Coming to America Mostly Legally

So I’m an American citizen.  Born one, in the heartland of America, rah rah rah.  But a few days before I left for Georgia, I realized I couldn’t find that elusive blue book that proved it.  I did the perfunctory search of places where I stash important things, but no passport.  (Although I did unexpectedly find my brother’s birth certificate. I should get that back to him.)

This was about five days till take off.  I told myself not to panic. It has to be somewhere in the apartment.  The apartment isn’t even that big.  It’s just a matter of being systematic.  Well, the problem is, the apartment isn’t that big, but I have a lot of stuff.  I have hundreds, maybe thousands?, of books, and boxes upon boxes of art materials and photographs and old school materials and pieces of rocks and shells and industrial debris I’ve have in stages of transformation into jewelery.  I have many piles of homework that students never picked up, augmented by London Reviews of Books which, I swear, I will get around to reading.  In short, there were a lot of places for a passport to hide.

But I was systematic.  At T-4 days, I scoured my bedroom, the most sparsely cluttered room.  Afterall, passports love hiding in underwear drawers, but apparently not this one.  But that’s where I was sure it was, so I emptied my dresser, took out the drawers, sure I’d see that golden stamp grinning at me, flattened against the inside of the backboard.  No.  I found some t-shirt I’d forgotten I owned as well as the “odd socks” box that was hiding back behind my dresser.  I’ve long since embraced that odd socks also deserve to be worn, so it was sort of like getting ten new pairs of socks.  But no passport.

T-3 and I’m panicky.  I start on the common space, where all the book shelves and filing cabinents are, combing through piles of papers, magazines, letters I need to respond too, finding lots of cool stuff, but no passport.  I call home.  I never travel with my passport when I go to St. Louis, but I’d been home a few weeks before, and at a loss for leads, started wondering if I maybe accidently brought my passport with me, then accidently dropped it somewhere in my parents’ house.  Yes, that could happen.  For sure.  If that’s what happened, they have a day to nose around the house and still express it to me in time.  Exhale, yes, it’ll be fine.

In our family, there basically three spots for important things.  A folder on the shelf in the breakfast room (second from the top), the junk drawer in the kitchen (more of a former bastion of importantish stuff, but still worth checking) and on top of the microwave.  The microwave is key. My hope lay in the microwave.

My mother, who is the most capable and on the ball person ever, the consummate problem-solver, was at a conference and out of town.  My dad is also good at problem solving and wildly organized and level headed. I explained the situation.  My dad kept telling me that losing a passport just wasn’t “like me,” which was comforting.  I’m not a passport-loser!  That means it will show up.  Of course, as soon as I explained the dilemma to my dad, he went to the microwave.  Those moments, between telling him, “I’m flying to Georgia is 72 hours and don’t have a passport” and his arrival at the microwave were pregnant with naïve hope.  All important things have a magnetic pull to the microwave.  It’s the Delphic energy center of our household, planted in the middle of the kitchen, offering just enough surface area for birthday checks, wedding bands, bank statements of traveling children, and, in years past, the occasional retainer or mouth guard or signed permission slip. I became convinced my passport had escaped to its natural habitat, to be with another passport and a pair of my sister’s earrings and that photo of my brother from fifteen years ago that we keep meaning to scan.

It wasn’t.  A moment of silence.  “Dad, you’re sure it’s not on the microwave?!” Bear in mind that I’ve never consciously brought my passport to STL in the past four years. It was still a real disappointment.  I told Dad where the other hot spots in the house were, and he promised to check those and then have Mom look when she was back as well.  I am in my mid-late 20’s, and I still feel that if Mom and Dad are on the task force, it’ll be fine.  But for the time being, there was still no passport.

At this point, I started to think outside of the box.  I’d been convinced that I would find the passport somewhere, so I didn’t want to report it lost, and I also didn’t think I could get an emergency passport in time.  Passport websites are so sneaky, there are rarely phone numbers, you just have to apply online for an appointment.  Nothing was available for before I left and each page insisted there was a seven day minimum for even expedited passports. Plus, I hated the idea of paying exorbitantly to bribe the government to process my passport in two days just because my apartment has eaten it.

 

I had an alternative.  I also have an Irish passport.  My maternal grandparents immigrated from Ireland, and under semi-recentish legislation, it’s pretty easy for first and second generation Irish folk to get Irish citizenship.  Part of the whole save-and-repopulate Ireland project of the EU.  I’d filed for the passport a few years ago, back when things were a little brighter in Ireland, and I figured that if my academic life didn’t go as planned, I could rock out some humble but enjoyable existence in a state-supported society.

At T-2, I started arranging to travel as an Irishwoman.  I called my airline to make sure the passport number I’d entered to purchase my ticket wasn’t binding.  Nope.  I checked Georgian travel/immigration rules for the Irish: you can stay up to 360 days without a visa. Nice.  The only problem, of course, would be getting back into America.  I was optimistic, on the Irish Consulate website it says that the Irish travel visa free to the US, so no worries.  Everything would be fine.  My boyfriend, who has a much deeper distrust of border police and generally folks in uniforms, admonished me to be careful.  If I enter as an Irish person, they’ll want me to leave within 90 days as an Irish person.  “They’re really going to come find me?! I’ll explain the missing passport…” But he was much less optimistic about the INS and their sense of humor for a little international-travel-gone-amuck story.  Which made me nervous.

Luckily enough, around this time, two friends of mine, both dual citizens (one US-EU, on South Africa-EU) assured me that people travel back and forth on all kinds of passports.  No one checks, no one cares, you can come in as one nationality and leave as another.  Just make sure to have some kind of passport.  This was more fitting to my sensibilities.  Plus, I was like, really, who thinks a young Irish lady is the immigration problem? (Well, right now, let’s not get into the past 150 years).  I’ll cruise on through, no problem.

And for the most part, that’s what happened.  I went through Newark security as an Irish lady, for the first time, and was a bit bashful when two consecutive security guards commented on my citizenship, “Ireland, great!” “Oh cool, you’re from Ireland.”  One of them asked me if I’d liked America.  I was marginally honest, “Oh lots, I’ve spent a bunch of time here.”  I should have said less, so that they couldn’t hear my non-Irish accent.  I felt a bit like an imposter.

Then I had a layover in Poland, which was super weird, because for all intensive purposes, my passport is the same as a Poles.  We’re brothers in some EU project of modernity.  So strange.  No problems arriving in Georgia, although the border lady combed through my passport thrice because there wasn’t a single stamp in it.  There are probably not that many people who come to Georgia without a single trace of any other travel.

And I was set! I had arrived in Georgia as an Irishwoman and I wouldn’t have to deal with the problem for another two months, when I tried to reenter.  A few times, I needed my passport in Georgia, or had to list my citizenship on something, and it became more and more fun to write “IRELAND.”  Everyone loves the Irish.  Everyone.  The Irish don’t try to police the world, or culturally or economically colonize weaker states.  The Irish like to drink, and are pious.  The Irish tell jokes and write novels and plays and sing songs that are uniquely suitable for use in both nurseries and bars.  I liked being Irish.  I also liked my Irish passport more than my blue one.  My blue passport features an awkward, dorky sixteen year old version of myself.  My spiffy new burgundy baby has a golden harp on the cover and the mysterious Gaelic written throughout it.  Plus, they require that you use a black and white photo, and since I specialize in doing a blank stare when photographed, it looks like I’m some 1920’s Irish girl, getting photographed for the first time for her big trip on the boat or something.  Yes. Beats awkward teen shots anyday.

So that was the plus side.

 

While in Georgia, I’d joked with my friends about the passport mix up, and more than one of them recommended that I just reapply for a US travel passport in Georgia.  Like my boyfriend, they were wary of the idea of just sauntering into the US as a tourist and then trying to morph into a citizen.  Plus, it’d be easier to get one in Georgia, and the embassy was only a cab ride away.  I hemmed, hawed, and decided it’d be just as wise to get it over with. I filled out dozens of online forms, but the problem with those dang automated systems is that there’s no room for the uniqueness of your situation!  Naturally, there was no provision in the form for filling out that you had lost your passport in the States, but needed a replacement in Georgia.  I tried to indicate that my passport had been lost in Georgia, so that it would stop re-routing me to the DC office, but it wouldn’t let me cancel my passport (which I had to do before trying to meet with a US representative) and simultaneously get a Georgian appointment.  It was all confusing, and in the end, I made an appointment under false pretenses, got the Georgian appointment, maybe canceled my old passport (still unclear), but missed the appointment after all. We were traveling, and I tried to rebook the appointment, but didn’t realize the only way to reschedule an appointment was to retain a confirmation number from the application window which I had long since closed. Oops.  I also just didn’t care at this point, and was becoming convinced that I could just make it to the States fine.  I am a member of the EU!  We are comrades in democratic values and economic meltdowns!

One of my American friends in Tbilisi, who kinda knows how everything everywhere works, advised me that I may need to apply for some sort of online visa.  Huh?  He was pretty sure of this, but I looked on the Irish website, and it looked like I was in the clear.  90 days, no need for a visa. I assured him otherwise and then lived my footloose and fancy free Irish life till it was time to depart.

