Wednesday, March 20, 2013

St. Michelin

For a long time I used to go to bed early ... If nothing else, ten months in a Georgian village is a good way to catch up on one's reading, and one's sleep.

I was lying in bed around nine PM, trying to read Proust. My host family was outside, being loud for the sake of being loud, on a warm-ish evening in early spring. It would be easy to say here, from the vantage point of The Reader, that I, as a cultural ambassador, should've been out there in the lawn being loud with the fam instead of locking myself away in my room with a book, but my days by then were a hyper-social grind, surrounded by humanoids at all times, contorting my face into a smile as my every little quirk (of which there are many) was dissected by people who otherwise knew nothing about me, all in a grammatically taxing backwoods Transcaucasian dialect, to boot. For sanity's sake, it was necessary to hide out in my room once in a while. It is true that for a long time I used to go to bed early.

During the day, I did my job with patience and grace, I think. I taught my classes. I helped my host sister with her English and her German, even her Mandarin Chinese. I engineered bizarre third world assault weapons with my host brother and we tested them out on our host cousin, with satisfactory results. I complimented the hell out of my host mother's potato-and-cucumber cooking and watched the boob tube with host dad until my brainstuff came bleeding out both ears. But I always made sure that the nights were my own. Every moment I spent alone was sacred to me. And no matter how much sleep I got, sleep was sacred, too. I could dream there. I could've stayed in bed forever. I tried to.

For a long time ... for a long time ... I read until my eyes crossed and the words on the page congealed into an ink-black clot. I didn't read very far. I put the book down, walked across the room to switch off the lights, and flopped down in bed. ... I used to go to bed early ... 

Ten minutes later, I was awakened by the pick-pock of pebbles pitched up against my window. Then, the familiar cry:

Kiti! Ki-ti! Ki-tiiiii!

I had learned to shake off host parental summonses by feigning some sort of coma, but I knew game-theory-wise that on the night in question, the annoyance of confronting my host mom head-on would amount to marginally less net annoyance than lying awake while she threw pebbles at my window for the better part of an hour. In my boxers, then, I unbolted my window and, like a minor league pope, raised my arm in salutation and gave my host family my blessing.

"Huh?" I said.
"Kiti," host mom barked, "let's go!"
"Get down here! Let's go!"
"Where are we going?"
"Will you just get down here so we can go?"
"But," I objected, "I don't know where we're going!"
"We're going to see the [Georgian word I was not familiar with at the time]!"
"What's a [Georgian word]?"
"You'll see when we get there! Let's go!"
"But I want to sleep and I don't have any clothes on and I don't know where we're going and I don't know what a [GW] is!"
A host maternal snort.
"Just come down here! You'll see!"

There was a time, during my second of four puberties, when I full-throatedly embraced the Nietzschean philosophy of yea-saying, which I took rather too literally to mean that I should say yea to each and every odd little invitation thrown my way. It wasn't until my third of four puberties that I realized how unsustainable a principle this was when put into practice, both because it resulted in a lot of undeserved hangovers, and because, when living abroad, one receives a lot of invitations to do a lot of things, and saying yes to all of them leads to madness or, much worse, to abject boredom. By now, in the thick of my fourth puberty, I have abandoned Nietzschean yea-saying altogether, which doesn't at all make me a nay-sayer: I simply say "maybe" a lot, up until the point that someone with as many balls as my host mom finally badgers me into to mumbling a forlorn yeah, I guess.

I put on my pants, hosed myself down with Axe® Body Spray. (Dark Temptation™, in case you're curious.) I returned to the window. It was impossible to tell, engaged in a tense trans-fenestral shouting match with my host mom, what exactly a [GW] could mean for my evening. In all likelihood, it would amount to another rusty link in a very long chain of underwhelming rural Georgian experiences. But there was a chance it could turn out to be one of the best nights of my life. That's how Georgia works, if it can be said to work at all. All or nothing, but more than likely, nothing at all.

Not yet abandoning sleep, not yet abandoning Proust, I tried to paint my host mom into a linguistic corner.

"What's a [GW] like? Is it big, small, good, bad, hot, cold?"
"You'll see when we get there! But we have to go now!"

I threw up my hands.

"Okay. Why are we going to see the [GW]? Is there a why, at least?"
"Because," she said, "it is a Georgian holiday!"

I still had no idea what a [GW] was, but it was at least a something imbued with some kind of cultural significance, so it was the kind of something I was obligated to go see, something ceremonial and traditional and uniquely Georgian, and therefore inescapable.

"Alright, ma. One second," I said. "Pisi minda."
I gotta pee.

I went to the bathroom to take a whiz and as I shook everything out the nicotine patch on my right bicep slipped off and fell into the toilet.

"Shit," I said to myself. "No sense in saving that one."

I flushed it down.

Then my phone blew up. I didn't even have to look at the damned thing to know that it was The Irishman.

"Yes boyyyyy," he said. "What's the crack?"
"I'm about to go do something underwhelming with my host family," I said.
"Aye, what is it then?"
"I have no idea. Just know that it's going to be underwhelming, probably."
"Underwhelming, so it is? Aye, keep me posted, then."
"I know how you love that underwhelming shit."
"Aye, it's Georgia, so it is. What else is there?" 

I went downstairs and out to the lawn and my host mom and I – along with my two host cousins and my host aunt – went sauntering off down the dark-ass gravel road together. 

"Do you know who St. Mary is?" asked my host mom.
"Mary? Host Mother of God?"
"Do you have her in America?"
"Yes," I said.    
"Tell me who she is, then."
"She had a baby."
"Who was her baby?"
"Jesusi," I guessed.
"Who's that?"
"I don't know how to say 'Jesus' in Georgian."
"Forget it."

The wonderfully-named Iago came ambling up the road towards us. He and I shook hands.
"Iago," I said. "How are you?"
"I have a terrible hangover."
"Shouldn't have drank so much without me," I said.
We exchanged a fistpound of sorts, then proceeded together towards the traditional Georgian whatever-it-was in the distance.

The stench grew stronger and stronger. As we approached, I could make out a flickering, dancing light splashing up against a graystone wall. My host mom grabbed me by the wrist – the one I'd broken – and poked me in the ribs.

"See!" she cried. "See!"
"What is it?"
I saw her eyes roll in the darkness.
"You don't know? It's a [GW]! Idiot."

Ah, yes. A fire. I nodded, mouthed the word to myself, repeated it, was surprised I hadn't learned it before, decided I'd remember it. Could be useful. A fire.

As we drew nearer to the shallow blaze, I could make out the slanted silhouettes of the village winos embossed by the flames and then yes, what I'd perhaps known it would be all along. It was a tire fire in a back alley. A bunch of crap thrown into the center of a tire. And that crap was set on fire. So it was. 

"How beautiful!" cried my host mom. "Do you like it?"
"Yes," I said numbly, but did not elaborate.
"This is Georgian tradition," she said. "Do you have this tradition in America?"
"Some people do."

We watched the tire melt. I detached myself from my host mom, aligned myself with the winos, asked them how they were doing. Not surprisingly, they all had hangovers. A wino asked me for a cigarette and I told him I didn't have any. This surprised him. It surprised me. We stood there in a circle, mostly silently, watching the tire fire die. Occasionally, a wino would rustle up the flames with a stick, or throw in a stray branch. But the fire was done for. We'd just arrived; we'd be going home soon. And then the little kids started throwing in plastic bags, candy wrappers, anything inorganic they could find to keep the fire alive. And the melting plastic and the smoldering rubber and the crunchy crap of the modern world twisted together into a nasty black snake and the wind kicked up and blew it everywhere. And I turned away and shielded my face and, for the first time in recent memory, I coughed a long, clean, healthy cough.

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