Thursday, April 29, 2004


I've had that post title for about 3 days, and no content to go underneath. I could tell you about the blossoming protest/tourist season here in the city. How seamlessly it bleeds into the sweltering armpit of intern season. But, I'm just so over it all. DC has ceased to amuse me, and even the succession of cab drivers chastising me for not being married—usually a topic of great amusement to me—has left me yawning.

So to distract myself from slipping back into babble about Tbilisi that you don't want to read, we're going to have book report hour. So gather 'round kiddies. Here's the roundup of my book-reading of late:

The Russian Debutante's Handbook
Kindly gifted to me by one Kriston for my recent travels, this is a divine travel book. Unlike certain people (see aforementioned) who consider Gravity's Rainbow to be a fab beach read, I—like most people—want a book I can dip in and out of quickly, one that will hold my attention without hurting my brain. But no potboiler Grisham shite, it has to be written with skill, and this fellow certainly has that in heaps. The cover says he's as attuned to the exhilirating possibilities of language as Martin Amis, which I think is a stretch, but he's got a good start. The central character is a brilliant comic creation, a la Confederacy of Dunces. Your affection for this guy is more than enough to carry you through the more disappointing final third of the book. It's a breezy read, but you can tell that that it was written carefully, the words chosen slowly. I remember one phrase in particular, when the self-termed beta-immigrant Vladimir Girshkin observes of his Midwestern girlfriend, wrapped in her robe: How are American girls always so extraterrestrially clean? The obvious word would have been preternaturally, I think, and you wouldn't have noticed it. But with a little twist, it's a strikingly funny sentence. To me.

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
So I just discovered Camus. Like just now. Never read a thing of his before. And yes, I know you all did your dissertations on The Stranger in 4th grade, but try to get over yourselves for a minute. I've only just dipped my toe into this, but I'm hooked. Isn't he lovely? To my surprise, I find in his nihilism some of the most optimistic and convincingly life-affirming sentiments I can remember reading. Listen to me. I'm going to have to regress about 3 years, backpack to Prague or Budapest and sit in a cafe ranting about Camus.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Foreign people are funny

During my sojourn overseas, I remarked to a colleague that I had an overwhelming urge to buy certain gifts for people back home, simply because they struck me as hilariously funny.

She understood the urge, but replied, "The problem with that is, you get home and realize it was only funny in Tbilisi, and your friends are wondering why you are giving them a bunch of crap."

This compulsion came up regularly, as there are many funny things in Tbilisi. Some of them cannot be purchased as souveniers, such as the shop pointed out to me by my colleague as a "great DVD store." I glanced in the door past the racks of knock-off DVDs and asked, alarmed, "Why are there semi-automatic weapons hanging up in the DVD store?" She shrugged.

"Oh, it's a gun store too. And don't think that women's clothing boutique doesn't have frozen chicken for sale in the back."

But some funniness could have been purchased, and, in retrospect, I think that BARF brand detergent would still have been funny in America. Damn.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Exhibit A: When Georgian Mountain Men Attack

Damn, I totally feel sorry for this girl making a drunken ass of herself. So what if she was ambushed, it's still a disgrace to America.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Not Dead Yet

Contrary to all suspicion, the blog is not dead, it's just hibernating. At work, I've been ripped from the bosom of Mother Georgia, and thrown into the morass of Central Asia. From working on projects in a country where things were going more or less okay, I'm back to some rather fundamental problems such as, oh, Tajikistan doesn't have banks, so our field staff has to essentially carry their operational funds in a big sack across the border from Kazakhstan. Hello, job I don't want.

So having fomented revolution in the Caucasus and set that nation solidly on its democratic trajectory, my forces for good are being turned to more troublesome areas. I'm like Superman or Mary Poppins, and I must always move on to where I am needed.

Or to be more accurate to my recent dealings, there are other countries in which I must make a drunken ass of myself.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


I'm back in business, jet lag is defeated, and pictures have been developed. I am a terrible photographer, apparently, but I'm sure I can still find some choice shots to display. Stay tuned...

Friday, April 16, 2004

So long, farewell

When I pack for a 3-day getaway at an off-season ski resort, I think: books, tennis shoes, magazines. This distinguishes me from Georgian men, who think: 100 litres of homemade wine siphoned by rubber hoses into plastic tanks and used water bottles. And a few bottles of cha cha, or Georgian moonshine, to boot.

I and my female cohorts also have learned that with a few litres of homemade hooch under the belt, grey-haired Georgian men from distant mountain regions have no compunction about grabbing a girl and carrying her off over his shoulder, attempting to lasso her, or otherwise separating her from the female herd. Protestations in English are met with a toothless grin of incomprehension, protestations by Georgian gals are met with the same. If you are the only American in sight and you say a few words in Georgian, you will be slapped into a bear hug not dissimilar to the Heimlich.

On the second evening, I was sitting on a stoop when I was joined on either side by two grizzly Georgian men from the group with sloppy drunk smiles. My translator crouched in front of me.
"They want me to translate something for you," she said.
"Wonderful," I cringed. One man lifted his pitcher of wine and began in Georgian.
"Our friend has a wife who will soon have a new baby."
"Her labor pains...are very big. We wish them to be small."
" too!"
"We wish the child to be healthy boy or girl."
"Now they would like you to take off your shoe so they can drink wine from it."

