Sunday, May 21, 2006

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

If one takes a great leap of faith in the Georgians' ability to stay out of another war for the next decade or so, and thereby afford themselves the opportunity to settle into some stability and comfort, then one must ponder the following depressing scenario: can the Georgian cult of hospitality—which has thrived through invasions and conquest and occupation—survive the Americans?

It's a question on the flipside of my mind, everytime a taxi driver or doorstoop vegetable vendor trills in delight upon hearing that I'm from America. And it was on my mind last weekend, when I was one of three American girls driving through the high Caucasus mountains just shy of the Russian border, who, for lack of anything else to do, followed a sign pointing up the side of the mountain to a village called Tsdo.

Clouds clear over TsdoTsdo turned out to be a little cloud village clinging to the side of the mountain and so muffled in fog we couldn't see the Darial gorge gaping below us or, except for rare gaps in the cloud cover, the craggy mountains encircling us. It's impossible to cruise into a village that has (we later learned) a wintertime population of four families and not be noticed. Feeling a bit dumb and self-conscious we got out of the car and feigned a monstrous preoccupation with the carpet of fog over the mountain edge, as if anyone would drive up all that way to stare at the fuzz. But we'd been spotted, and so began Act I of the timeless Georgian performance of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

No truer thing has been so succinctly said about Georgia than what Neal Ascherson managed in a 2004 essay:
Georgia may be Orthodox, but its true religion is hospitality. A friend described driving through a Georgian village and seeing, in the rear mirror, men running out into the street and vainly waving bottles at the departing car. All that's best in Georgia is done on the spur of the moment, using the stranger as a pretext to give and to rejoice. Hours of drinking, feasting and toasting can follow, ending heaven knows when or where.
Or as a previous Fulbright scholar in Georgia said: "Hospitality in Georgia sometimes resembles a mild form of hostage-taking."

So within 30 seconds of our fumbling about around the car, an old woman who was washing veggies in the mountain runoff had sussed us out, figured out (to her immense pleasure) that we were American guests, and was dragging us bodily along to her house by the arms yelling all the while "Modi, modi!" Come, come! What to do but lope along and see what happens?

Can you believe all the dumb luck? It was a holiday that day in that little cloud village—and only in that village. Something related to a spot on the high hill that was sacred to them. They'd already slaughtered the sheep, but we were still in time to go and light candles at the shrine and drink wine with the men who were holding court up there.

Mountain SupraNow clocking in at five minutes into our sojourn in Tsdo. We've been adopted into an extended family of about 12, we're being bundled up the hill with great fanfare ("our American guests!" they told any onlookers that could be found), and before too long we're on an old stone outcropping swimming in fog, greeted by the wine-guzzling revelers like tardy cousins who'd they'd been expecting to turn up for ages.

They said it was surely God that brought us all the way from America to their little village on this of all days, and as I glanced down at my Target-bought sneakers swimming in fresh, scarlet sheep's blood, I had to concede their explanation was as good as any.

When it began raining too hard we retired back to the family house for a lunchtime supra. They fit us in seamlessly and cheerfully, promising us with each new glass of wine glorious futures and children as beautiful as we were. And when they learned that the third girl of our trio, the one visiting from the U.S., did not speak Russian or Georgian but instead Spanish, the men thought for a minute and then started howling out Besame Mucho with great gusto, which was really a serenade she had not been expecting in the Caucasian highlands.

Before coming to Georgia, and old Russian professor warned me not to buy into the myths that Georgians have about themselves. But what to do when at least one of the myths—that age-old tale of a people so welcoming that a stranger can wander into a remote mountain village and find herself instantly fed and warmed and welcomed—turns out to be true? And how much of it depends on the novelty of the foreign visitor? Will the legendary hospitality slip back into legend when tour buses snake up and down the roads and Rustaveli Avenue throngs with Georgia on My Mind-type souveniers? It's the tourism tug-of-war. I know Georgia needs the crowds desperately, but moments like these I want to hoard all for myself.
Gocha and Tako

Speaking in Tongues

Says Rebecca West:

"In the valley beyond we [...] came on a tumbledown village, shabby and muddy and paintless and charming, called Vakuf. Vakuf is a Turkish word meaning religious property; I have never heard anything that made me more positively anxious not to study Turkish than the news that the plural of this word is Evkaf."

