Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Picture Pages

All of these pictures are from the Sighnaghi Wine Festival -- I'm going to keep these small. If you click on them, they will get larger.


Here's an old lady making fresh bread. Inside the concrete tube (called a tone, pron. "tone-ay") there's a fire. She sticks her hands in there and applies dough to the sides of the tone. when it's ready, she scrapes it off with that tool.


Fresh Mtsvadi. I can't tell you how good this is.


Even fresher Mtsvadi. Well.. it's gotta come from somewhere...


Our friend Shmagi (in the traditional dress) playing impromptu with the flute maker. Those rods across his chest -- not bullets, wooden sticks. That was how Georgian fighters protected themselves from swords. Not as strong as chain mail, but not as heavy either.


A traditional grape-stomping trough for wine. Our friend Shergil carved this out of 200 year old wood. As he put it "That wood was really...hard."

Carved trough

Carving up close


Stomping up close


Little boy at a still making moonshine (cha cha).


Cha cha still

Apologies and etceteras

hey Family and Friends:

For those of you who might have been checking in frantically over the last week to see where the next four installments of the Khevsureti trip went, I apologize.

No, I didn't fall off the face of the earth. Humble household-building matters intervened, along with work and other sundries. Plus, now, other events keep building up, and I don't know if I'll ever get to all of it.

That said, we went to Sighnaghi for a wine festival this weekend, and it was fantastic. Sighnaghians were out in full force displaying evidence of traditional culture, from wine to food, to dancing and grape stomping, and more. There was the playing of musical instruments. There was the dressing in traditional garb. There was the dead goat, splayed and hanging from a tree. There was the playing of traditional instruments, dressed in traditional garb, in front of the dead goat. And I got pictures. I'll share soon.

In the meantime, I'd like to call your attention to this strange fact of existence that currently has my attention: at this very moment, it is 11:40 in the a.m. on Halloween day, in Tbilisi, and all over Georgia. Due north, in Russia, it is 10:40 a.m. Due south, in Turkey, it is 9:40 a.m. Further south, in Iraq, it is 10:40 again, but in Iran, parts of which are also due south, it is 11:10. In fact, the only country which shares our time zone is Oman -- roughly five hundred miles to the south and east. This would be like, if Ohio was in a different time zones than Tennesse, Kentucky, West Virginia and Michigan. (Indiana, in this scenario, would be a big pool of water). Strange, neh? For a visual, go here scroll down and click on "western asia" -- you'll get a map which shows current time in each area.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Notes from the Land Without Irony, Pt. 1

good afternoon kidlings,

being that I had five adventure-packed days away from you all, instead of trying to put everything together into one huge blog-post, I thought I'd do five smaller ones, making this a little more bite-sized.

First though-- a mini -post before the post. Patty just left for Sighnaghi again, taking a small coterie of the remaining village harmony campers (those here for six weeks of language, now) with her, and we're now in our apartment, alone, for the first time. I'm coming down off of that amazing high that one gets when on a big adventure, and I'm feeling a little down now that things are more-or-less quiet and comfortable. Tomorrow I'm going to go pay for internet and hopefully will be able to post this, and then for the most part, I'll be getting into the swing of daily life in Tbilisi. Which isn't all that different from daily life in any city, I suspect. You pass a lot of people each day, there's a lot of good things to eat everywhere, people beg, people pass you in expensive cars, there are parks and punks and old women, and men standing around smoking. Most people are busy minding their own business, and you watch out for the few who are trying to mind yours. Yesterday, though, I saw one of those little things that remind me that I'm in a foreign country, and how differently people view things. On our way to find dinner ("our" being k. and her mom, and two VH campers, and myself) we passed one of many Chinese shops -- dark red sign, words in Chinese and English, little red lantern hung out in front, etc. So I stopped and did a little window shopping. Except that this wasn't what we think of as a chinese shop. This was a shop selling things made in china. Stop and picture that for a moment: fake adidas shoes, crappy plastic wind-up toys, ash trays, cheap ceramic cups, fake wonder-bras and chintzy tchotchkes of all shapes and sizes crowded into a little store called "The China Shop." I mean, it's true, I suppose. But unexpected.