So international flights leave Tbilisi between 3 and 5 am.  Yeah, not so fun.  I’d stayed up pretty late the night before, gotten up early, and then just stayed awake the whole next day and night until we caught a cab at 2:45am for our 4:40am flight.  I was not feeling spiffy.  My boyfriend, who was with me on the same flight, was fighting terrible food poisoning or something, so he was doing much, much worse.  We were not at our best.

We flew from Tbilisi to Warsaw and once in Warsaw, we had a six hour layover.  We just laid out our stuff on the floor of the airport and slept.  I had stolen (ahem, borrowed) a pillow from the previous flight, which kind of made sleeping on the floor better.  It was also carpeted, which is nice.  I’ve slept on linoleaum airport floors and they are way less comfortable.  Plus, the Warsaw airport is super not-sketchy.  And I was among my EU brethren.  What could go wrong?

After a two hour nap or so, I couldn’t sleep anymore, and did the duty free stroll, pacing the terminal, looking at stuff that’s still a rip off even if its duty free, and debating spending too much money on a single coffee.  Then I hear an announcement.  All passengers traveling to NYC from Tbilisi must check in at the LOT desk.  Weird.

I go get my ticket and passport and my boyfriend’s as well, who is most laying in a semi-daze on the ground.  I head to the transit info desk and hand the LOT (the airline) lady our passports and boarding pass.  She clicks away and then looks at me.

“ESTA?”

“Hmmm?”

“Do you have your ESTA?”

I didn’t know what she was trying to say, I thought maybe “esta” was how Poles say “stay”, like how the Spanish have problems with word initial S+consonants (fork and espoon, anyone?)…

“Yes, I have somewhere to stay.”

“No…you have green card?”

“Oh, no.”

“A visa? A work permit?”

“Um, no.”

“You must have.”

“Uh, no, I didn’t think so…”

“Where do you live?”

“In New York.”

“How?”

“Well, I’m American.”

“Where is your passport?”

“Um, I lost it, so I just used this one…”

There is something so decadent and ridiculous to tell someone that you are switching between passports.  As if, oh, I can’t find my favority jeans, so I’m wearing these ones in the meantime.

“Do you have any proof that you are an American?”  She’s already rolling her eyes to her fellow employees.  I get out my social security card.  She calls a supervisor.  I hear her trying to explain this dinky blue square of paper.  It has no picture on it.  Its not even laminated.  How is this security? She hangs up the phone.

“Sorry miss, I’m canceling your ticket.  You have to exit the airport, reenter and apply for an ESTA in our main office in the airport, and then check in again for the flight.  You will be reissued a ticket when you have entrance clearance.  The USA will not allow us to issue you a ticket without an ESTA or a green card.”

“Sorry, what is an ESTA?”

“It’s the form for entering the US.  It’s online.” She said online slowly, as if to let it really sink in how easy this could have all been.

Dang!  My friend was right!  There is a sneaky online visa-like thing you have to do! I half-heartedly tell her that there was no mention of this on the Irish website.  Like she cares. Plus, maybe there was.  But I bet it was written in Irish.  For true Irishpeople.

I go relay the news to the sick boyfriend. He sits up and stares as me sadly.  I assure him everything will be fine.

I leave the terminal.  I go through passport control and the guy asks where I’m staying in Poland.  I explain that I’m coming right back.  I need a visa to go to America, I’m just going to grab it and come back.  He almost laughs and waves me through. I leave the airport.  It’s a beautiful day in Warsaw.  Reenter airport and commence search for LOT office.  Hmmm, ends up its in a different terminal.  My flight leaves in an hour and forty five minutes.  Minor anxiety sets in.

The LOT office is manned by two very Polish looking Poles. They’re both in their 50’s, friendly, and remarkably accommodating.  They sit me down behind their desk and pull up the ESTA application.  They warn me it will cost fourteen dollars.  I just nod.

The application is quite easy, but again, it asks for country of residence.  Just put America? But then I look funny.  But I don’t live in Ireland.  What if there are problems at Immigration and they ask why I lied?  I enter “USA” for country of residence.  The whole thing is pretty straight forward info plus a couple of mandatory security questions:

Am I a drug addict?  Do I have any mental or physical disorders?

Have I been arrested or convicted for an offense of crime involving moral turpitude? [!!?]

Have I ever taken a child from an American who had legal custody of said child? 

Have I every been involved in espionage or sabotage, terrorist activities or genocide? Was I involved, between 1933 and 1945, with the persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or any of their allies? 

I (honestly!) click “no” to all and wait.  Within two minutes my ESTA is approved and processed.  The friendly Poles print it out for me and then graciously let me know that normally people do this before they get to the airport, because it can actually take up to 72 hours to process.  I smile apologetically and thank them.

The rest of Warsaw was pure luck.  There was no line to check in, no line at security, no line at passport control.  I triumphantly return to the LOT transit representative with my ESTA.  Within half an hour, we’re boarding and I’m confident that now I’ll fly through immigration, armed with all necessary paperwork.

 

Nine and a half hours in the sky and we’re in New York.  The BF and I split to go through Immigration, he gets into the US passport line and I head for “Visitors.” (Should I go into the “Permanent Resident” line?  No, no, no, I’m here as a visitor!  My ESTA form tells me that it’s impossible to change my immigration status after I enter as a visitor.  That’s fine, within 90 days I’ll just get a new passport, go to Canada and reenter as an American. Worse case scenario…)

The lines are pretty short for visitors and I hop into the line that that queue-usher points me to.  Then I reevaluate.  My border officer doesn’t look friendly.  Maybe I should get into a different line with someone more smiley.  I’m about to turn around and look for a sweet, grandmotherly type border officer when a round-faced elderly woman gets in line behind me and starts talking.  She recognizes me from the flight from Warsaw, she’s nervous; she’s only speaking to me in Polish.  I want to tell her I can’t speak Polish, even though I too am in the “Visitor” line.  She keeps talking.  She grabs my arm.  I smile and start to desperately hope it’ll be my turn soon. She’s been talking a couple minutes.  It’s too late to say I can’t understand her.  I smile and try to murmur Polish sounds.  It’s my turn. Phew.

The border guard is a 30-something black woman with no smile.  I try to “good afternoon” her, but she just asks for my passport without looking up.

“Why are you coming to America?”

“Um, well, I’m going to stay here for a visit, to um…”

“Why are you coming and how long are you staying?”

Oh, screw it.

“Well, I actually live in America…”

“Excuuuuuse me?” She turned and gave me a real stink eye.

I should have switched lines!  I should have just extricated myself from the Polish woman and run!

“Yes, see, I’m actually an American, but I lost my American passport, so I, um, I’m traveling on my Irish passport.  See, I have an ESTA.”

“You can’t be in this line if you are an American.  You can’t just come into America as a visitor if you’re an American.”

My ESTA droops in my hand.

“Ah, I didn’t realize that.  See, I thought it would be alright to just travel here on this.”

“Do you have any proof that you’re an American?”

I show her that my Irish passport lists my place of birth as the USA and hand her my Social Security card.

She raises her eyebrows at me.

“You’re not allowed to be a dual citizen.  It’s not allowed in America.  It’s forbidden, so we can’t recognize this. You can’t be an American if you’re also Irish.”

Now I was really surprised.  I was 99.99% sure we do have dual citizens.  Hell, we let our own citizens JOIN THE ISRAELI ARMY.  I can’t just visit as an Irish woman? Instead, I focused and tried to be non-confrontational.  You must play cool, don’t offend sassy border police.  You can’t win with snark. Nor with acting like you know more about American policy than her.

“So, sorry, what should I do?” That seems harmless enough.

“You can’t enter America as something else if you’re already an American.” Exasperated sigh and she gives me this incredulous look that seems to say, “Girl, you are about to be in big trouble.” She actually says, “I’ll be back.”

She disappears with my passport and social security card.  I think of the boyfriend’s distrust of this whole endevaour, his tales of crossing the Syrian-Turkish border in Kurdistan.  This is not Kurdistan!  Can they interrogate me?  Deport me?  To where? Ireland? Georgia? Oh, Georgia would be nice…

After five minutes the woman returns.  She won’t speak to me, won’t look at me.  She stamps my passport, doesn’t even look at my ESTA.  Nor does she even pick up the immigration form I’d also had to fill out that includes my exit form for legally leaving the US as a visitor.  She just hands me back my passport and Social Security card.  Apparently, her supervisor did know that dual citizenship is allowed.  Victory!

Two hours later, I was back in my apartment in NYC.  I’ll deal with applying for my new American passport soon enough. In the meantime, consider this your guide to single-passport, dual-citizenly travel.  Sometimes things just work out.

