Georgian yachts float my boat: Garden path to the Black Sea

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June 2014, a few days after finally receiving my BA, I received a Facebook message out of the blue inviting me to the wedding of my host brother, whose room I lived in while teaching overseas and he was out of the country for university. I may not have known him very well, but a promise is
a promise.

 I reply: “Ki minda!” Yes!! September!! I come Georgia!!!”

Yes, I really want to go back to the cilantro farm.  As a wedding guest on the groom’s side — the paying side with the majority of the wedding guests — I’ll be given some good ol’ kartul hospitality. They’ll all be there, the whole family, not mine by blood but by affection; they’ll be dancing, smiling, and eating towers of kachapuri (cheese bread), home-raised cow and goat dishes, chocolate cakes, and jugs of potentially vinegary wine — because even at a Muslim wedding, the toastmaster will ensure that the jugs on the tables will need constant attention. I especially look forward to it this time because I feel like I at least appear to have my shit together.

***

August, two summers before.

“That just sounds like an emotional decision.”

“I know. I know . . . I just can’t. There’s too much wrong with it, just all of it, and I can’t imagine defending it. The shittiest part is that it means I won’t be gradding this year . . . because I’m still leaving in September.”

“Oh.”

I was sitting at the cricket pitch in Beacon Hill, with my mind made up.  On the other side of the phone was someone who paid too much for my education, and spent too many hours pushing the importance of getting a career and not a job, to have to listen to his daughter emotionally bailing out on an honour’s thesis that was supposed to build muscle memory for grad school: the next step in getting a proper career. The thesis was my scapegoat: the single source of all of my sporadically crippling anxiety and general unease; my unhappy relationship, weight gain, and inability to cope with daily activities seemed at the time so unrelated and permanent. So sitting in the grass, I called to say that I wasn’t even considering grad school anymore,  because, if I couldn’t fry such a small fish, caught from such a small pond, how could I be so naïve to think that I could take on the whole sea?  If the thorn could be pulled out, though, maybe the hurt would stop.

[pullquote]“if I couldn’t fry such a small fish, caught from such a small pond, how could I be so naïve to think that I could take on the whole sea?”[/pullquote]

One course short of graduating, I left for a semester, “maybe more”: leaving the other half of my failing relationship to pay our full rent (blindly selfish move); leaving my recent embarrassment, and everything to do with school, in a city far away. I left university to teach English (insert foot in mouth) in a country that earlier in the year I couldn’t guess the location of on a map. The Republic of Georgia, chemi sakartvelo, land of Jason’s Golden Fleece, debatably the birthplace of wine (without asking an Armenian), one of the first Christian nations in the world and still roughly 98 per cent Georgian Orthodox. Currently, it borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey, yet it was split between Persian, Russian, and Ottoman influences, with further influence through the Silk Road trade route, while today internet and foreign businesses influence — at least superficially — Georgian culture and populations. Being a religious, sexual, or visible minority is still not openly embraced; saying has it that a hundred people could be lined up — 99 Georgians and 1 foreigner —  and a Georgian could always point to the odd man out. For many it means that you’re treated like gold, as foreigners are a gift and are treated to food and wine and praise endlessly. If on the other hand, you’re open about being LGBT or “black” (Georgian black is a few shades darker than eggshell) people may not be as understanding: a May 2013 pro-rights demonstration resulted in violent backlash by citizens and religious figures. American music videos and telenovelas appear to be the biggest North American exports culturally, even if former president Mikheil Saakishvili was determined to enforce English education in a politically and economically westward-looking nation.

Pre-requisites? English as my first language, check. Some university education, check. Comfortable living with a host family in rural conditions, sure why not. And in exchange, the government would pay my flight up front, train me in a hotel in the capital for a week and a half, and pay me more than local Georgian teachers — with only the school’s principal earning more than myself in the whole school. Hello supra, goodbye single carb breakfasts. It was time to learn a new alphabet and read some basic literature about an area whose overlapping periods under occupation and outside influence have textured the genetics, micro-cultures, dishes and worldviews.

The teaching section of my semester was overshadowed by the card games, weekend trips, afternoon chai visits with family-neighbours, meaning afternoon teas of fresh fruit, nuts, cake, popcorn, fire-roasted squash; knitting with the news in the background, and prayer breaks. For me, prayer time meant sitting on the couch with the youngest kids, eating candy, or for the longest time, the mosques that were mysteriously subconscious noise that woke me up before dawn.

Shortly into my stay, wedding season started. When crops and cash from market sales have been collected and the animals are fat are when the wedding and religious supras are in full swing — tables stacked with layers of dishes, whole towns pouring into ceremonies and dancing until well past when the bride and groom have gone home. Around this time is also bayram, Eid al-Adha “Feast of the Sacrifice,” where in the Khulo region, animals — goat, cow — are made into khinkali dumplings, ostri (hot beef stew), and accompanied by other dishes and groups of people — feasting on leftover meat for months to come. In a wedding, the full-roasted goat might even be paraded around on a near-palanquin around the room with sparklers spraying out above to the beat of polyphonic voices in the microphone. Foreign teachers in small towns often attend a lot of toasts and feasts through the winter; weddings are the most important event — arguably tied with high school graduation parties — to be re-lived through photos, DVDs, and stories. When my contract ended and I was set to leave the country to return to the pieces of what I left in Canada, I left the house agreeing that I’d come back to visit for the next big wedding.

