All I could do was laugh. The day had been, um, perplexing?
It was 10pm in Tbilisi, Georgia. I was sitting on a couch in the former living room of the famed Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze, talking on the phone (in broken English) to a Georgian man in Belgium, as his non-English speaking parents watched my every move. It was clear that they were trying to set us up. I was uncomfortable.
The man on the phone chatted about Tbilisi, about Georgian food, about the weather in Belgium and then he asked me if I was married.
“I knew it!” was all I could think as I replied that I was not married, but was taken; had a boyfriend.
There was a mammoth sigh of disappointment from the opposing couch; heads shaking with eyes downcast. Apparently his parents (my Guesthouse hosts Gurami and Gedia) knew the word “boyfriend.”
I wrapped up the call and tried to retire to my room, but that was not to be. Even though Gurami and Gedia (both in their late 60’s) were clearly disappointed by the night’s turn of events, they took me by the arm and led me onto the balcony for cake and wine.
Now on a normal day a cake and wine nightcap would sound pretty rad, but I was mentally and physically exhausted, confused and ready for some time and space to myself. Yet, that would have to wait – Georgians can be hospitable to a fault.
As strange as the phone call was, it paled in comparison to the rest of the day.
19 hours earlier:
“I’m sorry, we are full all rooms. I don’t see your reservation. I don’t know how to help you.” These are not the words you want to hear from a Guesthouse at 4am.
I had landed in Georgia’s capitol city an hour earlier. It took my cab driver 30 minutes of speeding around the hillside south of the city – a tight, twisted network of cobblestone alleyways – to find the Formula 1 Guesthouse. He had to stop and ask for directions six times.
So as I sat in the dimly-lit Guesthouse with hours left until sunrise and the verdict came down that I had no place to stay, I began to imagine how sleeping on my suitcase on the front porch might go over. I’d slept in worse places.
“Wait here,” Tito (the Guesthouse owner) said before disappearing into the night and leaving me to weigh my options as his half asleep wife wandered in and out of the room in her floral nightgown and slippers.
I was at that point of being so tired that my ears had a dull hum happening and though my eyes struggled to stay open, my mind raced. How is this happening right now?!
Twenty minutes later, Tito returned. He had asked a neighbor to take me in and thankfully they had a spare room.
The family was also hosting three Russians from Saint Petersburg and while I could feel the guilt rising for what I was sure would be a massive imposition at nearly 4:30am, I entered the house to find everyone awake – eating cake and drinking wine. What the hell? Why are these people not asleep?
The Russians spoke wonderful English and filled me in that considering it was Orthodox Easter, everyone had been celebrating since noon. And here I thought it was just Saturday.
After chatting for a bit, I finally fell into bed at 6am. It wasn’t the start I had been hoping for in Georgia, but little did I know that it would set the tone for the rest of the trip – “roll with the punches” became creed.
Breakfast at 11am was a feast to behold, but the amount of food I was expected to eat was unfathomable.
I would finish my plate and fight vehemently to show that I was full and couldn’t possibly eat one more thing, only to be handed another plate.
I can think of worse things, but given that 90% of the time I follow a vegan diet and thus don’t eat dairy or eggs (yet cheese, yogurt and hard boiled eggs were being stuffed in my face), I was actually getting concerned that I might toss my cookies.
The hard-boiled eggs in fact were beautiful. They had been died a deep purple for Easter by being boiled in water with red onions. And to eat one of these pretty little eggs required a special game in which two people hold one egg each in their hand and then bash them into one another.
Whomever’s egg cracks is the “winner” and gets to eat the egg. I was forced to play this game and held my breath each time, praying that my shell would stay in tact; I hadn’t eaten an egg in about a year. But as my luck would have it, I “won” 3 of 4 matches. Apparently I should become a professional egg-breaker.
When a second bowl of homemade goats yogurt (mixed with a sugared honey) was placed before me, I refused to touch it. After some back and forth pantomiming (and much disapproval from my hosts) I won the battle and was excused from the table; uncomfortably full.
Battle won, but not the war. Every meal became a fight, my hosts certain that I hadn’t eaten enough and me certain that I’d eaten enough for four people.
After breakfast I grabbed my bag and rolled myself to the door, eager to head out and explore Tbilisi. But, Gurami would have none of it. Gedia (who knew a handful of English words) got the gist across that it was not okay for me to go out by myself, Gurami would escort me. Say what?
Now, I’m always appreciative of hospitality, but I’m not really the type that likes to be lead around; I like to wander and get lost and explore at my own pace.
But try as I might to decline and slip out the door, I was denied. In the end, Gurami came with me.
He spoke perhaps six words of English and I knew exactly three phrases and four words of Georgian and maybe a few dozen of Russian. This was going to be an interesting day.
As we began to walk down the cobbled roadway towards the city center, Gurami talked and talked, gestured at buildings, asked me questions. All I could do was smile and nod and throw in a few “ohhs” and “ahhs.”
There were moments when I thought I truly understood what he was saying, and I would respond or try to ask my own questions – such attempts were met with a blank stare and the shrug of a shoulder.
