Georgians in America

Georgians love Georgia, and rightly so; it’s a lovely place!  But I’ve always been a strong advocate that everyone needs to leave home sometime.  You get to see more of the world and you get to come back with fresh perspective on your home, wherever that may be.

This summer, as in many previous summers, I was once again working for CTY down in Baltimore.  Lots of people like to knock Baltimore, but it’s a nice place–really!  When work finished I had a good chunk of time to actually visit around America a little.  In years past I have returned straight to Georgia and straight to work following CTY, but this year was different.  This year was relaxing and fun!

The first stop was to Chicago to visit some of my closest friends from High School, College, and Study Abroad/Grad School.  Two of them have even been to Georgia!  We reminisced, shared stories, and I even introduced several of them to each other in the spirits of friends of friends being friends!

On one of the days I was traipsing about Chicago with Lauren and Josh, we made a special trip to the Georgian Bakery they have there.  Argo Georgian Bakery was a charming little place where they make and sell Georgian delicacies at prices that would make a Georgian faint.  (Instead of 1.5 lari, a penovani khatchapuri runs you more like $6.)  You can get everything from tqemali sauce to churchkhela to frozen khinkali to fresh (and not-so-fresh) khatchapuri.

Eager to show off my chops, I stepped up to the cashier and asked him, “კართველი ხარ?” (Are you Georgian?).  He looked at me blankly.

Undeterred, I assumed he just hadn’t heard me and so I asked again.  This time he stepped toward and then around me, turning to call to the white-haired baker in back.  “Hey!” he shouted in Russian, “This guy wants to speak Georgian with you!”

I got over my mild embarrassment at the mistake and walked back into the kitchen whence the baker had beckoned me.  We started up a nice little chat in Georgian, even while Lauren and Josh sat down to get started on their khatchapuri.

He seemed tickled that some American dude wanted to chat him up in Georgian and peppered me with the standard questions about what I was doing in Georgia, how old I was, whether I had a family, and why not.  My Georgian was a little rusty after six weeks of disuse.

When he was satisfied with my answers and with “the news” from Tbilisi (It’s still nice and I, Raughley, like it) he let me learn a bit about him.

I know very few Georgians who live outside of Georgia and so I was really curious as to what Beso the Baker had to say about life in the United States.  When I learned that he’d been in the US for 15 years, I asked, “How’s your English?”

Beso answered immediately, “I don’t know anything in English.”

“Why not?”

“Because I live with Russians and Georgians and work with Russians.  I go to work, I come home.  Why do I need English?”  He had a point, perhaps.  But I didn’t feel like digging deep, philosophically, into the politics of immigration and language acquisition, so instead I asked him, “Are there a lot of Georgians here in Chicago?”

“Sure! 2 or 3, anyway.”

When I asked him how he liked America, he grinned and revealed that he had been lying about not knowing any English by exclaiming, “Super!” and flashing a big floury thumbs-up.

As the Russian shopkeep glanced up from his newspaper, sighing, the Georgian baker got back to rolling dough and waved me away with an encouragement to “Eat, eat!”  No matter that he had lived in America, no Georgian will ever forget to implore you to “ჭამე! ჭამე!”

I encountered my next Georgian expat of sorts while traipsing about Manhattan with my good friend Tamuna (Also a Georgian!).  We were starving and wandering around Park Avenue (not a terribly viable food neighborhood, as it turns out) when we found a little sandwich shop.  I was in desperate need of a haircut, and we had just walked past a salon so we headed back and right in!

…And right out again when I heard it was $45 for a men’s haircut.  I know, I know, real world.  But seriously.  That’s a lot of clams.

Instead, we followed our hot tip and found a secret stairwell above the diner.  “Ring the bell and he’ll let you in,” the over-priced stylist had told us.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves seated on the puffed leather chair perusing old National Geographics and waiting for my turn.

He dismissed his client in Russian and invited me to have a seat.  The barber asked me what I wanted done and then, looking back and forth between me and Tamuna, asked in Russian, “Вы русские, да?” (You’re Russian, yes?)

Taken aback, Tamuna and my reflections glanced at each other, before responding in Russian, “No, I’m American and she’s Georgian.”

The barber laughed and switched to English, “And what are you doing here, then?  You live here?”  We explained that we both lived and worked in Georgia and that we were just visiting New York for the weekend.  He seemed surprised that I would live in Tbilisi, but pleased at the idea nonetheless.

As it turns out, the barber was a Georgian-Uzbek-Jew born in Tashkent.  His grandfather was a Georgian Jew from Tsqaltubo who moved to Uzbekistan after the war.  “There are still Jews in Tsqaltubo, yes?”

Tamuna laughed, “I cannot imagine that I am in New York and hearing ‘წყალტუბო’!  Yes, there are still some Jewish people there.”

When I laughed too, the barber mock-scolded me with a hearty “რა გინდა ბიჭო??” (What do you want, man?) sending Tamuna into another bout of laughter.

Aron had lived in the US for 22 years and his daughter was about to get married in Israel.  He showed us a photo of himself as a twenty-something chilling in Tashkent with his buddies and kept us laughing with little quips.  “This is when I used to have lots of hair.  But my wife, she is always pulling: ‘Loves me, loves-me-not…'” he pointed at his shiny pate.

“So, what was the last one?  Loves me or Loves-me-not?”

He ran a hand over his scalp, “This is why I shave!”

This is the part of the haircut where he called his friend Temur, a jeweler, to see if he was available to chat with Tamuna in Georgian. I think that’s a standard feature of every haircut, right?
Aron and his latest creation.
Aron and his latest creation.

And so we parted ways, Aron and I.  But not before he advised us to go to Brighton Beach to meet all the Georgian girls (we didn’t) and to tell all our friends about his barbershop.  “All my clients are regulars, you know?”  And so, New Yorkers, if you’re looking for a $25 haircut in a $45 dollar neighborhood, I can fully endorse Aron and his Greek partner at Double G Salon!  It’s on Lexington and 77th!

The final Georgian I encountered in America was none other than Tamuna herself, my colleague and good friend!  She and I met at the school where we worked last semester.  She wound up getting a job at CTY in Palo Alto and left Georgia for the first time to travel 11 time zones to Stanford University where she spent the summer in sunny splendor traveling all around the Bay Area and visiting San Francisco four times!

After we were both finished at CTY we met up in Baltimore to spend two and a half weeks visiting the Outer Banks, NYC, Baltimore, and DC.  That’s too much story to tell in one setting, so I’ll keep it to a stylized paragraph or two.

Tamuna loves Target.  It’s like heaven for her.  She loves the paper cups for ketchup that you can get at Wendy’s.  We took ten extra.  “We can use them for vodka!”  Tamuna loves all American people except the jerks who would steal a package right off Nana’s porch.  Nana, by the way, is the coolest and after five hours apart Tamuna declared, “I miss Nana already!”

Yeah, it's okay.  I know you wish Nana was your grandmother.
Yeah, it’s okay. I know you wish Nana was your grandmother.

Tamuna is jealous that everyone asked Raughley to take their picture but no one asked her.  Between Avenue Q, Times Square, Roanoke Island, Baltimore Harbor, and Space, she had a hard time picking a favorite place.  Okay, so maybe not Roanoke Island, but the point remains: Tamuna loved America.

Tamuna even loves 1812 America!
Tamuna even loves 1812 America!

And now, at the end of an already-long post, I refuse to make any sweeping claims about the experience of Georgians in America, but I will say that it was a great three weeks traveling around meeting people everywhere I went.  Stay happy, folks and whatever you do Leave Home!

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