A Spotty Introduction to Tbilisi

Tbilisi from one side of the river

I actually knew remarkably little about Tbilisi before I got here.  (If this is the case for you, click here. Or for more on tourism, less on history, here) What I did know what pretty basic.  Crossroads of East meets West, mountainous, inexpensive, somewhat lacking infrastructure, full of delicious food and cheap produce, friendly and gorgeous people, Orthodox. Yeah, that’s probably about it.  I didn’t picture it in my mind’s eye, and I wasn’t sure if I was really going to fall in love with it the way that people warned I would (“there’s no going back!” they say).

Well, Tbilisi is all those general things I came here expecting.  And, of course, quite a bit more. I could actually see myself living here for a bit.  A year, maybe more. It’s better and more livable than I anticipated.  There are also a few things that I expected to see when I got here, that I hadn’t even realized I was expecting, until this city proved me wrong.

Disclaimer: Its mildly ridiculous to give sweeping observations after only two weeks somewhere.  That has, obviously, never stopped me.  Just take everything with a grain of salt.

What I subconsciously thought I’d see but actually haven’t see:

Drunks. Let’s be honest,  any major city has drunk people.  A city with high unemployment, rapidly rising costs of living and easily accessible, cheap alcohol seems like alcoholism could pose some threat.  Maybe it does, but not on the streets.  I’m told there is definitely alcohol abuse within the down-and-out sector of society (and apparently there are guys curled up with bottles somewhere down by the river) but I have never seen them. Moreover, even on a weekend night, you don’t see regular old employed drunks.  People are just behaved.  I mentioned this to one of my teachers and she said, “Its shameful for a man to drink on the street.  We drink in our homes.  Or at a restaurant.  With our family and friends.  But you don’t get drunk, and you don’t drink on the street.  Such a thing would be shameful.” There you have it.

Wild dogs.  Some parts of the world just have lots of stray or feral dogs.  There were parts of the Moscow State University campus that literally felt 28 Days Later-esque because there were so many feral dogs everywhere. They were not friendly. They were feral.  I only once saw stray dogs here, early early in the morning, in one of the city plazas, but otherwise they must all hide from the commotion or go up the hills to find nice cool shady places to undomesticate themselves.

And, well Tbilisi won me over with it’s lack of a certain post-Soviet edge but there are, of course, still things I hadn’t really expected that are very common here:

Gypsies. Dang, there are a lot of gypsies here.  And what’s most striking is that there are a lot of gypsy kids out and about.  The saddest evidence of this are the tiny gypsy children that are set out (or sets themselves out?) on a mat on the sidewalk and just lay there all day with a little tin bowl for change.  Sometimes you see two or three years olds napping on the ground, holding a little card with an icon on it.  Tiny bodies curled up with dirt-black feet and palms, apparently oblivious to all the people walking by.  Sometimes if they’re awake they play with their hair or unravel corners of their mats. Otherwise they just tend to be sleeping.  The other day I saw a big crowd around a carpet mat and thought it would be my first sight of a gypsy kid doing sad spectacle for money.  But no, it was just a little kid laying in fetal position, surrounded by Japanese tourists taking pictures.

CRAZY Driving.  The drivers here are insane.  We’re talking breakneck speeds, no turn signals, mild regard for traffic lights.  The other day there was a power outage so none of the traffic lights were working.  For lack of an alternative I suppose, cars were whizzing into the speeding traffic to make life-threatening left hand turns and even a few U-turns.  It’s some combination of Manhattan speed, Connecticut idiocy (most driving impaired state in the Union) and the Caucasian tossing-of-caution-to-the-wind.  Not to be trifled with!

Nonexistent dating culture. So I knew that Georgia was “patriachial” “old fashioned” “religious”.  I half thought that this was just in comparison to their trashy neighbor to the north (ahem, Mother Russia), where dating is done in bulk and with an eye for the best short term returns.  I way underestimated the “traditionalism” of dating. In fact, the dating doesn’t seem to exist at all.  People seem to meet when they’re very young and quickly get married, often moving from one set of parents in with another.  There’s not really a word for dating in Georgian, and the only way you can even say boyfriend or girlfriend is to use English or Russian.  When my teacher asked me who I would be traveling with in August, I said, “My friend” but then attempted to explain in Georgian that is was my “male friend, um, like, MY friend, my special friend.”  She stared at me so I said, “moi paren (russian: my boyfriend), chemi boiprendi (Georgian version of BF, as they don’t have the “f” sound).”  My teacher just shook her head and said, “No, we don’t have those.”  “Right, but I do have that.” “No, you don’t.  It isn’t possible here.”  Before I could explain that my existentially impossible boyfriend wasn’t Georgian, and hence existed in my mother tongue, she explained–like so many others have in the past few weeks–that there is no such thing is boyfriend in Georgia(n), only friends or husbands.  In fact, the leap from one to the next is very fast too, anecdotally I’ve been told a handful of dates is enough to get that ring on your finger.  But then, surprisingly, this middle aged, fairly religious woman looked at me and said, “You know, in your country people can live together before they are married.  I think this is a very good institution.  We have no such thing in Georgia. This is why people get divorced.”  I never thought of co-habitation as an institution, but I guess in a culture where all intersex relationships are highly socially regulated, its a fair assessment from her point of view.  I won’t even touch the divorce/cohabitation/marriage question, but I’m glad that I didn’t end up marrying whoever I had a crush on when I was 17. Dang.

