Friday, September 9, 2011

A long Overdue Update

So… I suppose I owe all of you an apology. Coming to Georgia I had great plans of keeping this blog, filling it with my experiences and impressions and giving people at home a means by which they could keep up with me and follow my journey. That has not happened. I would like, however, to state that this is not entirely my own fault. 

    I am living in the village of Supsa along the Supsa River just 10km from the Black Sea. It is a small village, and, as is not surprising, internet access here is slow and limited, when it exists at all. Even at the internet cafe in town there is about a 50-50 chance that the internet will work, and when it does, I feel bad taking up one of the spots to write a long blog entry. But I have now found a series of places and steps I can take to write these entries, put them online, and eventually post them without inconveniencing the thirteen-year-old boys who need the internet cafe computers to play Counter Strike and Grand Theft Auto for hours on end.

    For this entry, I would like to just give a sketch of what life here in Georgia is like. No matter how I try to write it (this is about the fifth draft of this post), words seem woefully inadequate to convey my experience here. As I have thought about the inadequacy of words to describe experience, I have also been considering whether our senses can even convey the full breadth of an experience. Is all there is what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? Or is every experienced colored by something deeper, something connecting our spirit to the world around us in an intangible manner that we can neither perceive nor describe? As I am sitting here after a long day of working teaching and harvesting grapes to begin to make wine, it is hard for me to believe that all there was to the experience was what I saw, felt, and heard. These thoughts are perhaps best encapsulated in a poem by Vladimir Solovyov, the great Russian symbolist thinker, and is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I will save you the work of Google translate and give you the English, as translated by Robert Bridges:

Dear friend, seest thou not
   that whatever we look on here
Is but an image, shadows only
   of a beauty hid from our eyes?

Dear friend, hear’st thou not
   this jarring tumult of life
Is but a far discordant echo
   of heavn’s triumphant harmonies?

Dear friend, know’st thou not
   that the only truth in the world
Is what one heart telleth another
   in speechless greetings of love?

This is a good translation of the poem (though the language is a bit outdated) with one exception. Bridges here translates the Russian word meaning to sense as to know. A major tenet of the Symbolist movement in Russia that Solovyov helped pioneer was that truth was more something to be sensed and experienced than something to be known, and so the use of “know’st” is an unfortunate departure from the original. I suppose “sense’st” would be a rather silly word, and so I can forgive him this oversight. What I’m getting at in this aside is that I can offer a sketch of life here, but cannot convey the true significance of the experience. I cannot put into words what one heart, the heart of this place and this people, wordlessly says to my own.

    I have never been in a place where I have felt so welcomed and embraced so quickly and unquestioningly. Georgians are famous for and pride themselves on their hospitality, and I’m sure as I reveal more stories about my time here it will become apparent why that is the case. Supsa is a small village of only about 1000-2000 people, and as there is a large disparity in Georgia between the socioeconomic status of most people living in the cities (especially Tbilisi) and those living in the villages, most people here do not have a lot of material wealth; but still they are willing to share what they have, to welcome others into their homes, and to always give what they can.  

As so many others have written about, and as anyone who has spent any time in Georgia can tell you, this spirit is most alive and apparent around the table, as people gather for food and drink. Food here is always communal. Even in restaurants, you do not order for yourself, but you order for the table. And when you bring food with you on an outing, you do not bring just enough food for yourself and the couple of people you may be with, but you bring enough to share with those along the way.

Eating and drinking here is highly ritualized, and the compilation of everyone’s resources is often the first stage in the ritual. Whether the feast is with a family who has invited all their friends to celebrate a birthday, is a dinner between a few families living on the same street, or is a lunch taken in the middle of a hard day working fishing on the Black Sea, many of the same rituals are observed, especially with drinking. One never drinks at his own pace and leisure (except with beer, which is not taken seriously as a drink), but rather drinks with everyone else. At every meal where wine or spirits are served and where everyone has their own glass, the drinking is done periodically throughout the meal, but it is always accompanied by a toast, and typically one is expected to finish his glass, or come close to it, with each toast. And while toasts in many places are just given by anyone who has one to offer, in Georgia, each formal meal has a toastmaster, or tamada who offers all of the toasts, which can then be added onto by others before drinking. And the toasts are not just given on a whim, but follow a sort of formula, as the tamada makes his way through toasts to God, country, those present, and those who have gone on before us. I have often felt especially welcome as they periodically offer toasts to their special guests, and as the only American in Supsa, I often fall into this category. Many of the toasts focus on family members who have passed away, everyone presents’ ancestors, parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters; so if any of you reading this fit that category, know that you are being celebrated, honored, and thought of by many Georgians. At some point in the evening, one of the only toasts not offered by the tamada is a toast to the tamada offered by someone else around the table. For these celebrations, the choice drink is Georgian wine, which almost everyone makes at home from the grapes they grow in their yard, or at times when wine is unavailable, such as right now, as the previous year’s stores have run dry and this year’s grape crop is just coming in, with shots of liquor, the most popular being vodka and ch’a-ch’a, a homemade moonshine that is a byproduct from the wine fermentation process that is one of the strongest things I have ever put in my body (tasted would hardly describe what the experience of drinking ch’a-ch’a is like).

