Thursday, November 11, 2010

Life and Death in Georgia

The procession came from the left, up the incline to the paved road from a cluster of tumbled-together village homes. Nic was up front of the car, bargaining for strings of garlic and onions with several elderly villagers at a makeshift stand, when it appeared.

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As we watch from the car, six men and boys in plaid shirts, carrying an open pine box on their shoulders led the way. Just as they met the paved road, the front man on the near side slipped in the loose dirt, momentarily unbalancing the open casket on their shoulders. The casket lurched, giving us a sideways impression of an elderly face in repose, looking decidedly green-black. He recovered and the procession moved on, across the road and down the far side. It was followed by a straggling procession of women, girls a few men and young children in black, carrying all manner of colorful umbrellas against the afternoon heat. No one looked especially sad.

“Now there's something you don't see every day,” I remarked.

“No,” agreed Sora and was silent a moment. “And not only do they don't embalm here, they still lay the deceased out at home," she added. "Then they summon the family and friends to morn. It can take a week or two for everyone to arrive before they hold the funeral.”

We considered the weight of that information in silence. The heat of the August day there in the car is stifling. It's August. I try not to imagine the smell.

Nic returned from his successful produce negotiations at the village stand.“She was ninety two,” he announced, cheerfully, as our driver pulls out and proceeds slowly down the road and past the casket, being loaded into an ancient hearse. “She was the village matriarch. They said she had a good, long life.”

I set to imagining a matriarch who drank some good Georgian wine every day of her long, adult life, who will return to the earth to nurture her grape vines. While the aesthetics of American life don't encourage most of us to think about death in this fashion, it may be good to recall that dealing with death in this way is quite ecological. Quite green, in fact (no pun intended). In the United states, a slowly growing trend toward green funerals is making a comeback, as a biodegradable reaction to the environmental impact of embalming chemicals, as well as a return to the natural cycle of life.

I'm not sure it will really catch on here. But such is life, and death, in Georgia.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Real Bounty of Georgia

Nic begins negotiations with the matrons for buckets of peaches as the rest of us attempt to stay in the shade along the two-lane paved road..


Trucks, ancient cars, fancy new sport utility vehicles and donkey driven wooden carts loaded with hay, boxes of produce or barrels of something, pass us in both directions. The sport utility vehicles careen around the carts, defying the obvious dimensions of the road width. Looking about, I realize we are not so much in a village, as stopped at a cluster of buildings; probably an extended-family compound. Fields and vineyards stretch out around us, fences lean crazily bordering narrow, dirt lanes. The building materials are varied and ingenious – cobbled together from stone, concrete, wattle, plaster – whatever building materials were available. These people use what they have to create sanctuary.

One of the women trots across the narrow, busy road to the trunk of an ancient Soviet-era car and selecting from this or that box in the trunk, loads another bushel. She hurries back across the road, apparently telling Nic that these have been hand-selected for us.

I pull out my camera to get pictures of the negotiations. Seeing the camera, the matrons are thrilled to pose with Nic and Sora – the Americans who speak Russian. They smooth their aprons, pull off their head scarves, some lower their heads shyly, peaking up coyly toward the camera. A couple of them just downright blush. I suspect that, in their lives, there haven't been many pictures taken of these kindly matrons.

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An excited conversation follows in Russian between Nic and the matrons. Suddenly, one matron turns and runs off down the shady lane at a dead run. I have no idea of her age, but she would have done justice to a high school sprinter.

“What,”we wonder “is going on?”

“They want copies of the pictures,” says Sora, as Nic scribbles something into a tiny pocket notebook. “And she has gone to get the family wine.”

The family wine! So we net not just peaches – but some of that special Georgian amber wine!

Nic pays for the peaches and we get them loaded in the back of the car. Back up the lane runs the matron, waving a plastic soda bottle of the family vintage in one hand and holding in her other hand the strange, bumpy, white-coated cords of churchkhela, the sweet, chewy, Georgian delicacy. Since the grape harvest is just beginning and making these, Sora tells us, takes many steps of dipping, drying and then rolling in sugar, we assume that they are the last of the previous season. And the wine, we learn, will have come from the huge, clay kvevris, or wine amphoras dug right into the ground for aging the family vintage.

Panting from her sprint, but beaming from ear to ear, the matron thrusts the precious gifts into Nic's hands and stands back. Her shoulders straighten and with dignity, she smooths her apron. Everyone nods and bows and smiles. We have been honored with the legendary Georgian hospitality!

I suddenly “get” that the real richness of Georgia is not just it's bounty, but the hospitality of its people. Their very traditions are rich, generous, accommodating. This is a people that appreciates the bounty of the earth, and the spirit of generosity that feeds both stomachs and spirits. Long-suffering, and as we are to learn, often frightfully ignorant of the humanity of their neighbors, they possessing an understanding of the basic human connection...the thread that links all of us is life itself, love and family. That thread is what drew us to Georgia.

It is a thread that links this place and this time to my own upbringing on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Just such hospitality was offered to guests at the modest family farm. I feel a sudden fullness in my chest and tears gather behind my eyes. The image of my Mother, proffering her homemade buns, just-made jams and jellies, still-warm cookies and steaming hot Norwegian coffee to friends and strangers alike in her country dining room, join the images of this Georgian country road. I swallow hard.

Back into the car we pile. Within a few miles we have stopped for watermelons, peaches, then again for tomatoes, and finally for strings of onions and garlic. At that point another pure Georgian experience awaits us.....