I feel you, Becky. If someone had told me from the beginning that in order to say, in Georgian, "I will meet you all" I'd have to hack up shegvkhvdebi, I'd probably never have started down this lonesome path.

UPDATE: Upon further reflection, I realized that word up there means "You will meet us." "I will meet you all," naturally, is shegkhvdebit. Either that or we will meet you, of indeterminate number. Oh hell, I give up.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Waging Peace

Two Saturdays ago, at the invitation of an Orthodox monk friend, I went on a day trip to Kakheti—that's wine country in eastern Georgia—to go visit his vineyards. We spent the afternoon in the usual, easy manner: eating too much and toasting with last fall's wine decanted from the buried clay pots, then wandering through the vineyards and getting the land cruiser hopelessly stuck in epic ruts of mud.

On the way back to Tbilisi, you drive through a hilltop fortress town called Sighnaghi. It's a lovely place—the guidebooks all insist on calling it "Tuscan"—with high clear views to the Greater Caucasus and old fortified walls designed to keep out marauding Chechens and Dagestanis and what-have-you. We stopped in Sighnaghi to pick up my friend John, who has a house there that he's renovating, and give him a lift back to the capital. He told us, if we have time, that we should stop in Sighnaghi for a little while to watch the local dance troupe's rehearsal. They have a performance coming up, so they're pretty good now.

Georgian folk dances are a real kick to watch. The men get all the best parts: there are daggers and swords and backflips and flying leaps and bottles balanced on heads and funny giant woolen hats. The women wear long dresses and flick their wrists around prettily and move their feet under the floor-length skirts in just such a way that it looks as though they are floating; as if their perfect angel feet can't quite be kept anchored to something so base as earth.

We sat in the gym in Sighnaghi and watched the rehearsal, the local dancers in track suits and sweat pants instead of dress costume. John pointed out the personalities. That woman, she's a children's doctor from the valley below. That guy, backflipping with a sword in hand, he's a carpenter. I was sitting there satisfied, thinking of my Benedict Anderson and my Ernest Gellner and pondering eggheaded things about local traditions morphing into a stylized and standardized national folk culture, when John leaned over and said, "Wouldn't you want guys like these defending your village?"

I knew what he meant, which wasn't that the lords a'leaping would scare off the Shah. He meant that the dance symbolizes strength and virility and warrior spirit and that in a place like Georgia that has been sacked by alternating empires for as many centuries as you care to count, wouldn't you want men like that, with values like these?

But I didn't feel like fawning over the Spielbergian glory of war and so I sniffed that all this history is well and good, but I think that modern men here are far too eager to fight and die for their country and perhaps a little pacifism, or at least a little less war exaltation, would do the place some good.

Really, it's a wonder how easily, and with what frequency, people here find cause to use words such as enemy, war, conquer, sacrifice; words that for us cobweb in the back of our brains, summoned forth only by Tolkien or maybe Mel Gibson. We don't live with our wars and our history right there on our tongues. When I was renting my skis from Mamuka in the high mountains north of Tbilisi, he offered me a pair of poles and a big slug of homemade wine served in the bottom half of a bisected water bottle. In the mountains, he told me, top half of the bottle inverted and aloft, the first toast is to peace: mshvidobas gaumarjos. Down below in the city they may be toasting to the meeting of friends first, but up in the heights the traditions are rawer and, with ritualistic duty, they remember the times of war with this first toast.

Touring through Georgia is at times like examining the scarred body of battered veteran. Here are wounds the Persians left behind, there's where the Arabs pierced through, the Mongols, the Turks. Nearby the Dukes met their doom, there exiled kings darkly plotted uprising, here there was betrayal, and here martyrs. And everywhere, glory glory halleluia.

Sometimes I fear that modern Georgia could suffocate on all this bloody glory. It's all well enough for the women, whose worth was never based on derring do, but could these men, with their warrior ancestors summoned up at every toast, be content as accountants and bank clerks should the opportunity arise in Georgia? Do the young hotheads careen the wrong way down streets and shoot and stab one another in part because they can't find an enemy more suiting? Will they fling themselves headlong back into more fighting with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, snarling at the Russians?

