Friday, April 26, 2013

To Georgia, with Love

There is something in the guttural
sounds of the words,
or the frenzy of traffic
that’s moving in herds.

You might hear it or smell it
or swallow it whole,
but you’ll never quite grasp it
or clasp it in full.

You can squiggle your eyes
and twiddle your toes,
waggle your tongue
even crinkle you nose,
but it’s far beyond senses
and fences and prose.

When your catching your breath
between dozens of toasts,
when your vision is blurred
so your host becomes hosts,

it’s then that you just might
gather a glimpse,
of a spirit that’s moving
in staggering limps…

Wait that’s you (!) that is straining
to hold it together,
that’s raising your glass without
care about whether

you’ll wake in the morning
and make it to school
or pass out on the table
in a heap like a fool.

And maybe you are one
for starting to think
you’d keep up with the Georgians
in food and in drink.

Still there’s solace in knowing
that whenever you rise,
it will all make sense,
it will even seem wise,
that you’re breakfast consists
of congealed French fries.

No you’ll never explain it
as hard as you try.
Whatever you say will
come out as a lie.

But as far as you figure
your brain can surmise,
this terrible hangover
is somehow your prize.

So you walk to the street
and you wait for the bus,
you look to the ground
and you try not to cuss.

Through the nausea you sense
that the day is beginning.
The stray dogs are howling,
the world is still spinning.

Four children go by
hand in hand in a line.
The sun on the river
is beginning to shine.

The merchant is sweeping
the dust from the walk,
the farmer is guiding
and chiding his stock.

The wind is running the
length of the street.
Here you are studying
the tops of your feet.

And it’s then you remember
that something was said,
last night between mouthfuls
of wine and of bread.

It had something to do with
good health and good family.
It’s hard to recall
it was winding and rambly.

But whatever it was
everybody agreed
that it was something to
stand for in word and in deed.

That was all fine and good
but now you can feel it.
Look around, it’s all here,
nobody can steal it.

It is pulsing, convulsing,
inside your head,
from your heart to your heels
starting now til’ you’re dead.

If it hurts that’s okay
least you know that it’s there.
There’s no secret or trick
everyone gets there share.

So you raise your gaze
and flag down your ride,
climb in to the crush
of humans inside.

And it smells and it’s hot
but you’re traveling fast,
contorting your limbs
in a way that can’t last.

Swerving upstream making
dangerous blind passes,
inhaling the sweat and the
germs of the masses.

You’re trying to swallow
your bile and your pride,
accept that your stuck and
along for the ride,

when suddenly lurching
you come to your stop,
the hiss of the door
drops you out with a plop.

And now you have paid
and now you’ve arrived
now you can even say
you survived.

But that’s not enough to get by,
its not even close
though this country has served
you a near lethal dose.

Your job is to teach
something you know:
surviving’s not it
because no one’s a pro.

So you walk up the steps
trying to figure the score,
what it is about Georgia that
makes you want more.

It’s far beyond thinking and
breathing and saying.
Too much to afford
however you’re paying.

Whatever it be it’s
around in the air,
hidden from sight
so long as you stare.

Raise your glass, close your eyes,
forget what you know.
Head to class, head to work,
in the rain or the snow.

Speak up in that language,
forget all your woes.
What you mean will be clear
when you say Gaomarjos!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Back Home (Far Away)

At the Turkish border, The Black Sea looking blue.

Well I’ve certainly been neglecting this blog of mine, and I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t had the time. Although they drink faster and drive faster in this country (usually in that order), the days tend to move wonderfully slow. Yet as those lazy afternoons add up, the weeks and months run by with abandon.  The green has come to the hills—first in patchwork fits and starts, then all at once as a wave. The snow has retreated to the rocky summits, as the rivers swell with the melt. And would you know it, I’ve turned 26  along the way.

So if I have any excuse, it’s that life here has been happening in a way that defies the recording of it. I’ve been immersed in the rhythm of this place and these people. Nonetheless, I’ve captured a few pictures of  it all, so I’ll try to tell the story with them.

You’re looking at two things that you won’t find anywhere in Georgia. I brought them both from home. Of course my host family thought the maple syrup was some kind of liquor and they were more than a little disappointed to find out that it went on the pancakes and not in a shot glass. This was my first attempt to introduce a little American cuisine. The result was good enough to convince them that men are actually capable of cooking but not so good that they were willing to eat more than one pancake apiece. That left most of the batch to me. An hour later my last Jiffy-infused taste of home was gone.

