Monday, December 15, 2014

you are not from the castle

My first exposure to Kafka was like anyone else’s, a reading of “Metamorphosis” in high school. When you’re that young, it’s truly impossible to get a full grasp of the meaning of most stories - lacking the life experience, it can be hard to relate with something someone much older and more experienced has written. Of course, it’s main themes of alienation and loneliness can probably be pretty relatable for most teens; there’s still something more to the prose, however. A teenager has a couple of years of loneliness - an adult can have decades of loneliness, and that kind of dark decay of the soul is much more profound than you can truly appreciate when young. Of course, a teenager always thinks he alone can understand such a vast sorrow, but that’s not so.

To brush up on this understanding, and to see why a good friend of mine hated the Prague writer so much, I had purchased a copy of one of his collections of short stories and was determined to read it. This was back when I lived in Denver, with that constant level of fear and alienation I was feeling from my own culture building up inside of me. It wasn’t so much that I was in truth alienated, but maybe it was that I was at a point of life that if I wasn’t alienated, then there must have been something mediocre about me, and hence the fear. What greater and worst thing is there in life than to be mediocre? And when you look at all the greats of history, most have accomplished so much by the age that I was, in my mid-twenties, and there I was with a mediocre desk job, a mediocre salary, mediocre stories, a mediocre life. And there I was reading the Collected Works while sitting alone on my toilet, while Augustus Caesar meowed outside, clawing underneath the door, trying to save me from the depths of whatever renal attack he imagined the great porcelain toilet monster was letting me have. What else could all that noise be? he must have been wondering with great fear. If the God dies, then where will the mana come from?

Last Sunday, I went to the Kafka Museum, here in Prague. At the time of reading the greater hull of Kafka’s works while sitting on my toilet back in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, I had no design to ever live in Prague. I didn’t even want to visit the city, as it was already overused and outdone by hipsters throughout the town - “I’ve been to Prague, it’s so out there, on the border of civilization, and amazing and artistic.” Right, not really - I’ve been to the places on the border of civilization, and in those regards, Prague is quaint. You can quote me on that when talking to hometown hipsters.

The Kafka Museum is in a building where in all likelihood Franz Kafka never set a foot. The Mala Strana of his time was dilapidated and run down, smelling of fish and sewage and overrun by gypsies and fortune tellers. That’s not to say that scene was beneath Kafka, as he lived over in the Jewish ghetto or roundabout for most of his life, just swap the fish for some freshly butchered dead kosher products and it was roughly pretty similar dirt stained walls and caking of grime leftover from the greater days of the since fallen Holy Roman Empire. It was at that time, one of the principal cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though most of the newer construction, factories and development were taking place outside of the center. As this was before the advent of the airplane, tourism was slight, nothing like in today’s record numbers of Russians fleeing Vlad the Great’s ever tightening grip for a last and possible final breath of fresh freedom. Indeed, Prague was having its own problems back then, with the German, Czech and Jewish populations all about equal and all three equally discontent with each other. The Germans and Czechs were seeking out their own national identities - the Germans already as the elite of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of those who built up the city, and the Czechs seeking out the strength of their own identity - the first period in history where Czech was even spoken openly on the streets of Prague. The third ethnic group at large in Prague were the Jews, most of whom spoke German, and whose identity would often waver in-between the other two groups. That was the Prague that Kafka was born into, completely different from the Czech utopia now, where you’re more likely to here a hodge-podge of Slavic languages and English than anything German.

"The Piss" by David Cerny
The entry of the museum is just off of Charles’ Bridge, in a small square hidden from the main tourist walks by a gate. In the small square is a symbol exhibition of modern Czech art, a fountain by the much acclaimed Czech artist, David Cerny. It’s called "The Piss" and is composed of two male statues with rotating pelvises and dipping peters, pissing into a pool made in the shape of the country. You can write a message and send it in, and the male pair will piss out the message, like children writing their names in the snow.

The museum tickets (200 crowns, or about 10 USD) are bought in the gift shop, which is the door to the left of the statues, while the museum itself is on the right. You enter in, the large angry lady - there is no museum in the Czech Republic complete without a large angry lady - sends you upstairs. The first floor of the museum if full of the finer details of Kafka’s life - basically edited prints from wikipedia displayed in a slightly more visually appealing manner. By the end of this reading tour - of course, what can you expect from a museum about an author - you’re pretty tired and ready for a beer. But then there’s a staircase down and alas, another floor!

