The word friendship comes from Old English frēondscipe, which means mutual liking and regard. By that measure, the word stretches itself around many kinds of relationships. It is the barista who always remembered my name and drink order. It is the strangers who smile at each other across a metro station. It is family. I don’t know if I define it that way though.
Yesterday about sixteen writers stuffed ourselves into a white van headed for Kazbegi, Georgia. We knew we had about three hours to drive before we arrived at Stepansminda, the center of the Kazbegi municipality. The small town rests high in the formidable Caucus mountain range and directly below the Gergeti Trinity Church. As per usual, I didn’t know shit about this place before we went, just that it was beautiful. It was a joy to let myself be shuttled around and not run the operation.
My airbnb hosts had a few Estonian friends crashing on the couch last week. One of them told me it was on the way to Kazbegi. The pic that lit me up was of something I’ve since learned is the Russian Friendship Monument. The building looked like a silo, cut in half, with graffiti everywhere. It evoked a sense of youthful rebellion from its swatches of color, and hermetic patience for its position high on a green mountain peak.
So when they announced a trip to Kazbegi, I signed on. Somehow, I took the last seat in the bus, in the back, in the middle. There wasn’t enough room for my legs to cross or go straight, so I had to bend them into my neighbor’s seats. And since the last row sat above the wheel cavity, we were elevated, above the windows. To see things out the window, I had to lean crudely over someone next to me.
But I did. When I came to Tbilisi, I knew no one. But I was already comfortable enough with my neighbors Annie and Eden to lean into their laps to photograph cows napping on the bridge we were trying to cross. I whined plenty because I wanted to see more out the window. My legs hurt, and my tailbone sang a song of avoidance over each bump in the road. I was so physically uncomfortable. But we played a dumb game called Horse Damnitt, which is like an I-Spy drinking game with no drinks. We talked about our families and our writing life. We did what friends do.
When we all finally arrived in Stepasminda, we split up. Half of the group took a utility jeep up to the Gergeti Trinity Church. The road out had already aggravated my tailbone injury, so I stayed in the lobby at Rooms Hotel for the afternoon. Along with Rachel, Noor and Josip, I practiced the art of public napping. What is it in me that allows this easy intimacy with strangers? Is it friendship, courage, fatigue? What facilitates this trust?
With such flood of new connection, I have been wondering about this mutual liking and regard that leads to friendship. I always hope to stay close to people, but life back home can make it challenging. Even if your back home is a set of highways in the US. In Tbilisi, our inconsistent cell phone data has limited us in good ways. We make plans here and stick to them. My complaint in the Bay Area is that many of my friends are flaky. I am flaky. But over the past year, I’ve shifted my values in friends, and limited my circle a lot. I have always enjoyed talking to new people, but conversation doesn’t always lead to friendship. I have literary community friend, friends I only see at parties or on the dance floor, work friends, yoga friends, in-another-city talk-on-the-phone friends, and my favorite, there-for-you friends. The last group comes from all the prior. But in times when I’ve needed help, and people have recoiled, I’ve done the same. Two years ago I was hosting salons, participating in many readings, dancing weekends, dining with friends on weeknights. My social sphere had a high traffic rate. Tbilisi has been much more like this than my US travel. Here we travel in packs. We are new to each other, and for now, this feels like friendship. So, there I was, in the back seat of this bus, asking new friends with window seats to snap pictures of things I couldn’t see.
The road we took to Kazbegi is called the Georgian Military Highway. The route runs from Tbilisi to Russia, passing countless mountain hamlets, herds of road-loving cattle, the lakeside Ananuri Fortress, and of course, the Friendship Monument. Although Pliny the Elder mentioned the route as a trade artery, the current name makes sense. For a long time, Russia controlled this road. I’m still uncertain who controls the freeways in the US. But that’s nothing. It wasn’t just the road that Russia seized, but the country. Georgia is still 20% occupied by Russian military. Over the centuries, Georgia has been claimed by many other nations and nation-states.
This is where the friendship monument comes in. I was very young when the USSR fell, but I remember a sense of shock and gratitude from the adults in my world. The beast we’d hidden from in the Cold War was now tamed. The friendship monument was Georgia’s promise of this. Constructed in 1983 by Russia as a friendship offering, the giant circular platform looks down over Devil’s Valley. The inside is not graffiti – or not Only graffiti – but a tiled mural depicting the history between the countries. At one time, Russia had Georgia’s back. Maybe it kinda does now, but I won’t bank on it. The border between the two countries at the top of the Georgian Military Highway was closed for many years, but reopened in 2006, mostly to trade with Armenia. I guess these countries are good friends.
And while I’ve thought about personal friendships, the history here has made me question political friendship. I’m afraid of what is happening in my home country; the rise of xenophobia, sexism, and cultural sanctions for fraud and mismanagement of funds. I know I have so much. I don’t fear bombs or rifles in my front yard (at least not from political leaders). I don’t feel anxious about being annexed into another bigger country. Last winter, a meme floated around Facebook that the West Coast would secede the union; the new country would be called Cascadia. For a while, I wondered if it was possible. How can things change so much? My values are not reflected in my leader right now. We are not friends, but he’s the HMFIC. Will he be able to maintain friendships with other countries? And as importantly, what would be the consequences if not? Georgia is a small country, the US is huge. I don’t know. That’s what I keep ending at. I don’t know.
I do know that on this day trip, I wanted to see the friendship monument because it seemed like art from the people. I imagined manifestos and messy art in a beautiful setting. Resistance and splendor. On the way there, as I leaned over Annie’s lap, and then Eden’s towards the other window, the amphitheater-like construction grew in visibility. We had already rolled up switchback after switchback, risen thousands of feet into the otherworldly Caucasus Mountains. People on the bus began to squirm as we passed more cattle and run-down hotels heading towards this vista perch.
But the offramp came, and then it went. We didn’t pull over. We didn’t even slow down. Georgi translated to us that it was closed. In the back of the van, we looked at each other awestruck and disappointed. But it wasn’t our true destination, and we sucked it up. I was pissed, but glad to be collectively pissed – we were together.
An hour later, we pulled into Rooms Hotel, and all sat together for lunch on the balcony. I ate my pre-made meal, and everyone else ordered kachapuri and khinkali. Off the hotel deck, the view eclipsed my disappointment at not seeing the monument. I was exhausted, in pain, and then, somehow, sneezing at the verdant vertical in front of me. But I was happy. Before us was the entire town of Kazbegi, the fairy-tale Gergeti Trinity Church, and the snow-capped Mt. Kazbeg itself. You can’t always know what will open your heart.
After lunch, I asked my friends headed to the church to light a candle for/from me, and I collected some much needed rest.
I sat on the deep couches in gratitude for this new place, these new friends, the work we would be reading in our poetry workshop next week. I remembered what my Poetry Slam Team used to shout at each other in support. Sierra started it by saying, “I’m at-ing you!” It’s a reference to tagging people on Instagram, twitter or other social media. You might say, “Loving it here @Darius.” It’s a kind of testament to seeing someone. Looking at that view, I felt like I was seeing something new, looking out at a poem. @ a poem. Every relationship is actually a preposition. I didn’t stop at the Friendship Monument, but I passed by it. Sitting here in Tbilisi, I am with, for, and to my friends. But I like @ because it’s broad. It’s applicable to all, fits the mutual regard we all crave, complicated as it may be. And surrounded by my new people, beauty unlike I’d known before, I was @ Kazbegi, and @ Friendship – Monument or not.