Sunday, January 25, 2009

Georgia Part 8: Tbilisi, The long road back to Piter, and what comes next

They cancelled my flight to Kiev from Batumi, so I ended up having to fly out of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Rezi, Basa and I took an overnight train to Tbilisi from Batumi. We only had a few hours in the morning to look around, so we saw very little of the city (we had hoped to get Rezi’s cousin to drive us around a bit to see the city, but there was a miscommunication about the timing and we couldn’t fit it in). However, what I did see I really liked – the architecture is beautiful, there are churches everywhere, and the whole city is nestled in a valley, so the view of the city from the hills is amazing. Rezi himself had never been to Tbilisi before (other than to transfer trains, which doesn’t count), and so I’ve made him promise that we’ll do some more exploring when I come back. One thing I wouldn’t suggest doing in Tbilisi – ordering khachapuri Ajara-style. They don’t know how to do it. Best to be in Ajara (that is, in Batumi) to get it done right.

My trip back to Piter was long, and made more so by the sudden feelings of loneliness that washed over me. For three straight weeks I’d been surrounded by people that made me feel like one of their own (not least of which was Rezi), and suddenly I was alone. I didn’t plan ahead and so didn’t have a map or guidebook for Kiev, so even though I had a few hours to kill between my flight and my train to Moscow, I ended up not seeing anything noteworthy (even though it’s a glorious city). Instead I went to the movies and saw the most awful film ever, “Tarif Novogodny” (“New Year’s Phone Plan”). It was so poorly written and badly acted that I don’t even want to talk about it. It was strange in Kiev to suddenly understand everything being said around me again; my ears had gotten used to simply not understanding most of the linguistic input they were getting in Georgia.

In Moscow I had the whole day to play, so I made my way to Red Square and went through all the hoopla to see Lenin’s mummy again. You have to go in the proper gate, pay to check your bag, go through the metal detectors, and then you get all of 15 seconds to look at the waxy, creepy corpse before it’s all over, and then you have to walk all the way back across Red Square to get your bag back. I’ve decided that seeing Lenin twice in one lifetime is enough – I won’t go back again.

Red Square was set up for some kind of concert, so there was no entrance into St. Basil’s Cathedral. However, I did spend several hours at the State Historical Museum. The rooms on the first floor are themselves worthy of a tour – they’re gorgeous! I was lucky enough to end up on a free excursion through the first floor of the museum, which started in pre-historic times and went up to the end of the 17th century. History of the Russian Empire was shown on the second floor; I perused that collection on my own, but wasn’t as impressed (maybe I was just tired, but really, the personal papers of various generals just weren’t that interesting).

I had a little return culture shock when I realized that Moscow was just teaming with cops. (Piter is the same way.) It’s always been like that, I’d just forgotten for three weeks what it’s like to see cops everywhere all the time.

So what comes next? Rezi has invited me back for the summer, so after Flagship ends on May 25 I’ll be heading back to Georgia, at least till the end of the summer. And after that, we’ll see.

Georgia Part 7: Observations about food, drinking, and driving

Eating and drinking seem to consume the vast majority of Georgian’s time and attention (evidence: on New Year’s Day, Basa’s first day off in about a month, he was called in to work on urgent business. He rushed to work to find that the “urgent business” was a full bottle of vodka and a small New Year’s feast). With food as good as theirs, it’s understandable. While I’m no food critic, and thus lack the vocabulary to write beautifully about food, I’d like to try to describe a few of my favorite Georgian dishes. I found recipes for many of these dishes on this blog, though I have yet to actually try any of them out.

• Khachapuri – see part 3. In all I tried standard khachapuri, Mengrelian-style, Royal Mengrelian-style, and Ajara-style.
• Cucumber and tomato salad – yes, this sounds simple enough, but add ground up walnuts, parsley (actually, the more general term “greenery” was used), onions (which I always picked out) and sometimes bell peppers, and you’ve got a light and tasty starter to balance all the meat, bread, and cheese that’s loading down the rest of the table.
• Gomi – this is basically boiled cornmeal with soft cheese melted into it. VERY tasty. And white – Georgian corn is white, not yellow. Goes excellent with…
• Satsivi – chicken in walnut sauce. To die for. This with gomi is my favorite Georgian dish of all time.
• Mchadi – Georgian cornbread. It’s fried. Good with things that require dipping, especially…
• Lobio – the general word for “beans.” However they make them, they’re always really tasty.
• Shashlik – “this is actually Russian,” they’d always say as they dug in to this roasted meat dish. Typically beef, pork, or veal. I avoided the veal.
• Kabab wrapped in lovash (tortilla-like flat bread) – Really loved this because it reminded me of the sausage Dadoo made when I was a kid.
• Georgian tvorog (farmer’s cheese) with mint. – I forgot the Georgian name for this dish. But it goes great with mchadi.
• A variety of carrot and cabbage concoctions. The most important element is walnut paste. It makes everything delicious.
• Churkchelo – a string of walnuts or hazelnuts which has been dipped repeatedly in concentrated grape juice and allowed to dry to make a confection. Yummy.
• Khinkali – boiled, juicy meat dumplings that “must” be eaten with your hands (“When George Bush visited Tbilisi, he LOVED khinkali,” they told me more than once). First you bite a little hole in the dumpling, suck out the meat juice, then finish eating it, leaving behind the “bellybutton” of pure crust. Good covered in pepper; when they’ve gotten cold, you can send them back to the kitchen to be fried for Round 2 of eating. I can eat about 4-5 khinkali if I’m really hungry; I heard tale of a Georgian man finishing off a tray of 30 after claiming, “I’m not really hungry.”

