Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Exile On Not Main Street, Part I. Or: How to use the phrase "gold-shitting" in an amusing joke.

Short prelude: today, I attended a press conference to announce the opening of an American Center at a local library, put together by the two volunteers in this city and our language teacher. We went to the local library at the appointed time only to wait around for 20 minutes for no reason. Once it started, it consisted of a man -- in this case, the director of the library, I think -- gesticulating and shouting about Johann Gutenberg, the power and magic of the printed page, Pax Romana, Russian imperialism, and T.S. Eliot. I later told the volunteers here that this experience was EXACTLY what a Georgian toast would be like, if there happened to be a toast about T.S. Eliot. It was comforting. Sometimes, things are NOT different. Anyway.


So I was talking with my parents, at some point during our 27 day exile.[1][2] I was describing some event or other, and either my father or my mother said, “You should write a book about this.” He/she was joking, I think, but I thought about it for a second, and then determined that this would no doubt be the most boring book in the history of letters placed in sequence.[3] Here is how I imagine proposing such a book to a book publisher:

“So, I have this idea for a book. It starts off with a bang – explosions! Bombs
dropping everywhere! Americans fleeing from the menacing advance of the Russian
army! It’s so Cold War, right? Yeah. So our hero takes the first couple of
chapters to escape to safety. Then the whole middle of the book is our hero
sitting in a hotel, doing nothing, thinking about his life and eating a lot of
carbohydrates. I figure that, for an artistic twist, chapters 6 through 37 can
just be full of blank pages. Like hundreds of blank pages, and the reader has to
flip each of them one by one. The reader will want to kill himself by the end of
it, which will make him identify with our hero. Then the book abruptly ends, and
there’s a ticket to Romania you can cut out of the book jacket in the back. It’s
like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ meets ‘Emma.’ Meets ‘Dracula.’[4] What do you think?”
The publisher’s dilemma would then be whether to (a) stab me, so I wouldn’t be able to inflict my book pitch on the human race ever again, or (b) stab his/her secretary for letting an obviously homeless person into his/her office. So I decided against writing a book about the Exile. But that doesn’t mean I can’t blog about it![5] Accepting the present means acknowledging the past, and likely you are extremely interested in what happened to us [6], and oh who am I kidding just humor me. This may break a new record for post length, so I will break it into manageable bits. Please tell me if it is not interesting. I shall mostly ignore you, but also try to “spice up” the text with “jokes” and “thoughts” and “codes for free money.” So, here we go.

All of us who were in Armenia have been bitching about it as if it was the end of the world from Day One – or acting like it was so important that it deserves, to pull a random example out of a random hat, a fifteen-part blog post. I feel a bit selfish for acting like this thing that happened to us was the Worst Thing To Ever Happen To Anyone Ever You Should Feel Sorry For Us. People thrown into an uncomfortable and unexpected situation tend to overdramatize it to feel better about themselves, and of course we did that. But clearly others got a slightly rawer deal, no matter how hard it is to see past ourselves. The Georgians who were displaced, for instance. Also, the soldiers who died. Also, Aeroflot travel agents in Tbilisi, who will never receive any business again ever.[7] Not to mention the fact that evacuation of Peace Corps posts happens with distressing regularity all over the world.[8] We’re patently unspecial, no matter how we’d prefer to think otherwise.

At the same time, going through an experience like this is something that MOST Americans never go through, so part of me wants to make sure I write it down before I forget it, no matter how uninteresting it turns out to be. I of course wish it had never happened, and that I was still in Georgia doing the work I went there to do, but some part of me is glad to have seen the ass end of an asskicking. I came to Peace Corps to expand my views about the world, and this has certainly done that. I’m glad that I can now understand the personal side to geopolitics and international warfare, and I’m glad that I can now understand the personal side to mass humanitarian crises. Americans never put a face to the things that happen overseas – often we don’t put a face to the things that happen on our own shores. But a city that I’ve lived in was bombed, and people I know and love now live in a place that is potentially devastated – by hopefully short-term humanitarian issues and decidedly long-term newfound economic issues. I don’t claim to be the only one who’s ever seen such things. But I’m the only one I know.[9] So I’m going to talk about it.