Let me Introduce the Team Batumi Starting Lineup
(or at least the ones I have pictures of) 

Raines Taylor (center) strikes his natural pose:
Born and raised in the other Georgia, he’s a classically trained opera singer whose clever one-liners are known throughout the region. He’s been on a mission to find the best coffee and non-Georgian food that this country has to offer and we’ve been all too happy to follow his lead. He’s got an electric smile and when he teaches there are fireworks in the classroom. No seriously, the loud scary kind, hidden in the kids’ desks and then thrown across the room. His hearing might have been permanently compromised.

Michelle Le puts her pockets to good use:
Hailing from the lone star state, she’s a crack shot with a beach stone and a secret font of all things mythic. She once bartered for boots she only later realized were a size and half too big, and when she’s not drinking beer she’s usually eating candy. Recently her host family poisoned the mouse that was searching for sweets in her room but the family cat ate that mouse and died. She feels bad about it.

Elizabeth Tomlinson contemplates the meaning of life:
She’s a Mississippi girl with a Former Soviet Union problem. That is to say, when she’s not at home in the South, you can find her somewhere in the old CCCP speaking Russian with a hint of a drawl. Here in Georgia, her host family won’t let her leave the house without a 5 kilo bag of their home-grown mandarins. Heavy for her, good deal for her friends! She’s learned the hard way that invitations to her students' houses usually lead to slumber parties that include lots of alcohol…even for the students…even when they’re fourth graders. Don’t put sugar in her coffee.

Jackson Tse expresses his most deeply held beliefs: peace and love:
As a very tall Asian Canadian in an extremely homogeneous country, Jackson usually tries to blend in by striking this pose. Georgians don’t smile too much on the street but Jackson’s trying to change that. He loves chocolate and Rom-Coms and his student Giga just got 5th place in the national spelling competition. That means he learned how to spell 1,500 English words that you and I have never heard of. When he’s not dancing with a sword (seriously), he’s wandering about Cypress checking whether the ATM’s there really work. Wherever he is, he’s probably smiling.

Erekle Chikvaidze offers me some tree sap to chew on like gum:
From the village of Vaio in the district of Keda, he was named after a powerful Georgian king who wielded a 15 kilo sword. He’s just as badass as all of that would suggest. He tells me that he had a reputation in school for breaking window and I believe it. Despite all that, he’ll win you over with his ridiculous laugh and his ridiculous Georgian expressions, none of which could be appropriately reprinted here. When the Russians invaded in 2008 he was 15. While jets flew over head and the streets emptied, he hitched a ride to town just to walk around and see what he could see. When it comes to drinking, he prefers whatever is the strongest option.

Portrait of a Georgian Family

Erekle and Maya were gracious enough to invite me and Michelle to their beautiful village of Vaio. There family welcomed us with a glorious feast and some of the finest wine I’ve tasted in all of Georgia. Here they are with a friend.

And here they are again, this time with a little extra flair.

Even in the depths of winter we could already sniff the first hints of spring coming to the valley.

Nightfall in a little piece of paradise.

Valentines Day Georgian Style

My 6th grader’s working hard on their valentines. I swear this wasn’t posed, they’re actually this focused and hard-working…sometimes.

Good work boys. Those two half-smirks in the first row are the closest things you’ll see to smiles from the young Georgian men.

Can you guess who the terror of the first grade is!?

If they’re trying not to smile, they eventually lose that battle.

An Excursion to T'bilisi and Gori a.k.a. Meeting my Namesake

This is the expression you have when you just got off an overnight train that had the heat on full blast—where the conductor woke you from your fitful sleep with a yell. This is the expression you have when most mornings with your host family involve one of a thousand different combinations of bread and cheese. And this is the expression you have when you’ve just discovered the best almond croissants an Americanos in the entire country for the equivalent of 3 dollars!

Soon after arriving in this country I realizaed that my name was a bit awkward for the locals. Every Georgian name ends with a vowel, so Sam becomes Sami. However, without the nasally version of the “a”, my name came out as Semii or Saami. The former sounds strange and Scandinavian, the latter is the same as the number 3 in Georgian, which is just confusing. Thankfully for me, my host brother freed me from name purgatory by deciding that I should be called Soso. Not only is Soso an awesome sounding name, it also turns out to be the original name of the most famous Georgian in world history, Josef Stalin (born Soso Dzugashvili). It was only right that I visit the museum (more like a memorial) and birthplace of my namesake.

