Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Couple Days Late -- First Meetings

So, on monday I met with my contact at the Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature, Irakli. He is, as I have been told several times, the foremost leading authority on Galaktion Tabidze -- the poet I'm here to translate. He's also a member of the Georgian Parliment (quick note: Georgia is about to have their first set of local elections since the revolution in 2003. They're on Oct. 4th, so anyone working for / with the gov't is very busy right now). I'd had several emails with Irakli before arriving, but we hadn't actually talked. I didn't know how much English he knew, or how well we were going to be able to communicate (what little Georgian I have is coming back very slowly, and I don't have a tutor yet).

So, when I called him yesterday morning, I figured we would set up a brief meeting later this week, and hopefully I'd get a quick tour around the offices of the Institute (hoping beyond hope that I might even have a desk or space to work somewhere) and then we would make plans to start working more seriously after the elections. How wrong I was. What follows is, as best as I can describe, what happened. It didn't realy make sense then, and little of it makes sense now.

I called Irakli around 11:00 a.m., and he immediately asked me to meet him in front of the Parliment building at noon. I said "sure" and he immediately hung up. I got to the Parliment building (a huge monolith of pink marble columns, arching fountains, and no -- absolutely no -- signs announcing what it is) at ten to noon. A few minutes after noon a tiny gray-haired man in jeans, a white button-down shirt and gray sports-coat came running up, shook my hand, and with little more introduction began dragging me by the elbow around to the back of the Parliment building, and inside. On the way he turned and said "Why did you call me?" -- I stuttered some explanation unsure if he was asking why I'd waited so long, why I'd called him now, or who the hell I was. Apparently he knew who I was, because when I mentioned "Fulbright" he nodded vigorously. Then he said something in a long string of Georgian I didn't catch. Then he said "To learn Georgian, you must forget English." I agreed with that.

We entered the Parliment building, he took my passport, and began to have a long talk with two levels of security guards. While in line, he introduced me to another man, a professor (I think) named Giorgi, who is a six-foot tall octogenarian with smoker's-breath. During the introduction, I hear my name, and Giorgi goes "Ahh!" and begins to lecture me in Georgian. I catch that he's talking about Galaktion Tabidze, Stalin, and the words "why, why, why?" and "difficult. Painful." I'm not sure if he noticed that my conversational Georgian is terribly meager, so as he talked, I managed a couple of "ah, yes." and "hm.." and otherwise tried not to look like a deer in headlights.

Giorgi held my elbow and spoke, his face about six inches from mine, as we swept through security, up to the fifth floor of the building, and down a long hallway to a tiny room, where both Irakli and Giorgi suddenly started intensely pacing and smoking and staring at me without saying a word to me or each other. Very slowly and deliberately Giorgi removed an academic journal from his satchel, and opened it to a poorly translated summary of an article he wrote about Freud, Bakhtin and the nature of the word. Then, without any other indication of what he was doing, Irakli walked over to the phone, called several people, and informed me that he'd found an apartment (can you pay $200? I think it's too much), and that I could see it in one hour.

Then he grilled me on Tabidze, my knowlege of Georgian history, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. I told him what I knew of Tabidze, what I was interested in, and some of the connections I saw between him and Frost. He said things like: "When Eliot wrote, he had a whole philosophy behind him. But there are many Tabidzes." and "When Stevens wrote the word 'tintinabulations' it had no specific meaning. Tabidze uses words similarly." I did my best to be clear. We talked like that for a while. Then Giorgi, who had been chain-smoking and staring silently at a computer screen the entire time without touching either mouse or keyboard, left.

I called Karen and went went with a third person (also named Giorgi, much younger) to look at the apartment. As soon as we left the Parliment building, Irakli disappeard, only saying that he would make "line by line translations" of a poem or two, and that I should call him. Thus ended my first meeting.

The apartment was no good, but Giorgi was incredibly nice, and we had some good conversations. Irakli has the energy of ten intense men, but I think we're on the same page philosophically. I absolutely need to start studying Georgian immediately. I go to pick up the "line by line" translations in about half an hour. We'll see what those are like.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Wonder and Frustration of Georgian Tourism

Pictures are up! I've got both a few pictures from Vienna as well as what will probably become an ever-expanding set of photos from Georgia.

