Thursday, July 25, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (5)--When in Udabno

When in Udabno, discerning diners can be found at the Oasis Club Restaurant Bar, the town's finest establishment.

I couldn't resist a little travel guide silliness, but lunch in Udabno turned out to be one of the highlights of my recent time in the Republic of Georgia.
The day began at Mtskheta, visiting Svetitskhoveli Cathedral early on, planning to push on to Davit Gareja during the middle of the day and reach Sighnaghi before nightfall--an ambitious schedule given the general state of Georgian roads.  I have been to Davit Gareja monastery twice before, but was anxious to return again.

St. Davit, one of the thirteen Syrian Fathers, founded the monastic complex in the 6th-Century, and the institution has loomed large in Georgian history ever since.  In a country chock-a-block with holy sites, Davit Gareja occupies a special place.  On Pascha, in 1615, Shah Abbas of Persia ordered thousands of monks beheaded at Davit Gareja.  The Soviets shut it down in 1921 and were using it for target practice in 1987.  The authorities relented after widespread student demonstrations (as noted in a previous post, the modern story of Georgian Orthodoxy is largely that of the young.)  The Georgian government tried to do the same thing again in 1997, but were once more stopped by student protestors.  The site is an active monastic center today. 
The monastery perches on a ridge in the far southeastern corner of Georgia, actually on the Azeri border.  In my estimation, the landscape very much resembles eastern Wyoming or Montana--grasslands as far as one can see on these broad, rolling hills.  Hay is being baled in some of the fields, and other hillsides Georgian cowboys herd their cattle.  In the immediate vicinity of Davit Gareja, the countryside takes on an almost surreal look, with the hills suddenly peaking into jagged, rocky escarpments.  Going by bus, it takes about an hour and a half to reach the monastery once you turn off the main road at Sagarejo.

The first 70% of the distance can be covered in about half the time, as the road becomes more problematic past Udabno (which means, quite literally "desert".)  This is the only settlement between Sagarelo and Davit Gareja, and a more improbable one would be hard to imagine.

The residents of Udabno are ethnically Svan, from a village in the High Caucasus in the opposite corner of the country--a region as completely at variance with these wide open Kakhetian vistas as one could imagine.  Several decades ago, a landslide swept away a mountain village.  In true Soviet style, the authorities transported these villagers en masse across the country to this location.  Here the government did what the bureaucrats knew to do--they erected a model town, one concrete block house after another, located 20 kilometers past the middle of nowhere.

Udabno is a pretty dismal looking place.  Those who have had the wherewithal to go elsewhere have apparently done so.  The shells of abandoned houses litter the outskirts of  Udabno, resembling nothing so much as perhaps a movie set for Hollywood's latest post-apocalyptic thriller.

A young Polish couple, noting a steady stream of vehicles making the trek back and forth to Davit Gareja saw something else--opportunity.  The took one of the abandoned shells and slapped on a coat of white, green and blue paint.  That, plus a little electricity, a freezer, stove and beer tap, and  some crates and boxes for tables and chairs, and voila, the Oasis Club Restaurant Cafe. 

This was our fifth day into Georgia, and the food seemed to just get better and better the further we went.  All the staples were in place--bread, tomato and cucumber salad, eggplant dishes, khachapuri, the cheese plate, watermelon, tarragon soda, draft beer, more khachapuri, etc.  

Several additional items, however, launched this particular feast to the top of my list.  First, there was the Udabno cheese.  Georgia is known for its regional cheeses, and every meal contained a plate of three to four varieties.  The local Udabno cheese was the best of the lot.  I think I would return, if only for the cheese.  Next, there was the bowl of ratatouille (pictured here.)  Oh man, it was wonderful.  Then our hosts presented us with the kubdari, a Svan dish.  This looked like the ubiquitous khachapuri (cheese bread), but wonder of wonders, it was filled with meat!  Any traditional culture that is worth its salt will have a meat pie, and kubdari is the Georgian version.    