Stalin’s childhood home still stands, though they tore down the rest of the neighborhood around it long ago.

Looking North from the town of Gori toward the Caucuses.

I wasn’t lying when I said that Jackson spends a lot of his time dancing with a sword. We were fortunate enough to see him perform in T’bilisi. He and the rest of his troupe performed beautifully and bravely. As far as I know, despite a couple dozen acrobatic warriors on stage, there were no broken fingers or lost limbs on this day.

Traditional Georgian dance

If you’re curious, you can find plenty of Georgian dance on youtube, there’s a different style for every region of the country and they’re all awesome.

Another Batumi Beach Sunset

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Settling In

A Day

7:30 - The view East from my bedroom window. Not all days start with such a sunrise.

9:00 - The bus is a crowded adventure every time. The door squeezes me in so tight I don’t need to hold on to a thing. It’s just a 20 minute ride up the river valley for me but it continues 2 hours toward the mountain villages so furniture crates of fruit and kegs of beer are common cargo. 

9:45 - Passing time from the window of the teachers lounge. They boys mostly wrestle and chase each other, the girls form tight circles. It’s like anywhere else in the world except that there’s no teacher intervention…ever. So most fights amongst the younger boys are moderated by their big brothers and the fights between the older boys are over, when they’re over. 

11:00 - Some days I have long breaks between classes so when the weather is nice I explore. This day I climbed the switch backing road to the village of Kibe (which mean ladder in Georgian). Beyond me just 10 kilometers to the South is the Turkish border.

2:00 - My after school English club gathers. The boy in the with shirt is Giorgi (one of the most common names in Georgia) and he is the quintessential Giorgi. Maybe you have to live here to understand and maybe not. Some people’s names just fit them and he is one.

8:00 – Skipping the lazy afternoon that often involves a game of soccer or reading or writing or napping, let’s get to the good stuff. Not all evenings but many lead to large quantities of food and wine. My host brother Ramazi raises a drinking horn for one of his elaborate philosophical toasts.

10:30 - Our apartment seems to be the place to hang out. Maybe it’s the killer wood stove that just moved into the living room for the winter chill, or maybe it’s the graciousness of my host mother and host sister (second from left and far right respectively), or maybe it’s the sweetness of the mandarins that are always in bountiful supply. Whatever it is guests often stay late and I usually understand little of what is said, but I’ll get there.

An Excursion to Kazbegi

With my friends Logan, Michelle and Kai, I headed to the slopes of Georgia’s iconic Mt. Kazbegi. Like any good plans, this one was hatched last minute over a beer. An overnight train carried me and Kai to the capitol city T’bilisi and after convening with our compatriots from the far Eastern Kakheti region we wound our way three hours further by marshutka to our mountainous destination.

Gergeti Monastery on the left skyline with the slopes of Kazbegi beyond

Walking to the monastery and looking cool doing it

The alpine town of Stepantsminda below

A multi-lingual dinner table at the guest house. Russian, Armenian, Georgian, and English were all intermingling with a modest level of mutual comprehension. But wine and cognac help facilitate communication where language fails.

An early morning hike through the birch forests rewarded me with this glorious view.

When I arrived at the monastery the monks were warming their hands around a wood stove and lighting candles in preparation for the Sunday service. Most parishioners walk a steep hour for the 8 hour service.

It was one of those trips where you end up with nicknames (Georgian ones). Ninico and Dato looking weary of transit on the Tbilisi metro.

9 Georgian Characters and Their Stories 

Mukhrani (pronounced moo-pretend like you clearing something from your throat-ron-ee): He’s one smart 5th grader and I love his name. When he’s waiting to be called on he clutches his raised hand and begs like his life depends on delivering the correct answer. Then when he’s chosen to speak he bounces out of his chair like a spring and exhales the answer like a cry of relief. He’s usually right.

Vasili: The guesthouse owner in Kazbegi pushed a hard bargain and drove this wonderful Russian matchbox of a car with a little taxi sign on top. He would intentionally swerve in front of busses and toward farmers on the roadside just to get a rise out of us. Whenever he did something dangerous or scary (which was often) he would take both hands off the wheel, turn around with a smile and say, “don’t worry, be happy!” Then after a perfect comedic pause, although he was dead serious, he would add, “Vasily Shumacher”. As in, of course, the Formula one champion Michael Schumacher.

