Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some Seasons are Meant to Celebrate

Georgia is beautiful; a strange mix of wild spaces and barely-tamed places.

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Its striking mountains, carefully-cultivated vineyards mesh into identity-challenged fields of hay with sunflowers sprouting about, and unfettered cattle roaming the roadsides. (Combine that with Georgian speeding vehicles and you've got steak tartar -- on the hoof.) The land under cultivation is both hard-won and generous. “Georgians,” Nic says, “say that just about anything will grow here, if you just drop it on the ground.”

I have visions of the the Narnian lamp post falling from the sky and taking root here, not as a lone sentinel, but becoming a forest of gas lights!

Our pace on the return is interspersed with produce negotiations.
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The third truth of Kakheti is that when produce comes into season – it is time to celebrate the harvest! The roadsides are lined with families selling watermelons from the trunks of their cars. The sun is merciless. Town elders in long-sleeve shirts perch on wooden benches and crude hand-made chairs, holding umbrellas or squinting beneath make-shift sun shades, next to crates of cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, onions, garlics, leeks, peppers, corn, squash.

Women, dresses mostly in black, fan themselves next to boxes of strawberries, buckets of peaches, heaps of the first grapes and "churchkhela," the Georgian confection created by threading the nuts on long strings,dipping them repeatedly in concentrated grape juice, then rolled in confectionary sugar and hung to dry.

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The result looks a lot like a bumpy stick of licorice or a skinny stick of sausage and is said to contain enough concentrated energy that they were carried on military campaigns. (It must be the original energy bar!)

Sadly, we are too early to attend the traditional, autumn rtveli (wine harvest). The Kakheti wine processing is like no other in the world – labor-intensive and quite different than European practices. After pressing, the grapes, the juices, skins, stems and seeds are all fermented together, yielding a wine that is raisin y, and Madeira-like, with a clear, amber hue. The method is dying out in the region's commercial vineyards, but the family plots and family vintages continue in the traditional way.

A fortuitous stop in a tiny village – well actually it was a few buildings and a lane running back from the highway—proved fruitful. At that juncture stood four village matrons surrounded by buckets of peaches. “Peaches!” Nic exclaimed from his interpreter's seat beside our driver. “Pull over!”
(or at least that's what I assume he said, since he spoke it in Russian.)

The driver braked and careened to the side of the road and out we piled.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Georgian Truth: Life is short – celebrate!

There are days that seem to slow down, whose meaning is apparent, when the value of this short life is measured as priceless.


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Between the heat and my jet lag, I loose track of whether this is one of them or not and only later discover the truth; that all experiences enrich one, if your soul allows access.

The day's un-relenting heat and humidity makes the air shimmer. We are off the main road, following the fence lines deep in Kakheti and our pace is nearly sane. The grape vineyards appear lush. Taking in their endless reach toward the towering Caucasus in the distance, I recall hearing stories of this land's creation.

Georgian's have lived in their land for millennia. Cities like Batumi, along the Black Sea, were occupied long before the Greeks and Romans named the settlements. Georgians have two stories about how they came to live in the land that they call the most beautiful place on earth. Both are intimately tied with the bounty of the land and the unique spirit of this people.

The first story is completely in Georgian character: It seems that while God was busy assigning countries to the peoples of the world, everyone else showed up to get their assignments. Not the Georgians. While this was going on, they were busy having a party. Food and wine were flowing. Joyous dancing and song celebrated life and love. Toast after toast was made and, you guessed it, the Georgians missed their assignment. God finished His work and saved the best land of all for Himself; the bounteous land of Georgia. There, He discovered the Georgians, feasting and celebrating life and toasting God for the abundance they had received; unconcerned about possessing what they saw as God's creation. God was pleased that they recognized the source of the bounty and rewarded them with the garden that He had saved for himself.

Another version says that God was assigning the bounty of the world to the people in it and tripped over the Caucasus mountains, spilling into the lush garden land of Georgia all good and growing things. Seeing that the people cared for it well, he gave the land to the Georgians.

Take your pick.

The Turks, the Tartars, the Mongols, the Nazis and the Russians, among others, haven't always agreed with God. Over the centuries no less than forty invasions and protectorates have tromped over and through this land.

As we approach our next destination, the Alaverdi cathedral on the plains of Kakheti, the humidity actually blurs the lines of the cathedral walls marching off in either direction. The snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus appear to rise directly out of the sweltering valley floor, climbing to astonishing heights in surreal back-drop. Hand tools, of the the hand-hewn wood, museum-quality, stand in a row inside the arched and fortified gate. They have been recently used.
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We descend the broken steps to the courtyard containing a pampered cathedral vineyard and confront a magnificently-proportioned, classic cathedral surrounding by scaffolding. Proud, ravaged by time and battered by earthquakes, it used to be the largest cathedral in Georgia until the new national cathedral opened in Tbilisi. We stoop to enter a low side door, after discovering that the enormous entrance doors are shrouded in scaffolding.
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Upon entering, I get into immediate trouble when I pause to snap a photo. A young,black-robed priest rushes toward me waving his hands, I cannot understand a word, but his meaning is unmistakable. No pictures allowed. I clutch my new digital camera tighter in my hand. If he tries to take it away from me, he is going to end up in a wrestling match!

The ancient frescoes are faint and fractured and in many places, crudely plastered over. Strangely-twisting floor candle holders stand about, most lit. As remote as we are, there are other pilgrims moving about the dim and dusty place, which has clearly seen better days. Here, more so than in the better-preserved churches of Tbilisi, I sense the ancient times and the great faith and fortitude of this people and land.

The cathedral is the far point of our day's destination. Nic fortifies Jeff and Heather with a care package of American comfort food (much of which had arrived in the one bag of ours that actually arrived with us!) before dropping them off and head back north west on The Grape Trail, where more adventures await us.....