The stairs are appealing though, boosting you with some additional strength, and besides, there's no other way to exit. A dark, red light is cast outward from underneath each step, making it seem like your descending into the fires of Kafka’s self-prescribed madness. Down at the bottom, there’s an angled mirror, with a quote in German from Kafka, probably something like “There is nothing besides a spiritual world; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call Evil is only the necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.” Then you turn and you’re in a hall of file cabinets, never ending file cabinets, as the hall turns and turns and seems endless, symbolizing the bureaucratic hell that haunted Kafka, and influenced his writings towards misanthropy and loneliness. There is nothing that shoves your face into the compost heap of human existence quite like being a single cog - no, a bolt - in a giant organization, nothing that shows you how meaningless you are, when your own existence can be forgotten and subsumed by your lesser qualified coworkers. “You are not of the castle, you are not of the village. You are nothing.”

Then, a video display about the Castle, weird cardboard cutout scenes from Prague, quotes to belittle your existence and lots of smoke and mirrors. Then next room a dark fortress or prison, past the windows another video showing a man’s back being opened with a scalpel, peeling away the skin in various directions.

And then, like a Czech movie, you're standing outside, everything’s over but nothing has ended, and you scratch your head and try to figure out the meaning of what you just went through. But now you’re back standing in front of the pissing men, and all the meaninglessness is just about too much to handle.

Thanks God you're in Prague and there’s a lot of fantastic beer.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Polizei Folgen!

The police welcomed us to Germany. Still unsure of what it was like to drive on the autobahn, I decided to keep my speed down, so I stayed slow behind one car. But as other cars began to pass us, and I realized that my slow speed was a bit unnecessary and that I should just pass the guy, something like Christmas lights lit up in the back of his dark, tinted window. "POLIZEI" it read momentarily, and then, "FOLGEN". The two words kept replacing each other like they were vying for the goverment seat of Belgium.

"What the hell does that mean?" I asked my wife, whose German is no less than five hundred times better than mine. My German is limited to sausages, beer, and porn, with the notable exception of the ever useful phrase, "My nose is a gigantic flamethrower".

"Police follow," she said. 

"What police? I don't see any police," I said, somewhat confused, looking around. Was that brown car with the sign a police car? It didn't look like anything special. It turned off the highway and we kept going. "Huh, well, that was that. Maybe it was just some friendly anarchist warning us about police ahead or something?" Sure that sounds weird, but Germany has no shortage of weird people, and it's quite full of anarchists and Marxists and other authority hating types.

A few minutes we were in peace, left to ourselves to ponder the meaning of this sign. And then the brown VW sped past us, moved in front and slowed down, flashing it's sign at us like a man in a brown trenchcoat in a New York subway. "Are you sure that's not in the imperative?" I asked, ever concerned about proper grammar.

"I don't know, it just says 'police follow'."

"Not 'follow the police'? Are you sure?"

"Yes, that would be -" she said what that would be.

"Well, maybe we're supposed to follow them."

We followed them to the side of the road. My wife was about to get out of the car, but I stopped her. "No, no, you should never get out of your car. For one, if these aren't really police, then you wouldn't be able to drive away quickly. You never know who They are." They takes a capital here, since They could be connected to any network of conspiracies. And I've been reading too much Gravity's Rainbow as of late.

Both of the men got out of their unmarked car and both were carrying sidearms, though neither were in uniform - unless one were to consider their back to the 80s dress as a kind of uniform. He came up to the window and showed his identification, which looked about as official as my diplomatic identification, which is to say, it looked quite fake - a piece of paper printed off an office computer and quickly laminated by a foggy eyed intern who forgot his glasses. 

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"Police. You speak English?"

"Yessir," I confirmed in the politest way possible. This was not the time for bad German accents and cliche WWII jokes - "Jawohl mein Herr!" It's an unfortunate problem for Germans, that Nazi jokes will ever be present upon them, and no doubt some stodgy magazine editor is refusing WWII stories these days because Nazi Germans are so cliche. Just when will we see a brown haired, Jewish vegetarian Nazi?

