Back in 1988 when I lived in Berlin for a few months before going to college, alone, cold, and cleaning out duplicate names from a large database, my aunt-in-law invited me to accompany her to a concert. She was then a card-carrying member of the SEW, the West Berlin branch on East Germany’s state party.
This meant that she’d been to numerous trips to the Soviet Union and its satellites, and therefore interested in the cultures behind the Iron Curtain.
I was utterly transfixed by the music I heard in that concert, of an unearthly masculine beauty, by a group called Ensemble Kolkheti, from Georgia. A place seemingly very far away, entirely foreign and unknowable.
I proceeded to buy their LP and played it many, many times.
Which meant that I spent a lot of time looking at the cover, and the more I looked, the more beautiful Georgian writing looked to me.
Which, a few years later, led me to decide to learn the language. The fact that it was so different from Indo-Germanic languages and relatively useless in early 1990s Britain made it all the more alluring.
But who would teach me? Even though the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolving, no large Georgian diaspora existed.
I posted a note at a Russian bookstore in Great Russell Street, and waited.
Eventually, I did get a response. My teacher was Vasily, a man in his forties, born of a Russian father and a Georgian mother. He was the night security guard of a beautiful modernist building, an icon of its time. His job was to sit in the silent empty building from dusk to dawn, staring at the security cameras. Teaching me Georgian in the evening was a welcome distraction and he did it for free. We’d also wander through the empty building admiring its glassy expanses.
I learned how to write those beautiful letters, to master the plosives and non-plosives, to read Georgian poetry, and to begin to understand its history and unique way of looking at the world.
But I left the country and I never persevered. Now it’s just another atrophied, melancholy skill.
The mystery of far-away countries has decreased. Georgia seems reachable and understandable. I miss the times when there were places utterly out of reach.