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Contemporary Georgian Icons

St. Nino in Jvari Monastery, Mtskheta

Well, dear readers, I’m back in the States.  Nevertheless, I’m going to try to keep sending Georgianness your way…am a bit too jetlagged for verbal communication, so instead I proffer a small variety of contemporary Georgian icons.  Georgia is in the midst of major church renovation and construction, so there are plenty of examples of recent icons.  Below I include pictures that I took as well as things I lifted from the internet (its pretty clear which ones were taken in the dark from five feet away and which were not…)

Only rarely was I in a church where I felt comfortable photographing (photos in church are generally reserved for occasions, and wanting to blog is no such occasion), and so there are some images which I saw but couldn’t later find, alas….  One such icon was in Batumi, at the St. Nicholas Church.  St. Nicholas used to be a Greek Orthodox Church, was only briefly closed during Communism (remarkably, only during the early 30’s and into the mid 40’s), and is now a Georgian Church, but which holds bilingual services in Russian and Georgian (I have no sense of how unusual that is, but it struck me as particular).  Anyway, I found a couple shots of the interior of the church from someone interneters flickr account, but I can’t find the icon that most startled me when I was there–an icon of St. Matrona, a very beloved recent saint of Moscow, but done in a Georgian style with Georgian lettering (for the frescoes, see here).  This iconic (no pun intended) image of modern Russian piety in a Georgian style made me a bit hopeful that if there are any inroads for stronger Georgian-Russian reconciliation and political or social dialogue, it may very well come through the Church.   But I digress….I shall let the images speak for themselves from now on.

Nino with (I think) Mirian and Nana In Church of Life Giving Pillar, Mtskheta

Iconostasis in Church of the Life Giving Pillar, Mtskheta

Detail from Iconostasis

Detail from Iconostasis

Joachim and Anna with Mary, Church of the Life Giving Pillar, Mtskheta

Detail on Joahim and Anna with Mary

Church of the Life Giving Pillar, Mtskheta

St. George slaying the infidel in Jvari Monastery

St. Nino in Transfiguration Chapel at Davit Gareja Monastery

Thirteen Syrian Fathers

Holy Queens of Georgia

Mother of God with Christ

David the Builder

Three Hundred Aragveli Martyrs (who fought the Persians in 1795)

To see some images of the presentation of this icon in the Church (of the Life Giving Pillar), check out the images on this site:  http://burdulebi.blogspot.com/2010/09/300-2.html

Icon of Ilya Chavchavadze, 19th and 20th century scholar, writer, nationalist killed by the Soviets

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave you with just onle last image in honor of today’s (old calendar) feast:

Transfiguration

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Closing but not final thoughts on Georgia

I fly back to New York in the wee hours of tomorrow, so today is in effect my last day in my beloved Sakartvelo.  It’s been one of the best (the best?) summers of my life.  I hope to keep posting on travels past—Yerevan, Batumi, the supra feast in Kakheti, the incredible art I’ve seen, icons, church culture, the list goes on.  In the meantime though, I’m attempting the vain task of summarizing a summer of all things Caucasian.

 

I haven’t written nearly as much as I had hoped or planned, primarily because I’ve just been too busy with life.  But busy seems like the wrong word. It’s been full, but never stressful.  In fact, that’s probably the greatest difference between life here and life in New York.  It’s not just that my life felt less stressful, all of Georgia is less stressful.  Things happen at a different pace—much slower—and as far as I can tell, social bonds and time with friends and family is a much more valued facet of life here.  Of course, with that comes much more time spent just sitting around, eating, drinking, toasting, talking.  Everyone is late, but you’re never really in a hurry, you show up at the friend of a friends with new friends in tow, there seem to be very few exclusive engagements.  Since most people don’t start work till 10am, nights linger late, and in the community of ex-pats, we seem to have even cushier schedules of sporadic research, meetings and language class. So days are full but happily, restoratively so.

 

My social scene here has been, for a variety of reasons, more foreign than Georgian, but I am still surprised at how easy it is to meet Georgians.  Maybe because I’ve only gotten to know the slice of them that speak English or Russian or happily speak slow Georgian that I can say with all honesty, I haven’t yet met a Georgian I didn’t like.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re out there, and a few of them could very well be the incessantly loud teenagers that talked and made out and scream-laughed the whole night train last week from Tbilisi to Batumi.  But I don’t really know those guys, and no civilization should be judged on its teenagers left to their own devices.  Seriously though, I have met nothing but friendliness, kindness and hospitality from all Georgians that cross my path.  I never felt bamboozled or threatened, I don’t think I ever got completely ripped off, be it at a market, store, in a cab, etc.  I even went carpet shopping (a notorious shady form of consumerism) and only found gracious, nonaggressive customer service.

 

In a way, it’s been almost difficult to accept so much hospitality here because I have no idea how to repay it.  People invite you into their homes and then lavish you with food and wine and souvenirs.  They pick you up on the side of the road and drive you where you need to go because it’s too hot to be out walking and they happen to have space in their car and time to go out of their way.  They patiently listen to terrible grammar and then try to give you a gift for making an effort.  This isn’t just the old country people, its Tbilisians as well.  As a foreigner with weak Georgian, often traveling with other foreigners with no Georgian, people generously speak Russian or English with no moans or groans about making linguistic concessions in their own country.  Don’t misunderstand, Georgians fiercely love their language, but they don’t lord it over you the way some lingua-centric western Europeans do (ahem, the frogs!). Of course, genuine hospitality is no form of Indian giving (excuse the racial legacy of that), but it is still humbling to accept so much and not know how to say thank you, to not have the chance to give back.  A parting “didi madloba” (thanks a lot) just doesn’t seem to cut it.  I hope I’ll have the chance to play host to some of the people I’ve met here back in the States, but knowing that’s unlikely makes me feel some blend of sadness and disappointment.

 

After the great people, tis the great food that will win over your heart.  Georgian food is no joke.  Pork, veal, lamb, beef, chicken, quail, there isn’t much they don’t know how to master (we’ll leave out sea critters….).  Because of the Orthodox fasting (which is basically vegan), they have a delicious, deeply savory, nutritious canon of vegetarian and vegan food.  Of course, everything is also just scrumptious because its often grown nearby, harvested fresh, and without exception prepared immediately with love and expertise.  However, even though Georgia used to be the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, exporting fruits and vegetables across nearly half the globe, they now import the vast majority of their food.  Behind the khachapuri stands and cheap spots with sizzling pork sausages piled on potatoes lies a vast, deteriorated agricultural system.  Collectivization under the Soviets modernized Georgian farming, but the past twenty years of sometimes violently and almost always chaotically heading towards democracy has unmodernized it.  Everywhere in Georgia, you see people harvesting hay with scythes, pitchforking it onto trucks, hand picking produce and rolling it out of the fields on wheelbarrows.  The labor input in incredible to fathom, especially since people here used to have tractors, mechanized plows, trucks instead of horse-drawn carts.  Food prices have also risen an estimated 15% over the past two years, but wages are fixed.  I can feast on a lot more Georgian food than my neighbors because I see dirt-cheap prices that are actually dangerously rising for them.  They import huge amounts of food from Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey, especially dairy (you almost never seen Georgian dairy in a supermarket) and so the country is in a decidedly serious import-export imbalance.

 

Even with a decade and a half to recover and reform, Georgia is still 40% less agriculturally productive as it was in 1990, before the mass reallocations of arable plots and the civil war. Vast sweeps of land are dedicated to grapes, but the wine has little western market and is ultimately an expensive and laborious crop for people to grow. The government launched a program to modernize Georgian agriculture by importing Boers from South Africa to farm huge tracts of land.  But these Boers are given benefits and technology that normal Georgians have no access to, creating a bizarre new class system that will inevitably eventually make Georgian land more productive, but at no benefit to struggling Georgian farmers.

 

Things of course aren’t all bad here, and I didn’t mean to fall off on an agricultural tangent.  But it’s been interesting and difficult to spend time in such a wonderful place and see the myriad dysfunctions that plague it.  In many ways, Georgia is much better than it has been, with the President (quite wisely, if you ask me), replacing the entire police force early in his term to combat corruption, and jailing most of the cronies who acted as de facto crime chiefs throughout the country.  As a tourist, most of the infrastructure problems aren’t that visible (except for the roads!  But those are under construction).  But real systematic change seems secondary to the great project of projecting a façade of wealth and westernism. The longer I spend here, the more crazy building projects I see, with enormous hello-mid-90’s glass buildings in every decently sized city, paid for by some combination of foreign aid and tax money.  What is going on?  What will happen to the blocks and blocks of crumbling Soviet era buildings, many of which are still housing lower income residents? Why are their glass palaces but no child services for the toddlers that beg on the street?

 

Like in America, farmers struggle, teachers are underpaid, food prices are rising, unemployment is always looming (about 17 percent here). There’s this sense of urgency being here, that things are changing and the country is transforming, unevenly, but inevitably. I think of the systematic problems in the States and how change is blocked at every turn by our destructive two party system, and I then think about what you could do in Georgia when you have a basically oppositionless government that can quickly enact new programs and reform. There’s a lot of potential. And I want to see Georgia bring citrus and wine and watermelons to the world, not just make a quick buck on the occasional European adventure traveler.  I want to see Georgians able to intellectually compete and engage with the West without having to expatriate. I even hope they improve relations with Russia, so that they can have access to an enormous market for exporting (one isn’t supposed to say such things here, but let’s be honest, these days you can be friends with the West and with Russia.  Maybe it’s complicated, but it’s better than picking just one side).  Georgian wine on every table! Even the Russian ones!

 

Of course, what do I know?  I’ve lived here a mere eight weeks, and nothing is ever what it seems like at first glance.  Or at second.  But Georgia has the raw materials to be a great nation that can stand on its own legs in the European, and global, society, it just has to take some baby steps and plot it’s course well. I’ve met a lot of good people working towards that and I just hope that the simultaneous stumbling towards democracy and bureaucracy here doesn’t get in the way.

