might kill me, the doctor pulled a small blue alien from under the table—and that’s exactly what I’m going to tell my daughter is how babies are made, because it’s truer than anything I ever heard on the subject. I was dying of bowel impaction; then there was a baby. I’ve spent three months now trying to believe the baby came out of me.

This is one thing I didn’t happen to come across on any of the gory baby blogs I read in preparation: nobody said childbirth felt like pooping to death, and nobody said they had trouble believing the baby came out of the baby bump. Therefore I conclude that none of these ladies adequately understood what was happening to them, and my interpretation stands alone for posterity. You’re welcome, ladies.

I didn’t get a very clear view of Margot’s grand exit. One of the nurses had noticed I was craning to see the action down below, and she did her best to block my view in the last moments, when scissors came into play and I seemed displeased. Margot was too big to be completely hidden, though. I remember being shocked by the head, which was triple the size of the dark nob I’d been watching poke out with each push. I’d convinced myself that the head must be the size of my fist, in which case this whole thing just might be feasible.

It was not feasible.

Even if they had cut me as drastically as I imagined at the time, I can’t figure out how something that size came out where it did. It’s just not possible.

I strained to hear baby sounds across the room, over my own whimpers as the nurses massaged my belly to force out the placenta (this was NOT what I’d read on WikiHow…). As the baby lay on my chest, half-blanketed, wet and sticky under my hand, I couldn’t really see her, couldn’t hold up my head. When the neonatologist took her away, and Rex and Mzia and my mother all followed right as I was experiencing the most traumatic half hour of the whole flipping process, I told myself to think of the blue alien and be brave a little longer. I felt betrayed by all four of them, but the feeling passed in a few days.

I wanted to joke about being a wimp, now that the “hard part” was over, but I’ve never mastered joking in Georgian. “I’m sorry that I am loud now,” I said. I wanted to say that I didn’t have any energy left to spend on my dignity. What came out instead was: “My strength—is finished.”

“What?” the nurse said.

“My strength—is finished!”

I tried to chuckle, but something was being done to me that the reader would prefer I not disclose, and I was almost crying. The nurse politely nodded and went back to work, and I quit fighting destiny and moaned with abandon.

Eventually Rex came back with our baby wrapped in a receiving blanket and a hard capsule of wool. Only her face showed, and “Bredshau” and her stats were penned in Georgian on a bit of paper tied around her middle with a string of torn gauze. Already she was pale and baby-like; I don’t know what they did with the alien from under the table. Rex held her close to my face and said, “She’s so pretty.” My arm was shaking and I couldn’t reach her skin, so I stroked the wool shell with the back of my hand.

***

Margot came ten days late, which was not such a bad thing, considering the drivers in our host family decided to get drunk on my due date. I guess after months of admonishing me that girl babies always come early, and then a full month of asking how I felt several times a day, the anticipation was too much to keep up. I was mostly irritated about the due date debauch because it seemed the sort of thing a self-respecting American ought to be angry about, but I knew quite well that if I started having contractions, Kako would find a neighbor or relative to drive me. A secret part of my soul did long to arrive at the clinic in a thirty-year-old Lada with a cracked windshield and duct tape on the door. It would have been the next-best story to birthing in some old lady’s front yard after a taxi accident, and rather less risky; but alas, neither was to be.

My mother arrived in Georgia on June 28 with peanut butter and decaf instant coffee. Homesick as I’d been the whole year, I hadn’t realized how much I missed talking with her. I still wish we could have shown her Davit Gareja or Kazbegi or at least Tbilisi, but it was fun showing off the chicken hatchery in the laundry room, and explaining that the “huge white shells, or something” she saw floating in a fish tank in the pantry were wheels of cheese preserved in salt water and vinegar. She showered our very pleased and amused host family with gifts, and showered me with compliments for them that were beyond my powers of translation. Mzia and Teo said I have a “very warm mother,” and made all the foods I like in her honor.

Every night before bed I put on my shorts and trotted up and down the stairs, which didn’t seem to accomplish anything except prove I could still do it comfortably. At bedtime Rex admonished the bump that she should come out already so we could get her passport. Alexi asked every day why did the little baby not come, and my mother appeased him with toys and coloring books from her suitcase.

I was supposed to be induced on the fourth at the latest. I went to bed on the third despairing, and woke up early in the morning with regular contractions. We drove to Telavi through a light rain, my mother commenting on the mountains, the Georgian music on the stereo, the driving (I assured her this qualified as slow, and it was for my sake). It’s nice, when everybody else takes these things for granted, to have one person who looks at you in awe as you calmly cradle your belly and bounce along. Again I felt a twinge of regret that we were going in Kako’s van after all.

Then we got to the part I was worried about.

All the websites say you should compose lists of questions about procedure to discuss with your doctor, should ask to see the facilities… Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. The way doctor visits work in Georgia, the doctor is always answering her phone or filling out paperwork while chatting with you, and the extra seats in her office are always occupied by the next lady patient or three who shoved in behind you while the door was open; you’d better want to talk about your unmentionable-problems badly enough to charade them in front of an audience. You might get your medical history conveyed, if you’re that shameless, and you can make absolutely clear that you don’t want a c-section unless it’s an emergency; but you’re not going to ask to see any facilities.

The facilities were quite nice, it turned out. We were able to pay extra for a private recovery room, and it had a toilet with a real seat that was clean enough to sit on(!). There was, however, one mild surprise.

The delivery room was set up for two deliveries.

Two cots, and two delivery tables with thick pads and adjustable segments, vaguely insect-shaped. Near the delivery tables were sinks and counters and trays with surgical instruments laid out, and jars of sanitary swabs in a yellow fluid; near the cots there was a table and chair, a yoga ball, and a tiny toilet with a door which a nurse opened without knocking shortly after I entered it. I said, “sorry,” and she stood in the doorway smiling down at me for a moment, then shut the door without a word.

At first I was alone, intermittently with a friendly doula (whose official working title was “bebia,” grandmother), and then Rex and my mother were allowed to come by turns. Later Mzia came in and out. She seemed nervous; my mother was cheerfully absorbed in reminiscing about her own births, timing my contractions, and taking videos on her phone. Rex as usual had his ereader and was studying paleontology or something whenever I wasn’t regaling him with my latest symptoms.

Eventually another lady came, and her labor was going fast. Within two hours she was wailing continuously, in operatic Georgian, “Wy me! Wy me! Wy me! Nino [doctor’s name], save me! Save me, Nino! Give me a caesarean! I am NOT well, I am VERY ill, GIVE me a caesarean! Wy me wy me wy meeee….” Rex and my mother had early on retreated to the hallway to give the lady some privacy, but Mzia didn’t seem to think this necessary.

I was walking on the other side of the room, near the delivery tables, trying to give the lady some space. Mzia walked with me. I was beginning to have to bend over and hold onto my knees or a table when contractions hit. She took my hand and asked me if it hurt. “Yes, a little,” I said. “It is not bad yet.”

“Kristi,” she said in Georgian, “You can shout. You must shout. ‘Wy me, wy deda! Ahh!'” (“Oh no, oh mother!”)

“Later,” I said.

“Wy me.” She shook her head.

Do you see the American?” I heard one of the nurses say. “She is not afraid; she is calm. You must be calm like her.”

There are times I really love being able to pretend I don’t understand anything.

In the late afternoon, as the other woman transitioned into advanced labor, somebody noticed my lack of curiosity. Georgians do not generally refrain from looking at anything interesting, so it was supposed that I was getting scared. The American was welcome to step outside and walk in the corridor, they told Mzia. So we went out in the corridor.

I was more than six centimeters dilated, I wasn’t wearing any underwear beneath my hospital gown, and I was beginning to really worry about voiding my bowels on the floor. I comforted myself with the thought that if this was the level of consideration they thought appropriate for a lady at six centimeters, then I need feel no regret for anything that happened to the floor. I sat with Rex on the edge of a bench, hoping I wasn’t bleeding too much, and watched my mom try to discretely record the rising “Wyyy meeeee!s” behind the door. Sarah called Rex’s phone, and I insisted this was a good time for a chat until another contraction hit and I stopped being able to speak words.

I lost track of what was happening to the other lady. Eventually I let myself back into the delivery room so I could sit on the toilet for a few minutes, though I wasn’t sure what I thought might come out—surely you couldn’t drop a full-term baby in the toilet merely by relaxing your bowels, could you? Then I was lying on my cot, trying to ask my bebia for a bucket because I had nausea; she looked confused, so I got up again and went to the toilet. I came out and she asked what happened. I threw up. Good, she said. Very good. I paced. I bounced on the yoga ball. I laid down again because I was tired and my back ached. My doctor came in and told me to keep pacing (Dear God…), and some time later she said I could push whenever I wanted to.

The other lady must have been delivered before I came back to seek the toilet, though I don’t remember it. At some point she had been moved to a gurney, but she wasn’t completely covered up, so they wouldn’t let Rex come back in the room, and only my mother’s being there kept me from going into an angry panic. He still wasn’t allowed inside when I began to push; meanwhile the lady on the gurney had been wheeled to the foot of my bed and was watching with considerable interest. Well, if I’d known she felt that way, I would have watched her too, dang it. I’ve watched films of babies coming out, but I’d have loved to see it in person, especially since I didn’t have the best angle to view my own.

Eventually the other lady was gone and Rex was with me, and my mother and Mzia. Rex was massaging my forehead and apparently enjoying himself—soon he told me he could see the head when I pushed, and not long after that I could see it too. Mzia was explaining to the nurses that I was not shouting because my mother was here from America, and I didn’t want to scare her.

I felt great between contractions. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt—brink of death in one moment, and in the next moment wishing they’d let me put on some pants and take my mother to see the Telavi bazaar, or the nine-hundred-year-old tree. Pushing didn’t feel painful so much as sickening and futile. Between contractions, I relaxed so completely that I felt I could fall asleep if I wanted to; the nurses found this disturbing and kept asking why I had my eyes closed. One splashed water in my face.

