Funeral crashing in Saqartvelo
I suppose it was only a matter of time before I crashed a Georgian funeral from the way things had been going for me; although, it wasn't technically a funeral at all.
My host-mother had been mourning the loss of her sister for an entire 365 days. This detail had been brought to my attention a few times during my stay whenever we (Tchabuki, Teona and I) departed for a wedding, or any type of community gathering. Before our departure from the house for a particular event, it was explained that Ts'its'o was in mourning for her sister, and so she was socially restricted from attending any community gatherings for a year afterwards. She was also expected to wear whatever color she so chose... as long as that color was black on black on black.
Earlier on, on a mid-November weekend, I was sitting at the table for breakfast with the family when the topic of my departure from Georgia arose. Tchabuki wanted to be absolutely sure when my last day in the village was going to be. This reminder of my leaving seemed to strike directly to the heart of my host-mother, evident by her shying away from me at the breakfast table, obsessively wiping away tears from her sheepish face. I was surprised to see this person, whom I had not known at all four months earlier, stricken with so much emotion by the thought of me going back to Canada. She was an unbelievable woman who had subtly demanded absolute affection from me from day one, without my realizing it, when she professed herself as my Georgian Mother not more than twenty minutes after our initial meeting. I came to realize that the words from this inspiring woman, telling me that I was welcome in her home, she was my Mother, I was her son and the brother of her only biological child, was as legitimate a sentiment as one could have. It was at this breakfast table that I came to understand that the one year anniversary of her sisters death was quickly approaching and had likely added to the poor womans fragile emotional state.
The Friday of November 23, 2012, represented St. Georges Day, or Giorgoba. A National holiday meant I had the potential opportunity to sleep-in with the closure of school, but was startled awake by the annoying screeching of my relentless Georgian sister. A spread of food awaited me at the table and a Giorgoba supra was soon underway. By half passed eight in the morning, we had participated in a multitude of toasts to the holiday, the family (both present and abroad) and to the memories of our deceased loved ones, which was obviously at the forethought of Tsitso's mind as of late. A sensation began in my feet and worked its way north; the feeling of my sobriety making a hasty retreat was all-too familiar. My sobriety would not be heard of again, in any significance, for the better part of four days. At the tail end of the Giorgoba Supra, the family voiced their plans for the upcoming busy week. On Saturday, what they initially described to me as another Harvest Supra, was in the end a supra to celebrate a baptism; unless of course they were ceremoniously harvesting babies. Sunday would bring the raucous Georgian mud-wedding and Tuesday, November 27th was the one year anniversary of the death of my host-mothers younger, and only, sister.
I awoke that Tuesday morning to only a few sneezes of my unbelievably persistent allergies, but afterward subsided to just itchy eyes and nostrils; a welcome relief in comparison to the last four months. I still found it odd how I never really had allergies at home, but here, I was rendered to being a sickly little man constantly wiping his dripping nose, rubbing his eyes, brushing the back of his throat and jamming Q-tips in his ears so much farther then common sense allows just to get relief from the itching skin. Anytime Tsitso saw me sneezing, or awkwardly dealing with my allergy symptoms, I would grunt in frustration and she would let out a joyful laugh at how pathetic a mess I probably seemed to be.
Right away I could sense Tsitso's anxiety as she frantically put breakfast out on the table and prepared everyone, and then herself, for the days events. I cleared the table of dishes and she allowed me to do so with no resistance for the first time, but drew the line when I tried to wash them up. She asked me to wear my tetri p'erangi , white shirt, and in a motherly gesture, combed my hair with her fingers. When I asked her if she wanted me to wear a tie, she gave me a warm, thankful smile while pinching a chunk of my cheek as she replied, "ara ushavs, kai bichi, no that's all right, good boy."
Everyone looked sharp in their Sunday's best when we left the house in Rauli's (Chabuki's Uncle) Mercedes. Tsitso, another first, sat in the front while I was squashed in the back between my squawking sister and Chabuki, who apparently needed the space for an imaginary oak barrel of wine between his legs. I was uncomfortable but it wasn't too far to Zugdidi. To my chagrin, however, we turned the opposite way down the highway to make a brief stop in the large bazaar town of Samtredia, where the family frequented.
