Monday, November 28, 2005

Well well

Look what cutie pants has been up to.

Can I Quote You, Sweet Cheeks?

Well I'm off to spend the rest of the week in the Georgian Outback, either collecting new interviews or hosting Very Special Seminars on Gender Relations in the 21st Century, depending on how many more deputy governors send me text messages telling me I'm pretty. Yeah, it's funny now. Why do I think, say, Yglesias doesn't have to deal with this kind of nonsense?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lingua Georgica

Look, I don't want to be all, "Oooh, I studied abroad for a semester and I seem to be forgetting my English," but, well, I seem to be forgetting my English.

In Kitchen Confidential [thanks for the rec, Sarah!], Anthony Bourdain describes something similar to what I'm getting at. He spends his life surrounded by Spanish-speaking kitchen staff, and in order to communicate in the most efficient and effective matter, he simply speaks English to them the way that they do. "Knife! Is for me!", for example, is how he says "Give me the knife" and so on.

You really don't have to travel to experience this phenomenon. Anybody who's had to copyedit a text written by a non-native speaker, for example, knows this well.

But still, it's a bit embarassing when you stop noticing it. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, I said to my friend C: "I don't have pie pan. Do you have?" Now, she didn't even notice. Somebody else had to point out that I was talking like an imbecile, and today she said to me, "You should go up there. There is big view of Tbilisi." And John is always talking about what somebody gifted him for his birthday and now I'm editing a proposal written by Georgians and I have to scratch my head because, really, it's all starting to sound perfectly fine to me.

Just, ssshhh, don't tell the Grammar Police...


Since moving here, I've become a pretty fervent backer-upper, as I expect with each passing day to be relieved of my valuable possessions, but I only got halfway through this before I starting burning more discs double-quick. Variations in power supply can slowly fry my baby? Well, hell. Georgia's rotten electricity situation (subject of the 2003 documentary Power Trip) is better than it used to be, but the Georgians I know still unplug all their appliances when they're not being used. I unplug my computer for sure when I leave the apartment but what about these creeping, secret surges that are amassing and metastisizing as we speak? Isn't there anything I can do, doc?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A Line in the Sand

The tribes of the Blackfoot confederacy, living along what is now known as the United States/Canadian border, fleeing northward after a raiding attack, watched with growing amazement as the soldiers of the United States army came to a sudden, magical stop. Fleeing southwards, they saw the same thing happen, as the Canadian mounties reined to an abrupt halt. They came to call this invisible demarcation the "medicine line."
Sharon O'Brien
It is like the child's game where we traced a line down the cloth of the back seat in the car and warned our sisters and brothers against trespass. Here, where I am now living, and where people have lived almost as long as there have been people on earth, if you were to track all the imaginary lines on a single map and how they have changed, it would look like an angry child's scribble. How can we all feel so strongly which is here and which is there? Where we end and they begin? And yet, like everyone on earth, each person has fixed in their mind one definite point in time when the imaginary lines were correct, and fair, and inevitably, as long and wide as they ever had been. Any contraction is a wound.

It is hard to fathom places on earth where you cannot go. Jason works for an airline and has cause, with some small regularity, to tell people that it does not matter to him that they have long overstayed their visa, but that if they leave this country—and this he emphasizes carefully—they will never, never be let back in. There will be a spot on this planet nearly as wide as a hemisphere that the governments of the world have agreed you can never be.
* * *
The imaginary lines are governed by petty rules and variable moods. In Azerbaijan, Jason and I stared down our visas and counted out on our fingers for all our friends to see. "If you count it this way, then we will be fine. But what if they count it this way? What if they decide to? We will be a day over and they won't let us cross, but will send us back to Baku to fix it." So as not to risk this, on the morning we leave Baku, we stop at the consulate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We need only 24 hours more" we tell the man and he sends us to this agency and that bank and this official. Finally, the head consular officer takes our passports. "Fine," he says. They will be ready at 5pm today. "Oh no," I said. "We leave on a bus this afternoon at noon, we cannot wait until five." We watch his face for his mood. He rolls his eyes. He harumphs. He pivots and disappears. "Wait here," he says. After some time he returns and hands our visas and something else to his assistant and is gone again. There is a long line of people waiting in line, as they should, following the rules, but the assistant calls us forward. "Here are your passports, with your visas," he says. "And here," turning to me, "a box of chocolates for you. A gift from the head of the consulate division." How many eyes are staring at me from the long line.
* * *
John had lived in Georgia for some time when he slipped and damaged his neck. It was not broken, but required one of those braces and he could not move easily for some time. It was during this time that he discovered that his visa had expired. He took himself with difficulty to the Ministry, and in his fluent Georgian, he asked them what is the fine, please? There is no more fine, they told him. Now you must simply leave. "I have a Georgian wife and a son here," he told them. "This is not really an option." They conferred and buzzed and decided, finally, that they will give him another visa, but only after he has left the country and re-entered it. Armenia is the closest, they told him, just cross the border and come back in.

