Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Men with hats

Many people ask me why I'm so inclined to wear hats. It's usually after they take my hat and start trying it on for themselves, wanting to be a [person] with a hat, just like me. Everyone has to try it on, run to a mirror, giggle, and insist on wearing it for the rest of the evening, despite the sweat that has soaked into it, turning the beige straw into something more brownish or dirt colored. But they don't care - I guess that's just the price for being as bad as me. But here I've come now, reviving the old blog, to answer that age old question of my jealous beer drinking brethren, or of my curious students, or of the occasional passerby who gives me an awkward glance. Why do I wear a hat?

What coolness the accordion doesn't provide, the hat does
There are many reasons for my covering my head with something so cool and stylish like a broad rimmed straw fedora or a narrow rimmed trilby. And not numbering among the reasons is that I'm bald. Because I'm not bald. Though many people, after uncovering my crown, gasp in shock at my full head of hair - my hair is so thick that when I grow it out, which I never do, I can be a proud bearer of a whi-fro, rivaling any of the funkiest black brothers from the 70s in my follicles' denial of Newtonian physics. So now that I've got that out of the way, might I continue.

1. Birdshit.

Despite how fashionable my headpieces are, the real reason that I wear hats all the time is to guard myself from the near constant bombardment of feces that befalls me when I walk outside. One week, back in Denver, I was literally shat on by a pigeon every day of the week. I don't know whether it were a singular pigeon who found my cranium to be so tempting and hateful a spot or whether it was a whole flock of those scumsucking loungers of city statues that were playing some sort of fierce-some and cruel avian joke. But after that week, I vowed two things: to always wear hats and to always hate pigeons. I am somewhat often lax on the latter, but on the former I still head on strong.

2. The sun

This should go without saying. I have sensitive eyes that are prone to aching and causing headaches if light is bothering them too much. So sunglasses and hats seem to be an easy solution for that. When it is sunny outside, only a fool doesn't have something to shade his eyes. I am not a fool, though I do seem to be surrounded by such. People look at me funny for wearing a hat, but I return that look - "Why aren't you wearing a hat?" Why, if the sun were in their eyes, and also it's probably a high possibility that other pigeons are shit-stalking them as well, indeed, what kind of fools am I surrounded by? Of course, this is a good reason to wear a hat during the day, so for the night, I still refer to reason number 1.

3. Bank robbing

A hat is a good disguise. When you always wear a hat, you become known as "the guy with the hat." People recognize the hat - they don't really recognize you. When they see your hat in the bar, they know that you are there. When you don't have a hat on, it's like you've turned invisible. I've noticed this at several places of work where I have to pass through a security detail. On days I wear the hat - no problem, "go on through, sir." I don't even need an idea. But on days without a hat, there's always a full on body search.

Additionally, and certainly more forward thinking, becoming known as the "hat guy" will be of massive advantage to me when I do start up my time as a career bank robber. All the security, police men and journalists will be focusing on my hat - and my beard for that matter. And what would be a better disguise than to ditch the hat, shave and throw on some glasses? Nobody would know me then. Except for maybe the pigeons.

4. Cigarettes

I live in Tbilisi. It's possible that 98% of the people above the age of 12 smoke cigarettes. It's akin to the 1960s in the USA, except now they know without a matter of doubt that cigarettes leave your lungs to look like moldy, spoiled apples, soft and mushy to the touch, left in the sun for a year, with maggots breeding and dancing in the saucy leftovers.

But anyway, these things are besides the point. The point is that everyone smokes. And if you manage to meet a Georgian who doesn't smoke, it's likely a woman who's lying to you and smokes in the kitchen, too scared of all the shame that accompanies the smoking of a woman. As we know from experience in the States, women who smoke are all loose and evil and devoid of morality, unfit to be mothers and are not good Christian women. Or something. But again, I digress.

Tbilisi, along with being a city of walking chimney stacks, is also a city of mid- and high-rises and people who don't give a shit about each other. People stand on the balconies, looking at the other gray towers surrounding them, wishing for a life in Europe - but a Europe preferably without the gay people - and smoking cigarettes. When they're done smoking, they fling the cigarette off the balcony, letting that red ember fall and fall into oblivion - onto the street really, but their attention has worn off by that time. And herein lies my last reason. Every time I walk near a mid- or high-rise, I see one cigarette falling in front of me, to the side of me, or have one bouncing off my hat. If I didn't wear a hat, I don't know just how many cigarette holes I'd have burned into my skull, like the victim of a mad scientist performing test lobotomies.

