Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Just So You Know . . .
That is a perfectly horrible picture of Elizabeth. Weighing in here, as is my prerogative.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Orientalism

If I had to choose a word to describe Georgians, as I am unfortunately sometimes asked to do, I would choose the word "restless."

Having said that, I will now digress for several paragraphs. Having been the subject of the single most appalling piece of journalism I’ve ever come across, I want to clarify where I’m coming from. The field of journalism in Georgia is from most accounts, and from the stuff I've edited, extremely subjective, with a few exceptions. Thus began the quagmire.

At the beginning October, when I first came back to Georgia, Lado and I became the subject of an interview piece. We met an acquaintance of his on the street who writes for an internet journal called "Post-Factum", which covers the news for Georgians from Abkhazia living abroad. This acquaintance decided to do a piece about how Lado thinks of his art as an IDP living in Tbilisi, and as a bonus, do an interview with me on "What does the foreigner think of Georgia and Georgians."

When Georgians casually ask this question, they already know the answer. Here it is:

Georgia is an incredibly beautiful country. I mean, where else do you have the sea and the mountains and the plains all together, so close… Lebanon, maybe… and the people are so hospitable! And the food, oh wow, the food, it’s so varied and amazing. Khinkali, eggplant, khachapuri… And Georgian women are beautiful, of course. It’s so interesting how everyone dresses in black. So stylish, too. Tbilisi is an amazingly historical city. And the polyphonic singing blows me away. The churches here are so gorgeous!

Thus do a lot of journalists here, when they speak to anyone vaguely political, already know the answer: Georgian politics are medieval and clan-based. So when I started speaking to Gocha Khundadze about the idea of Orientalism – cross-reference that with Edward Said, and the history of post-colonial studies – the mess started.

"Elizabeth thinks of Georgia as an Oriental country" it says.

Which couldn’t be further from the truth. One, I would never use that word in that sense. Two, it wouldn’t make any sense in that context. What I was trying to tell him was that I was interested in the way historically Russia had orientalized the Caucasus, and in the way that modern tourism reflects the ideas of the traveler’s search for the other.

Lesson four of Living with Caucasians: Never discuss your undergrad thesis or your Fulbright project with a journalist who hasn’t read Edward Said. I asked him to send it to me for editing before posting, because the interview was done in Russian. I tried to get them to take it off the website. But now I just think it should become famous, so you can read it here. The result at the time made me nauseous with disgrace; now I just think it’s funny. Especially the picture, of me slightly buzzed at a photo exhibition last year.

Remember what I was talking about at the beginning? Georgians are restless. In a country with very little spare money for leisure, half the restaurants redecorate and change cuisine at least twice a year. People build balconies, tear down balconies, and enclose balconies, sometimes the same one over and over, at an amazing rate. None of my students can sit still for more than a half-hour. Drivers can’t hold traffic patterns for longer than ten seconds. Gocha couldn't WAIT to post his work, since he'd done it, to have it checked by the non-native interviewee. Restlessness needs to be tempered by a sense of doing a job well to bring any reason to the process of doing.

What about the news?

Well, the redo of the parliamentary elections hasn’t taken place yet, but already they’ve changed the constitution several times. They’re so impatient they can’t wait for trials to say on TV whether someone is guilty or not.

And on the positive side of this? So much art, so many projects, so much creativity. Thankfully Lado, lovely Lado, has found a way to satisfy his restlessness AND his perfectionism: the digital camera. Infinite ways to fiddle and infinite redo.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

High-rise life and Fashion

Today as I was sitting in my apartment waiting for a student to show up, I heard some really loud, tuneless singing in the carpark next to my building. I live in one of a matched set of Krushchev-era high-rises, with a canyon in between. Krushchev is not a bad era for building, if you can’t get in a Stalin-era wedding castle. After Kruschev people figured out that they weren’t going to get shot for using shoddy materials anymore and started building with leftover khachapuri (the adjarulian kind, with eggs and butter for cement).

The distinguishing factor between my building and the one across the way: their walls are peach, and their balconies have concrete brick patterns. Ours are blue, and we just have fences. Every morning at about ten-fifteen an old man comes into the canyon and starts yelling "Potatoes! Potatoes!" in this mellifluous, three-syllable descending minor third. At twenty past ten, the man who lives in the other building comes out and tries to start his million-year-old Volga sedan, revving the engine over and over until it finally catches. Kids play soccer there all day. There’re a few crappy cars – the Volga, otherwise known as Alarm Clock, being one of them – but there are also a couple jeeps, and a Peugot 307, which I’m told is a good car. Very fashionable. Not that I would know – my last car was built before the breakup of my favorite rock band, The Former Soviet Unions.

