Repeatedly in Georgia, I’ve learned that saying “დიახ” (yes) can bring great rewards. Often when saying “დიახ” isn’t what I want to do, I remember the lobiani that started a friendship and what I’ve experienced because of that. Consequently, I usually say yes.
One of the most interesting friendships I’ve formed during almost 2 years in Georgia occurred because of a lobiani. (Lobiani is from Racha, and is a bean-filled khatchapuri minus the cheese). One unremarkable night in Batumi, a friend and I had lobiani at a restaurant that we usually didn’t eat at. While waiting for our order (and wait is what you do in this restaurant), a middle-aged man at the next table asked us if we were some of “the teachers.”
In November 2010, TLG was still a fledging operation, and Westerners in Batumi (or most of Georgia for that matter) were still a rather uncommon sight. We began talking to this man, an author and a playwright, who had spent time in the United States in Iowa (of all places) at a prestigious writers’ workshop. At the time we had no idea with whom we were spending the evening. Moreover, it should have been obvious to my friend and I that we were associating with someone special in Georgia considering the reverence with which he was treated at the event he invited us to after dinner. My friend and I found it curious how interested he was in us, and was so quick to downplay his work, something we found much more interesting and intriguing. For us, we found it hard to believe that anyone could be interested in the lives of two North American teachers in the Khevlachauri district of Ajara.
It wasn’t until the next day that we learned that we had met Dato Turashvili, the best-selling Georgian author. (He is, however, quick to point out that he is best-selling after Harry Potter in Georgia). When I mentioned off-handedly to my host sister that I was having lunch with an author named Dato, her mouth dropped open, and she could barely utter the word, “Turashvili?” Uh, maybe? At that point I had no idea, but indeed it was.
Since that chance meeting in Batumi, I’ve visited with Dato numerous times, both in Tbilisi and Batumi. I’ve always wondered why he has been so keen on forming a friendship with me. He had made it clear whenever I’m in Tbilisi I have to visit him. Last month Dato was in Batumi for a film event at a local restaurant. Before the event, he called asking if I would come. Before the film, I was invited to join him and 3 of his 50-something guy friends for Acharuli khachapuri. Apparently, when people come from Tbilisi, eating authentic Acharuli khachapuri is what you do. Dato excitedly asked, “Charlotte…have you ever had it before?” Yes, Dato. More times than I can remember. If after almost 2 years in Ajara I had not had it, something would be wrong. However, this was definitely a memorable Acharuli khachapuri as it was the only one I’ve had with an author.
The book that Dato is most known for is ჯინსების თაობა or Flight from USSR. It has subsequently been made into a play and a movie version is likely. Happily, there is an English translation available, and when I first read it, it explained a lot about Georgian culture that I had wondered about since my arrival in the country. The book tells the story of a plane hijacking of a Batumi-bound plane by Tbilisi university students in Georgia during the last years of the Communist regime. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.
The book explains well, I feel, what life was like during that time, especially when I compare it to what I remember seeing on American television about life in the USSR as a young child. My memories (or views) of the Soviet Union came from the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and involved lines of women standing in the dark and cold hoping for a pitiful-looking loaf of bread. Twenty-five years later, I still can’t shake those imagines. Moreover, the events depicted in the book polarized the nation at the time. Many felt that their actions were deplorable, while others felt that only through such extremes could the oppression be countered.
I often think how grateful I am for having said yes that random evening in Batumi. It resulted in many memorable conversations and experiences since. I’ve always valued Dato’s openness and honesty with me. Any time I’ve had a question on Georgian culture or history, no matter how odd, Dato has willingly answered. His personal insight into Georgia has helped me to understand life here much better than I could have by myself.