The Calling: An Overseas Course of Study or a Pilgrimage?
By Michael Berman
Something drew me to the announcement of a Conference for English Language teachers to be held in Georgia although, to be entirely honest, at that stage I did not even know where it was. I just felt that I had to go there so I immediately sent details of the presentations I could offer to the contact person, and then promptly forgot all about it. However, some time later I received a reply. The answer was yes, they would be delighted to have me and to arrange accommodation as long as I could cover the cost of the fare. That was easily arranged as the College where I worked was prepared to do that. But the next problem was how to get to the venue as there were no flights to Georgia from the UK at that time.
It seemed I had to fly to Frankfurt, and then take an Air Georgia plane to Tbilisi, the ticket for which could only be purchased at the Air Georgia desk in Frankfurt airport. I arrived expecting to pay by credit card but only American dollars were acceptable so I then had to find a cash point machine, withdraw the money in marks and convert it at a Bureau De Change. To make matters worse, there followed a five-hour delay on the runway. Apparently the airport fees hadn’t been paid by the impoverished airline so the pilot wasn’t given clearance for take-off until the bill was finally settled with the dollars my fellow travellers and I had handed over at the desk.
The reason why there were no flights from the UK as I found out later was that the planes, all Aeroflot rejects, were not deemed to be airworthy. Hardly surprising when you consider that half of the seats had no seatbelts and the toilet did not even have a door that closed. My main concern, however, was that as the plane was making its final descent into Tbilisi, the one and only pilot had joined the passengers and was drinking wine and singing with them in the aisle. Who, if anybody, was in the cockpit I’ll never know, but amazingly we landed safely.
Most places you visit can be compared to somewhere else you’ve been but Georgia was truly an exception. There’s no way it can be neatly classified and categorised and that’s part of its attraction. The people had hardly anything, recovering as they were from the after-effects of their struggle for independence and a civil war, but whatever they did have they would share with you. Fiercely independent, they would never admit to the difficulties they were experiencing and acted as if everything was just fine.
Life revolved around the extended family, without whose support nobody could have survived through those times. The only form of social activity was sitting round the table for extended feasts to which everyone who came contributed something. A Tamadah would be appointed, always a man, and he would make an endless series of toasts for which we were all obliged to stand and drink. This was done from a Kanzi, a hollowed-out horn, so the wine, all locally produced, had to be drunk in one swig, as the horn, once drained of its contents, could only be laid on its side. Candles were always placed on the table, not for any decorative purpose but in preparation for the inevitable electricity cuts that would occur without any warning.
As for the Conference itself, despite the fact that there was no electricity and no equipment, not to mention the fact that I had to give my sessions by candlelight wrapped up in a coat, the enthusiasm of the delegates, starved for so long of contact with native speakers of English, was truly contagious. And despite the fact that there were no textbooks in the schools, ridiculously overcrowded classes and antiquated methods, the standard of English was remarkably high.
One Professor at the State University, an elderly woman, stood out from all the rest. She was always accompanied by one of her students with whom she would walk arm in arm. I later found out that this was because she had been blind since birth. Despite the fact that Braille was unheard of in Georgia, her English was native speaker level. She had a photographic memory and her students read to her and escorted her in return for lessons. Her fighting spirit and ruthless determination to succeed despite all the odds won my wholehearted admiration. No doubt she was an impossible person to live with, being extremely tyrannical and selfish, but nobody could fail to admire her resolve, which represented everything the younger Georgians had lost. For a generation the State had provided for them, so they had no need to do anything for themselves. Now that the situation was reversed they were totally lost. They had no idea how to use their new power to take control of their lives and just regarded themselves as victims of circumstance. This coupled with the revival of the Nationalist movement with the resultant disinterest in alliances with other states (surely the only way forward for such a small country) left a fertile land inhabited by people with a rich culture with an extremely bleak outlook.
Anyway, I’m starting to digress and it’s time I returned to the subject. At the end of the Conference there was a farewell dinner in the organiser’s house to which Ketevan had been invited. She brought her guitar along and sung an old Beatles song, I believe it was “Yesterday” while another of the teachers accompanied her. At the first available opportunity I went over to her and tried to make conversation. But my introduction was followed by silence on her part. Then she blurted out “I’ve got two children” I didn’t know how to respond. “Really? Tell me about them.” I’d actually noticed her earlier when she walked through the Conference Hall, arriving late for one of my sessions. I’d also observed that she sat through the repeat. I vainly thought this was because she’d enjoyed it so much although it turned out that she was simply too tired to move on to the other hall and used the session to have a little nap in. And that’s how it all started. It was the ultimate challenge and I couldn’t resist it. It turned out I was the first foreigner Ketevan had ever spoken to, so her suspicion and mistrust were understandable.