As I may or may not have mentioned in my brief summaries [10], I was at work when it happened. This was Friday, August 8th [11], and I was at work in Rustavi like every other day. I started hearing from friends that something bad was happening – I believe the news was that there had been skirmishes in the now-famous breakaway region of South Ossetia [12], with both Ossetia/Russia and Georgia blaming the other side, and that Russia had started bombing Georgian territory.[13] I started texting all my friends, many of whom were with all the new trainees in central Georgia, near the bombings, to see if they had any info, and I also started repeatedly checking a good Georgian-produced news website. I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen – for some reason, tensions over the breakaway regions flare up every summer [14], and for a while it seemed like perhaps this was just an extended flare-up, and that both sides would back away from disaster. But as the news kept getting worse, I realized that this was different, and I started thinking about going home to pack an emergency bag, in case we had to consolidate with all the other volunteers in a safe location.

At this point, it wasn’t clear what was going on. Russia was (to my recollection) merely bombing at this point, and seeming content to extend its arm over the border, cause some mischief, and then puff out its chest to gloat, “See, we could do that ANYTIME WE WANT.” Bombing feels different than a full-scale occupation. It’s more impersonal, and one can retain the illusion that things aren’t going too too badly for your side. As long as you get some shots off yourself, score some points for your team, you can feel reassured, no matter what the damage. The “war” still seemed like a skirmish until Russian troops crossed the border from South Ossetia into Georgia proper. I feel like somehow this is an important geopolitical observation, and yet I’m sure it isn’t. Let’s move on.

NEXT: PART II. Or: The road less traveled. Also vodka.

[1] I can’t pinpoint when, because, frankly, for the most part I can’t differentiate what happened on day one from what happened on day 27. It was like being in prison, carving each passing indistinguishable day into the wall with a sharp mess hall utensil, except of course that prisoners know how long it will be until they get to leave. Ha! Anti-exile humor! Get used to it!
[2] Note to PC/G staff who may again be reading this blog: while the sarcastic streak of your now-former volunteers is without equal, we direct none of it towards you. You guys were awesome. Just so you know. Hi, Tika.
[3] Maybe second-most boring, after “Emma.” God, that book blew.
[4] This could be changed to “Bunnicula,” if it was a children’s book publisher.
[5] Though it should also mean that.
[6] If this is true, I will lose more faith in America than I lost when Fox News claimed that Sarah Palin has foreign policy experience because “she’s right there next to Russia,” and people believed it. By this standard, the comptroller of Fargo, North Dakota, could be the next secretary-general of the United Nations, because Fargo is “right there next to Canada.” Listen up, America, because I am very serious about this: if you elect Sarah Palin and Whatshisface to be Vice President and Whateverthatotherthingis of those United States, I am never coming back. You have been warned.
[7] Aeroflot is the national Russian airline. This joke is not funny.
[8] For example, some of my refugee friends were planning on transferring to Peace Corps Bolivia this week, only to find out a few days ago that there have been violent riots this week in Bolivia, and that the program there is in danger. They no longer get to go. Sorry, guys.
[9] Well, along with the 80 others of you. Shout out! [clever Armenia reference]!
[10] As always, I’m too lazy to look these things up.
[11] Our training manager claims that the sheer number of 8s involved portended disaster: it was 8/8/08, the 8th week of training for PC/G Group 8, and he had sent 8 mass text messages about the Peace Corps alcohol policy the night before. OK, not that last one. But that group could have USED 8 text messages about the alcohol policy. This is a tangent, but during their orientation some of them decided that it would be fun to FLIP EACH OTHER IN THE AIR. INSIDE. A ceiling mirror was apparently shattered, along with any pretense of that group’s collective intelligence. Ha ha! G8 jokes! We 7s are totally kidding, guys! Please don’t come over to my house, ever! I value my ceiling and my ribs.
[12] If you had bet me a trillion dollars, two months ago, that normal people in America would ever ever ever be able to accurately describe what “South Ossetia” meant, I would have seen your trillion and raised you a magic flying gold-shitting pony. Funny, how things work out.
[13] I might be slightly off about what exactly happened when and in what order, because I’m not connected to the internet as I write this, and because everything happened very fast. But if you’re interested in the specific sequence of events, it’s available on Wikipedia, of all places, and it’s impressively footnoted.
[14] As I have also mentioned before, during the summer of 2007, when I was training in Gori, a Russian jet dropped a bomb that did not explode only a few kilometers from Gori. I got exactly zero inquiries about my safety from America, when it happened. I think it barely registered on the American news. Funny, how things work out.

1 comment:

ruth said...

As someone who likes Emma, perhaps my ideas will be discounted, but I think a book about your entire peace corp experience would be really interesting. I would not write it just about your recent adventure, though, or it would probably turn out as you described.