Monday, July 17, 2006

It Takes a Village

A tip for any do-it-yourselfers out there with aspirations at home ownership in the South Caucasus. Well, first: don't. Between the local construction-materials cartels and the slipshod workmanship, Paige Davis herself would turn into a cursing banshee before the commercial break. But if you nevertheless persist, and advance to the stage of interior decoration, a word of warning. The demure, understated, sophisticated tones of, say, Ralph Lauren paint have not yet made it to the Tbilisi bazroba. The paint colors on selection there are, like Georgia itself, undiluted, abrasive, and eye-popping.

John needed something to cover over the bare door and window frames in his house in the village of Sighnaghi, and he compromised on what seemed the best choice available: take-no-prisoners green. When we pried up the lid and took a peek inside, there wasn't much to say. "That's" "Yup. That is" "Maybe it'll dry...subtle?"

I had come along to Sighnaghi for that fresh country air and for a promised supra that evening, and ended up looking like I'd just been dragged under a St. Patrick's Day parade. Two hours into my painting duties I was standing with one foot propped on a splintering chair, one on a windowsill, balancing a bowl of paint in one hand and with the other spreading thick goops of the greenest green onto the window frame, when I noticed that a small boy was in the room staring at me.

I planned to yell out there there was a miniature invader in the house, but I quickly remembered myself. I am in a village, where your business is everybody's business, your home is everybody's home, and strange foreigners on the block is better entertainment than a movie.

Perhaps he'd been hypnotized by the green. When I broke his stare to say hello, he asked if he could help, so I outfitted him with a brush and a stool and we quietly worked in tandem, assaulting the unsuspecting window frame with concentrated leprechaun guts. "Why didn't he buy another color?" asked the kid with wrinkled nose.

Kids are like ants, you know. When you see one, you know there are hundreds lurking nearby. By the time the boy had finished up the window, legions of neighborhood children were wandering into the house, poking at things, tripping over paint buckets, stepping on glass, grabbing and giggling and mess-making. My job was to keep the little rugrats occupied and away from the other construction happening in the house. If you've ever tried to entertain a gaggle of pre-teens, particularly when you don't speak their language, you know the kind of odds I was up against. And that was why, with great trepidation and a few incantations to the Blessed Virgin, I broke out the secret weapon:

The consensus was that mine was a pretty sweet computer, despite not having cool games on it. I showed them how to browse through iPhoto, where my finely wrought artistic creations didn't hold a candle to the excitement kicked up by the shot of the dead dolphin from the Outer Banks in 2003. Undying coolness. They even got a kick out of Microsoft Word, and in Georgian phonetics, wrote me a poem. I understood the first two lines, which went like this: "I love you like yoghurt." And then something about a car. And then something terribly naughty, I presume, because when I read it out loud they howled with the sort of laughter that only comes when pre-teens and dirty jokes combine. I told them thank you.

I guess they had a pretty fun afternoon. After wearing themselves out on all the cool toys, one slumped onto his fist and sighed, "It's so great here at John's." And another tugged my sleeve and whispered out of hearing range of our host so that he could be surprised, "Amerikulad, rogora 'magari khar'?" "In American, how do you say, 'you are cool'?" A technically very correct question, as I suppose the British would phrase it somewhat differently.

In the end, children are exhausting. But somehow, it was comforting to know that even in a tiny hilltop village halfway around the world, kids here are just like kids at home: captivated by shiny blinking noise-making devices. And periodically shoving foreign objects down their shirts to look like boobies. Obviously.


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