We finished off our feast by relaxing with some ice cream, as well as some lattes and iced coffees.  Soso found time for a game or two of backgammon in the inside dining room.  Cathleen worked on commandeering some of the special "Svantian salt."  I am no "foodie," but some meals stand out in my mind.  Sitting on a crate at the back of the Oasis Club Restaurant Cafe will not soon be forgotten.

At the time of our departure, the road was stacking-up with customers coming back from Davit Gareja.  Our hosts scurried around to tend to everyone, and suggested we stop on our return and settle-up then.  Try doing something like that in the good old USA. We did stop and pay our tab on the way back.  At that time, the electricity had gone out.  Perhaps a generator should be the next capital improvement at the Oasis Club Restaurant Cafe.  We wouldn't want the beer to go warm.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (4)--The State of Orthodoxy in Georgia

Gelati Cathedral, near Kutaisi, Georgia

     Over the course of eleven days in Georgia, I visited twenty-two different Orthodox churches (as well as one synagogue.)  Only four  were in Tbilisi, the rest scattered all around the country.  Based on my observations, I will venture some tentative conclusions about the health of Georgian Orthodoxy.

     The nature of Orthodox worship makes it difficult to talk in terms of real numbers.  Hard figures are easier to come by in American Protestantism where membership rolls are generally maintained, and attendance taken during Sunday School and/or worship.  Orthodoxy just does not work that way, even in the U.S., much less traditional Orthodox countries.  Projected numbers in American Orthodox jurisdictions came in for some well-deserved criticism several years ago.  The OCA's figures proved especially egregious.    

     American Orthodox--perhaps looking for encouragement and validation from the Old World--sometimes view these traditional Orthodox cultures with rose-colored glasses.  And so, we should be clear-eyed about any claims of Orthodox ascendancy elsewhere.  Reports of the growing churches of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the explosive growth among the Mayans of Guatemala and southern Mexico appear genuine (Guatemala is now the largest per capita Orthodox country in the Western Hemisphere.)  A recent headline proclaiming Orthodoxy the fastest-growing religion in Ireland, however, is easily shot down.  Yes, there are 45,000 Orthodox Christians in that country, four times the number in 2002.  That is good news, to be sure, but a break-down of the numbers reveal that 26% are Romanian, 12.6% are Latvian, etc.  Only 20% (9,000) are native-born.  And Muslims in Ireland number 49,000.  When native-born Orthodox Irish outnumber the Muslims, then that will be news.  Most everyone agrees that the Russian church has undergone a remarkable revival in the post-Communist years, yet the number of actual church-goers is paltry relative to the total population.  That observation holds for Balkan Orthodoxy, as well.

     Georgia is often touted (rightly, I believe) as the exception to this pattern.  Indeed, I would contend that the Georgian model is perhaps the most robust expression of the Faith today.   One should keep in mind that the Orthodox Church here has always been a bit different, and for lack of a better word, Georgia-centric.  The church venerates a host of saints representing 1,900 years of their Christian witness, who are largely unknown to the Orthodox outside of Georgia.  The church has never been just an extension of Constantinople or Moscow, but has instead looked to Jerusalem (and Syria.)  And it seems that Georgian Orthodoxy-even from its founding narratives-has maintained a fascinating connection with Judaism.

     The revival of Orthodoxy here is nothing short of remarkable.  In 1917, 2,455 working churches exised in the country.  By the latter Soviet years, only 80 survived.  Today there are 1,700 Georgian priests and new church construction is evident across the country.  Ilia II, the Patriarch since 1977, remains the most beloved and respected figure in the country.  And yet, a few cautionary words are in order.  Communism failed as an economic system, yet was very successful, over several generations, in changing the natural order of things.  Merab Mamardashvili wrote the following in 1995:

I used to think that, as the Georgians loved life, had a sense of humor, managed to preserve their heart and ancient chivalry and had thus remained individualists, sceptics etc, they could not be fully enslaved...I came back and found this was an illusion, that the process of mental, spiritual, verbal degradation had gone too far.

