Contrary to my expectations, it is very easy to get around in Russian here. I had thought that given the troubles of recent years, Georgia would have tried to phase out Russian as quickly as possible and bring in English. And according to the news, that’s what happened. But in practice, I’ve only met one person who preferred English. Also, people automatically assume that I’m Russian (it’s this lily-white, sun-starved skin I’m wearing), so I get to talk a lot of Russian. It’s great. I always feel sort of guilty speaking English, even though I know it’s the most practical option, because it’s so unfair that I can travel anywhere and speak my native language and expect to be understood, because everyone’s been forced to learn it. I very much prefer having a lingua franca that is non-native to everyone, and it makes me much more willing to start conversations.

One time, I popped into a souvenir shop and greeted the owner. We got to talking, and I told him I was from the US but had been studying in Russia. He said, “I did courses in Louisiana once.” What kind of courses? Military courses. Near New Orleans. He was there for 7 days.

Georgian men have this endearing habit of gathering in each other’s shops and restaurants or, failing that, on street corners to smoke and talk. And smoke some more. So while we were chatting, a couple of his friends wandered in. One of them said, “America?”

“Yes, America!” I replied.

“I sell carpets,” he told me, lighting a cigarette. I pretended that this was relevant.

“You know Teft? He is a good friend of mine. I sell him carpets.” I assumed he meant President Taft, and that he was off his rocker.

Turns out he meant John Tefft, current US Ambassador to Russia. He showed me pictures of them together on his phone. He was on his rocker, after all.

I asked the first guy how he had liked Louisiana, and he told me a story. Turns out he was stuck on base all the time, didn’t even have windows in the van they rode from the airport. So the only thing he saw in his time there…was Mardi Gras.

He told us (well, mostly his buddies) about how he bought some beads, because everyone was buying beads, and he didn’t want to be left out. And he threw them out into the streets. And when he did that — women flashed him! So he bought as many beads as he could carry, and that was how he spent his day.

“Is America really like that?” his friends demanded of me. I didn’t know how to answer.

“I guess that festival is…”

They nodded, impressed.

Then one of them gave me a magnet “for friendship and luck.” Aw crap, now I have to buy something here.

So I did buy a thing, and I won’t tell you what just yet, because it’s for one of you. They promised me Special Price for Amerikan Girl and invited me to come back anytime.

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