Spring is coming! At least I really hope it is. I’m writing this while home alone (I just had to take a break, when I looked over at the wood stove and noticed it was conspicuously dark. While I am getting better with it my natural tendency towards absent minded professor makes it occasionally difficult). Nato and Gocha are out visiting Gocha’s aunt who is ill and Nini is…somewhere. Unfortunately illness and death seem to be in vogue here in Mestia.
My host sister Nini is on the mend after terrible stomach pains requiring a visit to Tbilisi to see doctors there. I myself made 8 visits to the clinic here in Mestia in less than 2 weeks after I was bit by a neighbor’s dog on the leg and developed an unrelated bad infection on my face. It was a minor bite, but getting the rabies vaccine and the scrapes from the canines cleaned seemed like a good idea. After 3 weeks the bruises are almost gone but it feels like I will have a lump under my skin for a while still. For those of you who enjoy irony, I was bitten by Lassie. The rabies vaccine consisted of 3 shots given over the course of a week. But now I’ve got that vaccine at least. The infection on my face was more nasty than anything else. A pore on my face got infected to the point where my entire jawline was swollen. The surgeon at the clinic gave me a local anesthetic and then drained the infection. I had to go back every day the clinic was open for a week to get the dressing changed. I took a bunch of antibiotics and at this point it’s almost completely healed. I had an infected tear duct on my eye at the same time, but the antibiotics killed that pretty quick as well. A bigger worry was my insurance card not being here. Luckily my Svan tutor Lasha’s mother works at the clinic so at her urging the clinic staff forged the paperwork to prevent me from having to pay for my procedure and aftercare. If you want to know if your community values you, I would suggest seeing if they will lie for you without you yourself suggesting it.
Then last week, two teachers at my school lost one of their parents. One of them was related to Nato as well so she is currently observing the 40 day fast (vegan food only) following the death. The first funeral was on Thursday and I went with the rest of the teachers. It was held in St George’s Church and presided over by Bap Giorgi, my priest. Funerals are short services here and most of the mourners don’t go inside the church, but instead mill around outside for the half an hour or so. Then everyone goes to an empty building on the main square for a supra of fast approved food. I realized that I’ve adjusted to Georgia when I looked around the room and figured it was a medium sized supra, and then did a quick estimation and discovered it was 300 to 350 people. Friday I was invited to an ormotsi, the supra 40 days after a death, but I was teaching at the time so I was unable to attend. Saturday Nato and Gocha went to another funeral.
Sunday was the funeral for Nato’s relative. I went to church that morning and then went to the deceased’s home. Nato had been going every day to sit with the body, which is apparently a requirement for close relatives. As I approached the home I saw the yard was swollen with people, and some of the men had started singing a polyphonic, making it sound mournful and heavy. The sun was shining brightly and the swell of male voices echoed off the other side of the valley. As I approached I noticed that at funerals traditions of gender segregation seem to be more closely observed. There were no women in the yard. I asked where they were and was directed inside. An inner and outer room were both lined around with benches, full of women dressed in black, relatives, neighbors, mourners. I wasn’t sure about going to the inner room, since I had never met the woman when she was alive and I didn’t want to intrude on people’s genuine grief. Lasha’s mom saw me and motioned for her to sit with me. I was probably the youngest woman there by 10 years or so and I knew at least half of the women in the room They then of course moved on to the topic of who I’m going to marry in Svaneti. Because, you know, life goes on, and you gotta get your matchmaking in while you can.
Perhaps half an hour after I got there an ancient woman moving with a cane came out of the inner room and we stood up as one. We started moving out, the swarm of men outside the door parting like the Red Sea for the stream of women to pass. Nato caught site of me in the crowd and asked why I hadn’t gone inside and found her. We started down the muddy street towards the church and stopped when we reached the bank and turned around. First came a few men carrying a wooden lid, then two teens, one carrying a portrait of the woman, the other with a bundle of flowers in her hands. Four men passed eventually with the open bare board coffin on their shoulders. Following the pallbearers was a cluster of perhaps a dozen men with their arms linked. Their voices were raised in a dirge, the multiple melodies blending perfectly. We followed the coffin to the church, walking more slowly than I ever have, an untidy column of 300 or 400 people, dressed primarily in black, voices muted. The pallbearers changed periodically and when we reached the church carried the coffin into the church. This time I waited outside and listened to further discussion of my marriage prospects. Asmat (Lasha’s mom) assured everyone that I am a very xocha dina (good girl).
After a very short while the close family emerged from the miniscule church and the women headed over for the supra. It seems that for the burial itself only men are allowed in the cemetery, so the women are allowed to tuck in. The same empty building was set up. The feast was strictly segregated, two tables for women, five for men. A delicious variety of dishes had been prepared, beans, bread, eggplant, mushrooms, salad, stew, halva, rice, spinach, pickled vegetables. The wine and chacha flowed freely because the lack of sunlight in the room with its bare concrete floors and walls froze its sitting victims. The men came in after a bit and the tamada started his toasts, but as women we were allowed to largely ignore him and so as we pleased. I chatted and laughed with the women around me, I’m finally feeling confident enough in my Georgian and Svan to move about without an English speaker. I looked over and spotted a cluster of my younger male friends and nodded my greetings. We didn’t stay long and Asmat and I walked home arm in arm, full to bursting, aware of the tasks awaiting us at home, comfortable in quiet companionship. These were my first two funerals here in Georgia, but I’m glad that I went. I am glad that I was able to show the respect of my presence to my fellow teachers in their time of mourning, and I’m glad that I have been accepted to the extent in my community that I was admired rather than derided for attending, that I was seen as making the effort of coming rather than encroaching on the neighborhood’s shared grief. I appreciated the pace and the sense of finality that I found at the funerals, the final walk to church with everyone who knew you surrounding you.
It hasn’t been all death the past couple week though. My kids provide me with endless sources of amusement. One day I left school at the same time as my fifth grade class and they broke into the omnipresent Georgian cheer ‘Hannah’s Gau-mar-jos [cheers to Hannah!]’. That this was the same day as I broke out the scratch and sniff stickers is entirely beside the point. It was endearing, cute and just the lift I needed before another 2 hours of teaching that afternoon. Then one day my 1st and 3rd grade classes were combined (what was a special kind of hell, what with their having completely different levels of English) and Gio asked me “Hannah, are you a teacher?”. In Georgian of course, if I get any full sentences out of my 1st graders this year I will weep with joy. His older brother Kakha proceeded to chastise him, “Of course she’s a teacher, she teaches us” “But she only plays games with us” “That’s because she’s fun”. I hated to break in, but it was time to keep the lesson moving. We had a song to sing. Lastly, Georgia celebrated Mother’s Day on March 3 and then International Women’s Day (Happy Intl Women’s Day to all the women in my life!) on March 8. We had Mother’s Day off and the next day in class Luka, a 5th grader, wished my co-teacher a Happy Mother’s Day. He then turned to me, “Hannah Mas, do you have a child?” My co helpfully explained that I am unmarried and that he could wish me a Happy Women’s Day later that week, while I doubled over in laughter. Because kids are adorable and pretty much the same everywhere, and I find that a very comforting fact in this very confusing and ever-changing world.