Saturday, January 10, 2009

MS Found in the Snow or Velvet Orange Peel

The sky had taken on a rainy, leaden hue and I began to feel the way that I always feel when the sky is dark in the afternoon and there is no rain. A feeling that translates into a deep desire to be left alone, to find a place to notice how the foliage and grass look greener in the dark, where I won’t have to talk, just sit there comfortably and maybe smoke a few cigarettes. The feeling was not very strong and was easily ignored. I kept walking alongside my friends down dog-scratched alleys and roads where bursts in the water main opened up large, muddy holes where cattle stopped to drink on their way in from the fields, leaving corrugations of hoof prints behind. Slacks and t-shirts hung from laundry lines like empty men standing around empty discussions.
We talked about the style of the homes, how on the outskirts of town it was more like a village and it was better for homes to reflect the values of village life by festooning laundry and not looking too new or haughty. We passed a few homes that were newly built and looked absurd even when half-obscured by the leaf smoke that‘s everywhere this time of year.
Ahead in the road I noticed some calico fur that looked empty somehow, and from far away I couldn’t tell if it was an article of clothing or an animal skin. Everyone must have noticed it because the conversation dropped off the closer we came to the object.
What was left of a cat lay next to us in the street. There was a mumbling of commentary and I heard myself saying "it looks like it’s been skinned," which immediately struck me as the stupidest thing to say. Before I had even finished my belligerent comment I noticed a little girl running in our direction with a pained look on her face. She had short cropped hair and a face that looked like something that was drawn after the eyes had already been completed. At first I couldn’t tell where she was going, or what the look on her face was all about, but as she moved past us I noticed she was heading straight for the cat. I hung back for a moment, unable to turn away from someone else’s tragedy. She came up to the cat and made a very striking gesture with her thumb and index finger, bringing them up to massage the bridge of her nose, like an adult having a migraine, it wasn’t so much a look of anguish as it was frustration. I can’t convey it correctly but there was something heartbreaking about this, as usually when a young kid encounters something difficult they break down and geyser up a bunch of tears , it makes it easier to console them, but what the hell do you do if the child seems to understand what’s happened better than you? When they stand there looking like an old man who’s trying to remember where he’s put his glasses, rather than a kid finding her cat, dead and scarcely recognizable, on the road, what do you do then?
I walked away and when I turned around I heard her run off, opposite the direction she had come. It was the first time it rained in months.
It’s about 11:15, my meeting was for 11 and I still haven’t heard anything as I walk up the street to where I think I’m supposed to be going. As I round a corner I jump over a big pit rather than walk around the thing, in my goofy Payless dress shoes I trip and tumble into the pit, one shoe actually flies off and lands in the nearby grass. I dust myself and find my shoe laughing, kind of wishing that someone had been around to see that, I can only imagine how stupid it must’ve looked. And I think of this story my old roommate, Sarah back in Arcata once told me of a long boarder who bit it going down a hill, she had been near enough to the action to have his shoe fly right past her when he fell. From the way she told it she’d never smelt anything quite as putrid as this Humboldt county kid’s shoe. I’m still laughing over this story when I walk up to the appointed building, an apartment. Two old ladies are outside, breaking in their already broken-in indoor flip-flops and talking. I think one of them might be the lady I’m supposed to meet so I walk over and say hello. They reply and ask me what I’m doing there, so I conclude that neither of them could be waiting for me or, if they are, they’re waiting for me to figure it out. We talk for awhile before I can politely get off the hook long enough to make a phone call.
"I’m here," I say.
"In front of…uh…your building…I think…uh…your building."
"ok, I’ll be right out."
"yes…ok. I wait…no…I will wait"
She hangs up, probably disgusted with my boobish way of speaking. I stand there waiting. I see someone I know and we talk for a while. Time passes and I have to interrupt another conversation to make another phone call. This time someone else answers and she knows English, it takes me a while before I realize it’s now Armine I’m talking to. She tells me I’m at the wrong building, tell me how to get to the right one, and patiently listens to my idiotic questions.