Hopefully Mamardashvili's gloomy prognostication from the dark days of 1995 has not proved to be absolutely correct.  But for those who were born and came of age during the Soviet years, any return to Orthodoxy has been more problematic.  For many, the icons may be back up upon the walls at home, but little more.  I am currently reading Donald Rayfield's excellent and much-needed history, Edge of Empires.  I scanned the ending chapters first--the short-lived Republic of 1918, the Soviet annexation, the years of occupation, and the troubled transition to "democracy."   This compelling account of 75 years of brutality and gangsterism leads one to wonder how much of anything survived at all (and it must be noted, that the violence was more often Georgian against Georgian, rather than Soviet Russian against Georgian.)   Within this context, the ambivalence of some older Georgians to the Church is understandable. 

     And admittedly, most of the Georgian churches I visited were pilgrimage destinations, the historic churches and monasteries that have great meaning to the country's history.  My impression of the state of the Faith would be more balanced, for example, if I I had visited a church out among the Soviet-era block apartments in the Tbilisi suburbs, rather than the great churches of the old city.  

    That said,  twenty-two churches later, I left Georgia with a clear and consistent image of Georgian Orthodoxy.  With perhaps one exception--Ikalto--every church we visited, no matter which day, was alive with people.  The churches there are not the empty museum pieces you find in western Europe (as well as in Italy, I am told).  Priests, monks, and/or nuns are in evidence throughout.  We never really had a church to ourselves, but were merely one more group in the stream of pilgrims and regular worshippers wherever we went.  The candles never went out.  For Vespers and Divine Liturgy, the churches often had to spill out into their courtyards--not only at Sioni in Tbilisi, but at Gelati in Kutaisi.  Now at first glance, those milling about the outside of the churches might not appear to be worshippers at all, given that they may be chatting or talking on their cellphones.  But watch them, and before long they will filter back into the church.  In some ways, Georgian worship appears a bit more casual natural than that to which we are accustomed, with more movement and general milling about.  As was explained to me, Georgians believes that whenever they are in the church they should be prayerful.  If they find themselves in not so prayerful a state of mind, they may step outside for a bit until they feel it is appropriate to return.  In Sioni on Sunday morning, the atmosphere could only be described as a crush of people.  The same applied for Anchiskhati and Sameba. 

     But here is the most important point that I have been building up to.  The churches were overwhelmingly comprised of young people--teenagers, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings.  The priests, monks and nuns were equally youthful, it seemed to me.  Certainly there were the grandparents in attendance, but for the most part the Georgian Orthodox Church seems to be the church of the young.  Now, my contacts assure me that plenty of youth are not the least interested in religion at all, nor do I know the percentage of the total youth demographic that these worshippers represent.  But it really does not matter, for enough of a critical mass is in place to ensure a vigorous future.  A recent BBC article notes that while "over 80% of Georgia's 4.5 million people say they belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church...only about 15%-25% actively participate in rituals."  So, in one sense, Georgia is broadly culturally Orthodox, in the same manner as Greece, the Balkans and Russia.  But when you think about it--especially considering Georgia's three generations of Communism--the figure of 25% who "actively participate" is actually pretty darn good for the 21st-Century.

     One can hardly over-emphasize the role of His Holiness and Beatitude Ilia II in the revival of Georgian Orthodoxy.  He has wisely guided the Church through the minefield of late Soviet and post Soviet Georgian politics, generally avoiding public stances on contentious issues other than to encourage restraint and prayer.  One of our tour members knew a Georgian-American who knew someone who worked in the Patriarchate.  Through these connections, we received permission to visit the Patriarch on the last night of our stay.   The main building of the compound is a long three-story structure facing a busy street hugging the west shoreline of the Mhkvari River (the Patriarch lives in an apartment on the third floor, with the rest of the facility devoted to administration.)  A high stone wall wraps around the north, south and west sides of the property.  The narrow enclosure contains a large convent, an exquisite chapel and a lush, semi-tropical garden, complete with a peacock strolling within. 