So John with neck askew took the pot-holed road to Armenia. At the border, he passed through the Georgian side, but when he tried to enter Armenia, they discovered that he was out of blank pages in his passport and so there was no room for the visa. They would not let him in. He begged and cajoled and bribed but nothing would budge the border guard. And he could not return to Georgia because he had no visa, and he could only get a visa after he had entered Armenia. With neck throbbing, John looked at the 50 feet between the imaginary lines and thought that this nowhere is where he had to stay, neither here nor there. He tried to call the Embassy without luck and so he sat in this gap on the earth in between the lines drawn and thought what to do.

Finally, he returned to the Georgian side, and in his fluent Georgian he explained his situation, and can you believe this Armenian guy, and my poor wife who doesn't know I'm here, and this neck I've got. The Georgians called their friends over, get a load of this American, he speaks Georgian so perfectly! And of course, how could you even ask, of course we will give you some kind of visa, it is clear you are one of us. John crossed back over the imaginary line though now, I am sure, he feels something real when he does it.

Happy Chicken Day, and Pass the Niakhuri!

We're not exactly Pilgrims, and Georgia is nobody's idea of the New World, but we certainly needed the help of some friendly natives to pull off this year's Thanksgiving.

Celery, you see, is a bit of a problem. I mean, so is everything else ingredient-wise, but celery seemed the biggest obstacle to overcome. Stuffing, you know.

At the big German supermarket on the far edge of town, the night before Thanksgiving, we bumped carts with roaming Americans at every aisle.

"You seen anything like cranberries?" one would ask.

"Cranberry varenyie, two aisles down. Close enough. Celery? Any celery?"

"Keep dreaming on the celery," they'd say. Then the voice would dip to a hissing whisper. "But I know a lady. She was arranging a special shipment from the states."

"Of celery?"

"Ssssh. Yeah. Of celery. Look I'm calling her tonight and if she has any extra, I'll let you know."

"We'll pay premium"

The celery dealer failed us, and it was Thanksgiving morning. C and I had been up until the wee hours the night before throwing together pies and soups and quiches and starting the stuffing. But celery? What to do? What's a stuffing without it?

The call came early, and it was C's boss, who is married to a Georgian. Niakhuri, the wife had said. Niakhuri will save your ass. It's some Georgian veg, but tastes just like celery. I rushed to the market where the rotund guy in the bloody apron hunched over his counter like hoarding gold. I looked at him and uttered the word like I didn't really think it was a real one.

"Um. Niakhuri? Do you have this?"
"Da, da. Vyi Amerikanka?"
"Da, Amerikanka."
His smile broadened and his arms went wide and he yelled, "S praznikom!" which is "Happy Holiday!"
He grabbed a bunch of herbs which looked like cilantro or parsley. I looked skeptical then buried my nose: ah! Celery; it's exactly celery. The stuffing turned out perfectly, though the pecan pie suffered from the lack of corn syrup. And pie pan. And appropriate crust. But the pecans, those were golden.

And so nearly 30 of us gathered to celebrate our arrival on the shores of America at the home of a British Embassy officer in Tbilisi, Georgia. Our turkey was actually 2 chickens and a goose grudgingly procured that afternoon at the bazaar by another British friend, and prepared belligerently through the lingering fog of his wicked hangover. One-by-one, guests arrived, peeked into the kitchen and, upon spotting the chickens, announced, "What the hell? Those aren't turkeys." But G's bloodshot eye would fix them squarely and he'd bark that it's not his fucking holiday and they'd shuffle back on out muttering how chicken is nice, too.

We gave our British hosts the skinny on our regional Thanksgiving specialties. Said one host, hoping to please, pointing at the deviled eggs, "And these, they have this lovely name. Killer eggs, is it?"

John offered the toast to our motley crew. "It really is something that I've had only chicken and goose for my Thanksgiving, and somehow I'm still thankful."

"Then go to the fucking bazaar yourself, you fucker!" howls our chicken-buyer slurrily. "We're all bloody thankful that you left our bloody shores!"

"Good," John continues. "Thanksgiving is traditionally a very belligerent holiday. But seriously. We all know that Thanksgiving is a time to share with friends and family, and here we are with our good friends who are, for all purposes, our family. The family we have chosen. And if there's a little incest?" John shrugs. "Well, then it's just like back at home. Happy Thanksgiving!"

