Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Helpless Traveler


This is a story about helplessness.

I keep meaning to write more fun and exciting stories about hiking in the Andes or trekking around the Amazon or busing through Greece, but instead this is the story that keeps rattling around in my head. It's not very happy. 

I lived with a host family in the country of Georgia. They spoke Georgian. I spoke English. Misunderstandings and frustrations abounded - but they were kind and patient with me, fed me well, gave me gifts and were hospitable and polite to a fault. In Georgia hospitality is very important and so is family. Married couples often live with the husband's parents (something a co-teacher of mine complained about). My host family had a grandmother who lived with us. I was forever unsure if she was my host dad's mom or his grandma or maybe a great-aunt, but it didn't really matter. She lived with us and they were terrible to her. She had her own little stove outside in the garage, instead of being able to use our kitchen. Her room, as far as I could tell, was a cot in the dining room where clothing was stored and the kids would often bust in, shouting. She either was not allowed to sit on the regular chairs or chose not to for some reason. She sat on tiny wooden stools. She was never offered the coffee or treats I or other guests were. She was ignored completely in fact, except when she was sometimes shouted at. I couldn't fathom what was happening - my host family was so kind to me, so hospitable with their neighbors, even the cane-hitting older neighbor was always being offered chocolates and coffee. Why would they treat this grandmotherly relation this way? 

A friend suggested maybe she had been a really evil person before and now no one wanted her. Scrooge without the revelatory ghosts and life change.

One weekend I stayed home, sick with strep throat, when my host family went to a baby baptism. Many Georgians don't believe in germs, and my family was no exception, so it took tears and pleading and calling up a translator to get them to allow me to stay home in bed. Finally, the house was quiet. I dragged myself to the kitchen to eat some of the kinkalli my host mom had left and there was my host grandma, sneaking bread. Did they not feed her, ever? How did she get food?

She looked worried about me. She went off to her little stove in the garage and brought me her tiny pan of fried potatoes. She would come up to my bed and check on me a few times a day. She got our neighbor to check on me too. For the first time since I met her, she was moving around more and speaking and seemed so happy to be doing anything. When my family returned, she went back to being silent.

I made a point to offer her my seat or a bit of whatever snack I was eating. My family only spoke to her angrily, even my host sister. 

 How do you protest something like this, that you don't understand? I was the foreigner, a guest (even if I paid rent). I didn't know what was going on - it not only seemed to go against my family's nature, but against Georgian culture. All I knew was that I couldn't stand to keep seeing the grandmother so sad.

So I thought, I will buy her a chair and see how my family reacts. I could just imagine it - trouble would certainly erupt, but I felt like it was worth it. Although all my anthropology training told me to stay out of what I didn't understand, I did understand pain. And I wasn't going to (literally) sit by quietly in my nice warm corner of the sofa while a lady of 70 had to steal bread and sit in a stool in the corner. 

Then one day after I formulated this plan, a sister of my host dad appeared, smiling and quiet, and took the grandma away. No one said goodbye to her. They continued steadily ignoring her presence to the end. 

I hope she went somewhere better. 

My family continued to be unfailingly kind, patient and inclusive of me. We parted ways with sadness, and a promise to come to my wedding supra. I miss them still.

What would you have done in a situation like this? 


  1. Hello Mary Ellen,

    First of all, this was very well-written.

    I can imagine the frustration you felt for this old woman. It saddens me to think that people do this to their elderly. I always complained that Americans were disrespectful by putting their elderly in retirement homes, but to read about the neglect that this elderly woman suffered, well is down right shameful.

    I must admit I know nothing about Georgian culture, but I know that people would not do this. This must have been a special case. I must ask, what exactly did you do for the elderly woman?

    It is moments like this, small acts of kindness, that truly make a difference.

    Take Care,

    The Curmudgeon

  2. Hello! Thanks so much for reading, David! Well, like the post said, I offered her my seat and whatever snack I was eating. I acknowledged her, which was more than most other people did, and made a point to say hello and ask how she was every day... she seemed to appreciate this, and always came and stood by me and smiled. But yes, I was, and still am very confused about the situation. My host family were really very kind and lovely people to me and everyone else, so who knows what was going on...