Saturday, February 16, 2013

Send Away the Clowns

First day of school. March something-or-other. Walking through three feet of snow both ways is considerably less impressive to the old-ass hard-asses of the world when it only takes you five minutes both ways. Flanked on either side by a posse of host familial strangers much shorter than me: my host mom, my host sister, my host brother and my host cousin. My host mom is the music teacher. All the host youngins are my students. Yes, I thought to myself all along the short walk to school, and thought to myself once again all along the short walk back home: I can see how this might get a bit claustrophobic after a while.

On my way down the hall for the very first time - tromping through the stunned hordes of children like a freakishly double-browed and red-bearded Godzilla - I spotted a bright yellow flyer on the wall and, at a glance, with equal parts fascination and terror, comprehended its significance.

"Hey maw," I said, "circusi."

In the same way that one can bullshit one's way through Spanish by sticking the letter O at the end of every other word, rudimentary Georgian can sometimes be bullshitted by appending the letter I to the end of everything. Circusi. A circus was going down that afternoon. On the first day of school.

"Yes," said host mom. "Later circusi. But now, classi."

I was led upstairs to the teachers' lounge - a gray peeled-paint sort of room every bit as inviting as an interrogation chamber - where I was fawned over by the middle-aged women of the village. I swiftly became the center of their affection, and I would remain so for the ten months to follow. They asked me whether I liked Georgia and I said, sure. They asked me whether I liked Georgian food, and I lied yes. This garnered a small round of applause, and the pit of my elbow was squeezed until it hurt. My praises were sung, mostly by way of talking trash about the volunteer who came before me, a poor young Asian girl that I was given to understand had a weak stomach when it came to Georgian spices and Georgian culture to boot. Clearly, I was different. I was the chosen one. The golden boy. I wouldn't fuck off after three months like she did.

They asked me if I had a wife and I was dense enough to say no. All eyes in the room spotlighted upon a dark-haired woman a couple years my junior who was sitting, shielding her face, blushing, busily sketching a feminine flank into a notebook. The art teacher. Much laughter all around. She did not look up. I looked down. Sighing inwardly, I wondered if I was the sort of dumbass who could be peer pressured into living in a Georgian village forever.

I retreated to the window by way of exhuming myself from marriage. I enjoyed a smoke. Cigs are fifty cents a pack in Georgia. Too cheap to quit. Outside, beauty: green and white and cold, smoke drifting up from the chimneys, the thatched roofs of the village barns weighed low under last night's deluge of snow. The white-streaked crags of the Lower Caucasus bore down upon the village, impossible for me to tell how near or how distant; Midwesterners do not have a sense of perspective. The bell rang: an actual bell, rung every 45 minutes by way of a cord pulled by a student too short to reach it without help. The bell rang. All the teachers scuttled away to their classes. I had no schedule. It was my first day. Nobody had told me where to go or what to do, so I sat down in the teacher's lounge and did nothing. I think I read something. I forget what I was reading at the time. Probably something pretentious. Barthelme, maybe?

After a while, the door shuddered open and an old woman entered. I greeted her in Georgian and she replied in the Queen's English. I put my book down and braced myself for an eccentric. While it is not always the case, in my limited experience, fluent non-native English speakers who happen to reside in the middle of nowhere tend to come with a suitably bizarre backstory.

"How are you?" I asked.
"As always," she said, "I am not so good."
"I'm sorry to hear that. What's wrong?"
"There is nothing to be done," she said and shrugged. "What is your name?"
"Keith," I said. "Or Kiti."
One learns to transmogrify one's name in places like this.
"Kiti," she said. "Oh, that simply won't do. Don't you know what kiti means in Mingrelian?"
"Do I want to know?"
"It means, yes, finger."

I shook my head. My name has never traveled well. In Korea, it meant "kiss." In Mexico, it was synonymous with KITT, the talking car from Knight Rider. Not too bad. But then, in Poland, it meant AIDS.

"We must give you, yes, a Georgian name."
"As long as it's not AIDS," I said. "What are some good Georgian names?"
"Levani," she said, counting her arthritic kitis with an arthritic kiti, "Lasha, Luka ... Soso - "
"I don't like Soso," I interjected. "Too mediocre."
She jumped the pun.
"... Shotiko, Zaza ... "
I was about to express some fondness for Zaza when she raised a withered hand to stop me.
"What about Giorgi?"

A brief note on etymology at this point. Georgia's real, actual, in-country name for itself is Sakartvelo. And nobody in the world, so far as I am aware, calls the place Sakartvelo. Everywhere else on the planet calls this dinky little pancreas-shaped country "Georgia," or some variation thereupon. The origins of the name "Georgia" are unclear, but there are plenty of theories floating around, all of them more or less equally plausible. "Georgia" closely resembles the Greek γεωργός - meaning tiller of the land - which makes a great deal of sense, given Georgia's proximity to both Greece and the Fertile Crescent. St. George also happens to be Georgia's favorite saint, so it is possible that the country was nicknamed by association, the same way you'd call a dude Nickelback Douchebag if said douchebag showed up to work every day in a Nickelback t-shirt. There's a chance the name comes from ancient Persian, from whence the Russian exonym for Georgia - Gruziya - is derived, which makes sense given Georgia's proximity to Iran. My theory belongs to the St. George camp, but differs a bit: I am of the mind that early European explorers stumbled across this weird little bumfuck commune on the Black Sea, found it overrun with fat men profoundly drunk on their own homemade wine, all of them named Giorgi (after the saint, of course), and they accordingly labeled it Georgia: Land of Giorgis. This is a roundabout way of saying that Giorgi is the most generic of all possible Georgian names, and I certainly didn't want to adopt it as my own.

