Sunday, April 30, 2006

Hell No, More Merlot

I used to get the feeling that students at my old alma mater, UT-Austin, had an inferiority complex when it came to protesting. This was in those days after Clinton but before Iraq, when everyone was pretty sure there would be something to rage about, but until then, the labor practices of our dining hall caterers would have to suffice for exercising the ol' dissenting muscle. Hey hey, Chick-fil-a, how many health insurance benefits did you cut today? These students knew what a hotbed of radicalism UT had been during Vietnam, and you got the idea, as you tip-toed over the prone black-clad bodies at the Die-In protesting the absence of an Asian American Studies program, that these kids would have given their last hackey sack for a good, morally repugnant war to go berzerk over. Hope they're enjoying themselves nowadays.

Am I too young for misty university nostalgia? I hope not. I met a few travelers last night that were passing through Georgia. They were university students riding bikes from Turkey to Mongolia, and they had long scraggly beards and I bet they didn't care much for authority structures, and they said that America was set up from the beginning to serve the interests of a bunch of fuckin' rich white dudes. Honestly: fuckin' rich white dudes. I was exactly back at the 21st street co-op, and it made me want to hug them. I also kind of wanted to check out their calf muscles (Turkey to Mongolia??) but I refrained.

I'm being glib, but there's a point here. I've learned a lot since those days, and one thing is that we went about protesting all wrong.

The thing to do, see, is to just have dinner and drink a lot. As previously mentioned, that was the nature of our "protest" across from the Russian Embassy, and I can assure you it was far more pleasant than, say, Kent State.

My kind of protestI guess we didn't really have permission, so to speak, to set up a dinner party on the sidewalk across from the Russian Embassy. (Underplayed hilarious aspect of this: the sidewalk across the street from the Russian Embassy is the sidewalk of the Iranian Embassy. Where they, you know, really love the wine.) So when a local cop sidled up to our table, it was sort of like college again. Jesus, the fuzz is here, party's over. (At least now I don't have to chuck the booze and crawl under a fence to get off the property and avoid the dreaded M.I.P.)

But here's why I love this country. The cop just said, "No, no, there's no problem. I don't care. I'm just curious what you guys are doing out here." When we explained that we were showing our disagreement with the Russian ban on Georgian wine by partaking under their diplomatic noses, well, what else could he do? He grabbed a glass of wine and offered a toast; he thanked us for what we were doing and said that it was very important for Georgia. And then, most amazing of all, he handed the wine back to us because he was working and could not be drinking. It really is a new Georgia.

So, we're not busted?

UPDATE: Not to beat a dead horse, but another fine photo collection from the event can be found here.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Whine and Cheese

On slow news days, rather than cat-in-a-tree stories, local journalists here rely on foreigners doing something funny. So that's why we were all pretty sure that today's event, in which we held a traditional Georgian supra outside the Russian embassy to protest the Russians' ban on Georgian wine, would probably get us some good media coverage. Sure enough, right there on the nightly news following Nino Burjanadze's speech before the Duma, but preceding coverage of floods in Western Georgia, were a bunch of goofy foreigners having a dinner party on the street and getting sloshed on homemade wine in the middle of the day to support Georgia's wine industry.

Got some fun photos of my own, but thought I'd share the local news coverage before the link goes stale and the video clip is taken down.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Eszter at Crooked Timber has a post up about bathroom signs, which reminded me of my favorite recent sighting, in the bathroom of a local bookstore/cafe:

Glad they're finally cracking down. If I see one more cowboy throwing his TV into the toilet...

Friday, April 21, 2006


Wasting no time, my latest guests were on the ground about 12 hours before finding themselves at a supra and on the business end of a wine horn. The pictured gentleman, I should say, fared much better at his first supra than my last hapless guest.

Erik at Supra

Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Friend In Deed

A Toast
Sorry for the long absence. My family had been here visiting and Georgia isn't a place to let your guests fend for themselves. But more on that later. I've got a long story that's been festering in my brain for too long.