So there is a non-exlusive list of three reasons why I wear hats. There are some I'm not mentioning, like their amazing sex appeal - especially now that I'm a taken man, sorry ladies - and there's also the fact that I usually stash weapons, prophylactics and bribe money under the hood - just in case. Or maybe I don't.

Friday, May 16, 2014

we are outsiders

Tomorrow is May 17, the day much of the world marks as the “Day Against Homophobia.” This is usually expressed in the West by Gay Pride parades, where men in tight, brightly colored clothing and/or drag march down the streets playing really cheesy and happy music. It’s an especially happy day today as the Q on the LGBTQRASLKDSF equation won out on Eurovision just recently, as the bearded man in drag ranked first in the music contest, since he was a bearded man in drag. But then, Eurovision hasn’t been about music in a long time and here I’m digressing.

Last year this time, I remember some events that took place in Tbilisi. There was a motley crew of mostly straight people, some Georgians, some foreigners, not really numbering over 20, holding up homosexual propaganda signs that said such family values challenging and damaging messages like, “Don’t hate gay people” and “God loves fags” or whatever. I don’t remember the exact messages, but I do remember that clearly, such messages were of such a convention to be endangering to the lives and sensibilities of the children - always the children! - as illustrated in this comic:

After this horrifying gathering, a 40,000 crowd of patriotic, crusading heroes descended upon that lone, peacenik 20 and tried to crush that infamous thing. Our heroes summoned within themselves the most animalistic of spirits to push them further, as they launched past the police blockade in a stampede of footage akin to Caesar leading the apes taking over Earth, rushing past and blitzing the buses onto which the small group of queer conspirateurs retreated.

It’s on this backdrop, in remembrance of such a day when Georgia’s future shined its brightest, when the Christian thousands showed their morality and willingness to slaughter the few, that we are living today. LGBTQI groups are under threat, gay friendly clubs are questioned and recorded by police, told that they would not be protected on the next day of the inevitable Kristallgaycht.

Now, with all of that in mind, I came upon a fellow Dive Bar alcoholic, Meghan, who wrote this blog:

(Click here to read)

And in her blog, she posed the questions:

Readers, have you ever lived in a place where your personal beliefs clashed strongly with the dominant culture?  How did you manage this, if at all?Could you ever settle in a place where your beliefs made you an outsider?

Those are tough questions. So I’ll number them to make them easier.

1. Yes. I’m living in one now.

2. There is a strong separation for me, for the us and them. But then, I had that separation all my life. I grew up a Catholic in Protestant Evangelical Oklahoma. I was into weird spiritual Wiccan stuff in high school. I listened to Marilyn Manson and NIN. I was a liberal in a conservative family. One of my closer guy friends in high school was gay and kissed me on the lips because he thought I was gay, not able to believe that a straight man could be so non-judgmental of him. And bless his heart, I still am not. But blah blah blah - most people grow up as outsiders in high school, since part of the human condition of self realization is loneliness. 

Any freethinking spirit lives life in a place that thinks differently from them - and what a terrible and crushing loneliness that is, almost to the extent it's better not to be freethinking - because they are a freethinking spirit and thus are doomed to question everything that others take for granted. In fact, anyone who takes the spirit of a willingness to be kind has gone against the dominant culture, because in order for a culture to be dominant, it must always crush all opposition. The will to power leaves no survivors, else it itself is destroyed, and that’s history folks.

But back to the point. I create a separation. I am me, he is he, she is she, and so forth. Each person acts according to their own will due to their own reasons. Each person has been led to his or her judgments and actions due to a long Pavlovian chain of slavery, that only very few people are capable of breaking out of, and even the ability to break out of that chain is granted by another chain of events. Within even the most vile man, within the man filled with such rage and hate that his soul is black and his canines are dripping with the bile of his enemies, there lies a kind of innocence. He is a victim more than any of his own. Because hatred is an outward effect of a rotten inside, of years of self desecration and immolation, of paralyzation of the heart. And that is the worst of parts, when we get to that point, maybe there is no hope left for the kingdom of God that has been written about, for that beautiful land of milk and honey that is actually here all around us, glowing in the daylight sun but so forgotten and out of reach, yet within an easy grasp.