While we’re on the subject of not being hungry: no one ever seemed to believe me when I told them I was full. They thought I was jus saying that to be polite. Basa was all the time saying, “Don’t be shy! If you’re being shy on my account, I’ll leave!” But really, I was just full! As time went on, I got better at both slowing down at the beginning of the meal so I wouldn’t fill up so quickly (makes sense when dinner goes on for 3-4 hours or more), and at refusing more food.

And while we’re thinking about gorging, the 30 khinkali story is not the only story I heard about eating food in mythical quantities. Eliko’s dad, Avto, ate an entire suckling pig on New Year’s Day. Temuka told of a friend who, after several hours of feasting, made a bet that he could eat 15 whole quail (I’m pretty sure that’s the bird they were talking about: tiny, with edible bones, and VERY greasy). He proceeded to eat the 15 quail, plus two extra, just to prove that he wasn’t “just” finishing the bet. Basa told of a man who ate 60 pelmeni at one go. These stories baffle me – clearly it is a source of pride and evidence of manliness to be able to eat a ton, but I just don’t see the appeal of gluttony.

• Khashi – this is the only food in Georgia I categorically dislike. Rezi assures me that many Georgians don’t like it either, but it is touted as extremely healthy, good for your joints, and a sure cure for a hangover. It’s cow hooves and stomach in broth. It cooks for a long time and smells awful, then you ladle this dreadful mass into a bowl, add a ton of garlic and salt, take a shot of vodka, and eat up. It was the texture of the stomach that got me most. And if I let myself think about the fact that it was stomach, I couldn’t swallow it. I didn’t try any hoof. I’ll try anything once, and I’m glad I’ve had the experience, but I won’t be upset if this was the only time in my life I have to eat khashi.

Drinking and eating are closely related activities in Georgia. Most families have grapevines in their yards and make their own wine, which tends to have a lot more “bite” than commercial wines (also tends to be unfiltered, which I suspect may be why it gave me a headache). In restaurants you can by local wine on tap. I’ve already talked about the importance of toasting and the other rituals that go along with drinking in Georgia. I’d just like to mention here that I was overwhelmed by the frequency of drinking. Granted, I was visiting during the holidays. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for wine at breakfast, for example. I was always surprised to find the boys already hard at it when we got to Basa and Inga’s, whether we arrived at 3 PM or at 5. I’m jumping ahead to the end here, but I was completely bowled over in Tbilisi when Basa ordered a (small) bottle of vodka to go with our khachapuris. AT SEVEN AM! When he ordered a second bottle a couple hours later at a different café, where we were waiting for some friends, I brought it up to Rezi. “Why order that bottle if we’re not going to sit here very long, and you and I don’t want to drink?” “We’re sitting at a table,” Rezi explained. “If you’re sitting in a group around a table, it doesn’t feel natural to him to not be toasting. He feels uncomfortable and disrespectful if he doesn’t invite you to drink with him, no matter what time of day it is.” I love Basa, and Rezi’s explanation of his morning drinking makes sense to me, but I am so glad I’m dating the son and not the father. Rezi’s not a big drinker – his metabolism is so high that he always ends up with a hangover before the night is even over, so he tends to drink the minimum he can get away with (or at least he did while I was around).

Driving is another part of life in Georgia that takes some getting used to (and which may make a believer out of me. Miraculously escape death enough times…) For one thing, no one wears seatbelts. Wearing a seatbelt, they reason, is like asking to be in a car accident. The lines painted on the road are taken as mere suggestions, and I often saw four cars abreast where there should have been two, passing in no-passing zones, U-turns being made in front of on-coming traffic. Lots of last-second braking. Rezi and I took taxis a lot to get around town, and I often just closed my eyes and squeezed his hand, because if I was going to die, I didn’t want to see it coming. The scariest part for me is that they drink and drive all the time. They understand that drunk driving is dangerous, but they don’t consider getting behind the wheel after “just a few” as drunk driving. The roads in Batumi were of varying quality. Larger roads tended to be pretty smooth, but we went down some side streets with potholes practically as big as the car we were in. Rezi’s street, though located in the center of the city, is unpaved. On our drive to the waterfall in the mountains, there was a distinct cut-off point up to which they’d resurfaced the road, and after which was extremely bumpy. And pedestrians beware – you do NOT have the right of way. Cars will honk, but they won’t slow down, and if you don’t jump out of the way, it’s your own fault. Batumi cracked me up with their crosswalk signals – which they only had at intersections in the touristy part of town – because they turned instantly from green to red with no warning blinking, which could easily get you stuck in the middle of the street. Seems like they haven’t quite thought that one out yet.

Georgia Part 6: Meet the parents and New Year

See New Year's pictures here.

New Year’s is a family holiday in Georgia – involving, it goes without saying, lots of food and drink. Georgians put up what we call a Christmas tree, but they don’t exchange gifts on New Year or Christmas. It’s traditional around New Year and the few days after to always bring a couple pieces of candy to put on the table (usually in the bread or fruit bowl) when you go to someone’s house, because they believe it’s bad luck to be the first guest to enter someone’s house in the new year, and bringing candy somehow wards that off (appeasing evil spirits? I already don’t remember – I should have written it down when they told me about the tradition).

I was pretty nervous about meeting Rezi’s parents. Sure, I’d met his friends, and they all thought I was alright, but what would his parents think of the Internet girl? Turns out I had nothing to worry about – they both accepted me so warmly, I instantly felt at home. They really made me feel like a part of the family – actually, several times over the course of my stay I got the impression that Rezi’s friends and family are just itching for a wedding, and pretty much consider me and Rezi’s eternal bond as a done deal.