In the middle of the night, tsveli bichebi - literally, the good ol' boys, only they're young - stumble out of the pool-hall that walls off the southern end of the canyon, and fight each other in the parking lot. We even have a Member of Parliament in the building. Middle-class Tbilisi life, in a microcosm.

So the tuneless singing – it was a blind man and an accompanying kid, and they were both shout-singing (two different songs). Someone in the peach building threw a bottle cap down at their feet; I think the peach building might be less kulturni than the blue building. There’s a bookshelf on the sixth floor balcony across the way, though, that Lado desperately wants to devour (he has a slight bookmania problem). And I’d like to figure out what those people in the second quartal have behind the bamboo fence they’ve made of their balcony.

We had a guest in from Baku this week. Difference between Azerbaijan style and Georgian style: in Baku, if it doesn’t have a label on it and it doesn’t cost $500, it’s not cool. In Georgia, if someone else has the same thing as you, it’s not cool, so best to get your insane artist friend to make it for you out of felt. Of course, being six foot one, I am almost completely out of the clothes-buying game amid all these delicately-boned georgian girls. I miss Brooklyn. There's also a sort of fetishism of covering-up that goes on here. You're not supposed to show your belly or extremities or whatever, so they go the opposite and buy shirts with sleeves that come over their wrists and turtlenecks that lace up with leather ties and super-long skirts and curly-toed boots. It's all very victorian-meets-st. mark's, since it's of course all black all the time. There is a small sect that seems to be into Orange and Pink and one girl who wears a pair of gold boots whenever she goes out on Rustaveli. And the donut cafe that serves "real starbucks coffee!" seems to have collected a small, otherwise-invisible group of "from anywhere" girls who have adopted the aesthetic of fleece.

And in the news:
There’s a rumor going around that the news channel Rustavi 2 was told to close its evening talk show – a news-debate format that was very heated during the revolution – because "we don’t need it anymore" with the new regime. I can’t confirm this rumor but there seems to be a lot of head-nodding going around with all the constitutional changes. Who's going to be the new opposition besides "the beer guy" who put a four-story-high photograph of himself on the side of a building during the election?

Monday, February 09, 2004

Bazroba and Breadsticks
Today I went into school to collect my salary and talk to my boss about the school closing – six weeks. Six weeks to find a new job or leave the country! We got to talking about her kids, she’s got two, and the older one has the measles. Apparently, when you have the measles in Mingrellian country – that’s western Georgia – it’s called "Batonebi," implying that the hand of God has touched you. So the Georgian lesson for the day – "Batono" is how people say "sir" here – it’s kind of like saying "mister," but it means "Lord". So when a kid has the measles, he has the disease of lordliness – so if he says "BRING ME TORTE!" his mother will bring him torte. "PUT THE TV IN ANOTHER ROOM!" and off it goes. You fulfill the child's wishes as long as they have the disease.

Incidentally, there’s an expat café and bakery called "Batonebi" here – which is, in the owner’s meaning, the plural of ‘baton’, like French bread. After getting notice, Lado and I went off to the Café of Long Bread, Measles, and Lordly Caprice for brunch with the hungover oilmen.

After breakfast, and with much cajoling, Lado agreed to go to the market, which he hates passionately. But only if I would go home first and let him change out of his new shoes and into his old. The Bazroba, as the entire blob-that-ate-Didube area is called, is kind of like a marketplace in a corset – the spillover is ugly, cheap-looking, and depressing. All the streets around the actual legitimate market area have people selling things, blocking the streets, carting meat on their shoulders, pickpocketing, chasing you with chickens… very medieval. It covers eight blocks. Plus the cars continue to drive on the streets, dodging babushki selling cigarettes and honking their horns. Last year I used to go there for fun. Now it is sometimes torture.