Friday, November 18, 2005

Supra Star

At this rate, I fear that tomorrow I will be blogging a requiem for Jason, my poor hapless guest.

Two nights ago was his first Georgian supra.

It's hard to find a fitting analogy for the place of the supra in Georgian life. It's the conviviality of a summer barbecue mixed with the regularity of your morning Starbucks mixed with the blood-alcohol level of Christopher Hitchens celebrating Mother Theresa's death.

Or to put it more clearly, it's the dinner party that celebrates birthdays, deaths, marriages, arrivals, departures, harvests, raises, whatever. The table buckles under tiers of dishes and wine and wine and vodka. One person is designated tamada, or toastmaster, and he leads all the invocations to love, women, Georgia, the friendship of nations, our departed, etc. One can obtain permission to offer a return toast, but generally speaking this is the tamada's territory.

Another rule, that in retrospect I probably should have mentioned to Jason, is that you only drink when a toast is being said. This is pure self-preservation: men take measure of one another's manhood by their ability to pack it in. And if you are drinking wine instead of vodka, and you are a man, you are expected to finish your filled glass at each toast.

Jason was drinking wine and stressing his 110 pound frame to the limit. My alarm began when our tamada leaned to Jason and asked, "Jason, how is your beef stroganoff?" and Jason's eyes rolled wild and in an absurdly theatrical British accent he yelled, "It's like a god-damn bloody fountain of youth! It just keeps re-filling!" Once you can't tell the difference between your entree and a glass of wine, we're in trouble town.

When in short order Jason started to list to and fro, like a reed in the wind, I whispered to him, "Nobody will notice if you only drink a part of your glass at the toasts. You don't have to impress anybody." So naturally, he took my crap advice and after sipping a conservative swallow to, say, the glory of friendship, two accusing Georgian fingers shot towards his offending glass from across the table. "There is something wrong with your glass. Why is there still wine in it?"

"Please," I pleaded, destroying with my mothering the last remaining shreds of Jason's masculinity. "He is planning to go to Armenia in the morning." Why oh why I thought that invoking an impending trip to Armenia would gain him reprieve is beyond me. Hoorah, hands were thrown in the air, the wine filled up, and now he won't be able to go to Yerevan!

We hadn't even reached supra halftime when Jason took up residence in the loo and wasn't seen again. Our tamada shrugged apologetically. "But it was only one bottle of wine he had!" "In some countries," I helpfully instructed, "that's a lot of wine for one hour and 52 kilos." Try to remember, if you can, your freshman year in college and let that be shorthand for the kind of night Jason had. Keep in mind that taking a taxi home on Tbilisi streets is akin to driving across a giant cheese grater.

Well he's got himself a little reputation now. When next we encountered this gang of bandits I call friends they slapped poor J on the back and announced for all to hear that they were in the presence of the greatest drinker in all of Georgia. I suppose it is all part of the checklist for a proper Georgia visit: Have you puked up your supra? Have you received a marriage proposal? Have you been robbed actively? Have you been robbed passively? Have you shouted down taxi drivers? Have you had taxi drivers offer a marriage proposal? How many cars have you push-started and how much time did you spend shivering in a power outage? I suppose if I put him on that plane next week, toothless, liverless, robbed of cash and dignity, then I'll have done my job a-okay.

Dare I Say It?

Charles Krauthammer is dead right:
Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge -- in this case, evolution -- they are to be filled by God. It is a "theory" that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, "I think I'll make me a lemur today."

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Less Filling, Tastes Great!

At least we'd already finished our meal when Jason noticed that his filling had popped out.

It's been a rough trip for my guest. As I mentioned before, no electricity for two days, rain for a solid week, and attempted robbery all rode on the welcome wagon that greeted him here in the Caucasus. Who could be surprised that dental emergencies were next on this barrel-o-chuckles itinerary of his?

We were enjoying tea after a filling Azeri meal in Baku with some local friends and Jason had gone uncharacteristically silent. It was Friday night, pushing 10pm, and what I didn't expect to hear out of his mouth was: "I lost my filling."

He wore, on his face, the look of man who is reconciling the following facts: (1) his filling replaced a root canal and all that remains is the delicate, dangling shell of his original tooth; (2) he has 3 more weeks left before returning to the warm embrace of western medicine; (3) it is late on a Friday night; and (4) he is smack in the middle of the South Caucasus, and in particularly, Azerbaijan, where gold teeth are damn near as plentiful as oil rigs.

I was not at all surprised to hear Gafar's response, as he reached for his mobile phone with one hand and waved off Jason's concerns with the other: "It is no problem, my cousin is a dentist."

I shrugged to Jason, his eyes bulging. "You might want to think about it..."

