Ask me your questions, bridgekeeper, I am not afraid!

Answer me these questions three, ‘ere the other side ye see…

Upon meeting new people, I’m always asked the same questions. Everyone’s very curious… I’m asked three questions, and after I’ve answered the three questions, I’m invited for wine and Mts’vadi.

1. Do you like Georgia? Or: Do you like Kutaisi?

This first question is asked with a glow of pride and hopefulness from the questioner. Most Georgians I have met have never met a foreigner, and have never conversed with a native speaker. They are proud of their country or the town they live in, and are very eager to hear my what I think of the city or country they’ve lived in their whole life.

There’s a legend for how Georgians were given Georgia. And it actually captures the Georgian identity very well. So, when God was distributing the land to all the peoples, the Georgians were late. They missed the whole event. God wondered why they were late. Well, they were at a Supra, drinking and eating in God’s honor! God was so impressed that he gave them the land that he was saving for himself. (It’s a great story describing the Georgian conception of time, too. Nobody’s ever on time. Who knows why; maybe they were at a supra.)

So I say, Yes, of course, I love it here! Knowing they expect a bit more, and having a general idea for the landscape, I can elaborate a bit. Georgia consists largely of small villages in the mountains or forests, and then there are ancient churches and monasteries dotted around the mountains and valleys too. So I can say the name of some church or monastery I’ve seen recently, and say how lovely it is there. “Yes, I love it here! I just visited the Bagrati cathedral last weekend, and it’s very peaceful and lovely up there. I love history, so it is very nice for me to see Georgia.” Or: “I saw Gelati and Motsameta this weekend. It is very beautiful, and the view of the mountains is very wonderful. They are very old, so it is very interesting for me because I studied history.” Or I can talk about how I have plans to visit other old monasteries or churches, and how excited I am to see all the old buildings.

Usually this cursory knowledge of two or three monasteries or regions of Georgia, or places I intend to visit will bring smiles of joy to faces. It is very good you are here. I am glad you love Georgia. It is a very good country. Would you like to go to my village on weekend and drink wine and eat Mts’vadi? Yes, of course, that sounds wonderful! When? When the weather is nice. Okay, great!

2. Do you like Georgian food? Do you like Georgian wine? Do you like Khachapuri and Khinkhali?

The second series of questions is food and drink related. Georgians are very proud of their food and wine. Khachapuri is probably the most famous dish, which is sort of like a cheese pie thing. A flat bread dough with cheese filling. Khinkhali is the second most famous dish. They are meat dumplings. I’m learning how to eat khinkhali like a Georgian, without a fork and trying to not drip meat juice on the plate, but I am still a novice. I must say with embarrassment each time I’m asked that I can’t eat Khachapuri. I say that I have a dairy allergy. But is not milk, is cheese! No, no, I am allergic. Allergia. Oh. Do you love Lobiani? Yes, I love Lobiani. (like khachapuri, but instead of cheese, it’s a fried bean filling.)

Yes, eating and drinking is the national pastime of the Georgians. When I ask my students what their hobbies are, many of them say that drinking wine and Tcha Tcha is one of their hobbies. But despite how much drinking is a part of the culture here, it isn’t pub culture at all. Having lived in Prague, I have been spoiled with beer and pub culture (the Czechs drink the most beer per capita in the world, having recently surpassed the Irish and Germans)

I was told by my dorm director, as I was sitting over a beer in a pub, that it’s considered odd to sit in a pub and just drink beer. Nobody sits in pubs, cafes, bars, or anywhere, just drinking beer. Nobody sits in a pub alone. If you go to a pub or cafe or something, you have a feast! Meat dishes, cheese dishes, breads, vats of wine… No, there are no casual gatherings of friends in a pub for a few beers. That is odd.

So I say, yes, of course! I love Georgian food and wine! But not khachapuri. Very good, very good. I am glad. Eyes beaming. Do you want to come to my village and drink wine and eat Mts’vadi? Oh yes, that would be wonderful! When? Oh, when the weather is nice. You will be my guest!

3. What is your religion?

Hmm…. I think. How to answer this one? Georgians are about 80-90% Orthodox. The one thing The Onion’s world atlas (“Our Dumb World”) said about Georgia was that it’s the most Christian place on the planet… ah… out with it! I have no religion, I say. What?! That is very bad. Very bad. Well, I say, it’s not that bad. I am baptized, I went to Christian schools, and I grew up Protestant. But now I do not like going to church and don’t feel like I have any religion. Lots of head shaking in disapproval. (A philosophical discussion on the nature of faith, and that you never lose your faith, you just understand new ways to think about these things, would be utterly impossible.) No no, you should be Orthodox. Well, I don’t want to be Orthodox. I think you should be Orthodox, and I will be happy with no religion.

Concerning Orthodoxy: Everyone is Orthodox. Everyone! Everyone is fasting for Lent, everyone crosses themselves when they walk past a church, cabs and marshrutkas all have icons on the dashboard, but apparently very few of them attend church regularly.

This is a difference with growing up Protestant. In Michigan, the question is never “What is your religion?” But instead is “What church do you go to?” It’s assumed you’re religious, that you’re Protestant, that you’re Christian Reformed, and that you go to church regularly. Religiosity is tied directly with the practice of going to church.