Anyway, right away on New Year’s Eve I ended up one-on-one with Rezo’s dad, Basa – a real character! 56 years old, Basa is a civil engineer with a moustache he’s NEVER shaved (for some reason, his dad forbade it) and a missing ring finger on his left hand (apparently he was wearing a ring on that finger when he decided to jump over a gate. The ring got caught at the top and stayed there – along with his finger). The funny thing about the missing finger is that Basa acts like it’s still there. He’ll hold up both hands and say something like, “We’ll leave in 10 minutes.” “More like 9 and a few seconds,” jokes Gogi. Basa, like EVERY man in Georgia, smokes like a chimney, and since he’s been at it most of his life he’s got a raspy, rumbly voice. That, coupled with the fact that he sort of mumbles anyway, made it very difficult for me to understand him at first, even though he speaks fantastic Russian (those who grew up in the Soviet system, down to about age 32, all spoke excellent Russian. For political reasons, Russian is just not a language they LIKE to speak now). Basa always has a story to tell – about what’s happening at work, about ridiculous bureaucratic adventures in the Soviet Union, about his family. Most of all I love the way he speaks with complete love, utter pride, and total devotion to his hometown, his country, and his family. He loves his boys and will do everything he can to help them out as long as he’s alive.

Rezi’s mom, Inga, is a total riot. She’s the sweetest woman ever and a fantastic cook – she makes whatever Rezi’s friends ask for when they come over, which is every day – and started calling me “moya devochka” (“my girl”) almost right away. But she cracks me up – at 47, she’s already “old.” “Oh, I’m so old,” she declares. “I wanted to sell this house and move to an apartment, but my boys won’t let me. They’re used to it here. But it’s too big for me to take care of on my own. I’m already old. Gogi used to help me, but now he’s grown up and has work. If only I had a girl, she could help me around the house.” Wow, Inga, could you drop any bigger hints? :) Inga is a master force-feeder; her habitual phrase is, “Why aren’t you eating? Eat, eat to your health!” I was a lot better off once I realized she mostly says that out of habit, and that I don’t actually have to continue eating just to avoid offending her.

New Year was a turning point in my visit. Before New Year, Rezi and I spent most of our time on our own. Though we got together with friends some evenings, for the most part it was just the two of us. After New Year, however, when I finally met Rezi’s parents, we stopped eating out every day and instead spent our days at his parents’ house (or at Eliko’s house).

On New Year’s Eve I met (or saw again) a few new friends that didn’t come out that first night in the ship restaurant. Irma, Eliko’s cousin, lives three doors down from Rezi. Tiny and bird-like, I never once saw her in a bad mood. She flits around the room, taking pictures, joking and laughing, taking people by the arm and patting them affectionately. Her addresses to me always began with, “Alli, Alli!” Always twice like that. She’s very cute. Baata, at 39, is the eldest in Rezi’s circle. He’s also gigantic – not that he’s super tall or fat, he’s just a big guy. His Russian was excellent once he broke it out for me (he even threw in a few soft consonants, which are decidedly lacking in the Georgian pronunciation of Russian, just to show off), and is always very friendly. On my last day in Batumi Rezi and I arrived at his parents house to find several of the boys, including Baata, already well into a bottle of vodka. Baata, his voice choked with emotion, toasted me, saying, “You are like a sister to us!” I was very touched, but also quite aware that he was pretty drunk. Later he gave me a dollar bill as a parting gift. Why exactly he decided to give an American a dollar, I’m not quite sure, but it probably made sense to him at the time.

New Year’s in Georgia goes on for about a week, so even though Rezi and I headed home around 2 AM after greeting the new year, we didn’t miss all the festivities. New Year’s Day I had a bit of a hangover from the homemade wine we had the night before, and when we arrived back at Basa and Inga’s house, I was immediately plied with more wine, which was not what I needed. I ate heartily at Inga’s table (including a lot of meat) – big mistake. I should have paced myself, because as it turned out, I was expected to eat ALL DAY. On New Year’s Day everyone goes around visiting, eating and drinking at every home they visit. We only went to Inga’s house and Eliko’s mom’s house, but it was way more than I was prepared to handle. In the afternoon on New Year’s Day I got my first Georgian lesson from Eliko, which was fun, but by early evening the excess food, drink, noise, and cigarette smoke had combined to give me a walloping headache. Luckily Rezi wanted to leave early, and once we got back to the quiet of our loft (and I took some ibuprofen), I felt a lot better.

When I woke up on January 2, I could tell something wasn’t quite right. I still felt full. Not just full, but as if my guts were filled with bricks. “That’s not good,” I thought. “Your stomach is sort of round and pooched out,” observed Rezi.

And it all just… sat there. And despite the fact that I felt pretty awful, I had to eat and drink a bunch more that day. Georgians say that however you greet the day on January 2 is how your whole year will go, so I tried to be cheerful all day. We started the day off at Basa and Inga’s, then went over to Irma’s house in the evening. By the time we returned to Basa and Inga’s house, my lower digestive tract had had it and finally jumped into action. I think I lost a good two pounds in about an hour. I felt so much better. Inga was very soothing, and I was like, “Well, I’m surprised the revolt didn’t happen earlier. Usually I can handle about anything, but I guess my iron guts («железный желудок») just couldn’t take New Year.” Rezi was concerned about me, and expressed it thus: “Wow, your stomach went way down! And it’s soft now, whereas it was firm before!” Thank you, sweetie. Laughter IS the best medicine…

On January 3 everyone was exhausted from so many straight days of drinking, and so everyone was lazy about speaking Russian. I felt left out all day, and started to pine for my friends at home, whose jokes I understand. In the evening Rezi, Gogi, Irma, and I went to a restaurant, but there was a kid’s birthday party and the music was really loud, so we ended up not talking there either. That was the only day I really didn’t have much fun – and it wasn’t even that I wanted to leave Georgia, I just didn’t want to feel left out all the time. Thankfully, Rezi and I spent quite a bit of time talking that evening, so by the time we went to bed I was feeling much better.