I am an outsider. I grew up with my own norms and standards, even which were different from the culture that I grew up in. And I have to remember, each culture, as each person, is on their own path, their own trek up to the mountaintop. I cannot judge them for what route they take, or how long they take, or how lost they are along the way - how far behind I am from others? This is the most important thing to remember: growing up in the same conditions, I would be one of them, one of those stragglers I perceive as far behind. For what reason would I be thinking differently? For what reason would I be someone not rushing past the police crews, to smash the windows of the yellow buses crawling through the crowd?

3. Again, that’s anywhere. We are outsiders everywhere, one in all. Even those people who seem to be banding together in hatred of homosexuality, in the fear of other ways. Each one of them is lost and abandoned, feeling within themselves such isolation that the only way they feel they can define themselves is by uniting in some absurd cause that, when really analyzed, makes no sense, but when wrapped in the blankets of the flesh of thousands of people, seems to be something capable, something powerful, something awe inspiring and great and meaningful. Because isn’t that what we’re all searching for? Some sort of meaning to let us live another day in some satisfaction of our cursed wanderings in this drivel of creation?

For those who say God loves us unconditionally, I ask, for what reason should He, for what we do to each other and what we’ve done to this world? And if He loves us all unconditionally, how can we act with such condemnation towards each other? Would our fathers and mothers be content by our murdering our siblings, no matter how wayward we might think they are?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

how I met her

We met a year ago in a smoky bar. To be honest, all bars in Tbilisi are smoky, but this was a special smoky bar, since it served as my third place, my home away from home. Antique dining and sitting chairs, all on the verge of collapse, lined Soviet sewing tables, which were artfully painted and had famous quotes written all over them, filling up the small two rooms of the place. On the wall were any number of movie posters or paintings by the owner of the place - the paintings looked like they were drawn by a 12 year old using substantial amounts of LSD, they were scrawlings with possibly clever meanings, or paintings with meanings too abstract for the non-acid fried mind. There was an old Soviet bed in one room, where when you sat you sank nearly to the floor, as the springs held up like a hammock. My favorite thing about the place was the toilet, where there were cut out pictures of different movie scenes that featured toilets, and of course, this one:

The lid of the toilet tank had been removed, revealing three rubber duckies making their rounds up and down. The place was, in a word, eclectic, and even the concept was eclectic. The owner could never figure out what he wanted to do with it. Did he want it to be a cafe? A coffee shop? A bar? He kept transitioning through these ideas like a wind transitioning through mountainous landscapes. It would be the eventual death knell of the place - that and the underground layer becoming ridiculously hot and stuffy during the summer months. Now, without help from the landlord, it stands empty, even a year later, with only the remnants of the bar that was.

I used to play accordion there, nearly every week. I had started there on Thursday nights, but then moved to Friday or Saturday nights. I didn't play for money, just for beer and whiskey, the two things I'd be spending most of my money on on weekends anyway. It was great. Some people would regularly come to see me and occasionally there were some new faces, but as the place was small I rarely had over ten people in there. It was intimate, casual, and it didn't matter that I wasn't really good at playing accordion or singing - I could fine tune my skills and get used to playing in front of people. And at least, for one night out of the week, I could feel special, I could leave behind my sorrows, my thoughts of what I really was - a wannabe writer, an English teacher, a traveling vagabond, that is, anything but a success. But one night a week, one night every two, I could abandon that wreck of a being which I had become and pretend to be something else. I could pretend to be this cool underground artist, that only the lucky few knew about, playing and singing like Dionysius, and for cheap, able to extend my alcohol infused trip into the unknown states of mind in this far off land.

Back when I was in Peace Corps, I met this girl named Salome, who I later became friends with. She found me out from my rantings on this very blog and learned that I was trying to get Internet access set up at the youth center, so the local youth could have a free place to go and use the Internet - I never told her that, instead of using it for educational purposes, they mainly just sat there flipping through pictures on odnoklassniki, like a Russian Facebook, but since everyone does that here, I assume she knew - she helped me get some funding to set it all up, and a couple of months of cash to keep the service going through a while. The only other Internet access in the village was at an Internet cafe on the other side, or from USB dongles that only the wealthy could afford. Salome and I maintained contact through the years, and she became a somewhat regular at my shows.

