I’m reading a charming book called Anything Can Happen by George Papashvily (with his wife Helen, but it’s told in the first person by George); it’s the reminiscences, hokey and in sometimes overly cutesy “immigrant English” but heartfelt, funny, and moving, of a man who left Soviet Georgia for America in the early 1920s. (I have the first edition from 1945, borrowed from my nonagenarian mother-in-law, but as you can see from the Amazon link it’s been much reprinted and is still easily available, which testifies to its irresistible quality.) I thought I’d quote some of Chapter IV, “The Sound of Home”:
In all that time except for those first few months in New York I never heard one word spoken in my own language—Georgian… Once when I was still in Pittsburgh a Turk told me his cousin in Wheeling knew a man who could speak Georgian. So when was my day off—I was still in glue factory this time—I rode over on the bus and found this cousin. But it turned out his friend had been in Batum only a week or two in 1918…
Then one day I heard about the big professors at the university. They were writing books and speaking many languages… So I thought—such big professors—maybe one of them can speak Georgian.
On my day off I took plenty of time and got dressed up and went over to the university. High up in a marble building I found two men. Syrian, Russian, Greek, Persian, Armenian, Tartar, they were speaking all those languages like English—but Georgian, no, not a word.
They shook their heads and one took down a big book from the shelf. He said, “Do you know you speak one of the few tongues in the world that is unrelated to any other language group?” [!]
“Traces of Sumerian may be noted in it, I believe,” said the other…. [!!]
I was singing [a Georgian song] the day I went down to the new laundry for my shirts… The lady behind the counter stared when she took the ticket from me, but I was getting used to that.
“You sing in a funny language?”
“Yes, madam,” I said.
“My father speaks a funny language, too. A very funny one. He put a piece in the Sun Telegraph once. Ten years ago. ‘I pay one thousand dollars anybody can speak my language’ was what he said. ‘Signed Al Monteaux.’ A few people came, but nobody spoke it. It’s a funny language.”
“I guess all languages are funny to those not speaking them, madam. Nourts Gaprindebe, Nourts Moprindebe.” (“Fly, butterfly, fly.”)
“I call him anyway. Papa! Papa!!”
“Skals Napoti, harali haralo. Skals Napoti—” The tunes wouldn’t stay out of my mouth.
The door of the back office opened and an old man popped out. “Skals Napoti? Who sings Skals Napoti?” His voice creaked on the song like a dry ox-yoke.
I went toward him. “Gamarjueba, batano.” (“May yours be the victory in battle, sir.”) [Actually, gamarjoba (the modern form of gamarjveba), though etymologically it means ‘victorious,’ is the normal word for ‘hello’ in Georgian—LH.]
And he opened his arms and kissed me, and the tears rolled down his cheeks so fast they almost drowned his answer.
“Gagemarjos, Shvilo. Madelobtbele wart.” (“Thank God that the sun rose on this day, my boy.”)
“So, at last! I hear my own language again after three years,” I said…
“Three years,” he said in Georgian. “Three years and yet you complain! Think of me, my son. Today I have heard the sound of home for the first time in thirty years.”…
After that almost every night when my work was through I stopped by the laundry for Papa Monteaux and we bought dry olives and salt cheese and cucumbers and bread and went home to his basement and tapped a barrel. For in all the thirty years when he never heard our language, still he never forgot how to make good wine.
Evening after evening we sat in his cellar doorway under the arbor and sang and told stories and Keento jokes and histories. We took turns reciting “The Man in the Panther’s Skin” to each other. [A kinto is a street merchant; apparently they were traditionally known for telling stories and jokes. The Man in the Panther’s Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი, Vepkhistqaosani) is the national epic of Georgia.]
We talked and talked…
The book was successful enough that it was made into a 1952 movie starring Jose Ferrer, and a user comment at IMDb says “It is initially hard to accept Jose Ferrer playing a Slav…” I hope I don’t have to tell anyone here that Georgians are not Slavs!