3:48 a.m., January 1, 2011, Batumi, Georgia. In Russian: “Hey! Andrew! Wake up! We need to walk across town to where we’re going to sleep.” I snap awake not knowing where I am or how I got there but looking at a face I recognized. Being 3 sheets to the wind only 20 minutes earlier and sitting at a dining room table, I now found myself in a chair in the living room being shouted at in Russian by my host-brother.
Wait wait wait… Let’s back up here because that’s not how this whole story gets started. December 31, 2010 10:00 a.m. my phone rings and it’s my host-dad wondering where I am. Where I was was in another town house sitting for a friend who is in America for the holidays. He wants to know where I am because he doesn’t listen to anything I tell him like when I told him 3 days earlier that I would be home that afternoon to celebrate the New Year with them in Muganlo. Well, he informs me that I need to come quick because we’re going on a trip to visit some friends for the New Year. “Ok Ok! I just need to go to Tbilisi on my way and pick up two boxes my mom sent that are full of gifts for the family for New Year’s,” I tell him. “Ok. Ok. Just hurry up!” he says and hangs up.
So, I pack my things and take the hour and a half trip by mini-bus to the capital to pick up my boxes. They were both huge and there was no way I was going to get them and my bags back to Muganlo by mini-bus after having to take them on the metro across town first. I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a cab to take me back to Muganlo from the Peace Corps office at a 40 Lari price tag. Ouch. But, it could have been worse. The guy wanted to charge me 60, but I was having none of it. As soon as I get in the cab my host-dad calls again to see where I am. “I’m in Tbilisi, I’ll be there in about 45 minutes or so,” I tell him. “OK. OK. Hurry. We go!” is his response. I have no idea what he’s talking about or what the urgency is since it’s only one in the afternoon at this point with a full 11 hours to go till the New Year.
What do I discover when I get home? My host-dad isn’t even there! My host-brother is though and asks me why I’m late. “Where is Akif?” I ask. “He’s still at work, he’s coming soon,” he replies. So how am I late then, I think to myself. No matter, I’m home and all should soon be well. About 20 minutes later my host-dad shows up and is running around like his ass is on fire telling everyone to get ready to go. “Pack a bag, we come back tomorrow!” he tells me. “Where are we going?” I ask.
“Batumi!” Now Batumi is literally on the other side of the country in the semi-autonomous region of Adjara. It’s a favored spot for Georgians to celebrate the New Year and Akif’s friend that he spoke of is one that I met last year and who didn’t leave all that great of an impression on me. Oh, and, taking an overnight trip to the other side of the country without letting Peace Corps know about it is a no no. Problem one: It’s New Year’s Eve and the PC staff is out of the office and with their families. Problem two; my cell phone is dead and we are leaving with no time for me to charge it. Problem three: I can tell this is going to be one long car ride with my host-dad, 15-year-old host-brother, middle host-brother (Aslan), his wife and 18-month-old son and I all in one car.
Editor’s Note: If you are a Peace Corps Staff Member and are reading this; sorry, I didn’t call and report my whereabouts. I take full responsibility for that. And, if you keep reading you’ll probably find that some of the content may be offensive to Georgians. Sorry, it was a weekend from hell and I’ve got to let it out. If you are Georgian and reading this: Stop now! You probably won’t like it. Oh, and if any of you when reading the dialogue seem to find its content funny, it’s because it’s translated from Russian.
Let me start out by saying I did not want to go to Batumi and even told my host-dad as much. But, being where as he doesn’t listen when he has his mind set on something, I was ushered into the car and off we went. 3:00 p.m. December 31, 2010, we leave Muganlo all packed and ready to make the trip.