This officer was blond haired and blue eyed, but that's where his relation to the master race ended. His English was passable, requesting ID from us. We handed our computer printout diplomatic IDs over and I gave him my Colorado driver's license - the only thing that looked official in this exchange. He went back to his car with his partner and they sat for a while, apparently making phone calls. His partner, dressed in a denim black jacket and denim blue jeans, came back to our window and said to us, "Um, your ids, maybe um, you um, yes. Passports?"

"Those are our IDs, we can use them as passports."

"Passport nein?"

"Nein. She speaks German, go for it."

And then he said no less than 100 words in German, which my wife translated as, "He says we should have brought our passports." He was either a wordy guy or he was saying something more.

My wife was bugging me with the "What's the worst that can happen" game, which is unfortunately the only part of my imagination that really can function. Seeing that she needed reassurance, I quickly suppressed my suspicion that these were not cops, but actually part of some underground, S&M Baudermeinhoff group bent on terrorising the countryside by kidnapping foreign nationals, bringing them to dank cellars, and putting large things where they don't belong, then selling the videos of all this on the Internet. Or maybe they were cops and would decide to arrest us, be convinced we were al'Qaeda spies, hand us over to the CIA where we would get tortured until we confessed to being members and then thrown into Gitmo for 30 years.

"He'll make some calls," I said. "Worst that can happen is that we have to go back to Prague and get our passports and we'll have to go to some country police station and prove our identity. And I guess we can forget about Nuremberg." That's good. Don't tell her what was really The Worst That Can Happen. We don't need any hysterical women around here.

About thirty minutes later, the first officer came back. "I just never see these passports. You no reissen passport?"

"No, just those diplomatic IDs."

"Okay, I, um."

"It's okay, she speaks German."

Happy, he started speaking long words in German. Something about waffels and schtaffels and fluegenfleiffels. My wife kept nodding and smiling and saying "Ja, ja, ja." 

"So what did he say?"

"He said we should have brought our passports," she said. "And he's calling an office to verify the ID."

"What an idiot," I said. "We're on the Czech border, he pulls over a car clearly marked for a diplomat, and we give him diplomatic IDs and he still doesn't get it?" Seeing now his intelligence, The Worst That Can Happen scenarios playing through my had started getting a bit more reasonable. To me, these do possible sado-masochist anal terrorists had started more resembling the guys in this video:

He came back with the IDs. "Okay, no problem. But you are two diplomats getting away from Prague to hook up?" he asked in German, translated by my wife. It was good I didn't speak German, since my answer would have been laced with sarcasm, "Yes officer, absolutely, we're just riding off to hook up. You know, like married couples do."

Later, I looked up "Polizei Folgen" on Bing translate. It says, "Police impact." Or in Hulk speak, "Police SMASH!" I'll remember that next time I see the sign. 

One last thing I might add: It's true that the autobahn has no speed limit. And it's fun.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Prague: a first (and second) glance

Much to my new bride's rejoice, we didn't take our honeymoon immediately. I was still with my parents and there was still much to do. We had scheduled the marriage on a date that would suit best my parents and they were due for a trip to Spain in September, one which I would join them on. But first, we would spend a week with my new bride in Prague, showing my folks around the city. So it was an awkward few nights with my love, where we huddled in each others arms - cough - with my parents in the next room. It was like a real Georgian marriage, which of course, wasn't precisely what we wanted, but the time for a Western style marriage would come later. For now, my mom was there and could cook and clean, like we know all proper mothers do.

But the cooking and cleaning came at a price and the price was to show them around the city. Prague, at first glance, is a medieval metropolis. It's crammed with all sorts of architectural novelties, the kind of which American cities have tried to copy for thousands of years. The one thing it truly lacks in comparison to American cities is boxy warehouse style looking buildings and roads that make remote sense - though they are certainly working on the former. Most annoying in the road design here is that one way roads often change direction and often several times. It makes drunk driving - an American national pastime, as how else can you get to the bars and get back home? - nearly impossible. This scheme, I theorize, is because the Czech powers that be want us to get out of our cars and walk - something most American politicians lose elections over. Make places nicer to walk and public transit easier and more comfortable to use, they say, and people will gladly leave their cars. Frankly, I'm convinced, but then I'm an easy target when it comes to public transit and pedestrianism.