Okay, and now on to the adventures:

So, day one was a long one. Twenty foreigners (sixteen Americans and four Brits) -- We drove up from Tbilisi to Barisakho (pron: bah-rees-ah-kho) where our translator, John, dropped off his nice car, and we all climbed out of the marshutka and into an old army-style people-mover, and then took the really bad roads up to Rosta.

Rosta. As opposed to a village, Rosta was more like nine houses clinging to the side of a mountain. The streets were serious-looking, Deadwood-style mud paths. And it was coooold. This was a town that was as unaffected by the last hundred years as any I've ever seen. Cowherds walked by with two dozen cows, occasionally thwacking one with a stick. A man pulled a box from one house to another on a little sled with wooden runners -- I'm assuming because wheels don't work well in the mud. There were cars -- a few of them. But they would be useless for anything other than driving several hours back into the city. That night we froze and had a small supra at the one house with a large enough porch. It was pitch black, and after a few minutes, someone started a loud generator which lit up three dim bulbs -- light, but still no heat. So we drank (a nasty vodka-like moonshine called "spirits") to stay warm, and the Village Harmonies inevitably started up their singing.

Remember about three posts ago when I wrote about the doors that open when you've got Americans that sing traditional music? Scratch that. At least for the mountains. In the mountains, if anyone has died in the past three months to a year, sometimes the street, sometimes the whole town observes a code of "no public expressions of joy." It's an honor thing. So about halfway into the third song and out of the darkness comes a crazed voice shouting and weeping and shouting some more. Later, I learned that it was a string of particularly vicious insults. We quieted. She left. We shivered and drank. In the morning we took a few hours to wander around up and out of the town, up the hillside, before leaving on our next adventure.

Wow. this was a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The lower Caucausus mountains are currently in full-bloom autumn, with all attendant color and glory. It felt amazingly good to kick my way through some leaves, and sniff the wet mulch smell of the air, and look at those familiar dark-russet, gold, fire-red and orange leaves stretching up the hillsides. And then, above it -- snow capped mountain peaks that looked utterly alien and strange and wonderful. Not only were they bigger than anything in the American East, but they fold and buckle in ways that do not look natural to my eyes. These are not the Rockies, that we grow up seeing printed on posters and coins. These monsters look like they are alive and might move at any moment. And they wouldn't so much as notice you if they did. Mountains have a way of reminding one how very small and unimpressive a human being is. Especially when, after thousands of years of habitation, the only village around looked like it could be wiped off the face of the earth by a mountain's careless hand. Anyway, the sun was glinting off of them, and the fog was rolling in and out, and on the hill nearest me, where the village's haystacks rose as far as they clearly could before things got too steep, I noticed that just above the field there was one fire-red tree, and its shedding leaves looked like a shadow of bright red falling down the slope. This tree was so red that it looked, literally, like it was on fire. Like a burning bush. And I wondered if that's what the prophets saw when they wrote of it in the bible, because it certainly felt like God might speak. Anyway, more on that later.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Quotidian Pleasures

I'm double-posting this for all of you who read this site, but not my other one, and because I think it neatly fits into both categories.

One of the weirdest things about being whisked off to a magical place is how unmagical most of it ends up being. For instance, today I spent the whole day reading the archives of Something Positive, listening to my ipod, and watching the odd episode of 24. --- not particularly different than many Sundays back in Boxford. It's grey out, today, and a little cold, and I was up late last night doing nothing really special.

Don't get me wrong. I love being in a country where, not two hours away from the front door there are caves with monks in them. I like struggling to learn a language that looks like it was invented by the flying spaghetti monster, and I do enjoy wowing friends and family with (hopefully what will be) a multitude of strange adventures -- beginning with the five day horseback trek into the mountains of the Upper Caucasus which starts tomorrow. But 90% of my time is still centered on doing all the things I used to do -- looking for good restaurants, reading, writing, running out of and refilling the toilet paper dispenser.

And, frankly, that's a nice thing too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hey Kids, It's Picture Time!

Tbilis Metro

This is a view into one of Tbilisi's many cavernous metro stations. To give a sense of the depth, it's a two minute ride on the escalator (time that) and the escalators are not slow.

View of Tbilisi

Tbilisi as seen from Mtasminda -- makes you think the city's downright green, doesn't it? You can see about four cathedrals (pointy towers) and that huge white statue is "Mother Georgia."

