A funny thing happens when you spend four and half years living in a foreign country–you start seeing it everywhere you go. Some instances are deliberate: Scanning the stage of the Miss Universe Pageant to find Miss Georgia (Yes, I watched a few minutes of the Miss Universe Pageant). Others instances are foisted upon you by others: Every other week I hear from an old friend or acquaintance who is traveling to Georgia and wants tips or my sister posts a new article on my wall from the Washington Post about how Georgian food is the next “it” cuisine. Yet more circumstances are completely serendipitous: chatting with an academic who attended a conference in Tbilisi over bagels at a small bed and breakfast in Charlotte Amalie.
The thing about all of these happenings is that they draw inevitable comparisons and call backs to life in Georgia. Some of the comparisons are favorable, others nostalgic, while some remind you why you left Georgia.
When I first returned to New York, I made a point of reaching out to old friends and colleagues I had in the area–obviously. I met my grad school buddy Ken for pizza one day at lunch and we made plans to visit a Georgian restaurant on the East Side. A few nights later, I wandered through rainy streets with names like “A” and “B” searching for Oda House.
I arrived, having forgotten the first rule of Georgia already. I was painfully on time.
I sat down at our table for eight and drank a few glasses of water before anyone else arrived. Ken’s friends started arriving before him. He is close with the expat communities in Moscow and New York (Americans and Russians, respectively) and so I started getting to know a handful of interns, students, and exchange workers as the table began to fill with young Russians.
When our fully party had arrived, we were brought menus and the questions flooded in. “What’s good, Raughley?”
The thing about Oda House is that it is all incredibly good! They have chicken mtsvade, shotis puri, all manner of khatchapuri, khinkali, badrijani nigvzit and unigvzo, several types of real Georgian wine–it’s as Georgian as can be! The entire staff is Georgian and the walls are adorned with Georgian graffiti from grateful Georgian Wanderers seeking something familiar in the urban jungles of Manhattan.
The other thing about Oda House is that it is damned expensive! I’ve been to very few restaurants in New York City, but my downfall was surely comparing the prices to those in Georgia. The part that boggled my mind, though, was that I was literally getting the exact same foods. I glanced over the menu with sticker shock at each price I saw. Thirty dollars for a bottle of saperavi??? I used to get 2 liters for 5 dollars near my house! Eight dollars for a shotis puri?? That cost 45 cents!
The khinkali was $9.50. Cautiously optimistic I asked the waiter how many khinkali came in one order. “Three, sir.” I choked on my surprise and ordered a twenty-five dollar four-piece chicken mtsvadi. Boy was my wallet hurting that night.
A few months later, my coworkers and I had all moved down to St. Thomas where Morgan and I decided to go for a stroll. She was wearing a shirt that she’d gotten printed in Tbilisi. I forget what the front says, but the back says “მორგანი” Morgan.
We were having a nice walk in the sun down Kondprindsens Gade which is a fancy street chock full of jewelry stores. DUTY FREE their window displays shout. Well-dressed salesmen and women stand in the entryways to lure prospective clients to their financial doom. A large man in fake zebra skins and a enormous headdress shakes a spear at the side street where the Shaka Zulu store awaits.
As we wandered, a voice called out in Russian, “Are you from Georgia?” We wheeled about and I saw a man in a fishing vest and a bucket hat leaning against the doorframe of one of the jeweler’s.
We struck up a conversation in Russian, “No, we just came back from living there for four years, though.”
“Wow! I’ve always wanted to go but never had the chance. Do you live here?”
“Yes, we came here a few weeks ago.” My Russian was a little shakey, but I was pleased with my performance.
“Are you Russian?”
“No, American, you?”
“I’m from Pittsburgh!”
“Well! We might as well speak English then, right?” Much to Morgan’s relief, we switched into English. Turns out the gemnologist is an amateur linguist and former air force intelligence agent. He spent the better part of the 1980s debriefing Soviet emigrants in Brighton Beach. “Lots of pilots and families who spent time on airbases,” he told us.
Morgan got a nice little pendant as a parting gift and we went back on our merry way, only to encounter the aforementioned academic at breakfast the next morning.
It’s remarkable the way that people, places, and experiences stay with you. Every day I miss Georgia, look back with relief that I’ve returned to the States, crave Georgian food, and worry that my Georgian is becoming rusty through disuse.
At the end of the day, I like knowing that somewhere inside საქარტველო ჩემთანა.