Common sight in American restaurants
At second glance, the tourist mecca section of Prague is actually quite small. Small as a city is concerned, large as a beer-themed Disneyland is concerned. But then, where I've been living, Tbilisi, there is only a micro-sized touristic section, and in most American cities where I've lived, the touristic section is usually over-run by homeless people and self-righteous people brandishing assault rifles at Chipotle to prove their right to bear arms. "No, son, the white people with automatic rifles are just expressing their right to have automatic rifles in public places. No, son, they're not like the Wendy's guy, or the movie theatre guy. Yes, son, if they say okay, you can play with their rifles, why not?" Not the nicest of scenes, but that's part of why I moved.

Staromestska and Our Lady on the Tyne church
The first touristic site one must see in Prague is the old town square, or Staromestska, and the Little Square, or Maly Namesti. This spot I of course showed my parents to, and I've also met several of my parents' friends on. I actually think more of my parents friends have visited me in this city than my own friends, but I digress. Staromestska has looked about the same for just 200 years, when they completed the final tower on Our Lady of the Tyne church, a perfect example of architecture we imagine to be medieval but is actually from the 1700s, which is pretty late. Kind of a post-Gothic, neo-classical hodge podge of awesome, with several pointy peaks jutting from the roofs of the towers. Also found is the astronomic clock tower, which on the hour every hour opens up, with little figurines that appear from opened doors and then they disappear. It's really not all that interesting, but the Russian tourists are in awe every time because I guess they don't have such ancient technology in Moscow.

Maly Namesti, or Little Square
There are tons of restaurants and sidewalk cafes scattered throughout the two squares, and they should all be avoided at all costs, since the food is en par with American prices, but with standard European portions. And typically it's the most tasteless food in Prague, since those restaurants are all about location and none about quality. There are a couple of glowing exceptions, like the Mexican restaurant, Las Adelitas, found down a passage connected to Maly Namesti, and also a coffee shop down an adjoining passage. Outside of that, avoid these restaurants at all cost, and instead please yourself with a sidewalk beer or cinnamon covered pastry called a trdelnik. Lucky for my fellow beer drinkers, toilets in the restaurants tend to cost less than they do on the square. However, unlike in America, where if you pay for the toilet you get serviced by some smiling black dude in a blue suit and probably you’re in a strip bar surrounded by naked Ukrainian ladies brought to the U.S. on dreams that probably didn’t include strip bars, in Prague neither is likely the case - at least, here, no one working in bathrooms are likely to be smiling.

Other places we visited were all aptly named places, with possibly less imagination than the aforementioned Disney parks have, though their parks are based off the real thing, which is Prague. I'm talking about such places as the Castle, the Bridge, the River, and the Old Restaurant (which here is creative, since it’s only about 20 years old). Anyways, no one in history has ever accused Slavs of being creative with their naming of public places, at least not like Germans. In Moscow, we get such places as Building Named After Lenin and Red Square (in old Slavic, Pretty Square), in Prague we get the Castle and the Little Square, in Warsaw the Tower That Is Also a Science Museum, and in Germany, Neuhoffschtenschteincraginbaum. See who has the cooler names? But never mind that, because at least the Soviet camps had more clever names, like Camp Stone and Camp Snow. There are no places with names like Fist of the First Men and the Summer Islands in real life, so you can give up now, my fellow RPG gamers.   

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the wedding part 3: the reception

Folk dancing at the wedding
We ended up having the reception at a large restaurant called Dzveli Kalaki. I had chosen it a few months before, with the help of our bridesmaid in absentia, Salome. We went to several restaurants, trying to find my key ingredients - place for live music, no cheesy Georgian or Russian pop music sang by a guy at a Casio keyboard, and good atmosphere - and settled on this one, though it meant that my friends couldn't play their music. For that component, you would have to have rented out whatever place you were in. But with the location of the restaurant - way out on the highway - and with the number of our guests easily outnumbering the seats of the main hall, it was like we rented the place, as we were virtually to ourselves, except for one or two other tables taken by some parties of Jewish and Russian tourists.

