Monday, August 18, 2014

strangers on the road

The Juta-Roshka trail had been taunting my friend Ben for years. Even though he had been able to break on of Georgia's more nearly insurmountable peaks, Kazbegi, he wasn't ever able to take this much lower situated pass. We had first discovered the beauty of the place during a short visit to Juta, wanting to spend some time in the mountains near Tbilisi that wasn't Kazbegi. But we had only hiked to the base camp of the peak, since we didn't know enough about the country. My Chinese friend Moomoo also attempted the trail but could never manage it. On her first attempt, starting at Roshka, a blizzard and lightning storm hit her and as largely unprepared as she was she was forced to spend the night under a rock and then crawl back to Roshka. She would later tell us about the storm, "There was pink lightning!" As if it were some vision to her of her ancestors challenging her to make the hike. The next month, she went with Ben and another friend, and they were surprised about how heavy the snow still was in July, snow which had covered and hidden the trail up and down. Despite Moomoo's furious protestations - "I must finish this trail!" - they turned back down and returned to Juta.

Ben and I prepared. We found a topographical trekking map (available at the GeoLand shop in Tbilisi), picked up a compass at dry bridge, and packed some five pounds of nuts, snickers and apples to munch on for our three day journey. We decided to start on the Juta side - which I'd recommend to everyone who chooses to take this trail. 

The marshrutka from Tbilisi can be found at Didube, the dirtiest and most terrible of bus stations in Tbilisi. The marshrutka is typically packed, smelly and with little room, but at a cost of only 10 lari. For 15 lari you can find a shared taxi that's infinitely more comfortable, which is how we ended up in the company of four Poles who wanted to stop and spend great deals of time at each tourist spot on the way to Kazbegi. 

I told the driver several times (in Georgian no less) to drop us off at Sno valley, just over the pass. "Yeah, yeah, of course," he kept repeating. But as we made it past the eternal construction zone on the pass leading to Kazbegi, he only picked up more and more speed. We recognized the shop that marked the valley coming closer and closer and yelled for him to stop. Completely unprepared, he slammed on the brakes and veered the van a bit off road so traffic behind him would miss him, which also brought us into the midst of a herd of cattle - cows, not being the smartest of animals - or perhaps being quite a fiendishly evil animal - seem extraordinarily fond of roadways, and especially bridges.

We made it to the valley though, and proceeded onward towards Juta. Our original plan had been to get to the entrance of the valley, then find a taxi, get to Juta, and then start hiking and conquer the pass by the evening. However, with all the touristic dallying we were left to do along the way, we had to make a judgment call. Starting at 2:30 pm at Juta, it would mean that we would be already late in the day hitting the pass, at perhaps five our six, which is usually when the high mountain weather settles in. And if we got over the pass too quickly, then we'd be left with nothing to do on the third day. We decided then to save our money and skip the taxi, going by foot up Sno valley, passing through the three old villages which dotted the way, the most interesting being Sno itself, the hometown of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and also the site of an old medieval fortress with similar medieval looking houses and a newly built church.

At this point, my camera ran out of batteries and we were able to find a small shop on the opposite end of the village. She had batteries, but as I later found out, despite being size AA, they were strangely too small for the camera. But I can only wonder what the old lady thought when two obvious foreigners came in speaking Georgian. A smile came up on her face, and probably for the first time in her life she was able to communicate with foreigners - an unlikely sight to begin with in this part of the village - in her own language. I've noticed that in Tbilisi most people could care less about your linguistic efforts to hit at their unconquerable language, or they become overly enthusiastic and treat you like a dog, but in villages they have an honest humility and graciousness towards any of even the most meager of attempts.

Exiting Sno, we were hailed by a man coming down from the side of the mountain, from I assume his house. We addressed him in Georgian and he replied and spoke in Russian, telling us that he was Russian, so why not speak in that. "Where are you from?" he asked.

"The States," I answered in Russian. "You?"