"Giorgi sounds good," I said.
"Excellent," she said. "Then I shall call you Giorgi."
"I don't think I caught your name."
"Yes," she said. "Zhuzhuna."

The bell rang. Someone rang the bell. I had my first class to teach. My second and third, too. I don't remember them, nor do I seem to have taken any notes on the experience. But rest assured that by lunchtime, I knew full well that none of my co-teachers could speak English any better than my students could.

My fourth class was preempted by a choral concert put on by the students. In my honor, apparently. I was ushered into a bench seat in the far back of a small, low-ceilinged auditorium, and watched for an hour with the sweetest, most paternal gaze I could muster as my host siblings and host cousins and host cousins twice or thrice removed filed out on stage and delivered their pieces to the tune of the detuned piano comp-work of my host mom. The teenagers in the auditorium were squirrely as fuck. Same is true of the teachers. Same is true of the janitors. Nobody seemed to be watching the performances. They were all staring back at me and giggling every time I blew my nose. The kids were shoving each other into me, trying to get a rise out of the 29 year old, red-bearded foreigner. I ignored them the best I could. I smiled sweetly and stared straight ahead or, when that failed, I busied myself sifting through all two pages of the concert program, squinting at the Georgian squiggles. It was a good show. My host brother was awkward and bashful. My host cousin performed admirably, I thought, but that's probably just because she's cute.

Afterwards, I tried to walk back up to the teacher's lounge for a smoke, but Zhuzhuna caught me by the pit of the elbow and invited me out for some coffee.

"Coffee," I said, perplexed and jonesing. "Where?"
"Why, in the canteen, of course."

She led me into another interrogation chamber downstairs where there was a wood stove in the corner and a wide, flat table arrayed with starchy Georgian goodies: greasy potato cakes, raspberry pastries, loaves of thoroughly leavened bread.

"Erti khava," I squeaked, testing out the only Georgian I knew. I held up one finger. Then I glanced over, remembered Zhuzhuna. I held up two fingers. "Make it ori."

The old lady behind the table smiled, flashed a gilded grill.

"Your Georgian is very good," she crowed.
"It's so-so," I said.
No modesty involved. For the first time in my living-abroad life, I'd opted to show up totally nude. I hadn't bothered to learn anything of the language at all.

There is no such thing as Georgian coffee, not unless you count Nescafé. Georgians drink Turkish coffee. It comes in little shot glasses, more sugar and foam and coffee grounds than caffeine. I drank mine in a gulp or two, was embarrassed to discover that Zhuzhuna was still savoring hers. So I ordered another round. Zhuzhuna paid for both of us and shuffled off to her next class. The bell rang. Someone rang the bell. I sat there like a dork at a table by myself, reading my Barthelme, until the babushka barista gestured for me to sit down next to the stove. I did so gladly. Even with three sweaters on, I was freezing my ass off.

The bell rang and a man came swaggering in. I recognized him from somewhere. He was wearing a bootleg Phat Farm windbreaker. In his left hand was a twelve ounce Pepsi bottle filled to the brim with an ominously clear liquid. I stood up to shake his hand and he gave me a hug. I looked around for campus security. After a while, I was given to understand that this was the P.E. teacher.

"You like cha cha?" he asked. He flicked an index finger at his esophagus.

Liquor is very much a matter of personal preference, but I will go out on a limb here and say that nobody likes cha cha. Not even Georgians. I have written extensively about the vile intoxicants of the Far Eastern World, but few beverages (if any) could give Chinese baijiu a run for its money in terms of sheer vileness. Georgian cha cha is pretty much the worst drink in the world.

"I like cha cha," I said, out of well-learned politeness, "but now, no. I'm at work."
"Fuck work. I'm at work, too. Just one," he said, reciting the refrain of the lonesome alcoholic. "Just one."
I looked from the babushka barista to the P.E. teacher. She shook her head. I shook mine.
"No," I said. "I don't want."
"Of course you do," he said. "Gogo, two shot glasses!"

The babushka barista did her job. The shot glasses appeared. He poured us a couple. I saw the clear liquid sitting there, gleaming in the grayness. I could smell it. Enough to make you puke by smell alone. It sat there shimmering like the desperate glint in a car salesman's eye. We were at school, fer chrissakes. I shook my head, no.

"I don't want," I said in my crappy Georgian. Then, in English, more to myself than to anyone else, "Fucking A, I'd get my ass fired over this bullshit right here."