The food was excellent, the price was more than friendly, they let our friends (like my godfather and Teo's father) bring the wine, and there was a live folk band and a guy named Boris Bedia who sang karaoke songs - he sang very well, don't get me wrong, I just can't understand the Georgian tradition of restaurants hiring only vocalists to sing over karaoke tracks. But again, he sang quite well, and much to my amusement, he sang Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb". Here's him singing it:

Also, my friends got to play as well. Most to my pleasure, my friend Shota Adamashvili learned Tom Waits' "Hold On" to play for our first dance. I had arranged it about a month ago, begging my old friend to learn it. It was the song that I imagine caused Teo to fall in love with me in the first place. It was one of the first songs I learned on accordion, and back when I was stumbling through verses in the dark underground of a bar named for the Italian movie "Amarcord", I was playing that song for her. She was there, waiting on our mutual friend Salome to show up, and I was looking at her and watching her and dying to meet her as beautiful as she was. And then when Salome came in and sat with her, I was elated.

The "first dance"
I've written all that about meeting Teo before. But it was my rendition of "Hold On" that really brought us together. And with Shota coming to the wedding, and with Shota being one of our favorite singer-guitarists in Tbilisi, it seemed only natural to ask him to play it for us, to surprise Teo. 

However, even the best laid plans of mice and men can be torn asunder by one idiot or another. So as she was pulling me on to the dance for and as I was resisting, I didn't want to break the surprise. "Why won't you come out and dance?" she kept calling. One of her friends had decided it was the best time for our first dance and played some weird tango which seemed to be played from a MIDI track from a Casio keyboard. "Hold On" then became more our second dance, but whatever, I'm still counting it as our first. When they called our names to dance the tango, I was resistent at first, not wanting to have a first dance that wasn't Shota playing "Hold On", but finally after Teo's insistence of not wanting to offend her friends, I relented.

"I've got something better planned!" I cried out as I was yanked onto the dance floor. And so we faked our way through a tango, I trying to recall the one-two-big steps I learned a long time ago in some class in Denver, a life that seems completely alien to me now as I write these words in Prague. My plans were breaking away, but nevertheless salvaged. "Damn your friends, damn Georgians! I will not consider this our first dance. I will consider our next dance as our first. You'll see and you'll agree. Damn it!"

Some of the guests from the groom's side
But all in all, it was a success of a night. There ended up being quite a few people, though I hadn't thought of inviting all my friends. My parents were there, as was my closest fellows at the least. One of my friends was able to dance with loads of ladies and kept quoting it as the best night of his life that he can remember, though I doubt he remembers much of that one. There was dancing - Teo surprised my parents with her Georgian folk dancing skills - singing, and only one moment where my fair new bride was worried about there not being enough xatchapuri - there was, I had ordered more than enough. 

Then the night wrapped up and ended at Betsy's Hotel. The hotel was the first hotel famous among visiting journalists, and is also famous for their modestly priced happy hour on Fridays, where now Peace Corps volunteers find themselves. I went there because I knew of their pool and how Teo loves pools, so I wanted that to surprise her. They gave me the room key earlier that day and I walked into the room. It was right across from the elevator and stairs, and the balcony was shared with three other rooms. I went back down. "Do you have another room available maybe that's a little more private? It's my wedding today, you see."

"One moment," she said and she went back behind the door to work her magic. She came back with a card to a different door. "This should be better."

Two huge balconies, overlooking the city roofs of Tbilisi. During the day, you could see all the way to the distant titan of a mountain, Kazbegi, the head permanently white from glacial ice and mist blowing off. So small from there though, following the gentle curve of Earth all the way to our bedroom. Yes, two balconies, a living room, a bedroom. Far from what I paid for. That was the room I brought my new wife to. You guys can guess what happened next.

Monday, November 17, 2014

the wedding part 2: a baptism and a wedding

Preparing for the Baptism
The Baptism took place in a side chapel. We had to wait for St. Mary's Mass to end, but it allowed for us to gather under the shroud of solemn music, with the chanting of the women from the other room. Getting baptised with me was an infant, who seemed quite a bit more terrified of the procedure than myself. But then the infant got dunked in the tub of holy water a bit more extremely than I was, with water only getting splashed on my face. I had invited my old host father from Bolnisi to be my godfather, as he and his family were the family that I had while living there, and I always feel to be one of the family when I visit them anyway, so might as well seal that deal.

After the Baptism, it was time for the wedding. "Do you have the rings?" the priest asked. Teo brought hers out. Immediately, I understood the classic movie wedding moment where the rings where somebody forgot a ring. I checked my pocket without purpose, as I knew exactly where it was - in my desk at home. In all my anticipation and excitement about getting married and looking proper and whatnot, I forgot the single key non-organic ingredient to having a wedding - the ring. "Shota!" I called over one of my closer friends and endowed him with the task of a quick retrieval. He ran off, jumped in a taxi and got the ring. Meanwhile, we just waited around with the bums continuing to harass everyone for money. You'd think after the third or fourth time to say that, "No, I haven't got my wallet, I'm getting married," they'd take a hint or something. but those guys were professionals.