Georgia Part 5: Things I Saw

See pictures from around Batumi, Tbilisi, and a couple from Moscow here.

In addition to the aquarium and the zoo, Rezi and I made our way around to the other attractions Batumi has to offer. On December 24 we went to a fortress that was built by the Romans in the first century, but it was kind of dark by the time we got there, so I couldn’t see very well. I’d like to go back when it’s light sometime. On the way there Rezi proudly pointed out that his father and brother had built the road we were on and the bridge we drove over. We also had to brake quickly for a cow in the middle of the road, which sort of cracked me up. We had a fantastic guide – Emzari, Temuka’s friend and an archeology professor at the university here (I’m pretty sure it’s also only through his influence that they opened the fortress to visitors at all in the winter). The fortress was used by the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Turks, and Emzari explained about what historical and archeological evidence they had of activity at the fortress in various centuries. I love being in a part of the world with such a rich and long history. He invited us to visit the archeology museum, which we ended up doing without calling ahead, so our tour was in Georgian (Rezi translated bits and pieces as well as he could, but mostly I relied on the English and Russian summaries on each of the display cases). I got a big cultural lesson on that tour as well – we paid for our tickets to the museum, but when our guides later found out that we knew Emzari, they were very embarrassed that we’d paid – EVERYTHING in Georgia is done based on relationships, and they would not have let us pay had they known Emzari invited us.

Emzari’s 4-year-old daughter, Lizi, came with us on our excursion, and was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I wish I could have talked to her – she doesn’t speak Russian. But after being shy for a little while, she decided that she really liked me and gave me a lemon she picked herself from the trees in the fortress. At dinner, she refilled my juice glass for me – such a good hostess! She also recited for us the poem she’d memorized in Georgian for the New Year’s concert at kindergarten. And when her dad took her home, apparently on the way she asked if Rezi and I were an item. What a cutie!

Rezi and I also visited the other two museums in Batumi, which were admittedly less impressive. We were the first visitors at the natural and ethnographic history museum literally in months, and its sad offerings explained why. I was amazed that all the museum employees still showed up every day – what a boring job with no visitors! The art gallery was somewhat better – though Rezi found only one painting that appealed to him, I found several of the pieces quite engaging. Interestingly, I was initially not very impressed with the picture that Rezi liked – all in greys, with a hooded figure huddled under a bare tree in front of an old, ruined church. “Why do you like it so much?” I asked Rezi. “Because it is like the real Georgia,” he explained. “See how the church has been destroyed by war? And there is the sea.” While I didn’t particularly like the painting any more after Rezi’s explanation, I did appreciate hearing his point of view.

After New Year we also managed to see a pretty impressive waterfall, which was located about a 50 minute drive into the mountains. We went to the waterfall at Rezi’s father’s suggestion, and Rezi ended up being a little annoyed that we spent so much time getting there and back, as it was pretty chilly by the falling water and we only stayed about 5 minutes, and he thought it would have been more impressive had we saved the waterfall for summer. But I was glad we went – not only was the waterfall breathtaking, but I caught a glimpse of country life in Georgia, and our route, which followed a river wending lazily between two mountains, was beautiful. Georgia is fairly bursting with fresh, delicious, clear mountain spring water – on our way to the waterfall, we saw no less than a dozen mini-waterfalls coming right out of the side of the hills next to the road. You can even drink the tap water – and not only will it not make you terminally ill (like in Piter), it’s also tasty!

Georgia Part 4: New friends, feasting Georgian-style, and patriotism

A few days after my arrival, but before non-Orthodox Christmas – let’s say December 21 – Rezi introduced me to some of his friends, who’d all been dying to meet me (the mystery Internet girl) since I arrived. We met up at a restaurant Rezi and I had been to once before – it’s in the shape of a huge boat! (Apparently this is the third such ship-shaped restaurant, as the first two burned down. I couldn’t help but think of Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail: “The first castle sank into the swamp, so they built a second one. That sank into the swamp too. The third castle caught fire, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up, lad, and that’s what you’re going to get!” Unfortunately, the reference isn’t funny if you don’t know Monty Python, so in Georgia I just kept it to myself).

So as not to overwhelm me, Rezi introduced me to just a few friends at first:

· Gogi (Giorgi) – Rezi’s older brother. The first night we met he was rather shy about his Russian and didn’t say much, but I subsequently found him to be very smart and engaging. I came to appreciate his willingness to let me get a word in edgewise, and best enjoyed the times when he, Rezi and I hung out on our own, because they were always considerate to keep the conversation in Russian (as soon as a fourth person showed up, the game was over – the urge to speak Georgian won out, and I’d be left out of the conversation).

· Tamazi – cheerful, extraordinarily well-read, very smart, and always telling me “how it is” in America. My favorite Tamazi quote, which became something of an inside joke among Rezi, Gogi, and me, is when Tamazi turned to me and said, “Alli, do you know who your president is?” I just looked at him, exasperated, and said, “Of course I know!” I don’t think he was actually intending to question my intelligence, it just didn’t come out in Russian quite the way he wanted. Later Gogi explained that Tamazi’s question was probably a vestige of Soviet propaganda – in school they were taught that some 70% of Americans don’t know who their own president is.

· Temuka (Temur) – 32 years old with a law degree, he works for the administration of the naval academy in Batumi. Temuka was the only one among our group who was not at all shy about speaking Russian with me right from the start, and so it was he who provided me my first introduction to Georgian culture and history.