We had stopped so Tsitso could sell her assorted q'velis, cheeses, and compotis, preserves; I was surprised at how significant of an income she received from selling the fruits of her labor, but I understood first-hand just how much effort she put in to the tedious and laborious work, day after day. As she completed her business selling her concoctions to the chatty women in the stalls which filled the interior of a huge soviet hanger, I walked around the bazaar eavesdropping on how Georgians bartered for bulk sweets, haggled for plucked chickens dangling from hooks and watched a butcher skin the face of a cow, then crush the bone with a hatchet, pulling out portions he wanted and sections to be discarded; though I have to admit it all looked like the smashed face of a dead cow to me. I filmed the drunk butcher at work while pieces of bone fragments flew well out of his stall in all directions and would have likely ended up within bins of hard candies on one side and the cakes on the other. He scowled and mumbled to himself in a sharp tone when he noticed I took interest in his work, and so I left him to do so in peace.
A man at another butcher's stall across the corridor sat on a small stool on the customer side of the counter, disinterested with potential buyers as they strolled past to ogle at his selection. His movement had caught my attention, as he sat slouching over his own big belly waving a hand back and forth with the palm facing up in a way that was asking me what my deal was. We talked, as best we could, as he continued to ignore possible customers choosing instead to chat with me. After getting through the mandatory five questions every Georgian is obligated to ask a foreigner, he cheekily went on to talk about the other butcher; he is the only groutch in Georgia, a miserable drunk, and a bad butcher. A fourth comment that I didn't understand brought laughter from other stalls I didn't realize were listening in. He voiced all this so the other butcher, still wielding the hatchet, could hear. They exchanged 'pleasantries' as other stall vendors stopped their work to focus on the comical back and forth bickering of the two old men. Rauli found me between the men smiling ignorantly, as they each held butchery tools, where he stole me away and told me about the two grumpy old men. They were well-known brothers who bickered ever since they were small children; even though they worked in the same profession, worked and lived next door to one another, and even married sisters! We left the bazaar with the men still in their lively debate and left Samtredia altogether, squished into the back of the Mercedes, except now I had the responsibility of holding a fantastically decorated cake on my lap.
Nearing Zugdidi, I was losing all sensation in my left buttock and most of my left leg. I was happy to see us turn off of a paved road onto a soupy dirt path which I took as a sign of our impending arrival to the service. For the whole trip everyone was in great spirits; Rauli rarely stopped telling funny stories while Tsitso and Teona hung on every word, bursting with laughter at random intervals. Chabuki had nodded off almost right away. When we stopped in the center of the cemetery, a few cars were already parked around the site. I could see people in the midst of their grieving but somehow being inside the car provided us all with a protective barrier. Rauli finished one last story he'd been working on and Tsitso still laughed, but just a little less boisterously as she'd done before. She turned in the front seat to check on her daughter, they exchanged a look, full of meaning that was like a secret language only spoken between mothers and daughters. Teona gave her mother a comforting smile for reassurance, I assumed. Tsitso turned to me, checked on the cake and instantly began pointing at the cake, berating me in that exaggerative Georgian way that was harsh and alarming but meant purely as playful.
"Bicho, ra aris es? Boy, what is this?" I looked down to where she was pointing to the cake and saw a few minor blemishes on the icing.
"Bodishi, I'm sorry," I gave a cheeky smile, "but Rauli is a bad driver," I said, pretending I was a maniacal driver, pointing to a smiling Rauli.
Tsitso unleashed a laugh so loud inside the car I thought my ears were going to burst from the pressure. The rest of the cars occupants followed in laughter as Tsitso pinched my cheek then wiped a finger across my lip to show me a gob of sugary white icing. Busted. Her laugh continued as she wiped tears from her eyes then faded away with a few satisfactory releases of air. It gave me a realization, that I truly felt comfortable with the family as opposed to just being a long-term house guest; comfortable enough to sneak some tantalizing icing from a cake as I'd done a thousand times with my own mother back home.
We took a moment to compose ourselves before the car doors opened. Almost as if we were in a protected enclosure in the car, the seal had been broken and the wind carried thick gusts of anguish and despair. What was once the beautiful smiling face of my host mother, instantly fell apart to emote a horror stricken mess of pain. Her lip quivered and her small dark, triangular eyes welled up before quickly overflowing. Teona supported her mother, leading her through the individually fenced sections of the cemetery on the way to her Aunties plot. I couldn't watch her any more. She had done everything for me to warrant being a wonderful mother in my eyes and watching her enveloped in such grief had paralyzed me beside the car. Chabuki and Rauli went directly to a crowd of men where they were greeted with the customary soft handshake and kiss on the cheek. A man set up a small stereo and keyboard between some graves. Ominous clouds churned above a murder of crows swooping through the air at the far end of the property. A gravedigger swung a pickax deep in a hole while other men stood idly by, drinking wine, telling jokes. A woman washed a tombstone and pulled weeds from her young sons plot. Stray dogs ran around begging for food graveside. My hands were deep in my pockets looking for warmth while I stood, still stuck in a small mud puddle near the car. It was the first time in Georgia I had a feeling like I did not belong.