A few weeks ago the police, under the new government’s direction, went through and moved everyone off the street. There is actually empty space in the legitimate building for them to be, but everyone moved out of there and onto the road, where they only had to pay bribes to the police and not taxes. So the new plan: three months in the old place with no taxes, then a normal amount of tax there. Wait, weren’t the police the ones taking the bribes and now the ones forcing them into the lawful place? The sellers protested on tv and outside the mayor’s office. I’ve been going to the bazroba for over a year and a half now and I went today and could not believe the difference – rows and rows of beautiful produce inside and in the covered market upstairs, and totally empty streets. The people who live around there can open their windows again and come out of their doorways without stepping through a toilet.

Of course, there are still a few people selling things on the street and police not doing anything about it. But on the whole, better and better. The Bazaar Imena Dezertiri – The Deserters’ Market (WW II deserters we’re talking here, don’t ask me why) is a nicer place to go to now. I think people are having trouble admitting that it didn’t have to suck so much the last ten years – that if you can clean things up with a few simple steps in a few days, what have we been doing this whole time?

Lado is dancing to Mahler, like some kind of deranged faun.
Regime Change

THUS Mary Neal and Clifton and Wilson ended their travels in the Caucasus, took a plane home in a snowstorm, and left us with a hole in important news reporting in the city of Tbilisi, Georgia and worse with a hole in our social circle (ok, honestly, they took the best part of the circle home with them in a bag with the CFT). Mary Neal asked me if I, as a recurring character on the show, wanted to take over the blog. I'm excited to try - living, as I do, with a Caucasian myself - so I'll do my best, even though I haven't got a digital camera. More to follow in a bit.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

On the Way Out

Coming back from Armenia, I think Tbilisi looked so bad to me because I was a short-timer. You steel yourself to put up with the unpleasant aspects of anywhere, saying to yourself that it’s worth it. But once that little mental shift has taken place, once you know you’re on the way out, it’s impossible; you just can’t do it anymore. Later that night as we were sitting around the kitchen table, Lado said, “Look at the Meadors. They’re not here anymore.” It was the truth. We had started to separate. During the next two days while I was packing to leave, I kept bursting into tears, though, thinking of the people I’m going to miss terribly.

Clif called the monks at Sapara to let them know we were leaving. They arranged to have a service to pray for us while we were on the airplane. Nick took us to the airport at 4 a.m. It took two trips: one for the luggage and Clif, and one for the rest of the luggage along with Wilson and me. We were not traveling light. But everything went smoothly, and soon we were in the air, leaving what I will always think of as “Soviet air space.” It felt good to be going home. The steward(esse)s gave me enough water this time.



Shedding Tiles on Re-Entry

So now I am back in New Paltz. I always assume that when I return home from a vacation—much less a few months away—that I will drive up and there will be nothing but a smoking pit. In fact, the house looks great. Our tenants moved out weeks ago when their house was ready, and they kept coming by to feed the cats even though it was radically out of their way. They have earned karmic points, that’s for sure. Plus which, our white cat, Henry, gained about 10 pounds. He is corpulently magnificent!

Re-entry has been strange. I have entered what my clever sister-in-law calls the “cemetery of the anecdote.” No one here gives a hoot about where we have been or what we have done. No one knows where Georgia is. (They mention that they were once in Atlanta. And they think we were in Russia.) No one knows that there was a Rose Revolution. No one cares. No one read the blog. This is hard because of course I think that it’s the most interesting thing in the world, and that, what’s more, I am the most interesting person in the world, or in New Paltz, anyway.

But oddly, I also have the uncanny feeling that I haven’t skipped a beat. All those strange sights and people and experiences, the ones that I thought had changed me so much? It’s like I never went away. I am driving a rented anonymobile until we can re-register our car, and even though I have not driven in months, I had no hesitation, not even with a car I’d never seen before. I thought I would feel more appreciative of all the stuff and conveniences we have here, but I don’t feel as appreciative as I think I ought to.

I have had a few moments of intense culture shock, though. Like when I went into the supermarket and had to choose a dish detergent. I brain-locked over the myriad choices, until I saw that I could have dish detergent with aromatherapy: anti-stress or energy. I chose energy. I spent about 30 seconds being stunned by the absurdity of this piece of consumer culture. But I bought it, didn’t I?

[Also, Clif pointed out that we have a box on a post at the end of the driveway, and that a government service comes by almost every day to put things in it that a stranger could just come along and steal or look at. There is no mail in Georgia. It would be impossible.]

