Friday, July 20, 2007

Land of Milk & Honey

Late June saw the triumphant return of Ryan Nickum to the land of his birth. After a year of heroically toiling in the often thankless role of Peace Corps Volunteer, he’d earned the right to come back and eat some tacos. Good for me.

I left Georgia at 4am on an Austrian Air flight abound for Vienna and then Washington DC. While waiting for boarding I chatted with the good people of the American band Earth Wind and Fire, who had just played a show in Tbilisi. We talked about the upcoming NBA draft briefly and I got to listen to their impressions of Georgia.

“Man, this mother f*$%&#r was crowding me in line, pushing up on me like he wants me and s#$t. I was like hell no! Four in the morning ain’t too early whip a man’s ass!”

I was slightly conflicted. On the one hand I know that Georgians don’t believe in lines in the same way we do America. It’s sort of a scrum and they don’t have the issues with proximity and body space that we Americans do. It’s perfectly acceptable to place your groin in someone’s shoulder on a tightly packed mini-bus. It’s also totally normal to be pressed tightly against another person so a not to lose your place in the line (crowd). However, I could also, as an American, relate to Earth Wind and Fire’s uncompromising stance. They were saying the same things I wanted to, but was to “culturally sensitive” to say. It was all somehow charming. I missed Americans.

They were equally intolerant of people trying to push ahead of them as we all jostled for our bags. The poor Austrian passengers trying to push past them to reach bags in compartments at the front of the plane were not treated with courtesy. I really liked them. I fully intend to buy their album.

The 4-hour layover in Vienna was dull. Austria, in my mind, is a bland and boring place. The efficiency and cleanliness seem sterile and inhuman after a year in Georgia. And on the return flight, after two weeks in America, it felt the same. It’s entirely too well kept, almost unreal, like a Disneyland theme park. But one can’t argue with their salami and camembert grilled sandwiches or their espresso or precious WiFi.

Nine hours after boarding my flight in Vienna I was on the ground in Washington DC. It was a culture shock, but not in a bad way. I was blown away by all the gleaming cars, the air conditioning was freezing, the business parks were ugly as hell (but at least people are working), and the brainless prattling of teenage girls was mind-numbing, but I was home. so to say. Via bus and subway I was soon at my brother’s office, his name newly printed name next to his door. It was damn good to see him. I’d really missed my brother. And after a hug and introductions to co-workers we were soon eating really lousy Spanish tapas and drinking really good sangria, and chatting about his new job, my past year and good ol’ brother stuff.

We made up for this disappointment with a great Mexican dinner and margaritas thanks to some much appreciated funding from my cousin Vic. Now I feel even worse about peeing in his tent as a toddler.

I wasn’t expecting to get to see my folks, but Stuart informed me that my Mom had a change of heart (or disregard for $ and work obligations) and had decided to come out. So the next day she arrived, which was great. I had so much to tell her when she arrived that I was somehow turned into a bumbling moron. “How’s Dad? How’s work? Etc.”

We spent our days shopping for Stuart’s apartment and touring art museums. According to my mom, Stuart’s apartment was low on beer mugs, that should be chilled in the freezer—what a considerate mother. Well we found them, and a waffle iron, which my mother was kind enough to make use of while I visited. Did I mention what a good mother she is? I guess so.

So we had a good time. We drank good coffee and wandered about town and even ate dinner at some upscale southern place and had good wine, tiny overpriced appetizers and foie gras stuffed quail and other food items I can’t pronounce and, according to spell check, can’t spell. That was a great dinner.

We watched the 4th of July fireworks from Stuart’s apartment rooftop surround by a bunch of Georgetown Law students with sub-par social skills. My mom stayed up with Stuart and I as we stayed up late talking and drinking a little bourbon—I think my Mom was hoping the alcohol would cause us to spill the beans on our love lives—Stuart was tight lipped as usual. I must have had more bourbon.

After four days of good talks and food she went back to Seattle, where my dad was waiting with a grocery bag with his clothes and razor. Apparently he decided to visit his boys as well. They swapped suitcase for grocery bag and my dad was on his way to DC. His arrival rounded out the family visit and absolutely made my trip. I was grateful for some time with my father, and just to hang out and talk about life and whatnot.

My friend Matt came down from New York City as well, riding his motorcycle 5 hours to crash on the floor at Stuart’s as well. The highlight was when the four of us (Stuart, Matt, my Dad and myself) went to the Capitol Grill for dinner. The four us had a guys’ night out and one hell of a steak dinner and pestered my Dad for old travel stories. I won’t spare the details of one of the best meals of my life. Do I talk about food way too much in this blog? Oh yeah. Definitely.

1. Raw Blue Point oysters on the half shell with a red wine vinegar mignonette sauce—best oysters I’ve ever had.
2. Skipped the salads and had Bookers bourbon and Baisel Haydens bourbon instead.
3. Top Sirloin (dry aged 28 days) with a Courvassier cream sauce
4. Corn with bacon
5. Mashed potatoes
6. Macaroni and cheese with lobster. Yeah. Lobster.
7. Who needs dessert after such a meal?

My Dad headed back soon after and I went about trying to buy some clothes. First on my list was buying a pair of jeans. Georgia has a number of fine qualities, but as a providor of blue jeans they rank very low. Men in Georgia apparently like what can only be described as women’s jeans. They have strange fits (tight), extra zippers all over the place that don’t lead to pockets, pockets in weird places, and neon stitching. Quite simply, Georgian blue jeans are morally wrong.

I tried going to the Tbilisi Levi’s store but it actually proved an even worse bet. As if the $180 price tag weren’t outrageous enough it was the least of the problems. There is absolutely no reason that men’s pants should allow a passerby to be able to make out the contours of one’s genitalia. I don’t mean you can see a man bulge, but the actual distinct lines of every separate part, where... well, basically you can see it all. Speedo’s hide more than these jeans do.

I was scared that maybe the Tbilisi Levi’s were part of some broad global phenomenon sweeping the fashion world. Luckily, American Levi’s still respect some semblance of privacy.

The last night in DC I’d already had so much good food that Stuart and I couldn’t justify going to Kinkead’s. This was the restaurant I’d dreamed of for months, the one I’d listed the menu of in a previous entry, but I simply couldn’t justify the price. When I come back I’ll visit you sweet Kincaid’s. We’ll meet again. I haven’t forgotten you.

The day I left I met Stuart for lunch and after I’d rushed the goodbye because I was dreading it, I headed off to the airport feeling like absolute hell. The prospect of not being around my family for another year felt absolutely hellish. Like a dog with his tail between his leg I got on that plane. After three hours on the runway waiting for the weather to lift we finally took off and I watched America disappear out the window and felt like ass.

Twenty-four hours later I was back in Georgia. But miracles of miracles, they didn’t lose my bags or steal anything from them. And not long after getting back I got to see my girlfriend Paige, which eased my homesickness considerably. She’s a really cool girl.

After a couple days in the capital I headed home to Dimi. I still didn’t really feel like I was back. But once I smelled an overused bus stop outhouse and walked up that muddy road and saw my mangy dogs I knew I was back. And the weird thing was I didn’t feel bad. And my host family was happy to see me and I was happy to see them. And as I sat down to a meal of normal Georgian fare, I realized I’d actually missed the place. The next day at the local market the locals were full of questions about where I’d been and how my family was. The students I passed on the street waved excitedly as I passed by and it felt oddly good to be back, which is good, because it’s another whole year to come.


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