Prices: pretty sweet, but only for me. I knew Georgia would be cheap.  And it is.  But its not that cheap, when you think about the actual cost of living for Georgians.  A liter of milk is around 2 dollars.  That’s more than in the states.  A kilo of cherries is also only 2 dollars (in season), and two mile cab ride could cost you from 1.50 to 3 bucks (yes!  you get to name the price to your driver before you set out).  But for a people who make (according to various estimates) under 5,000/year, nothing is really that cheap.  Cigarettes range from 1-2 dollars a pack, a cheap bottle of wine puts you back 5 bucks.  But it you actually make 2-3 dollars an hour, then that’s really really expensive.

Which leads me to the next strange observation: Fancy cars.  Dang, there are some fancy cars here!  How is a city with an average per capita income of $4,800 rocking so many Benz and Mercedes?  There’s a Jag convertible parked near my house most days.  I’ve seen Lexus SUVs.  Many an ex-pat has marveled at this, and apparently Georgians keep a tight lip about how these cars are acquired.  Top theories: they’re the product of the car theft industry that starts in Russia and gets hussled through Ossetia (now less of an option).  Or, they’re bought with the profits from arms dealing, supplied by the US and siphoned off to the eastern lands of conflict.  Classy.

(LATER ADDITION) Gambling.  Apparently the chances of not getting completely hosed by the house are minutely better in Georgia, so it’s a gambling hub of sorts.  Veh, veh, veh. I truly abhor casino gambling.  I don’t know why it provokes an actual visceral reaction in me, but it does.  Alas, Tbilisi also offers 24 pawn shops of sorts where you can not only trade in your watch or wedding band, but the deed to your house or your car.  At any hour. Instantly.  I’ll be totally honest here, I’m hoping that if there’s any advantage to having a strong arm, culture-controlling government, maybe that will include cracking down on making it incredible easy to lose everything you own on a middle of the night whim.

On a happier note (bygone hobbies are better than contemporary gambling, no?), a Sunday walk about town lead to discovering an abandoned bike racing track across the river.  So I’ll leave you with this image of forgone pasttime…

Entrance to the Racetrack

Bike Track Hidden Behind Houses on a Quiet Tbilisi Street

Bike Track Continued

Seats of Yore

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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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Addendum

I believe that we’re very close to the actual day commemorating the Georgian language–yes, the Georgian language is celebrated on the liturgical calendar along with saints, martyrs and feasts.  Please, someone correct me if I’m totally off with this…. (as to either the day or the whole notion that Georgian gets a day on the calendar.  I think it was commemorated beginning with the fall of the Soviet Union though, which makes sense in its own way)  I can’t find a source stating what the day is, but I know that it fell on Lazarus Saturday a few years ago….

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Hallo, Sakartvelo!

I apologize, to those of you who still sporadically check this blog, that I basically never write.  My life is a whirl of grading and frantically skimming Russian lit and way to many contact hours with students and professors.

It will all end in two short weeks.

In the meantime, I have exciting news.  I’m going to the Republic of Georgia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_%28country%29) this summer, for a two month-ish jaunt to learn to language and travel about, eating, drinking, and speaking in only consonants.

I’ve been taking Georgian for two years now, but, I often feel that I’ve made as much progress with Georgian as Koko the gorilla has with English syntax…(that means disappointingly not enough…)

Anyway, although I have regular classes in Georgian, I decided to up the ante in prep for summer travel and started reviewing basics using a Georgian grammar book  that the boyfriend had (he is actually the type of guy who just has grammars of Caucasian languages lying around….).

The book isn’t great, helpful enough, but a pedagogical nightmare.  If you’ve ever used language learning text books, you’re familiar with all the types of exercises books have—fill in the blanks, short dialogues, simple translations, MAYBE a very easy crossword.  This book has word jumbles.  Yup—scrambled collections of letters you’re supposed to turn into grammatical phrases.  By the second lesson.  Can you imagine if you were two lessons into learning English and you were given an exercise such as

1. eghsietsnestrgar ( solution: the grass is green)

Anyway, the real gem of this book is the reference section in the back for those traveling to Georgia.  Now, the book was published in the 1990’s, but clearly exhibits a Soviet vibe, as the author studied Georgian almost entirely while Georgia was under the Soviet yoke.

The book is nearly 500 pages long, but only has about 6-7 pages of phrases.   Highlights include (organized by “scenario”):

“On the street”:

What did that lad say?

–  He’s asking for a match.

Are you a believer?

–  No, I don’t believe in God. (no alternative answer is supplied!)

I’ve amassed a mountain of washing.

