Emin and Diba tell us that in the beginning they had felt as strangers in Kars, people would throw mean glances at them if they spoke Kurdish on the street. Initially, their Turkish colleagues were quite distant, but they quickly struck up a friendship. There’s this general fear of what might happen should one speak publicly about the Kurdish issues. And there are countless rumours and contradictory information concerning mysterious disappearances of Kurdish activists, especially because of the JITEM - the army’s secret service. Otherwise, any young student, Turkish or Kurd, aspires to get to Istanbul, Ankara or somewhere in Europe.
We left Kars around noon and went down a by-pass towards the border with Georgia, to Posof. Small parts of the road are still in construction, but the rest of the road ribbons along Lake Çıldır, for about 2.000 metres. The 200-kilometre road to the border reaches even higher altitudes, among shepherds and militaries guarding the border.
We pass the Georgian border through an almost deserted customs point. The Turkish officials, very relaxed and without uniforms, welcome us with a Romanian ‘how do you do’. The customs officer can hardly take his eyes off one of Coelho’s books. Once we pass the border, the roads suddenly come to a halt. We enter Georgia via some rippled roads which come into contrast with the hi-tech equipment of the customs point. Out of the blue, mosques vanish into thin air. On the hills, ruins of fortresses and entrenched churches come into sight. Near Turkey, everything seems frozen in its Soviet past. Ruins and old houses. Virtually no new buildings whatsoever.
We pass through Borjomi, a resort famous for its mineral water and spas. The entry into the resort is guarded by three huge former rest homes, looking as if they were occupied by sheer force. Each balcony has a different closure and each window is painted a different colour. We pull over and approach one of the rest houses. On the ground floor, in front of the former reception, a Lada is parked. The green space in front of the building has been transformed into a vegetable garden. Several children run about the ruins. An aged person explains that these are buildings inhabited by the refugees of wars in Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. Over 300 souls. Across the hill there are two more such buildings.
We continue our journey to Gori, where we put up for the night on Stalin Boulevard, across the road from the museum praising him. Hardly do we leave our baggage that we hurry to what seems as the only restaurant downtown. It appears to be a very luxurious location, former Inturist hotel. Only one table is occupied. Three citizens are standing up around it as if saying a prayer. The oldest is giving a never-ending toast – the two younger ones are staring deferentially into space. A few minutes later, the glasses of wine are knocked back.
We try the famous Georgian wine at an unaccountably small price. The citizens in the back stand up again. The same ritual unfolds. After a couple of minutes, the sound of a fist on the table disquiets the wine in our glasses and show us that at the neighbouring table the toasting has been going on for some time now. Hardly is the food set on the table that the inevitable occurs. The oldest of the Georgians, named Giga, tries in Russian, English and Georgian to invite us over to his table, under which two full carafes humbly await. The rather formal and solemn invitation lasts a good couple of minutes because Giga is carefully choosing his words in English and, after a while, he starts over. We pretend not to understand, but, at a certain point, Giga’s voice booms clear and unequivocal: ‘Peetree!’ We have already been made room for at the table.
We cannot refuse local hospitality as we couldn’t refuse those litres of tea drunk in Turkey. Several hours of conversation follow in which all the earth’s languages - and even drawings on a sheet provided by Petruț - blend into one another. We come against a pretty unpleasant cultural difference. Nobody is allowed to drink while a toast is being held, which with Giga can take up to a quarter of an hour. Standing up. And when you’re finally allowed to, the glass of wine must be knocked back. From what we understand, Giga takes great joy in the friendship between the Georgians and the Romanians, which is actually being strengthened at this very moment. His opinion on the Russian people is rather harsh, judging after his stern face and his refusal to speak in Russian. At one point the glasses are exchanged for earthen jugs, clearly much more capacious. The jugs must also be date knocked back, but they give a handle for infinitely more formal toasts.
We feel faced with an important trial in our life, for which many Romanians train constantly, but do not make it to the day of the competition. It’s as if we’ve been suddenly summoned on the national team. I rush to the toilet and when I return Giga has turned on the music. A horă is on. He has somehow gotten hold of Petre’s camera and is cheerfully taking pictures. One of the workers renovating the restaurant has heard the music and seems to be also tasting the wine. He seems as if he has been tasting it the whole day long. He learns that we are Romanina and he instantly bursts into cries of joy. He takes out his cross and starts to kiss it, dolefully murmuring something about Orthodox believers, patriarch and Orthodoxy.
As unexpectedly as it commenced, the party comes to an end. Giga invites us over to his house and it is at great pains that we manage to refuse him. He asks for our signatures to keep as memory and he gives us his own signature. Only the next day do we find out we had taken part in what Georgians call Tamada , a ritual named after the one making the toasts, the person whom many sites also call ‘the dictator of the table’.
The following morning, after a short visit at Stalin’s museum (Stalin was born here), we set off for Tbilisi; however, not before Petrut sits on the armchair in which Stalin had sat on the train to Yalta. In Tbilisi, at the first junction I realize that I have been cutting lines. A policeman jumps in front of me, visibly content at the thought of a fine. We tell him we are from Romania, he considers the situation and we turn on him with questions regarding the address we’re looking for. He beckons us to follow him and he leads us, riding his beacon-equipped scooter, straight to the hotel.