"I am from nowhere. Everywhere. Here there. You know. I came from Russia years ago and decided to stay here. I like it here." As he spoke, I glanced at the faded blue ink tattoos that crawled up his arms. Spider webs, spiders, a crucifix, some words too faded to read. The blue ink was a tell tale sign of Russian prisons, where they make ink for tattoos using the rubber of boot soles.

"Where are you headed?"


"Ah, Juta. Everyone's headed to Juta. Americans, Israelis, Poles, Russians, Germans. Why Juta?" He shrugged. His implication was clear, that he knew Juta was a beautiful place, but don't you see, this also is a beautiful place.

"Listen, brothers, I need two lari to get a drink. Can you spare some money?" I had no change on me, Ben only had about 80 tetri. He looked at his hand after counting it and grunted. "This isn't two lari. I can't get a drink with this." He looked on the verge of giving the money back. But at last he decided to keep it and then gave us his parting words.

A couple of hours later - for a total of 3 and a half hours - we made it to Juta. Just above Juta, there's a cafe and campsite called Zeta, where we decided to break for dinner. The food is all pre-prepared and the beer comes out of plastic bottles, and it's all a bit pricey, considering the nearest store is about a 3 hour hike away and they had to bring their supplies up by horseback, the price wasn't too upsetting. The interior of Zeta was blank and in a manner that they welcomed people to write on them. It seemed most people were from Poland, as the writing was mostly in Polish, including a sketch of a mountain with the Polish flag on top - not quite sure what they meant by that.

From Zeta, it was another two hours hike to the base camp, which was snuggled under the jagged Chauxi peak, which like a spear stuck to the heavens, thrust up by Hades as an attack on Apollo, who sped across the sky on his flaming chariot. The surrounding valley was steep and nearly un-climbable. Groups of mountaineers and tourists were camped in various places in the meadow. Some were going to take the mountain itself, while other tour groups were going to take the lesser technical peaks in the range. We found a decent place near the roaring stream and made our camp.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A fair look at Kutaisi

My initial introduction to Kutaisi had met my low expectations. Leave it to say, I didn’t think the rest of the trip would be that great. When the office worker asked me to accompany her downtown - I thought we were downtown! what she meant was the old town - out of boredom and only mild interest I accepted. My students also offered to take me to the main tourist site, Bagrati, on my last day. So at least I would see something of interest while I was there, and Kutaisi - outside of the working view - wouldn’t be a complete waste of my “cultural” time spent in these last few weeks of Georgia.

A street in Old Town Kutaisi
The office aid had to buy some ink for the computer, so I went with her to the office shop. We hopped on the line 1 bus (which goes at least from McDonald’s to the Old Town, passing the scenic palm tree lined street I mentioned in the last blog) and got off just at the start of the Old Town. There was clearly a lot of money spent in revitalizing the Old Town recently. The Parliament had moved to Kutaisi a few years back, and in some attempt to make the town comfortable enough to house the Georgian elite, or at least to feed the Georgian government elite, new pavers were cast, new surfaces put down, and the storefronts painted and repaired. It is actually all quite nice now, with none of the Potemkin village feel that one gets from a walk down Aghmashenebeli in Tbilisi or from the streets of Sighnaghi. Indeed, the renovations in Kutaisi seem to be just a bit more locally lasting and in touch with the city.

Buildings hanging on the Rioni
Since the renovations, Kutaisi’s inner city is crowded with restaurants and beer gardens, some which also line the Rioni River, which lazily makes its way through the center of town. A look at the houses and hotels hanging off the river gives one a sense of what Tbilisi had looked like before the Soviet Union had tore up the center to make highways for the ease of traffic flow. The way that Georgians seem to excel at making buildings hang off impossible places is what inspires me the most about Georgian architecture. Never mind the nervousness that it also inspires me, knowing the modern building standards in the country.

