Taken

Despite my many promises to the contrary, I find myself falling behind on my writing yet again.  Whoops!  It’s been nearly two weeks!  If not more.  I’m not going to count.

In the past two weeks, I’ve had lots of excitement.  Arguably, the highlight of the semester so far has been the long-awaited visit of some friends from America!  Co-President of the Cheezburger Club Lauren Nelson came to visit!  So did Maki, a PhD student and friend of mine from  Stanford, and Lauren brought her coworker Kelly, who was a great addition to the group and a very adventurous and understanding person (Thank goodness!)

They arrived all at the same time on a Saturday and we went out for dinner.  It was a joyous reunion filled with Georgian food, laughs, and reminiscences.  The guests all went to bed early, to fight the jetlag, and because we intended on an early start the next morning.  We wanted to go to Gori to see the Stalin Museum and meet up with Angela’s friend Marcia.  For better or for worse, neither of those things happened.

Let me tell you, I felt like a bad ass at Didube.  First, I managed to get us into a moving marshrutka as it was pulling away.  It was empty and so the driver gladly let us aboard.  It said “Gori” on the front, but Lauren, Kelly, and Maki thought I was just going for broke and hopping in a random marshrutka.  Not so!  (But maybe I should try that sometime….)  Then, as we pulled out of the station, I glanced out of the window at the Zugdidi marshrutkas (with longing?  With sadness in my soul?  Yes and yes.) and who did I see but Z!

"Stepa" and Z hiking in Svaneti. You may recall that Z, out-of-shape, 53, heavy smoker and drinker had joined us on a hike up a mountain armed with only an umbrella and a small hatchet "for bears."

Z runs a regular marshrutka to Zugdidi and still remembers me.  During our Svaneti trip he called us all by our town names.  Pauli was “Batumi,” I was “Tbilisi,” Max was “Bandza!? Ahahaha, Bandza…!” and so on.  I ran in to Z another time and he eagerly showed his fellow marshrutka drivers that he had my phone number in his phone.  I wish everyone was so excited about that!

Anyway, in true Georgian fashion, I stuck my upper body out the window and yelled, “Zurabi!” he looked and grinned, “Zugdidshi midikhart?  Gogoebstan?”  (Are you going to Zugdidi?  With the girls?)

“Ara!  Gorshi.  Gogoebi prahashi da hong kongshi.”  (No, to Gori.  The girls are in Prague and Hong Kong.)

“Wow!  Molodets! Rodis shen chamoval zugdidshi, me viqnebi sheni mdzkholi!”  (Wow!  Good for them!  When you go to Zugdidi, I will be your driver!)

The marshrutka took off and I waved goodbye.  Now, in addition to looking like a badass for hopping on to a random marshrutka, I looked like a badass for knowing a random Georgian basically everywhere!

For most of the ride I chatted with Angela and acted as a Tour Guide of circumstance for Kelly, who was sitting in front of us.  We talked about Mtskheta and the 2008 War (Angela and I watched 5 Days of August two nights ago and it was awesome!) and Georgian history and culture in general.  Before we knew it, we were in Gori!

Everyone piled out of the marshrutka when the driver started shouting something to me.  We had already paid, so I had no idea what he could want.  It sounded like he said, “Don’t get out!  Come with me.  We’ll go to my village, pick grapes, and drink wine!”  I translated for the group and they all hopped back in, to the laughter of the Georgians in the back.  We weren’t worried, not yet.  After all, it’s Georgia!  What could go wrong?

He dropped off our fellow-travelers at the last stop and then got back on the highway.  When we’d been driving West for another twenty minutes, Lauren began to voice her concerns.  Lauren is a cautious person.  She doesn’t like risks and she does like plans.  In fact, let’s see if I can write an Akhmatova poem about Lauren:

Lauren loved three things in life:

Chat Roulette, Xbox,

and quick trips to In ‘N Out.

She hated underemployment,

and the president of Kyrgyzstan,

and feminine hysteria.

…and I am her friend.