Then one show, Salome was quite late, and non of my other usual crowd were there on-time, and that's when I saw a girl I had never seen before. She was wearing a flowery scarf - April always has unexpected weather here anyway, so that was nothing strange - and her majestic cheekbones stood like the Temple of Artemis - those cheekbones were the first details of her face I fell in love with, even before I spoke to her. At first she was in the back room, and I only gave her a few glances, always newly shy around beautiful women I didn't know. I looked at her from the corner of my eye each time I went up to get a beer, and when she moved to the main room after I started to perform, I asked her her name. "Teo," she said. She even had a name that meant "goddess"! And then I found out she was a friend of Salome's, waiting for the latecomer, though usually Salome was a punctual person. But it was good that she was late this time, since I got to talk to Teo. As the night progressed, after Salome and others arrived, I took all my breaks at their table, attempting to learn a little more and a little more about her with each rest. Indeed, being near her was a relief - a relief from everything, from the great energy it takes playing accordion, from that ever growing darkness of the reality of my existence. Yes, she was a goddess all right, with the power of only her voice, her whisper, to soothe my aching soul.

The night ended with my usual habit of drinking too much free booze and talking in drunken rants about Dostoevsky and existentialism - habits that typically work pretty fast in scaring off the exceptionally beautiful girls. But not this one. She sat at my side all night, as we traversed Tbilisi, and as I kept on about the darkness, about the decadence of modern society, about people preferring to buy iPhones rather than toilets, and Mercedes rather than beds. It wasn't just her love for Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen that immediately drew me, but also her profession of an equally undying love for the ramblings of Dostoevsky. And then, that night, and forever after, I was hers. We've had our troubles, of course, like any couple, but I never have real focus or light except when I'm near her. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

wandering through time

To be in a place rich with memories is like to travel through time. One step across the stones onto my old concrete patio, with the morning's first rays of the sun shining through the grapevines, I'm instantly transported to years ago, when I first lived in the house. Or, I'm not transported, but I should say rather the time is transported to me, or that the two converge on top of one another. At the same time that I'm looking at a light dappled pavement, I'm also seeing kids in plastic chairs, slouching back, paying some card game for hours on end, slamming down their own card with each earnest intention of victory. One teenager is watching their progress, swinging in the hammock, which is covered by a red fabric, so that the pressure of the ropes is alleviated. And they're gone, and another moment - the same place, just different instance - I'm swinging in the hammock, and it's light again, and I'm trying to read a George R.R. Martin book, Dance With Dragons maybe, and two kittens are clawing at my underside. I give up with a sigh of frustration, reach down and let the two crawl up my arms, where one of them - the black and white, not the orange one - without a breath licks my hands and face over and over again, as if he were actually an overly loving puppy.

Time ebbs and flows. And now that black and white kitten is a large cat, tangling itself at my feet, now looking up at me, and looking on, following my sight, perhaps wondering what I'm seeing, though I wonder if memories hang on such a loose thread of time for my cat as they do for me. The table and plastic chairs are there again, but this time it's my parents sitting in them, and I'm bringing them breakfast - an omelet and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and coffee. When my mom first saw the place where I was living, with the mushrooms growing in the wall, its constant leaks, the low ceiling, the small bedroom smelling of musk, with centipedes always running for cover when the lights were turned on, she cried, "Where is my son living?" And I'm sure it seemed a curious lifestyle for someone with a Master's and who had just begun a life term career with growing success, with a nice apartment in a nice city in a nice country.

I decided to take a walk - literally, one down the side of the river that curved along the side of the village. Large hills rose on both sides of the valley, and on the largest hills were crowned with churches. Between the hills and the river were gently rising slopes, covered in vineyards, with an occasional worker out, even though it was the early morning after Easter, the sun just risen and the day still feeling wet from the dew, humid even, before the sweltering of an early summer day set in. It's still spring at this hour. And I'm jogging. Not now, but then. The land had virtually stayed the same and it was hard to tell what was the past and what was the present and perhaps even, if I were seeing into the future. Across the river, where there were once the ruins of a German lumber mill, now stands a brand new hotel and restaurant, empty except for the grounds keeper. But maybe the ruins are the future and the hotel the past... And a great dog - a Caucasian shepherd, a massive, hairy beast that looked closer to a bear in kin than a canine - rose from its spot behind a bush and declared it its own. I slowed my jog and picked up a rock. Not that a rock can do much to one of those behemoths, but it could send the message that I'm not to be messed with, past my shaking and self doubt and lingering confidence, despite the yelling of my instinct to GTFO, I still had that message made of granite in my hand.