Three flights up, narrow, crumbling concrete stairs, staircases with no doors and broken windows on every floor, stairs that house neighborhood cats and whatever else decides to sleep on them for the night. They’re waiting for me on the landing, greetings are exchanged and I’m shown into what I hope will be my new apartment. Walking in, I am 18 years-old again walking into my first place, I am a 10 year-old who’s put his first poster up in his bedroom, a 5 year-old drawing on the wall with crayons, a capitalist who wants to OWN something, even if it’s only to rent it, but, my own place, after two grandmothers, two kitchens, two younger brothers and three Armenian seasons. I want to come home and turn on the music after work, smoke and watch a movie at the same time, get up at night to pee without getting dressed and this dumpy kitchen will host my imitations of every dish I can ever remember eating back in the states, even if I don‘t have the right ingredients. My own place, my own window to look out of in the morning, my own floor to leave toenail clippings all over if I want to, a bed I can lay on with my shoes on. There’s no hot water and the cold water cuts off at 8 or 9 at night, I can’t remember, the bathroom looks like a closet full of unusable bathroom stuff, I’ll have to find some more blankets somewhere ‘cause I’m sure that place is cold at night, as I walk over and over through the rooms cartoon-quality maniacal laugher is echoing through my head.
They offer to fix the bathroom, I tell them it’s fine the way it is, not even knowing if the damn thing works. They tell me they’ll have to find me some more blankets, I tell them what’s there looks just fine. They offer to help explain how the gas works so I don’t blow myself up, I tell them I’ll manage. When I leave they even want to give me the key, but since I’m trying not to pay for the 1st half month that I won’t live there I tell them I’ll get it from them when I need to move in.
The Peace Corps has to approve every apartment before any volunteer can move in, I don’t think this place will be a problem because really all they’re concerned about is safety so as long as I scatter a few smoke detectors around and prove the door locks I should be fine. I think I can safely say this place saved Christmas for me, like some goofy resolution in an after-school melodrama. There are no Christmas decorations here and despite the freezing nights (mainly due to my reluctance to use the heater I have) the days are actually fairly temperate and sunny. The routine I have been living in since September has not changed at all and bustling about day to day I never stopped to think that that old commercial bomb of a holiday was right around the corner.
Despite what might read like diatribe, I actually really enjoy the Christmas season, even if I don’t actively participate in it. I’ve always kind of enjoyed going to the mall on Christmas eve just to wade into the tide of frenetic gift giving, I watch a Christmas Story on TV every year, usually really late at night, on TNT or TBS or whatever channel plays it constantly, and I like going out to watch all the permanent, 24-hour institutions close down. Among my favorites: Denny’s. If you’ve never had the chance I’d suggest going out on Christmas eve to watch Denny’s close, it’s such an irregular thing that it makes everyone with in a certain radius of the place really excited. The waitresses don’t seem to mind that they’ll be back in a day to work a double, nor the truckers who have nothing to do but get back on the road, when they start to close up, draw the shades and pull out the vacuum the general thought in the air is "oh yeah, Christmas, I forgot" and then everything goes all Norman Rockwell with red-nosed laborers jitterbugging to the Jingle Bell Rock alongside three-piece-suited investment bankers and everybody helps themselves to pie and ice cream. If you don’t believe me I guess you’ll have to go see it for yourself.
So back in America, I’d always await Christmas eve, in order to hear the machinery of routine grind to a halt at some still and dark winter hour. As a result, I always looked at the overripe, commercial aspect of Christmas as being something of a surfeit before the fast, and, as such, have appreciated it.
But for all this fanfare, I really didn’t notice the absence of an American Christmas until I found this apartment. I was practically shaking with the excitement for the rest of the day and, in the evening, sitting on my makeshift balcony, I counted down the days until I would move. And there, sitting on the balcony, in the dark, counting down days, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of the season and the month and, my god, the vacation! Not only was I going to get a new place I’d have all kinds of free time to break it in. And at once the fervor of planning entranced me and I began to envision all the stray dogs that’d live with me, and all my friends that I could now invite without having to feel awkward about asking my family. And, I wouldn’t have been surprised if at that moment snow began to fall and some orchestral arrangement sprang up from somewhere.
III. I didn’t get to see the rain actually turn into snow, but I came close. I was still wet with the rain looking out the window and watching the freeze, the snow drifting down like white leaves in the dark. The sky had been cloudy all day and I had hoped it would lead to something, without having any work I wandered around by the mountains for most of the day waiting to see the dim, rocky landscape become endlessly white. Instead it rained a little while I stepped around intact skeletons and the stray bones on one of the larger hills overlooking the town.