    At times other than feasts or formal meals when drinking is going on, every drink is still preceded by a toast. Even if everyone is just passing around one cup, taking turns drinking ch’a-ch’a, one never drinks without something having been said first to all of those gathered around. This toasting process often means that everyone drinks at about the same pace, but it is accompanied by an expectation that if you start drinking with a table, you will finish drinking with that table. There is no backing out halfway through, and so when dining with a particularly hard-drinking group, these rituals can be dangerous. However, every Georgian feast is accompanied by piles of food that do not run out, and so the drinking is kept relatively safe by being done at a slow pace and with plenty of heavy food being ingested throughout the duration. By the end of the meal, as everyone has eaten, drank, and talked together, even those who before were strangers become close friends, united by the communal experience of dining together. This ritualization of meals is not only an important aspect of Georgian culture, but is important for better interpreting many of the experiences I have had here. In Georgia I have rediscovered the power that a meal can have to bring people together in bonds of community, and over meals I have made some of my best friends.

And now more about life in Supsa. In some ways, life here is a lot closer to the sort of life that I hold as an ideal than that which many Americans and others around the world live, but this place is no Garden of Eden; it too, as with anywhere, has its problems. People here are much closer to the land and aware of where their food comes from than most Americans are. The few stores in Supsa sell very little food, and so most people rely on their own labor or the labors of their friends, neighbors, and others in the community to provide food for the table. In my backyard we have grape vines, cucumbers, potatoes, beans, hazelnuts, and many other varieties of fruit growing, and as this is the season when most of it is ripening, I have been spending many days helping with the harvest. We have had fresh vegetables and fruit with almost every meal, and what we have not eaten I have watched my host mother preparing to store for the winter, either pickled, dried, fermented, or otherwise preserved. Here I have become much more aware of the work that everywhere used to go into assuring that a family will have a variety of food throughout the year as well as how much of traditional work depends on the cycles of the seasons. It is also refreshing to see the land where my food is coming from, the cows (and an ox) from whose milk the yogurt I eat in the morning is made, and to know that I am ingesting (at least from food) significantly fewer chemicals.

However, the treatment of the land elsewhere in the country is another story. Campaigns to stop littering and programs to keep the streets, beaches, forests, and rivers free have trash and looking their best have not yet been launched in Georgia, and thus there is trash everywhere. Even the beaches, some of the areas you would assume would be kept the cleanest, are littered with bottles, cans, wrappers, etc. The beaches in tourist towns are kept relatively clear, but outside of those spots no such care is taken. The trash mars the landscape not just in terms of detracting from visual appeal, but is a physical manifestation of an attitude that the land is something expendable, limitless, and not in need of preservation. This same attitude is manifested in other areas of human and environmental health concerns. Livestock are everywhere here, wandering free from place to place in search of grass on which to graze. While on one level it is great to see that people trust each other enough and have a strong enough community to not need to fence in their animals, on another level it is unfortunate to see cows milling in the rivers, damaging the precious habitats of the river banks and polluting the water. There are also major elements of the infrastructure that are falling apart or absent. The sewage system seems very lacking, and the water system seems woefully outdated, but these are fixable problems, and ones that seem to be coming soon across Georgia. With a significant amount of investment in infrastructure, and an effort to focus on the beauty of Georgia’s natural landscape, the country could go a long way towards preserving the integrity and beauty of its land and the health of its people.

While these concerns do exist, they in no way mar that sense that is delivered from one heart to another, from Georgia’s spirit to my own, that embraces me and tells me I am welcome here. Thus far I love life in Georgia, have gone through a wealth of new experiences, and will hopefully come out of this year with a much more well-developed perspective on the world and a newfound appreciation of many new ways of living. I promise to write more soon. I have some great stories to tell, and as time goes on the memories will fade, so this will provide an excellent venue for me to form, write, and reflect on what I have seen, heard, and most importantly, sensed with the very fabric of my being.


  1. Nathan,

    Good to hear you're having such a fantastic experience in Georgia. Your thoughts on the ineffability of such moving, or perhaps rather all, experiences makes me think you might find one of the books I've been reading, as part of the ongoing expansion of my thesis from last year, worth a glance. Titled The Affect Theory Reader, it consists of fifteen essays that explore, obviously, affect theory, doing so through different contextual lenses that are thematically grouped into chapters. It's a relatively new area in literary criticism, although other fields were studying and writing about it somewhat earlier. Here's a passage from the first page of the Introduction, to give you an idea:

    "Affect, at its most anthropomorphic, is the name we give to those forces--visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally *other than* conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion--that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world's apparent intractability."

    Anyway, it was the first thing I thought about when reading your post, so I thought I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to recommend a quite interesting collection of essays that unfortunately won't be something most people I know ever want or need to read.

    I hope you continue to have as beneficial and senses-opening a time as you've had over the past few months. Keep updating when you get chances to (though God forbid the tweens be denied their own simulated experience of The Greatest Country in the World through hours of Grand Theft Auto, which is what I really hope they have in their minds as what it's like in the U.S.).


  2. True to everything I've ever known you to be, this post was thoughful, eloquent, and truly inspiring. Nathan, thank you so much for sharing your experiences in writing :) Your words are so purposeful and refreshing. I'm so glad you are loving where you are! Know that you are loved and missed by the McEwen's, and that you are in my prayers.

    Also, your blog title is just wonderful.