Friday, June 17, 2011

A piece of Georgian history

I come by my love of antiques honestly. I grew up surrounded by reclaimed, refinished, and refurbished treasures that my parents brought back to life and put to good use in our house. My favorite book in my personal library is an antique copy of Thoreau's Walden that my parents gave me. Another of my favorite possessions is a 1,700-year-old Mayan jade earplug from Guatemala that I bought in Chichicastenango. 

Today I was given another of my favorite antique possessions. But I'll get to that in a minute.

I spent a few hours of this rainy day in the school library sorting and organizing and reshelving the books in English. First I sorted them into categories: nonfiction, fiction, and children's books. Then I sorted the children's books by level. The nonfiction books were grouped into a few categories. Then I tackled the fiction pile. From that group, I pitched all of the Harlequin romance novels (not what the teenagers need to be reading) and then divided them into drama, mystery, sci-fi, and classic literature piles. It took me about four hours to get to that point in my organization. 

At that point, Lika came into the library and told me that Irina wanted us to go to her house to see her "house museum." She had told me about some of the ancient coins that she has in her collection of antiques, and she did not forget that I wanted to see them. So I left the books where they lay piled around the empty shelves, and went off to see Irina's collection. I can finish my job tomorrow.

Irina's house is situated on the bank of the river that forms the border with Abkhazia. Her house is riddled with bullet holes from the war. There are still ditches dug along the riverbanks that were used as foxholes during the conflict. Sobering.

But, alongside her house sits a small, wooden structure constructed in the fashion of the old days, timbers locked together at the corners like Lincoln Logs with a packed-mud floor, gated door, and fire pit in the center of the room. One single room is all that was needed in those days -- everything happened in one room -- living, eating, sleeping, cooking, and hanging out. Now, this room houses antiquities from Georgia's long and storied history. Everything from cooking implements to photographs to old phonographs and records to weapons to clothing to furniture, and what I really wanted to see, the old coins.

While Irina's husband showed us (Lika, Teona, and me) all their treasures, Irina prepared the table in the museum for a little suphra. After an hour of looking at the antiquities and hearing the stories behind them, we sat at the table and, in true Georgian fashion, ate and drank and toasted for a couple of hours. 

Partway through the suphra, Irina's husband left the room after starting the round of toasts for Georgian history. He came back after a few minutes and stepped behind me. He held out his hand and motioned for me to do the same. I did. He put a tiny silver coin into my hand -- one of the first coins used in Georgia -- a coin dating back to the 5th or 4th century BC. Then he put a little piece of paper in my hand, put the coin into it, wrapped it up, and closed my fingers around the package. I looked up at him agape. I couldn't believe that he was really giving me this piece of Georgian history. But he was. He did. I was speechless.

I will never cease to be amazed at the generosity of these wonderful people. In fact, for the toast for guests that I gave at today's suphra I said, "If Georgians ever stop receiving guests with such hospitality, they will cease to be Georgian."

I have been blessed over and over again by this essential quality of this unique culture.

Cooking pots hanging over the fire in the museum

Antique icon -- the bullet hole at the top of the icon is from the Abkhazian war

The suphra table

Irina and her husband toasting with wine-filled horns

Lika and I drinking from the horns "Vakhtanguri" (arms linked)

Irina and husband posed with me outside their house museum

My newest treasure

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