I have learned things, though. I have looked at our American culture, which from my Northeast Liberal Academic perspective is usually a pretty contemptible thing, and I have found things in it that are truly admirable. Here’s one good thing: we Americans love to work. We define ourselves by our work. “What are you?” “I’m a teacher.” “I’m a bricklayer.” “I’m a small business owner.” We may also be Jews, Southerners, blondes, parents, nearsighted, party animals, anorexics, members of the club, and a host of other personal attributes, but mostly we are what we do. I know that a lot of column inches have pointed out how we don’t have lives, how we have lost touch with family and with nature. But I have now lived for a few months with people who have not lost touch with family, who are trapped in devastated rural areas, and who don’t really want to work. It’s horrible. No wonder my ancestors felt trapped and said, “Screw this, I’m outta here.”

I tried a couple of times to explain this vehicle for self-definition (which I think goes beyond what we used to call the Protestant Work Ethic) to Georgians, but I might as well have been Charlie Brown’s teacher. They couldn’t hear it. It made no sense to them. They would listen and nod and seem to get it, but then they would say something that in the final analysis meant, “We love your American culture. We’d like to have a market economy. Will you give us one now, please?” as if it was that simple.

One perspicacious friend (look that up, Lado) pointed out that as children and young people growing up in America, we have the difficult task of inventing a self and presenting it to our families, a process that can lead to proud acceptance or failure and humiliation for all concerned. Georgians, on the other hand, he said, are always children in the eyes of their families. They never have to justify their existence, to “become” someone the family can be proud of. They can just exist and that’s enough.

In a way, this is a microcosm of our nations. Since we are a country that invented itself, we are always in the process of justifying our existence, of showing that there is a reason we are here, of proving over and over again that we deserve it. Nations that are formed from populations that have lived in a particular place for some length of time simply do not have to justify themselves at all. They are just there. (It also makes them completely unquestioning as to the correctness of their position in territorial disputes.) I think this is why it is so painful for us when our foreign policy goes so wrong. We always have to explain, because we have taken the responsibility on ourselves to be conscious of what we are doing.

Here’s another good thing: We are curious, critical (in the best sense of the word), and wary of being spoon fed. Maybe not as curious, critical and skeptical as I would like, but so much more so than most Georgians or any other member of the former Eastern bloc. False nostalgia has created the mistaken impression that once upon a time, everyone in America was well-educated, literate, and cultured, and that now “child-centered” education has ruined what was a magnificent achievement. Bullshit! I have now seen what happens when something like “standards-based” education runs amok: people who can recite long passages of poetry without understanding them, who can adapt the inventions of others without being able to create, who cannot ask questions of their professors because they don’t know how.

All this is not to say that memorizing long passages of poetry is useless. I happen to think it’s a great party trick if nothing else. But I’d make sure that there was a wide-ranging and open discussion of that poetry, too. Also, keep in mind that I have met some of the most educated, intellectual, critical, and thoughtful people I have ever known during the time I was in Georgia. But they are exceptional. They had to swim against a powerful current to be who they are.

On a more practical note, I have a new respect for building codes. Living, as we do, out in the country, I have seen a lot of ingenuity devoted to evading codes and zoning restrictions. But let me tell you, there’s something to it. One experience I had sort of sums it up. We had been invited to a friend’s apartment on the 14th floor of a luxury high-rise apartment building. The elevator didn’t work, so we had to walk up. There were no lights in the stair hall at all. It was completely dark. The steps had neither rise nor run in any regular configuration. Some steps were high with little room for your foot, some were broad but only went up four inches. The concrete of which they were made was crumbling. The hand rails were flimsy, not necessarily attached to the wall, and placed differently from floor to floor. Here, you can pretty much count on the fact that steps are going to be the same size. It makes it possible to walk up and down them!

Since central heating does not exist, space heaters are everywhere, and people sometimes set their clothes on fire trying to warm up too close to an appliance. These heaters would be so completely illegal here in the U.S. I mean, we have space heaters, sure, but they generally have safety guards, anti–tip-over mechanisms, and electronic pilot lights, not to mention that we would never allow a garden hose to snake through an apartment carrying natural gas to the darn thing in the first place. This is really stupid.

Air quality? Wow. If you ever resented having to have a catalytic converter, go to Georgia. “Give me the unleaded!” you would hear yourself say. “I’ll take that expensive hybrid car, today, please!”