5:00 p.m. we near the city of Gori made famous because it’s where Stalin was born; and, it starts to rain. This is not a good thing because we are about to enter a very mountainous region and Georgians are some of if not the world’s worst drivers. My host-dad is no exception to this. Two lane roads here quickly turn into what NASCAR fans refer to as ‘4-wide.’ We’re driving up hills and down hills passing on blind curves all the while going 65+ miles an hour in the rain. Now, the roads in western Georgia (i.e. the roads to Batumi) are much better than they are in the east where I live. But still, they aren’t the greatest and while you’re driving around these curves on the side of the mountain there may or may not be a rail there to help stop you should you decided to plummet to your death. All this is going on with me sitting in the front seat trying to make noises to tell my host-dad when a car is coming that I can see from my side, my 15-year-old host-brother is in the back complaining that it’s either too hot or too cold, the middle host-brother is yelling over the god-awful music on the car stereo while talking on the phone but one positive was that somehow the baby managed to sleep through all of this.
6:30 p.m.; sunset; my host-dad makes the statement, “I wish we could have left earlier. I hate driving at night because I can’t see too well.” The car then accelerates towards another car that’s break lights are clearly lit. No problem, we just swerve around it. My grip on the passenger side door tightens to white knuckle capacity.
8:30 p.m.; Kobaleti, Georgia. We finally make a stop at a town about a half an hour’s drive outside of Batumi to buy more candy and some champagne for our hosts. As soon as the car stops, I jump out and light a cigarette and check to make sure I haven’t soiled myself on the trip down from the mountains. I had managed to get my phone somewhat charged in the car, so I called the Peace Corps volunteer that lives in that town to confirm our proximity to Batumi. Sure enough, we’re only a half an hour out. Thank God!
Around 9:15 or so we arrived at D’s house in Batumi. (We’ll call him D here in order to protect the name of the not so innocent.) My nerves are shot and I need a drink at this point. Luckily, I’ve come to the right place for that and we all sit down and start a small supra (Georgian word for table full of food, booze and lots of toasting). The wine is poured and I’ve got to say it was just ok. Not bad, but far from good. The food was not that much better either and consisted of reheated chicken and a lot of salads that were either mayonnaise concentrated or just loaded with oil. Pass the bread please!
After an hour and a half and more than a few toasts, the host-brothers and I with the sister-in-law and baby are ushered out of the apartment by our host’s son to go to the big Batumi New Year’s concert that is shown on TV here every year. Yes, the concert is outside. Yes, it is still raining. Yes, it is cold. We drive over to the venue, park and get out. The concert was supposed to start at 10:40 p.m. and it is now about 10:45 p.m. The line to get in is a mile long and after only a few seconds of contemplation we decide to not wait out in the rain but rather just walk around and see the lights of Batumi. They were actually pretty nice and Batumi is like a smaller version of Odessa, Ukraine.
We walked around for about 45 minutes or so before rushing back for… HAPPY NEW YEAR! Midnight came and was slightly anti-climatic since the host-dad and his friend D had been drinking the whole time, it was, for them, just another toast. But, we did pop a bottle of champagne and everyone had a glass for the New Year. The champagne was of course Georgian and consequently overly sugared and under cultured. Not dry, not wet, not… anything.
After the champagne toast we had to sit around and listen to D make all the long traditional toasts that accompany the New Year while drinking more wine. At least this time it was some of the wine that we had brought from our house which while not the world’s best is still a ton better than what we had been drinking when we first got there. These toast lasted about an hour and then everyone packed up to walk across town to D’s sister’s house. “Of course you have to visit somebody! It’s tradition! Visitors are gifts from God and your first of the New Year is very special,” D shouted as we were leaving to any and everyone within earshot. Of course he shouted everything since he lacks the ability to speak either in a whisper or in anything resembling a normal voice. Let me tell you dear reader, if this 300lbs+ guy showed up at your house, you’d think it was a plague from God and a gift that he should have kept the receipt for.
Once we arrived the hellos were said and the drinking continued. The food was better at the sister’s house but the wine was the worst that I have ever tasted. Imagine if you will Welch’s white grape juice mixed with champagne and normal Georgian wine. That’s what this sludge tasted like. Around 3:30 a.m. I excused myself from the table and headed off to find a spot to sit down and get away from D’s voice and his constant standing and sitting to make toasts that went on and on for 5-10 minutes at a time. I had had enough Georgian ‘culture’ for one night and was missing my village and the Azeris that inhabit it.