She was getting understandably nervous about our random adventure as we were traveling into the hinterland of Gori satellite villages.  She used her iPhone to send her boyfriend a picture of our marshrutka driver, Misha, with the text “This man is taking us into the mountains.”  It was her insurance policy.

This is Lauren's insurance picture. The sign above says "Fresh Meat." We couldn't help but wonder when we would be taken to the kill room and turned into "Fresh Meat".

He pulled over in a village and told us to get out.  We did as told and followed him into a store.  Here, he purchased coke, fanta, and sixty lari worth of pork.  He was going to make us a genuine suphra!!  AND we would get to leisurely pick grapes!  AND we would get to take funny photos chopping pork!

Kelly was almost to shy to ask, but I knew that any Georgian in a random village would be thrilled to let a pretty girl hold his ax! And so she did! Initially he put his head on the chopping block, but we didn't have our camera's ready yet, alas!
Here Kelly's chopping more meat and the butcher is pointing to some gristle or innards in a bowl. Don't remember what it was....
Before Misha got back in the marshrutka, we took the opportunity to photograph the GUN that he had lying between his seat and the passenger seat. It was pointed back toward us in a not-at-all-worrying way. He and his friend later told us it was for shooting wild boar. A likely story!

Having charmed the pants off the shop owners and purchased some chocolates as a host gift for Misha (the driver–have I mentioned that his name is Misha yet?), we got back on the highway.  We were almost there.  Thinking of Gori and the Stalin museum, we nervously asked, “How much farther until your village?”  “Oh just twenty more minutes!” came Misha’s dismissive reply.  We felt like we’d driven further past Gori than the distance between Gori and Tbilisi (does that make sense?).

Finally, we turned off the road and drove under some traintracks and across a field.  We were in the village of Mokhisi.  In the wise words of Tatia’s Grandmother, a woman who has never let me down, “Never trust a Mokhisian!”  If only we had known at the time!

Yup, we're in a village alright!

With some help from Maki and I (burly men that we are), Misha parked his marshrutka in his yard and began yelling for a woman in and around the house.  She was AWOL, but some neighbor lady came over instead.

Misha had a bucolic little house in Mokhisi, though he lives in Saburtelo. Thank goodness, or we would have been really screwed!

I helped Misha grab a ladder from the neighbor’s basement and we set it up beneath some high grapes.  Misha handed out buckets and gave us a brief tutorial on how to pick grapes, encouraging us to eat them.  (It’s Time for a Photo Montage! [This always happens when I have more pictures than I can count {32} and I will just tell the story in the captions.])

He really had a pretty vineyard!
He had effin' delicious grapes, too! I couldn't stop eating them!
We began filling bucket after bucket with grapes.
Some of us filled buckets from atop ladders.
It was the funnest afternoon! At first....
We got fat on grapes and time passed without us noticing, at first....
Before long, it got dark. Probably because Lauren picked the sun out of the sky.
We were still ridiculously happy and fun-loving at this point in the day. Misha was calling his friends, probably to say, "Hey, I got these Americans to come pick all my grapes for me. I told them it was an 'excursion,' suckers! Haha, come over and check it out!"
We finally filled up Misha's barrel. I think he would sell the grapes back in Tbilisi. Someone there could sell them as grapes or make them into wine, who knows! We didn't care. We were finally done!
We quit working and rested on our laurels. Dato, Misha's friend, handed out small glasses of the richest, tastiest grape juice ever and we were pleasantly exhausted after a hard afternoon's work. Then Misha pointed out all the grapes still on the vine as if to say, "WTF? There's still work to do!"
We were pretty sick of picking grapes, but Misha knew just how to motivate us! He pointed at Kelly and told me "She is a great worker! She gets a five!" Turning to Lauren, he shook his head and said, "Three."

Lauren is a phenomenal student.  I know this because I took many a class with her at Stanford.  The 3 that Misha gave her (Basically a C) was the worst grade she had ever received in her life.  Lauren felt gypped.  She had been working!  It just so happened that every time Misha glanced over she was taking pictures!  This really kicked her into high gear.  She wanted to earn that 5!