But the dog was no longer there and I wasn't jogging, just walking leisurely. A man on a horse rode past me. He was riding bareback, using a blue tarp as some makeshift reins. He rode to a vineyard, tied up his horse and started his days activities. No dog to be seen. And the sun higher, hotter. It was hotter then, on those early mornings I was jogging and sweating. I had to force myself to keep active, since I lived right next to my work. Always a dangerous thing. We get fat in our physique, but it's also a dangerous thing to get fat in our minds, in our abilities to question. When we begin to accept the lives we are given, we've already died a little. It is always important to rise up and take something, to create something, to destroy something. Each is the other. The creation of a masterpiece is the destruction of an empty canvass, beautiful in its own minimalism, but without its destruction it serves no purpose. And what is the purpose of a masterpiece?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

the Tbilisi metro

The Tbilisi metro, the remnants of the glories of the old Soviet empire, though the superficial symbols, like brass Lenin or Stalin heads, had long ago been removed and replaced by the more Georgian symbols of roses and crosses. Everything else seems untouched, with cracks in the walls and peeling paint where there still is paint. Advertisements are occasionally plastered onto the walls, but even those look ancient, as though they were from ages past - the hieroglyphic marketings of a proto-Georgia. The escalators continue in fine working order, steep and fast as in any Soviet built metro, the extremities of these two dimensions almost able to be compared to an amusement park ride by uninitiated Westerners. I've heard it's improved a whole lot since the 90's, when trains would stop working mid trip and the lights would unexpectedly go off, but those days are over.

As I descend, I watch the crowds of people who had just got off one train, and hope that my train will be soon - but not too soon. The scheduling of the trains seems bizarre and random, sometimes during rush hour I have to wait for over five minutes to get on a train that is bursting at its seams with passengers, and at non-peak hours, I wait for only two minutes and step onto an empty car. Like in most things in Georgia, planning is always an afterthought.

While I go down, watching the people pass me going up, they all watch me as well. All eyes to the local non-Georgian, like in a zoo, it becomes impossible to feel ignored or one of them or - blessedly - invisible. As soon as you step past the turnstiles of the metro, wearing anything but black, you become as though stuck in a concrete cage, iron bars on one side and open sky, everyone watching you because you are different, waiting for you to do something unexpected, to rap, to sing, to dance, to do something that they could talk to their friends about. To do something.

The isolation of a zoo. 

I step off the escalator, putting those thoughts aside and I move onto the platform, always in a slight hurry, praying that the train would be soon. I look up at the digital clock. 10 seconds. Good, it will be here shortly. No - I forget - the clock counts up. It lets you know just how soon you had missed it. It doesn't let you know when the next train will come, because, a voice in the back of my head reminds me, perhaps no one knows that answer. No engineer, no conductor, no one knows. A schedule is a myth perpetrated by societies of decadence and sin. Relax man, it comes when it comes.

And it comes. And the people squeeze on, no room to move, like being wrapped in swaddling clothes, except these swaddling clothes are made of people not cloth, sweating, smelling people, many of whom maybe don't have gas or water at their homes, some of starving children, or thieving children, trying to survive reptilian drugs that savage across the skin. It's life. At least my gas clicked back on yesterday and I got a shower, but after the metro, or the bus, or a marshrutka, I often question the utility of my showers.

I follow the first guy onto the car, and he stops within one step. The next person moves no farther. But I see space there in the middle, no ones standing in the middle, no ones standing away from the door, why don't these people move? And I push them out of my way, so that I'm not in the way myself. I hate being in the way, but this tall bald guy in a green army style jacket doesn't seem to have the same disposition.

The train stops. Time to get off. People pushing and shoving. It's chaos. The people on the outside of the train trying to get in before the people on the train can get off. More pushing. I have to elbow someone, to dodge an elbow myself. If people would just wait a moment, to let us off before they got on, there would be no fighting and everything would be quicker and smoother. By waiting, sometimes we save time, if only everyone were waiting the same. But here, no one waits. It's a gladiatorial arena in the metro, losing means getting trampled to death or thrown off the platform, winning means getting mashed in-between two babushka behemoths holding sacks of potatoes which they wield like iron morning stars.