People Live Here

This is not an unusual building for Tbilisi. Some parts of the city are being worked on, but the civil war in 1991 and the earthquake not long after have left some serious damage. If you notice, there's no roof on the third floor, but on the second floor, there are curtains. People are living there.


Georgian Bath houses, in the old part of the city. "Tbilisi" means "hot water."

'nother view of Tbilis

Another view of the city. Those cliffs in the foreground lead to the river which divides the city. That huge church is "Sameba" -- Trinity church.

Dancers in Sighnaghi

This is in Sighnaghi -- an old gymnasium where the Village Harmony campers are taking dance lessons.

Pancho Villa

And this is Pancho Villa, the mexican restaurant (!) in Sighnaghi, run by my former Georgian tutor, and inveterate fan of the American West, Shalva Mindorishvili (pictured).

Pancho's Margarita

Shavla's place serves Margaritas that will drive you batshit, and won't stop for the tolls. I don't know where he gets his Tequila, but it kicks ass.

Davit Gareji

This is a view from Davit Gareji. Or is it Middle Earth? I keep getting them confused... Monks have lived in caves out here since the sixteenth century.

Davit Gareji again

And these are the caves where some of the monks live. Caves. Monks. Caves.

Head Holders at Davit Gareji

This is where the monks used to eat. You see, they'd put their heads in those holes so they wouldn't get all uppity about how little they were living off of compared to the next guy. Ponder that the next time you're feeling hard core about something.

John Teaching

Over the years the monks painted quite a few frescoes on the walls of their caves...


...some quite stunning.

Tamar's Castle

this is from a trip we took a few days later, to the ruins of a castle built in the 1100's. Yeah. You're jealous.

If you want to see any of these in greater detail, you can always check out our flickr account, here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Is that a monk in that cave?

One of the many advantages of being out in Sighnaghi while Village Harmony is running a music camp is that I'm able to plug myself in to this stream of "cultural experiences" that have been lined up for the singer/tourists. Unlike the "cultural experience" that I participated in with the American Embassy folks (see earlier post) Village Harmony trips have several advantages. First, the group is legitimately interested in what they are being shown. They've worked hard, taken time out of their lives, and paid lots of money to be here. They aren't just trying to kill a weekend. Second, they're singers, and they have some knowlege of local folk songs. I can't stress how far this takes you in Georgia. Georgians are a hospitable people by custom, and given their experience with Soviet attempts at russification, many people show surprise if you speak even a couple words of Georgian. But when a crowd of Americans break into a rendition of "Mravaljamier" or another traditional Georgian folk song, people start to cry. It can be an intense and amazing experience.

Yesterday we went to a place called David Gareji. It's south and a little east of Tbilisi, right on the border of Azerbaijan. It's a desert, with giant rock faces (think Red Rock out in Colorado) with all these natural caves worn into it. Several hundred years ago, a monk named David Gareji walked out here and made his home in one of the caves. It's been a holy spot ever since. There are monks, in fact, still living in caves out there.

K. visited this place just before I got to Georgia a few years back -- so I hadn't had a chance to see it before. It's stunning. My first thought on visiting was that I wanted to take my father to see it. Orthodoxy is, in many ways, much the same as Catholicism, and there's something that I find both peaceful and reassuring about the art, the rituals, the smells of the monasteries and churches here. The landscape has been rightly described as "out of Lord of the Rings." I wandered around, looking at 15th and 16th century lookout towers (Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, so there are religious as well as political borders here), tiny little caves with georgeous religious frescoes, (mostly destroyed by Soviet Army target practice, graffiti, and simple wind and rain) and current rebuilding efforts by the newly reinstalled monks.

I'm also disturbed. Our host/guide, an American painter who converted to Orthodoxy (and lives in Sighnaghi) named John is an intense ambassador for the Orthodox faith. He is constantly promoting the humility of its leaders, the faith of its adherents, the beauty of its rituals. And he is constantly bemoaning the "lukewarm heart" of modern life. And how do I argue with him? I love my lukewarm heart. "..And the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity."

