Category Archives: Sakartvelo! (aka Republic of Georgia)

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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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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On Trying to Learn Georgian: Part I

I have decided to grant myself a break from Georgian to write about Georgian. Don’t worry, there will be minimal grammar in this post, but as the overarching point of this extended (working) vacation is the Georgian language, it seems only appropriate that I try to get down some of my impressions of my first days of formal instruction.

I arrived two weeks ago yesterday, and as anticipated, enrolling in the semi-existent language program at Tbilisi State University was both easier and harder than expected. I had applied twice already, dutifully filling out the online application and writing to the various language coordinators who were listed as contacts on the website. Perhaps not surprising, I received no answer, so I actually arrived here with a rather vague sense of how my coursework would actually materialize.

On my second day in this great mountainous nation, I walked myself over to the department offices, which seem to be a scattered collection of rooms throughout Building Number Five of Ilia Javakhishvili State University, inhabited (exclusively?) by women between the age of twenty five and fifty. I presented myself in the main office and made clear my desire to become a committed student of the Georgian language.  In an feeble attempt to display my intended on-the-balledness, I told the woman there that I had written to a certain Rusiko D—-but did not yet have a contract with the university. “I am Rusiko D—-,” was the reply, and then she let me know that she was busy, and sent me upstairs to another room of younger Georgian women who were flipping through notebooks and languorously snacking on wafer cookies.

I think I plead my case well: I have four weeks in Tbilisi (my last four weeks will be otherwise engaged) and I want to take as many hours as possible, starting as soon as possible. I am willing to pay more since it’s the summer. I have experience. I can meet anywhere. I just want to start learning Georgian intensively. This garnered a series of mmm‘s and hmmmm‘s and then I was instructed to write down my email and phone number on a post-it. Two woman shook their heads and said, “We’re just too tired from the semester to teach right now” (fair enough, the aggressive lack of desire to teach anymore is something I can truly emphasize with). A third handed me her card and noncommittally sighed, “We’ll be in touch.” I walked out feeling like I may have just bombed a first date.

After a few days of no word, I wrote my business card contact and debated just contacting one of the many teachers that I knew were actually available. Many of the few expats I’d already met had an instructor, and I figured that no response from my official program was legitimate grounds for abandoning my fellowship stipulation of only enrolling at an accredited university. Afterall, I’m about the spirit, not the letter, of the law.

To my surprise, I got a response on Monday, and a slow chain of phone calls and emails led to setting me up with two instructors—one in the mornings, another in the evening. I had been outsourced by TSU to another language group that apparently had a bit more manpower.

After countless offers to just start soon, or next week, or “keep in touch” I managed to get a confirmed first class last week. And so it began.

Oh wait, so I actually have to speak Georgian?

For two hours we only spoke, and my morning teacher evaluated where I stood. For example, she asked me if I knew the numbers, and when I replied yes, said, “Okay, start.”

“One, two, three…” I gazed at her to see if she was convinced. She beckoned for me to continue. “Four, five, six….”

This went on till one hundred. Yeah, for about four minutes there was just the sounds of me counting, drawing in a deep breath at each multiple of ten. I paused around 55 and 80 to see if I was in the clear, but no such luck. When I stopped at one hundred, she looked at me and with the serene gaze of boredom, said, “Next?”

I could see that counting one by one to thousand probably lay in my future, so I just smiled and with the slightest intonation of guilt offered, “um, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, so on, one thousand.”

This garnered a very long hmm and then a brief silence before we moved on.

To be honest though, its great practice because Georgian numbers are obnoxious and sort of like French, so to say 77, you have to say three times twenty plus seventeen. Then, under the watchful gaze of a certain pedagogue named T’ea, three time twenty plus eighteen. And three times twenty plus nineteen. I’ll assume you’re seeing the pattern.

Despite having insisted that I had a background in the language, I was thoroughly vetted and, to be honest, found lacking at a few moments. Words that apparently made it into her list for beginning Georgian were totally unfamiliar to me or completely forgotten.  ‘Waterfall’, ‘radish’, all three forms of ‘cousin’ (options: deidashvili ‘child of the sister of my mother’ or mamidashvili ‘child of the sister of my father’ or bidzashvili ‘child of my uncle’) Okay, I should have remembered all the cousin words…but next:

“Backgammon”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know how is backgammon?”

