Tuesday, September 27, 2016

You Know You're In Tbilisi, When...

Note: I started this post summer 2015 and then forgot about it...now it's summer 2016 and I am rather unexpectedly back in Tbilisi! So I decided to finish it and share it  ;)
a nice, unrelated picture of books for sale in Tbilisi

First, an amusing anecdote: the other day I was in my yard drinking beer and eating sunflower seeds with my neighbors, and one of them found out I was leaving in 3 weeks. She got very upset, because I guess my daily "gamarjoba"s (hello) are pretty exciting...I told her I needed to leave in order to finish my degree, and she smiled again "oh, just that? we have universities here! You have to stay and go to university here. Don't you like Georgia? Don't you want to stay? We can find you a husband." I told her maybe I would be back in two years and we can find me a husband then, and she said then (at 23) I will already be too old hahahaa
old maid on Georgian Independence Day 2016

Anyway, without further ado, here is:

You Know You're in Tbilisi, When...
  • You greet a friend, and he leans forward to kiss you, but you don't realize what he's doing, so you leave him awkwardly standing with his neck stretched out...
  • Half the locals swear you can drink the tap water and the other half is certain it is toxic
    semechki vending machine
  • The college-neighborhood pizza place closes at 10 pm, but the khachapuri and shwarma stands are open past midnight
  • Your entire office smells like semechki (sunflower seeds)
  • Most of your colleagues' days are organized around cigarette breaks in the hallways
  • Making out in public is punishable by $50 fine (allegedly)
  • Walking anywhere usually involves as much time in the middle of the street as the sidewalk
  • Crossing the road is a daring leap  frantic scamper of faith 
  • Little kids try to sell you cigarettes
    taking a nap in the shade in the fountain
    in front of Parliament
  • People on the metro/at Didube are selling plastic straws, paper icon cards, hand fans, power strips, books, bananas/weird chocolate, homemade savory pastries, children's toys, random small car parts, clothes pins (I have personally seen all these things)

  • You are nervous to eat outside at Entree because Roma kids will come up and beg or steal your food off your plate
  • You have nearly run into people on the sidewalk outside a church when they stop to cross themselves
  • News of a new burger or pizza place spreads through the expat community like wildfire
  • It's 36C/97F and everyone is still wearing jeans and all black
  • At the end of August the city miraculously re-fills with extremely tanned people coming back from weeks on the Black Sea coast
  • The smell of cigarette smoke and street dust has seemingly permanently embedded itself in your hair
  • The first question you ask someone is what neighborhood they live in, in order to asses their social status
    • Unless you're talking to foreign girls, then the questions are: 
      • Do you like Georgia?
      • Do you like Georgian food?
      • Do you like Georgian men?
      • Are you married? I have a son/brother/cousin/myself...
  • Wine is for boys, shots are for girls
  • Half the things you eat/drink come in old Coke or ketchup bottles (homemade wine, cognac, tkemali, ajika)
    kids playing "supra"
  • In absolutely any situation, if a phone rings, it will be answered - on the bus, an international conference call, a play, dinner with a friend.
  • When a 25 year old is constantly answering calls from his/her parents about where they are, who they're with... (since young people generally live with their parents until marriage, they are also not very independent)
  • When you start to see the same strangers around the city again and again
...and in the end, among all the chaos and noise and confusion and beauty and love and food and people and colors - you love your city

For more things people living in the former Soviet Union identify with, check out this post on Second World Problems.

peace out, homies
Also, I work for STA Travel, so #starttheadventure !!!! (I don't think hashtags do anything on blogs, but it's worth a shot)

    Sunday, September 18, 2016

    Goodbye, Mito

    I received some hard news this afternoon.
    A friend of mine in Kazbegi, Georgia has passed away. 

    His name was Mito Gudushauri. We met for the first time when my friend Kaley and I were traveling in Georgia in April 2014. It was my first visit to the country, and so far had only seen Tbilisi. I was rather unimpressed with Georgia at that point, since compared to Saint Petersburg (where I was living at the time), Tbilisi seemed like nothing to write home about.
    After a few days in the capital, Kaley and I squeezed into a marshrutka headed north to spend 2 days  in the mountain village of Kazbegi,. As soon as we started up past Pasanauri, my heart started beating faster and I immediately fell in love with northern Georgia. Kazbegi is my favorite place in the entire world. I detail my first visit more here, but here is the excerpt from when I first met Mito:

    "We found the marshrutka in Didube (see my previous Georgia post for a detailed description), Tbilisi's transportation hub, in the morning and came back in the evening for the journey. When we first scoped it out in the a.m. we met a man [Tamazi] who gave us a business card for a guesthouse in Kazbegi run by his brother [Mito]. I politely pocketed the card and forgot about it, since we already had a Lonely Planet-advised game plan for finding a guesthouse. When we returned to Didube later, the man [Tamazi] found us again and said his brother would meet us off the marshrutka. This time we had to forcefully decline. I finally conceded to call him if we had any trouble finding our planned guesthouse - he would be our backup plan. Turns out his persistence led to one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
    When we arrived in Kazbegi, we hopped off the marshrutka into a light drizzle and much colder air than in the lowlands of the capital. Waiting for us there was, of course, the brother whom we had told not to come. I am certain my Russian had been clear and firm on the point that this hostel was not our first choice, but these guys didn't let up! We managed to bargain the cost down to 15 lari (about $9- which we later learned was the lowest price they had ever taken in travelers for!) a night including breakfast. The weather was getting worse, he had a new, clean Jeep standing by, and the Belarussian girl intimated that we wouldn't find a better price in town, so we finally agreed and let ourselves be swept off to the guesthouse...
    Our hosts, Nata and Mito, treated us not like hotel guests but like family staying from out of town."
    Kaley and Mito
    Mito requested some "fotki-motki" before we hiked to Juta