I spent three nights in that clinic, in a room just down the hallway from the delivery room, and I had ample opportunity to verify that Georgian women, as a rule, do not grunt while pushing out a baby, like in the movies. They all wail—I don’t know how they could possibly push while making such a noise—and they all wail, “Wy meeeee.” I grunt-screamed on the pushes like a constipated toddler, and one of the aids had the nerve to tell me to calm down. I can’t remember whether I managed to give her an evil look, or only thought about it. I was a little busy.

***

I found out the week before my due date, in a casual conversation with Teo, that typically, newly-delivered mothers recover four ladies to a room, and visitors are only allowed for a couple hours in the afternoon. I’d spent months trying not to be upset at the thought that Rex might have to find somewhere in Telavi to stay overnight if he could not stay with me, but when I found out I might have to spend three days almost entirely without him, I threw a tantrum.

“It is not possible! A new father—only to see his new baby for two hours each day, for three days? How is it possible? I cannot stand this. If it is so, I will come home early.”

Mzia was amazed. “How will you come home?”

I will take a taxi if necessary. Or I will go to a hotel with Rex, and visit the doctor after three days, and then come home. I cannot be without Rex. The new father must not be far from the baby. It is our custom.”

She assured me that we could pay extra and take a private room. Probably. Would Rex be allowed to stay with me at night? She did not know; she would ask.

I drilled my mom on all the survival essentials, in case we couldn’t find a room for her in Telavi and she had to come home with the family (who I assumed, American-style, would be visiting every day): where I kept the extra toilet paper, which burner to use to boil water for coffee, and to be ready to leave at any time, with little notice.

When we arrived at the clinic the morning of the fourth, Doctor Avtandil met me in the exam room with a kindly prepared speech. -Are you afraid? -No, no. -You must not be afraid. -Of course, sir. -You know that all women something…. -Yes, sir. -Something…. -Yes, sir. -Well, good.

Mzia, hands clasped, explained that I wanted a private room. Very well. And that my mother was here from America, and I very, very much wanted her to be with me. Well, okay.

Mzia thanked him, and burst into tears. He left, and I thanked her. I was stunned. I felt like an …a donkey. I had no idea she was so nervous about asking for me.

Margot arrived a little after seven in the evening. Mzia had been with us the whole time, and had worried enough to make up for the three oddly cheerful Americans; she looked exhausted. She said goodbye to me while I still lay bleeding into a bucket on the delivery table, and I didn’t see her or anybody from the family until she and Kako and Alexi came to pick us up three days later. This, apparently, is the Georgian way: leave the woman to recover in peace, shunt her home three days later to nap with the baby while the menfolk feast and toast themselves to delirium in the next room, and finally rush her through the gauntlet of enthusiastic neighbor ladies with their gifts of baby clothes and candy.

But that’ll have to wait for another entry.

Rex and my mother were both allowed to stay with me at the clinic, night and day. Rex seemed to be the only male on the entire floor, except for the neonatologist.

There was one extra bed in our room, and Mom and Rex took turns napping on that, and standing watch in the straight-backed chair by me. We kept the baby with us all the time, occasionally letting a nurse take her to change her diaper or give her formula while I still didn’t have enough milk. Mom usually followed her when she was taken out, speaking loud and animated English to the smiling staff.

Some of them knew fragments of English; once, when the baby was crying in the arms of the neonatologist, he said carefully, “She needs her mother’s milk.”

Yes!” My mom was thrilled to hear English. “I will take her to her mommy!” The man looked confused, and then Mom remembered that “mommy” in Georgian means father. She laughed and tried to explain her mistake, in English. The man still looked confused.

I don’t know how I would have survived without Rex and Mom, since I got my appetite back right away, and Georgians think the only safe food for newly-delivered mothers is broth and porridge and buttered bread, all in small quantities. We stayed the standard three nights, which is good sense in a country where the baby is not subjected to much testing, and the mother will likely be returning to drunken revelry and a squatty potty at home.

That first night I must have slept well. I don’t remember anything outside our room—just us, the baby, and gratitude that I suddenly seemed to have a normal bladder capacity again. The next night there was celebration in the parking lot beneath our window, as a man received news of a son; toasts were shouted, music blared from a car stereo, a stray dog ventured too near and was jubilantly shot six or seven times—all this until three in the morning when I fell asleep. I was sorry for the dog, but glad to show my mother this part of Georgian culture. The third night two more women delivered amid hours of operatic screams.

And the third day, with much confusion (as will be detailed in a later entry), we were released. Margot Mzia Bradshaw rode home beside me in the cloth travel-bassinet Teo provided.

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Meditations for Those Days When Your Mother is Nearly Suicide Bombed

So what’s up is that the baby is late (healthily taking her time), and my mom is here in Georgia. She arrived in Lado’s car, chaperoned by Mzia and Rex, just as I was clicking on a news link my frantic little sister sent me. Seems there was a shooting and suicide bombing at Ataturk airporti—about an hour after my mother flew out of it.

Reaction 1: Um, no, she’s here, she’s fine… Gotta leave my computer for a bit, okay? *commence hugging and giggling crazily*

Reaction 2, sometime later: …So did I read that right? Where’s the date on the article? That was today? What…

Reaction 3: …

Reaction 4-17: …

Reaction 35: God, thank you for protecting my mother.

Reaction 36: And please have mercy on …those other people You seem not to… have had…. mercy… on?

Reaction 37: …

***

I know there are better ways of praying Reaction 36. Christianity is nothing if not acquainted with heartbroken prayer in the midst of tragedy. There are reverent, awe-stricken ways to express gratitude for one’s own deliverance. And there are plenty of Christians—both more and less naive than me—who could formulate a single prayer thanking God for sparing a loved one, and thus themselves, from disaster, while at the same time mourning the pain of and pleading mercy and aid for those who were not “spared.”

This can be done gracefully. It’s like dancing. Some build the skill through years of conscious discipline; others practice it in a more simple way, having a natural ability. Like tact—some people have a natural sensitivity to others that manifests in tact. My mother (now peacefully sleeping off jetlag upstairs) is an example. Dear God, may it not be wasted on me.

Laura Coleman Callahan

10 hrs · 

 

I admit I am in shock over the bombing at the Istanbul airport that happened less than an hour after my plane left the ground. So grateful for God’s protection! Just wanted to thank you if you saw my little post yesterday and took a moment to pray for my safety. I am fine, but there are many who are not after today. Focusing my prayers on those hurting families.

Then there are the people like me and most of Facebook Christendom, who in the category of dance should stick to karate. Or nature walking. Heck, treadmills.

It’s just something I personally don’t know how to condense into a Facebook status. Nor, quite obviously, do a lot of other people. Frankly I feel squeamish about clicking “like” on the dozens of statuses that are flying up from my mother’s friends, variations of, “Praise God!!!!” and “Thankful God was watching over her!!!!!!”

Yes, I do click “like,” because I think some acknowledgment is deserved. I’m grateful so many people love my mother, my family, and me; I’m grateful so many have been praying for her safe travels. Yep, I’m grateful that her travels were safe. Also I know that, “& praying for the families of those killed and injured!!!! *praying hands emoji x 12*” goes without saying, just like “luv u!!!!!! xoxoxo” after “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!” is optional, and understood if absent.

But I still feel the lack, so here’s my personal protest.

Remember those months ago, when everybody’s Facebook profile pics suddenly went French-flag-colored? I couldn’t bring myself to write a word then—not because I didn’t feel the Paris shootings to be a tragedy, but because I was so sated with reading about tragedies elsewhere. In the Middle East, in boats on the Mediterranean, in refugee camps, on Nauru. So many of my friends and loved ones back home are either oblivious to these issues, or don’t see what responsibility we of the West bear. Yet they mourned for Paris, or at least changed their profile picture because that’s what everybody else was doing.

In the same way, I didn’t know how to respond sincerely to all the sweet and well-meaning folks who would write and tell me how “brave” I was, being pregnant so far from home. The hyperbolic empathy that answered every post I wrote poking fun at my food-cravings; the admiration people apparently feel for me in my stalwart enduring of an unairconditioned village summer. And if I were a pregnant refugee, rather than the spunky daughter of our beloved church pianist…?

It’s not fair to judge people for the things they say on Facebook just trying to be nice. I regularly say heinously sappy things with exclamation points when notified of birthdays, and I’m not entirely insincere, though I don’t feel good about it.

Nor should I blame people for reacting simplistically. Life is far too complicated for the human psyche to bear responding complicatedly to everything. But sometimes these responses do set my teeth on edge. Just a little.

Why not Paris? Why not my mother? How dare I thank God for sparing me, right on the brink of the birth of my first child, what would have been far and away the greatest tragedy I’d ever yet personally experienced? How dare I be so trivial as to thank God that she got out of the airport in time, and didn’t have to spend a sleepless night in a hotel after all flights were canceled?

Yes, I’m going to pray. What else to do? My prayer will begin with gratitude that my mother was spared, that so many others were spared, that not all lives are cut short in a bomb blast, and there are still green fields and innocent places sprinkled throughout the world. In a few days, I will pray my gratitude for the safe delivery of our child, born healthy and whole in a world where so many are not; born into that staggeringly tiny minority of children who are wanted, and whose parents are not helpless to provide for them.

On the one hand, this amounts simply to thanking God for blessings, for daily bread. On the other hand, when so many go without daily bread, this can amount to thanking God for privilege. I’m not smart enough to draw all the correct theological and philosophical lines to ensure that the very necessary prayer does not turn into a blasphemy. So I’ll revert to the best strategy I know—praying on my knees, with humility as well as gratitude, staring in the face of my own ignorance, and knowing that I do not know how to pray rightly.