He squinted at me like he didn't quite believe who I was. Then he pounded both shots and muttered something to himself in Georgian, probably something to the effect that I was a little bitch and not quite a man. Then he invited me upstairs to the exercise room, where he kicked my ass in ping-pong several times over. Afterwards, I shuffled on back down to the canteen, where I found my unfinished shot of Turkish coffee waiting for me. The canteen was pleasantly empty. I hadn't had a moment to myself since I'd arrived in the village.

Aborting my reverie, an old man came in a moment later, studied the room, and ordered a coffee. He sat down across from me. He was a man much older than his years. His face was creased and blotched with the sort of age that doesn't come with aging alone. For all that, he appeared to be wearing makeup. I'd just learned that the village drunk was in fact the P.E. teacher, so I was ready to assume that this guy was the director of the school or something.

"Nice to meet you," I said. "You a teacher here?"
"No," he said. "Me var clowni."

Refer back to aforementioned append-the-I rule. I understood right away. Me var clowni - I am a clown. I'd missed the circus, somehow. This was the afterparty. Here, indeed, was my first Georgian clown.

I reached out to shake his hand and, upon shaking it, realized that he didn't have any fingers. It was just a palm. I let go of his hand, stared at it unintentionally. It fell dead in my lap. He stuffed it back in his tri-colored jacket pocket. Sadness seemed to be chiseled into the contours of the clown's face. The sad clown. An anti-archetype, of sorts. And I, the narcissistic volunteer. Both of us inversions of what we were supposed to be. Both of us failures, in some sense. I wanted to ask him what it was like to be a clown, but my Georgian wasn't anywhere near good enough. So I just asked him how he was doing, and he said he was doing okay. We sat across from each other in silence, staring at the floor. A few minutes later, Zhuzhuna came in with another babushka or two. They sat down on either side of me, across from the clown. Ignoring the clown. They called for some more coffee. After a while, the clown left, leaving behind a fingerless fistful of change in his wake. I drank another coffee with the babushkas.

They asked me if I liked Georgia. I said, sure. They asked me if I liked Georgian food and I lied yes. They asked me if I liked Georgian girls and giggled so much that their giggles obscured my answer. They ordered me a potato pastry and before I could refuse it, I found myself devouring it. After I'd finished it, I could feel my heart palpitating like a frog trapped in a brown paper bag. When we'd finished our coffee, the babushkas suggested that we move over and sit next to the stove. So we did. I sat there, the youngest person in the room by a couple decades, feeling very old, indeed. I ordered another coffee.

"Do you drink much coffee, Giorgi?" asked Zhuzhuna.
"Sure. Lots of coffee," I said.
"I drink four or five cups a day," she said.
"Turkish coffee?"
"We have much bigger coffee in America," I said. "I drink four or five cups of that."
"That much coffee is bad for you, Giorgi," she said.
She ordered another round.

We sat warming ourselves by the fire. When Georgians run out of kindling, they'll throw anything on the flames. Candy wrappers, white out, glue sticks. You wouldn't believe it. The fumes are enough to get you high, and not in the good way. The babushkas talked amongst themselves. I listened passively, trying to get a feel for the language, trying to decide whether it was more Slavic or more Middle Eastern or more Turkic or perhaps more of nothing of anything I was at all familiar with. And my mind wandered back to the clown, and I wondered how he'd lost all his fingers, whether that wasn't the reason he'd become a clown in the first place. I don't imagine one ever becomes a clown voluntarily. I wondered about the smokehound P.E. teacher, and I wondered about my students, and I wondered about my co-teachers and how they'd managed to teach English for so many years without learning a word of the damned language, and I wondered about myself, an English major, sitting there in a gulag coffee shop with a bunch of babushkas, wondered whether I could've ever imagined myself sitting here doing this sort of thing back when I was young and smart and full of vigor, wondered whether I'd gone off the rails at some point or whether I wasn't precisely where I was supposed to be: in a bumfuck Georgian village pretending to teach English, hanging out with fingerless Georgian clowns and drinking fake-ass coffee with a bunch of babushkas.

"Georgi," said Zhuzhuna, and she gripped my wrist, "I must ask you."
"Ask away."
"What do you think of Rima?"
"What's Rima?"
"The art teacher," she said.
"I don't know," I said. "I saw her earlier, but really - "
"She's beautiful," said Zhuzhuna, "and very talented."
"I like talented women," I said. "And I like beautiful women. That's true."
"Think about it," said Zhuzhuna. "Think about it."

I didn't think about it at all. I thought about going home and locking myself in my room and going to sleep. That's what I thought about. But in the early days anywhere, you tend to do what everyone else does. You tend to do what everyone else suggests. And short of marriage, I was cool with that. The babushkas finished their coffees and turned the shot glasses over on their dishes. I did the same. They laughed at me. Uproariously, as it were.

"Oh, Giorgi," said Zhuzhuna, slapping me across the shoulder. "Giorgi!"
"What the fuck did I do?"
"You see, Giorgi," she said, "the coffee, this is Georgian tradition. Not for you. Do you believe in, yes, superstition?"
"No," I said. "Not at all."
"In Georgia, we believe in, yes, what it is, fortune telling."
"How do you say - the coffee grains?"
"We can read informations in the coffee grains."
"What sorts of informations?"
"Everything," she said, "but usually it is for women only."
"Well," I said, "when in Rome."
"Yes," she said, snagging my shot glass. "When in Rome."

She tilted the little glass up to her eye, squinted at the streaky patterns therein. She giggled an old lady giggle.

"Yes, this is very interesting, Giorgi."
"What does it say?"
"Well," she said, "do you have friends?"
"Yes," I said, "some."
"You are to have a very good weekend with friends," she said.
"That's good."
"Yes," she said, "but then you are to meet a man."
Her face soured a bit. So did mine.
"Is he a bad man?"
"Yes," she said. She held the glass up to my face and pointed an untrimmed pinky-nail at a pair of boob-like white blobs therein. "He is a very bad man. He will lead you astray."
"In which direction," I asked.
But she was lost in the patterns of the coffee. She saw things in there that I had no interest in, things that meant nothing to me, things that meant everything to her and the babushkas sat around the table.
"You are to meet," she said, "a bald-headed man. A man with a very large head. He will be wearing glasses, yes?"
Checking her English. I nodded. Glasses.
"You are to meet this man and it will have bad results," she said. "Very bad results."
"But," I said, "this weekend with my friends. It's going to be good, no?"
"Yes," she said. "The weekend will be good. But when you meet this man it will have very bad results. Very bad results."

The bell rang. Someone rang the bell. We all got up to leave. I felt like hugging somebody. One does, after one's first full day in a strange, strange place. But me and the babushkas parted ways without fanfare. I walked home with my extended host family at the end of the day. Through three feet of snow. When I got home, I sat down by the stove and drank briefly with my host dad. Then I locked myself in my room and dicked around without the aid of the internet and fell asleep in three sweaters and dreamt dreams of amputated host clowns. I woke up in the middle of the night and snuck out to the patio for a smoke. Stared up at the sky for a good long while. You wouldn't believe how beautiful the stars are in this part of the world. Especially in winter. There's a scientific reason for that, but I'm too lazy to explain it. You stand there looking up at the stars and every second you just kind of know with some weird measure of comfort that your tiny little human eyes are drinking in the light of an immense beauty that knows nothing at all about you. Perhaps because it is part of you. Nobody knows. Hence the beauty of it. Or something like that.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Lay of the Land

Here. Let me give you the tour.

Ignoring for now the grim realities of actually driving a car in Georgia, I invite you to sit your virtual tookus down behind the wheel of a virtual 1977 Lada Niva. Your tookus and your Niva are parked somewhere in a town called Zugdidi, not too far away from my village of Jgali. Bear in mind that you're little more than a hawked loogey away from the De Facto Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, so it would be wise here to stop and ask a virtual local for directions – and to listen very, very carefully.

Driving northeastward, then, you'll find yourself winding your way up through the lowest of the Lower Caucasian foothills. Strange forests here. Tall trees tilted together like they were half-felled by an asteroid blast hundreds of years ago and kept on growing that way. There's a landslide section up ahead, but you're in a virtual car, so it's all good. Plenty of cows on the road. Plenty of cow shit on the road. No need to swerve. You'll pass villages with names like Kortskheli, Natsatu, Odishi, Chkaduashi, Chkhorotsku  – names that are no less formidable when they are written in Georgian. More villages out here than people. No reason to stop. Nothing to see here. Most of these places are every bit as insubstantial as my native Jgali, some of them home to expats every bit as insubstantial as myself.

Eventually, you'll arrive at a piddling little town called Tsalenjikha. For the better part of ten months, this was the closest thing I had to civilization. No reason to stop here, either, but you're free to snoop around a bit if you like.

Something of a Wild West feel to the place. A sinkhole of a main drag lined with crumbling, leering storefronts. A couple barber shops. An internet café, if you want to call it that. A bar that is fresh out of beer. A café that is fresh out of coffee. A restaurant that's fresh out of everything on the menu, and fresh out of menus to boot. A supermarket that is markedly less than super. Slathered onto the rear end of Main Street is a swollen and bustling bazaar, a kind of mercantile tumor whose puddle-pocked alleyways are clogged with maneating pigeons and bellowing babushkas and bootlegged goods so laughably fake not even China could have produced them.

This is Tsalenjikha. Where I used to go of an evening. To let it all hang out. If you will.

On your way out of Tsalenjikha, you'll pass by a soccer stadium. I'm given to understand that Tsalenjikha has a pro team, but in all my time in Georgia I never saw a Georgian man run, so I'm not inclined to think that the team is terribly competitive. On the left, you'll notice a hospital (whose radiology department I owe no great favors). Turning right, then, and heading still further northeast, you will find yourself confronted with a landscape of immense and stultifying beauty – your first glimpse of the Caucasus mountains –  but fear not: you'll get bored with it after a couple of months.

This road – the road you're on now – I know better than any road on earth. It is about eight kilometers long and how comes I knows it so well is because I walked it up and down, in snow and in sweat, during the day and well after dark, cool and composed, half-crazed and consummately drunk  – and you get to know a road pretty well when you get to see it that many ways.

On the right, you'll pass a little copse of stunted trees bowing as if to drink from a water-filled ditch, and languishing in the ditch is the mossy skeleton of an old Soviet jalopy. The hills flatten into a steady plain for a click or two, columned with tall, proud oaks. On sunny afternoons, some of the less sickly looking free-range bulls like to come out here and kneel godlike in the close-cropped grass, in the shadows of the oaks. Up ahead, cords of thick black cable hang low over the road between a monstrous pair of electrical towers. If you roll the windows down, you can feel the buzzing in your skull. Glancing from left to right and left again, you'll see that the electrical towers go stomping like giant metal scarecrows up into the hills on the right, and up into the whitecapped mountains on the left. And if you're a guy like me, you'll find yourself kind of boggled and daunted and vaguely nauseated by the amount of effort that goes into this whole civilization thing.

You'll pass a village on the left called Sachino. The World's Oldest Woman lives there. Or used to. There should be an asterisk involved somewhere around here.

There's a fluorescent orange blob in the distance and as you get closer, the blob materializes into a backpack with legs, and as you come right up alongside it, the backpack with legs materializes into a lanky old bearded foreigner covered in sweat. That's me. Hey. Thanks for the ride.

Yeah. You'll want to keep going straight. Up ahead there's a bridge. You mind stopping here? I gotta take a leak. And I want to show you something.

This is our river, the Chanistsqali, which I'm told means "Red River," though it isn't particularly red or river-like at this juncture. Not so bad to look at, though.

It flows down from a glacier just north of here, near a place called Squri. All year round, the river is the sort of cold that makes half-naked Georgian men half-grunt/half-ululate in the manner of Tim Allen. The water is so fresh that drinking it once will turn you into a water snob for life: what in the rest of the world passes for water is no longer water to you. It is dihydrogen monoxide and nothing more.

The river is criss-crossed by nightmare bridges right out of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. I used to get vicariously nauseous watching my host brother go running across those bridges, and then I used to vicariously die watching him backflip into the river. He thought it was great fun.

Lucky for us, the bridge we're driving over right now has no trouble supporting virtual cars. You'll see up ahead what looks like a gas station sign. From a gas station that time forgot. "Welcome to Jgali," says the rusted-out sign. But we're not quite in Jgali yet, even though we've passed the sign, because we still haven't left Tsalenjikha. A few hundred meters further along, there is a sign bearing the name "Tsalenjikha" with a red line through it  – one of Georgia's more endearing highway mannerisms. Now we are in Jgali.

I think we're in Jgali, anyway. None of the people I've talked to from this part of town seem to be aware that they live in Jgali. Jgali? Never heard of it. Jgali? No, it's up that way, up in the mountains. Most of them would tell you that they live in this or that village, villages I've never heard of, villages that may or may not exist. More villages than people out here.

Check out these houses. Very Georgian. And I'm not talking Colonial.

The word "wall" is open to interpretation in Georgia. The definition of a roof, too, is a matter of much hermeneutic speculation. Slanty roofs sometimes. Flat roofs mostly. Roofs of bark, roofs of rust. Aluminum roofs. Tin roofs. Hot tin roofs. Lukewarm tin roofs. Roofs that look like some fifty-foot bovine tromped through and took a massive crap on somebody's unfinished house. Tiled roofs ...

All Georgian houses hide behind fences. Picket fences, barbed wire fences, chain link fences, rust-iron fences, fences with broken bottles and glass shards superglued across the top, Soviet holdover fences tagged with little license plates that bear the street name in Russian. I doubt the road we're on even has a name anymore.

Most houses have water towers or wells in the front lawn. Water towers range from great big rusted-out vats that stand thirty feet in the air to padlocked wooden boxes a couple feet off the ground. Wells range from ornately siloed holes in the ground to, well, just regular old holes in the ground. We won't get into the toilet situation here. There's a chance we wouldn't get back out.

There is one house that stands out from all the other houses in town. It, alone among the Georgian houses, is not a Georgian house. It belongs in the American suburbs. This is all very odd, because my host dad built it. Which is not to say that my host dad lives in it. No, the dude who lives there I've seen walking around in a suit, sporting an unusually full set of teeth. There are a couple of black BMWs parked out front. Slowing down as you pass, you'll of course wonder who the hell this guy killed to be able afford all this. I never did ask.

There's a convenience store on the left. Keep driving. I owe that babushka five lari for the phone bill.

On the right is a seven foot tall hobo who looks like a giant Bee Gee. Now we're in Jgali proper. The hobo's village sobriquet is "Palma," which is Georgian for "palm tree." But I call him Gibby. I didn't say stop. He'll steal our sunglasses.

Up ahead is a wino passed out on the only known bench in the village. He's swaddled in a bootleg Phat Farm windbreaker. Naw. I told you, we only got one homeless guy in Jgali, and that's Palma. Phat Farm's the P.E. teacher.

