Saturday, April 23, 2011

Feasting on Georgian hospitality

Monday-Friday, April 17-21
Here in Georgia, we are completely reliant on Lela for language translation. She can switch easily between English, Georgian and Russian, and she can also speak to her relatives in Ossetian, the ethnic group to which her family belongs. Her sister, Lia, speaks a little English, but her dad and mom not any, so when Lela is not busy taking care of baby Micah, she helps us communicate with her parents. Her dad, Boris, could probably entertain us for hours with stories about his country and his days in the Soviet army, if only Lela were available for hours to translate.

Lela's sister Lia does her best to serve as interpreter while Lela is off feeding Micah or putting him to sleep, and Lia gives a good effort but often ends up calling on Lela when the vocabulary gets too complicated. I joke with her that she can do what Roberto Benigni did in "Life is Beautiful," when he voluntered to translate the German guard's instructions to the imprisoned Italian Hebrews. That is, she can make up whatever translations she wants and nobody in the room will know any differently. After a couple of efforts to explain this, she understands, and explains this to her dad, who laughs and then has a story to tell which must wait for Lela to translate.  We hear a story about a Georgian man who responded to a job offer in a far-away region in the north of the Soviet Union. He was supposed to teach English, and he really wanted the job. He figured that in such a remote region, nobody would know if he were teaching English or not, so instead he taught his students to speak a little-used Georgian dialect. What were the odds, he thought, that people in this poor and isolated village would ever have the chance to travel and use their English anyway. He almost got away with it, but just before he was to retire, one of his former students had the ambition to apply to a university in Russia, where he had to take an English language placement exam. The student failed the exam completely and then reported the teacher to the authorities. The teacher had to serve a jail sentence, but he sounded unrepentent, because as Boris tells the story, the teacher said, "If it weren't for that one smart student, I would have gotten away with it."

What we will remember most about our time here is Lela's welcoming and gracious family. Unlike Italy, where we are served multiple courses, all the food is put on the table at once, and there is so much and so many different varieties that nobody could possibly try each type, unless maybe you take just a spoonful of each. When we visit the farm of Lela's aunt and uncle, the table is so full that some dishes have to be stacked on top of each other. I count at least fifteen different dishes, and after that we lose count. We also have homemade wine and cherry juice, as well as vodka and soft drinks. All this is made in a kitchen without a sink and no running water. While the dinner is being made, we all help haul water in demijohns from a spring about a half mile away. Lela's dad makes multiple toasts throughout the meal--to the cousins, to the ancestors, to the children, to the visiting Americans, to the cooks. Of course, we toast our hosts and our thankfulness to God for finding Randall such a remarkable wife with such a warm family.

One of the sights we see is a statue high on a hill overlooking Tbilisi. It is Mother Georgia, Lela explains. In one hand she holds a flask of wine, and in the other a sword. The wine symbolizes how Georgians welcome their friends, with generosity and hospitality. The sword demonstrates that Georgians are ready to fiercely defend their land from enemies. The saying goes something like this: “We greet our friends with wine and our enemies with the sword.” If they show as much passion with the sword as they do with the wine, we are indeed fortunate to have come as friends.

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