 

Tomorrow I return to the land of highly organized chaos in the urban west and the looming tasks of figuring out my academic life and, most importantly, plotting how to return to this wonderful place.

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Another Day in Svaneti: Mostly Stories of Yore and Nature

Evenings in Svaneti are lovely, because unlike in Tbilisi, there is no siren call of the internet to distract you from life (or anything else for that matter), so we just ate and then drank with the other travelers staying at our guesthouse.  Most of the crowd was intense Israelis who came straight to Svaneti for hiking but there were a couple chill Euros who were around and up to hang out and share tales of traveling in Georgia.

Our second night we were seated at dinner with a pair of travelers who were looking to go to Ushguli the next day, and as we couldn’t afford to rent a car to there on our own, we teamed up with them for a one day excursion to the highest populated place in all of Europe (of course, that’s only if you consider Georgia to be in Europe).  They were fantastic travel companions, not just in that they were smart and delightful, but they were also some kind of nature specialists by trade and wildly knowlegable about all things flora and fauna.  So not only did we get to save money on our ride, but we got free guides to rare lichens, mountain orchins, and a variety of phenomonena that I would never have noticed or appreciated if my city slicker self had been left to my own devices!

The roads to Ushguli from Mestia are pretty rough, so although its not much more than 40 km it’s a good 3 hour drive along a path that only a four wheel drive and capable driver should attempt. We set off around 8am, so we saw early sunlight slowly cover the valley as we traveled, occasionally stopping for a picture. Especially in the event of rare bird sightings, which happened a few times as well!

Hoopoe! One of two sighted in Svaneti, one of three sighted in Georgia

Morning Views from Road to Ushguli

Our driver was a man named Paata, with whom I first tried to practice my Georgian on, but he quickly asked me if I knew Russian, and we then spent the rest of the day in Russian.  In general in Svaneti, I was surprised at how many people spoke Russian, and spoke it quite well.  They were educated somewhere in Russia during the Soviet times, or had professional or personal ties to the Russophone world in a way that almost seemed stronger than in Tbilisi.  Paata’s Russian was gorgeous, much better than mine, but even more interesting, he’s from Sukhumi and left because of the war. Sukhumi, the largest city in the breakaway republic of Abhazia, used to be home to thousands of Georgians who left en masse after the conflicts of the 90’s and moved into Displaced Person Camps throughout the country.  A quarter of million people lived in makeshift camp, civic buildings, or, famously, were actually put up in Tbilisi’s downtown hotel Iveria (now the Radisson) and lived there for years until being relocated.

Anyway, Paata briefly lived in Tbilisi with the other IDPs (Internally Displaced Person), but decided that it was “better to live in a dacha than a hotel” (a dacha being a summer cabin) and moved to his dacha in Svaneti.  That was seventeen years ago.  His sister ended up making it to NYC on a US visa or greencard (or refugee status?) and he seemed to momentarily question his decision to move to Svaneti rather than hold out for a golden ticket.  Only a for a second though. Although he himself isn’t Svan (and doesn’t speak it), it was very clear from our conversations along the drive that he has quite a respect for the Svan and a deep, deep admiration for their reputedly brave, wild and gracious character (sounds like a strange mix, but it works). He told us how centuries ago the Svans had heard that a prince from Lower Svaneti was coming to their village to try to subjugate them, so the Svans got together to hatch a plan. They laid out a table for a feast near one of their towers, and constructed a false wall behind it.  There was a small hole in the wall fitted to let an arrow through.  When the prince came, they invited him to sit and dine and feigned innocence.  You can see where this going, but its better that you think.  The code word was that when the prince was offered red wine, the trigger would be pulled.  But all of the Svans wanted to protect their freedom together, so they all tied a piece of string to the trigger, so that they could collectively kill him.  Sure enough, red wine was brought forth, the words uttered, and the whole village killed their would-be lord.  And then, of course, killed all but one of his entourage as well.  Since then, Paata said, they make sure you know that an Upper Svan is a free man, and I even saw gravestones later that day in Ushguli that bore the epithet above the name of the deceased “Free Svan.”

Paata made sure we stopped at the “Tower of Love,” which bears the iconic structure of most Svan towers and is located right along the river.  “Tower of Love” may conjure up a vision of amorous rendezvous in a medieval fortification, but there was less necking and more longing in this tower.

Tower of Love

Long long ago, during the festival of Kvirikoba, a young man and young lady fell in love.  The festival of Kvirikoba takes place on the 28th of July every year, and is celebrated at the twelfth century church of St. Kvirike, which lies on the mountaintop above the tiny town of K’ala. (Peep last years celebrations here)

Church of St. Kvirike aka Lagurka

On Kvirikoba, which commemorates the martyrdom of two early Svan Christians (while maintaining quite the pre-Christian rituals as well!), there is a long Divine Liturgy at night, and then feasting afterwards until the early morning.  Well, it was at this feasting that the young lovers met and fell in love.  The magical festivities of Kvirikoba had distracted our young man from one important thing though.  He was already married.

His wife gets wind of this and is obviously not happy (Paata told this whole story in such a matter of fact way that I’m having a hard type recrafting it into a good legend narrative flow).  The man doesn’t know what to do, he is married, yet he loves another.  The young women from Kvirikoba also remains steadfast in her love for him.  In the midst of all of this, the young man decides to go out hunting, and sees a stag.  He shoots at it, but misses, he is too far away.  As he walks closer, the ground beneath him gives way and he falls through the snow and into the river.  When his love finds out of his death, she goes into mourning, wearing black, staying in her room weeping constantly.  Months pass and she still won’t take off her mourning clothes, or even really stop crying.  She barely eats, won’t talk to anyone.  Her father and brother implore as to what that can do to alleviate her pain.  She answers that the soul of her lover is in the river, and that she must live on the river, so that her tears can flow into his soul.  They build her the tower and she remains there till her dying breath, weeping for her lost love.

On slightly related note, this church, St. Kvirike, is home to a very famous icon as well, that is thought to be from the 5th or 6th century.  Paata told us that the icon was given to a strong Svan, Shaliani, by an Imereti king (Imereti is another region in lower Georgia) and brought back to Svaneti with him.  Why did the Imeretian King want to give the strapping Shaliani the icon? Well, the king of Imereti called on the Svans to supply him with one hundred men to scythe the fields of Geguti. So imagine the King’s shock when he saw that just one man, Shaliani, had shown up and alone did the job of one hundred men in the same time it would have taken them.  The king was so astounded that he told Shaliani to name his price, for what was such labor worth? Shaliani named the icon of Christ as his price, and received it as the wages of his labor.

Shaliani wrapped the icon in the sheep’s skin and set off to return to Svaneti. However, while traveling through the area of Kala (where the church now is), some locals heard that Shaliani was passing through with a treasure and decided to rob him. They attacked and killed him and then rifled through his bags and found the icon.  They tried to make off with it, but as soon as they had taken the icon, the sky turned black and it began to snow heavily.  They walked in circles and circles but couldn’t make any progress.  After an entire night of this, they ended up back at the place where they had begun.  At this point, there are varying accounts of what happened.  Either the thieves died of exposure and the icon was found by villagers, or the villagers killed the thieves, or the thieves themselves gave up on trying to make off with the icon.  However it was, ultimately no one in this steep valley of the mountains knew what to do with so great an icon.  So they (either the thieves or the villagers) made a cross out of logs, affixed that to the yoke of two bulls, and fastened the icon to the cross.  They decided to let the bulls go wherever they wanted, led by the presence of the icon, and wherever they rested they would build a church.  The bulls cross the river, ascended the climb and stopped at the peak where the church still stands to this day.

After relating this, Paata averted his eyes from the road to look at me quite seriously.  “The ‘Tower of Love’ is a legend, right, just a legend.  But this is a fact.  It’s history.”

The icon, which is of Christ, is often called by the name of it’s slain owner, Shaliani.  Alas, we couldn’t go up into the church (its only open once a month, when there is Liturgy celebrated by the collective priest of a few neighboring towns or for its annual feast) but I hope I can see it sometime, maybe even if I return for their July 28 festivities (which apparently includes a lot of animal sacrifice and stone throwing!). In the meantime, I’ve lifted an image of it from the internet for our edification.

Shaliani Icon in Lagurka/St. Kvirike

After lovers drowned and heroes slain, the rest of my time in Ushguli was pretty quiet.  We arrived in Ushguli proper in late morning, feasted on Svan food (the cheese was incredible, and came fried in giant disks of glory), and then set off to hike to a glacier that was a pretty flat walk from Ushguli (yes!).

On the way out of town, we stopped in the church of Lamaria (which means Mary in Svan) and saw frescos from the 10th and 11th centuries.  Svaneti is full of incredible icon frescoes, some done by the famous 11th century Teodore (who lived under David the Builder), but many are in terrible states of disrepair, and are also in churchs that are still functioning as churches, so I have no interior pictures to offer you…

Lamaria Church in Ushguli

The walk to the glacier and back is about 6-7 hours, and we only really had 4 if we wanted to make it back on the road to Mestia while it was still light (and, more importantly, in time for dinner!).  So we walked for about two long hours towards the glacier, stopping to investigate Caucasian mountain plateau wildlife, and then did a brisk short two hours back.