     As dusk approached, our entrance into this world had an almost magical feel.  As one would imagine, the little Church of the Annunciation contained some of the best Georgian iconography, replete with Georgian saints and an interesting panel depicting the Prophet Jonah.  From the church, we were escorted to the Patriarch's third floor office, where we waited for some time.  At this time, a delegation of international scholars was just leaving the building after a meeting with the Patriarch. The walls of the office were filled with his artwork, secular and religious.  The Patriarch is devoted to David the Psalmist, and the icon he wrote of King David hangs on the wall (and is becoming a popular icon throughout Georgia.)  Several people from the Patriarchate came in and introduced themselves and waited with us.  They expressed pleasant surprise that we were American and Orthodox. 

     One of these was Tsisana, our liaison there.  Back during the Ahbkasian wars of the early 1990s, she came to the Patriarchate to help out with those who needed medical attention.  She now runs the free clinic there.  Georgian doctors donate their services for those who cannot afford regular medical care (and the subject of the excellent Georgian medical care without the insurance industry deserves a separate post.)  At that same time, the Patriarchate and the convent started a daily soup kitchen to help feed as many of the refugees as possible.  4,000 meals were served every day during the worst of the crisis.  Even today, 250 meals are served up on a daily basis.  After a while, one aide brought in a stack of books--hardbound copies of the Patriarch's homilies (in English), gifts to us from him.  

     In time, we were ushered back downstairs and out into the courtyard, underneath the stars.  From this point on, the exact order of events is jumbled in the mystical haze of my memory.  The Patriarch was there, sitting in a simple arm chair.  A few attendants hovered about, including a 6' 4" body-builder whom I assumed to be his bodyguard.  He waited on his charge as tenderly and as attentively as any nurse.  The Patriarch is now weighted-down in years, a frail little man whose voice is almost inaudible, who has trouble standing and whose hands shake with palsy.  And yet his eyes were alert and burned bright.  

     A priest received an emotional blessing.  John Graham squatted in front of the Patriarch and explained who we were.  Each of us advanced forward, among the others, and received a blessing.  Four of our number were choir members of the same parish in New Jersey.  They had purchased an icon--the original written by the Patriarch himself--as a gift to a Georgian Orthodox Church in their state, and he blessed it.  One of the nuns approached John with a request. The Patriarch has mentioned that he would enjoy hearing the four chant.  Nervously, they eased up to his side and chanted in church Slavonic. (they are from a heavily ethnic parish.) After that, he whispered something to John Graham, and they then chanted in English.  The Patriarch told John that he would rather they sing something in American.  Of course, they were all very honored to have this privilege. 

     We stood in the moonlight, around a 400-year old olive tree (a recent gift from an Jewish native of Georgia, now living in Israel), clutching our books of Homilies, and munching on the fresh apricots and cherries that were being passed around.  A trio of nuns gently sang Alleluia in the background.  They were all young, their faces joyous, if not radiant.  I knew this before going to Georgia, but there is just something about Orthodox nuns.  Tsisana told us that the Patriarch had these informal audiences every night, that they would go on until 2:00 in the morning, and then the new day would begin with morning prayers at 6:00 A.M.  We lingered as long as we could, reluctant to leave this blessed garden.  But we had to return to the hotel, as some of us were leaving for the airport in less than four hours.  Before doing so, we pressed money into Tsisana's hand, for use at the clinic.  With tearful eyes, she thanked us, but asked if she could give it to the soup kitchen instead, as the need was greater there.  How typical of Georgian generosity--you give them something and they are thinking of who might need it more.  (This to be a subject of another post.)  

     Earlier that day, I was in Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi.  Truth be told, the behavior of some of the crowd that morning was not exactly spiritually edifying.  But one vignette stands out in my memory.  A Georgian woman, probably  within a few years either side of forty, dressed attractively but in a traditional manner, was escorting two young children--a skinny girl of about eight, and a boy still in shorts, aged about five.  They were making the rounds of the icons and the candle stands.  She was there with them, but neither child needed instructions on what to do.  The girl could reach the icons easily enough.  The boy, however, was still too short.  On his tiptoes, he could barely stretch to kiss the bottom of the frame.  But at every icon stand, he gave it everything he had.  This is the remembrance I carried home with me.  Orthodoxy will continue to blossom in these mellow Caucasian valleys.