Expression of shock and disapproval.

“No.”

Nardi.”

“Nardi”

“Yes, nardi, please, memorize this,  you must learn to speak Georgian.”

Isn’t that the truth.

And yet, nardi is a pretty innocent word, with the letters and length of any well-respecting English word.  This is not the case for what seems like at least half of the words in Georgian. Georgian is famous for its verbal system (more on that later) but the cognitive labyrinth of the verbs are twice removed from me by being dressed in sounds that actually make my tongue tired (and tied!). This is a language that love, love, loves it consonant clusters.

Mstzv-…

grdz-…

rtskhv-…

The moment you manage to spit out one cluster of tzkv‘s, you can barely draw enough air (oh the sweet oxygen of a vowel!) to tackle the next two in the world. Not to mention, there are a few different k-esque sounds that I recognize in writing (roughly transliterated to k, kh, q’ and x), but really can’t consistently produce with my own mouth. To this I am not accustomed.

Sure, I have an accent whenever I speak a foreign language, but I’m not talking about an accent here.  I’m talking about a real physical effort to figure out how to get my mouth to make Georgian sounds.  Especially when I need to, oh, let’s say, speak with more than one word at a time. (Can you tell I’m the ambitious type?)

For the first couple days (ahem, first weeks…okay, still happening…) the sounds of the Georgian language quite simply made me feel like my whole mouth is some ill-fitted prosthetic. Mnishvnelovani zrda ‘important development’.  Gasp for air. Msxlis tsveni ‘pear juice’. Even the most basic everyday terms aroused frustration.  I often felt/feel something verging on spite for my tongue trained only for the robust chewy sounds of English.

But you know what, its getting a lot better, even after just a couple days of classes. Even if my mouth is still some faltering prosthetic, my brain is picking up on the rhythms of the words. Spoken Georgian feels like less of a barrage of sound and much more like a composition of recognizable morphemes encased in an elaboarate and archaic costume.  But I am starting to see the shapes under the costume.  Every now and then, stuff almost makes sense.  I’ve also found that there are words I love.  Some of them Ryan mentioned in his post, others keep cropping up:  a parrot is a tutiq’ushi.  That just seems fitting. A frog is baq’aq’i. To make a toast (as in at a party, or a supra, the lengthy and highly ritualized Georgian feast) is literally “to extend the day.”

And of course, part of the fun of learning a new language is realizing how your language works. For example, a ‘holiday’ is dghesastsauli.  Breakdown of part: day + miracle.  And I loved that, as it both reminded me that our holidays are/were holy-days, but that miracle-days are even more worthy of being dubbed holidays! The word for ‘different, varied’ is sxvadasxva. Breakdown: other+and+other.  Being different is like between doubly other, so now I can actually remember this word with no delay. I could go on, but I have a strategy.  I’m only going to keep talking about this crazy language so I’m saving your patience with language examples for when I write an poignant post on Georgian verbs…

(P.S. I’ll also get around to posting pictures soon, if you couldn’t give a rip about my person language acquisition (legit position) but want to see an ancient Transcaucasian capital (so much more legit))

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So why learn Georgian?

I am in the midst of attempting to construct my own thoughtful essay on the art and experience of learning Georgian, but as I actually have to go cram Georgian now (typical Sunday night scenario and I haven’t done my homework yet…), I’m going to simply let you read a much more eloquent and concise account by someone who knows Georgian far better than I.

This piece was written by a friend who lives and works in Tbilisi and who exemplifies how the knowledge of the local language opens you up to a culture, to friendships, to a different world than the one experienced in translation.  A world I hope to one day visit, but until then, I’m taking his word for it.

Dedaena – Mother Tongue

“Gamarjoba!” the Georgian equivalent of “hi,” is probably one of the first Georgian words any foreigner arriving in Georgia will learn; for many, it will also be one of the only Georgian words they will learn during their stay. Ask anyone who has attempted to learn Georgian beyond the phrases provided in the guidebook, and you’ll get a simple answer: It’s hard.

