A few weekends ago, my coworkers took me and my roommate on a day trip to Sighnaghi. I would have posted about it sooner, but I needed some time to calm down, organize my thoughts, post about other things, and then deal with the whole sex and gender explosion of last week.
So. The whole thing started off innocent enough. I had expressed a desire to try more Georgian wine – stemming mainly from the fact that I had up until that point been underwhelmed by the Georgian wine I had tried – and my coworkers said that they would take us to the wine-making region of Kakheti in order that I might try the best Georgian wine. We cleared our schedule for one Saturday, and I asked what the plan was and was told not to worry, that they had it all figured out and a great day planned and whatnot.
Then there was The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, which was a Wednesday night, and by Saturday I was only on day three of my four-day hangover, but I felt like it wouldn’t be a great idea to cancel seeing as the group had already arranged for a van and driver from the academy to take a group of eleven of us there. So I showered, packed a bag full of everything I could possibly want except what I actually ended up needing – non-drowsy allergy medication – and went outside to face the day.
I got into a van that smelled of dust and stale cigarette smoke. Almost immediately, my nose started tingling, and shortly after my eyes started to burn just a tiny bit. I tried to express that I was having these problems, but I am usually embarrassed about having allergies and so generally feel very sheepish about speaking up for myself. It’s a long-standing problem I have with roots in growing up with asthma and being bullied as a kid for being different – basically I always have this faint but compelling fear that if the situation were to go all Lord of the Flies, I’d be Piggy unless I had effectively hid any and all medical conditions that might be seen as weakness.
So anyway, my roommate, Steven, who is super-considerate about these things, got the message, but the trip organizer did not. I suggested out loud that I might not be able to make the whole trip, given how long it would be, but I was reassured that it would only be about an hour and a half. When I said that that was probably way too long anyway, Steve suggested that I sit in the front where there was an open window. This worked fine as we wound our way through Tbilisi for an hour picking up the remainder of the eleven people (we were the second stop of like nine), but the we got on the open road, and the wind became really intolerable.
What followed was a two plus hour long struggle to manage air flow in which I basically was unable to interact with anyone due to the strength of wind blowing in my face. I had my hat down over my eyes to protect them, and my hand over my mouth so I could breathe, and I couldn’t really hear anything except the white noise of the wind. After a while we stopped at a roadside stand where everyone had bread and cheese and cigarettes. I sat alone, forty feet away from the group, basically sulking and miserable. Of course I was already sort of pissed off by then about the fact that I couldn’t hang out with people in the van because of allergies and I couldn’t hang out with people outside the van because they were smoking, but I resolved not to take it out on anyone, and thus simply began internalizing all of that anger and misery. When people asked I just told them I was having a bad asthma day. True, but not the whole truth. Just a polite lie I told to allow others to enjoy their day.
So we got back on the road… and then we stopped again. And then we got back on the road… and then we stopped again. All in all, it was a long and miserable trip, and when we finally got out of the van, all I really wanted to do was curl up somewhere and take a nap.
So we went to this county fair sort of thing, basically a big meadow with folk music and dancing, with stands selling food and cakes and crafts, and people wandering around having a good time. I sat on the grass and watched the dancing and made some smalltalk with my Georgian co-teacher Tamuna. It was nice to have fresh air, and my spirits started to lift, and I had some chocolate, and later got some cake. By the time the group was ready to go, I really wanted to stay and sit around for a few hours listening to the Georgian folk music and smelling the barbequeing meats and talking about the relative merits of English and Georgian tense systems with Tamuna. This is strange because usually I am the restless one who always wants to be on the move while other people are enjoying the leisurely pace of the pastoral life, but that day, I really just wanted to lie on that grass and take it all in.
Anyhow, off we went, back into the van of death. This was only a short trip, and the roads were so winding that the driver couldn’t drive fast enough for the wind to bother me, and the scenery was so beautiful that I didn’t care that I was disengaged from the rest of the group.
Oh, yeah, that’s the other problem – introductions were made inside the van, so while everyone except me was in the back, getting to know each other for three hours, I was in the front, trying not to inhale too much. So I basically didn’t talk to anyone the whole day except the people I already knew. To say that I felt awkward would be an understatement.