View towards glacier, Ushguli lies behind me

Incredible Mountain Flower (forgot the name..)

Kooky Yellow Flowers

Sure enough, we were in Mestia around sevenish, feasted on the exact same food served at each other meal (good, but not remarkable), then retreated to a covered lean-to like space in the backyard where we drank wine and kicked it with other travelers.  Definitely the most hostel-like experience I’d had in a couple years.  Two other guests were Romanians driving back to Tbilisi the next day, so we arranged to catch a ride with them and take in the scenic route.

While the route was scenic, it was COMPLETELY under construction, and there were no people strategically stationed to tell you when there was an obstacle or one way traffic or something, so you would drive along this rocky road hugging the side of the mountain, only to hit a bulldozer wedged into the road, and then oncoming traffic inching around it.  Which means someone has to go in reverse back the way they came until there is space to pass.  A little nerve wrecking…..

Roadway madness.

But all in all, after many many hours of driving, seeing much of Svaneti, the weird semi-tropical city of Zugdidi, Kutaisi from the window, and then the rolling valley of Kartli, we were home sweet home in Tbilisi, ready to drink wine on our own balcony and savor some loooong hot showers.

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A Day in Svaneti

I apologize that I have dropped off the posting world.  Life in Georgia has been very blog-worthy (and more!), but constant travel and evenings spent with new friends has made its hard to sit down and actually record that whirl of impressions and escapades.  I recently traveled to Svaneti, and while there’s much more to say about my time there, here’s a little (ahem, still too lengthy) snippet of my time there….

Crucial Geographic Background; Russia and Georgia are separated by the natural barrier of the Caucasus Mountians, which stretch from the western coast of the Black Sea (near Sochi, Russia) to Azerbeijan’s coast on the Black Sea.  Home to the highest peaks in Europe (if you count this Europe), the range has acted as a political, cultural, and linguistic divide for as long as people have been trying to cross and conquer it.  On the Russian side of things is the so-called North Caucasus, home of the Russian republics of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan, all locales fairly infamous for their shady internal politics (Moscow has poured money into Chechnya to curb the domestic terrorism from the separatist factions in the area, and the other mountain folks boast just as much—or little—similarity with and sympathy for “European” Russia as Chechnya).

On the more visitor-friendly side of things are the Southern Caucasus, generically the term for all of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbeijan, but more specifically just the stretch of mountains which lies primarily in Georgia. This mountainous border region within Georgia is called Svaneti and contains the entire area along the Russian border from the breakaway republic of Abhazia, to the breakaway republic of South Ossetia (mountain people combined with tsarist empirial colonialization, Soviet suppression and modern nation-state rhetoric makes for mayhem). While their neighbors might be discontent about who they legally do or don’t belong to (it’s still unclear!), the Svans are committedly Georgian.  Georgian, with a caveat.

The Svan (the people of Svaneti) are a curious folk.  They speak their own language, which is from the family of Caucasian languages (along with standard Georgian), but linguists estimate that Svan broke from Georgian some 4,000 years ago, so it’s quite, quite, quite distinct.  Because of their relatively remote location, the Svan have been existing socially and culturally quite separately from the rest of Georgia, although they’ve always been more closely aligned with Georgian powers than any of the numerous foreign invaders who have attempted colonize or absorb Georgia over the centuries. They converted to Orthodox Christianity sometime in the 5th-6th century, although pagan rituals are still enacted in parts of the Svaneti.  The most beloved of Georgian leaders, Queen Tamar, who ruled in the 12th-13th century during Georgia’s Golden Age, had strong ties to Svaneti.  I say this because even in the few days I spent in Svaneti, Tamar kept coming up, as a fascinating reminder that even modern day Svan identify with Georgia by way of connection to the most famous of all ancient Georgian leaders. In their long on-again, off-again relationship with the powers-that-be in lower Georgia, it seems like Tamar was one soverign the Svans are quite proud of serving.  Tamar apparently came to Svaneti at least yearly (a big deal when you get a sense of how hard it is to travel in this part of the world), had a residence in Upper Svaneti, and chose Svan men as her bodyguards since they were famed to be the most brave (and, I’ll wager, blood-thirsty) warriors in the land.

While I haven’t made it to the stone abode where they say Tamar stayed when visiting Svaneti, I did fly out there a week ago and got to see the famed early medieval towers, glorious vistas, and, it almost goes without saying, experience further acts of Georgian hospitality.

I flew into Mestia, the hub of sorts of Svaneti, on a propeller plane from Tbilisi.   I reminded myself that they wouldn’t fly if it wasn’t safe, but when, after a four hour delay, our flight finally boarded, seeing the pilots didn’t make me feel any less nervous.  They can’t be more than 25 years old and must moonlight as Mormons or Boyscouts.  Or, more worrisome, they moonlight as pilots. The flight was gorgeous though, and despite a jolty take off, it was smooth sailing for most of the hour long flight.

Tiny Plane and Bleach Blond Pilot-Boys

The clever bit of engineering that took us to the mountians

View from the Plane as we crossed into the Mountains

Although I had heard that Mestia was the “main city” of Svaneti, upon arrival it was quite clear that Mestia is more of a tiny town which simply functions as a outpost to the even more remote mountain towns.  There are a couple of guesthouses, a hotel, mini markets and a lot of construction aimed at turning Mestia into some sort of skiing-alpining tourism mecca.  And by a lot of construction, I mean, this sleepy mountain town is basically covered in a haze of construction dust, as men from all over the country come to labor on the dozens of renovations and new buildings.

Main Road in Mestia, beated up by construction trucks and busted pipes

Walking the whole ten minutes it takes to cross town, half a dozen huge Soviet work trucks barrel past, followed by another half a dozen a few minutes later.  The main street of the town has also been ripped up, and is slated for pavement in the near future, but locals seemed skeptical anything would happen on time.

Main Road in Mestia near Dusk, with Man and Pig

I have no idea how the reinvention of Mestia will play out, but it was a lovely place to stay for my Svaneti adventures, despite the roar of first world over-development.

Somewhat stupidly, I didn’t have any actual reservations for a guesthouse, thought I had called one place ahead of time and been assured that I would be found accommodation, if not in the guesthouse, then nearby.  Sure enough, the proprietess, a certain Nino Ratiani, had a full house, but put us up with her neighbors down the street.  It was an old traditional house, with big rooms and a semi functioning bathroom and everything was much more comfortable than it looked.

My Room in old Svaneti House

Of course, hiking for the better part of the day makes you pretty laid back about accommodations as long as there’s somewhere to pee and sleep (to put it bluntly).

Our first full day we decided to hike to the Koruldi Lakes, which are lie up into the northern ridge and past the iconic cross that is set on the mountain side overlooking Mestia.  I’m no outdoors women, in the least, but I thought that perhaps my hours of indoor training (a treadmill, I admit!) would somewhat prepare me for the 900+ meter ascent into the mountains….well, sort of.  The walk was very enjoyable and incredibly beautiful, but at least a third of it is a steep uphill incline which lingered on in my legs long since the hike itself.

Not surprisingly, before we even got to the trail, we got turned around, as we’d only been supplied with the most basic and vague of maps which had neither mile markers on it nor any indication of where the trailhead was.  Optimistically, we simply headed upwards from the main street, assuming we’d find the path, but got turned around and a bit confused upon hitting what looked like a dead end in the daunting combination of a crowded construction site and maybe someone’s yard.  As we backtracked to reorient ourselves, a local guy saw us and hollered over for us to join him in eating watermelon. Any attempts to decline we refused, so at 10:30 am, we found ourselves feasting on giant slabs of Kakhetian watermelon and talking with a trio of Georgian guys.  The conversation was a hodge podge of Georgian and Russian and when I asked if they knew where the path to the Cross began, I was greeted with incredulous replies.  “You want to WALK to the cross?”  For all of the natural beauty of Svaneti, there seems to be very little indigenous culture of hiking, as people are too busy living their already difficult mountain lives to go on leisure hikes in their time off.  It’s a bit strange to explain that you’re a pampered tourist who actually inflicts physical strain on yourself when given free time.

Although our watermelon hosts didn’t know where the trail began, they hollered to neighbors and we were directed quite quickly to the trailhead, which was actually the very way we’d come after all.  You just have to saunter through the construction and on to the gravel path that leads past the last few homes of Mestia and into the mountains.

Hike along the Cross-Koruldi Lake Path

View toward Mestia (invisible in valley below) from above the Cross

From the Cross, you can hike another two hours or so to the Koruldi Lakes, which are very very tiny lakes, glacial puddles of sorts, which sit in the shadow of the astounding Mt. Ushba. Alas, we only got fleeting glances of Ushba, as the clouds were hanging heavy, but we still had more than enough scenes of sheer mountainous glory to satiate all needs for pure, natural beauty.

Koruldi Lakes outside Mestia

And this overwhelming experience of sheer natural beauty was what made the experience so nourishing and relaxing, despite the knee-destroying declines and terrible sunburns (oh right, eight hours at nearly 3,000 meters means some serious sun exposure).  I think my city-slicker soul is also famished for landscapes that are untouched, or at least unperturbed, by human hands, and I’m counting on those few days hiking to sustain me until I can escape to somewhere terrifyingly beautiful again.

