A rare preface to a blog. I wrote this last week while in the midst of some heavy thinking; additionally I wrote it before the apparent monsoon season in my region. Maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration and actually today again is an example of what this blog talks a bit about-absurdly pristine skies. But, though some thoughts, like weather, are changeable I think it is more or less on target. As one good Georgian friend might tell me: the shape of what I’m looking at in Georgia may be consistently shifting, but the essence remains the same. Enjoy.
Recently while running I was pondering some heavy things; personal and as per normal Economist-related. Whilst this pondering took place, my mind moved to the fact that Georgia has not given me a song to remember it by. While I’ll always get a bit Martvili-misty-eyed when I hear K’Naan’s Wavin’ Flag or Shakira’s Wakaa Wakaa (see first post), they aren’t really personal (a new overplay addition is Driving Home For Christmas thanks to David aka The Happiest Man in the World…don’t ask). By almost being omnipresent in this country, they lack a personal connection.
To further explain, and this may sound silly to some, but certain songs can be more visceral than scents in reminding me of people, crystallized moments, emotions, and places. Three place-related examples for the sake of this entry – Life in Technicolor (part 1) by Coldplay never seemed to mean much to me until I rode a night train on my first ever visit to Berlin. The lack of lyrics suddenly made sense with the lights flashing by-the pulse of the city was captured by the simple rhythmic “Oh-ohhhhs.” Similarly, Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks was ingrained into my mind during my first months adjusting to life in Opole, Poland. I vividly remember gazing into what were probably pollution-enhanced sunsets from my balcony, content at whatever was in front of me so long as it was in front. Perhaps the most pertinent example: Jamie T’s The Man’s Machine gave me a realization of what a great life I was enjoying in Krakow. I noticed this while running along the Vistula (Wisla) river in the shadow of the Wawel Castle with the sun’s rays making a normally muddy river a dark blue. Additionally, the lyrics echoed my whole experience there-a hectic often confusing time which was far too ephemeral.
You’ll never match up every word or beat as you wish, but some songs capture everything a moment can offer, and the moment ends up staining the song for better or for worse. The point is I still had nothing for Georgia/Martvili until recently (this is one of those times my lyrics at the start match up directly with the post). During my quite introspective run, I noticed that the sky was completely empty and I was reminded how often here I’d seen a ridiculously blue sky void of anything. No clouds, no birds, no jets, no morning moon, no UFOs. In fact, even the sun seemed to just be radiating from some unknown location. Initially, it reminded me of how I heard that days after 9/11 the skies over America were more or less cloudless from a lack of air traffic. I guess this says something about the natural beauty found here. After all, the mountains are canvassed against what you’d want on an easel were you a painter (or something like that I imagine). But, it also says a lot about the lack of connection to the world. In fact, as I ran it hit me the sky almost seemed empty rather than clear…and that got me thinking even more.
Before I get accusations of pessimism, let me clarify and expound specifically about Georgian culture. One social more I have not discussed here includes the role of women in Georgian society. From an American view, it seems that women often hold a subservient role in social settings-though not as much in the workplace. Socially though, while they are honored and cherished above most anything, it is certainly not for being the independent type. Those who choose that route risk being ostracized for exhibiting such ‘provocative’ feelings.
Now, this is nothing people from, say, a Middle Eastern country would find shocking. In fact, I imagine (imagine, no personal experience) them to think that Georgian women would be quite liberated. However, European or American civilities would be ruffled were they treated as part of the official culture and not guests. After all, it’s one thing to continually toast to mothers out of respect-to proceed to ask her to clean up the table is where a typical European/American woman might do more than raise an eyebrow. That’s a believable though made-up example; the broader picture often paints the banishment of civil liberties applicable only to women. I’m not saying all Georgian women will follow this line of behavior or code-and I’ve been fortunate to meet a few women who refute these expectations-but again my experience (and even what those who do choose to go against the wave tell me) is that acceptance is practical and common.
Why this matters is not because I might think it’s wrong-that’d be quite a bit ethnocentric and rude from a well-treated guest. Rather I believe it matters on a greater level because one of the most important things I’ve noticed since I’ve been here is the consistent desire and continually repeated stance that Georgia is part of Europe (I may be partially responsible for hearing it repeated as I do often ask, “Hey, so is Georgia European?”…but I digress). Only those of a more than candid nature, or talking in private corners, will offer a ‘No.’ Sometimes people provide an answer along the lines of a mix e.g. Georgia is its own Eurasian thing, lacking a strictly Eastern/Western identity-and personally I believe this to be truer than anything else. But most steadfastly say, “Yes, Georgia is European.” Even my beloved Economist has them in that section.
My problem then stems from a few things. Geographically the European case is a bit tricky as, “Georgia and Azerbaijan both have most of their territory in Asia, although each has small parts of its northern territory in Europe.” Keep in mind now that two regions in northern Georgia are now semi-autonomous (see: Russian) as well, so even less of Georgia would be part of Europe. Historically, while Georgia was invaded by the Romans and the Greeks thousands of years ago…that was thousands of years ago. Much more recently were problems from Mongols, Turks, Persians, etc. Indeed, were anything gained from syncretism, Georgia would surely be less European-influenced but rather Eastern-influenced (Anything from Russia I’m not calling European). Yet, again most Georgians claim European roots and cherish this status not with identifiable traits, but by sheer blind will. In fact, I’ve even had several Georgians quote me Zurab Zhvania, a former Georgian politician, who stated, “I am Georgian, therefore I am European.”*
Now, I fully understand this insistence from a national security aspect (see: NATO), economic (see: EU), and even perhaps a desire to simply move towards the perceived ‘rich world’ and the development that can come with ties to it. And yes, the council of Europe has recognized Georgia as part of Europe so perhaps one day it has the chance to be a member of the EU. . .
But, as all Georgians wish so much to be classified as European, they risk turning a blind eye on their own uniquely non-European culture. This is not a real, legitimate risk however as Georgians are happily having their cake and eating it to. I say that because losing their cultural traditions would be extremely distressing if it weren’t so blatantly obvious how proudly they still practice these Georgian customs. While this is most clearly seen in their devotion to things like Georgian dance and the orthodox religion, social mores like the above gender roles still exist because many Georgians do not seem willing to part with the past.
The most upsetting and confusing thing to me then is how this country, and its citizens, can be so convinced of a desirable destination when they pay no heed to the road they are coming from and moreover, happily continuing on. I know that a Pole is a Pole and a Scot a Scot. Diverse as they are, what makes them similar is much more than governing bodies and democratic institutions.
*My English co-teacher astutely informed me that he may have been speaking about the fact that perhaps, way way back, the first Europeans from Africa actually passed through Georgia. So, scientifically, I am Georgian, therefore I am European.