· Eliko (Elene) – Temuka’s younger sister, a cheerful beauty with a ready laugh, she speaks excellent English – especially considering she’s never been abroad. Temuka and Eliko live with their parents right next door to Rezi’s family; their parents grew up together, and Rezi and Eliko grew up like brother and sister.

The first time I met everyone, they were all pretty shy about using their Russian – though pretty much everyone knows Russian, and most TV and movies are in Russian, they don’t often have the need to speak it out loud. Temuka was the exception, and jumped right into conversation with me. Eliko, excited for the chance to practice her English, stuck to my native language, so the whole evening – four hours in all – Georgian, Russian, and English whirled around me. Thank goodness I went to Georgia now, when my brain is already pretty good at switching between not understanding at all and Russian and English; if I had come at this time of year in 2005, I wouldn’t have understood ANYTHING, and my brain would have exploded trying. In all, we all laughed a lot, and I was really impressed by the totally relaxed and welcoming camaraderie I felt from the group.

Our dinner in the boat restaurant was my first exposure to feasting Georgian style. First rule: order more food than anyone could possibly eat. Food is served family style – everyone takes a little bit of whatever they want from the dishes in the middle of the table. Often there are so many of them that they’re perched precariously one atop another. Second rule: there must be drinking, typically wine, but sometimes vodka. The drinking is coordinated by the tamada, or toastmaster, who is responsible for making all the toasts the entire evening. Our tamada on December 21 was Temuka. Toasts do not end at a simply “Here’s to us,” or “To your health,” but go on for several minutes. The more the tamada has had to drink, I’ve noticed, the longer the toast goes on, as he adds in illustrative stories and anecdotes. The tamada also chooses a second-in-command who is responsible for adding anything to the toast that the tamada may have forgotten, or that the second would like to reiterate. It’s important to clink glasses with everyone at the table, often more than once. After the toast, it’s polite to drink nearly all of the wine in the glass in one go, leaving only a few sips at the bottom – but I learned early on that that’s a quick way to make yourself ill, and a “democratic” tamada will not take offense if you don’t drink to the bottom. Toasts that I heard over and over again throughout my stay include: to us, to our parents, to our grandparents, to those who have passed on, to life, to children, to women (for this one all the men take the toast standing), and to Georgia. There were lots of others, but those toasts were repeated every time we gathered. Temuka on that first night, and everyone else after, was always very considerate to toast in Russian so I would understand. Often these toasts were prefaced with “This sounds much more beautiful in Georgian” or “Russian can’t express this the way I’d like to,” but I found many of the toasts very moving, despite the “limitations” of the Russian language. I wish I’d recorded an evening of toasts so I could translate them for you – until you’ve experienced a Georgian toast, it’s hard to imagine.

Georgians are incredibly proud of their history and culture – and with good reason. Temuka explained with pride how every major conqueror in the world has conquered Georgia at some point in its 5000 year history – Romans, Mongols, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Greeks, some others – but they’ve preserved their culture. They expressed no sense of shame at having been conquered so often – how could it be otherwise, they reasoned, Georgia’s such a small country! Also, Georgians claim to be a very tolerant people; as evidence my Temuka cited Georgia never having an anti-Semite movement and, more recently, that Russians living in Georgia have experienced no negative fallout (i.e. hate crime) from the August war. Temuka also explained all about how Georgia is the cradle of winemaking. There used to be over 5,000 varieties of grapes represented in the vineyards of Georgia, but now there are only about 2,000 left, as conquerors always destroyed the grapevines when they attacked. Some varieties of grapes are found only in the vineyards of one or two families.

The first time I heard the above information, I was deeply interested. The twentieth time – not so much. I’m hoping it’s just because I was visiting for the first time, but I heard about Georgia being invaded by every major conqueror and yet still being a tolerant and open people from literally every person I met, and particularly from men, because they were usually raising toasts. I also heard a lot of, “You guys in America, you have it all good, while WE…” which sort of got under my skin after a while. Yes, the overall standard of living in America is higher than in Georgia, but America is a huge country, and the people in it have a huge range of experiences. I felt like I ended up smiling and nodding a lot as three or four people talked to me all at the same time – often about the same topic – but leaving me with no opportunity to get a word in edgewise.

Every Georgian I met was fiercely patriotic. Among the younger generation – Rezi, Gogi and Co. – there was a general consensus that if you live in Georgia, you should speak Georgian. More than once on our walks we’d overhear someone speaking Russian, and Rezi would say with disdain, “See how he lives here and doesn’t even speak our language? That is wrong. He lives his whole life in Georgia and doesn’t speak Georgian.” I often tried to defend the non-Georgian speaker (maybe he just moved here, maybe he does speak Georgian but he’s taking a break to speak his native language with his friends, etc), but Rezi was steadfast. When I pointed out that we were having this very conversation in Russian, he said, “That’s only because you haven’t had time to learn Georgian yet, and I haven’t learned English.” Gogi was fond of declaring, “I’m speaking the language of our official enemy only for you, Alli.” Several times I heard about their Russian neighbor, who understands Georgian but refuses to speak it. It was clear that that neighbor was not a part of the close circle on Rezi’s street into which I was readily accepted.

I do, in fact, want to learn Georgian. It’s uncomfortable to be the one person in the room that everyone else has to modify their behavior for – and besides, even when I was there, they spent a lot of time joking in Georgian, and I’d like to at least have an idea of what they’re joking about.