As much as this family had welcomed me into their home, and referred to me as 'Tsitso's bichi, Tsitso's boy,' I wasn't going to foolishly intrude on a family affair so raw with emotion. I made a decision to experience this from a distance, and in the unlikely scenario they called on me, I was willing to do what the asked of me. Until then, I was only going to be a polite and silent observer. I was afraid if I strayed too far, it would be impolite of me, but I was afraid that invading their space would be regarded as far worse, so I slowly wandered around with light footsteps on the gravel without wandering too far from the car.
Tsitso was wailing in a way I'd never heard from a human being before. It was my first funeral and it was a foreign experience to me. I caught myself watching, like I thought I couldn't, her curly jet-black hair pressed against the etched photo of her sister on the tombstone; a woman sitting delicately cross legged on the edge of a sofa with an equally delicate smile on her face. Their foreheads were pressed together and I could only imagine what she was saying. I heard 'oyi deda' repeated over and over, and I filled in the blanks of what I couldn't understand. Why did you take my sister from me? My heart broke. She would regain her composure, but this was only for a short time, and would wind herself up again, ripping at my heart some more. Even if I walked away, I could hear my Georgian mother sob uncontrollably from across the cemetery.
The man who was setting up the stereo and keyboard started singing, what I assumed to be Georgian funeral songs. The striking of the black keys seemed to intensify the macabre atmosphere. After it was my turn to collect myself, I ventured back near the plot only to be shattered again, watching Tsitso's elderly father, red faced with tears streaming down his cheeks kissing all over the etched photo of his dead daughter. He was silent in his mourning, but he had turned away from the tombstone catching my glance, and the look he gave me may as well have torn my heart right out of my chest. I looked away and read the date on the chunk of granite: 1966-2011. That's too damn young, I thought.
They drank wine, toasting to what, I cannot say, as I didn't want to get too close and impede on their space. They ate a bit of food, made up a plate for the woman in the ground and poured wine in the soil where she lay. They all said some parting words while closer family members kissed the woman etched in to the granite again and shuffled away as if it caused intense physical pain. Tsitso's father had to be helped off the site while his wife had to be completely carried and placed into a waiting car.
A chubby blond man, about my age, bumped my shoulder as he walked by and I could see he was particularly affected from the scene. He walked like he was in a trance, barely lifting his feet in a shuffle. Near me sitting in a car was a older man, salt and pepper just starting to encroach on his temples. He hunched over in the passenger seat of a Opel for the entire time we were there he was unable to lift his head, let alone get out of the car. I would later know this blond man to be the deceased son and the salt and peppered man in the car was her husband. I couldn't count how many times my heart had broken for this family, and the feeling I had of being an intruder was weighing on me heavily. I didn't belong there, and frankly, I was bothered by them asking me to come along.
I had met Tsitso's mother once before, who like her daughter, was an impressively warm and nurturing woman. She had made me call her Bebia and wouldn't respond to me unless I called her so. She filled my pockets with sweets, nuts and homemade fruit leathers before leaving her home. I was told that she would call the house just to ask how her grandson was doing. The shell of the same woman had just been placed in the car, and although I hadn't been yelled at to 'modi, come' I was under the impression that we were leaving. Tsitso's mother caught my glance, recognizing me immediately, and as the car pulled away I gave her a pathetic smile to show her that I was sorry for her loss. I heard her yell something in the car, which stopped abruptly and watched her scramble to roll the window down, then gave up and opened the car door for me. She waved me over and I could see a steady stream of tears and the bloodshot eyes of a broken hearted woman. She stretched out a hand, and I held it gently in mine while she pulled me in and kissed me on the cheek. I told her I was sorry, and she brushed her hand on my other cheek, calling me a good boy. Even in such a bad way as she was, I can't give justice to how she must have felt; Bebia had made time to greet me, and thank me for supporting the family. In this one simple gesture, the fractures in my heart had healed over and I felt guilty for having ever resented going there.
