Monday, February 24, 2014

A saint's procession

The relics of the Georgian Saint Gabriel Urgebadze were transferred from the Samtavro Monastery in Mtskheta, where he lived, to Tbilisi's gold-domed Sameba (Transfiguration) cathedral this week.  Saint Gabriel, who was canonized in 2012, died in 1995 and many miracles, healings in particular, have been attributed to him.

A procession like this is a once-in-a-lifetime, if that, event for an Orthodox Christian, so I decided to go.

I drove to Mtskheta on Friday night to see whether I could enter the monastery, and to find out the particulars about the procession on Saturday.  I stood outside the monastery gates with several hundred other pilgrims for two hours, many of whom sang hymns and read the akathist to the saint, until the soldiers posted there finally told us to go home.  No one was allowed inside the monastery except for a few groups of nuns and some men with shovels.

Finally we were told that the monk's body would be exhumed the following day at 8 a.m., and that the pedestrian procession from Samtavro to Svetiskhoveli (the main church in Mtskheta) would occur at 12.

I arrived in Mtskheta at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday. The police were not letting cars into the city; pilgrims were arriving by bus and marshrutka that were operating for free for the purposes of the pilgrimage.   When the police officer stopped me at the turnoff for Mtskheta, he asked for my "propusk" (permit).  I showed him my diplomatic ID card.  He looked at me skeptically.  I explained that my husband works at the U.S. Embassy but that I was a pilgrim going to Saint Gabriel's monastery.  He waved me through.  I made it the rest of the way without incident.  Everyone else was let off their public transport at the bridge into town and had to walk a couple miles to the monastery.

When I arrived at the monastery at 7:30 a.m., the pre-service reading was being broadcast over the monastery walls by a large speaker.  There were already easily a thousand people there.  This is significant because Georgians don't generally do much of anything until 10 a.m. at the earliest.  It was cold and rainy, so some had started small fires on the hillside to keep warm.

Thousands of soldiers had been bussed in for crowd control.  I will admit that at first I was very put off by the barricades and rows of uniformed men facing the crowd.  But later it became evident that these measures were necessary.

Most people were not allowed into the monastery.  Periodically a few people would walk up the street between the barricades.  Usually they were monastics or handicapped.  The soldiers helped out by pushing the wheelchair-bound up to the church, and carrying sick children, or someone's crutches.  It was touching.

The service lasted until after 1 p.m.  As it got later, the crowd got thicker, until we were pressed so tightly together that I wasn't actually bearing all my weight on my feet anymore.  Had the soldiers and barricades not been there, the crush of people would have been huge and I'm sure someone would have been trampled.

At 1:30, the procession finally came out.  A wall of soldiers, arms linked, filed out first, followed by monastics carrying a large icon of the saint, a pedestal for his coffin, and finally the coffin itself (which is not what Saint Gabriel was originally buried in; according to his wishes and monastic custom he was buried wrapped in fabric and strapped to a board).  The soldiers manning the barricades removed their hats in respect at the saint's relics went by.  I have to say that this would not have happened in Moscow.  Georgians as a whole are a religious people - something that I have really appreciated about my time here.

The tenacity of these pilgrims really amazed me.  The air was raw and bone-chilling.  It was raining. I nearly left myself several times.  My back burned, I couldn't feel my feet, and it took me over an hour to thaw out in front of a roaring fire once I got home. Yet there were children there, who stood the whole time.

After the crowd had thinned out, I wanted to get into the monastery. Many miracles, mostly healings, are attributed to the oil from the lampada at the saint's grave, and I wanted to get some for sick family members.  The first soldier I asked would not let me through the barricade.  I walked 20 feet further and asked again; this time I was let in.

Within the monastery walls, a small crowd of people surrounded St. Gabriel's former grave, passing down plastic bags which men at the bottom filled with dirt and passed back up.  People also sent down their crosses and prayer beads to be placed onto the grave for blessing.

I also went into the church, which was really beautiful.  I didn't take any photos in there though.

I went back to Mtskheta on Sunday to venerate St. Gabriel at Svetiskhoveli, Mtskheta's main church.

Again, it was a gray, raw day.  When I first saw the mob line, I thought, "Well, that's not too bad."

 Then I stood in it for an hour, barely moving. 

We were pressed nose-to-back and I had to fight the urge to panic.  It got me thinking about what a soft American I am.  The crush didn't faze the Georgians - even the small children in line didn't cry.   I also started thinking about what sorts of events people in the United States would be willing to wait hours for, and in such an uncomfortable mob.  All I could come up with was Black Friday sales and rock concerts and I admit, it made me sad for the state of my people.

Finally some soldiers came and formed a two-layer barricade at the front, to control the number of people who got into the actual church at a time.

After that it was only another 40 minutes until I got into the church, and the 20 minutes until I made it to the front. At the front, a priest stood by the open casket.  His job was to move the line along.  He gave each person approximately three-quarters of a second to kiss the side of the coffin before pushing their heads away and in the direction of the exit.  Because of this I only got a fleeting glimpse of the saint.  He was covered in a black shroud; it was clear his body had not been corrupted.  A strong smell of roses emanated from him.