The wedding begins in the Sioni Cathedral
When Shota arrived with the ring, the wedding finally begun. It was a typical Georgian Orthodox wedding, which is to say, completely strange to me. The weddings I had witnessed in Georgia before were factory weddings held in the bigger and more "important" cathedrals, where 20 or 30 people would be married at once. Here, we were the only ones, which was why I had wanted one of those obscure churches to begin with. But here, we were in the key historic church of Tbilisi, alone with our ceremony. The Church of the Dormition had existed for some fifteen hundred years, but with the building of Sameba not far away, it had become somewhat forgotten by the masses. We stood in a line in the center of the great hall, our best men and women to our right and left, Teo and myself, and the priest stood before us conducting the ceremony.

The crowns over our heads
The priest stepped forward to us and continued with the chanting. He took out two crowns and put them on our heads, as though we were the king and queen of the mass. Then we drank some wine - the Lord's blood - and the crowns were held above our head by our best men and maid of honor. With our hands in the priest's, we were led around the stand with the golden covered Bible three times. We were holding lit candles, and the hot wax kept dripping down onto my hand, it was all I could do not to drop the candle, as I assumed everyone else - Teo, the best men and bridesmaid - were having an equally difficult time with this. But then, before we could scream out, it was over. 

At the iconostasis
The priest took our hands and led us away from our friends and to the iconostasis - that part of older churches, usually made of wood, that blocks the altar so the ritual of transubstantiation is hidden from the gathering. The priest told us, "This is something I make everyone I marry promise." He turned to me, getting Teo to translate, "I want you to treat Teo as you would want your son-in-law to treat your daughter." And then to Teo, "I want you to treat Shawn as you would want your daughter-in-law to treat your son." These are hypotheticals sons and daughters, of course.

During the entire ceremony, I was beaming. I couldn't help but to smile. And this made the priest happy as well, as every time our eyes made contact, he cracked a smile and nearly started laughing. He might have never seen anyone so tortuously and idiotically happy to wed, or perhaps he was just amused about getting to baptise and marry a foreigner, there was no way to tell.

I wasn't really sure at what point we said the "I do's", as they were speaking some ancient dialect of Georgian that I couldn't even begin to fathom translating myself, but I meant it in every way I could, even lacking the understanding of when I was agreeing to what vows. I just hope that there was nothing to do with child sacrificing or cannibalism, which I'm fairly certain there wasn't. The candles extinguished and the guests lined up to welcome us into our new lives as one. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

the wedding part 1: religious fandango and hunger

The wedding itself was more than I could have imagined my wedding to be. We were first thinking of a small obscure church, and then having the receptioon at a small place, and then of course, being a musician with tons of musician friends, I wanted to at least have them perform a few songs. And I didn't want all the Georgian traditions to be overwhelming - I'm a fan of supras, or big Georgian feasts, sure, but also I was having lots of non-Georgian friends and Georgian female friends and for them and for myself, the toasting after toasting and the absolute totalitarian control expressed by the toastmaster can get a bit overwhelming - not that the control is ever realized, but it is certainly expressed.

Also, I had a baptism to do. Although I'm Roman Catholic, that doesn't seem to be good enough for the Orthodox Church to grant permission to marry one of their faithful - though the Catholic Church has no qualms administering sacraments to the Orthodox faithful. This meant I had to get a second Baptism, or an anabaptism, so to speak, in order to complete the nuptials with Teo at a Georgian church. And as I'm a sucker for ancient mystical ceremonies, I went ahead and pushed having a church wedding. For me it was merely a reaffirmation of my faith, as I've always understood the Orthodox Church as a sister church to the Catholic Church, nor do I really recognize the Great Schism - the foundation laid by God cannot be broken by the likes of man, no matter how much they insist. I'm undoubtedly making some gigantic theological blunder and would be condemned by the lot of white beards in their chat-tabernacles somewhere, but I`m going to take the Tupac way out and simply say, "Only God can judge me."

Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition
The priest that was going to conduct our wedding was from Teo's village, and said we could do it at some church in Vake, one of the non-touristic but nice neighborhoods of Tbilisi. But then Teo wrote to me one day informing me that it would be at Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition, which was one of my favorite churches in Georgia. The Cathedral was originally founded by the Georgian king, Vakhtang Gorgasali, who had founded Tbilisi in the 5th century. The structure itself is hard to date though, having been destroyed and/or damaged by invading Muslim forces from various countries and by earthquakes so many times that it must have been rebuilt as many times as there are bricks to make the cupola. However, the vicious cycle stopped in the 18th century, so it's at least 200 years old, though parts of it are as old as 1500 years. The outside itself is rather plain, but the interior, from floor to vaulted dome, is covered in beautiful and colorful murals depicting scenes from the Bible and from the lives of the saints. Ikons are displayed as throughout as well, as typical in Orthodox churches, with flickering candles lit before them signifying those who have sent their prayers upward.

The saint and his folks at the former Bina
We were early, so we found an overpriced cafe on Chardeni, where we were met by one of my friends Olajide. The place itself used to be called "Bina", Georgian for "apartment", and was decorated like an old Soviet apartment owned by a member of the Party. Bad grandma's wallpaper complete with pink and purple flowers, puffy chairs, heavy wood tables, displays of fake china, the works. The only thing lacking was the thick smoke from bad, smuggled in Marlboros, an overflowing ashtray and a gigantic plus-sized babushka serving up the cabbage soup, here replaced by a 0 sized pouty girl wearing see-through white clothes and hot pink underwear. After having our over-priced import beers to help calm the nerves - my mom, as ever in Georgia on the verge of crying and my dad and my friend Joseph warning me of the perils of women, we went on to meet everyone at the church.

As we waited outside for St. Mary's Mass to be said and for the Baptism to be started, my friends were gathering around outside. There wasn't any sign of Teo and I started to get a little worried. I wouldn't have expected a wedding to also run on Georgian Maybe Time. As we waited longer, we fell victim to the beggars that surround ever church in every land. I'm not opposed to beggars, except in moments of captured situations, like cafes and churches. They kept coming up, asking only for money, not particularly caring if we were there for a special moment in our lives - nor caring if I didn't actually bring a wallet to my wedding. They kept joining in and bothering everyone. I wouldn't have minded if they would stayed and chatted - but the only thing off their lips was money. The lack of money makes some nearly as terrible as the excess of money - for to them we were not people, but simply a means of procuring cash. Hunger - whether it's from one with a small, barely fed appetite, or of a monstrous, endless appetite - destroys the souls of many all the same.

Seeing the bride
At last, Teo and her friends appeared. I can't speak much of what filled me upon seeing her. I won't lie and say that there was a magic light that appeared and made her glow, but I would say the truth if I were to say that's how it appeared to me. And what joy I felt made my normally dour face spread into a smile, and stay into a smile, on through the night. The moment that I had long been anticipating had finally come.

Monday, November 3, 2014

the pre-wedding pseudo-bacchanale

After the trek through Svaneti, we went to the Martvili area, back into the heart of the Samagrelo region, where we would spend the week with the bride-to-be’s family in a village. The highlights were the tamada at Teo's house, who was a neighbor that magically showed up whenever alcohol was brought out as though he had some sort of radar set up in his household set up to detect pouring wine. On the third day we were ready to pass out and die from all the gregarious intake of food and alcohol. At any moment we would sit, Teo's mom would immediately start bringing out xatchapuri and cakes and mountains of food - and then the tamada would show up and start pouring the wine. It became too much for us weakling Americans, and even I - with the combination of the excellent hospitality and the terrible heat - was at my lowest state, as though kryptonite had been shoved into the hands of your beloved super drinker.

One night of many
During this pseudo-bacchanale, we took a break and saw some sights around my then fiancee's town in Samagrelo. First a quick trip to Kutaisi, in the neighboring region of Imereti, to cover Bagrati and Gelati. Bagrati I've already discussed to some degree. Gelati, I think, is even worthier of mention. Gelati is nearly as old as Bagrati, dating back to the time of David the Builder in the 11th and 12th centuries, who decided to build a "New Athens" - a new center for learning and religion - this decision being made in the later mentioned monastery at Martvili. The place now is under renovation, but not in the same manner that brought to me and UNESCO such contention as Bagrati. The renovations at Gelati seem a lot more suited and faithful to the original form of the monastery, and preserve the old and mysterious tone of the places. 