Which is, after all, a Biblical idea. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Upalo shegvitskalen. Lord have mercy upon us.


i Ataturk airport, according to Wikipedia, is the eleventh busiest in the world, from which information you can deduce that the physical space is quite large. The terrorists never got very far past the parking lot entrance to the international flights terminal; probably my mom would never have come close.

On the other hand, her flight left the ground less than an hour before gunmen (three? four?) opened fire, then detonated suicide bombs. The current casualty reports say 36 killed, and upwards of 145 injured.

Signs of the Azure: Kakheti in Picture and Story

This informal paper was presented on May 7, 2016, at a teacher training course in Tsqaltubo, Georgia. Although the setting was not ideal and I had difficulty with the delivery, I really enjoyed writing Signs of the Azure, as the topic fascinates me, and it has been only lately that I have managed to dig into some of the ancient mythologies of eastern Georgia. As I wrote this paper for verbal presentation, I have not included footnotes, but I can provide my sources on request. All photos are mine and were taken in the Alazani Valley region during the past two years.

101

The Alazani Valley from Vejini’s Monastery of the Ascension

Today I want to explore what it means to be a human being in a geographical and historical context. Through these photos, I will raise the question of the meaning of place. My emphasis is on particularity. I will not be talking about the Caucasus region in general or even Georgia in general. Rather, I will be discussing a few features of the concrete and peculiar landscape of the Alazani Valley area, which I have called home since September of 2014. The land and its history have, I believe, often at a deep or even unconscious level, a formative effect on one’s mental topography, much as they indisputably affect the growth and expression of the body.

It is to the land that I now turn. Between the hills of Gombori and the Greater Caucasus Range, the Alazani river runs down to join the Mt’k’vari in Azerbaijan. The river valley is about twenty kilometers wide and the fertile heart of Kakheti. Humans have lived in it for tens of thousands of years, shepherds have driven their flocks up and down it in a rhythm that seems eternal, and countless armies over the centuries have used it to march in and out of Georgia. It extends from the densely wooded foothills north of Akhmeta to the arid plains and broken limestone landscape of Shiraki.

Now, I want to tell you a story about trees. These are hornbeams, rtskhila in Georgian. Hornbeams are probably the dominant tree species in the Kakheti highlands today, at least in my area. As the self-described “defender of the forest” whom I once met up here explained, this is a very old forest. It is in fact a remnant of the forests that once spread across all Transcaucasia.

Fifteen million years ago, the world was warmer and wetter than it is today. Walnut, alder, and poplar species dominated the valley region. Global cooling and the slow rise of the Caucasus mountains have made eastern Georgia a far drier place. After the last great Ice Age, the valley was covered in oak forests, with elms, beeches, and hornbeams like these in the hills. Animal life included aurochs, goat-antelopes, elk, and wild horses. This world changed with the arrival of agriculture and the clearing of the valley during the Bronze Age.

203Now let us look at a very different tree. I took this picture from the window of my school last year. It is a ginkgo biloba, one of the oldest tree species in existence. 200 million years ago, when the dinosaurs roamed a single world supercontinent, ginkgo was widespread. But this is not a Georgian tree; ginkgos disappeared from Europe long before humans first emigrated from Africa. It only survived in small pockets in East Asia, until about two hundred years ago when it was re-introduced to the west. The hornbeams I just showed you were in Kakheti long before the first ginkgo was imported to beautify public school yards. But during the Jurassic, when the land of Eastern Georgia rose from the Tethys Sea, ginkgos were among the species that comprised its first forests. When you look at this tree, you are seeing a twist of botanical history, the return of a primeval dynasty.

Admittedly, I suspect most Kakhetians do not think of this when they look at a hornbeam or a ginkgo. It is, however, an example of how humans shape the land that shapes them. It was human farmers who cleared the oak forests to feed and warm their growing families, and it was modern humans, a mere five thousand years later, who were responsible for the reintroduction of the gingko, which a fickle climate removed in another geological epoch. I could go on to discuss the current ecological crises that face the valley, but I think the point is clear: the human organism, despite its transience, is deeply and bidirectionally interconnected with its situation.

Speaking of the human organism, I would like to discuss one of the less transient aspects of its passage, namely, its architecture. This particular house at the Ethnographic Museum of Georgia was built in the nineteenth century, but it is a late example of an east Georgian housing style called darbazi that goes back to ancient times. These houses were usually at least half underground, their conical roofs covered in turf. There was a hole at the top that let light in and smoke out.

205aBut like every other product of human imagination, the darbazi cannot be reduced to mere utility. The builders and inhabitants of these houses attributed enormous spiritual significance to their form. The roof signified heaven; the dirt floor, the earth; and the wooden pillars, the world-tree, which in eastern Georgia was imagined to be a poplar in the center of a garden. The ancient Georgian family thus lived and slept in an icon of the cosmos, in the middle-earth between the beauty and order of the celestial world and the chaos and darkness of the netherworld.

When you look at other architectural monuments from this part of Georgia, you see a similar story at work. Vejini, the village where we live, is an old fortress town. I do not have time to review its history at length, but I can give a brief summary. Christianity was here very early, as evidenced by this fifth century shrine to St George, pictured during Giorgoba. The ruined fortress further up the hill was built around the ninth century by the Heri or Heretian people to keep out, among others, the Georgians. It stood at least two sieges. The first was by a Kakhi-Abkhazian alliance. In the second, the Kakhis were defending Vejini from a Turkish army commanded by the King of Georgia. Today, the fortress is an active monastery, centered on a medieval church dedicated to the Ascension.

If the fortress is a testament to the political instability of the region, the churches reveal at once a similar instability, and at the same time, a constancy. These are some restored frescoes inside the Church of the Ascension. At the time it was first built, the Heretians were monophysites, a branch of Christianity regarded as heretical in the west but happened to be the preferred flavor of imperial Persia. The Georgians, on the other hand, adhered to Byzantine orthodox theology. Only a few decades after that first siege of Vejini, the Heretians converted to Georgian Orthodoxy under the leadership of their queen, a Tamar-prototype named Dinar. This church and others like it would to Georgians represent a movement, a communal ascent from paganism to orthodox truth.

IMG_0772The constancy, on the other hand, is exemplified by the older and humbler shrine of St George. It is well known that throughout Christianized Europe, the attributes of pagan deities were subsequently transferred to saints. In Georgia, the most famous example is St George himself, who in the eastern highlands took on many of the characteristics of a lunar deity and the god of the hunt. One of the local names for St George is Tetri Giorgi, a suggestive title now attached to a functioning church in the Gombori hills. Although in this part of Kakheti pagan customs have almost entirely died out, in the mountains still today many people follow a tradition of shrine reverence that they do not see at odds with their Christianity or, as may be, their Islam. Givargi, the ancient god, has been baptized, made a faithful warrior of King Christ; but he has not gone. Nor has the cosmological sensibility that characterizes the darbazi houses.

211One Georgian creation myth states that the middle-earth was a battlefield between gods and demons, representing upper and lower worlds respectively. Then the gods got tired of fighting, and they withdrew, handing the earth off to men. But men could not resist the power of the demons. So the gods, feeling responsible, launched a grand assault and drove the demons out of the earth. The demons left women behind in their place. The marriage of man and woman is thus a grand reconciliation, a union of the celestial and the subterranean which perpetuates a median existence teetering between hostile extremes.

211a

An overgrown church above the Vejini pastureland

Now, all that remains of Vejini was built in the Christian era. Christianity has been in the Alazani Valley for fifteen hundred years, and pagan mythology is largely forgotten. But it would be a mistake to assume that Christian dogma is a thing that exists abstractly and in necessary competition to local worldviews we might regard as essentially pagan. The rivalry between polytheism, Zoroastrianism, various forms of Christianity, and Islam was enacted over souls shaped by an ancient culture and landscape that proved capable of adapting itself creatively to any of them. New characters, angels and devils, were mapped onto old dualisms and indelible local symbols.

212To take an example, when a Greek literary adaptation of the Biblical story of Job found its way into Georgian folklore, distinctively Georgian elements appeared. In the Greek story, there is a moment where a worm falls off Job’s festering body, and Job picks it up and puts it back on himself, expressing his patience with the will of God. In the Georgian story, the worm that falls off Job’s body transforms into a bee; that is, a traditional chthonic symbol metamorphizes into a celestial one. Job’s body is depicted as the middle-earth, the axis and point of union between the heavens and the netherworld. Job is also paralleled by these folk stories with the vineyard worm or the silkworm, creatures seen to mediate celestial powers in the middle realm. Job eats a leaf and turns it into silk, and in some versions, he literally gets into a cocoon and is reborn as a butterfly. Though these elements are distinctively Christian, they are at the same time expressive of an ancient Georgian worldview whose potency was of enduring significance.

212aSo when we look at the houses, churches, and fortresses of old Georgia, we may wonder how their builders viewed them, when they were new and upright, destined to last for centuries. One part of the answer is that Georgians, on some level, realized their essential fragility. Human works situate themselves on a samsaric plane which depends on the uneasy alliance of opposites. Christianity did not eliminate this duality, but taught that we are able to transcend it through the operation of sacral powers. We see this in the continuing use of ruined churches for devotion, as here, at Vejini’s shrine of St George. The building collapses and the icons fade, but behind their time-worn exterior is the glittering gold of eternity.

301Kakhetians no longer watch the circle of sunlight cast by a darbazi roof travel across wall and floor, as the sun journeys between the vying waters of heaven and underearth. But their lives are still shaped by the natural rhythms that gave shape to the myths of their ancestors. They know the cycle of life and death, day and night, and the turning of the seasons. Human societies have long attempted to reduce their dependence on these things through the complex artificial structures which are the pride of civilization, and modern Georgia is no exception. But autonomy, whether it is or is not a desirable goal, can never be fully realized. These last few pictures, arranged by season, visually ponder the question of what it means to live in time, on the particular land that grants you life and mediates the cosmos to you.