Now freedom. Now a breath. Now a look at the bronzed face of the Georgian thespian, Marjanishvili, founder of the Second State Georgian Theatre in Communist Georgia - true to this, the face is in Socialist Realism - watching the hurricane of violent movement the metro system creates. And back on that steep and quick ascent, back out of the cavernous metro, under the overcast skies of a Tbilisi spring day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

why Ukraine is important (for me)

Church at Pechersk, in Kyiv
All the world's eyes have temporarily left other conflicts and focused on Ukraine for the last two months. Indeed, there's always an importance when Russia decides to rake her claws at another little neighbor - and though Ukraine is by no means a small country, it's still a fraction the population of it's larger kin. Anyone who follows my private account on Facebook has noticed that I've been keeping up with developments constantly - whether reading the right news sources or not, who knows. When a guy I know from Honduras, made the comment on one article, "You should post about, Afganistán, Irak, an Siria or maybe that is just democracy," it kind of irked me, with the implication that I was just following the news about Ukraine because everyone else was - and since half of my friend's list live in Eastern Europe, it certainly seems to me that everyone is following those developments. While it is true that the media's Eye of Sauron has certainly focused on Kiev, is it fair to all these other conflicts and warlords that they're not getting the same amount of attention? Should I split up my attention equally on all the world's problems, and then allow my head to explode because that's about the only productive thing I can do about all those things? Even if I signed up for a mercenary army, trained for six months, and jumped into the middle of it, could I as a single man make all that much difference anyway, like some Captain America staring down the Red Skulls of Putin or Assad? And how to choose which one? Choosing one conflict would make the statement that all the others are insignificant, wouldn't it?

Syria though, was and is an interest to me. Why? Because a friend of mine who I've known for two years is from there, and I know that his family is at risk. Also because it's two countries away, and the geopolitical framework is such that it could have easily spilled over to neighboring territories and sucked Georgia into a wider conflict. But thankfully, Russia pre-empted that spillover with its own chutzpah maneuverings in Ukraine. And if I have to rank which is more important to me - the endless wanton slaughter by Assad's regime and the rebels fighting him, or Putin's fandango with Crimea and the possibility of the development of a truly democratic Ukraine, I'll have to go with Ukraine.

Ukraine is new. That's why the news latches on to it. They're vampires - or better, mosquitoes - who jump onto any new thing and suck all the blood out of it until it can find another new conflict. Really, that's why its' called "the news", because they're supposed to deliver new information. A 13 year old conflict - like in Afghanistan - despite all the pain and bloodshed that has gone on there, for both America and Friends' soldiers and for the native folk who have had to put up with one army after another rolling through their poppy fields - well, it's not new. 13 years, by any definition, is old. It was news when they got bin Laden. But after that, when Obama decided to keep us there for who-knows-what-reason when he could have jumped on an aircraft carrier, said "Mission accomplished" and brought everyone home, it was no longer news. Same old same old. And it sucks to have to say that, but when every day's headlines are "Marine dies in conflict, kills 3 Taliban", you just grow to wonder exactly how large is the population of Afghanistan and how much more can it take for all of them to be wiped out? Or is it that our friends in Saudi Arabia just have an endless bucket of wahhabiists to lob over there? And what are we fighting for? Revenge? We've killed enough, yeah? Resources? All they have are poppy fields. Access to the Indian Ocean? We're not tsarist Russia. So yeah. No news.

Ukraine is new. Iraq we've pulled out of. Now they're fighting again. No major changes. People killing each other in places where people kill each other all the time anyway isn't news. That's why in the US you never hear anything about Detroit or Baltimore. It's just not news.

Ukraine however, is something new. Other than the problems concurrent in Venezuela, it's been the most recent thing to happen. And it's overshadowed Venezuela because it's a situation that brings up the limits of NATO's diplomatic power and purpose, and could - though not likely - drag the Western world into war with Russia. And when the Western world gets into a war, it goes global. Venezuela is a local conflict, and whereas I could care more about it, I don't. And I do care more about Ukraine, but not for the reasons stated already.