Gafar continued, ringing his cousin: "Sure, we can go to the clinic right now, if you like. If he is not too drunk to do it, it is no problem."

If you've never seen a human face drained of all living blood, let me tell you, it's really something. And so we lead Jason, already cripplingly afraid of dentists, to confront his fears. Like pushing an acrophobiac out of a plane. The Caucasus is no place for half-measures.

The front entry was locked, and so we entered through the side door, down the back alley where abandoned hoses gurgled dirty water to mix with the grime on the floor. An unattended gas stove bubbled gold in a tin can for waiting teeth. So complete and cliched was the horror set that we started laughing hysterically. By "we," naturally, I mean everybody but Jason, who was ready at any moment to pivot on a dime and bust on out.

A dentist office in the nighttime is an unnatural place, and sinister. No receptionist to chirp greetings, unidentified tea-drinking Azeris slouching in corners, long shadows cast by sharp things. Jason waited uncomfortably in the chair while Gafar confirmed that his cousin, the dentist, wasn't gonzo drunk.

Well, of course it was all fine. After a rough start, in which the dentist started laughing unnervingly at Jason's terror and I attempted some humor in questionable taste ("You know, if they make fillings illegal, everyone is just going to have to resort to these back-alley fillings in Azerbaijan."), things were pretty uneventful. The equipment was modern and clean, the work was well done, and the dentist refused any form of payment.

That's the Caucasus, baby. You may not have the rule of law or stability or working electricity, but if you have a friend with a dentist cousin, you can go from Friday night dinner to new, free filling in under an hour.

I thought things were finally turning okay for Jason's trip, until we all got our election monitoring assignments and I learned that my long-suffering pal was to be sent, alone, without a translator or a ride, to monitor elections on the border with Daghestan. When the three of us who were splitting an apartment in Baku split up for the elections, it was decided that I should hold on to the key. C was going to monitor a location farther away than I, and Jason, well, we didn't really expect Jason to come back ever.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Back from Baku

Well, the Azeri elections are yesterday's news at this point, but I've been slowly winding my way back to Tbilisi. Going the non-traditional route, it took my friend and I two days and $12 (not counting hotel) to get from Baku to Tbilisi, and it was a real planes, trains, and automobiles kinda jaunt. We tagged along in a private car part-way across Azerbaijan, switching halfway to a bus, then walked across the international border on foot with high hopes that there'd be further transport options on the far side. On the Georgian side we argued over the price of petrol before convincing a taxi driver to take us a bit further, and then took a minivan to the capital. Where, of course, the electricity was off in my apartment.

So, the elections. For anyone following, it was, to nobody's shock a dirty election. I was an observer only of the exit polling process, however, so I cannot offer first-hand commentary on the conduct of the elections within the stations themselves. But I can say that the second-hand reports of fraud, particularly with the counting process, were abnormally high and blatant enough to suggest that precinct chairmen had their marching orders, and observers be damned.

What's most interesting to me, though, is the post-election game. After the similarly foul 2003 elections, the OSCE issued a wishy-washy wrist slap along with the conclusion that the elections were "generally well administered in most polling stations." The US put the nail in the coffin with a quick congratulations to Aliyev on his victory. I know people who observed that election that were utterly disgusted at this turn of events. That's the international community saying: deal with it.

The stage was set differently this time: the OSCE issued a harsher report criticizing the elections and the US followed up with a press release stating that "We are disturbed [...] by credible reports in selected districts around the country of major irregularities and fraud that may have disenfranchised voters in those districts."

Through this sort of statement, similar to the language used immediately after the Ukrainian elections, the international community has a bit of flexibility. They've acknowledged serious irregularities which they can rhetorically upgrade, as conditions necessitate, to deliberate fraud, or downgrade if circumstances point that way, to issues that are being appropriately handled by the election commission. This essentially opens the ground and if the opposition is there to mount rallies, they can do some damage.

But it doesn't seem to be taking hold. And I'm not too surprised. Relying on pure anecdotal evidence, one did not have the feel, walking through Baku, of impending revolt or mass discontent. One had the feeling that it might be a good time to by a Sony stereo and drink some tea. Perhaps it is naive to assume that there would be some tangible sentiment one could pick up on, but there wasn't even an overwhelming police presence, no demonstrations that week, no general tension in the air. I spoke with a number of young people, in the age group prime for opposition, and I came away with the following feeling: people are generally dissatisifed with this government, and their sentiments range from discontent, but a feeling that life is generally better than five years ago and working within the system is key, to outright disgust. But, and this seems to be key: people are equally disgusted with the opposition. This is not the stuff of mass street rallies. I did meet a few committed opposition activists, but this seemed an exception.