At this, I had to decline. Am not entirely certain why they needed to tell me about the baby, but I assume it was for a very good reason. Am also terribly sorry about the shoe, but it was quite sweaty and not suitable for the subtle bouquet of Georgian grapes.

It's been quite a time here, quite a time, and I'd like to come back before too long. But now I think it's time to come home. Back in Washington tomorrow, a bedraggled wreck.

Friday, April 09, 2004

School Daze

There was a distinct, definite moment yesterday where I stepped outside my body for a moment, looked down at myself, and echoed the sentiment below re: Iraq: "What in the hell is going on?"

We define ourselves, to some degree, by our surroundings. I live in Washington. I go to Saint Ex to drink beer. I work downtown. So what am I doing in a village at the base of the Caucasus mountains surrounded by a hundred schoolchildren from ages 6 to 18? What on earth will I say to them?

I drove out to the town of Telavi and surrounding villages to visit the schools that have started their first Student Councils with the help of my organization. The woman coordinating their activities wanted me to see the condition these students learn in, and speak with them myself.

Telavi is in Georgia's wine-growing region, and everywhere were great vineyards and fields being plowed with horse-drawn plows. I still cannot accustom myself to the sight of horses pulling carts along the road, or pigs and chickens and sheep scurrying by your feet. Women leading their cows along the road.

The first school we visited is housed in what was once a palace - a building over 250 years old and showing every day of its age. There's no heat in any of these schools, glass for windows is rare, walls are falling apart. No toilets either, and nobody really was able to tell me what the students and teachers do about this. Maybe I don't want to know. They brought me in to a small, crumbling room where 8-10 students instantly rose out of their chairs and stared at me shyly, curiously. They'd steal glances and avert their eyes when I looked at them. Me, I was terrified of them. I haven't spoken to high school kids since my sister was one.

But once we started talking, everyone seemed to relax. These students were on the Student Council, and they jabbered endlessly about the clothes and food they'd gathered and donated to the elderly in their community, the massive clean-up they'd organized of the school and nearby roads, their plans to train nearby schools on forming councils and running elections. They asked me a lot of questions about how Student Councils work in America, and I managed to answer them without betraying the fact that they were basically resume-padders for the college-bound, and nobody really cared. Does it mean I've gotten old, if I'm inspired by the fresh-faced optimism of youth?

The second school was the site of my out-of-body experience mentioned above. On that day, they had organized a school-wide clean-up, and everyone was in the yard working. Little 2nd-graders were hauling wheelbarrows, and older students were burning rubbish and stray foliage. We decided to meet with the Student Council members outside, so we settled on a bench in the garden. Of course, the stranger from Washington was not an event to be missed, so the entire clean-up ceased and I was very conscious of the crowd that had gathered all around. Little bitty ones toddling from foot-to-foot at my elbow, the older boys in the back scoffing and trying to look bad. I felt sort of like Jesus and tried to think of some parable about fish and bread or something. There were giggles everywhere when they heard me speak English, before my translator clarified things. So that's when I stopped listening to myself talk and thought: here I am in a tiny village in the middle of Georgia, with a mob of strange children looking at me as though I was from Mars, and freaking roosters wandering around behind them.

It was simultaneously very cool and very disorienting. When I'm back in Washington, drinking beer at Saint-Ex, I doubt I'll believe I was really there.

Oh My God

What in the hell is going on in Iraq?

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

A little lesson in Caucausian customs

Last Friday night was the big post-election supra, loosely translated as mega-dinner-party. There were more than 50 of us spread over 3 long tables, as buried in food and wine as the table my first night in Tbilisi. At any self-respecting supra, I've learned, you have your singers wailing traditional Georgian folksongs about war and love and Tbilisi at the top of their lungs, and everybody must dance.

So inbetween courses, we'd all take to the dance floor. At one point, a young boy from another party approached me and tried to dance. I don't typically like dancing with strangers, but had no compelling reason not to. This attempted one fruitless grab at my hand when Giorgy, a man from our party, managed in one quick movement to pull the kid's hands away, push him aside, and yank me backwards. "What the hell, Giorgi?" I asked. "It is not allowed!" he fumed. "Sorry?" Giorgy looked firm. "He cannot dance with woman he has not permission," then very seriously, "He can be beaten for this." Indeed. Later, I mentioned to Giorgy that I had run into someone in Tbilisi who claimed to be a friend of his. Giorgy was incensed. "What did I tell you about the dancing boy? No, you cannot talk to stranger who comes up to girl he does not know. He can be beaten for this."

Men here have not picked up on that prickly feminism thing, but at least I have an excuse if bothered by unwanted company. You will be beaten.

There's a chance that I may be extending my stay here an extra week for some unfinished business. (Seriously, actual work.) There's a 3-day conference to attend, and the painful prospect of wearing these same clothes for another week is assuaged by the fact that the conference will be held in Gudauri, which looks a little something like this: