Monday, September 6, 2010

Tbilisi Part I: The Palace of Senaki, Night Trains, & Georgian Weddings

Before I start, the above picture is of my Babua Rezo, who I’ve praised previously. He gets up to work on the farm at 6:30 a.m., and after we eat at 9:30 or 10, he brings out a blanket and pillow and sleeps on this spring frame we have in the front yard until we eat again at around 3 p.m. I can’t say it enough, but this guy gets it.

So I got back from Tbilisi and amazingly have the same stomach problems that plagued me during my first week in Georgia. I don’t know if it’s the water (not drinking out of a well), or the lack of farm animals outside of Bandza, but anytime I leave the village, I get a little bit sick. Most likely it’s the sporadic food and the amount of alcohol I drink. But I like to think that maybe, just maybe, I’m homesick for Bandza.

But I digress. A lot went on in Tbilisi, and when I started this post, I knew it would only be part one of a series of Tbilisi posts. But I didn’t expect to barely get to my arrival in Tbilisi by the end of the post. If you hadn’t noticed before, I was using the Georgian numbers to space out the posts, but now that I have 1-10 down, I’ve gone on to 11-20. Enjoy.

Tertmet’i – So before I even get to Tbilisi or the trip there; let me first tell you about another volunteer’s (Jennifer Wood) host family. When most of the volunteers get together, we’re constantly complaining about how bad we have it; the only thing I can compare it to is when a bunch of service industry workers get done with their shifts and go to the bar; all they do is complain about their night (“You should have seen this one customer I had…”). That may not be the best comparison, because we actually like our jobs (well, most of us do), but more or less, we’re just comparing how ridiculous our host family situations are. We’re constantly trying to out-do each other (like right now I would tell them how my host brothers just asked me if I wanted to go help them slaughter a cow). Jennifer can’t say anything.

Jennifer's family's compound in Senaki

Tormet’i – Jennifer is in Senaki, which isn’t too far away from myself, and I know a few other people in that town; let’s just say that it’s not the Sewickley Heights of Samegrelo. But somehow Jennifer is staying with the Mellons of Senaki, at least comparatively speaking. In her house they have a billiards room, sauna, indoor pool, sixty-inch TV, several dining rooms, an air-conditioned living room, and a bathroom the size of most bedrooms with a whirlpool. It’s ridiculous. The family apparently has a wine-exporting business, but we’re all convinced that’s as legitimate as the Corleone’s having an olive oil company.

Tsamet’i – Needless to say, my buddy Bill and I hung out there until we had to take the one a.m. mat’erabeli (train) to Tbilisi from Senaki (I played pool and nardi with the neighborhood boys [the house was like the neighborhood clubhouse, people just coming in and out at any time] while Bill serenaded all the married women on the piano; a fact that he did not know at the time and was worried about later). The tickets were just 5 Lari each (approximately $3) and it was only scheduled for about 6 hours while we each got our own “bed”. We thought, “Well if we get drunk enough, we’ll fall asleep when we get on and before we know it, we’ll be in Tbilisi at 7 a.m. with a hangover.” All was going to plan until we got on the train. The immediate thought was, “They’re taking us to the death camps.”

I go from Death Camps to the cutest little girl in Senaki. Jennifer's host niece who is shown here dancing to Lady Gaga

Totkhmet’i – I haven’t taken many third-world trains, but how bad can it be? Right? Maybe it was just the people on the train, because when we got on everyone was comatose. This could have been because they had the same thought as us (let’s get drunk), but it probably meant that the only people who take the night train to Tbilisi on a Tuesday (and only ante up for third class tickets) are the poorest and most desperate… like Bill and I. The “beds” were sleeping cots stuck into any place that would fit, and were about five feet long. Bill and I are both over six feet, and we were holding onto our bags for dear life; no matter how drunk we got, it wasn’t comfortable (actually, scratch that, because Bill slept like a baby the entire trip).

Bill ready to pass out in his sleeping spot on the train

Tkhutmet’i – I would have probably been fine if it weren’t for the situation involving finding our bunks. Jennifer’s host-brother Uda tried to show us to our spots (her host-mother demanded that she drive us to the train station with Uda in her giant Suburban [another mafia dead-giveaway]), but he had to rush off the train when it started going with him still on it (when he jumped off, we must have been going at least 40 km/hr). The attendant ended up showing us to our bunks, which were both already taken. The lady in Bill’s spot got up without complaint, while the older guy in my cot was not happy that he had to relinquish his sleeping post.

Teqvsmet’i – But eventually he relented and got down. But after I got up to my bunk, all the change in my pocket fell out as I sat down. It trickled down to the bed below me, and the lady staying there gathered it and gave it back to me, which immediately set the old guy off. He demanded that some of the change was his, and when I told him ara, ara, ara, he persisted, just getting louder and more animated. So my options were to not budge and have this guy giving me the business the entire trip while probably trying to steal something from me as I fell asleep, or I could give him the few Lari in change that I had in order for him to leave me alone; obviously I chose the later. As Dennis once told Charlie in It’s Always Sunny, “There’s probably gonna’ be some dicks out there.” No matter how nice I’ve found the Georgian people, odds were I was going to run into a few crazy assholes.

Chvidmet’i – I was going to Tbilisi to see the city, because it’s like the New York City of Georgia, only if America were only filled with towns like Lancaster, Scranton, and Altoona. The only day we were in Tbilisi (the night we flew in) we didn’t even get to see anything. But there was another motivation and also the reason most of the volunteers were coming to Tbilisi. Two of our volunteers, Rob and Ashley, who are from Rhode Island and have been dating for quite some time, decided to get married. Basically it’s a Georgian wedding certificate that makes them legally married in Georgia (and only Georgia). There’s good reason for this, and I’m surprised it took me this long to bring it up, but it hasn’t pertained to me, yet. Basically, in Georgian culture, it is expected of the men to have a few sexual experiences before marriage, while the women are expected to be virgins. I know, talk about double standards; in fact, if you really want to know what it’s like and maybe have your mind blown, read Tolstoy’s short-story The Kreutzer Sonata; depressing, but spot on.

Bill next to the largest TV in Georgia, at least that's what we believe.

Tvramet’i – But I digress. The point is that unless you’re married, you aren’t expected to have any sexual relations with you’re partner, let alone allowed to share the same room. Now I know there are many families in the states that may have the same expectations, but there’s ways of skirting the rules in the States. Here, not so much. We had a question and answer session with some real Georgians during our orientation in Kutaisi during which the subject came up and it basically came down to, where do we go? They said, “Go to the woods.”

Tskhramet’i – So Rob and Ashley had quite the predicament on their hands: either sit by and meet in the woods every weekend, or get married and actually be able to visit each other and close their bedroom door. You can see why it only took them about two weeks to pull the trigger.

Train Station in Tbilisi

Otsi – Hence the mass exodus of English teaching volunteers from Samegrelo to Tbilisi (by the way, people in Georgia who know what the program is, call us Misha’s Teachers in reference to the presidential power behind the program). There were to be about forty of us, and Bill and I decided to get an apartment so we could have people over if we wanted while also maybe cook something. It cost a little bit more than the hostel (about 14 Lari [$8-9] a night), but I think we were both willing to splurge just for that privacy, given the fact that at home, we have little of it.

Will add pictures later... (UPDATE: Pictures have been added)

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