So anyway. We made it to Sighnaghi, which is a breathtakingly beautiful town on a mountaintop overlooking the valley of Kakheti. There was a museum with a balcony from which the view was much more incredible than any of the things on display inside the museum. We got a museum tour, but of course I don’t like museum tours and wasn’t comfortable with the group so I just sort of did my own thing.
Next we went to a winery. I believe it was called “Pheasant Tears.” It was indeed better than any of the other wine I’d had in Georgia, so Kakheti’s reputation as the best winemaking region does seem to hold up. The highlight of the winery for me, though, was the kitten they had living there. She was adorable and friendly and she attempted to climb my shirt several times. Sadly I had to put her down because one of the things I am allergic to is cats, although this one may have been hypoallergenic in some way since she didn’t make me sneeze at all.
I tried several wines that were all quite delicious, and a chacha that was comparable to a good scotch. I would definitely like to go back there when I’m feeling better, if I can get a ride with someone who has a car with a clean interior.
After the winery, we went to a restaurant. Not to belabor this point, but it was too smoky inside, so I ended up excusing myself and wandering around alone for several more hours. There was this big old stone wall with little crenelated watchtowers, and I climbed into one of these and just stared out over the valley as the sun went down. In the distance I could just make out the north caucasus mountains reaching up to meet the clouds. I watched the shadows of the mountains behind me creep across the valley as the sun set behind me. I got some decent pictures.
Kakheti was gorgeous.
So then we had tea outside, and people were smoking and I was annoyed and wanted to go home, but I just sat there trying to be pleasant. I succeeded in having one conversation with the group, so at least they knew that I was capable of speech. Then we piled back into the van for my next two-and-a-half-hour endurance test.
We finally got back to the neighborhood and were about ten minutes away from the house. I climbed into the back of the van to talk with the two remaining people – my roommate and the trip organizer – because I was feeling a little better about life now that I was almost home and wanted to let the trip organizer see me in higher spirits at the day’s end.
And that’s when the van driver lit up a cigarette.
I am not embarrassed to say that I basically flipped my shit at this point. I yelled at the driver to stop in English and Georgian, and when he didn’t, I opened the door of the moving vehicle to further illustrate my point. The driver pulled over and I got out and walked away, trying to catch my breath and calm myself down, but every time I looked back at the van I just got really angry. I ended up taking a cab home – a five minute drive, at best, that I could easily have walked if I had realized where I was – and of course was annoyed at having to pay five lari for this, and I got home and stomped around for a little while and then went directly to sleep.
So here’s the problem, as I see it. If I could repeat that day, I would have been more vocal about my allergies, sooner. I would have gotten out of the van as soon as the problem started and insisted that I could not ride in the vehicle, and if that meant I couldn’t go on the trip, that was just the way it was going to be.
Yes, that strategy probably would have insulted my hosts, but at the same time, I had an actual medical problem that ended up plaguing me the entire day, so maybe it would have been okay. Anyway, now I know, and will not be repeating that mistake.
But as I said, I internalized a lot of negativity and I sort of avoided my coworkers for a week because I wanted to let that settle down before I interacted with them again. After all, it wasn’t their fault – people with no sensitivity to allergens obviously can’t predict what will set off someone’s asthma or allergies – but I was still pretty angry for several days.
And before anyone comes rushing to Georgia’s defense, I should point out that I have had similar episodes in the US. I grew up with parents who smoked, aunts and uncles who smoked, and a generally smoke-filled environment regardless of any complaints I made. I have become sort of estranged from several of my relatives because of their smoking and my allergies, and once I didn’t talk to my father for almost a month because I was mad at him for letting his sisters smoke around me. Once my family went to Florida and stayed in a hotel that I was allergic to and I ended up sleeping in a closet because it was the only place in the hotel without a carpet that made me sneeze and cough. The list goes on and on, but the point is, this is a problem that I have had in many places in the world, including the US, so please don’t tell me that this is a cultural shock that I will get over in a couple of months. Like riding the Metro, this is a thing that bothered me just as much in America.
So yeah. Despite my ill health and annoyance at the smokers of the world, I really enjoyed Kakheti itself. I think Sighnaghi might be the most beautiful town I’ve ever been in. The wine was good and the views were amazing. I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting Georgia.