It ended up being a long eight hour hike, and later that evening when we descended back into town, we marveled that we hadn’t noticed how brutal the first hour of the hike was.  Its incredibly steep and a combination of dirt and gravel, so there’s a fair bit of scotching down the hill and hoping you don’t have to just descend entirely on your rear.  We kept marveling that we hadn’t realized how bad it was on the way up, but I chalk that up to a couple factors: going up is in a way much easier than going down, we also we naïve and had no idea how long the rough stretch would last for, and, lastly, we were coming off a fresh watermelon and hospitality high, so nothing is as challenging.

When we came back down, bedraggled, sweaty, and beat red (or past red, almost some horrifying purple), we were first greeted by a young local guy who was just sitting around with a  couple cowboys on the edge of town (horses are still a very common means of transport in Svaneti, we saw lots of men riding bareback in their graphic tees and converse, apparently taking care of business as usual).  This guy stood and waited for me to reach him when he greeted me in Georgia, “You tired?” “Oh yes.” “You speak Russian?” “Yes.” “You friend looks more tired than you.” “Yes, he is.” We chatted for another two minutes, then just stood there, looking at the Cross above us, at the fields alongside us.  “Well, congratulations, take care, all the best,” he said and we shook hands and went on our way. The Svan may be vicious when in battle, but their lovely when not.

A few moments later, I saw our friend with the watermelon, perked on the same pile of logs we’d seen him on that morning.  In a surge of triumph, I waved to him and shouted, “We made it!” in Russian.  He just stared, did a double take at my Crayola red self, and then ran to us, shaking our hands and congratulating us on our success.  One of his two friends from earlier materialized suddenly and said hello as well.  Honestly, it was almost just as nice to run into familiar faces as it was to hit almost level ground. Almost.

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An Introduction to Early Georgia

Svetitsikhoveli Church and Jvari Monastery (on the hill)

True story: The Georgians were the second people to convert as a nation to Christianity.  The Armenians narrowly beat them out for first place, but Georgians figured it out before the Romans or any of their Mediterranean neighbors, in 337 (and joined by the Ethopians shortly thereafter).

However, the story of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity begins with the life of Christ himself. The earliest sources about Georgia in the Christian age (The Georgian Chronicle, or the Life of Kartli) attest to Jews living in Mtskheta, the capital of what was then the kingdom of Western Georgia.  In 0 A.D. the Georgian Jews had quite a scare when they heard that Jerusalem was under siege by kings from Iran.  However, two years later, they found out the news had been a false alarm: the foreign kings who had left for Judea were not in fact invaders, but the Magi, bringing gifts to a Jewish child born of a virgin. Thirty years later, another messenger told this same Jewish community that this child of whom they had heard was in fact the “son of God” and that those who were “wise and faithful” should come to Jerusalem to see him. So two men from Mtskheta decided to embark on the arduous journey and arrived in Jerusalem on what is now known as Good Friday. Recognizing the crucified convict as the prophesied Messiah, they procured his robes (the ones for which the soldiers cast lots, if you know your NT) and brought them back to the town of Mtskheta in Georgia. [Interestingly, a few decades later, when the temple in Jerusalem was captured by the Romans, the Chronicle tells of a diaspora community of Jews settling in Mtskheta, including, according to legend, offspring of the infamous Barabbas. This is that last we hear about Christianity in Georgia until over two hundred years pass.]

According to historical records and the Chronicle, Georgia’s conversion to Christianity—spurred on by the conversion of King Mirian III in 334—took place in 337. While it may have been Mirian who officially decreed Christianity the state religion, the conversion of Georgia is attributed to Nino, a Cappodocian missionary woman who arrived in Kartli (part of modern Georgia) in 303.

Nino may have come from a prominent Christian family (some lineages link her to the Patriach of Jerusalem), or she may have been a much poorer orphan from some outpost of the Roman Empire (accounts different). In all accounts, she exhibited great piety from childhood and at an early age moved to Rome to live in a community of celibate women. While in Rome, some of these women decided to travel to Armenia to evangelize, having heard that Iberia (the greater area of ancient Armenia and Georgia) was the home to the tunic of Christ. Immediately after plans were made for the trip, Nino experienced a vision from the Virgin Mary, imploring her to travel to the Caucasus. (This motif of the Virgin and Nino as co-intercessors for Georgia has endured into the present day.)

However, upon arriving in Armenia, all but one of the thirty seven women were massacred by an Armenian king, who was enraged at not being able to take one of the virgins as his wife. During the massacre, Nino hid behind a barren shrub, and watched as the souls of her sisters rose into heaven. She asked God why she was being spared, and was answered that she would not be united with her fallen companions until she had cultivated the “great harvest” that awaited her in unchristianized lands. While she conversed with the Divine, the shrub she hid under burst into bloom, and Nino set out to find the Georgians.

Sources place Nino’s arrival in Georgia in 320, but it wasn’t for another seven years that Christianity would take root in the eastern Georgian kingdom. Once Nino had officially crossed out of the treacherous lands of Armenia and into Georgia, she sought out the Jewish community of whom she had heard. The Life of St. Nino relates that she was able to learn about the Georgian people and culture through the Jews, because she could speak Hebrew, but could not yet speak Georgian. It was through them that she witnessed the pagan festivals sponsored by the king, and it was with them that she sided when in her public rejection of the polytheism and sacrificial practices of the natives. While Nino would quickly begin manifesting miraculous powers (her prayers brought on storms, destroyed idols, she could raise huge wooden beams without touching them), she was primarily recognized for her healing powers. Most significantly, after repeatedly refusing to hold court with any royalty, she gave in and healed the Queen of Iberia, Nana, of a variety of ailments. Nana was astounded and impressed by Nino (they love reduplication) and converted to Christianity.

While Nino was rather quickly embraced by Nana, the king, Mirian, rejected Christianity and even persecuted the growing (but largely culturally isolated) community of Christians in his territory. Just for the sake of full historical disclosure, some say that King Mirian himself was not actually an ethnic Georgian (or Iberian), but an Iranian prince, who married into the Georgian elite in part of the Iranian struggle against the Roman empire (at this time Georgia was doing a very delicate balancing act between advancing kingdoms from the east and west).

Mirian’s conversion is reminiscent of the Pauline conversion: he went out hunting and was struck blind, and found himself suddenly alone and abandoned in the forest. In some accounts, he is not blind, but the sun itself is covered and the forest is pitch black. In a panic, Mirian prayed to all of his pagan kings, but to no avail. Finally, he prayed to “Nino’s God” of whom he had heard, and his sight was restored. After holding council with Nino and getting her advice on how proceed, Mirian sent a delegation to Constantine for permission to establish a church in Georgia.

But where to build the first church of the kingdom?  Here we return to the tunic that came as the first relic to Georgia…

Well, when the two travelers to Jerusalem returned to Georgia with the robes of Jesus, the sister of one of the travelers, Sidonia, came out and grabbed the robe.  She was so overwhelmed by the sacredness of the piece, that she died clutching it, and no one could wrest it from her arms.  And so, Sidonia was buried in Mtskheta with the robes pressed against her.  Above her grave grew an enormous cedar tree.  When Nino learned this, she decided they should fell this tree to use as the pillars of the first Georgian church.  However, after the tree was felled and six of the seven pillars hewn were stood upright for the foundation, no one could move the seventh pillar of wood.  It is said that Nino herself placed the pillar in the foundation, simply through prayer.  Hence, the name for this church is Svetitskhoveli, which means “Life-giving Pillar” (miraculous healing is also attributed to those who touch the pillar).

Svetitskhoveli Church (lifted from the internet so you can see it without scaffoldings!)

And it is in this church, dear readers, that I found myself just a few days ago.  It’s an incredible building, enormous even by modern standards, but really quite impressive when you consider that it was built in the 11th century (the 4th century church built by Nino was expanded on). I went there on a Sunday, and the place was teeming with young brides, decked out in classy white gowns, and their grooms were rocking the traditional Georgian costume of yore (though some, as you’ll see, did opt for the more contemporary option of suit and tie).

While Mtskheta is no longer the capital of Georgia (Tbilisi was deemed a more militarily advantageous location), its very much the capital of Georgian religion and remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  The churches are thus a collage of the past 1500 hundred years, with early medieval exteriors, and incredible interiors that reflect more than a few periods of artistic flourishing and centuries of disrepair.  The churches are all stone, with with a few surviving icons painted on the walls (most of the frescos are more recent, from the 18th-19th century) and then newer (post-Soviet) icons on wood hung on the walls.

Here is a really beautiful example of the fresco painting you’ll find inside:

Frescoes on Stone inside Svetitskhoveli Church

The church is also quite enormous, so there’s lots of room to just wander around and see beautiful things.  There were at least a couple hundred plus people in Svetitskhoveli while I was there–three or four wedding parties (some couples pacing in the wings for their big moment), families come to light candles, opportunists looking for tourists to give tours too, beggars, children, old people, you name it. Except not actually that many tourists, as I heard almost entirely only Georgian around me (let me rephrase, no international tourists).

