Well. At last. My second and final post about the glories and rigors of a weekend trip to the Georgian capital. I mentioned this in my previous post about Georgia, and I’ve mentioned it a few times in my posts about the Motherland, but it certainly bears repeating that due to the general lack and/or dereliction of infrastructure in the former Soviet Union walking distances can be difficult and tiring, even for those who do not require mobility aids. If your mobility is precarious, you are constantly forced to redouble your efforts, to work that much harder to cross loose gravel and climb curbs (Curb-cuts, which are almost everywhere in the United States thanks to zoning regulations and the Americans with Disabilities Act, do not really exist in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, or Georgia.), and to constantly formulate ways to overcome unexpected obstacles. I do this every day in Moscow, and it IS tiring, but it was more tiring in Tbilisi, mostly because, as I mentioned, the city is built into and upon hills. But what did this all mean for me, a disabled traveler with a compromised lower extremity? What does one do to adapt? Good practical questions. And the answer is simple: I had to stop and rest. A lot. Seems logical, right? But I’ll tell you. It surprised me. I imagined myself heroically and lithely twisting around roadblocks, elegantly balanced against my crutch and quickly scanning around hilly paths for the smoothest ascent. I did a little of this. But mostly, I just had to sit down every so often and get off my feet. At first this was a little annoying. And then it became really frustrating. And then it made me angry.
Why couldn’t I see all the things I wanted to see and do as quickly as I wanted? Why couldn’t I see as many things as I wanted? Was I slowing my good friend down, thus preventing her from doing the things she wanted? When I was a decade younger, I had the same disabling nerve damage that I have now, but my youthful muscles and joints didn’t fatigue nearly as easily. Sure, I felt tired. Sure I was achy. Sure I was limping a little. But in those days I could just push right on through it, ignoring (mostly) the unpleasantness and the fear that comes with feeling unsteady and teetering. I hiked in the desert. I stood and walked for hours, hoping from one London museum to another. Yes, I can still do these things, but the fact that I can’t do them as fast or in nearly the same quantity as I used to made me seethe internally during those first few days in Tbilisi, a city that offers so many beautiful things to see. I felt defeated, disappointed in my own body, and worse, I feared that I would be a disappointment to others, someone who no one would want to travel with in the future, because I can’t keep the pace of the race.
Few things spoil the pleasantness of actuality faster or more thoroughly than fear. Fortunately for me, the friend I was visiting in Tbilisi is an all-around excellent touring and traveling companion. She didn’t coddle me, asking in a sweet voice very two minutes if I was “feeling okay” as another acquaintance has done. Nor did she chose to ignore my mobility issue entirely, as a young man I was dating for a while here in Moscow was inclined to do, asking me to pursue him up endless flights of stairs and over long distances, because any overt reference to disability made him visibly uncomfortable. (Not too surprising that we went our separate ways is it?) No. My friend in Tbilisi seemed to have what can only be described in the best cliched language as “an excellent feel for things.” She seemed to be able to tell when I was circling the drain in terms of being on my feet and would ask politely if I wanted to stop, offering suggestions of pleasant places where we could go to sit down and things we could enjoy while doing so. I tried to be tough. I tried to be stubborn. I passed on her excellent suggestions, insisting that we must press on. But eventually my leg and subsequently my back just gave out. I became grumpy. I became tired. And then I would proclaim that we had to stop NOW, pleasant place to sit or not.
Fortunately for us, we were in Georgia. Almost every place where you might sit offers something pleasant to look at or taste, or both. For example:
It looks like an ordinary clay vessel, but this dear reader is a traditional Georgian wine vat. Still used to this day to produce the country’s delicious grape extracts. Cafes, wine bars, snack shops, and restaurants proliferate in Tbilisi. Buying a glass of the good stuff is very easy to do anywhere you may go. Further, Georgian families tend to make their own wine, using their own home-grown grapes and by adhering to family recipes. And they are generous and hospitable. So even if, while taking a rest from touring, you can’t find a place that sells wine, chances are good that you will still be able to enjoy a nice glass, because someone will probably offer one to you, along with a plate of delicious food. But I digress. Here is the thing: it turns out that mandatory rest and Georgian wine go well together. If you are drinking said Georgian wine as a way to fill the rest time, you’re not going to guzzle it down so that you can hop up as quickly as possible and move on to the next site or experience on your tourist agenda. (You may guzzle it in an effort to procure another as quickly as possible, but this still keeps your bum firmly planted in its seat. And it will remain so, because Georgian wine, especially red wine, tends to take effect quickly and dramatically. The likelihood of being able to stand and walk successfully diminishes greatly after each successive glass, even among the able-bodied.) My point here is that for once I did not frantically wolf down the local delights, which extend well beyond wine to a uniquely salty, yet remarkably fresh and utterly delicious sheep’s cheese, fresh flatbread, spicy red beans, grilled meat, pickled eggplant, nut pates topped with a sprinkling of fresh pomegranate, and for dessert, cake and Turkish coffee.
I didn’t eat merely as a means of sustenance. Feeding wasn’t a task to get through, in order to move on to the next twelve items on my touring agenda. Instead, being forced to take time off my feet afforded me the opportunity to actually taste and enjoy Georgia’s culinary culture in a way I would not have, had I been able to move around as frantically as I once did. This was great. I mean really totally great. But. It also made me think. Why had the thought of not being able to frantically accumulate new experiences over a short period frightened me so much? Why was the first thought that came to my mind when I realized I had to stop and slow down a thought about defeat? Why was the thought that followed a thought about inflicting that defeat upon another? Against whom was I racing? And for what spoils? Was there really something I was losing? REALLY?
No. As an American with a disability, if there is anything that having a disability teaches you, it teaches you just how much value our culture places on being the fastest and having the most, while offering little explanation as to why both qualities are considered attributes. Who cares if you didn’t taste what you ate or really look at what you saw? YOU ATE IT! YOU SAW IT! And then you ate more and saw more and more and more. And if you didn’t you failed. FAILED. You LOST.
But really you didn’t. You just didn’t conform. To an overwrought, overrated, and under explained standard. Nonconformity is not the same as losing. Nonconformity is just different. A different way of doing things. It isn’t inherently bad. Or wrong. Or least of all lame. It is Different. It opens onto a whole other set of possibilities, a new series of potential experiences, for better (lovely taste this Georgian wine) and for worse (too many glasses of lovely Georgian wine…)
So. Next time you are touring. And you find yourself frantically chasing after one site after another, one unfamiliar food after another, one photo-op after another. Stop. Sit. Stay put. Just try it. You might like it. You’ll definitely see (or taste) things from a different side. And you never know. It could change your entire view.