I will be closing with a quote from one of the twentieth century’s greatest and least-known polymaths. Pavel Florensky was born in 1882 not far from Kakheti, over today’s Azerbaijani border in what was then regarded as part of the Karabakh region. His father was a Russian engineer, while his mother was half Tbilisi Armenian and half Kakhetian. He grew up in Tbilisi. Though he became an Orthodox priest and is best remembered for his theological and philosophical writings, he was also in his time a renowned mathematician and scientist, and wrote papers in fields as diverse as art theory, special relativity, and electrical engineering. He spent his last nine years in and out of the Soviet gulag system, not because he was a political agitator, though that was the charge, but because Soviet ideology could not countenance the contradiction of a scientist priest. He was executed by firing squad in 1937.

417This quote, from his theological magnum opus, is a fervent expression of how the geography of a place became the geography of a great mind, as the timeless manifested itself to him through the particular landscape of his childhood. He declared that the Caucasus mountains were “like diamonds, their sparkling sharpness quite beyond the imagination of those who have no experience of mountains, the ultimate perfection of their distant outlines thrusting up into the eternal, unquestionable, incorruptible, eternal in a way those who have no experience of mountains simply cannot conceive, into the depths and velvety infinity of the azure sky. And amidst these mountains lie the torrid open spaces, all woven from the metallic, resonant trills of cycadas and grasshoppers, from an abundance of growing things, fish, game, beasts of the hoof, predators, poisonous insects, snakes and sweet scents, famous for their karabach [sic] horses, the best in the Caucasus, and their dashing brigands, the most desperate in all Transcaucasia. In the free space of my soul there are no laws. I do not want law and order and set no value on it, for I know myself to be a brigand to the core of my being, who should not be sitting in a study but galloping through the stormy night, galloping with the whirlwind, without purpose… I want to take possession of the Azure, to embody it in myself. Yet never to forget that the Azure is ABOVE me, the Kingdom of Eternal Peace, a calm, serene Kingdom that pours itself into my soul. And, submissive only to the Azure, I still need symbols of my limits. It is the snow-peaks that frame the steppe which make me aware of my freedom and of my limits. The snowy peaks thrusting up into the Azure situate it closer to me–and further away… I will not come to terms, cannot come to terms with anyone who shuts off my view of the peaks with wooden fences or obscures them with smoke.”

Thank you.

April, Kazbegi

I’ve discovered another wonderful thing about being seven months pregnant: you can reach the top of the mountain an hour after everybody else, and everybody, including yourself, is impressed with you.

Taxi drivers say “Ohh,” and slow down when you finally quit groaning and clutching yourself and admit that you don’t just look pregnant; you are pregnant. If you place a hand conspicuously on your belly while climbing into a marshrutka, the driver may not start driving until you are seated (but don’t count on this). Boys get up on the metro so you can sit down. Coteachers tell you that your face is lovely, so plump. In a word, people are so darn polite, it’s terrifying to think you’ll have to go back to being un-pregnant in two and a half months.

I’m not so confident that Georgians know how to be this deferential to recovering new mothers. I know the neighbor men are going to make this their final effort to get Rex drunk; they’ve been telling him for months that when his child is born, he will be the toastmaster. I’m practising a speech in Georgian in case a particularly obnoxious, jolly neighbor gets too pushy: “Is Rexi your spouse? Did his baby come out of your butt last week? No? Then leave me alone, man; I need Rexi more than you do right now.”

***

We got lucky with our mountain transport. We were trying to find the marshrutkas, both because they’re cheaper and because they often drive slower—and all physical questions aside, I am too emotionally fragile these days to bear Lada-travel on mountain curves. Unfortunately, our group was being dogged by taxi drivers with a range of preposterous claims, from there being no marshrutkas so late in the day (3:30 PM), to the Kazbegi marshrutkas leaving from a different part of town, to the marshrutka fare being in fact 20 lari, not 8 as we had heard. We walked all over the station waving off drivers, and I was developing a horrible stitch in my side that was well on its way to persuading me I had no business heading up into the mountains anyway. One persistant driver lowered his price from 20 lari a head to 15. And Sarah made a last-ditch effort, plunging into another obscure corner of the bazar/station and leaving Giorgi to grin at the driver and Rexi to hold hands with a glowering wife.

Sarah returned ten minutes later, having found the marshrutka, secured five places for us, and verified the price of 10 lari. The taxi driver shrugged and offered to match the price. Thus we ended up in a sleek minivan with comfortable seats and good suspension, and the ability to ask for a slower pace whenever the pregnant woman (or her friends) started to feel sick.

For visuals of our actual destination, I direct the curious to Rex’s photos on Facebook.

Our group, seasoned travellers by now, values rest and leisure these days. So when we go somewhere special, we plan an unambitious hike or two, and cook a big meal of veggies in our hostel. Our last couple Georgian hostels have had the bonus of a fantastic view without our troubling ourselves to go anywhere.

Sighnagiphoto

Dawn view from the balcony of our Sighnagi hostel (yes, another unwritten story).

Mount Kazbeg photo

Dawn view from outside our Kazbegi hostel.

Eating and not going anywhere suits me just fine, so when the group went on their one hike the day after we arrived, I didn’t plan to finish it with them. Since we were walking on a road heavily trafficked by tourists, there was no danger of my getting lost or eaten by bears; I took my crochet and planned to look for a comfy boulder at whatever point our friends got tired of walking slowly.

But the slope and the pace were kinder to me than I’d expected, and I was bolstered by a rising smugness as I watched other tourists, who had payed upwards of 50 lari to charter jeeps and minibuses, get treated to a gut-wrenching ride on the deeply rutted road, where often the only thing between the vehicle and a drop was a five-foot bank of snow. There was a constant stream of such traffic, often meaning we had to wade into the snow banks to avoid being splashed; but if ever we needed cheering, there would come the sound of wheels churning and an engine revving in the distance.

My only complaint was that the snow banks and invisible drops rendered my choice of “public toilets” more limited than usual: there was nothing for it but to let our friends round a bend, strain the ears for distant engines, and hope I could get my very non-maternity pants tugged all the way back up before the next sneaky jeep made it this far. Yes, I share this detail because I’m proud of it. I’ve peed in a lot of memorable places in the last year and a half, but pregnancy makes everything a little more exciting.

Rex slowed his pace for me, and our friends stayed with us for most of the way; eventually I ended up finishing the hike. The hike was lovely enough, it would have been worthwhile even without the endpoint, but the final view was spectacular.

KazbegMountain1

But enough of nature already: back to taxi adventures!

We were lucky again with return transport to Tbilisi. For the same price as before, our hostel owner contracted a four-wheel-drive with a careful driver and weirdly terrible seats. There was a tiny video player mounted to the dash, and as I was sitting in the middle row, I had the option to watch either the hair-raising passes we were making on the potholed mountain road, or the white expanses flashing past on either side, or bikini-clad Russian girls giving themselves wedgies and gesturing with popsicles while a synth-heavy chorus insisted, “I’ll lick your lolly-pop.” As we passed other vehicles racing towards the many bepuddled and unlit tunnels, Rex referenced an article he’d seen recently listing positive life lessons that Georgians might take from penguins. The relevant lesson was queuing. That laugh got us through at least two tunnels.

Even after our friends asked the driver to slow down because PREGNANT (gosh, how will they survive here next year without me?) I confess I found the music videos helpfully distracting.

Why do I remember the lollypop song as being Russian when the only line I recall was in English? Was there accordion involved, or is it just a defense mechanism, to believe all the worst pop comes from Russia, and the American is at least a leetle bit better?…

There was also a video that our friends identified as Madonna, and I confess I was surprised. I knew there was a reason I never watch or listen to American pop anything, and also that I can’t give our child what I consider one of the more beautiful names in Georgia; but gosh, I didn’t think it was that great a reason. (Yes, this is admitting I’d never knowingly seen a Madonna music video/heard a Madonna song before.) It’s not so much the vulgarity of the video that shocks me, as the… I want to say mediocrity, but it wasn’t nearly up to the level of mediocre. It was at an appropriate taste-level for the intellect of middle-schoolers, but with a kind of direct sexuality that I want to associate with lonely truck drivers frightened about their health. This video was mind-blowingly uninteresting musically, lyrically, imagistically–all except for the singer’s behind. Even her face and hair seemed designed to be pleasing and forgettable.

Where does so much bad taste in the world come from? It boggles me utterly—the massive coordination of bad taste required to produce something this abysmal and then sell it. I mean, I know I can’t outgrow my fondness for candy corn and peeps, I don’t like dry wine, and some of the high church music Rex listens to makes me want to jump off a cliff, but still…

The ironic thing is, if Eastern European countries want smut, they can often produce it at home at higher quality than the Western or Russian stuff they import. After all, my friends and I just recently discovered Bera, the albino rapper son of Bidzina Ivanishvili (the bazillionaire who owns most of the Georgian government as well as the space station-looking mansion overlooking Tbilisi, and who recently spent a small fortune trying to boat an ancient tulip tree down the Black Sea coast so he could put it in his garden). Bera is quite a good rapper, judging by the sounds (I could only recognize the occasional obvious word–“girl” and “sex,” mostly), and Georgian is a fantastic language for rap. Much better than Russian, and at least as good as English. And Bera has plenty of gorgeous nearly-nekkid dancers in his videos. So why are we watching the lollypop gang…?

A cultural note for those back home: it’s perfectly normal for Georgian drivers to entertain their passengers (of any age and either gender) with borderline pornographic music/dance videos. It’s not bad manners, any more than smoking in a taxi with a pregnant woman is bad manners. If anything, it’s poor taste and questionable manners to ask the guy to stop.