     From that first encounter, Mito helped shape my impressions of Georgian life and culture. I have visited Kazbegi 7 or 8 times, sometimes staying as long as a week, usually with Nata and Mito. After my first visit, they never let me pay, but I always tried to leave a few Lari somewhere secretly so they couldn't protest. I spent sunny afternoons laying in the grass of the yard, listening to music and chatting while Dato (their eldest son) washed the car or Shalva (their younger son) sharpened a scythe to cut the grass or painted white bug repellent onto tree trunks.

    The title of this post, "Going Home to Kazbegi," about my first visit to Kazbegi last summer, shows how I feel about the family..."my Georgian parents" as I always call them. There isn't really a better way to describe our relationship.
    Nata scolds me when I break local social norms, Mito tasks me and Sopo (his niece and neighbor) with preparing a supra and lets us sneak in even though it was really just supposed to be for the men.

    During that supra, Mito was in the role of tamada and said some memorable things:

    -the most important things in life are, in order of toasts given- health, good neighbors, and children. Without health, you have nothing. Without good neighbors you just drink alone and that's bad. Without children you leave nothing. 

    -In Sweden, the social hierarchy from top to bottom goes: women, kids, dogs, men. In Georgia, men are the highest, and that's the proper way
    -if you don't finish the whole cup of "wine" (probably the size of 3 shot glasses) in one drink at each toast, you're not doing it right and get tsk-ed at"

    this is one of my all time favorite pictures of Kazbegi
    the animals in the street alongside the car, the gravel road (recently paved with concrete)
    and Mito, representing all the loving, warm-hearted Mokhevi men of the mountains


    Another excerpt from a Mito-adventure:

    "In the morning, I'm sitting outside drinking tea with Mito and two other neighbors. They're chatting in Georgian and suddenly Mito looks at me, "put on your sneakers, let's go"...apparently some plans were made in Georgian and not shared with me! But I ran in and grabbed my shoes, and it turned out we went to the Gveleti waterfall! A really beautiful setting, delicious ice cold glacier water, and a short, easy hike. Mito also drove me to the border with North Ossetia (Russia) so I could see it. "

    On the way to Gveleti, Mito saw a stranger having car
    trouble and stopped to help him jump the engine

    Mito was so excited to show me this Kazbegi treasure
    He made me pose for photos, so I made him pose too!

    Taking a break and tasting the ice-cold water

    Mito introduced me to that orange-ish homemade Georgian wine, and he was the first person I ever drank chacha with.
    He regaled me with the story of how he bride-kidnapped Nata when they thought their parents wouldn't approve of the match.
    He symbolized many of the struggles of rural Georgian life, but always had a smile, a hug, and friendly words for me even in hard times.

    Sometimes we don't realize the impact a person has had on us until it's too late
    Georgians are very good at avoiding this, actually, thanks to the supra tradition. Supra toasts are the safe, and in fact expected, place to bare your soul and express all the honest and heartfelt emotions you have for a person or a concept. Americans rarely do this - maybe in toasts at a wedding or on very special birthdays - but we usually wait until it's too late to really let someone know how we feel about them.

    Despite my considerable training at supras, I still rarely can make it through a really good toast without choking up - when I gave a toast to one my best friends, Elyse, in Sagarejo I started bawling. Part of this is just because I'm a crier, but part is because as an American I am not used to this opening of the soul, this outpouring of love and affection. Mito was one of the first people I heard give a supra toast...maybe actually the first. His toasts were always muffled through mouthfuls of tarkhun (tarragon leaves) and mtsvadi (grilled meat), obscured by broken Russian, often slipping into Georgian at the apex of emotion.
    He had this way of looking you right in the eye like you shared a secret, a little twinkle of common understanding that, even when I had no idea what was going on, still made me few special and included.

    I still can't seem to comprehend that he's gone. I keep pushing down a swelling urge of denial. It would be so much easier to let myself slip into a fantasy world that my family is still waiting for me, whole and intact, behind their green metal fence...
    From so far away, there is not much I can do, not much comfort I can give, no one to grieve with, so I did the only thing I really know how to do and wrote this post.
    I hope Mito's spirit of vibrant life and mischief comes through. I hope his memory stays on my heart forever, reminding me to take more fotki-motki, and be more playful and spontaneous. 

    To all those grieving in Kazebgi, I dedicate this post to you...Mito was a gift to everyone who met him, and I am so blessed to have crossed his path for a brief moment in time. 

    This is how I will remember Mito. Beckoning at us from some beautiful peak above.
    He is waving goodbye, but calling for us to join him someday in Paradise.
    Rest in Peace, my friend...