     I never cease to be amazed at the level of American historio-geographic ignorance and indifference (or at least in my corner of the country.)  At a meeting, a young executive overheard where I had been.  "Wow," she said, "that's a real mission field."  The images of Georgia came flooding back, and I had a sudden flash of anger at this casual, uninformed arrogance.  I simply replied, "No.  They need to send missionaries to us."


In the Patriarchate

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (3)--At the Stalin Museum

     An unexpected highlight of our visit to Georgia came on our last night in the country. Through someone who knew someone who knew someone else, we received an invitation to a short audience with Patriarch Ilia II (of which more in a later post.) The Patriarchate is hidden behind high stone walls in the old city, very near the Mtkvari River.  The enclosure conceals a  narrow, lush garden--almost tropical in appearance--wedged between the administrative building, the convent and the back wall.  The Church of the Annunciation--a small gem of a chapel--is the focal point of the complex. 

     As would be expected, the iconography here  was exceptional, and quite moving, with much of the space devoted particularly to Georgian saints.  The north wall of the nave contained a row of the sainted monarchs--Vahktang Gorgosali, Archil and Luarsab, Mirian and Nana, Tamar, Demetre, David the Builder and Ketevan, among others.  This is uniquely Georgian.  No other Orthodox nations (not even Russia and Serbia) have canonized so many of their kings and queens.  Nor is this just hagiographic excess.  For many--including Archil, Luarsab, Demetre and Ketevan--were true martyrs, in every sense of the word. 

     Even so, the Georgian rulers were often a fractious lot, and were fully capable of producing monsters as well as saints.  The Khakhetian king Giorgi the Bad comes to mind, as well as his great-grandson, Constantine Khan, the apostate--each a practitioner of both fratricide and patricide.  Thus considered, perhaps the emergence and rise to power of Joseph Dzhugashvili is not such an anomaly.  We know him better as Joseph Stalin.

     A visit to the Stalin Museum does not immediately leap to mind when considering a "monastery tour" of Georgia.  Some expressed interest, however, and our wise leader worked it into our flexible itinerary.  My initial instincts failed me on this, as I was not at all curious to stop here.  I was mistaken.  The museum proved fascinating, though--as is often the case with me--in a perverse sort of way.

     Gori is a struggling town, suffering a good deal of shelling prior to its capture by the Russians during the 2008 war.  The city seems to have little going for it beyond the Stalin Museum.  Certainly, the institution dominates the municipality.  The Soviets erected the museum in the 1930s, with many blocks  being leveled to make room for the structure and the esplanade approaching it.  The attractive building predates the worst of Soviet architecture, having perhaps a bit of a Moorish feel to it.  A statue of Stalin once towered over the grounds, though in 2012 the Georgian government surreptitiously removed it in the middle of the night.  (Some Georgians tried to pay the Russians to blow it up during the 2008 occupation, but the soldiers were offended and refused to do so.)  A more modest statue remains.  In the park fronting the museum, Stalin's birthplace is preserved, though the neighborhood that once surrounded it is completely demolished.  The Soviets erected a temple-like structure, complete with inlaid hammer and sickles, over the cottage.  For all the attention Gori lavishes on Stalin, he seems to have not given his birthplace much thought one way or the other after his departure.