***

Rex pointed out to me that this is a rather abrupt place to stop the entry, but I’m way behind in my chronicle right now, and I just want to finish this and post it. I’ve already got the Budapest trip to write up, and we leave for TLG Trainingi  the day after tomorrow. That should provide me with a few more anecdotes, or at the very least some more rants on taxis, showers, and food.

Not to mention, I keep thinking back to our Turkey/Bulgaria trip, now nearly a year ago, and wishing I would get around to writing more about that, as I promised to.

Meanwhile we’ll be getting a real live baby here in the next six to ten weeks, and…

Yeah, I’m just gonna go ahead and post this durn entry.

On Culture Shock

This summer, our friend Sarah’s Texas family begged her not to return for a second year in the Republic of Georgia. This was because they believed the world would be ending in 2015. Obviously, the most ominous deadline was passed a while ago, so everybody is breathing a bit easier now—but of course the End is only deferred. The family still yearns for their strayed baby to come home.

Sarah and I tend to have a lot to empathize about. From my own church and cultural background, I know plenty of people who believe the End is at hand; some of them, who knows, may even check on this blog to see what Laura and Harry’s daughter is up to. I’m not trying to make fun of such people. If you are such a person reading this, please calm down, stop asking whether this phrasing means that Dear Kirsten isn’t “such a person” herself anymore, and just use your imagination for a minute—it’ll make this post a lot more enjoyable for you.

Imagine you’re the daughter of a Baptist Fundamentalist preacher, and you’ve strayed considerably from your roots. You now think that husbands might try being obedient to wives as well as vice versa, and that gay people who are not Baptist Fundamentalist Christians should not have to conform to every point of Baptist Fundamentalist Christian morality. And that they should be able to vote and work and get married and adopt children and volunteer for non-profits and do good in the world. You’re uncomfortable with most of what your family believes in, including this end-of-the-world stuff, but you keep coming home because, after all, they didn’t get everything wrong—the family is pretty close-knit, and you miss them when you’re away.

It’s not simply that you disagree with them; it’s that what they believe is no longer as natural as breathing to you, and so you notice how weird it is. The situation is awkward. You wish it were somebody else’s family believing this stuff so you could chill out and be amused.

So imagine having finished a frustrating year in Georgia—yet another country that thinks wives should be obedient to husbands and gay people should stop being gay—and your American mother, heartbroken at your stubbornness, takes you to J. C. Penny and insists on buying you good sweaters and legwarmers because there’s no telling how much longer good sweaters and legwarmers will be available, and she knows Georgian winters are cold; she wants you to be as safe as possible.

You find out a close family friend has spent her retirement money on a huge house in the country so she can take in her relatives once the Tribulation begins, and they can live off canned goods and the land until Jesus returns.

When you’re about at the end of your endurance, you come home from a coffee date (wherein an old friend told you she’s tired by saying, “He is preparing a place for me, Sarah”) and what do you find in the backyard but your elder brother, a convert to Judaism, honking on his new Israeli-imported shofar and then smelling it? Apparently it doesn’t smell great, because he chases his four-year-old daughter around the yard with it. All for the entertainment of the atheist neighbors.

Finally you make it back to Georgia, as if waking from a dream. You’re hanging out in the village house with your host mom one day, and somebody casually mentions that actually, host mom and dad are legally divorced. It’s confusing, but over the next few months, you work up the nerve to ask a specific question or two, and you collect enough muddled answers to suppose that they divorced for financial reasons—maybe tax evasion? Eventually your host mother exhorts you that what’s on paper doesn’t matter; it’s how you regard yourselves in your hearts, and how you live.

Your Georgian family is kinda modern, it seems.

Later you find out that the Georgian boy you’re dating got drunk once and bought a flat in Tbilisi. Apparently he has the ready money to do this. Then he claims to be some kind of special police inspector, and when you tease him to prove it, he shows you a rather convincing badge. Later he arrives home with a stab wound you must swear not to tell his mother about. Later his dad’s found out about the drunken flat-buying, and makes him sell the flat and invest the money in more acres to tack onto the family hazelnut farm. You can’t seem to figure out what exactly he plans on doing with his Physics or Business or Maths or Whatever It Is degree he’s working on, but at least his English is improving at a steady clip, and now when your American friends want to know how to say “I am pooping” in Georgian, he can tell them.

Me waketeb poonas, I am making poop.

Later you find out his father does business with Nutella and a bunch of international candy companies, and that if there are no hailstorms or other disasters in the next four years, they’re expecting to be making millions. Of dollars.

No wonder they keep the house stocked with the expensive chocolate, and they’re always buying your friends Kristi and Rexi presents of new socks or tights from the bazaar when they come for a visit.

And you can’t take your almost-millionaire, drunken-flat-buying, police inspector Georgian boyfriend home to meet your apocalyptical family because—even though, thank goodness, he finally had The Birthday that means he can legally drink in the US now too—the US government will expect him to try to overstay his visa and work illegally like a Mexican. If you want to prove his financial viability, you will need to compile your parents’ bank statements and lists of assets, and his parents’ lists of assets, and his assets, and you’ll need to prove that you yourself have a lease and a job to return to in Tbilisi next year, because obviously if you don’t go back, why would he? Who would believe that nut farm business? All these people just want an easy way to sneak past the American legal system and work construction and get on Welfare without paying taxes, duh.

Oh, and your almost-millionaire nut-farming host dad, who also owns the local fire station, was shown on the news recently heating up a frozen fire truck by pushing a woodstove underneath it.

On International Women’s Day, you attended a village-wide supra with a couple hundred older ladies who proceeded to get drunk and dance with abandon to an English song titled, “Give Me Sex.”

Also on Women’s Day, a fourth grade student gave you a pair of Spanx as a present.

Your life is taking some turns for the better since last year; your school’s football team, which lodges in the hotel under the Emergency Room (the hotel owner bought [yes, bought] the team from Tbilisi—feeds them daily in his restaurant and sends them late to classes after lunch, often drunk)–they’re much politer all the sudden, you have no idea why. They’re no longer your dumbest students. Also the fourth grade boy who kept trying to hug you in order to touch your behind apparently got expelled and won’t be coming back to this school. You suspect other teachers were having problems with him as well, and you simply provided the last straw by shouting (in excellent Georgian, at the front of the fourth grade class), “DON’T TOUCH MY ASS!”

This was a good week. On Friday, you enjoyed an excellent beer during fourth grade. Another teacher bought it for you, and as it came in an unmarked clear plastic cup, none of the kids seemed to notice what it was. It was an unusually good Georgian beer.

Somebody posts an old youtube video showing Donald Trump in Batumi, making a speech with now ex-president Saakashvili. According to Mr. Trump, Batumi is about to become a major world center in the next few years. In addition to Trump Tower, a slew of skyscrapers and hotels are going up. Things are changing fast in Georgia. World leaders are sending people over here, Mr. President (Trump never does try to pronounce his name), to see just exactly what it is that you’re doing.

Slowly, slowly, reality is sinking in.

You are never going to get over the culture shock.

Every culture is shocking.

***

I received permission to write up Sarah’s anecdotes over the weekend while she was staying with us again. We made vegetarian spaghetti with red wine and aubergines, and it was so fabulous, even Mzia and Teo took more than one helping. Garlic toast—a revolutionary concept. Sarah gave Teo careful instructions, and Teo plans to make it herself sometime.

Later we were making coke floats upstairs, and I accidentally poured red wine all over my icecream, since Sarah had put the wrong bottle into the fridge to chill. Because naturally, red wine also comes in coke bottles.

Still later we were comparing our dads’ habits of going to the store for one roll of toilet paper, and coming home with thirty cans of mandarin oranges and fourteen boxes of salteen crackers, because they were on sale. We spent a while giggling about the fathers we so miss.

“Oh my god,” then said Sarah. “I just said, ‘Go to the store for one roll of toilet paper.’ I just said that for real. What is happening to me?”

“And a minute ago I just said, ‘at the weekend.'”

Cultural acclimation works in mysterious ways.

How the Village Raises the Child…

We’re in Tbilisi, and I celebrated Rex’s Birthday Eve by eating a quarter of a jar of Nutella. Consequently just after midnight on his birthday (morning), Rex was able to certainly feel Baia kick for the first time.

The weekend weather is dreary, but we’re with friends, and a lovely friend from our first year with TLG is visiting for a few days, flaunting his “real salary” from teaching English in Korea by bringing us presents from his visit to America—Mexican seasonings and Starbursts for Sarah, molasses for me and Liz—and buying all the Georgian foods he’d missed in group quantities. Friday night, Rex and I were planning a spare meal of sauteed cabbage and onion; instead we squeezed nine people into our little hostel room and feasted on mushroom dumplings and bean bread, and Starbursts and Nutella and dried apricots and banana bread. Saturday night, yet more people came over, and Rex planned and executed his own birthday dinner of eggs carbonara with mushrooms. There was champagne and wine and good fellowship until two in the morning. I told our friends that Rex isn’t crazy about cake, so they bought him a gorgeously-bound new translation of The Knight in the Panther Skin instead.

***

The crocheted-baby-things drama continues. I took the outfit mentioned in the last post to my second school, Bakurtsikhe, and showed it to my coteacher. She sounded deadly ill, and coughed all over it, but she still managed an excessive enthusiasm, crying the news across the teachers’ room and passing around everything. The next day when I arrived, she asked me if I had the “knitted items” again, which as it happens I did; and she was less hoarse and even more enthusiastic. This time the only two males on staff, the director and sport teacher, also joined in, particularly in praise of the booties. Every time the outfit was returned to me, someone new walked in the room and had to be shown.

I joined Teona and my favorite neighbor Gulo for chocolates one day after school, and Gulo beamed approval at me and said I’m getting fat. Mzia laughed and made a rounding gesture over her own belly; but Gulo shook her head and said no, she meant my face.

