Lights Out and a Baker's Welcome
- by Rebecca Stanton, Asst. Professor of Russian Literature, Columbia University, USA (but hailing from New Zealand!!)
I have so many wonderful memories from the 2009 Monastery Tour that it’s hard to pick out just a few to write about. I had dreamed of visiting Georgia ever since 1995, when I first heard Georgian singing (at a concert in downtown Manhattan) and, on a subsequent trip to Moscow, tried Georgian food for the first time.
Funnily enough, one of the most magical moments on the tour arrived in the form of one of those predictable Georgian power outages (apparently they aren't as common as when I lived in Moscow), a moment usually hailed by the Georgians as a serendipitous opportunity for romance. On our second night in the picturesque town of Telavi, a blown fuse in the host’s dining-room prompted us to move our home-cooked Georgian feast outside, under the grapevines.
A pair of guests arrived, friends of John and Luarsab from the choir of Alaverdi Cathedral, and (with John and Luarsab supplying the bass drone) they sang endless Khakhetian songs to us as the sunset faded into twilight. Candles were lit, and between songs we drank toasts with our host’s homemade wine, which he brought out specially to share with us.
It was that moment – sitting among new-made friends, drinking delicious
Georgian wine under the very vines from which it was harvested, listening
to the gorgeously intertwined voices of Kakhetian harmony as the stars twinkled
overhead – that I thought “Now I’m really in Georgia.”
We met with warm welcomes and great kindness everywhere we went in Georgia, but I particularly remember an afternoon when four of us were wandering through Telavi and stopped in front of a bread bakery, or tone.
We were marveling at the font on the sign – which made the Georgian letters almost unrecognizable to those of us just learning them! – when the baker himself popped his head out of the window and called out “Hello!” with a big grin. “Hello!” we chorused back.
He beckoned Jay over and handed him a loaf of flat bread. “A present! For you!” We were all far too well-fed to be hungry, but Jay manfully tore off a piece of bread and ate it, assuring the baker in Georgian that it was “very delicious,” dzalian gemrielia (this was an expression we learned quickly, as it applies to almost everything in Georgia). “Come!” said the baker, delighted with our newly-formed friendship, and beckoned us around the back of his store, where he gave us a tour of the bakery (one large bread-kiln, fed by an underground furnace) and -- in a mixture of Georgian, English, Russian, and gestures -- explained all about the baking process.
With his encouragement, we took pictures and video, and asked lots of questions. “Come back tomorrow morning to watch us bake! Bring your friends!” (Not all of us were wakeful enough at 6:30am to take him up on this invitation, but some did.)
As we left, he loaded us up with more gifts of bread, which we ate that
night with our hostess’s gemrieli home-cooked dinner under
After hiking in the desert to see the amazing cave frescoes of Davit Gareji, travelling to the high Caucasus made quite a change!
For one thing, we exchanged blazing sunshine and temperatures in the high 80s for coolness, mist, and long-sleeved sweaters. For another, the elusive but unforgettable sight of Mt. Qazbegi awaited us.
Wreathed in cloud for much of the day, this majestic peak revealed itself at sunrise (also an excellent time for walking through the village and watching its early-rising residents lead their cattle off to their daytime pastures), and could be seen right from the windows of our homestay!
Climbing Mount Qazbegi was, of course, not on the program John and Luarsab had planned for us (a four day high alpine adventure), but they did lead us to the summit of a more accessible mountain -- one of Qazbegi’s foothills – where the Gergeti-Holy Trinity monastery is perched at a height of 2200 meters, surrounded by breathtaking views.
Being in this landscape felt like being dropped into the setting of “The Sound of Music,” with the added bonus that of course we had many singers in the group and indeed, at each rest stop on the way up the mountain, part-songs made their appearance.
At the summit, Luarsab made the joyful discovery that the wind blowing across the neck of his water bottle made a low note that could serve as a drone, and began singing “Orovela” over the top of it.
Would he have been so sanguine if he had known that that very night, his invincible reputation at backgammon would be shattered by the upstart rookie Jeremy Wood? We will never know. ***