Georgia Part 3: First week and impressions of Batumi

The first week or so followed a fairly predictable pattern. We’d wake up around 10 or 11, lounge around for a while, then, driven by starvation, finally make our way out into the bustling town. Every “morning” we ate breakfast at the same café: octagon-shaped with floor-to-ceiling windows all around, the kitchen and counter filled the center of the restaurant, with seating all around the edges by the windows. Our first time there, some boys were setting off homemade firecrackers in the park next to the café. Every time one went off I jumped. But mostly it was quiet at that café, which is why we liked it (though he grew up in a noisy culture, where people talk loudly and often gather in large groups to shout over one another, Rezi doesn’t like a lot of noise. Thus, his evaluation of a restaurant hinged on the quality of the food and whether or not it was quiet). Every day we had the same breakfast (after Day 4 or 5 our waitress stopped even asking what we wanted): we started with a cup of thick, sweet Turkish coffee, which we followed up with khachapuri Ajara-style and a glass of orange juice.

I’m going to write a lot more about food later, but I want to take a minute to discuss khachapuri. Khachapuri, at its most basic, is a flat bread filled with cheese, and is one of the most common foods in Georgia. There are several ways to make it, each indigenous to a different region in Georgia, and often it is reminiscent of cheese pizza without the tomato sauce. Ajara-style is definitely my favorite. The bread is football shaped and formed into a shallow boat, into which is spread Georgian farmer’s cheese (which should be salty, but not too salty, because the more salt, the lower the quality), about four tablespoons of butter, and a raw egg. You then mix up this delicious mass with your fork (and if you’re me, you take about ¾ of your butter and add it to Rezi’s khachapuri, because that much butter makes you ill, but he likes it, and plus his metabolism can handle it), so you end up with a bread boat filled with a thick, yellow-and-white liquid mass. Working carefully so as not to allow the egg/butter/cheese mix to escape, you then tear off chunks of the bread, dip them in the goo, and devour. So. Yummy. I want one now.

After breakfast we would walk around Batumi, sometimes in silence, as time went on, more often in conversation. We went to the aquarium, which was kind of small and sad and Soviet, but still had some interesting fishes, and to the zoo, which was mostly closed up for winter, though we did see a couple of monkeys, a baboon, and a whole herd of guinea pigs, which delighted me. We wandered around the port and up and down The Boulevard. We would walk for a while, then sit on a bench for a few minutes, then walk some more. The first week the weather was wonderful – sunny and in the 40s (though poor Rezi was still freezing all the time. I joked that if he was cold already he’d be better off not visiting Iowa in winter). Basically, we didn’t do much at all except get to know one another, which is exactly what we needed. This also provided the perfect opportunity for me to unwind, which I’d been longing to do since the BEGINNING of the semester.

As we wandered around those first few days (and more later as I saw more of the town), I noticed a sharp contrast between “touristy” Batumi and real Batumi. Batumi (population 150,000) is the capital of the Independent Republic of Ajara within Georgia (Ajara was once a separatist region like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but was reintegrated into the country peacefully several years ago), and is an important port city. It’s most important economic activity, however, is tourism. Once a Soviet resort hot spot, it now plays host mostly to Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and other local folks (except Russians). The coast (along The Boulevard) is teeming with cafes, restaurants, and bars, which sat eerily quiet while I was there. They were typically open, but often we’d be the only clients in a restaurant with seating for 50. I imagine in the summer it’s quite a different story. In addition to The Boulevard, Batumi boasts a large park by the sea, home to exotic birds, trees from different parts of the world, and fountains that dance and light up to music at night. A sign at each of the park entrances proclaims in pictographs (like the no-smoking sign): No bikes! No littering! No dogs! No cows! Yep, folks, it’s NOT okay to drive your cattle through the seaside park in Batumi (Flossie was very disappointed – she’d so hoped to see the peacocks). In addition to the upiquitous park benches, I was happy to see numerous garbage urns, which were emptied on a daily basis (I’m not going to get into a huge Russia vs. Georgia thing, but seriously, what few trash urns there are in Piter get emptied only when the dvornik feels like getting around to it. Kind of like sidewalk snow removal. Actually, kind of like EVERYTHING the dvorniki are responsible for doing). A large billboard near the movie theatre proclaimed in English: “Batumi: A part of Europe!” They’re certainly trying to make it look that way, at least where tourists hang out. In this part of Batumi, there’s lots of construction, including the city’s first skyscraper (which looks oddly out of place among the mostly two- and three-storied buildings). Unfortunately, after the August war, much of the construction was halted as materials became scarce and money dried up, giving certain areas a half-finished feel. At some point, however, there will be a fancy new set of apartment buildings that only foreigners will be able to afford, an oceanarium with dolphins, a new stadium, and more hotels.

As you move inland and towards the mountains, the real city becomes visible. The streets and sidewalks tended to be in pretty bad shape – a couple times I cursed myself for wearing heels, particularly at night, because walking was just plain treacherous. Buildings were brightly painted in lots of different colors – even the high-rise apartment buildings, leftovers from the Soviet era, have been redone in vivid reds, blues, purples, greens, and yellows. Most houses were two-storied affairs with balconies, laundry hanging out to dry on clotheslines, and stone walls enclosing yards with mandarin and kiwi trees (I ate kiwis fresh from the tree in the backyard – in January!!) and, of course, grapevines. From what I saw, oder houses, like Rezi’s, had the staircase on the outside of the house – so you end up getting rained on on your way to the second floor. Rezi’s house has no corridors – either all the rooms lead one into the next, or you can only access a room from an outside door. The bathrooms, while they had plumbing and electricity, all tended to be separate from the house (once again, getting rained on). Additionally, the houses tend to be headed by wood-burning stoves and electric heaters, since gas became too expensive for most people once it was privatized after the fall of the Soviet Union. That means that I ended up being cold a lot more than I thought I would, since it was cold both indoors and out (especially in museums. Brr!).

