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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season's Greetings From Georgia

The holiday season in Georgia means eating piglets and drinking October’s grape harvest. It means New Year’s on Rustaveli swigging champagne from the bottle and dodging fireworks aimed at your face. But above all, the holidays mean experiencing family intimacy on a level totally obscure to those from the West, whose holidays often mean having to be with the family, or in other words, experiencing an inconvenient necessity. Georgians undoubtedly find that concept inconceivable, yet it is a reality in some American households.

I was at one American Christmas gathering that ended up in a fight, where one woman got her face slapped by a brother-in-law, who in turn got kicked in the groin. The kind of language that has no business being uttered in the worst Skid Row dive – let alone under the mistletoe – was being slung at every member of the family before they even had a chance to pour their eggnog. This was just an ordinary, suburban, Anglo-Saxon family (unlike mine, who are just a bunch of crazy Mexicans). My family doesn’t drink eggnog or hit each other (at Xmas), but they do yell. My favorite comments occur as the ever present multitude of children rip their gifts open, sending wrapping paper in the air.

“Oooh, ughh, this is ugly!”

“You better like it, it was expensive!”

“Shut up or I’ll smack you!”

“Where’s the receipt?”

Meanwhile, the males sit on the sofa and watch football with beers between their legs. It has been like this every year for as long as I remember.

But then, what is the holiday season if not a time of year steeped in tradition and routine?

Take Nick Ponti. As an Italian, his family did not possess the exuberance of my Anglo-Saxon friends and Latin American relatives. Christmas with them was a spaghetti dinner, whiskey and watching a documentary about Charles Manson. While Nick’s mother did rag about Nick not having children yet, it was done very quietly.

I’m all for tradition and high spirits, which is why I find Georgia particularly endearing. And as I enjoy yet another Tbilisi Christmas, I have developed a new routine, a kind of family tradition: drinking the holiday chachatini.

For some of us foreigners, chacha - Georgian grappa - is a stinky poison to be avoided at all costs. To others it is a kind of exotic hazard. For me, it is my drug of choice. Like wine, I prefer homemade chacha to the bottled variety. Of course you need a good source – it’s much easier to get bad chacha than good.

While I’m not opposed to drinking down the hatch, it is pleasant to sip a cold chachatini in the warmth of one’s home, in the pleasant company of friends, films or books, or simply alone in the dark, and get slowly throttled. To make this delectable butt-kicking treat, you need nothing more than the basics: a shaker, ice, green olives and a bottle of vermouth. Personally, I prefer the Luis Bunuel method of mixing extra-dry. First you shake the piss out of some chacha and ice, pour it, then hold the bottle of vermouth up and let a ray of light pass through the bottle into the glass. In the evening I use the light from blinking Xmas lights. This guarantees not only a perfect taste, but eventually the sound of sleigh bells, whether Saint Nick is there or not.

We all have ways of celebrating the holidays, some of us more or less sober than others. It’s called holiday cheer for a reason.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Abkhazia and South Ossetia just scored another point in global recognition of their independence, as Nauru, the world’s smallest nation, has jumped on the little red bandwagon with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia, raising the number of countries that recognize the separatists' sovereignty to four.

A couple weeks ago, Abkhaz Foreign Minister, Sergei Shamba, said they were looking to get recognition from nations uninfluenced by the Big Powers. While you gotta admire his “we look at things as they can be” attitude, the fact is Abkhazia has to take whatever it can get, even if it is an 8 square mile chunk of disappearing bird shit in the South Pacific.

As far as countries go, Nauru is quite simply a cheap whore. Blame it on a troubled childhood. Europeans first started exploiting Nauru’s phosphate - fossilized bird shit – for fertilizer in the early 19th century. After getting tossed around between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the UN, Nauru eventually got control of its own bird shit in 1967. Soon, the island of some 10,000 people had a per capita income second to Saudia Arabia. The problem is fossilized bird shit is not a renewable product. Much like the inhabitants of Easter Island extincted themselves by raping their environment, the Nauruans laid waste to their piece of the rock and when the shit disappeared, everything else did too. Nauru became a barren ecological wasteland with a 90% rate of unemployment by the turn of the century.

The Nauruans blamed the Europeans for the disaster and sued in international court for damages inflicted by over 100 years of strip mining. Australia, NZ and GB all kicked some annual guilt settlement in the pot, but it wasn’t enough to keep the country from going bankrupt by 2000. One way out of the mess was by providing a friendly climate for money laundering. Another was by investing in a musical, "Love, Lennie da Vinci and Me," which failed miserably. For a while, steady income came by housing refugees yanked out of waters headed for Australia in bleak, unsanitary refugee camps. The Aussies paid over $100 million for the service until a change in government closed the camps in 2008.

In the meantime, Nauru was building a reputation of being a wishy-washy global political player. After a formal 22-year relationship, Taiwan severed ties with Nauru after the little island took $130 million from China to unrecognize Taiwan’s independence. A couple years later, Nauru re-recognized Taiwan for a nice sum. Can you blame them? The country has zero exports and is entirely dependent on imported goods, including water. Nauru's only asset is its willingness to recognize separatist nations. Russia paid $50 million for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Merry Christmas guys.

