Dinner in Wine Country

A pack of teenage soldiers stood near us in the late-afternoon sunlight, their automatic weapons slung casually over their shoulders. They were keeping themselves occupied by passing around a pair of binoculars. I squinted at the barbed-wire fences stretching up the hills on both sides of us. Watchtowers were interspersed along the hillsides, but I could not tell whether they were in use or were merely abandoned relics of the Soviet border system. It was a June day in the highlands of the Middle East, and we had been waiting to cross the border since sunrise.

Finally it became clear that there was a problem with our documents. An officer, with our bus driver acting as reluctant translator, informed us that we would not be permitted to exit the Republic of Georgia until we obtained tourist visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tiblisi. There was no arguing with him. We had attempted to travel directly from Armenia to neighboring Turkey without passing through a third country, and we had failed. Bryn, Heather, and I removed our packs from the red and white bus and stood to one side as it rolled forward, crossing from Georgia into Turkey. We were three Peace Corps volunteers on vacation from our service in Armenia, and now we were stranded.

From the border compound, we were driven in the employee van to a small town a few kilometers away. There we spent the night in a decrepit, former-Soviet hotel where we elected not to bathe because there were cobwebs in the tubs. We dined on fresh apricots and bread and dreamt of relaxing on the beaches of Turkey. The next morning, Monday, we took the first bus going east to Tiblisi. The kind man who had sold us our tickets in the Armenian capital of Yerevan had assured us that the bus would travel directly to Turkey without passing through Georgia. The friendly driver of the bus had also insisted that this was the case. It seemed that the rumor was indeed true--that after years of the Turkish-Armenian border being closed, buses were now allowed to cross it at a place near the city of Gyumri.

Our bus had left Yerevan on Saturday and had followed the highway northwest to Gyumri. To our dismay, it had then continued north and climbed through the hills to the Georgian border. We had spent most of the night there before miraculously being permitted to enter the country. (We had even been exempted from contributing to the bus passengers' group bribe.) Then, after driving across the southwest corner of Georgia in the hours before dawn, we had spent more than ten hours waiting in a long line of buses at the Georgian-Turkish border, wishing that we had thought to pack more food.

The bus to Tiblisi drove down from the wooded mountains, then across a broad, flat river valley. A boy and a girl accompanied by an old man boarded the bus. The boy was carrying a large, closed container by its handle, and it was almost too cumbersome for him to manage. The bus lurched forward before he could get into his seat, throwing all of the standing passengers off-balance and casting the lid off of the boy's container. Milk sloshed a good ways up and down the aisle and also onto the boy's pants, but he maintained his composure. I had expected the boy to cry and the old man to scold or even hit him, and I was impressed when they both remained calm. When we arrived in Tiblisi, the bus did not deliver us to a bus station. It dropped everyone off in front of a stadium somewhere in or near the downtown. Without a city map or even a guidebook for the country, Heather, Bryn, and I found ourselves at quite a loss. We needed to get visas for Georgia and then bus tickets to Turkey, but we couldn't speak Georgian or Russian.

Our Armenian-speaking bus driver wasn't interested in helping us. He proved to be opportunistic, handing us off to a police officer who was telling him to move the bus. The police officer, of course, spoke neither English nor Armenian.

We left the bus and followed the sidewalk until we saw an establishment with a Euro '96 emblem in the window along with a sign advertising currency exchange. It was a restaurant below street level. I descended and walked across a room full of empty tables to a counter where three women were sitting. "Do you speak English?" I asked, but that question failed to produce the desired effect. I said, "Do you speak Armenian?" in Armenian. The woman in the middle stood at attention and asked in Armenian how she could be of service to us. We explained our pitiful situation, and she led us outside and put us on a bus, instructing the bus driver to show us where to get off.

The bus dropped us off at the U.S. embassy, where the friendly people in the consular section gave us information about the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The office that we needed to visit there would only be open for two more hours, so we elected to postpone eating and instead proceed directly to the Ministry. On a pink sticky note, the consular assistant had written "Ministry of Foreign Affairs" in both English and Georgian along with the street address. We only had to show this note to about fifteen people in order to be pointed to the correct building. We accepted a great deal of help from strangers that afternoon as we acquired visas for Georgia and then went bus station to bus station (there are at least three of them in Tiblisi) trying to find the correct bus station for a bus to Trabzon in Turkey. We received assistance from an American tourist with a map of the subway system, a stoic sentry, a manager from Tiblisi's Coca-Cola factory who gave excellent directions in English, and an amicable Armenian bus station janitor. He was a little, old, mop-wielding man who was utterly shocked to be called upon to translate between the bus station director and three Armenian-speaking American tourists. The bus station manager was equally shocked that we could speak Armenian but could not speak Russian, Russian having been the language used for diplomacy, business, and communication with non-locals all over the Soviet Union. The janitor did more than just translate; he got us into the pay toilets for free as a demonstration of his hospitality.