It’s hard to feel irritated, like a proper American woman, when everybody says these things with such hearty approval. Even Rex, my love, gestures at me standing in my pajamas at bedtime and bursts out, “You’re just so—substantial!” Of course I pretend to be irritated, so he’ll have to explain again how this is a good thing, it’s a nice thing, I’m funny and pretty and he likes it an awful lot. I’m starting to feel gassy in odd locales now, like under my ribs and near my kidneys, if that can help you imagine how big I’m beginning to be. I can feel the weight of my uterus when I walk to school, and now when the baby kicks I can sometimes feel it in two directions–at the surface where my hand is pressed, and at the back against my gut.

This week the ladies at school said my belly was darling. Coteacher Sopo, whom I taught the expression “baby bump,” says I have a nice bump, and asks me to please take off my, uh, coat and show to her my bump; oh, it really is a nice bump! But it’s so small! Am I sure I’m pregnant? See, it’s only now getting as big as her bump, the one she still has although her son is eight years old. She had an operation when he was born, see, and afterward there was some infection, and for six months her stomach was blue and hard as a rock! Oh yes, her doctor was so scared! And now because of it she cannot to, uh, hold in, her stomach, she cannot the muskles.

***

Meanwhile I met a Georgian doctor with the Elvish name of Avtandil; he is the boss of the private clinic where maybe we will deliver the baby. He speaks a few genial fragments of English and has a daughter practicing oncology in Tampa where she lives with her lawyer-husband. Avtandil asked Mzia if I understood Georgian, and I said a little; whereupon he began to quiz me. “How are you?” “Do you like Georgia?” When I answered to satisfaction, he tried a harder one: “How many weeks are you?” I answered twenty-one, and he said gently, “No, you are twenty-one years. How many weeks are you?” –Which if it was planned flattery I think rather clever of him. I’m told all the Chinese in Telavi come to this clinic, so maybe he’s used it before.

I had a favorable impression of this clinic, which was spacious and attractively-designed, with a white piano and leather couches in the lobby, a flat-screen TV silently playing episodes of “The Last Airbender” cartoon, and a mild smell of plug-in air-fresheners. Besides Doctor Avtandil, the friendly sonogram technician also spoke a little English. The woman who will be my primary doctor, Nino, also delivered both of Teona’s babies, and the family likes her and I certainly found her likable. More importantly, she sounded like she knew her business (figured out immediately what I was talking about, when I began to describe a problem in my medical history that I had thought fairly rare and unknown), and she seems to feel it important to try to understand me when I communicate.

But the main reason my experience was positive was that Mzia shepherded me the whole day. Telavi is over an hour’s journey from us; we left the house at nine in the morning and didn’t return till well after five. It was exhausting. But for me, the customarily stressful bits of Georgian doctor trips were not even an issue this time; I didn’t have to struggle to understand directions when I was meant to go down the hall to such and such lab, or do such and such paperwork first and then wait here and do this. Several times, Mzia made me sit in the lobby while she trotted back and forth with my identity and insurance cards and cash, rounding up paperwork.

I told her my mother is very happy that I have Mzia here with me.

Mzia looked confused. Who is happy?

My mother—in America—is very happy because she knows that Mzia is with me, because she cannot be with me for herself. My mother—prays—to God—thank you very much for Mzia!

This appears to be amusing. Mzia assures me for the hundredth time that she is my mother, she will stay with me, it is no trouble. She will come with me to the doctor every time; it will get harder as I get more pregnant. I will not be able to come alone. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.

How I Was Nearly Widowed for Nutella, and Other Winter Tales

Monday, February 8

My coteacher Sopo has been teaching 31 hours a week at our school of a hundred kids ever since our other English teacher went on maternity leave in October. Last year, this was a great thing, as she got the salary for 31 hours.

Now it seems our director has discovered a government rule whereby you can’t pay a teacher for more than 25 hours. Sopo will be paid accordingly for 25 hours. But the director has asked her to continue working 31 hours until April, when our colleague comes back, since there don’t seem to be any other local, certified teachers available to cover those extra 6 hours. Sopo is upset, but she “can’t refuse, because it would not be polite.” She did, however, seem deeply gratified by my outrage.

A salesman came into our class during fifth grade and started speaking to Sopo in Russian. The kids loved it, and started calling out the few Russian words they remembered, or repeating words he said that they recognized. They eventually started singing snatches of Russian songs. The guy ignored it all, sold my coteacher an expensive perfume, and went away.

She collapsed onto her chair laughing. “I am so stupid! I always tell to myself that I cannot have money in my–my–wallet. I have wanted this money for somesing else!”

“Then why did you buy it?”

“I liked smell! I can’t believe he came in here!”

I seconded this thought.

“I don’t sink that anyone have give him–“

“Permission?”

“Yes, I sink he is very smart man!”

I’ve seen plenty of salesladies (usually selling clothes) in the teachers’ room before, but never in classrooms. At least, the kids were more interested by their impromptu Russian lesson than they ever are in our usual lessons.

But the real highlight of my Monday came after an impulsive decision to show Sopo my favorite baby outfit I have crocheted—not during break, but at the end of seventh grade, after reflecting that she had to stand outside in the falling snow during break and wouldn’t have a better chance to pay attention to me.

Now, my American friends and Georgian host family and neighbors have not been lax when it comes to awwing over baby things; but Sopo and this class of six girls and a boy achieved enthusiasm beyond my wildest expectations. Talk about instant gratification. They passed and re-passed the dress and the hat and the booties, and Sopo said she wishes for such a hat, and she took a dozen pictures, and even Gio attempted to participate by drawing a chalk smiley face on the desk under the hat; but one of the girls erased it. I barely got everything back when the bell rang.

***

Title Story

Rex “suddenly remembered” something he had “forgotten” to tell me, a couple nights ago as I was drifting to sleep.

When we were in Tbilisi last month, cooking blessed vegetables in our hostel kitchenette, I sent him on a midnight emergency Nutella-run to the corner store. We’d been in that store earlier in the evening, and when I’d been unable to decide between Nutella and ice cream, I concluded it would be best for my character and for my baby if I abstained and stuck to sauteed cabbage for the evening. Of course, a few hours later, I regretted this decision.

So it was that Rex was in the corner store at midnight, looking at Nutella on a shelf. There was a cacauphonous noise, and when he looked around him, he saw a giant ceiling light panel dangling from some cords and wires, a couple feet off the floor—and just a couple feet to his side. A lady in the next aisle stared. The shop assistant stared. Eventually the shop assistant came and silently picked up the light and set it on top of the shelf.

Rex came home and ate some Nutella with me, and (wisely) didn’t “remember” this story till a month later.

***

It’s funny, the things that take a while to notice. For most of my life, I’ve managed not to notice when people call me “Kristin” until they realize their mistake and apologize. Once in a while in Georgia, I’ll suddenly notice what a range of names I respond to on a daily basis, and I’m amazed and, to tell the truth, I rather like it.

Kreestina—Kako, some people at school

Kreesti—Mzia and Teo, some people at school

Kreesto—Blind Grandfather

Kreest—Blind Grandfather

Crease—elderly coteacher Nanuli

Last week in school, Nanuli, who always phrases things memorably, asked me please to read ze text for ze nineth graders, “because you are a good person.”

I’m getting stared at a lot these days while I walk to school. It’s not the sight of a pregnant lady walking—I’m not too much of a whale yet, thank you, unfriendly diet and four-mile round-trip a day; it’s these pregnancy hormones. I’m losing inhibitions fast. People turn and stare at the woman who’s shouting and shaking her fist at the taxi that just sprayed her with muddy snow, or the police car going sixty mph down a road where kids and old ladies walk and a guy with a rusty tricycle behind a massive empty wire basket groans in slow motion up a hill all day. They turn and ponder the stream of familiar-sounding English words.

***

I guess I might as well mention my pregnancy in more than passing, since this is the first blog post I’ve made in ages of ages.

Nobody ever told me pregnancy could be this fun, that it just might happen that you experience pregnancy not as morning sickness and swollen feet, but as a giant hormone pill that fixes everything that was wrong with your soul, and sharpens your tongue to boot. My husband reports that I swear “a lot more,” and that I seem happier.

This notwithstanding homesickness a lot more prevalent and painful than any American adult of twenty-seven likes to admit to, and a growing (growing?! How is it possible to increase?) frustration with most aspects of my employment. I’m the happiest I can ever remember being in my life, and I’m miserable and I want to go home YESTERDAY. I’m so over Georgia. (Hence all the lively stories.) I’m just trying to survive somehow until June, kiss whatever employing derrieres are necessary to avoid conflict until I can get the happy home. But of course, then the hormone prescription will be finished, or changed—dear Lord help me. I need to stay pregnant as long as possible. This is a magical time.

Anyhow, it’s due to end June 23, or sometime thereabouts. After that, Lord only knows when we’ll get to come home, but I’m hoping it’ll happen in less than a month. Because I will gladly chaperone a newborn through a 30-40 hour epic journey involving three flights and four airports if only I can get home to the welcoming embrace of my mommie’s potato-broccoli soup, and a party pail of cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream, and a morning of artificial air conditioning and decaf milk coffee AND A SHOWER WHENEVER THE HECK I WANT TO. And also my family.

I spend hours every day fantasizing about stepping back into the Jackson airport with Rex and the baby. I’ve often come near tears during slow classes for passing the time this way.

And that’s basically what pregnancy is like for me. Happiness, homesickness, painful food cravings, a terrible facial rash that worries the neighbors from time to time, and a bump on my wrist that Rex’s research says is joint fluid and not cancer. Oh, and sometimes I dream that I’m home in an American kitchen, with spaghetti bubbling on the stove and a real coffee pot brewing in the corner, and Alexi comes in and pees all over the walls and ceiling when I try to be nice and give him a cookie.

Rex dreams that he and our friends are climbing mountains looking for the perfect doctor to deliver our baby.