A tear welled up in each eye, and as I walked to the car, Tsitso stopped me and looked into them. She let out a grunt that questioned why I looked so upset. I squeezed the inner corners of my eyes with my handkerchief to soak up the liquid, and before taking my place in the back seat I let out a grunt of my own to express frustration and said "Alergia, Deda. Allergies, Mum." She smiled knowingly.
We drove through the Zugdidi suburbs until I could see the stack from a factory poking above a park of tall pine trees. We barreled through a roundabout like we wished for death and jumped a curb on the other side. After parking, we exited the car with a bunch of other people emptying vehicles I recognized from the cemetery service. In front of us stood the most hideous building I had ever laid eyes on. The concrete foundation was cracked in gaps big enough to accurately throw a beach ball through. Windows were broken or boarded up, masonry was crumbling and the setting looked like a condemned structure filled with courteous squatters. The factory stack rose high above the building and off to the left where I walked over to take a quick look. The dilapidated 'Commie flat' was attached to the industrial building. I didn't know what to make of it, but followed everyone inside the residential portion.
Inside was a large trapezoidal lobby with a floor stripped of its tiles, thought the floor had recently and carefully been swept. Hallways extended out to the left and right centered by a wide, risky looking staircase. Just to the right was a narrow elevator, haphazardly boarded up and the up/down panel ripped from the wall with uncapped wires protruding from the hole. Imprints of soccer balls decorated the walls, yet a wonderful aroma wafted down from high up the lobby atrium. The group made its way up the staircase; the older folks held forebodingly onto the ancient temporary banister made from scrap wood until we reached the third of five floors. The corridor that extended from one end of the building to the other was lined with table after table until it formed a dinner top with space for a hundred people blocking every single door along the way. Plates were set with neatly folded paper napkins with each setting offering seldom-used utensils, a water glass and a wine glass. Assorted food and wine filled the entire surface and let off an intoxicating smell throughout the air.
The men sat at the farthest end, squeezed in tightly, rubbing shoulders with neighbors. They sat me between two younger men and Tsitso yelled at them to make sure I ate and drank. I awkwardly maneuvered my hands to all the different dishes while I introduced myself to my closest neighbors. The women sat at the opposite end in much the same manner, I assumed, and before I knew it, I was being clapped on the back by men in fits of laughter from their collection of most favored stories; their way of including me as if I had any idea what they might have been saying. The funeral anniversary service was just like the weddings I had been to: lots of people sitting on benches at massive tables, a fantastic amount of food and wine, story telling and music. Everyone made such an effort to include me in everything, even pantomiming out entire childhood stories if they thought I might be interested, which usually made the audience laugh even harder. I told stories of my own when they were connected to one of theirs and asked questions in my rough Kartuli. It was this little amount effort I put forward to add to the conversation that seemed to be all they were looking for. They joked about wanting me to 'hit the horn' and after I'd done so, much to their surprise, they took to a quick huddle and what broke out was a choir of Georgian men belting, "Cor! I love you!"
At all the massive social gatherings I've been lucky to experience in Georgia, I'd thought for the majority of my time here that I was strategically placed or just had great luck with being near the most outgoing Georgians in the group. I realize now, to some embarrassment of mine, they are simply, a very social culture. Within the comforts of their own borders they greet, chat and joke with strangers as if they've known them their whole lives. Even when faced with the complications of a language barrier, Georgians are more than happy to make several attempts at chatting a foreigner up and helping them out. If they find themselves unable to assist you, they will likely take you by the hand and drag you about until they have satisfied the predicament. Though, they are a culture of immense contradictions.
My head was spinning with thinking how much I appreciated the hospitality of the Georgian people and how I wanted to keep that, above all else, as a souvenir (though it may have been the liter of wine that fits into a single horn too). My family, their extended family, their friends and even the random, impromptu drinking buddies I meet in the village had all been amazing hosts. For the remainder of the dinner I sat comfortably with complete strangers where it was understood they knew nearly none of my language and I knew very little of theirs, but we managed to tell stories and make jokes with ease.
The day with its copious amounts of emotion and ghvino had taken its toll on me and I bumbled my way into the back seat of Raulis Mercedes beside Tsitso, who sat in the middle. I didn't even make it as far as the curb before I rested my head on my host-mothers shoulder, first as a joke, but fell steeply into deep, dark sleep.