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.....

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