(Immediately followed by:)

They will arrest that couple and lock them up separately from each other.

I’ve apparently got a splinter in my finger.

X’s life hangs by a thread

Why did you give that child a slap? [why indeed????]

Is left-handedness a common phenomenon in Transcaucasia?

– I haven’t a clue.

What have we got left to be proud of?

– We can at least take pride in our history

You’ve apparently got soaked in the rain. (seems a bit obnoxious, but what do I know…)

“In the restaurant”:

I don’t fancy tripe today [no other food options included]

God, what shall we do if she’s been poisoned by this sour cream?

A fish-bone apparently got stuck in her throat.

“At the Doctor’s”:

Don’t hasten the end of my life for me!

Willingly or unwillingly you will swallow this pill!

“Customs/Documents”:

Nothing will be left unnoticed by them [oh Soviet border guards…]

Don’t poke you’re nose into my business! (Does that work with customs officials??)

Yup, I can see that with a little bit more study, I’ll be prepared for Gulag-interrogations, sinister medical professionals and the constant threat of death by sour cream….

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More Snippets from the Paterikon

Continued from where I left off a few days ago…

(i.e., from Maya Kucherskaya’s 2006 publication, A Contemporary Paterikon)

17. After the other monks had finished eating and he had fulfilled all his duties in the refectory, Monk Ambrosij sat down at the table and reached into the hiding spot for his ice cream sandwiches.   He began to devour them one after another.

At that very moment another monk came into the refectory and say how his brother was busy eating ice cream sandwiches.

“Forgive me, father, that I’m reminding you of this,” the monk said, as he came in, ”but today is a strict fast day, what with tomorrow being Christmas Eve.”

Father Ambrosij lifted his eyes in amazement at the speaker and threw up.

18. Brother Anthony grew bored and decided to get married.  “I’m going to get married!” he told the brothers.  Out of love for him, the brothers didn’t want to release him out into the sinful world and so they resolved to set out with him, that they might thrown their own lots in with his.  The elder was away at the moment, gone to an ecumenical conference, and there was no one from whom to seek advice.

The monks assembled themselves at the front gates and crossed themselves in front of the church as a farewell when suddenly the elder walked through the garden gate. He’d returned from the conference.

“Bless us, our father, for the last time—we’re going out into the world to get married!” the brothers told him, weeping.

“God bless you, my children, but really…” The elder faltered.

“What is it?  Tell us!”

“Women—they’re so…!”

At that moment the monks scattered to their cells.

19.  A certain brother fell into temptation and, having found his elder, told him, “Father, I understand that there is no God, and I’m leaving the monastery.”

The elder wept and, through his tears, he answered, “My child, oh my child!  You don’t understand anything at all!  Go wherever you wish.”

The monk stayed after all.

20. A brother went to Abba Averkij and said to him,

“I’m so lazy that it’s very hard for me to get up and perform my acts of obedience.   Every day it’s like hard labor for me and I feel like very soon I’m simply going to burst from work and self-restraint.”

The Abba answered, “If it’s that difficult for you to go to work, then just don’t go.  Stay in your cell and loudly lament your own laziness.  Then wail even louder!  You’ll see that when you weep that loudly, no one will make you do anything at all.”

21.  It was said of Abba Averkij that he often stumbled into the wall and various objects, hence he had many bruises on his body and even on his face; all this because his mind was occupied with contemplation.

…..

23. A certain brother was deeply sorrowful and lamented to Father Paxomij.

“My father! Every night I am tormented by demons.  As soon as I lay down to sleep and close my eyes, I immediately crave chicken! Roasted, with a crispy skin, surrounded by golden potatoes and dill.  Or not even chicken, just some fish.  Finnish red fish with white bread and butter.  Or when I get up to pray, and I could just kill for a smoke, I could suck down a whole cigarette.  Or gulp down a glass of wine.  It seems to me that the whole force of hell, every last demon draws his arms against me…”

“Brother!” the elder answered, chuckling, “what kind of force of hell is that?  Which demons?  The demons tormented the ancient fathers, the hermits, the pious and the saints.  But as for us…The devil would be frittering away his energies on us.  It’s not demons.  It’s just your desires.  In order to conquer them you don’t need any such great feats.  You don’t even need to be a monk.”

“What does one need, honest father?”

“Will power, your own personal will power.  In order to build this up, every morning do ten push-ups and take a cold shower.   Stick to this.”

“And the Jesus Prayer? And full prostrations?”

But the elder would no longer respond to any of his inquiries. He said that he just didn’t have anymore time to talk.

……

29.  An Angel appeared to a certain monk.

“Angel?” stammered the monk in astonishment.

“Angel,” answered the Angel.

“What if you’re not really here, if you’re just shamming?” The monk trembled and crossed himself. “What if you’re just a white bird?”

“What’s wrong with you?!  I’m really here.  If you’d like, you can touch me,” and with that, the Angel stretched out to him a shining wing.

The monk wanted to touch it but, instead of feeling feathers, his palms felt only air—the wings were indeed genuinely angelic!

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