Four countries is two more countries than last year, is one way of looking at it. While we snicker at Nauru and its remarkable 80% obesity level (highest in the world), Abkhazia is lobbying Ecuador and making contacts in the Middle East, including Iran, which Shamba says is only logical, as the country is a big neighbor. To Abkhazia, a flag is a flag is a flag and they will wait as they have waited for the past 18 years, one flag at a time, whether Russia pays for it or not.

* Nobody can agree on the number of countries in the word. The US says 194, the UN has 192 members and most world almanacs have 193.

King Aweida and his posse circa 1921, lifted off
Thomas J McMahon and islanders in 1916, lifted off
The island /

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nasty Neighbor Blues

When Robert Frost said good fences make good neighbors he wasn’t lying. Of course he wasn’t the first to say that. Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang said the same thing when he started building his chunk of the Great Wall and the practice continued right up to 1961 when Walter Ulbricht put up the barbed wire fence, which ameliorated into a wall and created two neighborly Berlins.

I know all about fences. My brother built one to keep his neighbor’s dogs from shitting in his yard and we built ours to keep Vova from gaping through our window like a lobotomized imbecile. Dogs have no excuse – they’re dogs. Vova’s excuse was that he was drunk, which is no excuse at all even if it’s the only one you got.

Closer to 70 than 60, Vova is a wiry old jackal with an evil potency and a constitution full of vodka, piss and vinegar. An ulcer in human form. He had a viscous German Shepard he kept tied in the sun, just short of his water dish in the shade. The dog died of a heart condition just before we moved in.

Our relationship began when we were obliged to meet him and get his OK to buy his half-brother Viktor’s portion of the house four years ago.

“Oh a Pole and American. Great. I thought my brother might sell his half to some Kurds or Megrelians and we’d get all their relatives living here too,” Vova spat.

The last words of Olga, Viktor’s wife were “I don’t know how you’re going to live with that man next door.”

That was a fine time to tell us.

I soon discovered Vova was not the kind of guy you ask “how are you?” because he’d tell you and you didn’t want to know. The world’s against him because he’s against the world – and visa-versa. One of those, “life was better during communism” kind of guys, only during communism he was bitching too. He was born to bitch and because he knows best, he was also born to give advice:

“You’ve got to dig a drainage ditch behind your house... It’s easy...”

“You should fix that retaining wall before it falls on my garage... It’s easy...”

These were things we were aware of and planned to do when the time was right, but Vova wouldn’t let up and his advice turned to nagging which turned to bitching.

“Your fucking retaining wall is going to fall on my grandchildren! When are you going to fix it?!”

We eventually got around to building the retaining wall. Kind of Mexitecture, practical, competent and ugly. It wasn’t good enough for Vova, he made that crazy sign, like the work was done by lunatics, which in a sense it was, but that’s another story. He let me know that this wall we built has no drainage system and the seepage will destroy his garage, which has been decomposing for decades. So if his garage rotted tomorrow, it would be my fault. Everything is somebody else’s fault.

When I put up a new roof above our bathroom, he suddenly had some roof work of his own to do, but of course he just wanted to inspect what I was doing. A pest. One day he just materialized in our dining room to see what kind of work we had done.

We finally got around to digging the drainage ditch behind our house, not because of Vova’s nagging, but to control the mold. The work started with picks and shovels but we found that sort of labor would put us in the poor house in no time, so we rented a jackhammer.

Needless to say, the jackhammer is one of the most annoying tools in the world. Racketing behind our wall, I had to live with it and my only console was that it was driving Vova crazy too. But that had repercussions of its own.

I had a stomach virus one day which had an ill effect on my demeanor. The jackhammer rattled my nerves when it was on and more so when it was off, because it meant the boys weren’t working. That hammer cost 20 bucks a day. Then came Vova, sucking on a cigarette, beckoning me to come to his house. He escorted me by the arm to point out three cracked tiles and a half-dollar sized spot of peeling plaster on the ceiling. My jackhammer, he claimed, was the cause of it all. But the hammering was being done far from his bathroom. I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s an old house. We have lots of cracks in our bathroom.”

Then he screamed. “Your work is destroying my house!”

“Not my problem,” I said and walked away. And then something snapped. He said something I said something and the volume increased. Our shouts drowned out the jackhammer. I cussed him out in three-and-a-half languages. The workers ran out to see if I had killed him, which I would have done, but I didn't have a gun.

For about a year he wouldn’t talk to me, which was grand. I’d say good morning and he’d growl. Communication was done between the women, which was a drag for Justyna as Vova’s wife is a hysterical maniac, driven mad by decades of living with Vova. One day she came out to give us the gas bill with a big shiner around her eye.

“I...uh.. fell,” she said shamefully.

“Yeah, I know exactly where you fell,” I thought.

From time to time, Vova would show me the water seeping through the wall of his garage and I’d agree that “yes, it looks wet,” and walk away unperturbed. But when we woke up in the morning to appreciate our Tbilisi view and saw Vova peering through the chain-link fence staring back at us, we called a carpenter friend to help us make a Great Wall of Vera. As long as Vova was out of sight, he was out of mind.

In the meantime, Vova had put his house on the market so that he could return to Russia and live off the fat of the land with a Russian pension. After more than a year of praying for the day he would leave, I am now looking out the window, peeking between the slats of our fence and watching new neighbors move in. Nice people. They even mentioned that after they are all moved in, we might not even need the fence anymore. I smiled but said nothing.

(re-printed from my Georgia Today column a couple years back)