By the time that we had the visas and the three bus tickets in our possession, we were completely exhausted. We visited the U.S. embassy, hoping to be directed to a cheap hotel since our bus would not leave until the following day at noon. The serious man at the embassy's front gate had a list of hotels, but they all charged $50-$125 per person per night. When we asked for something far less expensive, he made a few phone calls and then told us that he would take us home for the night. This was how we met George.

George Orjonikidze speaks Georgian, Russian, English, and also Armenian, which he apparently picked up from people in his neighborhood as a child. He told us that he would take us home because the last time that he had been in Armenia, he had been unable to find any place to sleep other than his car. He told us that he did not want that kind of thing to happen to us. When I saw his car, I understood why.

George drives a true jalopy. In design, it is reminiscent of a 1950's-model American car, but it has suffered certain modifications. There is no front bumper. The exterior of the car is in some places white (and rust) and in other places greenish (and rust). The front seat-backs do not go into an upright-and-locked position. They flop. Thus the knees of the people in the rear seats must bear the weight of the upper bodies of the people in the front seats. The trunk can only be opened from the inside; the back seat has accordingly been altered for easy disassembly. Prayer is required when going uphill.

The George we first met was a big guy in a white dress shirt and tie. He seemed the perfect combination of a receptionist and a bodyguard. Then he left the embassy with us and transformed himself. He stripped down to a T-shirt, put a baseball cap on backwards, and almost pulled away with his boombox sitting on the roof of the jalopy. He was only 22. George took us to his family's apartment on the outskirts of the city. There we met his mother, his dog, and his 25 year-old brother, Soso. George's father and eldest brother were in Russia working. It seemed that Georgia and Armenia were in similar financial straits--in both countries it was customary for a family to have at least one adult male working abroad and sending money home.

Soso, gaunt and bearded, spoke to us mostly in Armenian. The mother didn't speak to us at all. It seemed that she did not know what to do with us, despite the fact that George had called earlier and asked permission to bring us home.

When a guest appears, an Armenian woman typically slips into hostess-mode. She begins to scurry about, cooking and setting the table. Heather, Bryn, and I had been hoping with great earnest that George's Georgian mother would do this for us, especially since we had not eaten a proper meal since Saturday afternoon and it was now Monday evening. Unfortunately, she utterly failed to enter hostess-mode. We sat in the living room, perishing from hunger, and stared at her in the kitchen as she spoke with friends on the phone. We watched her not cooking.

George and Soso took turns going into the kitchen to yell at their mother for allowing the guests from abroad to starve. Eventually their actions prompted her to begin slowly peeling a large quantity of potatoes. We began to feel a sense of hope, only to have it dashed to bits when she set aside one potato in mid-peel in order to speak to her eldest son on the phone. When the food was finally prepared, we experienced a sense of pleasure and wonder simply to sit down at a dinner table and engage in the act of eating. We dined on beans, tomatoes, bread, and the hallowed potatoes. Three pitchers of red wine from the home village in the Caucuses were also placed on the table. They gradually filtered through our livers as the evening progressed, and everyone became warm and happy.

Soso, as the eldest male present from the family, led the toasting. I downed a glass of wine and then realized that there was a more structured system of drinking to which I should conform. We took turns saying toasts and drinking from a ram's horn, a miniature amphora, and then a clay bowl. After I became inebriated, I put my English-teaching skills to work. When George would make some significant error in preposition or irregular verb usage, I would politely correct him, explain the rule, and then flail my arms in the air merrily. This was all much to the delight of Heather and Bryn.

Belatedly, George's mother realized that we were able to speak Armenian. She knew Armenian fairly well, so this discovery greatly facilitated communication with her. I won the favor of my hosts by saying a toast to George's absent father and brother. Soso bestowed the title of "uncle" upon baby-faced Bryn when he learned that Bryn was actually 30 years-old and therefore the most senior male at the table. Soso became increasingly intoxicated and, unfortunately, correspondingly enamored with Heather, to the extent that George decided that it would be wise to have Heather share a bed with his mother and thereby thwart any ungentlemanly intentions that might seep into his brother's compromised brain.

The next morning, George drove us to the correct bus station. We took down each others' addresses and said good-bye. Then the bus carried us to the border and on to Trabzon. It was the end of the interesting portion of our vacation.

Andrew Morgan, Armenia 1998