And for Westerners, it is – Georgian does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages, its complex grammar allows for the formation of words that seem to stretch half-way across the page yet which contain so few vowels that you start to wonder if one has to be born with a Georgian tongue to attempt such linguistic gymnastics, and it contains sounds that some might describe as “alien.” But difficult as it may be, mastering the Georgian language to some degree is more than worth the hours of trying to memorize the conjugations of one irregular verb (and yes, there are many) in all its tenses.

Whenever foreigners living in Georgia get together, the topic of discussion at some point inevitably turns to the Georgian language. “Are you studying Georgian?” “How long have you been studying?” “Isn’t it hard?” When discussing studying Georgian with other expats, I am often disappointed to hear that someone has given up trying, or has decided to study Russian instead. Faced with the choice of either studying Georgian— and perhaps spending months before being able to hold a basic conversation—or studying the relatively easier and more useful Russian language, it is not surprising that many choose the latter.

But Georgia is actively trying to distance itself from Russia, for better or worse, and this includes the Russian language. The President of Georgia has made it a priority to make English the primary secondary language taught in Georgian schools, most notably inaugurating in 2010 the “Teach and Learn with Georgia” program which seeks to bring 1,000 native English speakers to teach in Georgia. As a result of this program and the general dominance of English language education in the last decade, today, you are more likely to find young Georgians fluent in English than in Russian. And if this trend continues, it is obvious that it will only be a matter of time before the Russian language becomes all but obsolete. While learning Russian may be more practical as a language spoken in most of the former Soviet Union, in Georgia, English is gradually replacing Russian as the primary language with which to communicate with foreigners.

Why then bother to learn Georgian at all? While every visitor to Georgia can attest to Georgia’s amazing hospitality and fascinating culture, I would argue that being able to communicate in Georgian allows the speaker to experience Georgia from a more intimate perspective that is ultimately richer and more rewarding. True, you could say the same about the benefits of learning any language, but what makes learning Georgian different is both the very fact that it is a difficult language that claims only a few million native speakers—and therefore, anyone who succeeds in achieving some level of fluency immediately gains special favor in the eyes of Georgians—and the fact that the Georgian language is so deeply intertwined with the Georgian identity. Beyond allowing one to communicate with everyday Georgians, a command of the Georgian language is the key to unlocking the soul of Georgia.

It is difficult to explain what I mean using the English language. But I can attempt to give a few examples of how the Georgian language is a window on the Georgian identity. The word for “pregnant,” for example is “orsuli” which combines the words “two” and “soul” – literally, “two-souled”; the Georgian word for “loyal” is “ertguli” and literally means “one-hearted.” Even that Georgian word for “hi” that all visitors learn –“gamarjoba” – tells us something about the Georgian spirit: it comes from the Georgian word for “victory.”

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Tbilisi: The City that Loves You

It was the airport doormat that relayed this to me, as, exhausted and elated, I hauled my summer possessions across the threshold from airport to city.  The doors parted and I looked down and saw “Tbilisi: The City that Loves You” and felt relieved, excited, and quite amused.  Afterall, whether or not I love Tbilisi is now less important, what with it already loving me (just the way I am?).

I had just spend the past thirty odd hours in transit, from an off license cab in Harlem, to the crowded clockwork of NJ transit, and then two international flights sandwiching an endless layover in Warsaw.  As my flight was landing at 3:50 am, I’d told my new roommate to expect me around 6am, having made my airport calculations based on NY rather than the ancient capital of the Caucasus, i.e. flight delays, endless passport control lines, crowded slow motion baggage terminals, long jaunt into the city center (all that in reference to the former). He’d told me to more realistically expect to be at the apartment by 4:40, and sure enough, we were shaking hands 100 meters from the apartment in from of a statue of Rustaveli by 4:30.  No complaints, either, I just has assumed that customs meant more than simply walking out of the baggage terminal and couldn’t believe my luggage had been waiting for me by the time I got there.  All together a pleasant surprise.  Not to mention that my cab driver showed just the friendliness I’d been told to expect of Georgians.  As Russian pop music played (chorus line about a broken heart in the hands of a Georgian beauty), he asked me about myself and why Tbilisi.  Once he heard that I was going to study Georgian, he switched into Georgian and we made introductions.  After successfully greeting each other and exclaiming we were “pleased to meet,” he switched back into Russian and said with full confidence, “Don’t worry, you’ll meet a Georgian man, he’ll marry you, you’ll buy an apartment here and have children and never ever leave Georgia.”  My cheerful, “well, we’ll see….” was rebuffed with, “No, don’t worry,” as if our entire conversation up to this point was merely some veiled cry for marriage on my part.  Friendly; into marraige.  Stereotypes, check, check.