“Yes,” I said. “Ramo’s or Zeino’s wedding — Zeino you go to university, no boys yet — I’ll be back. I come back to Georgia. Ghurta! Ramo’s qortzili. Yes martlaa minda I really want to.”

And I did want to — but I still had no idea if I would ever see them, any of them, again.

The town’s connectedness and desire to show me everything, and feed me more, helped form my view of Georgian hospitality. Every day, though, I was reminded that while they may have been Georgian, they were first and foremost Adjarans — thinking of themselves as adjarul first and kartul (speakers of the kartul ena, Georgian language, or politically ‘Georgian’) second. Adjara isn’t synonymous with the Russian-backed breakaway states in the North-South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Ottoman and Turkish influence has had greater and longer lasting effects in this state than others. Mosques dot the Khulo region’s towns, while more generally the state flaunts fish and citrus, and proud adjarul dance and music.

[pullquote]“I really wanted to return to those mountainside starry nights of second hand smoke and silver-toothed smiles playing cards”[/pullquote]

And so, with an open invitation to come back to my loving other family — who fed me, took care of me when I was sick, invited me everywhere for everything, and somehow managed not to patronize me while I stumbled with language sounds and words that refused to be remembered after months of repetition — I left. But I wanted to return to those mountainside starry nights of second hand smoke and silver-toothed smiles playing cards and talking about everything above my head but towards me nonetheless; I would go back in a heartbeat if the day came if I didn’t already have a life committed to a career by then, or an array of other excuses.

***

Ater returning from Georgia the first time, school was the furthest thing from what I wanted; the world had too much to offer to be trapped between walls. But those missing credits would haunt my thoughts until the last day of my final course. Thankfully online courses are more lenient on timing, allowing me to drag the end out a year longer than necessary. A year after puttering around Victoria and abroad, I was still a casual employee, but with a head full of memories.

I walked my BA convocation seven years after my first semester at UVic, the week before I received my host sister’s invitation to her university-aged brother’s wedding. Seven years of leaving and returning, but the piece of paper was mine and I still had no career prospects. Teaching brought me to the land of buttered, cheese-filled mashed potato breakfasts served with bread and tea, so it seemed like the reasonable path. Before then, though, I would need to put work experience on hold to take a month off and go to this wedding, of like, my brother, but not really my brother, but yeah, a month, so I can travel too. (Un)luckily I’m a casual at my job which means mobility (luckily) and limited funds (unluckily leading me to the situation where I’ll be paying off my IOU parent-tab for the entire foreseeable future). So with my home life stable, lari in the bank, and a family in the mountains waiting for me, I was ready to return to the land of Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin — an epic poem dedicated to the land’s only female king.

***

Two years from my first arrival, and I had the free time and ability to take a month from my more well-adjusted life, and bask in nostalgia and the keen fear that maybe they wouldn’t remember me or I wouldn’t adjust to them again. After leaving the sweat-soaked hostel room with heavily guarded fans, I arrive by marshrutka (minibus) to coastal Batumi in the midst of late summer torrential rains to see the groom-to-be — a short jaunt from Victoria to the Black Sea, via Seattle and Munich, after two years of waiting to be back.

***

“Is that ok? Just a bit of reading for the video, no big deal, no worries.”

I was being asked to read something the next day, before the dinner, for the coveted wedding video. No big deal. No problem. A relative that knows English will write it out for me in Latin script. Some toast, some adjaran toast probably.

***

The bride, groom, best man, maid of honour, photographer, cameraman, and me, pushed off the shore on a pleasure cruiser, leaving behind the iconic Ferris wheel and Alphabet Tower, to make our way near the pier packed with Russian and Turkish tourists. The groom’s family rented a handful of boats for the cousins, close friends, and other relatives to gather round the bride’s boat, to cheer and document as much as they could from shouting distance away. Most relatives, though, were either at the bride’s house for the toasts as she joined the new family earlier in the afternoon, or would join us after the boats for the Botanical Gardens for bride and groom photos in the park. Our bride would carry her dress past the dozens of parked cars backed up the road from the parking lot—with a group of other brides, all sweating under their layers, and walking in the opposite direction. With family on shore, family in the nearby boats cheering, and the budding family in the boat, we teetered at the front, camp-table between us, with my script crumpled in my hand. Not only would I say this to our boatload, while the other boats watched, but the footage from the deck would play on repeat in DVD players when the family was together. Shit. But it’s impossible not to grin when the two of them are high on their special day — and there’s a glow of adrenaline seeping into my ears. I’m marrying these teens right now. How is this legal? I can’t speak Georgian, bodishi, sorry, definitely screwed that word up, smile. Bodishi, smile. They kiss. I’m glad I cleared the whole who-kissed-whom thing up earlier. Smile, this is awesome.