For a long time I've had an interest in Eastern Europe. In university, I studied Eastern European history and Russian language. During the 6 years of my boring desk job, I thought of various ways to relocate to this side of the world, and then when I joined the Peace Corps, I finally did relocate. And though I was really hoping for Ukraine - because I've always had a curious interest and delight for Slavic cultures, not just Russian, but all of them - I got Georgia, which was just recently pulled into a war with Russia, through Putin's clear and clever provocations.

The Ukrainians, luckily, are a little more familiar with the provocation game than the Georgians, as their leaders from the ramparts were constantly warning them against being provoked. Provocation is a classic Soviet and Slavic game, one played throughout the centuries in a constant dance of power and struggle. It's what makes them such damn good chess players, and what makes their history so provoking for me to study. And as history progressed, their skills progressed, Lenin and Stalin themselves students of the Germans, who might not have fared with chess insomuch as they fared with war. Bismark was the master of provocations, so much that when he mastered the Alsace-Lorraine in falsified claims against France, most people simply shrugged, no matter that those events would lead to the depths of despair that was World War I not long after.

Maidan before the ramparts
After my tenure in Georgia, I left and eventually landed in Kyiv, where I spent three amazing months - not just in Kyiv, but also in Kharkiv and Lviv - where I met tons of people and made connections with some where I know I can always just drop in and say hello and they'll be there for me. When looking at videos of the struggle on the ramparts of Maidan, I looked at them with the eyes of a friend - I knew some of those people. When I saw the video of Maidan activists being rounded up in Kharkiv by pro-Russian brutes, I was touched, because I recognized some of them. And the Ukrainian situation isn't isolated on those borders - I also have a handful of friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A war between those countries is a personal thing for me. I don't blame anyone with friends in Venezuela for keeping an eye on their news, or with people who have friends in family in the military for paying attention to Iraq and Afghanistan. I used to have friends serving in those countries, and most of them came home safely. But now I don't have friends in those areas, so they concern me less. Though I do have a friend occasionally doing NGO work in Kabul, and I do care for him as well, but I've faith the US military has him covered.

So these other conflicts are no less important on a global scale. They all effect someone. Somewhere, someone's mother, father, son or best friend is struggling, bleeding and dying. But they're not mine. My heart is big, but it's not so big. And if it were so big, there would be too much darkness for it, so that the darkness would consume my heart, rather than the other way around. If you are so big to be personally concerned with every ill that happens in the world, then bless you. May your strength be a beacon for others to swarm around. Meanwhile, I'll do what I can for my Slavic and Kartvelian friends, not that passing along Putin jokes is doing much to begin with.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

a sense of time

My high school band teacher once said, "If you're early, you're on time, if you're on time, you're late, if you're late, you're dead," the common Georgian version seems to be, "If you're early, you're crazy, if you're on time, you're early, if you're late, you're on time." The Georgians certainly aren't unique in this stereotype, most Mediterranean peoples fit this tendency of perpetual lateness - and being similar to other Mediterranean people is something Georgians take pride in, except in regards to pizza.* It's the Northerners in Europe that have the stereotype of always being on-time, like Germans, Swedes, and Estonians. As for Russians, they seem all over the map, as some people I've met say they're quite punctual and others say they have no sense of time whatever. In my personal experience in regards to Russians, it's true.**

As for me, I grew up in mid-Western Tulsa, a driving city that has always seemed big on punctuality, and I've always learned it's extremely rude to be late. And if something is rude to other people, it means they are not considering those other people; so then if someone else is late, it's because they're not considering you. I first came to work in Texas, where punctuality also seems to be important, except for "fashionable" people, and as we know, fashion comes from France, where it's fashionable to be rude, and thus late. Living in Georgia, I've found people are usually about half an hour or an hour late to almost any sort of engagement, as though they've got a schedule like an American dentist. The usual excuse is traffic - as if no one has learned that traffic is just about always the same given certain times - but the usual actual reason is that they bumped into someone they knew while on the way somewhere and breaking away from someone for the reason of a schedule is more rude than actually making it to an appointment on time. At least, that's the only reasoning I can wrap my head around. However, as soon as you stick a Georgian behind the wheel of a car, they become the most anxious people about getting somewhere on time or early. It's a transformation that is almost as complete as Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk.***

Having lived in other places abroad, I've found myself more inclined to punctuality, though I've learned to master time so that I can be lazy about getting anywhere, hating to rush. If you calculate the rough time it takes to be somewhere, and then plan for that, you can take your time with anything. Good time management allows a naturally lazy person to be lazy about everything. Which is why I've grown to be a master at time management - I hate rushing anywhere. And personally, I like the journey almost as much as the destination, so I like to give myself enough time to walk and take the bus and whatever else is needed without ever worrying about being late. Then I can let my mind wander and go through it's creative process, thinking about songs or stories or just enjoying the very breath of life that sweeps the city streets in all their congestion and madness.