The crown of the Old Town is the fountain, which is in the center of the traffic circle in front of the Opera House, itself a handsome building. The fountain, a cornerstone of development during Mikheil “Fontanadze” Saakashvili’s reign as President, has various ancient Georgian symbols in gold plating circling the center - rams and bulls face outward, protecting its core of water, while streams come forth from between the figures. The statues are replicas of actual artifacts found in the area from the Bronze Age. Visible peaking up behind the fountain and the Opera House is the giant Bagrati Cathedral, which seems to be visible from almost every point of the city, as adding to its enormous size, it’s built on the main hill of the city, where also was once the main fortress of the ruler of the land.

The Fountain of Kolkhida, built 2011 by Davit Gogichaishvili, the Opera House and Bagrati in the background
I was hungry, so I invited the office assistant to dinner while we were there, so she showed me to a restaurant right new the fountain, Baraqa. I took the menu and found something I had never seen before - Abkhazuli xatchapuri (Abkhazian cheesebread). I consider myself something of an expert on xatchapuri, eagerly devouring any before me and having tried every xatchapuri known to any Tbiliseli, and this was not on that list. So I insisted on ordering it. What came out was something like an Adjaruli xatchapuri, a boat of bread with cheese, egg and butter in the center. With the Abkhazuli xatchapuri though, the egg was lacking. It was a seriously delicious meal though, and I think that for any xatchapuri fans who find themselves in Kutaisi, they need to head to Baraqa. Actually, including the taste and size of the salad, I’d have to say that it ranks among one of my favorite restaurants in all of Georgia. Definitely worth making a pit stop that includes more than just McDonald’s.

Abkhazuli xatchapuri at Baraqa

The last day, my students - a group of 8, very friendly young women - took me to Bagrati to show off the crown of Kutaisi. Bagrati, or the Cathedral of the Dormition, was built under the order of King Bagrat III back in the 11th century, and was in vastly deteriorated form when the Soviet Union fell and the property was returned to the Georgian Church. 

Cathedral of the Dormition, or Bagrati, in Kutaisi (11th cent)
Here, at the cathedral, my new enthusiasm for the city wavered a bit. I’ll have to admit that Bagrati is a huge cathedral by any standard, and that once upon a time, the gigantic construction must have also had some sort of airy, mystical allure to it. But not so much now. The renovation of the building has been somewhat caught in a tempestuous scandal, especially as UNESCO threatened to remove it from the cultural heritage list, as it reared dangerously close to not looking very much like the original structure. Much of the building now is new and whitewashed, bearing none of the regal glory that the building had centuries before, lacking most of the finely carved and detailed walls that now only are born on two or three columns. 

I’m not sure if it’s simply the lack of skilled stonemasons in modern Georgia, or if the thirst of new and modern made those in charge of the renovations simply overlook what makes a church great. And so I think, insofar as churches in Georgia go, Bagrati falls into a place of now un-noteworthy sites (unless you happen to be in Kutaisi, then you might as well see it). See Svetitskhoveli or Alaverdi if you want huge, mystical places. Bagrati remains a controversy, and not at all mystical. But then, the inside is still under construction, and that undoubtedly has created a bias on my experience. But from viewing the place, I’m left with the feeling that, had the building been left in disrepair and collapse, in the condition that it was in, there would be still more of the feeling of God than what I get with its renewed state.

After Bagrati, the girls took me to another restaurant in the Old Town, called El Paso. Here I thought I was lucking out and there was a hidden gem of a Mexican restaurant in this unlikely corner of the road. But despite its strangely Hispanic name, El Paso is actually - surprise! - a Georgian restaurant. With really delicious khinkali (Georgian dumplings). Which falls possibly second in my best tasting khinkali in Georgia list. So hit Baraqa on your way to Svaneti and El Paso on your way back. You’ll thank me for that advice. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An unfair look at Kutaisi

I was never really interested in Kutaisi. There were some sites there that I wanted to see, sure, but the city itself had never held any allure for me. It was simply a pit stop on the way to Batumi or Svaneti, a place with a McDonald’s and a free restroom, a break from the endless scattered hammock and honey bread stands that ranged across the valleys and mountains of the Georgian East-West highway. And then, there was the recent occurrence of a guy from Kutaisi swindling me out of 300 lari, which really - and unfairly - sealed my disinterest about visiting the city. But then most Georgians did go on to tell me that Kutaisians really are all a bunch of thieves, so the stereotype can’t be blamed on me.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that when a work opportunity arose for me to go there for a week, I wasn’t overly excited about it. It was just about my last week in Georgia, and I had much preferred to simply stay in Tbilisi, visiting friends and drinking away my last moments of life in that sweltering heat. I was thinking that now my last week would be spent sitting at McDonald’s, without much else to do. At least I was assured that there would be air conditioning in the classroom.