What makes one man, much less thousands, give up their easy lives to live on rice and water in a desert cave? Aside from the Glory of God --whom I doubt needs or cares what men do -- what purpose does it serve? The frescoes are beautiful, even with the destruction (and when I have a faster internet connection, I'll post pictures) and it's not like I would rather there was a golf course there... but it is a world whose boundaries and laws I cannot comprehend.

Afterwards, we drove to a restaurant halfway between David Gareji and Sighnaghi and had a short, 2 1/2 hour supra (scroll to the bottom for the definition). Aside from the Embassy trip, this was my first supra. There was singing -- real, honest singing. There was food -- more than we could eat. There was an awful lot of wine, and a Tamada who spoke from the heart. People toasted the way they should--with an eloquence inspired by each other, and a tongue greased by the wine, and we all fell in love with each other. This, I understood.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

an apartment, temporary relocations, pending adventures, plus internet troubles and "the way things are done" in Georgia.

In Vermont there is a brand of coffee, which shall not be named, that has a slogan: "Relax, You're on Green Mountain Time." Here in Georgia, we're on Caucausus Mountain Time, and it's often a source of much grousing by your typical American, Canadian, European or Other business person/embassy official/tourist/innocent bystander who so petulantly wants things to either a) work, or b) get fixed. What they don't get, of course, is that they are silly people for wanting such things, and why can't they just make do with what they have?

Still, we persist. Which is why, despite the fact that the phones (and thus, the internets) cut out entirely two days ago, here I am, posting as always. Only, instead of doing it from our ever kind and generous host's house in Tbilisi, where there is wireless access to dsl speeds, I'm doing it from the cosy, yet slightly more rustic environs of Sighnaghi -- which has intermittent dialup access (as well as intermittent electricity, no heat [all the wood for the stoves are gone] and also no smog, no street traffic, and no insane barking guard dog next door). This may be a long post. What with the internets out, I've been saving them up.

First: the apartment. After a week + of staying with our ever-generous American hosts, (the husband, the wife, the ten year old girl) and feeling like, despite their protestations to the contrary, we weren't finding a place fast enough, we finally found a place. It was the first place we looked at. There will be pictures. I'll go into it in more detail later, but after looking at a couple places shown to us by americans, and then looking at a place shown to us by my professor, then scouring the internet and all the english-language papers to no avail, then seeking advice from everyone we could meet, we decided to hire a woman (friend of a friend--she's an awesome person named Nino) who actually spoke Georgian to look for places for us. After a week of looking she showed us four apartments. One had no hot water. One had hot water but no heat. The nicest one looked like a hobbit hole, and kept bumping my 5'7" self into various door jambs and ceilings. So we asked Nino to call the landlord of the first place we saw, and she did, and she made an offer, and now we have a three bedroom two bathroom two-story apartment with hardwood floors and a balcony. Hooray us! And on October fifteenth it will be ready. Hoo--ah. Well, some things are worth the wait.

Which brings us to the temporary relocations. What better way to await your fancy new digs in the city than by retiring to the country? So, as the lords and ladies of yesteryear did, now so do we. Plus, seeing as how K.'s mom Patty is out in Sighnaghi for the moment, and seeing as I can do the bulk of my work from anywhere, really (not always, but for the moment. Please don't send me home for that comment, kind Fulbright people) it seemed silly to keep staying with our incredibly nice hosts in Tbilisi, when we have family so close by. So here we are. For those of you readers who remember missives from my last visit here, I have to say that the house has gotten much more cosy and comfy, aided by the advent of near-constant electricity and a lot more furniture, as well as several more years of renovations. I mean, sure, we're on Caucausus Mountain Time... but after several years of renovations, things have to be at least a little better. -- there's a new ceiling in the kitchen, and the downstairs has been repainted.

Westerners are always in such a hurry.

Unfortunately we won't be moving into the apartment until the 21st. It's true, some renovations do need to be made -- fixing some plumbing and a broken shower floor -- but that should be ready by the 15th (At least, our landlady has assured us this will be the case, and since she's not getting rent until we move in, I'm hoping she keeps her word). What's keeping us for the final six days is that we're going on a trip. I don't know much about what it'll be like, but I'm looking forward to the prospects of both horseback riding and fencing, and I'm nervous about singing and dancing. We'll see what happens.

In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the quiet of the country, and look forward to relaxing, and writing some poetry.