A Poet’s Lives with Lyn Coffin

Editor’s Note:  Lyn comments:  “I find it very difficult to write travel pieces. The strangeness is all in the details- the oven  burners turn on by turning them up; where you expect to push, you need to pull; when you thank someone, you are mildly rebuked- friends don’t thank friends, etc. And detailing the details does not make for fascinating reading. Still, I am thrilled to be almost exactly (12 hours) halfway around the world from my native town of Seattle. I am posting this here to see if there will be interest. Perhaps another someone out there is planning a trip to Tbilisi, or or or…. A mantra gleaned from my from one of my Buddhist teachers (Norman Fischer)- “Let’s see what happens.”

PARTY!

What Happens in Georgia, Stays in Georgia

 

 

“I went to a birthday party here in Tbilisi, Georgia, last night. a great way to mark the end of my first week here.
Picture: a kind of chalet tucked off the beaten path- One room with fifty or sixty people and a little band- two long tables in an L shape.
The tables were absolutely covered with plates of food- let’s see- chicken, bread, potato salad, some kind of “mice” (maize) dish, fish, caviar, fruit of every variety, mushrooms, cottage cheese, butter cut in circles with some kind of red pepper strips wrapping it, many more dishes I can’t remember- every place had two glasses, a big one for mineral water and a little one for wine- pitchers and pitchers of wine- iced tea-colored. The little juice (wine) glasses were kept constantly filled, many people smoked.
There was a toastmaster with a mike who toasted the birthday guy and then- our ancestors, our siblings, all those we know who’ve died, a special toast extending heartfelt sympathy to those suffering in Japan as a result of the tsunami– to our friends, Georgia, music, and early on, there was a big special toast to Me! My friends translated- We are so fortunate to have this wonderful poet and translator and Gia’s friend and we want to welcome her and then everybody cheered and saluted me by throwing back a few glasses of wine- and then it was time for me to make a little speech and my friend translated and everybody cheered and gave me thumbs up and clinked glasses with me and asked why I ate and drank so little and like that and then there was dancing and I don’t know what all.
And everybody knew the songs and some of them inspired people (the men) to stand or shout call out Hey!
At one point, someone cut the silhouette of a man on a very large orange, so that the figure could be raised up out of the fruit (still attached at the feet)- And when they sang one song that had all the men jumping to their feet in the chorus, I so wanted to stand up (all the women stayed seated) that I took the orange, and when they stood up, I made the man on the orange stand up! Everybody thought that was hysterical so I kept doing it.
And after it was all over, a man took the orange from me and showed me that when you turned the man around and looked at his front, he appeared to have a male appendage and when he stood up, it stood up too. That really and clearly embarrassed me and everybody got a big kick out of the fact that I had done this without knowing. And even the embarrassment was pleasant. And everybody was friendly.
I loved the whole thing- except for the smoke. My host, who has become a dear friend now in the non-e world, smokes like a fiend. Worse, he smokes Camels- which I think are the worst cigarettes for causing long disease. And he tries to be careful but I can feel my lungs suffering and I’m going to have to say I can’t be around him at all if he smokes or around the cigarettes. The concept of second hand smoke has not arrived here in Georgia.
Oh, and another thing that impressed me about the birthday party- sitting across from me was an attractive young man in black (the Georgian national color seems to be black when it comes to dress- most of the women at the party were in black slacks and black jackets or vests- I think I was the only woman in a skirt– a first in my life, who has often been the only woman in slacks- and it was a wildly colored one, at that.)
Anyway- the man across from me was addressed as “mommy” or “momiko”- (Georgian is the only language I know of where “mama” means father and “dada” means mother.) He was a priest, and he toasted and laughed and drank and danced with the best of them. (Priests here are allowed to marry.)
What maybe surprised me the most was that the whole context of the evening was “macro”- religous, patriotic, existential. There were sometimes religious references in the toasts and Virgin mother, and so on. And many people were fasting for Lent, meaning they didn’t eat meat.
And there was a toast to King David the builder (a kind of Georgian George Washington) and Tamar, the number one historical woman in Georgian history, great granddaughter of David, a kind of Queen Elizabeth, except twice-married. She didn’t like the first guy and patched him off to somewhere. Then she chose her own husband and they seemed to have hit it off.)
Anyway- what struck me was the sheer rough-housing joy of the occasion. I left way before the end (my friend said they’d probably stop around 1 or 2). When there were songs, everyone sang- People were talking all the time and commenting- The food and wine kept coming and coming.
A couple of times there were what seemed to be jousting matches in language- i.e., the man next to me teased a man across the table by asking if he was a Muslim; the man said no, his questioner was a Muslim, and other people put in their two cents’ worth and there was a certain amount of I don’t know confrontation- but it was punctuated by all these remarks from others that made everyone, including the two main players, laugh, and it ended with the two skoling each other. Neither of the two ever seemed angry or ashamed. And I don’t think there was anti-Muslim sentiment in this- Georgia seems to have a history of being one of the most remarkably religously tolerant countries in the world. He could as easily have called him an atheist or a Buddhist.
For me, a poet, one of the greatest things is that Georgians seem to love poetry as much as they love wine and song and there are statues everywhere to poets- a general or politician or two, here and there, but mostly poets.
And they love the fact that I am translating (with my friend/host, Gia) some of Rustaveli’s “The Man in the Panther Skin,” their national epic. One last note- there are underway passages for crossing the main avenues, and one I walked through yesterday was lined with stone panels in Georgian and English featuring whole stanzas of this 12th century epic.
This would be something like finding huge plaques with engraved quotations from Beowulf in the subway.
Wow. I’ve really got to get going. I have to polish off a Rustaveli excerpt today.” – Lyn

Photo, taken WAY out of context, by Carl Nelson

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