Stalin Museum in background, Stalin birthplace in foreground

     The inside of the museum is built on a grand scale, and would have been well-suited to showcase impressive galleries and exhibits.  Unfortunately, the interior received the classic Soviet treatment.  The walls were covered in a drab gray felt or flannel-board type material.  The exhibits consisted primarily of grainy black-and-white enlargements of old photographs, newspapers and correspondence, telling a very sanitized version of the life of Stalin.  If you were expecting any reference to purges, show-trials, gulags, the invasion of Poland, or that sort of thing, then you would be disappointed, and would need to look elsewhere.  Thankfully, many of the offerings contained English subtitles.  I would have enjoyed just wandering through the museum, taking it in at my own stride.  But in something of a holdover from the old days, we were forced to submit to an official tour, with a guide reciting a memorized speech in front of every exhibit.   As much as was possible, I pealed-off from the official narration.  The museum contained remarkably few actual artifacts of Stalin's, primarily just diplomatic gifts he received.  A bizarre lamp, with frilly lace on the top, and a homemade model of a Soviet tank for the base, was the showcased item in one gallery.  Tellingly, the museum did contain Stalin's copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

     Outside of perhaps Gori itself, Georgians seem ambivalent at best about Stalin.  And Stalin-worship is certainly anachronistic to the image of the "new" Georgia that is being vigorously promoted.  Young people probably do not consider him at all.  Older Georgians may look back with a bit of longing for the security and favored status they enjoyed in the Soviet system, no doubt a legacy of Stalin.  But that is all.

     I was able to view the exhibits dispassionately, strictly on an intellectual level.  Others in our group may have interacted on a more visceral level.  One of our members is the daughter of a Russian father and a Greek mother.  Her grandfather worked in a factory in Soviet Russia during the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1937 (I believe) the authorities arrested him and declared him an enemy of the state.  In short order, her grandfather was executed and buried in a mass grave.  Her grandmother was dispatched to the Gulag.  Their two youngest children ended-up in orphanages, while the oldest was conscripted into the army.  He survived the Second World War, being captured by the Germans and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp.  At war's end, he instinctively knew that his future lay in jumping a boxcar that was headed west, rather than east.  He made his way to the U.S. and became a typical American success story.  Fairly late in life, he took an Old World wife (from Greece) and brought her to the U.S. as well.  Of course, none of this would have happened had not his father been murdered and the family broken up by the Soviets.  Still, I expect that his daughter's thoughts were bittersweet and she toured the museum and listened to the tributes to Joseph Stalin. 

     Anyone who visits the Stalin Museum should couple that with a visit to the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, on the third floor of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.  The exhibit is extremely well done and quite compelling.  The very name of the museum itself clearly announces the particular narrative  that is to be promoted, i.e that the Georgian nation was under the heavy Soviet thumb for seventy years.  Even so, the exhibits were reinforced by hard statistics and data, and the tone was less overtly propagandistic than its counterpart in Gori.  A boxcar, riddled with bullet-holes (from each direction) greets visitors in the ante-room of the gallery.  A number of Georgian nationalists met their death here in 1923, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their control over the country. 

     As Tsarist Russia disintegrated in 1917, the peoples of the Caucasus quickly reasserted their independence.  Georgian nationalism had never disappeared after being subsumed into Russia in 1803, and the leaders were ready when the opportunity presented itself.  At first, a loose Trans-caucasus confederation emerged under the Menshiviks, but soon separated into its component parts of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  On May 26, 1918, Georgia declared independence from Russia.  For two and one half years, an independent Georgian state survived.  But as the Soviets consolidated their hold on Russia, they began to address regaining their recently-lost territories.  First Azerbaijan fell, then Armenia, and finally Georgia in February of 1921.  The tactic was always the same.  A small uprising or disturbance would be funded, allowing the Soviets to move in and "restore order."  (A cynic might note that we have employed similar tactics through the years in Latin America and the Middle East.)

     The brief period of independence, a little over two and a half years, is pivotal in the Georgian self-perception.  Their Independence Day is May 26th, referencing not the events of 1991, but rather the declaration of 1918.  At the renewal of Georgian statehood upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian leaders specifically sought to restore the framework of the 1918 republic.  The museum contains rare newsreel footage of the events surrounding the early period of independence.     