We first arrived in Kutaisi at night. I was shown the school where I’d be conducting the training, and then brought to a guesthouse - I had previously thought I was going to stay at someone’s house, so this was already looking a step up. But the guesthouse was in the main park on a hill, and not having been to Kutaisi before it would have been nearly impossible to find the school again without having to take a taxi, which wasn’t something I’d prefer doing

View from the school
Having only known about Kutaisi from visiting the McDonald’s, I thought that was the center. So to find that the school, and my now hotel were near there, I was happy with that. There’s got to be some other cafes in the center of the second largest city in the country. That was my hope. The rows and rows of block apartments that I passed didn’t look overly promising, but then, well, block apartments never do. The hotel that they eventually put me up at was the MaxComfort, quite near the school. And by the time we got there, a blackout had seized the entire country, so everything was in darkness, and I couldn’t really tell what kind of neighborhood we were in. Even the water at the hotel was out, so it wasn’t a good start.

The first day I went back to the hotel, with too much preparation work yet to do. This wasn’t so bad since the hotel, the MaxComfort, had air conditioning. The second day, I went home, took a nap, and at seven decided to go for a walk around the area. I found this pristine street, in the pic below, lined with palm trees - which I don’t think are native to the area - which looked curiously out of place. On either side of the palm treed avenue, there were towering block apartments, grey and drab and crumbling. The palm trees were nice, the sidewalk in the middle was nice, but the rest was left to disrepair. Like the rehabilitation that planted the trees had forgotten about the “habitation” part of that word. Oh well, baby steps.

But man, it was hot as those palm trees suggested and I was mighty hungry. So I tried first a bakery to get some cheese bread. I walked in, the old ladies there were busy cooking and bringing stuff out of the oven. One was holding a xatchapuri - a Georgian cheese bread.

“You’ve got a xatchapuri?”

“No,” she said, holding the xatchapuri.

“You have any food?”

“No,” she said, still holding the xatchapuri.

“Oh,” I said.

She muttered something, put the xatchapuri in a pan and continued cooking.

Okay. So I left, and found another window, but they told me that seven o’clock was very late and they were closing. Polite enough though. Though they also had some xatchapuri and lobiani sitting in their windows. Then I looked up, hey, there’s a pizzeria!

I walked into the pizzeria. Two couples were seated at different tables, both eating actual Italian style pizzas. Usually pizzas in Georgia are inexplicably smothered in mayonnaise, making them nearly inedible to anyone who’s not Canadian. The “white sauce” on these was actually cheese! And it smelled amazing. I was now a little closer to satisfied.

“Do you have a menu?” I asked in Georgian. At one of the empty tables, there was a menu. I was reaching for it, just as I heard, “No.” “No menu?”

“No menu.”

“Oh. But I can read Georgian.”

“No menu. We don’t have anything.”

“I can wait,” I pleaded. My stomach was rumbling quite audibly at this point.

“No. We don’t have anything.”

“You don’t have food?” I said. I was now looking at the pizza on the peoples’ tables. They had food. They HAD food! THEY had food! Why couldn’t I?

“No food.”

“No pizza?”

“No food. No pizza.”

I left. Completely bewildered. What was with these people? Kutaisi was living up to what I had expected of it, that was for sure. So I went by a shop, bought some yogurt and went back to my hotel room, in the comfort of air conditioning and Russian pop music videos.

Stayed tuned next week for "A fair look at Kutaisi."

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?