I lie awake at night with my hand on my belly, waiting for that one kick in thirty minutes to assure me she’s real, she’s alive, I’m not just carrying some tumor that gives me a belly and a rash and a waddle and won’t actually give me a baby in four and a half more months.

The Bakurtsikhe Teacher’s Outing

–ended with a large, soft, elderly rump pressed against the back of my head. 

This particular incident happened on the bus on the way home, at the end of the night: for an hour and a half, our packed, ladies-only bus jammed to a repeating loop of hit Georgian music videos, and favorite musical numbers from various comedy shows. 

Most of the older ladies were very drunk indeed, and those in the aisle before and behind me saw fit to rise and dance on more than one occasion. Their mood was not at all dampened by the American’s refusal to join in. I got slightly folded-up in my collapsible seat once, but I don’t think anyone even noticed.

***

So, I’d thought this was going to be a school field-trip. I was told about it (in Georgian, by the librarian) on my first day at school; I wrote down the date, and diligently asked after it as plans changed and dates shifted. I was intentional. I was un-Kirsten. I was investing myself in the life of my school.

After an exhausting day of sitting attentively through my coteachers’ lessons, I did not go home; I sat awake in the teachers’ room through the last period, and was finally herded into the bus with the rest of the teachers. At this point I began to think: either this is one dang important school field-trip, or I misunderstood something. The bus was packed with teachers. There was not a single spare seat; I was one of the unlucky ones in the fold-out seats in the aisle. My behind was numb long before we arrived.

Georgians are totally different on private and public transport. Gone now were the stoic poses, the quiet fanning oneself in the stuffiness. These ladies were in high spirits. Also, we had a 16-inch TV screen at the front, and a loop of semi-scandalous music videos; the volume rose and fell as ladies shouted complaints about how loud it was, or that they couldn’t hear again.

A deafening hour and a half later, we arrived at Alaverdi monastery. Seems this was not a school field-trip. I’d been told that “some others” had gone ahead of us; these were not students, but caterers. There was a whole supra set up for us on picnic tables by the roadside, near three small fires where massive pots of meat and liver were boiling, and an ancient rusting bus that looked like it had carried political prisoners to work camps in a former life. The bus door was open, and I could see the floor lined with newspapers, on which bread was stacked, loaves upon loaves.

We first drove past all this to the monastery, where we scarfed up, burned candles for five minutes, and descended en masse upon the pay toilets. There I experienced another possible form of Georgian hospitality; as I was digging for my wallet, my coteacher paid for my pee.

Later we crammed around the picnic table, on benches topped with single five-inch boards, and my behind lost all hope of salvation.

An interesting plot twist was that, apparently, I was supposed to bring my own place setting. Nobody told me. My coteacher seemed mildly surprised that I had not thought of it. As soon as we sat down, all the ladies had begun pulling bundles out of their purses, and unwrapping little porcelain saucers, glasses, forks. Fortunately for me, someone had a spare plate I could use, and somebody else had a few plastic cups. There was not an extra fork, so I had to limit my consumption of fried eggplant to the amount of bread I could stomach for its conveyance. There were very few serving dishes, also; anything without broth was plattered on sheets of notebook paper.

The director was late, and we couldn’t start without him. So the thirty-odd exuberant ladies and two gentlemen joked and gazed upon the food for an hour, and eventually the director’s car zoomed past in the direction of the monastery. He was going to pay his respects first. Well, that was good enough for everybody, so they began eating, and at once it started to rain. There was a chorus of “wy, me,” but nobody stopped eating; presently it stopped. The director arrived and the wine began.

Thus began an agonizing three hours. I don’t know how Georgians do it. I was the second-to-youngest person present, and I didn’t see anybody else fidgeting or showing discomfort. Some may have looked weary, but nobody seemed in pain.

I did eventually verify, however, that Georgians are capable of mild potty humor! After a couple hours, a small group of teachers broke away and went back to the toilets. Others called after them: Don’t go! They’re expensive! Then the men boasted that they could just go in the road; why wouldn’t the ladies go in the road?

It’s hard for non-TLGers to understand why this is so funny. See, when volunteers get together, all the females immediately start scoping out potential toilet sites. It’s difficult to find bathrooms in this country, and we express our deepest feelings of solidarity in the form of toilet humor. Our Georgian friends and families simply do not comprehend this. Georgians seem to need the toilet a fraction of the times American females do, and they certainly don’t understand why we’re so anxious on this subject all the time.

At some point I was obliged say a toast. I’m not fond of toasts, and I hate being put on the spot, but I think I managed to perform without obvious resentment. Later the director demanded to know why I was not drinking. I made an excuse and continued not drinking. The truth was, the first wine I was served was from a water bottle brought my my coteacher; it tasted pretty good until I noticed the high concentration of dead flies in it. Somehow after all this time, that still gets to me. Funny the things you learn in life: dead flies sink in wine, but adding a carbonated beverage makes them float. Then you can pick them out at leisure and count them on your napkin. Then you can thank God you’re a woman and the “Georgian wine is SO strong!” excuse actually works for you.

***

It was another of those experiences I’m very glad to have had. I got home safely just after nine-thirty in the evening, with a medium headache from noise and weariness rather than from wine. Happy as some of the ladies seemed, I wasn’t the only one covertly complaining. But we all made it to school the next day… And after that, the weekend.

A bit of Georgian for free, in case you ever need it: “Mtwrali kalebi tsekwavdnen marshrutkashi.” “Drunk ladies were dancing in the minibus.”

At school the next day, everyone asked me how I like Georgian supra. Of course I said I like it very much.

***

As a post script, here is one of the better-appreciated musical numbers from our return ride. (Be warned, my mother will be rather scandalized by this video.) It’s done by Comedy Show (that’s the name of the show), and is a parody version of a song that’s very popular on Georgian radio currently. In this version, from what I think I understand of the lyrics, the song opens daring the advent of cold weather and snow. Then the rest is pretty much about drinking wine. I’m assuming that the central joke rests on the word “chicka,” which in Georgian means “wine glass” instead of “hot chick.” 

The Assyrian Fathers of Kakheti

In the sixth century, the Georgian people were relatively young in the Christian faith, whose presence might have seemed tenuous. Widespread conversion of the eastern heartland, Iberia, began a mere two centuries before when St Nino, a wandering nun from Cappadocia, brought the Gospel to the Chosroid monarchy. Paganism lingered still in the mountains, and the Chosroids were vassals of an ardently Zoroastrian empire, Sassanid Persia. Many of Iberia’s most powerful nobles were Persian aristocrats who espoused–and sometimes violently spread–the religion of their homeland.

St Shushanik

Georgian politics, meanwhile, played in the overlapping shadows of Persia and her rival Rome, and despite Persian regional dominance, the Chosroid royal family looked west to the political center of their new faith. Tensions between Georgians and their Persian overlords were catalyzed into war during the reign of King Vakhtang I, when an Ibero-Persian noble killed his Christian wife, Shushanik, an Armenian princess renowned for her saintliness. Vakhtang executed the noble. The war did not go well for Georgia, and King Vakhtang died in battle. His successors lost most of their independence. Before he died, however, Vakhtang secured the ecclesiastical promotion of the head of the Georgian Church, the bishop of Mstkheta, to catholicos. This essentially granted the Georgian Church recognition by Constantinople as a self-governing body.

Sixth century Assyrian monastery in Mosul, Iraq

To the south, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was home to the Assyrian people. They spoke the language of Jesus Christ–Aramaic–and had converted early to Christianity, yet they too were ruled by the intermittently hostile Persian Empire. The Persian emperors eventually granted recognition to the Assyrian Church; however, they insisted that the Church sever its ties with Rome, isolating Assyrian Christians from many of the theological revolutions occurring in the west. In the late fifth century, the emperor executed the Assyrian catholicos and put his support behind the Nestorian movement, a theological faction arising from Antioch that had been denounced as heretical by the clerical hierarchy of the west.

Extent of the first-millennium “Church of the East”

During this period of upheaval, many Assyrian priests and monks migrated from Mesopotamia, establishing churches and monasteries throughout Asia. According to tradition, thirteen of them traveled to Georgia from Edessa, led by a priest named John. The Iberian catholicos in Mtskheta welcomed these missionaries, who then spread out across Eastern Georgia. John settled in Zedazeni in the mountains above Mtskheta, while his followers each found a corner of Georgia wherein to evangelize and do good works. They each founded a monastery, where they were later buried and are still venerated to this day.

Of these thirteen remembered fathers, five settled within the boundaries of modern Kakheti: David of Gareja, Abibos of Nekresi, Joseph of Alaverdi, Stephen of Khirsa, and Zenon of Ikalto.

We know the most about David, whose feast is celebrated in Georgia the first Thursday after Easter. He could be considered the Georgian equivalent of St Francis of Assisi; he lived peacefully with his disciples and with nature. According to legend, he drank the milk of does and played with their fawns, and even expressed pity for a dragon destroyed by God. He founded a significant monastery on Mount Gareja in the desert; all the monks who wished to follow his rule carved their own cells out of the rock. The monastery became a center of art and learning.

The Gareja Monastery was destroyed several times, notably by the Mongols in the 13th century. In 1616, Persian soldiers slaughtered the entire community of monks, reputedly amounting to some 6000 souls, and destroyed the monastic library. It was rebuilt within fifty years, and remained active until the Russians closed it down and turned the area into a military training camp and firing range. Although today the site is endangered by a border dispute with Azerbaijan, Georgian monks again live in those same caves.

Abibos traveled to Nekresi in the eastern mountains and worked to convert the mountain tribes. According to legend, he was influential in the conversion of the Dagestanis. However, he fell afoul of the Persian military governor for his denunciations of Zoroastrian fire-worship, and was beaten to death with stones. His feast day is December 12.