From what I saw of Poland, I could tell the Polish were big on being on-time to things, but in the typical, maddeningly Slavic inconsistent consistency. And Beata, my hostess, truly reflected this. She just hated waiting - and making other people wait - to such an extent that she eliminated all waiting times for public transit - causing her, to her dismay, to often be late. Where we could stroll from her house to the bus stop in five minutes and have a two minute possible wait, she would rather just run from her house to the bus stop in 3 minutes and make it just before the bus closed the doors. How she perfected this manner of travel, I have no idea, but it always seemed to work for her, and I guess served as a form of exercise, since she was always running from one place to the next.

From the moment I met Beata at the airport, we were on the run. We first ran to ATM so I could withdraw some cash. Then we ran to the tourist desk to find out where to buy a train ticket. Then we ran to the little shop that sold train tickets. All so that we could make it to the train on time. When we found we were late for the train, Beata threw up her arms and was angry. "Was that the last train?" I asked. "No, it wasn't, but we will have to wait twenty minutes now!" "That's not so bad is it?"

One night, we decided to visit the historic Villa Nuova just outside of Warsaw to see a light show. At the palace, they were doing an Alice in Wonderland themed holiday light decoration. As Hasaan and his wife both had to work, we met them in the evening at a small bar mliecny, or milk bar, a Communist era type cafe that serves a surprisingly small amount of milk products for being called a milk bar. Mostly milk bars serve dumplings and beer, which is fine by me, I suppose, since I do rather beer to milk. And the dumplings in Poland have a far greater variety than the four types in Georgia, so I was both impressed and satisfied with the selection, choosing the dumplings stuffed with spinach and feta. Since we both had to wait for the working class folk that were my friends and we had to eat, we had a somewhat late start getting to the palace.

"We will be too late!" Beata chanted in the back seat of the car. She clutched her hands tight, watching as our car only meandered through the streets of the downtown.

"Relax, we won't be too late," I reassured her. "And if we are, no big deal. We'll just go get a beer somewhere around there."

"But I want you to see the place, to enjoy it," she said. It was her honest intention, though her fear was not well founded, as I already had a positive impression of the city and country, just from my wandering downtown and our short walking tour of the old town.

"I enjoy drinking beer, too." The light show was somewhat underwhelming and small, though neat. However, what was really overwhelming was the tasty sausage and the male-female ratio in the bar we went to afterwards. The tasty sausage I'm referring to was emanating the smell that made me starving as we waited for my order, and not something alluding to the male-female ratio. As for the ratio, it was something around 5 - 1, with women in the majority, which led me to the thought if I ever become a single man again, then I'll find myself moving to Poland (though I was equally impressed with Lithuania, so it's a real toss-up between the countries of the formerly great commonwealth). And the women, by the way, looked as though any one of them could have starred in this video:

Of course, as I mentioned in the last blog, the trip ended in the Powilnom district on Nowy Swiat. While smoking our shisha and talking to the other world-traveling Poles, Beata suddenly stood up and made the statement, "We have to go, we will be late for our train!" Thus ending my trip to Warsaw with a brisk, drunken jog, making it just in time to catch our way back home.

*Mayonnaise on pizza guys, really? After 5 years, I still can't get over this.
** Stereotypes in general are not rules or truths in regards to individual people and shouldn't be depended upon when judging an individual. I state this because some of my readers apparently don't have the mental capacity to wholly understand that and that they don't understand that most American humor relies off of playing with stereotypes and making fun of those who believe in stereotypes.
***Again, a stereotype! Not true for everyone! Though, really, it is true for the vast majority of Georgians.****

*****Actually, not really. It's true. Georgians are pretty much, mostly the worst drivers I've ever seen.