Stone Relief in Svetitskhoveli, Note the Old Georgian!

What I was very surprised by is how diverse the age/gender presence is in churches.  Okay, I’ve only been to a few services, but Georgia doesn’t not seem to be your grandmothers’ Catholicos.  There are almost as many men as women, there are older men, younger men, there are trendy 20-something women, there are many, many babies (the Patriarch of Georgia is, like all Patriarchs, I think, very in favor of going forth and multiplying).  Hence, there were weddings, baptisms, blessings and regular old services happening while I was there.  There’s almost a sense of controlled chaos inside this church, as it seems like half a dozen sacraments are happening at once while a choreographed crowd of visitors weave between candle stands and icons amidst the singing and preaching and blessing.

Baptism, I presume?

Mtskheta actually has a couple of significant sights for the visitor interested in Orthodoxy, history, architecture or just plain sight seeing.  In addition to Svetitskhoveli Church, there is another smaller church called Samtavro and the Jvari Monastery, located on a hill above the city, which is also a major holy site for Georgians and provides a pretty stunning vista. Moreover, you can get to Mtskheta fairly easily from Tbilisi–just go to the Didube metro stop, a major hub for marshrutkas, the preferred form of public transport (basically minibuses with cheap fares and local routes), and wander around clueless until you see a minibus with “Mtskheta” handwritten on a poster in the window.

I found the bus after wandering through the bazaar surrounding the subway, but the bus was just pulling out and I hopped in at the last minute.  The driver said something to me and I had no idea what it was, so I confusedly told the driver that I spoke Georgian poorly and wanted to go to Mtsketa.  After pondering the onslaught of sound he’d unleashed on me, I realized that what he’d said was that there were no more seats in the bus, and that I would have to stand.  Of course, by now the marshrutka was already rumbling onto the road. So stand I did.  I awkwardly balanced in the aisle for a twenty five minute ride (wimpy pilgrim style!), until the driver stopped the bus to address me.

“chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv Mtskheta chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv  go chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv yes?”

“Um, I don’t understand.  I want Nino’s church.  Me, will go, no, went, no, be going, Nino’s church.  Yes, I want Nino’s church!”

“Are you going to the Jvari Monastery?”

“Yes!  I will going Jvari.  You go? I be on bus?” (I can never remember the word for stay/remain)

“No, of course I don’t go to the monastery. chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv.”

“Um, Russian?”

And in Russian we resolved that I should get out of the bus (at this point everyone was staring) and just walk to the churches. I had done remarkably little research before hitting up Mtskheta, so I wasn’t sure where everything was.  I saw a church though, and headed towards it.  As I was walking through the parking lot to the church grounds, a car stopped and a couple got out.  Then the guy reopened his door and grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the dashboard.  His lady companion lit into him–“Cigarettes?! Cigarettes?  For what do you need cigarettes on the grounds of a monastery?  Tell me!  Tell me!  What are you going to do with those cigarettes?  This is a church!  This is a monastery!”  And so I ascertained that I must be at Samtavro, a women’s monastary, and not Svetitskhoveli…

Samtavro is a large, beautiful church with a women’s monastery attached, which nevertheless seems a bit quaint when compared with the proportions of Svetitskhoveli around the corner.

Samtavro

St. Nino prayed on this site, so it’s also a popular pilgrimage destination, although I didn’t spot any wedding folks here and there were very few people inside the church itself.  There’s surely some traditional route for the wedding processions and I don’t know if little Samtavro made it.  Those who were visiting were generally most toned down too (no formal wear or photography) and seemed there to pray and light a candle in the tiny chapel where Nino once was.

In fact, there was a cemetery on the grounds, and I witnessed something I hadn’t seen before: there was the grave of a holy man, and people crowded around it to press their hands into the soil.  They took off their crosses and immersed them in the soil and people crowded around, waiting for a chance to dig their hands into the dirt that encased the body of a holy man.  When in Rome…I also placed my hands in and had a moment of silence, although I wasn’t quite sure what the protocol was, and felt slightly uncomfortable shoving my way towards a burial plot.  It also takes me much longer to decipher signs written in Georgian, especially when handwritten, so I couldn’t quite read anything that might have informed the moment.  But whatever, being awkward but present is basically what I’ve signed up for.

Venerating a grave in Samtavro

After wandering out of Samtavro, I went up to Jvari Monastery, which is a beautiful ancient building atop the hill outside Mtskheta and affords excellent views of the valley below and the scenic convergence of two rivers Aragvi and Mtkvari. Jvari was chosen by St. Nino as the sight for the church as there had been a pagan temple there, but in its place Nino planted a cross (the first cross in Georgia is said to have been woven out of vines by her hands).  The church itself is quite famous for its architectural design, it has what they call a tentraconch, and it became a model for the distinct style of Georgian churches even in the present day.

Scene from Jvari onto the town of Mtskheta

At Jvari, many more wedding couples were gathered, and a number of Russian (-speaking) tourists as well.  As you may have gathered above, I felt totally comfortably taking photos, what with the paparazzi style photography happening due to the weddings.

Young Love in Jvari

In fact, the chaotic feeling in the church made me feel incredible comfortable.  There was a sense that each had come to do his own thing, some alone, some in groups, and that to just wander around, or sit for a bit, or photograph, or look at icons was fine.  There were no scary babushkas regulating behavior, and even the monks seemed extra friendly (in my experience, monks normally are, but I don’t know enough to really make generalizations).  I was given a strange-ish tract that linked the Georgians to the Israelites, but as I haven’t yet gotten around to reading it all the way through, I’ll save that introduction for another time…

Jvari Monastery Grounds

On a practical travel note, the whole trip, from my front door and back again, took only about 4-4.5 hours, so I would highly recommend you check if out if you ever find yourself fortunate enough to be in Tbilisi.  Its an experience of Georgian culture and piety that you can savor without speaking of lick of the crazy language.  Chilly stone chapels, frescos, newlyweds shuffling about with monks, teenagers and dogs chilling under cypress trees overlooking ancient citadels.  Yes, well worth an afternoon.

* * * * *

Dorky Addendum to those interested:

While the Life of Kartli is presumed to have been written in the eighth century in Georgian, the earliest extant manuscripts are all Armenian translations. In general, the lack of surviving historical documentation about Georgia in Georgian leads to very patchy accounts of Georgian in the 4th-8th centuries.

Amidst the discussion of “Georgia’s” conversion, it is also important to note that the account related here is that of Eastern Georgia, and the Western Kingdom of Egresi was converted later (ca. 523). Moreover, despite linguistic and cultural similarities, these two kingdoms were not united politically until the eleventh century. Some karvelologists (is that what a scholar of Georgia is called?!) are confident that at no previous point in written history was there such unity between the East and the West, and that their autonomy from each other can be traced back to the “proto-Caucasian Bronze Age” The term “Sak’art’velo”–the name for the Republic of Georgia in Georgian–was coined as a term for the united state of these two kingdoms

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A Day in the Country

Two weeks ago I ventured on a community service trip to a small town a couple hours outside of Tbilisi.  I had heard about the trip through my roommate, who told me that he was going with a friend of his, and that they would be doing a clean-up with orphans.  He invited me along, only to then find out there was no room left in the trip.  But then he decided not to go, and there was an extra spot…so I went.  I didn’t really know anything about the trip, other than there would be  cleaning-up and orphans, and I only exchanged two text messages with the organizer before our 7:45am pick up downtown on Saturday.  I knew that I should wear work clothes and that we would be done around 10pm.  10pm?!  How much cleaning were these orphans going to be forced to do?  I slightly balked–especially since I knew no one on this trip, and wasn’t sure if this was the best way to spend my first jet-lag free Saturday in Tbilisi.  But then I thought about the orphans, and all the cleaning they were being forced to do, and I felt bad just bailing. So marched myself over early in the morn for a day of unknown adventures.

Now, the first lesson of living abroad is just going with the flow.  (Well, the very first lesson is to ascertain whether or not the water is potable…but still.)  I mean, there’s not much point in going abroad only to be like, “Well, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable getting into a minibus with a bunch of strangers and spending a day in the mountains.”  This will get you no where. Or will just lead to spending too much time online at home, which is already a weak point of mine.  So this whole day was born of the resolve to be the brave international traveler I wish I was.

I arrive at 7:45 and see two white minibuses, full of Georgians.  They seem a bit too old to really be categorized as orphans. I don’t even know what the coordinator looks like, so I call him and we walk around till we see each on our phones.  Nice guy, studied abroad in Massachusetts, explains that we’re driving about two hours to this town where the orphans live, and are only going to be cleaning up for a few hours.  Then in the afternoon, the men will play soccer.  Its unclear how us womenfolk will entertain ourselves.  Soccer was part of the plan because we can’t drive back until it’s dark, as otherwise it will be too hot in the minibus….oh…..right, not something I think about…

About forty five minutes later, everyone has actually shown up and we set off.  On the ride there, I chat with the fellow next to me, who works for some government ministry, and learn that this clean up project is co-hosted by a Georgian Green Coalition and the US State Department.  Zany.  When he learns that I currently study at the President’s Alma Mater (his president, Saakashvili, that is), he announces it enthusiastically to the bus.  Like four times.  Later, when asked where I study by the other Georgians, it took my like a minute to realize they were just messing with me, but I must say, I’m very glad they all had a sense of humor and were willing to bust out dry humor on the weird foreigner. All of them seemed pretty on the ball, students or young professionals working in the civic sector.

