Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Down and Out in Tbilisi

I am in Tbilisi, the capital of what used to be the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and is now just Georgia. But I want that understood right off the bat. I am not in Ted Turner's Georgia, I am in Josef Stalin's Georgia.

What am I doing here? At the moment, not much. I came here ostensibly to teach English. The Georgian Ministry of Education is going full-court press on teaching Georgian children (and cops) to speak English, and at the moment is importing English teachers by the truckload. I was among a truckload of about 20 or so who arrived here about two weeks ago. By the way, and without any false modesty, I'm a hell of a teacher.

I was supposed to be teaching in the tiny mountain hamlet of Stepantzminda. It's about 100 miles north of here, not far from the Russian border. I went there, and lasted about 36 hours. I was supposed to be living with a "host family." Well, my host family and I had what the Americans these days call "issues" with each other.  I think they thought I was crazy. I have a habit of muttering under my breath when sitting in front of a computer. I think from that alone they concluded that I was some sort of sociopath. For my part, I didn't like the way they treated me as if I were invisible. I had been told all sorts of things about Georgian hospitality. These people treated me like I wasn't there. The first night I arrived they didn't even offer me any supper. When I got hungry I had to go down the road and buy bread and cheese at a store.

Then there was their toilet. It didn't work. It just ran and ran and ran, and no one seemed the slightest bit interested in fixing it. Hey, I ain't taking a shit in a toilet that won't flush. At three a.m. on the first of my two nights there when I felt "the urge," I had to go out int the backyard where they kept their dog, chickens and horse and take a shit in the garden. I kicked dirt over it with my shoe. What is this, Tobacco Road? Get me outta here.

So. They didn't want me and I didn't want them. I hardly had time to learn the horse's name (It was Malchik, the Russian word for "little boy.") In less than 48 hours I was sent back to Tbilisi. That was okay with me. The countryside around Stepantzminda was jaw-dropping in its beauty -- towering mountains, some capped with snow. But the town itself wasn't much: 135 people and about 400 cows. I'm glad I was spared spending a Sunday there. The temptation to open my veins for something to do might have been overpowering, and I have not yet been to Italy. If I'm going to die, I want to see Naples first.

In truth, bad karma has been dogging me since I got here. I lost my wallet (although it did turn up). I also lost my passport. It did not turn up, and I had to go to the American embassy and get it replaced. Now, I spent a dozen years working in Amerian embassies and consulates, and they are just about my least favorite places on earth. Then, just six days after I got on the plane in Los Angeles, the news came that Callie, my beloved little chihuahua doggie pal, had died in her sleep. Just one bad thing after another.

When I became upset about losing my wallet, then became equally upset about losing my passport, "Giga," the bureaucrat who locally manages the program that brought us here, decided he was going to send me back to the United States. How dare you get upset about your wallet disappearing, he implied? There must be something wrong with you.

We got into a spirited argument about that, but finally struck a compromise: I can stay in-country and teach, but I cannot live with a "host family." I have to have my own place.

This will be more expensive, but it actually suits me just fine. I had been living in a rented room in California for a year when I picked up this gig, and was beyond sick and tired of having other people underfoot all the time, telling me to tiptoe, not to dunk my zwieback in my Bosco and sticking signs all over the house saying you can't rock in the rocking chair after 11 p.m. Besides, I like doing my own cooking and have not been able to for some time. The couple I lived with in California included a Guatemalan wife who was so damned persnickety about everything that I didn't dare use the kitchen for making anything except coffee and toast. Georgia, I've been told, has very traditional notions about gender roles, and men simply do NOT cook in this country. That's women's work. Well, to hell with that. I don't want any woman cooking for me. Bring on my own place. And my own stove.

But as of this writing, I'm essentially Saul Bellow's Dangling Man. Today is Wednesday and I have not heard a word from TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia) since Saturday. I'm staying in a hostel on the outskirts of Tbilisi, waiting for them to find me an apartment and a school. It's very hot here at this time of year. I walk around town sweating a lot. I read. I drink beer. I smoke. I watch Dudley Do-Right cartoons on my laptop (when it will connect to the wi-fi network.) I try to get used to the local toilet paper, which could be used to sand furniture.

Georgia is a very old country.  There have been people in this part of the world since this part of the world belonged to the Romans. Or did this part of the world ever belong to the Romans? I should know the answer to that. I was a history major in college. But I don't. I do remember that the Black Sea was considered outside the pale of the Roman Empire (the poet Ovid was exiled to the Black Sea when Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor on whose watch Christ was killed and by the way one of history's great prudes, decided that Ovid was a pornographer), and Georgia is east of the Black Sea, so probably it never was part of the Roman Empire.

The Russians have been hanging around this part of the world for 200 years or so. They got into a war with the Turks or maybe it was the Persians (or maybe it was both of them) back in the 18th century, and decided they wanted a buffer zone between themselves and the Turks (or the Persians.) They've been trying to subdue the Caucasus ever since. It's the same stunt Stalin pulled when he annexed eastern Europe in 1945: invaded by the French in 1812 and then by the Germans in 1941, the Russians wanted a buffer zone between themselves and western Europe, and they maintained it until they ran out of money. But geography will tell: while it was easy for the Russians to bully eastern Europe with tanks, the Caucausus is mountainous country; mountainous country is notoriously difficult to invade and easy to defend, so the Russians never really established hegemony over Georgia, or Chechnya, or Abkhazia or Ingushetia or Dagestan, although they fought a war with the Georgians as recently as 2008 and the region of Georgia known as South Ossetia is still occupied by the Russians and is technically considered a war zone. We've been told not to go there.

If there is an upside to all of this, it is that everyone in this part of the world understands Russian, and having studied Russian in college, then spent a year in Moscow during my State Department days, I speak and understand a little Russian. Not enough to engage in an abstruse discussion of the prose style of Lev Tolstoy versus that of Fyodor Dostoevski, but certainly enough to give directions to a cab driver, sit down in a cafe and order a cup of coffee or walk into into a store and ask for some bread and cheese. 

This has saved my butt, because nobody could possibly learn Georgian, at least not in the five days which was all the Georgian language training they could give us. Even if I wanted to learn Georgian, which has more in common with Arabic than it has with Russian, I'm only going to be here for nine or ten months, which isn't long enough to pick up any local language.

Besides, the way I figure it, why should I go to the effort of learning a language which is spoken by only four million people in the entire world, all of whom are here, in a country about the size of South Carolina?

Once out of Georgia I would never use Georgian again. Russian, on the other hand, is spoken by close to 300 million people all over the globe. I might have use for Russian somewhere else. So, rather than kick myself all over the place trying to learn Georgian, I think I will work on improving my Russian while I'm here trying to improve other people's English.

I'm waiting for the weather to cool down, which in turn, hopefully, will discourage the mosquitoes here. And I'm waiting for my assignment. Meanwhile the taxicabs here are relatively cheap, there is a Metro, and they have a local cheesy-bread here that is to die for. Stand by for updates from a wannabe ex-pat.

I'm serious. I don't intend to stay in Georgia beyond my assignment here, but ex-pat is one of my life goals. If I have my druthers, the United States will see me no more.

Meanwhile, I think Tbilisi is seeing more of me than it cares to. Serves it right.