But I think this is different for those of Catholic or Orthodox backgrounds. (Having grown up Protestant, maybe I have no grounds for understanding this, but I will continue.) There are inherited traditions with Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Traditions are sacred, motions and ritual are sacred. There’s an inherited tradition that’s holy that’s passed down through the generations. It becomes part of one’s identity, regardless of how often, or if, one goes to church on a Sunday. Identity is very rooted within that tradition, within rituals and within history. But having grown up Protestant, that sense of identity within a tradition I think is very distant (well, and growing up in North America). Protestants have no deep well of tradition to draw from. I think there’s a way that you can be Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, for these reasons of inherited traditions, in a way that doesn’t exist for Protestants. You can’t be Protestant without being religious. But I think you can be Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim without really being religious, because so much that identity is rooted within tradition. And I’m sort of jealous of that! Had I come from a different tradition, I might have a greater sense of personal identity, I might be able to say that I associated myself with some group.

Alas. I grew up Protestant. Christian Reformed, which, given, is an inherited tradition for many in Western Michigan of Dutch descent, but we in my family are CRC immigrants. Foreigners.

All this has gotten off topic. What is your religion? I don’t know. For the sake of ease, I just tell the Georgians I have no religion.

4. Do you have a big family?

Family is very important for Georgians. Many generations live together in the same house, normally. I hear many stories from the other volunteers about their bebia and babua making great efforts to ensure that they’re more than well fed. Parents and small children always around, generations and generations making sure that you’re heading out with a coat and hat and that you’re keeping up on the wine and Tcha-Tcha.

I’ve had a few lessons now about family vocabulary. This usually results in, while I’m writing on the board, students asking the co-teacher questions, who relays them to me. How many siblings do you have? How many cousins do you have? Are you close with your family? I try to respond that it’s different in the states. I’m close with some cousins, but not with all of them. That I have a big family, but I don’t know them all well. That I am close with my siblings and direct family (and I draw a map of the USA on the board, with an “x” in Southern California, Oregon, and Michigan to illustrate where we all are), but that I’m not super close with all of my extended family. That my parents can sort of figure out how we’re all related, but it’s all a bit too complex for me. First cousins, second cousins, twice removed, I don’t get how it all works. It’s difficult to stay in touch with everyone. The response I get is: That is bad. Very bad. You should love your family more. I don’t have a good track record with my students so far.

5. Are you married? How old are you?

Oooh… another dangerous one. Must be careful. 24, but not married. This is often returned with great shock (and calculating, hopeful eyes). Why are you not married? Oh, I like to be single. It is good. Do you like Georgian girls? Well, of course! Women are beautiful all around the world. Georgia is no different. Well, with a Georgian girl you can stay here or take her to USA. You have many choices of Georgian girls. Do you want to get married? No, I think I will not get married in Georgia. I am here to teach, not to get married. No, that’s very bad. Very bad. It is best to have many children and have big family.

When I’m asked by my students, it’s always interesting to see the cogs start turning with the girls. As I’m in a vocational school and not a regular public high school, I have a lot of older students. So an unmarried, 24 year old American, what a catch, sparse noggin and sparse beard aside. Whoever’s doing the asking, with the reply that you’re single, you can see the cogs inevitably start to turn. If they aren’t thinking of their own possibilities, they’re considering a friend or a relative who’s single. We were told in our orientation week that we’d get a lot of marriage proposals. Dating here isn’t like it is in Western countries, it’s considered more as courtship with the intent to marry. We were also told about instances of “bride-napping,” when the groom and his buddies show up in the night on horseback and take away the bride, and if she doesn’t run away it’s considered a happy marriage. It don’t happen often these days, and only in villages, but there are a few cases just in the past few years.

Very traditional family roles, traditional gender roles here. The concept of the bachelor life is pretty alien. Having expected this, and then its reinforcement during the orientation week, makes my Pakistani host brother’s concerns a bit absurd. Not finding women in Kutaisi, but being certain that, were he in Tbilisi, all his problems would be solved. So you’re on the prowl… and you decided to come to Georgia of all places? I’m not sure your reasoning is sound dude…

He who answers the three questions may cross to the other side in safety. Until the next round of questions. So far I have about four or five people whom I’m supposed to go to their villages for wine and Mts’vadi.

One response

  1. At least your answers to the first two questions – food, wines, Georgia as a country – help balance out the questions about family, religion, or marriage! And as the foreigner, you’re still popular even if they think some stuff is “dzalian tsudat.” Funny how that works.

    If we’d grown up in a different tradition maybe you would feel different or have a more confident sense of your personal identity, but maybe not. I understand your feeling of growing up as a CRC immigrant – feeling like you don’t quite belong because of where your family came from, what your name is, or because we knew the world was bigger! That’s why I wanted to leave the bubble, even if just for a few years! I knew the world was bigger and I wanted to know who I was outside that weird box I didn’t quite fit into. And? It’s more than religion, more than tradition (those are valuable too, they really are) – it has to be in your heart as deep, true faith. And of course a good dose of wacky family to keep you laughing 🙂

    Love you!