Around 4 it was still raining and the sun was setting behind the grey banks of clouds somewhere. I met Paige in the Marshrutka lot and we walked through town a little, talking about village life, about the kids we taught, about things you’d probably expect Peace Corps volunteers to talk about. I was wearing about 5 layers of clothing so I didn’t feel particularly cold after the sun had gone down and after talking about other things for so long I began to forget about the possibility of snow that night, although it was still raining and the light was now nothing more than clouds, the color of wet steel, on the western horizon. Paige spoke to my host family, while I stood in the background, moodily shifting from foot to foot, waiting to eat. When we sat down at the table we resumed our English conversation, quietly, so that it shouldn’t sound rude to our hosts, although they weren’t even in the room. I talked about going to Georgia, Paige about going home. I told her I didn’t know if I could go home so early into things here, I told her I was afraid I wouldn’t come back. But it wasn’t true at all. I know I’d come back, I just don’t want to jump back and forth between two worlds that are so different to me, besides, the cost of a US plane ticket could buy a hell of a lot of time in Georgia, Azerbaijan or someplace in Turkey, some place I don’t know anything about from firsthand experience. Not like the states, where I have a mental image for a good portion of the places there: a gas station in Utah where the dawn and dry blowing snow mixed together, the Wisconsin Dells, the Liberty Tunnel in Pittsburg, the Del Taco in Blithe, CA. The fact that these places aren’t world renown makes them important, they are my memories, what I have taken away from the places I have gone. I don’t expect to get anything more from traveling, just a box of mental slides that no one would want to see, but I would still subject people to as, perhaps, a babbling old man.
We noticed the snow as we finished eating. I did the dishes quickly and we ran out to the balcony upstairs before the light had faded entirely. I smoked a cigarette and felt warm, watching the snow fall in my wet socks standing on concrete, stepping away every so often to see the wet impression my feet had made through the socks. I would’ve liked to have stood there a lot longer, watching the snow fall through the neighbors’ window lights, the kind of light that gives you the impression of warmth, even from outside.
When I woke up the next morning I looked out at the bluish light coming in my window, made a cup of coffee and went back out to the balcony. What I was looking at didn’t look like Armenia anymore, I mean not specifically. It looked like any place I have ever known to be covered by snow. I watched the stream rise from my coffee and imagined all the life of the town moving under that snow. People waking up with socks already on their feet, hats already on their heads, shuffling in the early morning light over to the heater.
That night the moon was nearly full and the sky was cloudless again. I went out and walked around through the mountains, hoping and not hoping to see wolves. The night was so still. When I stopped walking no sound reached me. I stood between the glowing mountains, with dark, foreboding streaks where the snow had slipped off, and looked back toward the white plain that led to the town. The snow sparkled before me and beyond that the lights of town shining, somewhat bravely, against the hulk of another mountain.
This was Wednesday and Thursday. As I write, Friday, the sun is out and the snow is melting away from the more prominent walks of town, but lingers on in shady reserves here and there.
All that was about a month ago. I have since moved out, set up my new apartment and done a score of other things that I’ve been busy writing in different letters rather than here. So many things have changed in the past month that the prospect of trying to record and, for that matter remember all of it is slightly daunting. Luckily I’ve got a lot of time on my hands and it’s cold outside.
The move was beautiful but fairly non-eventful in retrospect. Paige and Patti came over and helped me haul all my stuff out into the muddy streets. A cab would’ve been much easier, but it was my moment and I didn’t want the interference of a cab driver’s involvement. I can be really possessive of my moments like that. Since it wasn’t too far it was entirely possible to move my stuff without a car. I dragged the first bag (one of those bulky roller suitcases) down the stairs and into the wet streets with a huge smile on my face. I passed the cemetery that separates my new home from my old one and managed to get up to my third floor apartment by sorta’ carrying the suitcase on my thigh. As soon as I had set the bag down I wanted to begin doing all the things that make a place a home, putting up décor (as meager as it might be) rearranging things, molding a decent butt-groove into the couch and playing music while doing all of this. All the things I hadn’t been able to do when moving into someone else’s home the last two times. I suppressed the urge for a time in order to go back and get the rest of my things. Paige and Patti came along and we joked about how ridiculous it was not to get a cab. I humored them and agreed, dropping boxes and miscellaneous items that wouldn’t fit anywhere into the mud and feeling completely happy.