Gelati monastic complex
As is the custom with Georgian taxi drivers, our driver didn’t seem to know exactly where Gelati, our first stop, was. We ended up driving for a good thirty minutes through the outskirts of Kutaisi, asking ever birja-dwelling kaci where it was, and all of them pointing vehemently, “That way!” We kept going that way, and at a curious sign, saying Gelati was both to the right and straight ahead, we turned toward the right. As our station wagon lugged and blugged its way through a narrow, unpaved roads, with houses in various shapes of disrepair, I began to loudly doubt our choice of journey. “I don’t think this is the right way, guys,” I said. We stopped. The driver got out and consulted a woman standing on her balcony in nothing but a towel. He then nodded and brought us back to the sign where we chose the other direction for Gelati.

As for Bagrati, having been there before, I took over as navigator and let the guy know where to drive. I always feel silly having to tell Georgian cab drivers where major touristic monuments are, but that might be just me. I did leave out in my past blogs about Kutaisi what was beyond the wall right beside it, and this time, as I was there with my friend Joseph, I was feeling a bit more adventurous. We climbed up the wall and looked down at a huge complex of ruined castle, with one small chapel standing in the middle in a protest against time. There was no way to get down to it from on top of the wall, but then we found a path that went past Bagrati and around the wall so that you could walk among the stone ruins. This was, I found, probably the most interesting thing for me at Bagrati.

The castle ruins next to Bagrati
My next choice for our journey were the Prometheus caves. The Prometheus caves were discovered recently and were named after the Greek god who was allegedly chained down at the feet of Mt. Kazbeg for an eternity of vultures picking out his eyes because he brought humans fire. The Prometheus caves are evidently huge and you have to rent a boat - yes, a boat! - to get through them. This really for me was the highlight of the trip, since I had never been in a cave on a boat. As we were driving there, the driver kept asking us, “You are sure you don’t mean Sataplia? I’ve never heard of Prometheus.” And several times again he had to stop the car to ask directions. Finally, we found the caves. Evidently you can be there on any day but Monday, and it was a Monday.

“I can drive you guys to Sataplia,” the driver offered.

Inside the caves were lots of pretty lights
So, instead of the awesome, underground Styxian cave, we went to the nearby Sataplia, which I'll label here as the "children's cave". The Children’s Cave, to round out it's title, even comes complete with dinosaur footprints and the tour includes standing next to man-sized statues of the giant lizards for photo-ops. It was like being at some cheesy Russian wedding photography shoot. The Georgian name of “Sataplia” was given due to some cave bees creating gigantic sucrose catacombs of honey in the cliff sides. Well, when we were shown the outer layer, they didn’t appear so gigantic, but “gigantic” is a relative term and bees are quite small.

Next up, was the Martvili Monastery. The site was on top of a hill and had been used for religious purposes long before Christianity ever came to that soil. The pagans had used the huge oak tree at the summit as a site for worshipping earthy gods and sacrificing children, as you do. When the place became Christianized, the hill top residents chopped the tree down to get people to stop doing their pagan practices there and they decided to build a church. The current church dates back to the 12th to 14th centuries, and is one of the better preserved/restored complexes I've seen, retaining all the dark mystical attributes I've come to respect about the Orthodox religion.

Below Martvili
The last stop - it was quite a full day, yet to be topped with more eating, drinking and the tamada guy showing up - was Martvili canyon, a half-mile long canyon will with water, where you have to pay a guy to take you on a slow drift through the rocky trench. Be sure to buy some beers in advance and to shell out some 25 to 40 lari for the boat ride (per boat, not per person). It's well worth it though, since the place is beautiful and serene, despite the loads of local tourists that won't get out of your way for the perfect shot of the waterfalls.

As we floated down, one of the boat guides, a large 12 year old, got sick, jumped out into the freezing cold water and started coughing and/or vomiting. He crawled out onto a bank and we didn’t see him again. But this meant, as we were down one guide, I had to take the oar and continue our tour. After which I regretted not having loaded any beers onto the craft, but sometimes we must suffer for beautiful things.

After the three days of touring, eating and drinking, the next day we headed back to Tbilisi, so the real wedding event could begin.