Nekresi is the subject of one famous story: During the Arab invasions, a Muslim army assembled to sack the monastery. In response, the villagers, knowing Muslim revulsion toward swine, killed their pigs and spread their skins around the monastery. The Arabs decided to withdraw and go someplace else. Because of this deliverance, pigs are occasionally sacrificed at Nekresi, the only church in Georgia where this is permitted.

Joseph, who carried a relic of the True Cross, made his way to the desolate plain of Alaverdi and lived there as a hermit. A nobleman passing through on a hunt was impressed by the Assyrian’s piety, and paid for the construction of a church on a site formerly used for moon-worship. Soon, a community of monks had formed around Joseph, who died surrounded by many disciples. His feast day is 28 September. Alaverdi is still one of the most important religious sites in Kakheti and the site of Georgia’s second-tallest church.

 

Of the other two, little is known. Stephen preached throughout Kakheti, and started his own monastic community at Khirsa, in modern Tibaani near Tsnori. The Khirsa church is beautifully placed and visible far and wide, located on the ridge overlooking the Alazani valley. The monastery was closed by the Russians, and only reopened several years ago. One modern Georgian saint, Giorgi Mkheidze from Racha, lived for a time at Khirsa, and was reputedly beaten and forcibly shaved at this monastery by Soviet agents in 1924 for his nationalist agitation.

Zenon‘s monastery at Ikalto hosted a famous school called the Academy, which served as a medieval center of learning to rival Gelati in western Georgia. The famous national poet Shota Rustaveli attended this Academy, according to locals. Much of the remains of the complex, which included three churches, has been recently excavated.

As for the Assyrian Fathers outside Kakheti, some settled near John’s original monastery at Zedazeni, in the greater Mtskheta area (Tsilkani, Samtavisi, and Shio-mghvime). Another’s monastery is in Martkopi, near Tbilisi. One founded a church in Urbnisi and reputedly had some connection with Stepantsminda. The most obscure of the thirteen lived at Breti (near Gori) and Ulumbo (in the hills of Shida Kartli).

 

Georgian Educational Videos on the Assyrian Fathers





Last Bits of Return, and New Beginnings

This year’s new development is that my at-home tutoring sessions can be broken up by a four-year-old with a hatchet.

To be fair, that’s only happened once. Yes, it’s Alexi. They gave him a tiny ax, on purpose. A real one. For a few days, he carried it around, knocking timidly on metal rails and bits of furniture and doors, and occasionally shaking it at young Barbare or some neighbor child. Then one day there was an altercation with now-second-grade Lizi during our lesson, and Lizi got chased around the table a bit (because she’s intelligent, not because she was particularly worried), and I stomped downstairs to inform Teo that we had a “small problem” with her bawshwi. (Her child. Too great a word not to use all the time.) Alexi got dragged down, and I haven’t noticed the hatchet since. Not sure if he got bored with it or somebody actually decided to hide it.

***

I wanted to finish the return-trip story.

IMG_8741

We did something in Doha we’ll probably never do again, at least not if we’re traveling through again in summer: we walked the couple miles from the hotel down to the harbor. I’m glad we did it, as it’s a unique kind of atmosphere, in its slightly creepy way–you know, foreign laborers drudging in the median-gardens in the suffocating mid-morning heat, and all the nutty stuff you’ve read about this place on Wikipedia floating through your mind.

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The view from the harbor was lovely, in a dusty sort of way.

But it was durn hot. Durn hot. We started walking before eight o’clock in the morning, got back about nine-thirty, and laid out on the linoleum floor of our hotel room until I felt man enough to take a cold shower.

The memorable thing about Doha is the twin opulence and dust, the incredibly blue water and incredibly dirty sky. It’s waterfront desert. Excepting the fancy cars and the skyscraper windows which Lord only knows what kind of slave labor has kept clean, the lawns, still sparkling from sprinkler water, are the only parts not covered in dust. The avenues are lined with palms caked in dust. Most of the parked cars are caked in it. The sky fades from blue to gray well above the horizon, and the fantastic skyscrapers of the city proper are visibly grimy from a distance.

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I don’t get tired of the view flying out, though.

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Photo by Rex

***

I called Kako from the Tbilisi airport a bit before 8:00 PM, and Rex and I were unspeakably relieved when he was able to arrange for a taxi driver friend to pick us up at the airport and bring us home for the standard rate, meaning Rex and I didn’t have to do negotiations, exhausted and with five bags making us visibly helpless.

The driver was familiar; one of the ones who’ve done us favors before, at Kako’s behest; unfortunately I can’t ever remember which favor goes with which driver. It seems the backs of all Georgian taxi drivers’ heads look vaguely alike, and their windshields are splintered in similar patterns. Also they have the same icons taped to the windshield. I find it appropriate to act generally grateful, just in case I’m being expected to remember a kindness.

This guy drove at a respectable speed all the way out of the city, and I was just remarking this to myself–being grateful for a sort of “welcome home” present–when he pulled around the last bit of traffic and started zooming. Of course.

I remember at one point the radio was playing a song that mentioned two specific drugs, used the f-word repeatedly, and narrated an apparent rape which left the girl sore in specified ways. I was smiling and shaking my head at Rex in the back when our driver switched radio channels. Guess he must have recognized the f-word or something.

On the next station, this was playing. For those of you who don’t click links on blogs, the relevant information is: You’re my hanney, you’re my bunny, you so funkey when you gimme kiss kiss, gimme gimme kiss kiss. Hanney, hanney, hanney, hanney hi, hanney gimme kiss kiss, gimme gimme kiss kiss. Also, accordions.

Getting home finally was like—getting home. I proceeded to be depressed for three or four days because it wasn’t my other home, and my other family wasn’t here; but I managed to seem happy for this family, I think, and they certainly appeared happy to have us back. Things quickly fell into routine, and got comfortable.

***

We’re both at new schools this year, me because I had agreed with TLG (TLG and I agreed about something!) that it would be good for me to try out a bigger school, and Rex because who-knows. We got an email the week before we flew back, mentioning that his school decided they didn’t want a volunteer again. So now we both taxi to more distant schools; Rex’s walk is about an hour, mine half that. I do plan to walk it a lot during colder weather. I think last year we would have been irritated with TLG for the inconvenience, but now that we’re old hands, well… we wanted this family, wanted to keep our neighborhood connections. If this is the best way to do that, it’s a small price to pay. (Literally–if we both taxied both ways every day, it’d add up to about six bucks a week altogether.)

I like my new school a lot. It helps everyone’s friendliness that my ability to respond in Georgian is better than it was when I was new at Kolagi, and the tiny Russian teacher seems determined to help me remember the difference between dobrey deyn and spaciba. Maybe I’ll retaliate by trying to speak to her in Turkish. (Yeah, I splurged on a well-reviewed Turkish textbook over break. Amazon access went to my head. Anyhow I’m hoping it’ll be a way to stave off boredom when the sounds of Georgian become more repetitive than I can stand to keep studying; also, Turkish is easier than Russian, so I don’t foresee too terrible a brain melt.)

I have three new coteachers: one elderly and armpit-height, who wears the same clothes every day of every week, brags about the past volunteer who called her “Mom,” and has been teaching for forty years. She’s adorable, and the students think so too. The next teacher is a middle-aged, attractive Mini Mouse who is not afraid to bless out a noisy classroom, and stays very much in control of things while remaining upbeat. The third is my age, pretty and painfully shy and none too confident in the classroom. One morning last week, I took to school a box labeled “Confiscated Items,” and adopted two rolled-up pieces of paper and a glue stick in fourth grade. I explained my method to her and she seemed impressed.

Last week, one of the fourth graders introduced herself as “Madona,” and kissed my hand when I left class. She’s one of the troublemakers, that one, and always manages to get the boy sitting next to her yelled at. What a cutie. 

***

We visited friends in a nearby village last weekend. Our volunteer friend Liz is living with a family in Rustavi (a sizeable town) this year, and they have a village house in Kardanakhi, which is almost within walking-distance for us. Rex and I and Sarah, and Sarah’s host brother Giorgi, were invited to their village house the day after the grape harvest finished for feasting. The food was fabulous, of course, and for a real treat, more than half of the extensive friends-and-family group present spoke at least some English.

The young men, five or six of them, have a band, and they tirelessly sang and played while we feasted. They did some Georgian traditional songs that were gorgeous, particularly when some of the older men joined in. Then of course there was the sprinkling of terrible American pop. I think they returned to “Knock-knock-knockin on Heaven’s Door” at least eight times.

Sometime, I want to compile a list of things I’ve done which I’d never have imagined doing. Mostly I value these items for the contrast of their parts: for example,

*Sang “Doe, a Deer” with a group of Georgians in a vineyard, with chickens running around.

Alternatively,

*Sang Leonard Cohen’s “Halelujah” with a group of Georgians in a vineyard, with chickens running around; nobody knew much of the verses, so we mostly just joined in at the chorus—fifteen adults and teenagers belting that chorus, teeth purple from wine…

It reminded me a bit of the first time I ever heard “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was with a group of kids from the Crossgates Baptist Church college group, and I was sitting on the floor hugging my knees, wondering at the beauty and pain and defiance of the lyrics, and at the way my church friends were singing along with happy gusto, as if they didn’t understand what the words meant. What is it about music? The folks who can sing, or think they can, get more expressive in voice and face than they would in most any other form of expression, but one gets the feeling that the meaning of the song is totally irrelevant to them.

Watching this phenomenon has always put me in a strange mood, but experiencing it in Georgia is a different flavor of strange. One can stop at the level of bemoaning American pop cultures’ corrupting of innocent natives. Or one can proceed to participate, get off the snobby horse, sing “Doe, a Deer” and “Hallelujah,” and find in both a brief moment of amazement, if not transcendence. That it can happen at all, that it can sound like this; that it can pull even me from my smug superiority to “American pop culture” and help me enjoy making noise with friends. 

Photo by Rex

Photo by Rex