Keti: This photo marks my victory in a game we played where she tried to sneak up on me and I tried to take her picture. She won the first 10 rounds in a blur but when I showed her this winning shot she conceded defeat.

Names unknown: Keti’s mother and grandmother. It’s fitting in a way that I never caught the name of these women even though they served me two incredible meals during my stay in their home. In Georgia, as a guest, the women of the house work hard to prepare and serve you food but they rarely sit at the table during meals, and they almost never drink at a supra. On this morning they prepared Adjarian Khachapuri, basically a French baguette canoe filled with a thick layer of cheese and then baked in the oven. Just before serving an egg is dropped in each vessel to cook slowly in the steaming masterpiece. This was, hands down, the best breakfast I’ve had in Georgia.

Name unknown: Well, there are actually two characters in this one. If you want to know the story of the guy on the right ask me some time in person. As for the man on the left he told us his story mostly with his hands. An Armenian native we shared almost no words in common. Over a bottle of cognac at Vasili’s guesthouse we learned that he had just survived a horrific accident that very day. His cell phone photos showed the cab of his truck in flames, many yards from the rest of the wrecked cargo. He must have rolled 200 feet down a rocky slope before he hit bottom. In gesture, he explained that angels must have been watching over him, showed us pictures of his family, and then toasted the wonder of life in all it’s precious finitude, at least that was my interpretation of the expression on his face.

Makhwala: My most successful way of communicating with Makhwala is by calling out the names of my favorite writers. She teaches literature and so when we find a common hero, Leo Tolstoy or Jack London, her face lights. Even though I can’t ask her much about her own life, we are connected by the wonderful stories we’ve read. Also, she is beautiful. She must dye her hair this wonderful deep crimson although I’ve never seen even the tiniest hint of grey. Either way, I  always catch myself staring at it. I’m a little bit in love and if she was my age maybe I would never make it back to America.

Luka: I met this young priest to be at Gergeti monastery. Before I met him and practiced the only 10 questions I could ask in Georgian, I snapped this photo of him in his robe watching the morning. Some day he will preside over the 8-hour Sunday service, but for now he gets to take some breaks from lighting candles to enjoy the view.

Gulico: She spends many evenings in our apartment and on one wine-induced occasion I was even bold enough to ask her to dance, and so we did. Here she is cutting a khourma (a very soft persimmon-like fruit). She has the most incredible hands, giant and weathered from a lifetime of work. Here her face is lit by the blue buzz of the t.v screen. She grew up in a mountain village so I can only imagine what she is thinking as she watches American music videos with women in g-strings shaking their asses at the camera. Mostly she just laughs and slaps her knee.

A Supra with Family and Friends

In Georgia, sometimes I’m with my family and sometimes I’m with my friends but rarely both at the same time. My family had been hounding me about meeting my friends and my friends heard many stories of my 7 hour supras and Ramazi’s lengthy philosophical toasts so they finally got to see it in action. From left: Michelle (Austin, Texas), Elizabeth (Starksville, Mississippi), Ramazi, Merabi, and Raines (can’t remember the name of your town, Georgia).

Some white wine, some red wine, Ramazi was not about to let anybody off easy.

Since Raines hails from the other Georgia, he was given the name Giorgi (George) for the evening. Whether he likes it or not, I think it’s gonna stick.

If any Georgian tells you they just want to have one glass of wine, they are undoubtedly lying. There are at least 5 required toasts and I hear that the unofficial comprehensive list is north of 3,000. Our tally for the night was somewhere between those two.

Hour 3 or so

No party is really rocking until a chair breaks. But usually when you get to that point, inventiveness and team cooperation are in ready supply.

Naira and Gulico prepared this wonderful feast and we even convinced them to join us for a couple toasts. Integration of friends and family…great success!


Khourmas and a haystack, near Kibe

M’tirala National Park: hard to believe this place gets 178 inches of rain a year on a perfect fall day like this one.

Praying Mantis Awesomeness

This place was like the Georgian Columbia River Gorge. I can always remember the name for waterfall in Georgian because I like the way it sounds, chanchkeri.

Garni, Armenia: a mysterious place.

Above the village of Kibe looking North up the Chorokhi River Valley.

Armenia’s capitol city, Yerevan, with the hulking silhouette of Mt. Ararat just visible of the clouds.