I won’t lie, it was frustrating as hell! My head was spinning, trying to decipher each gesture and word, listening intently for some snippet I might recognize. Gurmai was clearly frustrated as well and would often throw his hands up in the air and mumble things under his breath. This was not going so well.
In edition to being an escort that I couldn’t communicate with, Gurami also insisted on being very close to me at all times.
As soon as we hit Rusavalli Ave (the main thoroughfare in Tbilisi), Gurami grabbed my arm and linked it with his so we were walking arm-in-arm.
My first instinct was to pull away and I’m sure my eyes were wild with confusion. He simply shook his head, smiled and patted my hand.
So this is how its going to be apparently? We can’t talk to each other, but we’re BFF’s?
The last thing I wanted to do was be rude or disrespectful to my very religious and traditional host, but man was it awkward.
My American upbringing had trained me to instinctively feel uncomfortable with this sort of closeness with a relative stranger, but I’ve been around enough to know that a woman traveling by herself is often (but unfortunately) perceived as odd and even alarming in some cultures.
It was a protective sort of gesture, so even though it was far from my comfort zone, I just went with it. Like I said, “roll with the punches.”
We walked all over the city, through the Old Town and parks, historical neighborhoods and markets.
We crossed the Bridge of Peace into Rike Park, which had recently been renovated in anticipation of the opening of the new (and very modern) Performing Arts Center.
We took a gondola ride from Rike Park to the ruins of the 4th century Narikala Fortress (the oldest structure in town) that sits atop a hill overlooking the city and visited the gargantuan Mother Georgia statue that stands guard over all Tbilisi.
We cabbed by the Presidential Palace and wandered Tsminda Sameba Church. Gurami’s eyes lit up when I pulled a headscarf out of my purse; he talked to about a dozen people inside the church, gesturing to my covered head. Clearly, I had impressed him. So there’s that.
We went to Mtatsminda Amusement Park, a entertainment favorite during Soviet times and rode the Farris wheel and roller coaster (to which I sadly sacrificed my favorite sunglasses).
We bought ice cream cones from the most ghetto ice cream man I’ve ever seen and ate them in a shady park while watching kids and dogs play in a fountain.
Gurami suggested going to a bathhouse in the afternoon, a notion that I didn’t even consider given I’d already far exceeded my threshold for being uncomfortable for one day.
Everywhere we went was arm-in-arm and every half hour or so we would sit on a bench so Gurami could rest his aging knees and smoke a cigarette.
While I got relatively used to the strange foreignness of literally being led around by the hand, I couldn’t help but feel like Gurami’s little American show pony.
It was hard to tell if he was truly being protective/hospitable or simply showing off a bit. Not that it really mattered in the end, but generally I like to keep a low profile while traveling and here I was being paraded around town.
What came to surprise me though was that as the hours wore on we started to understand one another. The words weren’t there, but through pantomime and gesturing we were able to communicate. It’s one of the remarkable things about traveling to unfamiliar places where you don’t know the language; even without words, you can find ways to speak.
But we did learn new words from each other; I pointed to a dog and said, “dog.” Gurami repeated and then said, “dzaghli” which I repeated. So that was dog. Small steps, but steps non-the-less.
As the sun began to set we found ourselves hiking a dirt trail up into the hills for a panoramic view of the city. Honestly, by that point I didn’t really care about the view. I was exhausted, it was getting dark and walking arm-in-arm on a narrow trail overlooking a ravine seemed like a really dumb idea. But Gurami pressed on, determined to provide a view worthy of the risk.
After a few near slips and having to stop every few minutes for Gurami to rest, I finally convinced him to turn around and for the first time all day successfully freed myself from the arm link.
I wanted to sprint down the hill. I’m a pretty independent traveler, a rapid hiker and am not someone who stops for rests often; the day had been completely contrary to how I travel.
An hour later we finally made it back to the house and to a glorious spread of food that Gedia had prepared. I filled up on Khinkali, veggies and honey-bread, but again had to fight to prove that I was truly full before being allowed to leave the table.
We were sitting in the living room watching The Notebook (dubbed in Georgian) when I was handed a ringing phone and was suddenly talking to Gurami and Gedia’s son in Belgium. Cake and wine on the balcony followed.
When I finally shut the door to my room, all I could do was laugh.
It had been such an uncomfortably strange, but somehow great day.
I had been thrown outside my comfort zone into a rhealm of discomfort that I rarely experience; I still felt uneasy about the constant violation of my personal space during the day.
Yet, I also felt accomplished, satisfied and empowered – I had seen the city through Gurami’s eyes and learned how to communicate with him in the process. And I didn’t fall to my death in the ravine, which is nice.
What’s the most uncomfortable experience you’ve had while traveling?
Side Note: upon departing Tbilisi, I was given a bill for $50USD for a “City Tour.” Whaaa? There had been absolutely no mention of financial compensation for the forced escort around the city.
They say that the best things in life are free – I believe that to be true – but apparently one incredibly uncomfortable and frustrating day in Georgia will cost you 50 bucks.