I wanted to explain something about friendship here, how there’s a different timbre to it. People like to toast to friendship a lot, and I do too, but when Georgians speak of it, it is shaded with some intensity that sounds dire to our ears. I wanted to talk about how a promise of friendship is not so much a pleasantry as an implicit vow of action. At home, I don’t need friends offering to die for me, I can just call the cops, see. But nothing in Georgia’s history has instructed people to rely on government agencies, institutions, the benevolent sorting justice of the law. So there’s friends and family, and where government and law shrink back, these others grow in to fill the space. I've got a story about all that. It's a little long and too earnest by half, but it's been a while, no?

Felix is this orphan kid who’s had just one lucky thing in his whole rotten lot in life and that’s his friends. They also happen to be my friends, and they know Felix from years of volunteering at a local orphanage. But he’s turned 18 and is too old for the orphanage. They found a property for him in an outlying village, a piece of land and a beat-up old shell of a house that once belonged to his grandmother.

A roof over his head is good news for Felix, but the vultures didn’t stay long at bay. The new neighbors took one look at this 18 year old kid, this orphan who has nobody, and they saw a soft target and had aims on his house and his piece of land. They started giving him a little trouble. And this place, awful as it was, was the only thing between Felix and the streets.

So Felix told my friends, and here’s what friends will do.

They loaded up two cars full of supplies. The kid had heartbreakingly nothing. They got cooking supplies and staple foods, dishes and silverware, bedding, tools, an axe so he can chop some wood for warmth and cooking. We all piled in and went to his village to show the neighbors (and the whole village, really, because if anything can give the speed of light a run for it, it’s the speed of gossip traveling through a village) that Felix wasn’t alone and that he had friends that weren’t to be messed with. My job was to stand around and be American, one task I can reliably perform reasonably well here.

We came clanging into the village like the circus coming to town. Honking horns, yelling out the windows asking for unnecessary directions to our friend Felix’s house, driving slowly, turning as many eyes our direction as possible.

At Felix’s house, the neighbors were leaning over railings to get a peek at this production. Lasha, normally reticent and a bit mumbly, transformed himself into a circus barker for the occasion. While the rest of us were preparing things inside, he raised his arms high towards the neighbors, and shouted greetings, begging them over for just two drinks, please, we’d love to meet you.

This act was repeated around the property until Felix’s dirt-floored hovel was flush with bewildered neighbors, who’d gingerly peeked around the doorway only to be yanked inside by one of us and had a glass of wine pressed into their hands. Lasha was a whirlwind; it was exhausting just watching him. He was springing into things as if two carloads of city slickers out in the sticks to fete a bashful orphan boy and his new neighbors was regular as clockwork.

So I guess that rather than fix things with unfriendly letters or legal action or neighborhood associations, here, this sort of thing is fixed by wine. When Lasha began his first toast, I could understand only bits of what he was saying and so I watched the effect on the gathering instead. It was satisfying, in the way it is to watch a craftsman practice a honed art, seeing him work this room, with mounting feeling. He was talking about Felix, and what kind of guy he was, and how we wanted to meet these neighbors, and how important these community ties are, how like family, how special for our friend here, what family means for someone who doesn't have one.

The neighbors were noticeably thawing. The older women looked pleased at this young man who knew all the right, proper things to say. The young guys responded in turn, trying to best one another for eloquence. The old guys, they just beamed and nodded their heads strenuously. They were eating it up.

By the time Lasha finished his first long toast, the room was his. You could just feel it. One woman raised her glass in return and said that she had a son herself, just Felix’s age, and she would make sure that Felix was taken care of just as if he were her own. One of the young guys turned to Felix with a raised glass and told him, “you’re not our neighbor, Felix, but our friend.” The old man raised a glass and told Felix that he’d help him plant a potato crop and teach him how to grow and harvest on his land. What great friends you have, they told Felix who was so shy from the attention he could barely lift his lashes. And so it went on: more toasts from us, more from the neighbors until we'd all exhausted ourselves entirely with good wishes and parted with smiles and handshakes, which is a lot better than the subterfuge and harassment greeting Felix before.

