George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Wednesday 21 February 2007
Georgia on my Mind
Alex Horne – 21st February 2007
Before returning to her office, high up in Eventika Towers, Katerina, our Grade-A Belarusian, had promised us a Georgian. Unsurprisingly, a week later she’d not only made contact with the man but had primed him about our project so fully that when I finally got round to sending him an email he replied within minutes to say:
“Yes, I do know about you and your friend and about your interesting project. Katerina told me everything about it. I'll be more than happy to meet you today or tomorrow if it is convenient for you. Ideal time for me is either lunch break or after work (at about 5:54
Not feeling confident enough to meet at such a precise time in the evening I picked the lunch break option and not wanting to look as badly organised as I am, set off an hour early for the meeting and still only arrived at his workplace in Bloomsbury with half an hour to spare. Without much of a plan I wandered aimlessly for a while before being swept along by the tide of multi-lingual tourists that was flowing into the British Museum – which, I decided, was as good a place as anywhere to pass my extra time.
I was right. Inside, I headed to the magnificent central greenhouse that was opened in time for the most recent millennium, where I saw a sign for the Paul Hamlyn Library whose purpose, it said, is ‘illuminating world cultures’. Ah ha! I could do some research! And if this library was willing to help shed light on the country in question, I’d be a fool not to go in.
So I went in. It was a lot like a normal library, but grander and even emptier and I immediately found a free computer in whose search engine I could type ‘Georgia’. Within nano-seconds (probably) The Making of the Georgian Nation popped up with its very own grid-reference (947.85 Sun) which I scribbled on my hand before leaping up and setting off once again. I was getting into the whole doing some investigation in a library thing.
Looking from the shelves to my hand and back again, I walked clockwise past books on Rome, Greece, Asia, the Renaissance, England, China and Yemen, realized I’d gone too far and eventually found the chunky but manageable book nestled between the histories of Scandinavia and Byzantium. It contained four hundred pages all written by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan, and all pertaining to Georgia. With just twenty minutes remaining till my appointment I decided to read the first and last pages and hope they would summarise the intervening 398.
Unfortunately, with the most recent of Georgia’s revolutions happening just four years ago, the end of this history book (published in 1994) was already more outdated than most. The introduction, however, contained a timeless tale that I would later recount to Berdia in a bid to impress him and which I’ll include now, because I like it:
“A favourite story of modern Georgians relates how God came upon the Georgians only after He had parceled out all the countries of the world to other nationalities. The Georgians were in typically festive mood and invited the Creator to join them in wine and song. The Lord so enjoyed himself that He decided to give these merry and carefree people the one spot on earth that He had reserved for Himself – the valleys and hills that lie to the south of the great Caucasus Mountains.”
So as I headed off to meet Berdia* for the first time, I was looking forward to spending time with a typically festive, wine-loving, song-singing, merry and carefree sort of person. And while he didn’t quite look as happy-go-lucky as I was hoping, dressed immaculately in pin stripe suit and shiny shoes, he certainly proved to be exceptionally good company.
“I love black coffee”, he said as he guided me into the Starbucks nearest his work and insisted on buying me one too. It might not have been wine but he drunk it with gusto then started talking eagerly and with unerringly precise English. He’s been in London for three years now and we both agreed that people here are lazy when it comes to learning languages. He has two young sons back in Georgia, both already studying English and Russian (alongside Georgian) at their school. In fact Nicolas, the littlest, had picked up so much from the cartoon network in his bedroom that once, at the age of four, he surprised his father by saying; ‘I’m going to sleep now – please close the door’.
‘My generation is absolutely different’, says Berdia, referring to the cable TV and American movies his kids have enjoyed and nicked their English from. He’s 32 in a couple of weeks and has already experienced three revolutions in his homeland. ‘I’ve seen so many bad things. I don’t want my sons to see what I’ve seen.’ So now he’s working hard to ensure they get all the opportunities in the world, earning a Masters in I.T. from the University of East London, eventually winning himself a five-year visa, and filling every minute in between with part time work and yet more study.
Back in 1991/2, Berdia was still at university in the capital T’bilisi when the civil war was waging. While his lectures took place on one side of the river, his compatriots fought on the other. They never stopped attending their classes, even though they could sometimes see the bullets screaming over the water. Now, sitting in Starbucks on Southampton Row, just down from the plush showroom where he works, he says it’s hard to believe what he and his people went through.