The ride was a little over two hours, and the majority of it was on roads that could–at best and only very generously–be described as “unpaved.”  At one point, the minibus did a full stop in the middle of our mountain road so that everyone could get out and smoke.  Afterall, it had been like an hour since we left, and not everyone was seated by a window.

We arrived a little after 10am in a small small town, which starts at the road level, and winds up a hill, centered around two roads.  There are no stores, gas stations, or any sort of commercial or business establishments.  We park near what apparently used to be a shop of sorts, but its completely abandoned (we’re talking no windowpanes; livestock in the buildings), as are all the other buildings around it.  In front of one dilapidated building, a playground rises from the weeds, and a handful of boys are playing on it.  When we unload, the boys ecstatically run to some of our members, who they know and whose arrival they’ve been waiting for.  The young men on the trip quickly hunker down to talk to their tiny friends and the rest of us just sort of lull about.

Former shop in Bediani now colonized by cows

Someone comes up to me and asks if I need to use the restroom.  I politely defer, but then am told this might be a pretty key opportunity, so I decide–another rule of international travel–to take the opportunity while it presents itself.  Surprisingly, we load back into the minibus and the driver takes us five minutes up the hill, to a house with a bathroom.  After we (a few ladies) have availed ourselves, we’re invited to drink tea on the porch and are served fresh cake to boot.  Wow. We hang out there for like twenty minutes.  The driver makes himself a sandwich.  It’s unclear if we might be holding things up, but Georgian’s rarely seem in a hurry so I roll with it.  Plus, it was stunning.

View from the porch of the bebathroomed home

We eventually return to the rest of the gang, and find that t-shirts (its not a community service trip if there’s not a free t-shirt!), garbage bags and gloves are being handed out.  We’re split into teams and start walking in various directions (mostly upwards), picking up trash as we go.  Main culprits: cigarette boxes, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic bags and too many diapers. We also found a partially disintegrated copy of something about Marx (in Russian) that was anti-Kant and a full set of men’s clothing (in no condition to save).  Despite my fears and a bit of false advertising, the orphans weren’t so much made to clean (they were all between 6-10), as they accompanied us as we cleaned.  When one of the more mischievous boys was introduced to me, and one of the older Georgians told him he could practice English with me.

“What is your name?” he said very seriously, with no intonation of a question, but pretty good pronunciation.  I answered.

“What is your name.” He repeated.  I repeated my answer, in my best most evenly paced English.

“What is your name.”  Now a couple Georgians chuckled and tried to explain to him that I had answered his question.  I told him in Georgian what my name was.  He looked at me very skeptically and then, thrusting the stick he was holding out to the side as a pointer, he said, “This is a dog.” Dramatic pause, the pointer stick swerves to the other side.”This is a cat.”

Then he tried to poke a hole in my garbage bag and run away.  But every twenty minutes or so he’d show up again, poking at my bag of cigarette butts and really dirty diapers, insisting, “What is your name!”

By 12:30 or 1 it was getting really hot, the ladies (and some men) were fading.  Which, seriously, was great.  After college, I’m (not entirely, but generally) afraid of young people community service, where intensity and self-righteousness drive you to do bigger, better, more ecologically just and physically exhausting things.  Not that good things shouldn’t done, but I’m down on the scenarios driven entirely by guilt or smugness…So I was kinda happy that after two hours of picking chocolate wrappers and socks out of underbrush, we were taking a break.

Lunch was assembled–about six different kinds of bread (hard bread! soft bread! bread with cheese in it! bread with pureed beans in it! sweet bread!) and some chicken and salami. There was lots of soda too, and I had one called “cream soda lemonade” (most non-cola soda here is actually, sneakily, dubbed “lemonade”).  Yeah, it tasted neither like cream soda nor lemonade, but I could actually feel my toes tingle as the sugar hit my system.  Dang!  People sat in clusters, the kids clammering to be by their favorite adults, especially the director of the orphanage.  I only just shook hands with him, but he exuded kindness and seriousness, and it was obvious that the kids were wild about him and really trusted him.  I think he is very very used to having a tiny person wrapped around his leg, looking for a little confirmation that everything is going to be okay. (Speaking of, if you are interested in learning more about this orphanage and their work, click here or here (the latter opens a pdf).  They’re doing pretty incredible work here and I’ve only heard good things about them.)

As lunch was finishing up, they announced that one car would be going back early to Tbilisi.  Oooooh…..I tried to suppress the instinct to bounce, but then I thought about the long afternoon of watching people play soccer and a hot minibus ride back in the dark.  I’d done my cleaning, it was 2pm, I could be in Tbilisi by 4pm and spend some time with new friends in town.  I’m not yet my ideal international good-sport.  Hence, I graciously offered to take one of the spots, and climbed into a silver Land Rover with four Georgian guys.  Three of these guys had not been in the minibus, they were all Green Party guys who had driven themselves here.  We loaded into the car, then waited for like twenty minutes for cigarettes to be smoked and goodbyes to be said.  It was a bit before they totally realized that I was some random American, but someone passed along the message.

Little did I know, the day was, in a way, just starting to take off.

Our drive was Zaza, an incredibly affable middle aged Georgian, who owned said Land Rover (remember what I said about Georgians and nice cars?!), smoked Pall Mall Ultraslims and struck me as someone who enjoyed life. He had a couple of CDs on hand, Spice Girls, Frank Sinatra, The Best of Smokie, and we/he decided to listen to Smokie, as it reminded Zaza of when he was young.  Zaza actually had pretty good English (people always say Georgians over 30 won’t speak English, but they don’t know Zaza), partially because he was an avid sportsman and watched English language hunting videos.  He knew the term “fly-fishing” as well as all kinds of birds and animals.  He recommends Babe Winkelmans’ Guide to Turkey Hunting, which, not that I didn’t believe him, does actually exist.  Apparently Babe and his wife are serious marksmen.

Driving at breakneck speeds, ducking potholes and barreling over branches (what else is a Land Rover for?), we chat in Georgian, English, and Russian against the backdrop of Smokie.  We also make a couple of stops, first for a photo shoot at a lookout, where some other Green Party folks are, and then later, closer to Tbilisi, where there’s a spring and we fill up our bottles with fresh water.  When we’re about 10-12 miles from Tbilisi, one of the guys asks me, in English, if I’m in a hurry.  No, not really, I reply.  Perfect, because we have to stop by Zaza’s country house before we get into the city.  There is talk in Georgian. Sure.  Whatever.  See second paragraph of this post.

We get to Zaza’s place and post up in his backyard.  He is putzing about.  Then the guys seems to be busying themselves with something.  I’m told to just chill, so I sit there, and occasionally eat mulberries with one of the other guys (yes, mulberry tree in the yard).  I notice that the fellows are now building a fire.  Hmmmm.  And heating up the shashlik sticks (three foot long metal kebab spears) in the fire.  And another car of (Green) people shows up.  Hmmm.

In the batch of new arrivals is a Georgian girl who yells out to me, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?!” And when I reply in the affirmative, we sit down and chat in German for quite a while.  She lived in Germany for a bit, loves German, loves speaking it.  In the secrecy of our Gothic tongue, I asked, so, what exactly is going on?  She told me that people had already left to buy food, we’d eat, hang out, and then drive into the city.  No, I reminded myself, I’m not in a hurry.  In fact, it was absolutely delightful just sitting in the shade, chatting, eating mulberries and watching men revisit their primal roots of fire-building.

How to describe the evening that ensued? Sheer loveliness.  Someone bought a giant bag of pork and we roasted it (ahem, the men roasted it, women aren’t even allowed close to the fire pit), ate a salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers that hadn’t even heard of genetic modification.  There were at least 15 liters of beer, but between the ten or twelve people, no one seems more than tipsy, although quite clearly a good time was had by all.  Hell, I didn’t even know exactly what anyone was saying half the time, and I still had fun.  Jokes were translated into Russian or German, and then I got to laugh a minute after everyone else, and generally people were a bit confused as to why I was there (i.e. with the Green party in the hills.  Or at Zaza’s place. Or why I was even in Georgia. Or studying Georgian).  But they showed nothing but great hospitality.  And the food was so delicious–I will confess, I’m one of those American white girls that tends to eat white meat, I cut the fat off my steak, etc etc.  But eating giant fists of pork seasoned in their own burnt fat–sheer happiness for the taste buds. It may be hard to go back.

The party wrapped up around 8 or so, and as we were loading into the cars to head back to the city, another car of vaguely affiliated Green people (the party had grown) stopped and insisted I hop in their car and go out for Georgian wine.  I pretty much never say no to wine, and especially Georgian wine.  So off we went, in a little car with the steering wheel on the right side (yes, they import right and left sided driver cars here!).  We zipped around the city and settled at a very classy wine bar on a main drag of the city, where we drank red wine, ate fruit and chilled.  Ancient Roman style, I imagine.  When we finally left around 10:30 or 11, I walked back home in the cool Tbilisi air and was very very very glad I decided to just run with things.  A Saturday well spent.

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