I also have a new respect for the provision of such basic utilities as gas, electricity, and water. From time to time we had to do without these for hours, days, even weeks. Out in the country, it’s possible to kludge something together from rainwater, to have wood fires for heat, and to get your work done during daylight hours. But it’s really hard for a city of 1.5 million to live like this. I have great respect for the Georgians, who were universally able to look completely stylish and turned out without hot water or power.

So, winding things up, here I am back in the land of the Caucasians-as-white-people (and where did that come from, anyway?). I am grateful for the experience, as difficult as it has been at times, and for the people I have met. My challenge now is to try to remain mindful of the things I have learned, to avoid simply slipping back into a former life.

I am now handing “Living with Caucasians” over to Elizabeth Eagen, a former Fulbrighter who went back to Georgia to live with a Caucasian. (She picked a really good one.)

Thank you, everyone who has read this.

Friday, February 06, 2004

The Rest of Transcaucasia

Clif was contacted by the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, just a couple of weeks ago, to see if he could come do a presentation to some graphic design students and professionals. No problem, he said, although we knew it would be sort of a tight scheduling thing, what with us leaving so soon. Anyway, he worked it out, and on Wednesday the 28th we left.

The two embassies had made all the arrangements, so it was as if our feet never touched the ground. A driver and an “expediter” took us from Tbilisi to the border, negotiated the visas—which we bought right there—and handed us off to a driver from the U.S. embassy in Armenia who took us to Yerevan. This is called a border swap.

We left at about 8:30 a.m., with the sun sort of peeking through fog. We made our way down the main highway toward Marneuli, and although we had heard that this road was simply awful, there was new asphalt on a good bit of it. The bad bit of it, however, was as bad as advertised. It seemed to me that once we left the suburbs of Tbilisi we had in fact entered Azerbaijan. The people are all Azeris: it turned out they spoke neither Georgian nor Russian!

It took a while to go the last few kilometers, but we made it to the border by 10:30. At first I didn’t think Armenia looked very different from Georgia—the differences were subtle. It was a little greener, and the farms were tidier. The first clue that something really different was going on was the radar installation I kept seeing as we curved up and around the mountains. We reached a point on the highway where our driver, Rouben, explained that the road we were about to take was brand new. It had been built to avoid the danger of potshots and the occasional artillery round from Azerbaijan. The old road goes past a bombed-out abandoned village and continues around the base of a mountain. The new road goes up and over the mountain—it’s a multi-gazillion–dollar project involving switchbacks, steep climbs, and even steeper descents. All that to avoid getting shot. It was a pointed illustration of the complete economic uselessness of a war, unless you’re Halliburton, of course.

We continued up beautiful valleys, and the road switched back and forth, climbing and climbing. The views were magnificent, and Rouben was a great driver, full of information about all the sights we were seeing. We kept climbing, our ears popping, until we came at last to the entrance of a tunnel into the mountain. This is a new thing, too, Rouben told us. The tunnel was begun many years ago during Soviet times, but has only recently been finished and opened for traffic. I could see the old road that kept switching back and forth as it headed for the pass, and it looked like we would gain back the time we lost on the other new piece of road. The tunnel is 2 kilometers long, and it keeps climbing, too. As we came out, I was sure there would be some incredible view of a valley or something, thousands of feet down. I was astonished when we came out onto a flat snowy plain surrounded by peaks. It felt like the top of the world.

As we came around a turn, we saw a sapphire-colored lake surrounded by white mountains. This is Lake Sevan, at 6200 feet above sea level. The lake has been drawn down by hydroelectric projects, so what used to be an island is now a peninsula. We stopped here to eat lunch and to take a look at a monastery. The Sevanavank complex has two churches, and the courtyard is filled with katchkars, standing monumental carved stone crosses that are decorated with knotwork that looks amazingly Celtic. (Of course, Armenians would say the Celtic crosses look Armenian. Whatever.)

We climbed the thousands of stairs, poked around, and had the caretaker explain the large katchkar inside one of the churches. It had lovely naïve scenes of the Nativity, including one panel of a donkey and a cow sitting erect across a table from each other, the flight into Egypt, the four evangelists’ symbols, etc. We came back to the restaurant to see a huge feast laid out (inward groan). One of the treats Rouben recommended was matson (yogurt) dried to a spreadable consistency then mixed with nuts. Another was a kind of fish from the lake, which although it was called “sick,” was really yummy.