This brings us back to the start of my little story. At about 20 till 4 my host-dad, 15-year-old host brother, D, his wife, their son and I start the trek back across town to D’s house. The middle host-brother and his wife and baby stay at the sisters because there isn’t enough room at D’s for all of us. (Remember this for later) Yes, it is still raining and yes it is cold. Once we get there it’s a long toast from D, one shot of vodka and then I’m shown to my bed. Needless to say it takes me all total of 2 seconds to fall asleep. 4:30 a.m.
10:30 a.m. January 1, 2011; D’s house. I wake to the sound of D singing at the top of his lungs in the dining/living room. I lay there for about another half an hour while I listen to my host-dad and everyone else use the bathroom that is the next room over from where I was sleeping. Let’s just say after a long night of drinking and eating, they weren’t the most pleasant of sounds. Once I count up all the trips and realize that everyone has made their trip, I get up and lock myself in the bathroom for a good 15 minutes listening to D sing and make toasts. I get a good face washing in and brush my teeth. Strangely I didn’t hear anyone else do that. Hmmm….
Once I do get out of the bathroom I join everyone else at the table. D immediately hands me a shot of vodka before I can even get my ass in my chair. He says it will help with my hangover. I’m thinking the only thing I really want for my hangover is for him to shut the hell up for 5 seconds! My host-brother and his family show up at around 12 and we all sit down to “breakfast.” Breakfast consisted of the same salads we had been served the night before and the Belarusian vodka that D had been saving for just this occasion. Once D was satisfied that everyone had had enough, even if I hadn’t had my coffee that I asked for as soon as I sat down, we all packed ourselves into the car to go “see” Batumi. Yes it was still raining. No, you couldn’t “see” anything because we were all packed into the car and the windows kept fogging up. Yes, it was cold every time somebody rolled their window down to get a look at some building we passed. Luckily the drive was short lived and we returned to D’s to find him and his wife along with my host-dad ready to go. Thank God! Let’s get in the car and get the hell back to Muganlo. My host-brother told me to make sure to get my bag because we’d be heading home from D’s brother’s house. Wait. What? Yes, we had yet another stop to make before we could go home. Thankfully it was at least on the way out of town.
We arrived at the brother’s sometime around 1:30 p.m. or so to more hellos and congratulations on the New Year and a house full of people. My host-dad, D, my host-brother and I all sat down with our new host and yes started drinking more of the same crappy wine that we had been served the night before. Nothing helps a hangover like more of the same right? Ugh. Meanwhile, the host-sister-in-law, the baby and the 15-year-old host-brother were hanging out with D’s brother’s family and his wife. Being Azeri and from Baku, my host-sister-in-law doesn’t speak a word of Georgian which I noticed drew more than a few nasty looks from the Georgian women, and even some of the men, everywhere we went. But somehow it was ok for me to not be able to speak Georgian. They were more than happy to extend the toasts for a few more minutes to translate them for me. Thanks. One major upside to this visit was the food. The food at the brother’s place was awesome. Some really good beef stew type dish and some really good khachapuri (That’s Georgian cheese bread. Not the greatest thing on Earth as they would have you to believe but good).
At around 3:00 p.m. I start to wonder; shouldn’t we be getting on the road soon? The drinking sure hasn’t slowed down any and D is in full throttle mode at this point. I quietly get Aslan, my middle host-brother, to accompany me outside for a cigarette. “Hey, what’s the deal? Shouldn’t we be headed back soon?” I ask. “Yes. Very soon. We are leaving as soon as the other sister shows up,” Aslan said. Before we even finish our smoke two cars pull up and out pop a whole family full of people. This must be the other sister! And, sure enough it was. So, I headed back inside and we (the Muganlo crew) packed up our things in order to make room for the new arriving guests at the table. We then said our goodbyes, mingled around talking for a few minutes and then got in the car.