I managed to persuade her to go out for dinner with me the following night, the last night before my return. My presentations over, I felt more relaxed and showed her my better side. And yes it was love at first sight. I kissed her good night outside my hotel, not expecting to see her again. But the next morning I found her waiting at the airport, which is when I invited her to come to London for a holiday. The holiday turned into a happy ever after and we remain together to this day.
I would be lying if I said it has been plain sailing as the culture shock that hit Kate when she first arrived was immense. And I was not as patient as I might have been, not used to having to deal with someone else’s problems in addition to my own. Not being assertive by nature, it took Kate a long time to find any work and it was a struggle for me to support us both and pay all the household bills too. However, we have slowly and painfully adapted to our new roles and hopefully the worst is now behind us. Irakli and Natia, Kate’s children, live with their grandparents but come to join us for their long summer holidays each year. And now we’re trying to have a child of our own.
Do I have any regrets? – None at all. Moreover, despite all the temptations due to the nature of my work, I have stayed faithful, something I have never succeeded in doing before. And am I happy? That’s a question I have never been able to answer, possibly as I still have to learn to love myself and happiness can truly only stem from that. But that’s another story!
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The Droghte of Marche
Hath perced to the rote…
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
– taken from The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
An instinctive longing to move with the seasons has been with us since before we were ‘human’. The call to Pilgrimage can be as profound as such an instinct. When we are called to go on Pilgrimage we enter into a special relationship with landscape, time and place that hallows both Way and Wayfarer in a way that that can only be understood through personal experience.
A pilgrimage can deepen our relationship with place and is also profoundly balancing and grounding, no doubt that is why so many are called to it after experiencing a life change, loss of a loved one, or a spiritual experience. The calling can take many forms. A longing, a desire to learn about a deity associated with a particular place, synchronicities that all point at the same destination, or just a slow growing idea that takes shape over months or even years. The important thing is our response. In a sense, preparing for a long pilgrimage involves letting go of a previous self (often in a very real way, leaving jobs, homes, family and security be behind) and making room for a new self to emerge. (An extract from the article “Pilgrimage for Pagans” by Kate Fletcher & Corwen ap Broch. In Pagan Dawn, Beltane 2009).
Although I did not fully realize it at the time, my first visit to Georgia turned out to be very much a pilgrimage and the start of a new life, in the same way as our overseas students’ first study trip to an English-speaking country often turns out to be. In other words, it is frequently a highly significant period in their lives in which their main preoccupations have little if anything to do with learning English. In fact, as a form of pilgrimage, such a journey can even take the form of an initiatory process:
Although its outer forms may sometimes appear to be different, the initiatory process has common features in all religions and spiritual traditions. In Buddhist tradition, the journey of the Buddha towards enlightenment combines worldly renunciation and austerity with the use of meditative techniques to quiet the overactive mind, cultivating detachment and inner peace; significantly, the Buddha’s inner journey is also connected with a profound reconnection with the natural world. He leaves the city and enters the forest, where he teaches the deer and finally finds enlightenment under a bodhi tree, assisted by a serpent deity called the Naga King as well as by the Earth Mother. In Christian tradition, the equivalent initiatory path is represented most clearly by the discipline and unworldliness of the monastic life, which began in the early Christian era with monks moving to live in the desert between Egypt and Palestine. Christian mystical tradition sees a ‘dark night of the soul’ as central to the process of inner purification, and often compares the soul’s initiatory journey to stages in the life of Jesus Christ, culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. Here, as in several other mystical traditions, including forms of Hindu asceticism and Buddhist tantra, the individual’s meditation upon suffering, death and impermanence of the flesh is a vital stage in the initiatory process. In Celtic myth and in the Grail legends that it shaped, a commitment to the initiatory journey is often represented by the crossing of one or more ‘perilous bridges’. These dangerous crossings are the testing gateways to the Grail castle, where deeper spiritual insights may be obtained. (An extract from Mann, N. & Glasson, P., 2009, ‘The Glastonbury Experience & the Path of Initiation’ In AVALON, Issue 42, Summer 2009).
Being English Language teachers, whether we like it or not is actually a very small part of our jobs, and if we pretend otherwise then our effectiveness to help those who are entrusted to us is clearly greatly diminished.
PS. To bring the above story up to date, nearly fifteen years have passed since my first visit to Georgia described above. It turned out that we were unable to have children of our own, but Natia and Irakli both moved to the UK to live here with us. As for Ketevan, she is now the Managing Director of Caucasus Arts Ltd, a company set up to promote both visual and performing artists from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the other independent states in the region. And Georgia through Its Folktales, with tales translated by Ketevan and notes on them written by me, is due to be published in paperback by O-Books in March 2010.
Journeys bring power and love
back into you.
If you cannot go somewhere
move in the passages of the self.
They are like shafts of light,
and you change
when you explore them
Jelaluddin Rumi – 13th century Sufi