We descended slowly and turned off the highway to go to Garni, a classical temple perched at the point of a triangular plateau that stands more than 1,000 feet above a canyon. On the other side of the canyon are more mountains. Wow. I don’t think it’s describable—you just have to go there. There is a Roman bath with a mosaic floor on which it says, “We worked but we didn’t get anything,” a Roman job action, I guess. The temple collapsed in an earthquake in the seventeenth century, but it was reconstructed in the 1960s, using stones of a slightly different color to fill in where the originals were missing or destroyed. The whole thing is just beautiful.

After we left Garni, we went to Geghard monastery a few miles away. I had really wanted to visit Geghard after reading Andre Bitov’s account of it in his “A Captive of the Caucasus” (a title that gets used about as often as “Georgia on My Mind”—please cut it out, folks). Geghard means “spear” and refers to the relic the monastery had of the spear that pierced Christ’s side, until it was relocated under the relic protection plan. The complex is way up in a ravine, and it was getting to be the end of the day, so we couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted to.

The main church has a “gavit,” or vestibule, that is larger than the church itself. Someday maybe I will learn why this is the case in many of the Armenian churches we saw. (Someday maybe I will also learn exactly what “monophysite” means at the end of the day. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox church is a complete mystery to me.) The real attraction at Geghard, though, is the churches and burial chambers carved out from the rock above and behind the church. These are miraculous, as far as I’m concerned: stalactite-style domes, free-standing columns, a pool of holy water and channels to take it around, two enormous bas relief lions, and thousands of crosses carved into the walls. It is amazing. One of the chapels is actually on the second story. And they were all carved out of the solid rock, starting from a hole at the top!

We poked around for a while, but we had to leave. The sun was setting and the fog started to roll down from the mountains at the head of the ravine.

We arrived in Yerevan and checked in to our hotel just off Republic Square. We ate a quick dinner in the hotel dining room (though how I managed to put away more food after the lunch at Lake Sevan is a mystery). Afterwards, Clif and Wilson went for a walk to the square to take in the atmosphere. I lay on the comfortable bed and watched English-language television. Ahhhh.

The next morning, we were picked up at the hotel by an embassy driver and taken to meet Hasmik, the young lady who was our minder and who had made all the arrangements for us. There was a typed schedule in fifteen-minute increments, but luckily, this fell apart pretty quickly. Clif gave a lecture on the state of design in America to some graphic design students from the Art Academy. He says he never knows how these things go over, but everyone seemed happy. Afterwards there was a meeting with some design educators. Again, he didn’t know what if any good he was, but everyone seemed pleased. Hasmik took us to a late lunch at a traditional Armenian restaurant, where we sampled the local delicacies, including stuffed grape and cabbage leaves (dolma), chicken and porridge (harissa), square flat tortilla-type bread (lavash), and more.

Later that night we went out to have supper near Republic Square. This large urban space is a funny sight: Stalinist grandiosity constructed of purple and pink blocks of tufa. Think Fascism with Freckles. Four buildings are colonnaded quarter-circles with avenue going off between them. At the top is the history museum, more of that odd pastiche of classical Stalinist fantasy. In the middle is a huge fountain (turned off for the winter) and a large paved space where people stroll back and forth in the evening. It’s a great urban space, and it feels very safe. Cars stop for traffic lights (!) so you can get to the middle without being killed (try that in Tbilisi).

Architecturally, the whole city is of a piece. Something has existed here for millennia, but the city as it is now was built in a limited period of time in the 1920s. There is no “old town,” and although there are the requisite Brezhnev apartment blocks, they too are made of the multicolored tufa blocks—everything from purple to pink to orange to yellow, even the occasional green.

The next morning, Hasmik and Rouben picked us up and took us to the Matenadaran, the repository for a collection of more than 12,000 ancient manuscripts. A statue of Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet, stands outside. The tiny percentage of manuscripts that are actually on display are both beautiful to look at and historically significant. Wilson liked the case where ancient manuscripts from many different world cultures was shown. I liked a 13th century gospel where a portrait of a saint is amazingly expressive and lifelike, not at all like most of the stylized figures you see from that time. Another favorite is a beautiful ivory book cover with scenes from the Bible in its various panels.