‘Georgia is a very old country’, he continues, and I manage to slip in the story I’d read that very morning. ‘Yes’, he laughs, ‘it’s true. We are very hospitable. We love to have a nice table with fine wine – we have the best wines in the world – and we like to pronounce a toast whenever someone has a drink. In fact, we’re the only table in the world at which every single glass has to be toasted!’ I like the ideas both of the constant toasting and this global feast, at which every country has their table.
‘That war was a black page in Georgia’s history’, he says, leaning forward again. ‘But at least we learnt from it. The Rose Revolution of 2003 was different because the opposition and the people made the president step down without guns. Not a single bullet was fired and the government quit’.
Soon after, he left too and spent every day for the next couple of years toiling industriously in London.
It paid off. He now works for Spink, the venerable auction house founded in 1666 and dedicated to the collection of coins, medals and stamps. ‘I got a promotion two weeks ago’, he smiles. He’s clearly proud of his employers and tells me that he’s discovered several Georgian coins in the company’s numismatic books. ‘I used to think auctions were very posh, I’d see people spending millions on TV and never imagined I’d one day be the IT manager of one of the oldest auction houses on the planet.’
‘Before I worked here I wasn’t interested in that world but I’m fascinated now’, he tells me, and this seems to be a trend in Berdia’s life. He was no good at things like maths or physics at high school but when the computer revolution (this doesn’t count as one of the three mentioned above) kicked off, he found his feet and got his first job at the age of sixteen. Since then he’s worked almost every day of his life, taking virtually no holidays or sick leave. ‘I hate being off sick. I’m so used to work now, I’m addicted’, he says, grinning again. ‘I’m a workaholic. I quite often come in on a Saturday but I think if you enjoy it, it’s fine. The person’s happy if he does what he likes to do. And if you really want to do something and you really try hard, you can definitely get it. I like challenges. I like to finish things. Nothing’s impossible. For six months I lived on five hours sleep a day, but I got there in the end’. He’s a very positive man.
Coming to London, he says, was the hardest thing he’s had to do. Like everyone we meet he says it’s an extremely expensive place to live, but Berdia doesn’t complain. ‘I had to work very hard both on my essays and in my free time’. Thankfully, his degree in English from back in Georgia stood up to the test and he says the ‘huge challenge’ of London was definitely worth it. ‘Back home the people are lovely and the country is beautiful (‘I know’, I said, ‘I’ve heard the story…’) and you can find a job if you’re smart and hard working. But the possibilities are limited. London is the centre of Europe, of the world. You can do anything here if you’re hard working and want to achieve something’. Like I said, he’s a very positive man.
Berdia is currently working with Spinks’ CEO on the company’s first on-line auctions. In fact, if you have a look at http://www.spink.com/podcast/index.html you’ll be told all about the next one on April 19th and can maybe even bag yourself your own piece of history. It’s an exciting and, indeed, revolutionary step for such a traditional industry.
Berdia’s always been ambitious. ‘Even in my childhood I knew I wanted to graduate in the UK or the US. When I was 12 or 13 I was reading a lot about England and learning English. I heard many stories about London and started to get interested’. Now, thanks to his job at Spinks, he has secured that highly-prized five-year visa and plans to stay for as long as he can after that.
‘I want to bring my children here – once they’ve finished their schooling in Georgia. Basic education there is important. I’m not saying British education isn’t good but they’re Georgians. I want them to learn Georgian history. A person has to know his own country before he can travel the world, otherwise they’re lost’. This, like everything he said, was again both sensible and inspiring. Professor Ronald Suny closed his book with the words;
“Georgia has the experience and potential of intolerance and exclusivity, as do most nations, but it also has traditions of inclusion and generosity, tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. Whether Georgia can be successfully transferred from a society rent by conflict into a pluralistic democratic nation will depend on Georgians rethinking their history. The key to the future lies in what a people selects from its past, how it imagines itself as a community and continues to remake itself as a nation.”
With people like Berdia looking after the past, I’m sure Georgia will be just fine.
*Berdia, he told me, is an unusual name even in Georgia; ‘I typed it into a search engine to find out what the name meant and do you know what it told me? ‘You must be an alien!’’