Arriving at 4:30am in a strange city (now on day three of travel) is a strange way to go about things, especially for myself, since I’ve only done long term language programs under the panopticon of some Soviet university authority. (I know the Soviet Union ended.  That doesn’t not change the academic culture.)  My previous stays in St. Petersburg and Moscow had been micromanaged from arrival to departure, so just showing up and having no real commitments at 4:30 am was absolutely liberating. So when I woke around 2:30pm that same afternoon, I decided to walk around the city.  Of course, when I say I have no real commitments, that’s not exactly true.  This whole adventure is being funded by a government grant that requires that I have a certain number of hours of coursework, presumably from a particular institution.  Said instituition had not yet replied to any of my requests for instruction, and I felt no real need to rope myself into my formal education on my first day.  So I set out to walk around the city.

I actually live on one of the major thoroughfares of the city, which is great, because from most of the major landmarks on my side of the river (the river Mtkvari runs through Tbilisi) I can easily find my way back home.  At least so far. I set out eastwards, towards Independence Square (Tavisupalis Moedani) and then wandered the back streets before somehow popping out by the river and heading for the brand new pedestrian bridge that crosses the Mtkvari.

Tbilisi Pedestrian Bridge

Needless to say, it is not exactly consistent with the architecture of the city.  However, when I went on a walk the next day and availed myself of the underground passway below one of the regular beautomobiled roads, I realized that crossing the Mtkvari in a well lit, non-urinated environment is vastly more enjoyable that utilitzing the more classical feats of civic engineering.  Plus, at the opposing end of the pedestrian bridge is a semi-completed park, with fountains, modernist seating, blossoming flowers and vendors selling balloons and temporary tattoos (only option: butterflies).

It was around this pedestrian bridge that I made my first Georgian friend, as some guy tried to chat me up but then realized that he was not going to get very far in his mountainous language of polysynthetic crazy.  (The mountainous language of polysynthetic crazy–yes, that’s Georgian.  I’m pretty sure that’s actually exactly what linguists call it.  And don’t tell me I should be better at small talk in Georgian.  That’s why I’m here, because I am more of a reader than a talker, although, mind you, only really when it comes to Georgian.)

Anyway, I’d confused my new friend by both telling him that I didn’t know Georgian (way easier than explaining that I’ve studied it but only haltingly speak it and am hopeless under the influence of jetlag) and that I had only arrived yesterday, in order to learn Georgian.   He was like, “You arrived yesterday, and you already speak this much Georgian?” And I, then confused because I had said I arrived yesterday, but then in my head I realized I’d actually arrived at 4am this morning, was like, “ara, ara, ara” (no no no!).  I was not trying to debate my grasp of the world’s most basic Georgian.  Rather, I had just realized that simply because you fall asleep for the better part of the day, the afternoon still isn’t a new calendar day.  “I arrived today. Not yesterday, today.”  He looked so befuddled that I momentarily second-guessed how you say “yesterday” (gushin) and said “tomorrow” (khval)  instead.  Which didn’t help.  He was like “Tomorrow?” And I tried to recant–Oh no, friendly Georgian, I’m not a time traveler of American colonialization!  I just got flustered because I’d been happily daydreaming in English!  I have arrived neither yesterday nor tomorrow! Of course, I just said, “no, no, no, today.” I wanted to add that “I am certain of this!”, but then I couldn’t even remember how to say that. He still looked confused and asked me something I didn’t understand.  Which could have literally been anything other than, “How are you?” at that point.