Thank God! As soon as the doors were closed I said to Aslan, “To Tbilisi my good man!” He didn’t reply. We drove down the hill to the main highway where we literally faced a sign that said Right to Tbilisi; Left to Batumi. The way that allowed us to turn right was clear of oncoming traffic and I breathed a sigh of relief. But wait. We weren’t turning right the car was going left! “Where are we going,” I half shouted. We’re going to visit Akif’s school friend who lives in Batumi. D is behind us and will come too,” Aslan replied. “But I thought we were going home!?” I said to him. “Tomorrow,” was the only thing he said.
“Oh this is an old friend of mine and D’s,” said my host-dad. “You’ll like him. I haven’t seen him in many years and we must visit him.” The only thing I heard though was the voice in my head screaming, “FFFUUUUUUCK!!!”
4:30 p.m. January 1, 2011; Batumi, Georgia. We arrive at the friend’s house. Let me just skip the run down here and get right to it. We sat down and D insists that I sit next to him. NOOOOOO! But, my host-dad joins in the campaign and I end up sitting right next to Tamada (toast-master) D. He is a very touchy individual. Hand on my shoulder, hand on my leg, leaning on me to make a toast to me. It was more than I could take and was ready to explode after about 5 minutes. The thing about this guy is he thinks he knows everything. “History? Got it. Politics? Right up my alley. Biology? No subject is too tough for D!”
Here is just a little piece of how D handles the table and this is pretty much typical of all of the places that we visited and were forced to listen to this guy who I swear must talk in his sleep because at no point during this trip did I ONCE witness him stay quiet for longer than a minute. At one point this ass asked me where my family was from; meaning my heritage. “Well, my mother’s family was German and my father’s family was Dutch,” I told him. He then proceeded to tell me the entire history of the great Dutch people. “Great adventurers the Dutch. They were the first in America the Dutch. Vikings the Dutch were and such were the first people to go many places. Many great Dutch people,” he went on and on. I was trying not to laugh at all the Dutch “facts” that this guy knew. After that was all over with he somehow managed between toasts to switch the subject to politics. He at one point made the claim that, “Nothing was good about the Soviet Union. Not one thing!” This drew not only an open mouth from me, but even refutations from the other guests. This was also the one and only time anyone had dared to interrupt the Great D when my host-dad made the simple but logical point that in fact there had been a few things about the USSR that were good. (its common knowledge that while bad, the Soviet Union did a lot of good for Georgia and there are still a lot of areas today where Georgia is in fact worse off than it was under the Union). Needless to say this debate went on for a while and evoked a whole new strain of toasts. Oh, the wine was a little better here but still not good but the food was good and I even got to have a few pieces of real ham!
Interesting side note. Our host had received a Red Diploma from Moscow State University in 1986. A Red Diploma meant that you graduated with the equivalent of a 4.0 and were pretty much at the top of your class. He even brought it out and showed it to me. After he graduated he went to work for the government as an engineer. Pretty impressive! His wife was also a senator in the Soviet Duma at one point for about 5 years and even let me see her credentials where on the back was printed her salary and all the benefits that she received as a senator. Really impressive! What do they do now you ask? Oh, he runs a small shop that sells bread; she is a house-wife and of course doesn’t receive a pension from a government that doesn’t exist anymore. Not one thing was good about the Soviet Union huh D?
After about an hour of sitting next to D I had had enough. But Fortuna doth shine every now and then. Since there is so much food to be laid out it took the wife and granny about an hour to set the table and granny popped in just as D was making a toast to our host’s family. He wanted the granny to come stand next to him. I saw Fortuna and struck! “Granny! Come here and take my seat next to the Tamada. I insist! I’ll move over here next to my host-father,” I literally shouted this. I had to in order to be heard over D and to make sure Granny got a move on. Now, giving up your seat is a big plus in the table culture. But, giving up the most treasured seat next to the Tamada is huge! I received many a ‘Good Job!’ from the other guests and was afterwards regarded as both considerate and well cultured. I’d have given my seat to Satan himself had he walked in that room, anything that would have gotten me away from that drunk, smelly and back slapping Georgian. D was literally about one more hand on my leg, one more shoulder grab or one more hug away from get slapped across the head.