But really I should’ve written about this right after it happened, when I was still caught up in the initial enthusiasm of the small liberties. I could’ve recorded them in minute detail, from talking to myself to washing my own dishes, it was all pretty incredible for a while, but I must admit the novelty has since worn off, though I am still enjoying things such as sleeping in without giving heed to what people will think of me and the smells of my own cooking. Also I should mention that my kitchen window looks out over the southern mountain range, as it is now capped with snow, I often find myself standing in front of it at night comparing it to christmasy renditions of Bethlehem, covered with snow, littered with novae, awaiting solemn camel-backed processions.
After classes let out, I found myself spending an unhealthy amount of time inside my apartment, recasting Californian memories out of dog-eared letters and wads of cilantro that, amazingly, are still available at the local market. I was having a great time, but I found myself becoming increasingly weary of going outside at all. It began to seem as though everything I could possibly need was right inside my apartment. To break myself of this budding dependence I decided to take a trip down south to see some friends of mine for a day or two. I had been planning on leaving later on in the week anyway but, since we were to have extra vacation days for the new year holiday I decided to take an extra day and went down to Goris, a town about 2 hours south of here. I immediately felt better just having made the resolution to leave early.
The next morning I flagged down a half-full marshutka heading for Stepanavan in Nagorno-Karabakh. As usual, I positioned myself in the back and began reading. This was a few days before new year’s and although the marshutka was quiet I could tell everyone on board was feeling good. We stopped in Vike for a cigarette and bathroom break. The men all piled out to smoke and stare icily out into the distance while the women and I stayed behind trying to conserve the warmth in the cab. A little girl traveling with her father, who had gone out to smoke, was left quietly dangling her legs in the seat that was too high for her. A teenage girl sitting toward the front turned and asked her what she was getting for Christmas and at once the girl was out of her seat talking about her Christmas tree and offering us all imaginary tea. A somewhat garrulous woman toward the front egged her on and repeatedly asked for refills. I sat quietly in the back, pretending to read while being thoroughly charmed by the spectacle that reached its zenith when, for some reason, the girl picked up her little bottle of juice that had been sitting next to her on the seat and began shaking it wildly until the cap came off and it splashed all over the place. She didn’t even seem to notice and went right on talking while the adults duly cleaned off their seats and pant legs.
When I arrived in Goris it was covered with its customary fog that comes as a result of sitting in a bowl-like impression inside a ring of hulking mountains. Seeing fog, I expected the weather to be a little more mild but was surprised to find it almost freezing cold, a horrible thing in the fog, much like standing next to a car wash in sub-zero temperatures, being finely coated with a scarcely perceptible mist until your clothes are stiff with ice. The fog also made everything look hoary and grey, and walking through town I began to feel tired and listless almost immediately. Luckily, some kids began yelling at me in Russian, and not finding me sufficiently roused by their efforts (I was ignoring them) began throwing rocks at me. My apathetic mood faded away and continuing through town, searching for a café, I was simply irritated. This funk I had been feeling over the last few days was finally dispelled when I walked into the town café. A small and completely unmarked place sandwiched between two butcher shops. As if this wasn’t elegant enough, the café itself turned out to be merely an extension of the butcher shop on the left and was separated by nothing more than a billowing blue tarp, mottled with splashes and stains that could only have been dried blood. The light inside the café contrasted interestingly with this tarp-wall in a sepia-toned hue that threw gummy patina shadows all over the place. It was so cold inside I could see my breath, through the tarp a melee of bone hacking, radio static and boisterous butcher shop conversation could be heard. I ordered a coffee and sat down with my book, not really reading, but rather watching the grotesque shadows of raised cleavers and dangling sides of meat from the other side of the tarp. Eventually Patrick and Meaghan came and snapped me out of my reverie.
We took a walk through a part of town called "Old Goris," which struk me as something of a misnomer for a place that should’ve been called "Ancient Goris" considering it was a bunch of caves. I said as much to Patrick, who corrected me by pointed to a few caves that had some recent additions made to them in the way of doors and such. Although I think most of these places were used for sheep and goat pens a few of them looked cozy enough to live in, after all, I don’t know why you’d bother putting windows and a second floor balcony into a place that was solely to be used for livestock.
