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  • Jerome Kocher

72. Celebrations

It’s June in Georgia, so weddings and graduations abound. I don’t have to crash the weddings. They crash me. A caravan of cars led by the bride and groom’s BMW (rented?) invade a small village that I’m visiting. Women are dressed in outlandish and colorful fashion. Local teenage boys ignore it while they test their skills on punching bag games along the sidewalk. The entourage gets out for photos in this iconic place known as the “ village of love.” The groom is smoking in between poses with his bride.

Later the next day in a church in Tbilisi’s historical section photographers and videographers swarm among the icons to document yet another wedding. Since there are no pews in an Orthodox Church it is a moving carousel of devoted faithful lighting candles, family members of the wedding and tourists like me.  Like the Kentucky Derby the people move and and shift positions around the periphery to get a winning view of the couple in the middle. There's a pause in the ritual as the bride has sat down on the medieval stone floor. She needs to be comforted, then given something to drink, maybe electrolytes before she can stand again to take her vows. 

In the afternoon I plan my own celebration to relax at one of the many sulphur spring bath houses from which Tbilisi gets its name meaning a “warm place.” You rent a private room with a tiled sulphur bath for an hour. Since the water is 100-114 degrees, I’m instructed to get out every ten minutes and take a cold shower and rest before the next plunge. Midway through my session a man comes in to scrub me down with an abasive glove and lathers me in soapy bubbles. I look like a French pastry on flat hard tile. Then another plunge before going for a massage. 

After my celebration of relaxation I stroll past a garden. Another celebration is happening. I enter among the crowd to find out. Young men. Teenagers. Ah, it’s Prom Night for a high school graduation. The boys are all dressed with suits and vests, posing for their instagram photos. I talk with a few. Ask them what sports they play. One used to wrestle, but now plays chess. Smart, he realizes there may not be a viable future in wrestling. But chess makes you a problem solver, a thinker, always in high demand for human success. I ask if I can take their photo, not posing for social media. They look so much better as sincere young men. They were classy and made me feel better about the next generation.

On Sunday morning we visited a cathedral overlooking the river. Like all the others it has high historical significance. But also like the others, I didn't focus on that nor even remember. Instead my attention goes to the devotion expressed by the faithful. An Orthodox service can take three to four hours. You are standing and moving around through the various niches of icons. There are no pews to sit. Small candles are lit from other candles like a community sour dough yeast growing brighter and brighter. Lips move in prayer. The sign of the cross is made three times, in reverse direction from Roman Catholic. Then their head bows to kiss the icon. It may stay bowed for up to a minute. A serious conversation with the Divine. Then a hand reaches out to touch the image. A gesture of reverence and farewell at the same time. Then they move reverently to the next icon. 

A chorus of women in a circle are singing in polyphonic harmony. In between we hear the priest from behind the iconostasis screen that hides the altar service from the believers standing together. Their devotion is intimate so I don’t photograph. It’s also totally counter to our digital screen culture of click and move on. Today's economy is based on “capturing our attention,” teasing us with stimulation and then provide another clickbait to keep us hooked. Here, devotion overrules infotainment. They create a connection to another inner reality, nourish it, feed it and bow with respect to a greater good and then let go . . . for several hours. The icons accented in gold leaf become more powerfully animated to believers than the cell phone screens in their back pockets. Even Steve Jobs would be humbled.

There’s a lot to celebrate here, the ancient as well as the new, the past and the future. The only thing not celebrated is the conflict with Russia, which has forcibly taken 20% of Georgia’s land in the north. In every other country I’ve been if I say “thank you” in Russian, it will be universally acknowledged. But in Georgia it will be met with silence. The Russian language is not only a reminder of the former Soviet era, but the present occupation and invasion on their northern border.

I return to the hotel and notice the flags outside of different countries. Very common for hotels to welcome their neighboring guests. But here there are only the flags of Georgia, Azerbaijan and the European Union. Where’s Armenia, their neighbor to the south. Not there. This hotel is an Azerbaijani development, so Armenia does not exist. And Russia is not welcome. 

But next weekend in Tbilisi, a "warm place," there will be more weddings, more celebrations and more church services hoping for a brighter future.

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