The most elegant and resigned riposte to this is from Rebecca West. In her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, it so happens that her Serbian friend is telling a legend about a certain Bosnian village. It's a war legend about when the Turks were attacking and how the women and men of the village came up with a plan that involved the women bravely acting as bait so that the men could surprise the Turks and save the village. The Serb tells the story, and then he says something that could be precisely about Georgia:
And so a man can give himself great pleasure in telling himself that story, and he can imagine all sorts of like happenings...with all the loveliest little ones being brave for his sake, and all his enemies lying dead in the marshes, with water over the face; and on that he can build up a philosophy which is very simply but is a real thing; it makes a man's life mean more than it did before he held it. Now, will you tell me what in peace is so easy for a simple man to think about as this scene of war? So do not despise my people when they cannot settle down to freedom, when they are like those people on the road of whom I said to you, 'They think all the time they must die for Yugoslavia, and they cannot understand why we do not ask them to do that but another thing, that they should live and be happy.'

Monday, May 15, 2006

Way, way outside the beltway

When you've had a blog long enough, there's this fun game you can play called "what was I doing exactly one year ago?" It's a nice distraction for the chronically self-absorbed among us, and really, when one has a website dedicated to, um, oneself, there's no getting around truths about certain unpleasant character traits.

So this post is not written to you, internet, but rather to myself one year in the future. I don't know what you were doing yesterday, future self, but I was standing in sacrificial sheep's blood in the rain on top of a mountain with homemade wine in hand, toasting some untranslatable holiday with a village worth of new friends.

God, it's been a weird year.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Better Dead Than Drink Georgian Red

This is a few days late, but it's still a hoot.

To promote the ban on Georgian wine, Komsomolskaya Pravda created this poster for distribution. "Respect yourself and your homeland: Don't Drink Georgian wine!" it says. (click the above link for a large version)

For you Soviet propagandaphiles, that image looks familiar for a reason. It's an old 50s poster that's had the vodka glass replaced with a Georgian wine horn. Here's the original image:

Here's hoping the anti-wine campaign proves as successful and long-lasting as the anti-vodka campaigns. Coming between a Russian and his booze is generally not a long-term winning strategy.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

O Captain, my Captain

Last week, my students (not these, but a slightly more advanced bunch) were reading about the Vietnam anti-war protests and I asked them to write their opinions on protesting. Should people have the right to protest in a time of war? Does protesting help the enemy? It was a bit of a stretch for my little angels, but I couldn't resist the temptation to see what in the good lord's name they'd produce.

I worried that I had already somehow broadcast what I believed to be the correct answer, and they'd all just play to what I wanted to hear. But clearly I was ascribing far too much subtlety to a bunch that had turned in their last quizzes with the exact same responses on each question, as if I'd chalk it up to a cosmic coincidence of the monkeys-typing-Hamlet variety. My dears, said I, if you're going to cheat at least be clever about it.

But today the topic was protesting. Salome spoke up first. No, she said. Americans should not have the right to protest because it helps the enemy by sparking the situation and the president cannot concentrate on the war when people are protesting.

Sopo, what do you think about that? "I agree with Salome." Of course you do, pet.

Thanks, Salome, I said. Now tell me this. What would you think if Georgia started a war with Russia tomorrow? Would you support this war? "No." No? Do you think you should have the right to protest and tell the government what you think? "Yes, I should." Will that help the Russians, though, if you do that? Do you know, one can actually see the lightbulb when it goes on. Salome smiled knowingly. It seems she caught on to my sneaky little trick. Why do you have the right to protest, and the Americans do not?

She thought and thought. "Because there are too many americans and the situation will be complicated. There aren't so many Georgians so they can't make so much trouble." Leave aside the logic problems, leave aside the fact that all you need is half a Georgian to make trouble. This answer pleased me more than if she'd just caved and changed her mind. Because it's a reason, and she thought of it on her own. My classroom standards are high and lofty.

In other news, this nearly made me weep for joy: