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.

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