     Between 1922 and 1952, the Soviets executed 101,000 Georgians and deported 330,000 out of a total population of only around 4,000,000.  When you do the math on that you realize that the odds were not all that good during the Stalinist era.  If you were middle class, or if you were considered part of the intelligentsia, or if you were a member of the old nobility (and in Georgia this did not necessarily imply wealth at all), or if you were a bishop, priest or monk, then you were marked.  The pictures of the executed--poets, authors, bishops among others--are especially poignant.  One picture records the demolishing of the Kutaisi Cathedral in 1924 by a crowd of Bolsheviks.  Bishop Nazar of Kutaisi (executed in 1924) stated, My soul belongs to God, my heart belongs to Georgia, do whatever you will with my body.   A unique feature of Georgian iconography is the depiction of St. George killing (symbolically) the Emperor Diocletian.  In a like manner, the sentiments of the New Martyr Nazar can be said to have slain the Emperor Stalin.                   

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (2)--Dodge or Die: A Reappraisal of the Georgian Driver

    I first experienced life on the Georgian road back in 2006, as I traveled from Tbilisi through Gori and Kutaisi and on to Zugdidi, then up into Svaneti--all in the back-seat of a beat-up Soviet-era Lada Niva.  An aggressive driver myself, I found the ride a bit hair-raising at first--the reckless and incessant passing, and the total disregard for staying within one's own lane, etc.--and concluded that Georgians had to be among the worst drivers in the world.

     I think differently now.  Georgian drivers do not ignore the white lines at all.  In fact, they use them for alignment:  two tires on the left side of the line and two tires on the right.  As oncoming traffic is doing much the same thing, driving can resemble a perpetual game of "Chicken."  If you need to pass, no problem.  By all means do so, whether on the right or the left.  If you are going around a curve, just go for it anyway.  Do not concern yourself with the oncoming traffic.  They will scoot over.  Or not. 

     This seems to be an unwritten rule of the Georgian road, something buried deep within the psyche of the Georgian male.  That the vehicle in front of you must be passed at all costs appears to be an unshakable conviction.  We arrived at Stepantsminda, deep in the high Caucasus, late in the day, and would not have time to hike up the mountain to Gergeti Sameba Church and Monastery and back before supper.  The site now receives more religious pilgrims than on my previous visit, as well as being a popular destination for the European backpacking and trekking set.  Enterprising Stepantsmindians have been quick to meet the needs of the touristas milling about the village square.  Mini-vans can tote seven passengers at a time, and little Nivas cart smaller parties.  And so, a steady stream of vehicles climb the rock-strewn goat-path of a road that switchbacks up the mountain.  We split up into three mini-vans and began the ascent-- still no easy task.  About half way up the mountain, I was surprised to hear a toot, and to see a little Lada Niva attempting to scramble past us on the left.  Apparently a fare awaited him at the summit, so our mini-van must be passed.

     Western visitors are also unaccustomed to another staple of Georgian driving, namely cows (and the occasional pigs) on the road.  Cattle roam free in Georgia and they particularly enjoy being on the roads.  Perhaps they are soothed by the wind generated from the wizzing cars and trucks.  The cows pay not the slightest attention to motorists.  A bus can miss a lazing bovine by inches and she will not bat an ear. 

     The best example we witnessed was the drive out of Kutaisi through the rich agricultural lands of Soso's native western Imereti.  The cows were out in force, and our driver, Archilko, maneuvered through them with seeming effortless ease.  One of our tour members voiced the simple question that we were all thinking, to-wit:  "What happens if you hit a cow?"

     John put the question to Archilko, and soon an animated conversation (in Georgian) ensued between him, John, Shergil and Soso.  The question was not as simple as we supposed, as their conversation went on for some length.  As last, John composed an answer for us.  Unless it occurs on a major highway (and really, there are really only one or two in the country,) then the driver is required to stop, locate the owner of the unfortunate cow and make restitution then and there before proceeding.  A good cow brings $750 to $1,000.  That is why the cattle were so nonchalant about traffic.  No Georgian driver ever wants to take the chance of clipping a cow, for the price is just too expensive.  The animated conversation between the Georgian-speakers continued on for some time, with Soso being simply convulsed with laughter.  We later learned that the conversation veered towards road-kill jokes, proving that gross-out humor knows no ethnic boundaries.

