As a friend of mine always says, there are two kinds of people in this world: Gurians, and everybody else. “Mind you,” he’ll then add, “Gurians aren’t descended from Egros, but from Kartlos, like most other Georgians”. And that’s what makes Guria a land of paradoxes, or paradoxical, if you will. More about that later. Guria truly is a beautiful place.

It’s also the poorest place you’ve ever seen.

Photo Credit: Natela Grigalashvili

This may be because it’s the world’s “best” testing ground for failed experiments. There’s the Izabela grape variety (better known as the “Adesa”), the bay laurel, the candlenut tree, the buckthorn pear, the military base in the village of Meria, the laboratories of Shekvetili, and a thousand other things that were started and then never finished.

It’s for this reason that people often accuse Gurians of thinking and acting too quickly, and of getting caught up in the latest trends. And people would be right. Gurians are always complaining about what a talented people they are, and about how the fates are envious of them and never let them have the success they deserve. And they’d be right too.

Gurians love to work. I once saw an old-timer who must have been well into his nineties; he was lying there completely unconscious on his death bed when, right before my eyes, he started swinging his arms back and forth, as if he was working a hoe. More about that old-timer later.

Photo Credit: Natela Grigalashvili

But Guria’s the poorest place you’ve ever seen. Guria’s mountains and valleys aren’t like other mountains and valleys – I can tell them apart by smell, because I’ve lived in both. The mountains smell of danewort, walls cured by smoke from an open hearth, and goat droppings. The valleys smell of slightly mouldy mandarins, single-distilled homemade vodka, and school desks.

Comrades, Guria is home both to misty Bakhmaro and to Ureki with its magnetic sands, to Bakhvi with its vineyards and Shroma with its citrus trees (these are just the kind of phrases you’ll come across in photo albums from the eighties, with titles like The Land of Green Gold and similar).

In this sense, Guria is also rich.

What can be said other than that, aside from their traditional yodelling, Gurians love crying, or crying over the dead to be exact. But the Gurian burial ritual, that truly is an alluring excess of carnival theatrics. How many times have I accompanied a mourner from one grave to the next and witnessed the strange metamorphosis that women go through – from 3 swapping sauce recipes to weeping and wailing, in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the strangest thing is that both states (the sauce-swapping and the weeping) feel entirely natural to me.

And this is the paradox of being Gurian.

Photo Credit: Natela Grigalashvili

Gurians are at their most sincere when they’re selflessly forcing you to drink more wine and eat more food. They’ll practically hold a knife to your throat to make sure that, however much of a rush you’re in, you’ll stay and keep the party going – sometimes even while they’re bad-mouthing another guest who’s just left after eating and drinking too much and outstaying their welcome (and all of this at the same time and on the same spot).

They’re at their most sincere when they’re cursing Eduard Shevardnadze for “ruining the country”, and also when they’re taking pride in his “Gurian roots”.

I could go on.

“How’r you doing? When d’you get here? How long’r’you down for?”

You’ll hear these three questions rolled into a single, garbled whole, and to this day I wouldn’t want to guess the implied meaning.

Guria is home to good people.

Photo Credit: Natela Grigalashvili

Gurians (probably like all Georgians) don’t like the sea that much, or at least they certainly never gaze out at it like the children of other coastal nations. Some unconscious fear makes them keep their distance. A Gurian on a horse (echoing the Gurians’ own Odyssey to wow Americans in the Wild West Shows of the early 1900s) is somehow a more natural combination of words than a Gurian in a boat. In the summertime, villagers about three kilometres from the shore will make their way to the beach for a swim with the same amount of trepidation that their guests from the distant, sunny valleys of Kakheti might feel, and the phrase “I’m heading down to the sea” is uttered no more casually in our region than it is in theirs.

I remember how in Soviet times it was popular to have tanks for storing diesel (or “solyarka tanks”, if you will), which stood in almost every garden, and how sad everybody was about it when they eventually cut them up and adapted them into so-called “Turkish ovens”. It felt like they were saying farewell to a dear departed friend.

It was with the same heavy hearts that they planted nut trees on what were once fields (and which before that were used to grow tea), after none-too successful attempts at planting kiwi trees around their borders.

They have their own way of believing in God in Guria; they cross themselves so quickly that it’s all over before the Heavenly Father knows what’s going on.

Photo Credit: Natela Grigalashvili

If you can catch just a couple of words from two Gurians in full flow (and you can’t just catch the words, you have to tackle them to the floor and tie them down), then you should count yourself lucky.

In the Gurian village of Likhauri, what used to be the workers’ club back in Soviet times was turned into one of the first discos in Georgia.

Many Gurians have an American flag spread over their writing desk.

In the Gurian village of Natanebi, on the square in front of the railway station, there was an imposing monument to Stalin that stood there right up until the Russo-Georgian war of 2008.

Gurians love eating soft, fresh chqinti cheese.

They also love winking at people.

Guria is “life’s dwelling place”, which of course means: “What did you come looking for in Guria if it wasn’t your own demise?”


Translation by: Geoff Gosby