A few days later I was in the capital surrounded by cosmopolitan opulence and I found myself thinking what a crazy divergence of wealth exists in this country where some people are hailing taxis in fur coats and others are living in caves, possibly drinking coffee in blood flecked cafés.
From the capital I caught a train to Georgia, the only bordering country Peace Corps volunteers are able to cross directly into (borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Nachijavan being closed to everybody and Iran being off limits to PCVs.) I had heard a number of horror stories about the train route to Georgia. Most people had simply complained that the train took way too long, while others had implied all kinds of things. Undaunted, I bought a standard fare ticket and awaited my adventure from the platform.
The unlit train pulled in on time (which I took as a good sign) and bucked away from the station half and hour later. Inside, the compartments were cold and dank, there was the distinct smell of goat and most of the windows had cracks in them that were swollen with frost. With nothing else to do in the dark I lit cigarette after cigarette, relishing the opportunity to be able to smoke inside public transportation. From the frosty window I watched the capital bump and lurch along side the train, most of the voices I could make out were speaking Russian in the darkness and the breaks squealed pleasantly along the tracks. Once in a while the lights would sputter on for a few minutes and I would attempt to read, but after a while I gave up and pulled down two mattresses from the upper berth, one to sleep on and one to sleep under. I couldn’t get to sleep right away as I had the distinct impression that something was continually biting me and, despite the four pairs of socks I was wearing, my feet were numb with cold. I did finally drift off to sleep around dawn only to be woken up by the border patrol, who checked my passport and said absolutely nothing to me. After they left I fell asleep again to be woken about ten minutes later by a second border patrolman who was a little more gregarious and asked if I spoke German.(He seemed kinda’ nonplussed when I replied, "nine.")
After I cleared the second border check, I went out by the bathroom to have another cigarette. (I had noticed during the night that this is where everyone else went to smoke.) From this area I watched a three-legged dog diving at birds in the snow and suddenly felt very contented. I don’t know if it was the sight of that shepherd mix and a morning group of sparrows rustling the snow from the pine boughs or the feeling of being in another country, but I began to notice a feeling of tranquility that seemed like something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
We arrived in Tbilisi a few hours later and after leaving the train station I began to walk with solid determination, despite the fact that I had no idea where I was going. Within an hour I was totally enchanted by this city of narrow, tortuous alleys and wide-open piazzas. In contrast to Yerevan, everything in Tbilisi looks very European, like certain neighborhoods in Rome, places that echo with cobblestone footsteps and the music of tiny fountains hidden in apses.
Over the next few days I didn’t do anything but talk to the incredibly kind old woman I was staying with, walk around, read and drink coffee: a perfect vacation. I walked from end to end of Tbilisi, east to west, north to south, up the alpine hills that hang over it, along the river that drifts though it, down the unmarked streets, littered with mandarin peels that make it a city. I gave money to refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, asked directions in pantomime, walked through a really long tunnel in the oldest part of town, tried to feed a dog who was cowering and bleeding in a stairwell, stared at the smoke-obscured frescos in orthodox churches, bought numerous bags of taco-flavored Doritos in grocery stores with machinegun toting security, tried to read graffiti written in the Georgian alphabet, threw my own mandarin peels on the street, stopped to look at every sick and snow covered palm tree I saw and ended every day by walking past places that looked like palaces, lit up by exterior lights on Marjanishvilli street.
I think it was my second night I town that I found myself walking along the main street through downtown, lit up by a riot of lights for the new year, flashing and running off in different directions through the falling snow. I had just crossed the street and was passing a church when I saw a young woman walking toward me, gently and even delicately cross herself devoutly, twice. This is a fairly common thing in Georgia and at that point I had seen it many times before, but something about the way this young woman performed this ritual in such a non-ritualized fashion touched me in some way, the look of her slender fingers writing her faith somewhere between the air and the snow, a faith that was neither obligatory or unconcerned. Her gesture was in no way automatic, as most breast-crosses are, nor intentional, as if to show everyone where her convictions lay, no, it was as simple as though she’d decided to write the name of her beloved on a piece of paper while talking to him on the phone, as though she meant absolutely nothing by it but, as the same time, cast off the entire world in that simple gesture. Afterward I considered how, in the heavy falling snow, her movement must have actually drawn a cross in the air by brushing aside the snow if only for a moment.