Our next stop was just outside Yerevan at the complex of Echmiadzin. This is the home of the Supreme Catholicos of the Armenian church, the seminary, library, and several different churches. The main church was built in 303 a.d. after King Trdates III and his realm were converted to Christianity by Gregory the Illuminator. Jesus came to Gregory in a dream and showed him where to build the church. The church has been added onto and renovated many times since then, but the 1,700 year old structure is still there. Inside, it is painted in a light color and decorated with Baroque ornaments. It doesn’t look like it could possibly be as old as it is.

This church is lovely, but it is not as spiritually satisfying as the nearby St. Hripsime church. This was built in 618 a.d. on the site of an earlier church where St. Hripsime was martyred for refusing to marry the not-yet-converted King Trdates III. The exterior forms a balanced and stable geometric shape. Inside, there is very little decoration: the austere stones create a quiet and contemplative atmosphere. Just like all the other churches we saw, there were many katchkars in the churchyard.

Back at the embassy, the next adventure involved a no-plan plan for a presentation to some design professionals. This immediately fell apart into a “heated discussion” between two factions, which I found out later were (a) design-as-art people, and (b) design-as-business people. They all agreed that whoever it was who accepted only $80 to do a major identity campaign for the biggest bank in Armenia deserves contempt.

We went back to the hotel and met up with friends from Tbilisi, one of them Wilson’s friend, also age 11. We decided to eat at the Armenian Kitchen around the corner (Hasmik had recommended it), and while the boys went back upstairs to get their coats, we sat in the lobby. They didn’t come back and they didn’t come back. And then we started hearing them shout. I thought they were just horsing around in the hall upstairs, but they were in fact stuck in the elevator. The one that says “No unaccompanied children.” They had evidently been jumping up and down and pressing buttons, and the mechanism just said, “OK. That’s enough!” The maintenance man was called. He tried the tricks he knew, but he couldn’t get it going. So the elevator company was called, and a car was dispatched to go pick up the official mechanic. Meanwhile, a hole had miraculously opened up in the floor of the lobby, and I had sunk down 10 feet where no one noticed my absence. Not.

After about an hour, the boys were out of the elevator, but not at all chastened by the experience, unfortunately. They were defiant, casting blame, and accusing each other of freaking out. Not a pretty sight. The hotel staff were very nice, and when we were not billed hundreds of dollars for the elevator mechanic, I was grateful. The restaurant was quite an experience, too, when we finally got there. It was small, only about eight tables, and the waiter was very patient with our fumbling around with both the unfamiliar menu and the picky child stuff on top of it. We stuffed ourselves and rolled back to the hotel and bed.

The next morning we got up and met Hasmik at the Vernissage, the crafts and flea market near Republic Square. Immediately, I saw rugs. Rugs! Fabulous rugs! Gorgeous rugs! But rugs without export permits, for the most part, and I was not willing to put two embassies in a difficult position by trying to smuggle one out. So, sadly, we did not buy a rug in Armenia, though they were definitely my favorites of all the Caucasian carpets.

We snarfed up some souvenirs and set out for home. Because we had been so interested in visiting the various monasteries and churches on the way to Yerevan, Rouben took us to a couple of monasteries on our way back toward Georgia.

Back at the border, we said goodbye reluctantly to Rouben. He is a great guy, and he promised to help us find an apartment to stay in next time we come to Armenia. We breezed through all the various passport and customs checkpoints (we could have brought a rug—oh well), and then listened to about two hours of why Armenians are awful. Just to be fair, we had listened to many hours of why Georgians are awful, too, on the other side of the border.

I don’t understand this at all. You have three small countries in the Trans-Caucasus: two Christian, one Muslim. One Christian country is actually at war with the Muslim country, but it’s the two Christian countries who expend a lot of energy despising each other. The Armenians don’t even hate the Azeris as much as they hate the Georgians. Go figure. This is just like Dr. Seuss’s “Butter Battle” book, in which the two sides are at war over whether they eat their bread with the butter side up or the butter side down, and no one remembers how it started or why. I’m sure there is history and justification and rationalization for every single bit of this, but it just made me tired. I don’t really care who’s top dog in the Caucasus. They would all be better off if they could do the Rodney King thing and “just get along.” Back we went to Tbilisi, which never looked so dirty, so half-abandoned, or so ill-maintained to me as it did at this moment. We had 48 hours to pack up six months worth of living here.


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