Perhaps my mind is a splinter chipped from the world around it. Perhaps, in some way, I echo the conditions of my birth – a caesarian at the end of the Cold War.

These bones are certainly born of my parents’ DNA, not to mention their ability to provide milk, exercise, et cetera. But what if it’s more than that?

What if Queensland’s humid north also dripped along my spine, slowly warping its fibrous timbers? What if my fingers ring still with the thunderclaps of cyclones, and corrugated iron thrown against the trees?

We could all be weather vanes. And when the Europeans first escaped to the sun, finding lands free of the old cycles – winter and summer, death and rebirth – what did they think? Where did their souls settle?

I recently made this journey in reverse when I landed in the ageing capital of Georgia, Tbilisi.

The descent from Istanbul was in a little 737 with tired attendants, absolutely dwarfed by the monster I’d taken earlier from Hong Kong. Old Soviet smokestacks peppered the landscape – each belching wispy little puffs – and patches of snow still sat on the brown earth. Shit was grim.

In the airport, a Japanese businessman noticed my unhinged, jet-lagged excitement: “You like it here?!”

I shrugged – who could say?

 

Georgia, in a nutshell, is a somewhat hapless corner of the former Soviet Union, sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. Such prime real estate has seen the Georgians relentlessly conquered throughout history, from the Romans and Mongols to the ever-present Russians.

Most recently, of course, Medvedev’s 2008 invasion annexed nearly 20 per cent of the country. (Why? Oh, I don’t know – something to do with ethnic divisions and checkpoints. Let’s call it a hangover from the Soviet Union and move on.)

The point is, surely in Georgia I’d find the apocalypse, the living reality of life after a fall.

It’s a country to put modernists to shame: a truly ancient and turbulent past, all largely for nought. Georgia simply bobs on history’s long tides, sometimes freezing in Muscovite gales, other times basking in Mediterranean breezes.

But some things will never change – they can’t actually sail away on those winds of fate, and Russia will always be Russia. The country’s past fails to inspire any real confidence in its future.

In short, I was expecting gnashing of teeth in the bleak northern wastes. After all, 70 years of Russian occupation has to leave its mark on a country. The Soviet Oppression Museum in Tbilisi features a bullet-riddled train cart, its wooden planks once stained with the blood of 1921. Medvedev’s forces came within kilometres of the capital.

Instead (four weeks is plenty of time for sweeping generalisations!) I have found a people often bent but never broken. Apocalypse-veterans, Georgians live close to soil and family, tough as weeds. They may even offer a glimpse into our own future, far away in the decadent west.

So, what news from the front?

I live with a host family in a little place called Marabda.

Although only half an hour from Tbilisi, the village is populated entirely by subsistence farmers, extended families working tiny plots of land for potatoes, cabbages, and so on. The Georgian Orthodox Church reigns as benevolent monarch – a cultural more than theological anchor – and women are still expected to serve their men.

But what’s really striking is something I didn’t expect, deeper and older than any occupation: the weather. Georgia’s poverty leaves its people exposed to the wind and the snow, the blunt reality of living somewhere cold.

Family life revolves around the wood stove burning throughout the winter. And, because heating the rest of the house is impossible, three generations are forced around it – and therefore each other – for months at a time.

When I didn’t return home as expected (a shepherd had me drunk), my entire host family took to the streets, somehow afraid wolves had struck again.

Basically,  each Georgian family is besieged by winter every year. Everyone goes to ground, all together around the fire. The air outside becomes hostile, somewhat cruel.

I’m sure this sounds bizarre (downright histrionic) if you were raised in the cold, but the Australian experience is very different. Children are forever shuffled out of the house, away from the family, into the world. The fundamental benevolence of the outdoors is Australian gospel.

Our entire orientation – helped in part by a historical longing for England – is directed away from home and hearth. In countries like Georgia, however, where that hearth is necessary for survival six months of the year, this simply isn’t possible.

Or is it? The chillier frontiers of the decadent west seem to have de-fanged their winter. Wealth and electricity render the outside context abstract, a glorified irritation. The English do not huddle.

But what happens when the power goes out? Suburbia spans the world, but it is a system on life support. Were that plug ever pulled (due to peak oil, major war, et cetera) we may all remember our heavens.

We may all become Georgians, shaped and weathered by the specifics of place.

Advertisements