In 1999, I volunteered in an orphanage and school in the former Soviet state of Georgia. Thirteen years on, I’ve finally seen the photos I took during my time there, bringing back memories in a way that only film can.
Georgia is on my mind. While I was driving to a meeting about a new music video I’m about to shoot, I heard on the news that the elections were taking place in The Republic of Georgia. Georgia, the small, mountainous nation snuggled between Russia, Europe, and the Middle East, always has a place in my heart and thoughts. A wondrous land of beauty; snow covered peaks, arid desert, savannah, and sub tropical fruit laden valleys. Its geographical splendor can only be topped by the warmth of its people.
In 1999, I spent six months living in the capital, Tbilisi as part of my gap year between school and university.
I was kindly sponsored by my local Rotary Club in Scotland. They would help pay for my trip and I would give a presentation on my return. I packed three rolls of slide film and set off to the mystical Soviet frontier. I would be volunteering as an English teacher at a school in the mornings and a few afternoons a week, I would also spend time at an orphanage for physically and mentally disabled kids. I’d previously spent two summers working in orphanages in Romania (I wish I could find those photos).
The article on the news regaled thoughts of my happy time in Georgia and the friends I made and unfortunately lost touch with. It also reminded me of the slides I took, that have been stuffed at the back of a drawer for thirteen years. When I returned from Georgia, I started at university and my adventure began to slip to the back of my consciousness, overtaken by drinking, parties and a little bit of studying. I never did give that presentation at the The Rotary Club and had never actually seen what was on those slides, until yesterday.
Last month I bought an Epson V500 scanner and have been scanning my home processed black and white photos. With Georgia on my mind, I dug out the slides from the back of my drawer and brought them to digital life. I look at them and smile, then scratch my head and try to remember everyone’s names…and the sad thing is… I can’t. This makes me feel guilty. I’ve traveled the world but the people I met there were the most hospitable, kind, and warm people of anywhere I have been.
These are photos, a 1/125th second of time, from thirteen years ago that have reignited memories that stir something inside of me. I’d like to say I could write a whole book on my time in Georgia, but I couldn’t…I can’t even recount names. So, I’m going to witter about a few of the special thoughts that these photos have brought back.
I lived with a wonderfully kind family. I slept in the living room, the son, Mishka, in the hall and the mother, father and daughter, Mashka, in a bedroom (I couldn’t forget these names). Every night the father would demand I drink half a bottle of vodka from the freezer with him. It was only allowed to be stained with Coke. This trained me well for my university days. Every morning, hangover in tow, I’d walk to my school with the smell of fresh bread, mountain air, and diesel fumes filling the back streets.
My class had about forty pupils of hugely varying ability. Some were fluent, some had never spoken a word of English before, but all had huge smiles and eyes that shimmered. One overriding image that I don’t have a photo of was the staff room, an impenetrable cloud of cigarette smoke stuffed into a broom cupboard. Everyone’s favorite smoke was called Magma. For two weeks, the government confiscated all the cigarettes in every store, in every kiosk and every back street market in Tbilisi for tax reasons. You could not find a single cigarette anywhere. Those two weeks and everyone’s involuntary cold turkey, I must admit tested my belief that Georgians were the nicest people I had ever met.
After four months living with my family, I moved in with their elderly aunt and uncle. There isn’t a more beautiful and charismatic couple you’d ever hope to find. Older Georgians would speak at me in Russian thinking that I would understand. Being from the UK and lazy with languages, I only speak English. However, I remember having huge conversations with them which was near impossible given we had no common language except smiles and gestures.
One of these conversations, which is as clear as if it happened yesterday, was with the elderly uncle. The electricity supply was terrible and intermittent at best. On one power cut he slammed his fist on the table and with only a hint of sarcasm shouted ‘Bring back two Stalins!’ We enjoyed many an afternoon putting the world to right in the summer veranda sun, though which language we were speaking I have no idea. The aunt was sweet and caring and one of my biggest regrets is that I never kept in touch. If I was late home from the pub, she’d be there waiting up for me. I’d find her in the kitchen learning English from a phrasebook. She’d make me hot and tangy fruit compote tea. What a wonderful, wonderful woman. I’m so glad I have a picture of these two people. They are what I feel encompasses everything that is good about the Georgian spirit.
A few afternoons a week I would visit an orphanage. I didn’t do much, just play with the kids. When you think of the word orphanage it’s not a happy word. I should know, I have worked in gruesome institutions in Romania. This orphanage, although old and run down and only slightly smelling of urine, had a warmth. The staff were welcoming and sincere and I had a great time with the kids. Looking at the photos I wonder where the children are and what they are doing now? I’d like to find out.
I have no idea what camera I used. It would have been a cheap point and shoot. But, looking at the images, the grain, the imperfections, they tell a story with a richness and vitality that digital just doesn’t do for me.
When I was in Georgia there was no democracy. Thirteen years on, I imagine the country has changed significantly. There are elections now. I very much doubt my elderly Georgian uncle is still alive, but if he is, I wonder if when casting his ballot he’d still vote to ‘Bring back two Stalins!’
Tristan MG Aitchison is a writer and director.