One hot summer day in August 2015, we arrived to Zugdidi. This was the main city of the Samegrelo region, to the West of the country, stretching all the way to the Black Sea coast. Arriving to Zugdidi was not complicated: we came on the very comfortable train from Tbilisi, just over 300km away, proudly holding in our hands rail ticket of which not one word we could read. Travel reality!
We learned that the majority of travelers treat Zugdidi as the necessary stopover point on the way to Mestia in High Caucasus. According to stories and guide books alike, few people decide to stay the night, and this was precisely why we decided to book two nights. After the beautiful, interesting, different Tbilisi, unfortunately chock-full with loud Russian tourists, we craved the unknown, authentic and special corner of the world.
Zugdidi was that, and more.
Our first steps lead us to the house we were staying in for two nights, a sumptuous town house dating back to before WW2. We slowly made our way there in the air that trickled down our backs like hot, sticky soup. Then, we went back to the center of the town, in search of the post office.
Still in Tbilisi, my boyfriend purchased a painting from the street vendor, because he could not resist its golden beauty. But now we were stuck with the painting in our hands and three long weeks of Caucasus trek before us. We decided, it shall be sent home.
This was when our friendship with Zugdidi really begun. We walked through the center, past the park full of tall beautiful trees, and young men sitting around aimlessly, chatting and staring. Later we learned, many of them were internally displaced people from Abkhazia and South Osetia, as a result of the Russian invasion of Georgia of 2008. Another conflict forgotten in the West… Stories to tell, faces to see, people to understand.
As we managed to locate a tiny post office in the center of the town, miraculously still open, we slowly started to realize that we were beginning to cause a stir in this little community. We marched inside the building, with the request (in my broken Russian) of mailing the painting to Germany, and were met with a prompt refusal. Two ladies, one older, one younger, appraised our appearance as they vigorously shook their heads. Not done. Not possible. Just no. Niet.
Dejectedly, we looked at each other, and I tried again. Niet. The reality did not want to bend to our will.
This is when he appeared. Kornel, our first Zugdidi friend. He held some function at the post office, though we were not sure what he did there exactly, as he appeared to be both their mascot and the manager in one. He came in and immediately walked towards us.
“You want to send the painting?” he said in the way of greeting, in his heavily accented but otherwise good English.
We looked at one another. News sure traveled fast in this town!
“Yes we do.” I managed before one of the women broke in, explaining something to Kornel in Georgian.
“They are saying it cannot be done, as removal of works of art is strictly prohibited by our Ministry of Culture”, Kornel informed us with a sunny smile.
“It is not a national treasure, which we are trying to smuggle out”, my boyfriend broke in, “it is just a painting bought from the street artist, presenting Tbilisi in a very beautiful way. Definitely worth showing to our German friends!”
Kornel and the lady engaged in a lively debate. Then he turned to us and said, “Okay. We will call the Ministry for you. We will have to inspect the painting to make sure it is not a famous Georgian work of art!”
My boyfriend rolled the painting out of its protective sheet. Everyone from inside the small post office (which by this time became fuller and fuller of the townsfolk which came in and stayed to observe the proceeding) and even from the outside (people were called in) gathered around the painting. The sounds of delight and approval could be heard from the crowd.
“It is a beautiful painting of Tbilisi”, said Kornel, visibly moved. Everyone agreed.
Then, Kornel snapped into action. As he gave the encouragement to the younger lady, who got on the phone with the Ministry of who knows what, he translated for us what they said and what needed to be done. We had to pack the painting safely for the border control. We needed to buy a plastic protective tube. We needed to write a description of the tube’s content. We needed to sign a thousand forms – at some stage I expected they would ask for signature in blood – and we had to swear our fealty to Mother Georgia.. well not really, but things were headed that way I was sure!
As the Ministry took some convincing, Kornel took us around the corner to the stationery store, which was in fact equipped with the plastic painting tubes! Miracles did not cease! Kornel insisted to pay for the tape, which we needed to affix the description to the tube, and as we went back into the post office, and rolled the painting out again for someone that also needed to inspect it, it was finally packed, taped, signed, blessed and sent on its way.
We had the multitude of thanks for Kornel, and wanted to get him something as a thank you, to which he recoiled (I think in Georgia “thanks” like that could be taken as an insult, as if insinuating that he helped us to receive the material expression of our gratitude, so we did not insist). He also refused our invitations to come have some vodka with us in the evening, and sent us on our way with big pats on the back and wide, bright smiles. By that time everyone in the post office was smiling, clapping, milling around, visibly in a celebratory mood. Smiles-all-around Kornel was the face of Georgia we learned to remember. He was what made Georgia the best destination ever – the kind, gregarious and open spirit of its people.
We met more people like him on our way, especially in Samegrelo. Anka & Anka, two wonderfully friendly and open tourist information girls from Zugdidi will get their own mention (we went there right from the post office, and they welcomed us with “you are the ones that wanted to send the painting to Hamburg!”) There will also be place to mention Henry, our extremely patient and engaging guide around Samegrelo the next day. But for now, in this writing, Kornel’s face will shine brightest, as he takes center stage, being the first wonderfully warm Georgian man we met.
The painting is hanging on the wall in our living room. It got a little damaged from all the rolling, unrolling and rolling again, and inspections on the borders, and we also did not hang it up immediately after we got home. But my boyfriends says he loves the creases on the painting, as they remind him of Kornel and people of Georgia – friendly, honest, down to earth, humorous, giving and warm.