Ben Sweeney’s Weblog

Got a Fulbright, living in Georgia for a year.

In Georgia (with update from Ukraine)

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Hello everyone,

I’m in Georgia right now. So far, it’s pretty great. I mean, I haven’t really done much – just flew in and got to walk around a little.

It is crazy – I just got off a train this morning from Crimea, went to my friend’s apartment in Kyiv, repacked and had some breakfast, and only just made my plane (lots of traffic…).

Ukraine was amazing. Kyiv is a great city, it seemed a lot like Russia, but all the signs were in Ukrainian, although everyone knew Russian. It has some of the best cathedrals I have seen around the former Soviet Union, and the best monastery I have ever seen with long deep caves filled with the mummies of saints and monks. These caves are only lit by the candles carried by people praying, so it is filled with a wonderful smell of beeswax.

Crimea was if anything, even better than Kyiv. I got on the train and read a bit and had a beer, and then went to brush my teeth. On the way there, some kids started talking to me, gave me another beer. We all struck up a friendship, and over the course of a few more beers which they provided, they told me about the Jazz Festival they were going to, and invited me along. I didn’t have concrete plans, and the Jazz sounded great, so I signed up for that. Finally I was able to brush my teeth and went to bed. Had some crazy dreams, I saw a wrought iron tree slowly being illuminated, probably the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

The conductor woke me up the next day half an hour before we arrived – I had slept through the morning, having stayed up much later than I planned, which is probably better for train travel.

I met up with my new friends and we found a bus to go to the coast where the Jazz festival was. One of the girls bought beers for all of us (it was afternoon), except for the guy who insisted on just drinking water and eating charcoal tablets (he had gone to a birthday party before the train). When we got to the town of Koktebel’, we set about finding a place to stay, and finally found a house that fit all 7 of us for 40 grivens (about 8 bucks) each. Then Jazz. The music was great (the headlining band was Red Snapper from England, although they weren’t the best band). The people were great too, and I wish I could describe all the characters I met. The place was packed with hippies and people of all types. We bought a large unlabeled bottle of wine from some guy in a car who said it was “Black Prince.” It was pretty bad, although I tried other Crimean wines, and they were quite delicious. I grabbed some lamb kebabs, and we sat on the beach, listening to the music with the fresh smell of the sea.

There was this grimy guy running around, clearly drunk, holding a big metal mug, yelling “Watch Out! I’m drinking biker drink!” Apparently he was running around earlier yelling “Warning, I’m sober!” It turned out that his “biker drink” was whatever people would pour into his mug – he came up to us once and we poured in some wine and he took a big swig and then swayed a bit.

After the concert, we went to a bar where the band played near perfect covers of classic songs, and when they stopped my friends picked up where they carried off, singing Beatles, Queen and other groups, enough to attract the attention of other patrons. One guy bought us a bottle of champagne and started to sing a song from when he served in Afghanistan. As we left (that guy came with us), another old lady led us in singing Hava Nagilah.

We went to the beach and kept singing. That guy fell asleep on the beach, and when I was almost ready to fall asleep too, we headed home.

The next day was similar, and I made more friends, met more characters, notably this artist who drew on my friend’s chest (he was going to draw on me, but the pens were running out, so he drew the same thing, the mountain visible from the beach, in my notebook). He looked like he was 60 or 70, but was only 50. He kept trying to invite us home, but we kept saying no.

By Monday, all my acquaintances had left and I headed to Sudak, the place I originally wanted to go to. It is similar to Koktebel’ – a small resort town on the south coast of Crimea. One of the main attractions is a 13th century Italian castle, which is huge and takes up most of the top of a mountain there. I am still confused why they built a castle there, and how it is still in such good shape. I walked all around it and climbed to the very top of the mountain, and then made my way to the beach and swam in the wonderful Black Sea.

I headed home early, not having slept much the past few days, and talked with the guy who owned the house where I rented a room. He had some interesting experiences relating to the Georgia-Ossetia conflict, having served with an Ossetian guy in the early 50s. The Ossetian’s father apparently wrote often, complaining about the Georgians, how they stole his goats and property, and how the Ossetian border was moved, putting his land in Georgia. My host also knew Georgians – some had come and stayed at his house earlier in the season, and he was amazed at how they could live on their pensions – one of his guests had the highest level of pensions, which was something like $70 a month, still not nearly enough to survive on. My host, by the way, looked like he was 50, but was 60 or 70.

I got a good nights sleep, and have been busy traveling almost ever since.

I was met at the airport by a taxi driver holding up my name and a lady who helped me find some lodging. We had a good talk about politics – they were a little annoyed at America for not supporting them against Russia, and said they wished they could have better relations with Russia. Then they switched, saying how they would never forget what the Russians had done, that they had been woken by Russia bombs in Tbilisi – “They weren’t joking around,” said my driver. They repeated the sentiment that I have been feeling, that the whole conflict is Russia and the US playing chess, they said they felt like pawns, that Russia and America had divided up the country, each taking half.

I got dropped of at a house, where I am renting the top floor for a few days while I find an apartment. I dropped off my bags, and went for a walk. I got a sim card (new number: +995 58 75 85 68), and walked around downtown Tbilisi. Not much has changed since I’ve last been here, and I saw the Synagogue and Saunas (where Pushkin bathed), two places I know I’ll return to at some point.

Well, my laundry is done, going to go hang it up, and go to bed. I’ll get up tomorrow, find an apartment, make some friends and talk about politics.

Written by bensweeney

September 24, 2008 at 4:15 pm

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