These first pics from Georgia are from a trip we took this weekend to Telavi. Our host-dad, D. told us about the embassy trip and we signed up at the last minute to go. We dragged our sorry still-jet-lagged butts up at six a.m. and got to the center of Tbilisi by 6:45, and drove two hours east to pick grapes, check out a winery, do a little tasting, go to a supra, watch (and help) make traditional bread (puri) and candy (churchkella -- a string of walnuts dipped in thickened grape juice. Like the original fruit rollups). Then the next day we toured the ancient wine cellar and museum of a famous Georgian poet and nobleman, Alexander Chavchavadze, and had lunch at this really nice little restaurant. All in all a packed, but fun weekend.

..but. Most of the rest of the fifteen or so people were either from the U.S. Embassy, or another organization that works heavily with the Embassy. In many ways, I felt very isolated from them -- they're not Georgiophiles, some of them aren't even particularly interested in Georgia. They are here because they speak Russian, and/or they didn't get their first choice of assignments from the Foreign Service office, or they're on their way through doing a two year stint here, and will soon be in Moldova, or Yemen, or Nigeria. They seemed to be, for the most part, isolated, and uninterested. Not all of them, and not any of them all the time, but I was surprised, because until now I hadn't run into anyone who wasn't trying real hard to get here. So, maybe not the best group to go with.

The trip itself was lots of fun. We learned a fantastic lot about wine -- for instance, Georgian red wine is made from a particular type of grape -- the Saperavi -- which is different (darker, and I think more tart) than either Cabernet or Merlot grapes. Also, traditional Georgian white wines are made with their skins (like red wines) and thus have lots of tanins, and also keep longer than european white wines. So Georgian whites will "age" like red wine. Doesn't that kick ass? It sounds even better when you've got a taster's glass in your hand.

A lot of the weekend felt very familiar. Telavi is only about half an hour from Sighnaghi -- where K. and I stayed when we were here last, and the scenery is just the same. The vast plains shoot out away from you for what seem like miles, until they are cut off by receding stacks of mountains, each layer a different color. Crazy looking little old ladies bake bread, sticking their arms into insanely hot open-air ovens (called tone's -- pronounced "toh-nay" -- the possessive form of tone would be tonis, and I got confused when I first got here because I kept seeing signs that said "tonis pizza" and I was thinking, "why do they have Tony's Pizza everywhere?"). Anyway, look at the rest of the pictures. It's beautiful. The people are beautiful. The food is beautiful. The backdrop is quite nice as well. Even the church that wouldn't let us in because we weren't Orthodox, was beautiful.

It's also all so run down. I forgot, before I came back here, how sad it makes me. The buildings are more mortar than stone, and what few holes are filled in are filled in with whatever materials are handy. Even when things are new, there's a run-down look to them, and I can't tell if it's because of Soviet mis-education, or the exodus of everyone with a trade skill after the fall of communism, or what, but it makes me sad. There are no electrician's unions, no carpenter's unions, no plumber's unions, and it's incredibly noticable when those things are missing. People do the best they can, and they cut corners whenever they think it won't matter, all to disasterous results.

I've been here for just about four days now, and already my heart is overflowing with pride, and my heart is broken. I haven't even started working on the poetry.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Morning again

So it's our second morning in Tbilisi, and we're preparing (again) to head out and get (another) SIM card for my phone, as the first one didn't take. I'll be trying to argue, in Georgian, with the shopkeeper who sold me my first SIM card, that it was the card that didn't work, not my phone. Then apartment hunting.

We are planning, after a suggestion from our hosts, to take an Embassy-coordinated trip to Kakheti (pron. with a little flem between the k and h) to see a grape harvest, drink some fresh wine, have a supra, and meet some other embassy peops. It looks to be a good re-introduction to the culture. With any luck, we'll have an apartment to come back to when we leave tomorrow morning at six forty five a.m. Do I think that's even remotely likely to happen? Not at all! But I do hope that we've at least looked at a couple places before then.

and maybe I'll even have a working phone. Let's not ask for too much...

Oh! I do have a phone number now, however, it's for my Skype account. If you feel like giving me a call to see how I'm doing, send an email and I'll let you know what it is and when I'm most likely to be on line. It's an (802) area code, so for those of you in Vermont, surreally, it may even be a local call. Hooray internets.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

aaand we're in!