Slow up a bit. You're going to miss Jgali. Okay. On the right you've got the church. I'm told it is shaped like a cross from above, but I've never seen it from above. There are supposedly a bunch of human skulls and bones kept inside a display case inside the church, but I've never been inside. The church, I mean. Yeah, I guess you're right. I am pretty worthless.

On the left is what used to be a disco. Currently a crater. I wonder if Palma used to go there. I know he goes there now.

Up ahead is the school where I teach. Those used to be Roman columns, but now they're just kind of rusty metal cylinders that don't support anything. No, there aren't supposed to be pigs and feral dogs in the schoolyard. I'll have to talk to somebody about that.

That's a hospital on the right. I'm pretty sure the doctor's dead.

And that's where I live. Up here on the left. What? Go ahead. You're not going to hurt my feelings. It's not like I built the thing. Windows? What do you mean? We've got plenty of windows. Oh, you mean windows with glass. No, not too many of those. Oh shit. That would be my host mom. Don't make eye contact. Drive.

That was close. Anyway. I don't really know the people who live in these houses over here.

That? Oh. That's a septic tank. Nobody lives there anymore.

What's that sign say up ahead? Ah. Jgali with a red line through it. Well. That's about all there is to it. We're in Squri now. You'll probably want to turn back at this point. We're relatively civil in Jgali, but I can't vouch for the glacier people. Hey. You mind giving me a lift into town since you're headed that way? I gotta, ah, um, diversify my portfolio.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Field Jacket (Pt. 2)

Older and wiser yet dumber somehow – the addition of years is in sum an act of subtraction – I have come to find myself in the middle seat of the middle bench of a marshrutka bound for the middle of nowhere.

If the word marshrutka sounds Russian, that's because it ain't. Long, long ago – well before the invention of the hydraulic brake, apparently – the Russians borrowed and slightly transmogrified the German Marschroute (march route) and applied it to an inbred breed of four-wheeled irregular rectangle that, true to its etymology, amounts to the public transportation equivalent of a forced march at Nazi gunpoint through inner Siberia.

A lot has changed in Georgia since the advent of the macro-minibus. World War II bombed itself to death. The Cold War chilled the fuck out. Slowly and dubiously, some tyrant-friendly form of representative democracy trickled its way down into the Lower Caucasus. But the Russo-Germanic loanword marshrutka, for better and overwhelmingly for worse, remains part of the modern Georgian lexicon.

This particular marshrutka isn't so bad, as marshrutkas go. It is slightly curved in the front for ostensibly aerodynamic reasons, and its hull bears a lower-than-average number of battle scars and barnacle welts relative to the standard street-tested Georgian automobile. The driver is not visibly drunk; the cabin is full beyond capacity but no further. Things are good, all things considered. Still, I can't help but feel ill at ease, like I forgot something at the airport bar three layovers ago.

And I probably did. But there are any number of more existentially pressing reasons why I should feel ill at ease about this: my latest venture into the netherworlds of the world. I'm 29, for one thing, and as I whiplash my way across Georgia's midsection in the middle seat of the middle bench of a marshrutka, it is no longer at all obvious to me why the hell I should be doing that sort of thing at this age, nevermind where I'm headed: the border between Georgia and Whatever Lurks Northwest of Georgia, a border that was once – and yet remains – a very disputed border, indeed.

Moreso than most trips, there is the sense that I have volunteered for my own demise this time around. At no point in Georgia have I felt safe in my own skin. Tbilisi did not woo me during my two weeks there. Plenty of black-jacketed, lobotomized-looking Georgian thugs; hordes of unibrowed Armenian pimps; gypsies galore, hungry hands extended; woeful nights kicking it in the kinds of clubs where you order a rufie and hope to god somebody slips you a drink. And now, a marshrutka. Christ. The marshrutkateer swerves us into oncoming traffic. Death is very palpable, indeed. We barrel past four other marshrutkas, juke out of the path of an onrushing marshrutka, swerve off the road momentarily and skitter back up onto it just in the nick. Palpable, nay: death is inevitable. Outside, the sky is the color of a tombstone, the crabbed winter earth all brown and dead, the houses we pass crumbling and moss-eaten like tombstones. Flooring it into oncoming traffic, the driver lets go of the wheel so he can jaw into his cellphone and cross himself – down, left, right, up; down, left, right, up – as we whoosh past a roadside Georgian graveyard. One wonders how the man can even see a graveyard at light speed. One wonders, too, how many fresh tombstones are planted every day on account of Georgian Orthodox marshrutka drivers genuflecting orthodoxically as they pass Orthodox Georgian graveyards. I'm too old to be doing this shit.

But then, I am too young to be doing a lot of other, more boring shit. At the very least, I am no longer working for the Republicans. I have crawled out from under a desk, hurdled the cubicle walls, etc. No, I signed up for this misadventure, so I might as well enjoy it. And I am enjoying it, in a way. There is something fundamentally liberating about confronting vehicular manslaughter head-on. I'll be getting somewhere delightfully weird, assuming I ever get there. All horrors aside, I am quite enjoying the sensation of being marshrutka-ed – or I am quite enjoying the sensation in general, I should say. There are other secondary and tertiary sensations that I am not enjoying nearly as much.

Secondary and tertiary sensations I am not enjoying, in the order that they occur to me:

1) That of the tightly clamped Georgian buttoxen on either side of me, and that of their compressing my own buttocks into a state of very tight clampedness, in the middle seat of the middle bench of aforementioned marshrutka bound for the middle of nowhere.
2) The odor of aforementioned buttoxen.
3) That of knowing with absolute certainty that every single onrushing marshrutka will slam head-on into my own marshrutka, annihilating myself, marshrutka, and this blog post well before any of them have reached their final destinations.
4) That of having to pee.
5) That of having ingested four slices of Georgian khachapuri at the last rest stop because I screwed up the order, and having ingested two more slices after that because someone else screwed up the order same as me, and having ingested one more slice after that because someone else screwed up the order same as everyone else, and then having to carry three leftover slices of so-called Georgian pizza (only the grease-to-bread ratio is comparable to actual pizza), absurdly, in the palm of my hand for the remainder of the second leg of what is proving to be a buttoxen-numbingly long marshrutka ride, indeed. None of this is digestively or sensorily enjoyable.
6) That of feeling that I have forgotten something.
7) That of feeling that I have forgotten something, but also that I have forgotten what I have forgotten.
8) That of feeling that I am once again lapsing into unhealthy amounts of metacognition. 
9) That of having to pee (aforementioned).
10) That of the onrushing marshrutkas, etc. ... (aforementioned).
11) That of having to pee (thrice aforementioned).
And so on.

Five of my fellow volunteers are marshrutka-ing along with me. But we aren't really in any position to talk. Our handlers saw fit to distribute us evenly about the cramped and aromatic cabin. We can exchange amorous glances but only few words. We are surrounded on all sides by our school directors and host parental guardians, and by craggy-faced Georgian babushkas who cluck their tongues, bow their heads and genuflect orthodoxically at the satanic sounds of English. Down, left, right, up.

I know where I'm headed, which is to say that I know the name of my final destination. This is not to say that I know anything about the place. My home for the next four months is a mountain village named Jgali, stashed way up in the northwest corner of a far-flung northwestern province the Georgians call Samegrelo. Last night's Google search yielded some gruesome amputation porn, but no information whatsoever as to why so many of Jgali's 300-odd inhabitants have been amputated. The village is precariously close to a Russian puppet state, so that could be one explanation. Samegrelo is also downwind from Chernobyl – that might be another.

I know that I have a host family waiting for me and that my host family consists of a mother, a father, a sister and a brother. I know their ages. I do not know their names. None of them are on the marshrutka. They did not come to pick me up. I have not met them or spoken to them or corresponded with them in any way. I know that they don't care if I smoke. I'm trying to quit but I don't quite believe that I will. I know that they have the internet, running water, and a western toilet. I don't quite believe that they will have any of those things.

We pass through Kutaisi, Georgia's second city. Some odd English graffiti here. "I love plant." Fair enough. Something I've noticed about the license plates in this country: it's always three letters followed by three digits, a formula that has spawned a surprising proliferation of accidental vanity plates. TIT 690, to name one I've spotted. LOL 420, to name another. It is doubtful that KKK 666 is as bad a guy as you'd think. BMW 389 is the proud owner of a 1972 Lada Niva.

I stash the rotten khachapuri under the seat. The sun goes down. A babushka asks the driver if we can stop to take a whiz and the driver says no. It becomes clear that the last rest stop was indeed the last rest stop. We are nearing Zugdidi, which is close to our villages but not close to anything else in particular, other than the Abkhazian border. From here on out, we go native. I think about the other five volunteers marshrutka-ing along with me. Perhaps we'll find ourselves stranded in neighboring villages, will burn those villages to the ground in the months to come. Or perhaps this is it: a last hurrah by way of clammy handshake at a connecting marshrutka stop in the middle of nowhere. Not even a goodbye at the end of our contracts. Who knows? Who knew?

The weather has taken a turn. For the better part of seven hours, we have blasted through barren, rust-fenced plains stillborn somewhere between winter and spring. Now, as we climb up into the mountains, snow starts to fall. Further up and further along, it comes tumbling down in huge white bowtie-shaped tufts. When the marshrutka finally shudders to a stop in Zugdidi, it is pitch black out but for the snow catching the snarky sidelong glare of the piss-yellow streetlights.

Turns out there isn't even time for a handshake. Once I've finally gotten all my shit out of the back of the marshrutka, Irish Michael and British Tom and Oregonian David and What's-Her-Name-From-Wherever-She's-From are gone, have already been spirited away by their handlers. Only L.A. Tommy and Nebraska-Ass Me remain. We are not spirited away, but prodded and nudged by our handlers towards a cigar-shaped and practically cigar-sized Lada 1600 snoozing up against the curb. The car sags ominously as we load our bags in the trunk, and sags even more ominously when we duck into the back seat.

There is a portly old fellow behind the wheel and a boy sitting shotgun. A Lynchian touch: the kid is holding in his lap a bathroom mirror, complete with overhead lights (though they are not lit (a decidedly non-Lynchian touch)), and the mirror all but blocks out our view out the front windshield, replaces it with a reflection of Tommy and I huddled in the backseat, looking greasy, disoriented, and somewhat terrified. A full-on blizzard is raging outside. The lowly Lada doesn't even seem to have one-wheel drive. How the hell are we going to get where we're supposed to go and what the hell is going to happen to us when we get there?

After a couple rumbleshot miles of broken Russian, it emerges that these two dudes are Tommy's host dad and host brother, respectively. Handshakes are exchanged, but not with me. I sit there mostly mute. It is communicated to me that I am to be dropped off first. And here is where my night turns into Are You My Mother? We sally forth into the darkness, the black two-laner painted dimly by the flickering headlights, all else all snow and nothing else. We stop, exchange words with a shrouded figure in the gloom. Is this my host mother? No, it is some stranger I will never see again. Or it is some stranger who has been expecting us and knows where we're going. Or it is some stranger who helps scrape the ice off our windshield while shivering cigarettes are smoked all around. And meanwhile, there is this mirror blocking the windshield, and me looking back at myself, sleep deprived as hell and getting tired of my own beard, thinking I'll maybe shave it whenever I get home, wherever that is.

We drift into a snowdrift along the side of the road, and only after we stay there a while do I realize that it was a deliberate maneuver on the part of my chauffeur. A couple minutes later, a pair of headlights flip on and off across the way.

"You," says the driver, "hello director."

I get out of the car, or try to. So bushed am I and so atrophied are my legs that my backpack nearly throws me ass-over-head into the snow. The contents of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s canvas gift bag – two bottles of Georgian wine, a box of chocolates, an out-of-season Season's Greetings card – are sent flying all over.

"Dude," says Tommy, "you're a mess."

I do not disagree.

A shadowy figure in the distance is approaching me, so I decide I may as well approach the shadowy figure in the distance. We shake hands.

"Sprechen Sie Deutsch," she says, halfway between a question and a statement.

"Jawohl," I reply, very unsure of myself. "Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch."

Hello, director. She'd been reading my resume on the way over. I load my shit into the trunk of her Georgian Geo Metro and we shuttle off through the snow.

The drive takes about an hour, though the Russo-Georgian street signs tell me that we only cover five kilometers. My director is none too good at driving, and her car is none too good at same. We have to stop so she can scrape the ice off the windshield with an ABBA mix CD reserved for said purpose. We have to stop so she can let the engine rebuild itself, so she can wait for the snow to clear just enough to reestablish where the road is.

We slide up in front of my host family's house. It's straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Darkness all around. Four alien figures, corona-lit by the porch lights, shuffling their way through the snow. The director doesn't even get out of the car. Here you are. You're on your own. Here is your mother.

Only after we've shaken hands and said hello – only on the walk towards the house, when my host mom nudges me, shrugs her shoulders, grips at her collar, and tilts her head by way of posing a question does it hit me. I did forget something, though not at the airport bar three layovers ago. I forgot it in the damned marshrutka. I have forgotten my beloved field jacket. Fuck me. You'd think I'd have noticed when I started freezing my balls off four hours ago.

The whole rest of the night, I'm not really there. I sit down with my host mom and my host dad, my host uncle and my host aunt. They introduce themselves but I forget their names instantly. The neighbors show up and before long I can't even remember who's in my host family and who isn't. We crack open Misha's wine. Me and the host dad knock it back, shot after shot, shooting it from cow horns hollowed out for said purpose. But at no point do I feel drunk. Toasts are made on my behalf. I make toasts on the host family's behalf. Is there a patron saint of lost jackets? I'm not really there. I left part of my brain in the back of that marshrutka. It's like I've been amputated, or lobotomized, or worse. A snail deshelled. My field jacket is gone.

Who knows what sort of post-adolescent, punkish impulse led me to adopt the orphaned jacket in the first place. It was my mom's, for one thing. But adopt it I did. It traveled the world with me. Europe and Asia. Latin America, too. I'd lived in it, slept in it, puked all over it. I'd even lost it several times, most notably in Berlin, only to have it return to me, every time, and most notably on a bleary New Year's Eve in Omaha.

"That's a bad-ass jacket," I'd said to my good friend/ex-Berliner roommate Ben Pham. "Where'd you get it?"

He shifted around in his Chuck Taylors.

"Well, er," he said. "Um."

Then it clicked: Ben Pham looked so good in that jacket it that it reminded me of another fellow who looked nowhere near as good in it.

"Fuck me," I said. "That's my jacket."

I'd left it behind in Berlin a year or so before. It was by a weird whim that Ben Pham had noticed it in his roommate's closet and adopted it as his own. And he'd brought it back to me. But this time, I know it's gone. I've lost it. I'll never see that field jacket again. And I'm not ashamed to say that I downed my last shot of wine and went straight to my brand new host bedroom and cried about that shit. The blankets are thin and so are the walls. I've since put on three sweaters. It's colder in here than it is out there. I'll write and shiver and write my ass to sleep. It's going to be a long-ass, cold-ass winter.

Field Jacket (Pt. 1)