As the grapes grew scarcer (we had nearly picked the vineyard clean!) we had to get creative with ladder placement. Kelly is quite scared of ladders and this ladder was doing little to inspire confidence. She took on the role of bucketholder.
Angela and Maki teamed up while Lauren raced to raise her grade. Angela and Maki had each received a 5 while I got an unprecedented 6!! I think it's because I was talking to him in Georgian and translating to the rest of the group.
Also because I had picked enough grapes (read: eaten enough grapes) to turn my hands into murderhands.
Angela is looking quite photogenic here! It was at this point in the afternoon that Misha began insisting, "Stay here! I'll bring you back to Tbilisi tomorrow!" I told him I have work "at eight!" That was a lie. "I'll bring you back by seven, I promise!" That was also probably a lie. Lauren, with a look of mild panic, said, "We are NOT staying here tonight. I don't care what we have to do!" When I told him that we had to be back (and complained that we hadn't even made it to Gori!) he relented, though he seemed grumpy for the rest of the day.
Finally, with the sun sinking and with protestations of fatigue (and maybe a mild intervention by Dato), we were allowed to sit down at the table.
Dato the friendly neighbor had been grilling the pork all afternoon and was super excited to sit down and share it with us.
For our first and only suphra, everyone got to make a toast. In fact, everyone was forced to make one, even the reluctant Lauren! Dato would notice our not-filled glasses and reach out, tapping my shoulder and saying "Bodishi" with a humble smile on his face. I would pass him everyone's glass and he'd top us off. Lauren played hard-to-get and engaged in a humorous back-and-forth with Dato and Misha over her reluctance to drink. Misha complained, "I thought since you were so bad at working you must be good at drinking, but now I see your bad at that too! 3!"
Nonetheless, we all toasted over and over, toasting friendship, spontaneity, our families, and more. Maki served as the toast translator and also helped us understand Misha's sex joke that he told in the middle of Lauren's toast. It was pretty dirty, so I won't repeat it here!
Dato's mtsvadi was delicious. Plus the salad and the wine and the bread was all just so damn tasty! Here you can see Misha and Dato posing with Misha's least favorite worker and drinker, Lauren! Misha's face says it all.
After about an hour of feasting, Dato invited us next door to his house. Lauren, Maki, and I walked in to find his ancient father watching TV at maximum volume. Something about the image was hilarious. Dato brought us into the back room (finally the kill room??) and showed us all the wine and tcha tcha he was making. OMG it was so much. The opposing shelf had a similar number of enormous jugs FILLED with tcha tcha.
We saw his tub full of grapes and asked if we could play in it. He looked at us and gestured towards us, saying, "Of course you can! What do I look like, an ass?" and he helped us into the tub to stomp his grapes. Grandpa looked on from the other room.
Maki, ever the intellectual, stomped grapes with careful consideration.
Just kidding! What a goof!

Incidentally, you may recognize Maki from his Soviet Television Debut, “Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой,” below.

Finally we were joined by Kelly and Angela, who had gotten mildly lost in the drunken darkness. Yes, it was the darkness, not any of us, that was drunk. Kelly was heroically lifted into the tub by Dato. Dato really wanted to marry her, ps. He and Misha were thrilled when I told them that we weren't a bunch of married tourists.

Dato gave us a few presents as we left.  We got four liters of wine and TWO LITERS OF TCHA TCHA!!!  We’ve opened the tcha tcha twice: once to pour on Angela’s wounded knee, and once as a novelty drink item to induct Maki and some others into Georgianness.  Boy is it strong!  As for the wine, we drank two liters of it and the other two, well, let’s just say it gave us another unexpected adventure later in the week.

Misha grumpily ordered us back into the marshrutka.  It was time to return.  Kelly and I had a pleasant chat about the Peace Corps while some of the others napped.  In order to make up for our non-visit to Gori, Misha took us to the Stalin Museum.

Our polyglot rando that we met tried to get some cops to let us in to the museum proper, but since it was ten pm, they demurred. Makes sense. But at least we got to see his museum!

Misha told us that he had the whole week off and he would pick us up and drive us anywhere, even to Batumi!  We considered taking him up on the offer, but we didn’t trust that Mokhisian quite enough.

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