So, if any of you are wondering about whether air travel security in (and to) other countries is as "secure" as it is for us Americans, here's a little anecdote: After landing in Vienna, K. and I couldn't take it anymore and bought a little tube of toothpaste, and enjoyed several hours of minty-fresh breath again. When we went through security again for our flight to Tbilisi (a tiny little gate with its own security checkpoint) the bag with the forgotten toothpaste was scanned twice, and then after a little pointing and some shrugging, was handed to me, no questions asked. While at the gate waiting to get on the plane, the stewardess decided it would be easier to just come around and check all of our tickets one by one, aparently so we didn't have to do that part while waiting in line. Then, when we arrived in Tbilisi, I became vaguely worried because neither K. nor I filled out one of those forms that declare "I am not bringing fresh vegetables, live chickens, obscene amounts of money, or virulent space-diseases in to destroy any local flora, fauna, economic system or strains of bacteria." However, it turned out that instead of filling out one of those papers and/or going through and declaring any of the food/alcohol/money/space diseases you were bringing in, they simply had a seventy year old woman checking to make sure you were actually taking your own bags away. She was taking those little white tags you get when you check your luggage, and making sure they matched your bags. Hooray Georgia!

We're in safe and sound. I'm still dead tired. Stupid Jet Lag. We're also 88% of the way toward having cell phones, and due to start appartment hunting tomorrow. There will be stories! And Pictures!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Tired Beyond Belief

I'm writing this in the Vienna Airport. K. and I are at the tail end of a 14 hour layover -- this after getting less than two hours of sleep on the flight from D.C. It's currently 8:15 p.m. local time (we arrived at 8:30 a.m.) and our flight doesn't take off until 10:30. Ugh.

On the plus side, we've had a whole day to wander and play in Vienna (pictures will come soon). Vienna, or "Wien" is amazing... wide, open streets, lots of very pretty, very old architecture, some of those huge churches you see everywhere these days, and lots of delicious coffee and sweets. It also happens to be the 250th anniversary of Mozart's something-or-other (birth? first performance? I don't speak enough german to figure it out), so there are probably about as many people wandering around in white powdered wigs and fancy gold coats as there were in 1756.

Oddly, this is the second time I've been through Vienna, and each time I seem to get an extended layover, and a chance to tour around the city. Also, I seem to be more tired than seems possible. The last time I was here it was with my father and stepmother, and a good friend, and we were coming in from an overnight stay in the New Dehli Airport. Both times I've been amazed at just how open and safe this city seems, and how a.) organized, and b.) convenient the Viennese seem to make things. If you get a chance to travel via Austrian Airlines (and take a long stopover in Vienna) I recommend it. Aside from some issues with there not being enough seats, this is one of the nicest airports.

On a side note, just before I left, I bought and devoured this great book by Bob Harris-- "Prisoner of Trebekistan." Ostensibly it's all about his life and times becoming a Jeopardy! champion. I've watched Jeopardy! (exclamation mandatory) a couple times, but not for years, and I'm not really much of a fan. I heard about this book from a website I like to read, and figured it would make a decent airplane book. I was right. The book was not only fun, but also really useful -- all sorts of good tips on memorization, which will help me a great deal as I continue to beat my head against the Georgian language, as well as some funny and inspiring (and sad) moments that make you happy that people like this exist. It ends up being an extended love-letter to the pursuit of both lifelong learning and extensive travel -- two things that you know I love. Plus, for whatever reason, he looks an awful lot like Wash from Firefly. I'm not saying it's a perfect book, but I am saying that you all must go out and read it right this minute. My website will wait.

..see, wasn't that worth it? Anyway, we're still in transit, and I'm writing this on a laptop with a quickly fading battery, so more will come after we arrive, find an apartment, get some internet, access to a power supply, get thirty seven hours of sleep, etc. etc. I see (quickly) that lots of you wrote me (whee!) and I promise that I'll write just as soon as I have time and get settled.

Until then, wish us a safe flight into Tbilisi.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

First Post: Less Than 48 Hours to Liftoff

I'm at my mom's house in Columbus, OH right now, and I'm nearly ready to be off.. Tomorrow we pack, (the upstairs looks like a clothes grenade went off) and then as of 2:00 p.m. EST, we will be en route to... DC. But then, after only several hours, we'll be taking a redeye flight to... Vienna. Where we will spend all of Wednesday. BUT Wednesday evening we'll be catching another redeye, and this one will take us to Tbilisi! Yes! And at 3:50 a.m. when we land, a man named Guja will be waiting to take us back to the house of a friend of a friend who will let us stay for a few days until we find that absolutely perfect apartment that I just know is waiting for us.

More to come! Think good thoughts!