January 29, 2010

Finding Soul Fire in Post-Soviet Georgia. ~ Elizabeth Atwell

There are different kinds of heat in this part of the world.

There is the summer sweat, when stifling, humid temperatures climb throughout spring and reach their peak on cement roads in public transport, bodies smashed against one another between bus or metro stops. Women wave fans in their faces trying to propel the salty stench away, and men dab at their foreheads and necks with already damp handkerchiefs.

There is also the winter furnace, stoked somewhat differently from house to house depending upon available fuel and income. At the slightest chill, babies are wrapped in puffy, insulated onesies and blankets, and children wear thick, brightly colored tights until buds start blooming on trees. The long, heavy handed winters and fear of illness keep these babes perpetually bundled; multiple layers of clothing are worn indoors as no building seems quite warm enough. These children grow into adults who dress in heavy layers and stoke fires and furnaces whenever available – even when that means turning up the heat in buses, like the one I am on.

Not being accustomed to the subtle differences in heat, I am roasting. I’m on a bus in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, riding from Istanbul, Turkey, to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The bus ride exceeds 26 hours on a route that partially follows the Black Sea coast. I peel off a wool sweater and sit in a thin, long sleeved tee shirt, still too hot. A glance over at my partner confirms that he, too, is uncomfortably warm, yet we seem to be alone in our discomfort. Long sleeves and sweaters clothe everyone around us but I see no one dabbing handkerchiefs or fanning faces.

I am returning to Tbilisi after a brief holiday to finish a year of grant-funded research on dance. This is the sixth month of my one-year grant. Sighing, I pull a mandarin orange out of a plastic bag bursting with fruit and begin to peel it. We bought them at the border, at least three pounds of fresh citrus for four lari (Georgian currency) – little more than two U.S. dollars.

It has been an interesting trial-by-fire for me. I had always imagined myself traveling abroad, eating strange food in exotic places, speaking foreign languages to locals and learning about culture and custom. When I was little I would pretend that I was secretly Indiana Jones’ daughter and have fantastical adventures in the wilderness of my backyard. Perhaps I held idealistic, even naïve, expectations for myself when I came here: the artist-researcher dancing folk dances with Georgians, speaking their language and learning the intricacies of their arts culture, enjoying their famous hospitality at feasts and traversing the wilds of the Caucasus. At this halfway point I feel decidedly less cool than the traveler I believed I was.

The realities of traveling on poor roads become evident in upset stomachs that last for days, further aggravated by those “strange foods” eaten in decidedly exotic (and occasionally unclean) places. Learning foreign language does not come easily to me and I have become discouraged in my language studies. I am viscerally disturbed when I see starving, hopeless street dogs, and overwhelmingly bewildered and depressed when Roma children pester me for coins. Then there are the internally displaced person (IDP) settlements- row after row of standardized, small square houses set up in the wake of the August 2008 War when thousands of people were displaced from their homes. We pass several of these settlements on the road to Tbilisi.

I often feel disoriented and helpless here. Much of the countryside is dotted with decaying buildings and forgotten structures of industry abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. It reminds me of southern West Virginia, where my family is from – a mountainous land of former industry smattered with abandoned coalmines and the remains of mining towns. Although I am new to Georgia, I recognize some of the faces I see – joblessness, uncertainty and distrust. I feel useless and trivial here. My purpose in Georgia isn’t to affect grand change, provide aid or improve policy; I’m just an artist, a researcher studying dance and its cultural attributes….Just…

Someone turns the heat off on the bus and I feel my breath deepening as my lungs sense cool air. The sweet mandarin is cooling on my tongue, so I peel a second one.

I remember how I was welcomed into Georgian dance class my first day. The students are mostly high school age and the few that speak any English immediately ask my age, name and what I am doing in Georgia. The class is taught in Georgian and one girl graciously offers to translate for me. The dances that we learn are graceful and fiery, containing quick steps and strong movements. Some say these dances have existed for hundreds of years. They have been choreographed for stage and performed around the world for half a century, yet many are still danced at supras (Georgian feasts) by families, friends and communities. That is why students learn these dances: to dance at their weddings and their friends’ weddings, at supras celebrated for birthdays and holidays. These dances are still alive in the community, and that is why I am fascinated.

The hardships faced here have influenced a culture that thrives on celebrating, feasting and sharing all that it has. The music and dance that have developed are artistic expressions of this love of life, and that is what I am researching – the beauty created by a resiliency of spirit in the face of adversity. And this beauty is worth getting to know. The high leaps, dramatic spins and strong arms held by Georgian dancers are an affirmation of life showing that misfortune cannot easily douse the fire in the human soul. That heat continues to burn, and I find it to be such inspiration.

Elizabeth Atwell is a dancer, yogini, artist and Fulbright fellow currently studying folk dance in the Republic of Georgia. You can follow her @yogicdancer and www.yogicdancer.blogspot.com (She wants to point out that her writings reflect only her opinions and have nothing to do with the U.S. State Dept., Fulbright Commission or any other entities in the universe!)

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