So this whole feast goes on till well past 10 p.m. At this point we get ready to go. I have my coat and shoes on and am at the door waiting on the rest of our party to catch up. Aslan, the one person who was allowed not to drink because he was driving comes up to me and says, “You’re staying here.”
Yep. That’s right ladies and gentlemen no pre-warning just a notification that the 15-year-old host-brother and I will be staying at this guys house for the night and that the family would be by in the morning to get us. And off they went. I was pissed but didn’t see how making a scene right there to a bunch of drunks that probably wouldn’t have seen the problem with any of it would make any difference. I didn’t know this guy at all and contrary to the Georgian belief that once you drink together your friends, I do not subscribe to that line of thinking. He was kind of weird and wanted to talk; I just wanted to go to sleep. I thought it would be rude to just ask for a bed and duck out on the guy for the night so I agreed to have tea with him while his wife cleared off the table.
Like I said, I don’t speak Georgian all that well, but I understand a good bit of it. And while this guy took a break from our Russian conversation to make a phone call I understood a few words of it. It went something like this: Congratulations!... no… come… eat… drink… American… come. I looked at my host-brother and then tried to finish my tea as fast as possible. Too late. These three guys, who must have lived in the same building, show up and the guy’s wife starts resetting the table. I look at the clock and note that it is close to midnight.
Now these three guys and our host tried all the typical tricks to get me to sit down and eat and drink with them as they constantly stare at me like I’m some kind of exhibit they paid good money to get a look at. “Oh come join us please. Just one drink. Oh come on, just sit down then…” that’s how they try to suck you in. I politely as possible but probably not that politely declined and asked my host to show me where I would be sleeping. I was tired, annoyed and slightly drunk for the second day in a row. I’d have rather dropped than sit down with another group of drunken Georgians and have to listen to them talk about me in Georgian thinking that I didn’t understand them. So rude on so many levels. Eventually I got to bed and put on my i-pod to block out the sounds of the toasts coming from the next room that went on till sometime after 3 a.m.
9:00 a.m. January 2, 2011; Batumi, Georgia. My phone rings and wakes me up. Surprisingly I slept well. I think it had something to do with getting poor sleep the night before and having been semi-drunk for two straight days. On the phone was Aslan telling me that they would be there to pick us up in 15 minutes and that we would be going home. Sure enough, 15 minutes later the whole crew, D included show up. But, going home is out of the question at least until after we have breakfast and 2 liters of vodka. So, our host gets his wife to lay out the spread and then wakes one of the guys who showed up the night before off the couch so that everyone has a place to sit. He then brings out his home-vodka which is made from honey. I originally thought this would be a good thing since honey vodka is usually tasty. But no. This was made from wood honey which means it was slightly bitter honey to start with and doesn’t make for good drinking vodka. At least there was more ham. I even had a laugh with Aslan over the ham because he ate a piece and commented that it was good (beef) sausage. I told him it was ham and came from a pig. Being the good Muslim that he is (or at least wanting to appear that way), he then passed the rest of his piece over to me. Meanwhile, D, Akif, our host and I are making our way through the honey vodka. I thought we would stop after liter one, but when the host brought out liter two, I excused myself to the balcony under the auspice of taking photos of the mountains. Luckily, I stayed out there in the cold long enough to miss most of the second liter and only had to take a few “thank you” shots at the end.
11:45 a.m. January 2, 2011 Batumi, Georgia. We’re off! Everyone is packed in the car and we are moving. I’ve never been so happy to leave a place in my life. I’m so annoyed, slightly drunk and while I’m sitting in the front next to Aslan my host-dad wants to chat away and sing songs. I swear I just wanted to scream! This goes on for about two hours until we make one stop to get out and use a toilet while the host-sister-in-law also changes the baby’s diaper. After that, I move to the back because even my 15-year-old host-brother was getting annoyed sitting next to Akif in the back. I was more than happy to move to the back so I wouldn’t have him leaning up to the front talking to me. And, this way I could slip on my i-pod, zone out and try to finish sobering up.