There were slot machine casinos EVERYWHERE (like in Piter three years ago, before they passed a law that shut most of them down); although I don’t really understand the appeal, they must be pretty popular (and successful) for there to be so many of them. Streets were lined with shops whose wares spilled out onto the sidewalk, blending one into another so it wasn’t always clear where one ended and the next began. There were definitively western-style stores in some places – like for clothes and electronics and stuff – but most of the stores for food and day-to-day wares were more like closets than stores, the inventory stacked in magical ways to make it all fit and not come tumbling down.

One street we crossed to get to Rezi’s house was lined with loitering men toting tool belts, chain saws, and other equipment. “You can tell how good the economy’s doing by looking at this street,” Rezi explained. “Those men are all unemployed. They congregate on this street, and if someone needs a worker for the day or a project done, they come here to find someone to do it. The better the economy, the fewer of these guys you’ll see standing here.”

Batumi definitely has a small-town feel. Near the end of my second week there we had to go to the airport to make some changes to my plane tickets. While we were waiting in the parking lot afterwards for our ride to pick us up, I heard a rooster crow, which tickled me pink – it was the first airport rooster I’ve ever heard (there’s also a rooster on Rezi’s street somewhere that is bad at telling time and insistently crows at all hours of the day).

Georgia Part 2: Arrival

I arrived at the tiny Batumi airport around 2:30 PM. Ours was the only plane on the tarmac, and, despite my nerves, I was delighted by the warm rays of the sun and the gentle, +12C air. In the airplane I was on the verge of tears as Batumi came into view. “What am I getting myself into?” I thought. Sure, Rezi and I had chatted online for five whole months, and I felt fairly confident that he was who he said he was – but what if I was just being extraordinarily and uncharacteristically naïve? And even if he wasn’t some sort of con man, what if it turned out that we just didn’t like each other? Of course, these thoughts didn’t just occur to me as we were landing – they’d been spinning around my brain for weeks as the date of my departure grew closer and closer. At one point during the last week of classes I even considered calling off the whole trip. But the prospect of spending my 3-week vacation in Petersburg in the deadest, darkest part of winter spurred me on. “I can always just leave early,” I reassured myself.

Waiting for my suitcase to come down the baggage claim conveyor belt, my nerves were all on edge. What would our first reaction be? What would we say to each other? Suddenly, someone walked by the automatic doors that open into the lobby and they slid open with a whoosh. A throng of about fifty Georgian faces all eagerly peered in at the recently arrived (я хотела написать «смотрели на надавно приехавших»), seeking their friends and loved ones. Which one of them was mine? Then I spotted him. Standing near the back of the crowd was the tallest, lankiest Georgian I’d ever set eyes on. He saw me too, and we waved to each other before the doors slid shut once more. “Hey,” I thought to myself. “Not a bad start. We waved. That’s a good first reaction.” Reunited with my bag, I strode resolutely into the lobby, parting the sea of curious faces as I slowly made my way forward (I was definitely the tallest, blondest girl in the airport, and everyone eyed me with interest. I didn’t see another natural blonde the whole three weeks I was in Georgia). Rezi and I hugged awkwardly, then made our way to the waiting car, where his close neighbor, Avto, patiently sat, smoking. “I wanted to take a taxi,” Rezi explained, “but my friend Avto insisted on driving us.”

Avto drove us to the apartment where Rezi had rented us the loft for the duration of my visit. We climbed three flights of stairs to get to the apartment, then inside the apartment made our way to the third floor – our home for three weeks. It was a spacious room with slanted ceilings, mustard-yellow walls, and a curious selection of framed posters, including a couple of bikini-clad pin-up girls and one larger-than-life depiction of a very small dog. We slept on the saddest fold-out couch I’ve ever laid eyes on – the springs were all broken, and the foot of the bed sagged so heavily that the first night we slept practically sitting up. We subsequently propped up the end of the bed with a footstool – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rezi took me out to dinner at a restaurant by the sea. We sat in awkward silence. He’d say, “So say something,” and I’d say, “I don’t know what to say. You say something.” I giggled too much from nerves; he mumbled, shy of his spoken Russian, and I couldn’t understand anything he said. After dinner we went for a walk down The Boulevard – a brick-paved path lined with benches and palm trees, their fronds tied up for the winter, which stretches for no less than two miles along the rocky beach. We still didn’t talk much, but it wasn’t as awkward as at dinner. It was more that we’d spent 5 months doing nothing but talk, so now we were being quiet.

Georgia Part 1: Two nights on a train

Here it is, the long-awaited Georgia Blog Post. Ironically, it took my computer breaking, thereby denying me the distractions of Facebook, iTunes, Spider solitaire, and, occasionally, homework, to get me to actually sit down and write. Admittedly, I have pages and pages of notes, but to turn them into something that would be interesting for others to read seemed to require more time and energy than I could find in the past couple of weeks. Because this blog post is covering three weeks of occasions, impressions, and thoughts, it’s very long. Therefore, I’ve broken it into several more manageable chunks, to make it easier for you both to read about and to comment on specific aspects of my trip (I know the feeling of getting to the end of a long blog and forgetting what I wanted to say about something at the beginning). Part 1, written on the train ride from Piter to Kiev, I’ve typed up from my handwritten journal; everything else here is written from the “I’ve been back in Piter for two weeks” point of view, rather than the more immediate “Holy cow I’m in Georgia!” point of view. Please enjoy!

Georgia Part 1: Two nights on a train

18/12/2008 12:15 AM

I’m sitting in Moscovsky train station in Piter. Nikolai and his friend, two random Russians who took interest in me in the metro, helped me with my luggage on the transfer between Dostoevskaya and Vladimirskaya metro stations, but they didn’t insist when I declined coffee. [Note: In Russia, coffee = sex. Usually.] I’m nervous as hell about this trip, although I’m feeling some post-rush around calm. At least I do –– f***. I forgot the peanut butter. And I thought I had everything. Well, I guess Rezo will just have to go without. He’s managed for 24 years, I’m sure he’ll manage a while longer. Dang it!