The next day I took a long walk through Tbilisi’s Botanical Gardens, which were incredibly impressive even in the winter. I’m not too sure if I could find them again, though. I had been scrupulously following my map, trying to negotiate narrow, unmarked lanes, main streets that looked like alleys and really wide streets that tapered down to nothing just around the corner. I remember walking past a man coming out of a little crooked alley, you could even call it a grotto, I guess, as the filigreed balconies overhead seemed to close it off completely. From the entrance nothing was visible but a wall, since the thing curved off at some drastic angle right after the entrance. I was tempted to see what was back there, but figured I’d see plenty of tiny alleys before the trip was over and continued on my way. After about 5 minutes of walking, the two lane street I had been on dead-ended. When I turned around, about to consult my map again I noticed the guy who had come out of the alley was gesturing toward it, as if to say, "you fool, here’s the obvious road." It was like some kind of koan or something.
I decided it might be better if I stopped even trying to consult the map. I was sick of looking at it anyway and just tried to walk in the direction of the gardens. I soon found myself on a footpath, and thought I might have found the way. Unfortunately, the path soon came to an end at something that looked like an international border, with something that could’ve been an airplane hanger, gates, guard booths and about 50 police milling around. Clearly, I was not meant to go this way. I left the path and went back to the road which veered in the wrong direction. I followed it anyway, hoping it would eventually turn around again. I was beginning to loose hope and considered going back the way I came and going somewhere else when I noticed another footpath on the other side of the fence I had been walking along. I was about 1,000 feet away at the bottom of a steep and wet looking hill. I didn’t feel like retracing my steps to try and figure out how I was supposed to get over there without going through the border patrol so I jumped over the fence and slipped down the bank in the mud, incredulously looking at all the cactus that was scattered around. I walked down the path and came to another guard station. As I passed, I glanced over nervously, as I had no idea if I was actually permitted to be there, considering I had jumped a fence to reach the place. The guard hadn’t noticed me and I tried my best to pass the station without changing this. A few minutes later I heard yelling from behind me, but since I couldn’t understand Georgian there seemed to be no reason to turn around.
When I crested a rise in the path a few minutes later I saw why there where so many guards around. Across a ravine from me was some kind of monstrosity that looked like it had been airlifted from Vegas. I’m guessing it was a hotel. A huge glass box with all sorts of concentrically positioned rings and spheres and crap jutting out of it. The whole monolith was crowned by a cataract of a manmade waterfall that tumbled down into a green, poisonous looking pool below. It seemed so absurd to build things like this when I had seen refugee children on the streets, cupping dirty hands and nodding to the grocery store behind them, the kid who kept hugging me, either out of desperation or, perhaps more likely, to see how accessible my wallet was. It’s entirely possible that they began building the thing before the recent skirmish in South Ossetia, but the Abkhaz refugees have been living in hotels in Tbilisi since 1993. Who knows, maybe they were planning to make the thing into a refugee resort, but I doubt it and the slight of it annoyed me in an otherwise charming city.
Eventually, the path did skirt the botanical gardens. There were waterfalls there as well, but if they were fake they did a good job making them look natural. All the trees were labeled in Latin and Georgian. I was also, seemingly, completely alone in this park about the size of Golden Gate, shuffling through deep snow that the tree canopy had preserved in shadow.
After I found my way out of the park I walked across town to the bus station where I found some Armenians in a small café and had an enjoyable conversation with them, while they marveled at my ability to answer their basic questions in my broken Armenian. It was here, in this dim corner of the bus station that I really began to appreciate what my time here has done for me. I guess speaking Armenian with everyone you meet on the street and hearing Armenian constantly you don’t ever have an opportunity to access your progress in acculturation until you step outside that for a while, meet some Armenians in Tbilisi and feel happy to have the chance to talk to people that you can understand and that you feel like you know something about. Outside the café, Georgia stretched on and on around us, but inside that café we constructed a little piece of Armenia just as the Armenian community has been doing for centuries in nations all over the world, and, at least for a moment, I was happy to be part of that legacy.