It’s hard to say how much the neighbors meant of what they said. A lot of fine empty words are spilled over wine. And even with their help Felix will have a hard go of it in this life. I hope he'll be more secure and more respected as a result of this social intervention, but there’s really no telling. Still, he's got people in this world that will come in like that and stand by his side and spend their day making sure his home will not be under threat. I've been known to begrudge my friends a lift to the airport. To some degree, I suppose we've evolved beyond needing friends for elemental needs. Crisis and catastrophe sometimes forge valuable things, things that can be lost in comfort. The loyalty I've seen among friends here was born of necessity; I hope that it can outlast it.

[below: a neighbor (left) toasting Felix (right)]

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sisyphus University

Questions posed by me in class today that were met with blank stares and silence unbroken until I answered them myself:

What is the name of the war we are studying?
(correct answer: Vietnam)

What was the name of the black civil rights leader whose "I have a dream" speech you were just tested on?

What was the type of government of North Vietnam?
...Okay, they were friends with the Soviet Union, so what do you think?
Okay, what type of government was the Soviet Union?
Not democratic, but....? Not democratic or fascist, but...?

Can you name a holiday for me that people celebrate in Georgia?

How are you?

And, the single most successful question in my teaching career to date for provoking lively discussions:
"Did ya'll know Britney Spears is pregnant again?"

Monday, April 03, 2006

Brighter Later

Today, Misha told me a story about Svaneti.

He was working for a polling firm, conducting a survey up in wild Svan territory with a carload of young girls. This was during Shevardnadze's time, before the revolution, and since that time the anarchy has dulled somewhat, or so they say. A local Svan, who happened to also be with the criminal police, suggested to Misha in that gentle mountain way that smacks of a direct order, that he leave the young ladies behind.

"In return for the girls," said Misha, "he offered to us some marijuana and cows. Well, what could I say?"

"How about 'NO'?" I suggested, mentally calculating just how many cows I'd be worth.

"If I said no," Misha reasoned, "they would kill me for sure. They didn't care back then. So I said okay. I said, meet me at the road at the end of the village and I will bring the girls there."

Then Misha and the girls piled into the car and raced out of town. The Svan man and his cronies chased them all the way to Lentekhi, in lower Svaneti, where a local lawyer friend took in the runaways and fended them off from the pursuing suitors.

My Spring Break in Svaneti, to be perfectly frank, was not quite as dangerous as originally billed. I might have gotten a wee carried away with myself in a Lonely Planet-induced bacchanalia of traveler's lust. See, we didn't go all the way up to Crazytown Svaneti. We lingered down in sedate, Lentekhi-area, administrative Svaneti. Yes, technically I have been to Svaneti but it's sort of like claiming you've been to Vienna when really you just had a quick layover in the airport.

But I really have seen a total eclipse now, and I've seen it in the company of a local Svan man and his son who, when we pulled up next to them, couldn't have looked more gobsmacked if a carload of martians had unloaded in front of him.

We had wondered, in our rather smug Western way, if everyone in these remote villages would even know that the eclipse was coming. Would there be hysteria, animal sacrifices, wailing and rending of garments? We were hopeful.

But although we had, as one of our party noted, more electronic equipment in the Niva than Apollo 11, in the end we were less prepared for the eclipse than the Svan boy who stood with a shard of glass that he'd blackened over a fire. Looking through the dusky end of the glass, you could safely and clearly see the shadow swallow the sun while the light grew long all over lower Svaneti. In the darkness, the air chilled and we turned giddy. Driving there, I hadn't been entirely convinced that it was going to happen at all. My faith in the calculations of scientists is firm, but when you're in Georgia long enough, and especially in Svaneti, you can be forgiven for thinking yourself in a place that defies the sanitary logic of equations.

For me, the eclipse was something to remember. But for our co-spectators, the Svan man and his son, memories of that day may be a toss-up between the sun going out and the crazy foreigners who showed up and hopped about gasping for a few minutes and taking photos of everything. After the light started slowly seeping back and the cows who'd thought it was their lucky day tottered grumbling back to their feet again, G swiveled his camera around to the locals and said "Bring us your women or we will make the sun go away again." Wonder how many cows we could have tried for instead.