Summary: Over the course of my longest ever conversation with someone who speaks Georgian but not English, we had established that I was from America, lived in New York, did not speak Georgian, and had arrived sometime within a three day time frame of the present moment.  I caved in and asked in Georgian, “Do you speak Russian?” “Of course,” he replied in Russian.  Elated, I then explained that I had definitely arrived today, for a two month stay, and dammit, I would be learning Georgian soon. We actually ended up talking for the better part of the afternoon, but mind you, it was all vanity.  I just wanted to establish that I really had not arrived tomorrow.

So for the record, I normally don’t actually indulge strange men in long conversations, I mean, unless I’m at a party or something (Sam-that’s how we met), but I had time to kill and I also wasn’t really sure how to shake this guy.  I mean, I literally had NOWHERE to be, and assumed I could subtly mention the BF at some point and then he’d just bounce on his own.  Not to sounds narcissistic either, but if some guy tries to pick you up out in public in the middle of the day, one assumes that its not because he wants to talk politics.

So we chatted and overall, I don’t know if he’s representative of the type of dude who chats up a lady on the streets of Tbilisi, but if so, Georgia probably has even more character than I thought.  First the guy insists I read Limonov,  a Russian-French intellectual and dissident writer, with whom I was familiar but who I’d never read.  “I’ll give you my copy!” He insists, “it will make you rethink the Yugoslavia war.”  !  Ends up he’s also a huge fan of Hemingway and seemed to be truly disappointed in that I only vaguely remembered Green Hills of Africa, which I’m pretty sure I read in high school…More bizarrely, we had both finished reading “Ali and Nino” this past week (I’ll be posting on that later!), which is a love story written in the 1930’s about a romance between a Georgian (Christian) woman and an Azeri (Muslim) man during the Bolshevik revolution.  My friend proudly told me that he has an Azeri friend himself, a Muslim, as would be expected, and that he’s known many cunning Armenians, just like in the book.  The only Armenians I ever knew went to my bougie liberal arts college and had never really struck me as all that sly, but then maybe I just didn’t know to look out for it then.

At some point, after I’ve established that I’m not looking for a man and that I even have one, he looks at me very seriously, and says, “You should think about leaving your boyfriend (paren) for a Georgian man.  He would marry you.  What do you think?  Would you like to do that?”  Holla, I’m in the country twelve hours, only awake for about three and the taxi cab drivers’ premonitions are true.  Except that I don’t say yes.  I do tell him I’ll email him though, because he was so sweet, and seemed desparate to talk about literature with someone.  He told me that most girls don’t read and that only 17% of Georgians care about books.  I have no idea where he came up with that number, but you just can’t point-blank shoot down a man who loves literature (at least not according to my own personal manual for how to navigate awkward international conversations).

Finally, as we were parting ways, he apologized for disturbing my whole evening.  I counter-apologized, insisting he’d probably had somewhere to go (politely ignoring that he started this whole thing).  He was like, “Well, yes, but its embarrassing…” And then proceeded to tell me he had been on his way to court for getting into a bar fight.  He got a bit impassioned retelling the story, constantly switching into Georgian and then half translating back into Russian.  Insisting that he is not a violent person, simply a man of honor who responds to an offense (men-all the same), all I could gather was that there was a nightclub and some jerk,  who he called a “something something pioneer” (an upstanding communist scout under socialism) and hadn’t thought that that would elicit a punch.  Which it did.  And then somehow there were cops, gunshots (from cops).  He’d run screaming “Help me!!” to an old man across with way with a car, but this particular old man was a Russian and didn’t know what was being shouted at him.  The assumption seemed to be that had it been a Georgian, they would have dropped their evening plans to make a getaway.  As this was not the case, an arrest ensued (“Most people sleeping in prisons are just normal people, I know that now!”), and finally a hearing (or something) which he’d just missed.  We both shrugged, and in total honesty (from close, but not personal experience–you know who you are), I concluded, “it happens.” And I wished him good luck.  I don’t think I’ll run away to Svaneti with him, but I’m glad he didn’t get shot.

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