Caucasus Journey V: Batumi Marathon

April 9, 2009
Wednesday was another long day in Batumi. Actually, I’d planned on being out of town by Tuesday morning, but my research detained me. Even though the folks at the archive had declared two of the files I wanted to look at [from the 1880s] “top secret,” there was still a lot for me to look at. As is usually the case with archives, once I thought I was out, I got dragged back in. So, to make a long story short, I ended up working there not only on Tuesday, but also all day Wednesday.
At your service: the staff of the archive reading room
After working in the archive on Tuesday, I went to the city library to use the internet in the library’s “American Corner.” The “American Corner” is financed by the US Embassy, and constitutes a small room in the city library where there is free internet access, and a decent (though small) selection of non-fiction (mostly on American politics and history) and fiction by American authors. There are also plenty of American magazines available for folks to read. In short, it’s precisely the sort of the thing the US should be investing more money in, the kind of American aid that is visible and which people actually appreciate receiving.
Back when I lived in Turkey in the 1990s I used to go to the American consulate in Tepebaşı [before they moved into their current miserable fortress in Istiniye] to use the library. Like the American corners today, the library contained only books about the United States and by American authors. Sure, it would have been a bit cooler if they included non-American authors, but whatever. The library was always filled with young people, who could check out books for two weeks at a time and read books and magazines in English in a friendly, pleasant environment.
In 1996, the American library in Istanbul and in every other consulate in the world was shut down thanks to Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans, who thought that whatever paltry amount the United States was spending on this kind of outreach was more than America in the 1990s could afford. Closing the US libraries abroad was part of the resolution of the budget standoff between the House Republicans and Bill Clinton. I sure hope Newt Gingrich feels he’s gotten his money’s worth.
At some point during the Bush administration—my guess is that it was sometime after September 11th—somebody decided that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t such a bad idea to spend a small amount of money in order to open centers where people around the world could come and use the internet, read books about American history and politics, and read American journals and newspapers. Up to now, it seems that most of these “American corners” have been opened in East/Central Europe and the territories of the former USSR, but it’s a start—a long-overdue investment on the infrastructure of American diplomacy. 
Anyway, when I was checking my email in the American corner on Tuesday night a high school student named Kate struck up a conversation with me, asking me question after question about studying in the United States. A little bit later, she and the woman who works in the American Corner came up and asked me if I’d be willing to give a talk the next day. There was no way I could refuse.
So, on Wednesday, my talk at the American Corner was set for 6 pm, but I still had a full day to put in at the archive. I got through my work, aided—as always—by the Turkish coffee that one of the reading room staff members would make each day at around 11 for me and the other researchers working there (two local scholars). As usual, I was able to put an order in for documents right before they closed for lunch at 1 pm, and then collect them shortly after the re-opened at 2 (something which is pretty much unheard of in archives, where usually you need to wait until the next day to receive your documents). In short, the staff was incredibly helpful. Once I finished reading my last document, we took pictures and kissed farewell (Georgian-style, one kiss on the cheek), and then I headed over to the library.

Given the short notice and the fact that there was a driving rainstorm, the turnout of fifteen or so people was pretty good. Apparently, someone from the embassy had come out in February to give a talk on Obama’s inauguration, and there had been forty people stuffed into the tiny room. That doesn’t surprise me. Young people here seem really hungry for English, as well as for first-hand contact with westerners. And indeed, there does seem to be a really pro-American sentiment here that is very difficult to find elsewhere in the world. I talked for about twenty-five minutes or so (standard stuff about me), then we spent the rest of the time asking and answering questions. There was a lot about Georgia that I wanted to ask them, and those in attendance had loads to ask about studying in the US. I had a fabulous time, and felt really lucky to have been able to be a part of something like this.
At the American Corner

After my talk I got taken out to dinner by three young women who work at the archive. One of them had been getting teased for coming up and speaking to me in English in the reading room, and I think she wanted to prove something to the others. It was all very sweet. The four of us had beers, khachapuri, and khinkali at a place not too far from the archive, easily the best food I’ve had since I’ve been here (although frankly I’ve enjoyed just about every meal I’ve had here so far). By the end of the evening, though, I was pretty wiped out. At a little after ten, we took a round of photos, did some single-cheek kissing, and I was on my way back to the hotel (limping, somewhat, because I seem to have pulled a muscle in the arch of my left foot—after months of sedentary existence in Istanbul, walking everywhere in Batumi has been a bit of a shock to my system I think).
On the town
It’s Thursday now, and I’m preparing to hit the road for Kutaisi, although there are rumors that the roads between the major cities in Georgia have been closed in response to anti-government rallies taking place in various parts of the country. Maybe I'll make it there today, maybe I'll end up spending an extra night in Batumi. In any case, I’ve had a really super time in Batumi, and will leave town with a lot of slips of paper in my wallet bearing the email addresses and phone numbers of my new friends here.

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