     And so now I realize that Georgian drivers are simply the best in the world, as they maneuver around cows, pigs, switchbacks, and potholes the size of small bedrooms, all with effortless aplomb.  Our driver, Archilko, proved to be the best of the best.  And finally, the best thing about the Georgian road is the fact that if you stay with it long enough, you are liable to end up at a place like this: 



Saturday, July 06, 2013

Georgian Chronicle--(1) The place that sits on my heart

     Visitors to this site well know my enthusiasm for all things Georgian--not the Southern state, but the the small republic nestled on the south slopes of the Caucasus Mountains of Eurasia.  In my meager postings during the last sixth months or so, at least five or six concern Georgia.

     An initial 2006 visit was something of a fluke--tacked-on to a more extensive exploration of Turkey.  I returned in 2007 for a closer look around.  After that, I felt I should see other countries, though Georgia was never far from my imaginings.  For the last three years, business and financial concerns, coupled with an assortment of medical problems have kept me on these shores.  I am feeling better these days, and the wolf has now backed away from the door, his attention directed elsewhere, it seems.  That meant, of course, that it was time to return to Georgia.  The fact that my only child now lives in the country cinched the matter.

     I have also come to an important truth about travel. For many, traveling seems little more than a game, in which one checks-off as many destinations as possible. In a week at a Tbilisi hostel, my son was thrown together with a number of rootless (mostly European) travelers. From his perspective, their journeys appeared unfocused, a mere tagging of obscure destinations--two to three days in Tbilisi, so it must be time to move on to Uzbekistan, etc.

     I suggest, however, that travel reveals the places that stir our souls--or as a Georgian would say, that sits on your heart.  Once found, we should return there again and again, as often as possible. I fully appreciate the fact that discovering your touchstone on the other side of the world is a decidedly modern luxury (and perhaps a temporary one at that.) I do have other such locales a bit closer to home. But as health and finances permit, I will be returning to Georgia whenever possible.

     I have just spent eleven days in Georgia, still a bit overwhelmed by it all. I travelled with John Graham's annual "Monastery Tour," as I did in 2007. The group topped out at sixteen--six from New York City, six from New Jersey, a North Carolinian, one from Michigan, one from Illinois, and an outlier from Texas (me.) We formed a diverse but congenial group, ranging in age from four years old to the mid-70s, consisting of academics, successful entrepreneurs, small business-people, craftsmen and artisans--as well as two of the best-behaved children I have ever encountered.  Eight of us were Orthodox, the others Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and the non-croyant.  The group proved to be an intrepid lot, up for anything and everything, with nary a complaint to be heard.

     John is an outstanding guide, completely at home in his Georgian skin as he is his American, and wisely choosing Shergil Pirtskhelani and Soso Kopaleishvili to assist him on the tour.  All three are accomplished vocalists, musicians and musicologists, key players in the renaissance of traditional Georgian folk singing and chant. 

     Georgia's history is often tragic and desperate, sometimes grand and glorious, and occasionally rambunctious and fractious.  Georgians themselves are perhaps the most generous people on earth.  The thing that Georgia and Georgians are not, however, is dull.  I find them endlessly fascinating.  Over the following days and weeks I hope to submit a number of topical posts, in no particular order of importance.  I hope you enjoy these ruminations on Georgia.

[I will add that it will be a great pleasure to write for those who at least know where the country is located.  I must live in one of the most parochial and geographically illiterate regions of the U.S.  When I answer the question put to me of where I have been, the typical response is "Where's that?"  The easy answer is to reference the Black Sea, but then that would presuppose that they knew where they Black Sea is located, which they do not.  Some are vaguely aware of the demonstrations in Istanbul and the mass protests in Egypt, and usually ask "Weren't you afraid to be over there?"  I kid you not.  Apparently, over there is all the same.  I was enlightened to hear from one person, however, that Georgia started off as a penal colony.  Yes.  When you cannot distinguish between an ancient Eurasian kingdom on the Black Sea and the establishment of the British North American colony of Georgia in 1734, then perhaps all hope is indeed lost.]