Monday, June 05, 2006

Dog Days

May 26 was Georgian Independence Day, which I celebrated, while the entire Georgian army paraded down Rustaveli Avenue, by inviting three Georgian friends over for enchiladas and pecan pie and George Strait wailing about Amarillo behind it all. The enchiladas went over pretty well, but the PEEkinpie, as it was dubbed, was the real star of the show. And no small coup for me, seeing how there aren't pie pans and I'm all thumbs with crust-making and actually, don't own an oven. But what's Georgian independence day without pecan pie? Great lengths were called for.

* * *

The city is wearing me down, and I haven't slept properly for weeks. It's getting so hot at nights, and opening the window admits some air but also the roar of my busy street and that of the drunk sentinels that keep their nightly vigil on my stoop.

Saturday, after another sleepless night and a morning too bright and loud for snoozing, I finally reached my limit. I hadn't slept for eons, and I was behaving badly. Snapping at people, glaring at strangers, adding droppersful of anxiety to the growing pit of unease at my core. It seemed a bit of a cliche to escape the city as a solution; I've never really believed in the old-fashioned idea of traveling somewhere for your health, taking the waters, though I find it a convenient sort of fallacy to buy into.

Nevertheless, I cinematically packed my bags and fled to the lot on the edge of town where you can catch a minivan east. Sighnaghi, that hilltop town towering over the Alazani valley with its grapevines that have spidered across the land for millenia, seemed a worthy endpoint. And anyway, my friend John lives there and if I could find him, I could stay in his house.

It was a golden afternoon ride and as the marshrutka climbed up the hill to reach Sighnaghi, the air was cooler and fresher and the skin of grime I'd been sporting around Tbilisi was finally airing off. We rounded the bend and the high Caucasus came into view and, cliche or no, I clinically noted a definite and measurable relaxation in my muscles; starting with my jaw and ending with the slow unraveling of that knot of unease coiling in my gut.

Well, tough luck for me, my unwitting host had just left for Tbilisi an hour before my arrival, and I was a little homeless for the evening. The old Soviet Intourist hotel unattractively crowning the top of a little rise, and watched over by two old souls who haunt the place like characters in a curse (eternal life is theirs until that day when they pass through the doorways of the old concrete husk and into the outside world)—anyway, the hotel wasn't an option as schoolbus loads of kids were hoarding the anyway unappealing rooms.

Feeling absolutely no anxiety about this turn of events, I sat on a bench, kicking around a rock, waiting for something to happen. Metaphorically, this is more-or-less my battle plan in life and I guess it's worked out for me pretty well so far. So I wasn't surprised when, a few minutes into my meditation, I spotted Shalva, a friend of John's who I had met on prior sojourns to Sighnaghi. I flagged him down, bounded over, and explained my circumstances. And within 30 minutes, I was happily ensconced in the hillside home of an absent American, whose house is watched over by Shalva. Like all good Georgian homes, it's more of a treehouse than a proper structure meant to guard against the elements, and there's no clear line dividing inside from out. There was a long, bright veranda ending with a swinging chair and wide windows revealing the mountains. It was hot enough to wear skimpy shorts and read while the freshest little breezes curled through, and the loudest sounds were the rhythmic squeaking of the swinging chair and bird calls. Somehow I'd stumbled into a vacation brochure fantasy of a peaceful getaway, and I just curled my toes with the pure pleasure of it all.

It's what I did all day on Sunday: happily squeaking and reading and listening to roosters. But Saturday night I went to a Sighnaghi wedding party of an ethnic Kurdish Georgian who had just returned from fighting with coalition forces in Iraq. In the fine tradition of homecoming heroes he'd got right down to business: married his love of many years and readied himself for the business of making a houseful of babies. I don't know what he thought of the war or Georgia's involvement or the prospects for a stable peace in Iraq. I don't know if he identified strongly enough with his Kurdish heritage to feel a special stake in the hostilities, or if he fought against his better judgment. But I know that the money from his service allowed him to buy a house for his pretty young Georgian bride and for himself, and there's room for little ones if they can get the money for some basic repairs, and there's a fig tree and a quince tree and space for a garden besides.

Here's to wringing out what goodness we can from this old world.


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