2:30 p.m. we stop to buy some roadside souvenirs for the family. Clay pots for the women and… drums for the kids! Yeah! Drums! Akif even let the baby have one in the back with me so he could be entertained for the rest of the ride. I hate my life at this point. Thankfully, we stop not too long after for lunch. Akif insists that he will not sober up and buys another liter of vodka and two beers for he and I to consume with lunch. Since we’re the only two that can drink at this point it’s up to us to polish off all the booze. I was in no mood to drink, but figured if I’m going to make it back I had better do something to calm my nerves. Akif orders a ton of food and we eat and make merry. At this point he makes some concession to me and apologizes for the craziness of the weekend. I think he realized that I was not having a good time and was more than slightly miffed about the whole situation from the night before. I for some reason (I blame the vodka) tell him it was no big deal and thanks for bringing me along.
Editor’s note: I do plan on having quite the serious talk with him this week about letting me know in advance what’s going to happen and where. I don’t do well with going on long trips and being left in the dark about the plans.
Once lunch was over we continued on our way. The weather was awesome and the ride was really pretty. All the mountains had snow on top of them and some of the views were just awesome. We finally made it back to Tbilisi at around 5:30 p.m. after a long long ride and once again made an unannounced stop. This time we were at my host-mother’s sister’s house for yet another feast. And yes, there was more wine to be consumed. I was still slightly drunk and didn’t want to mix the local wine with the vodka that was still swimming in my stomach. But, tradition and ‘culture’ being what it is here, I found myself about six glasses in before I could get away from the table and then another two glasses at the end before we could get out of there.
8:15 p.m. January 2, 2011 Muganlo, Georgia. We’d made it. As soon as we turned on to the road that leads up to our village, my mom called me from America. I barely remember the conversation and just remember being really pissy about a bunch of different things and telling her that I’d have to talk to her later. I was just happy to be home. Once everyone got settled in I gave my host-family their New Year’s gifts that my mom sent them from America. This was a big hit and a positive to end what was a weekend form hell.
Dear reader, if you’ve made it this far, I’m sorry. I know that at times I banged out 5 or 6 paragraphs without taking my hands off the keys and I’m sure that there are sections that seem incoherent and rambling. But, that’s just what this weekend was rambling and incoherent.
Lessons learned: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least type out what I learned from this experience.
1. If I want my host-family to listen to me I’m going to have to be much clearer and less polite. There are times when “cultural sensitivity” is not the best course of action.
2. I’m so glad that, even with all their shortcomings, I live with Azeris and not Georgians. Sorry, but it’s true. Azeris are a lot less pushy and if you have something to say they will not simply dismiss you and then go on to proclaim to everyone the richness of their “culture.” Just because you talk about “culture” all the time doesn’t mean that you have it. I witnessed waaaaay too many Georgianisms (read: rude actions) this weekend to have a positive opinion about them right now.
3. If you’re going to be in a car with 5 other people none of whom brought a tooth brush with them for the weekend, bring gum and be sure to share it.
4. It is always better to know where you are and what the situation is before acting. I’m extremely proud of myself for not blowing up this weekend. I could have let out my frustration and probably made a scene, but what good would it have done other than embarrass my host-dad and make me look like an ass?
5. Drinking is only fun when it’s done with friends and in moderation. When you are forced to drink large amounts of alcohol and forced to endure bad company for long periods of time in the name of “culture” drinking is not fun.
That’s it. I’m spent. Once again let me apologize to anyone who may have read this post and been offended by it. This post and the people who are mentioned in it are not meant to represent all Georgians nor all experiences in Georgia. This was just one American and one weekend in one place with one host that made for one of the worst New Year’s ever.