18/12/2008 11:20 AM

[On the train from Piter to Moscow] I ended up in a compartment with FIVE men. The two on the end were friends and talked a lot; the rest of us sat in silence. When the train left it was super hot, but by the middle of the night I was glad for the thick wool blanket. Every time I rolled over I woke up, but I did manage to sleep long enough to have a dream. Only now I don’t remember it.

We arrived on schedule, and I decided to take my bags to the storage room at Kievsky train station. Luckily, Kievsky is located just five metro stops from Leningradsky [my arrival point in Moscow], so I only had to wrestle my stuff through two metro stations – no transfers. Wrestle is definitely the word I would use – even though I’m using Galya’s small suitcase, I also have my computer tote, purse, and bag of provisions for the train. I sort of wish I was hungrier so I’d eat that stuff faster.

I’m sitting in McDonald’s right now, drinking the first cup of coffee I’ve had in Russia that’s been worth the four bucks and eating Galya’s apple pirozhki, which I snuck on a plate to make it look like I bought them here.

My train to Kiev leaves in about five hours. After breakfasting and resting my feet (I’m in heels! Smart, huh?), I’m going to spend a few hours perusing the collection at the Tretyakov Gallery. I’ve been to the Tretyakov Gallery of Modern Art a couple times and really liked it, but the “classic” Tretyakov I’ve been to only once, in 2005, and we had a tour guide who kept switching between Russian and English so that my poor brain couldn’t understand anything she was saying (I’d only been in Russia about two months at that point, and my listening comprehension was still not that great).

18/12/2008 4:30 PM

Sitting in the train to Kiev. We should be taking off in about 15 minutes. Some asshole selling cell phones of questionable origin started hitting on me in the train station, and wouldn’t leave me alone, no matter what I said. I told him I was married, I told him to leave me alone, but he kept following me all the way out the station and down the platform to my car (which, of course, was way at the far end of the platform). It just really pisses me off that a woman traveling alone is instantly open to disrespectful, objectifying treatment from men. I SHOULD have just as much of a right as men do to travel in peace without having to fight off punk jerks all the time.

19/12/2008 6:45 AM Kiev Time (7:45 AM Moscow Time)

I ended up traveling with just four people in my compartment, so there was a little more room for everybody. At the same time, my traveling companions were the most interesting ones I’ve had to date. Artyom – works in a construction company near the border with Ukraine, returning home after an urgent business trip to Moscow. Andrei – quiet, 30-something, plays pop music (in the form of downloaded ringtones) on his cell phone WAY too loud. And Irina – Irina takes the cake. 41 years old, she’s just returned from a birthday party and is completely drunk. Not the slur-your-words kind of drunk, unfortunately, but a belligerent drunk. She kept saying rude things to the guys, like, “I’m watching you, thieves! I know you want to steal my phone!” and absolutely HORRIBLE things about Ukrainians – even though Andrei was Ukrainian, and she herself was on her way to Kiev. She kept assuring me that the Ukrainian customs officers were going to be total bastards in comparison to their Russian counterparts. Luckily, I got on her good side by filling out her Ukrainian migration card for her – she was too drunk to write legibly in the little boxes – and she left me alone.

While Irina alternated between a sound sleep and rude exchanges with our fellow passengers, Artyom and I had a bit of our own stilted conversation (I’m just not sure what you’re supposed to talk about with strangers on the train, or how much info about myself it’s appropriate to reveal) before he went off to find someone else to talk to. I went to sleep the first time around 8:30, woke up for Russian customs and passport control at 11:15 (I was the only American in my car. Everyone, including me, watched the multi-entry visa stamping process with interest – I’ve never seen it done before), then woke up again around 3 AM Moscow time for Ukrainian customs and passport control.

We arrived in Kiev at 5:10 AM local time, Andrei helped me with my bags, I exchanged $20 for grivnyas, and got in a marshrutka to the airport. 45 minutes we drove – and that with no traffic – and now I’m waiting to check in, because so far it’s too early.

I wish I had some time to explore Kiev/ Ukraine. It looks a lot like Russia, but everything’s in Ukrainian, which is just different enough from Russian that I don’t always trust that I understand what I’m reading. Everyone I’ve talked to so far speaks Russian, thank goodness. I’ve heard that in some parts of Ukraine, particularly in the western part of the country, they’ll pretend like they don’t understand you if you speak Russian. I can imagine some fairly frustrating situations arising in the event that my interlocutor also didn’t speak English.

Just a few hours from now I’ll be in Georgia. Don’t even really know what to expect. What I’d really like to do is take a shower. Hope it’s not rude to ask for one first thing.

Monday, January 19, 2009


So the reason I haven’t been writing is not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I’m having time management issues. I feel like I’m in middle school again and need someone to check my assignment book every night. Sheesh. Anyway, I had an epiphany I’d like to share:

You can make vegetable pot pie in a square pan.

Yes folks, it’s true, the fact that the pan is not round is not a real encumbrance on the pie-making process. It’s just that sometimes I get so stuck in my idea of how something “should” be done that a completely obvious answer to a rather simple problem just doesn’t occur to me. The lack of a round, American-style pie pan has been a real sticking point with me until today.

Thinking outside the box. Woot.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Workin on it

I'm working on an extensive Georgia blog post. Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, here are some pictures.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year's Pictures

I'm still alive and kicking here in Georgia, wrapping up the last few days of my visit. The time has gone so quickly; I'm not ready to go back to Piter yet!

I've got about 20 pages of material to put up here, but it's not ready yet, and I'm saving the editing for the train ride home. Till then, here are some New Year's photos to tide you over.