It was an incredible experience. St. Gabriel was processed to Sameba, Tbilisi's main gold-domed cathedral, today.  He will remain there for a week to give more faithful the opportunity to venerate him, before returning to Svetiskhoveli, which will be his final resting place.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Natasha and I went to see the Nutcracker last weekend.  Mid-February does seem a little late for this particular ballet, but that is when it was playing in Tbilisi, and I really wanted to take the girls.  We ended up giving away two of our tickets because poor Z came down with the pox, so it was a mommy-and-me night for me and my oldest.

She sat on my lap during the ballet because, although tall for a 4-year-old, she is still too short to see while seated in those comfy blue chairs.

She was enraptured for the entire first act and a good chunk of the second.  The show was more or less what I expected, having seen this ballet a few times.  The production did put a national twist on it by clothing the Coffee dancers in traditional clothing and having them do Georgian-style dancing.

Around the Sugar Plum Fairy's third entrance, N decided enough was enough, and we went home.  I didn't really blame her - I always felt like the Sugar Plum Fairy's repeat appearances were actually the most boring part of the whole ballet.  I much prefer all the dancers before her, especially the Tea dancers and the Trepak dancers.

This was Natasha's favorite part:

And N doing some reenactment on the way to the car.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My baby is 1

Gabriel turned 1 today.  I know everyone says this, but man, this year went sofreakingfast. 

I cannot believe we've had him for a year.  (I also can't believe he still does not sleep through the night, but that is a topic for another time, or never).

I made him a "smash cake" and he distinguished himself among our children by being the only one who did not cry upon being presented with a 1st birthday cake.

He ate most of the frosting and a few bites of actual cake.  Yesterday I gave him some of the cake scraps while I was assembling it - he loved them.  But I guess when you have cake AND frosting, frosting wins.  He takes after his mama.  I made snickerdoodle cake with brown sugar buttercream - it is amazing and you should make some.

My little boy is growing up.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Heart-shaped food

The girls and I made heart-shaped sugar cookies for Valentine's Day.

We decorated them with royal icing (I used this meringue powder and this recipe) and sprinkles.  I colored the icing with juice from frozen berries - I just nuked them until they burst and then strained out the juice and used it in the recipe instead of water.  I also added some lemon juice to mask the flavor of the meringue powder, which I think is pretty gross.  The meringue powder, it turns out, contains some artificial crap, so I think I will go back to egg whites for royal icing.

Z didn't seem to mind the taste.

My original plan was to surprise Jeremy with the cookies at work.

However, Zoia apparently has the chicken pox, and as our housekeeper cannot remember whether she ever had it (?!), she is staying away for the next week.  So we are homebound and can't in good conscience give anyone our pox cookies anyway.

More for us, I guess.

I also made some heart-shaped garlic knots to go with our dinner last night (recipe to follow).  They were pretty quick to make - I decided I wanted to make them 90 minutes before dinner and even with the yeast rising time, they were ready in time.

Brushed with garlic oil and drizzled with parsley and kosher salt.  If I had had parmesan cheese on hand I would have used that too.

Heart-shaped herb-garlic rolls (makes 15 small rolls).

1 T active dry yeast
3/4 c warm water
1 T sugar
1.75 c flour
1 T salt
2 T olive oil
2 tsp dried basil
1 Tbs garlic powder
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme

3 Tbs olive oil
1 large garlic clove
1 tsp salt (if you are using kosher, double the amount)
2 Tbs minced parsley
grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Stir yeast and sugar into the water, allow to sit five minutes, or until bubbly.  If it doesn't get bubbly within about 10 minutes, your yeast is bad; start over with new yeast.  Stir in salt, flour, olive oil and spices, and knead, adding additional flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and elastic (I use my KitchenAid with dough hook for this).  Allow to rise for 30 minutes.  While the dough is rising, preheat your oven to 400 and grease a cookie sheet or prepare it with parchment paper.

After dough has risen a bit (it does not have to double), take golf-ball sized globs of dough and roll them into snakes between your hands.  Connect the snake at the top and push into a heart shape.  I found that pinching the dough at the bottom point of the heart, and the inner point, helped it keep its shape.  When they are all rolled, allow to rest for 10 minutes or so, then put in the oven for 18-20 minutes.  While they are baking, make the garlic oil: mash the garlic with the salt until it is paste-like, then mix into the olive oil and allow to sit.  Chop your parsley and grate your cheese.

When the rolls are done, brush them immediately with the garlic oil and sprinkle with parsley and cheese.  If you are not eating immediately, put the rolls in a bowl or basket lined with paper towels and cover with a kitchen towel.  Mine stayed piping hot for 30 minutes this way, and were still warm an hour later.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

My whimsical husband

Growing up in the Foreign Service with very practical parents, we were not the sort of family who tried to customize our government-issue housing.  I don't even think I understood that walls didn't have to be white until I was well into adulthood.  I did spend my high school and college years collecting tapestries and textiles that I thought I would one day use to entirely cover the walls and ceiling of a room in my house - it was going to be the nargileh room, and have pillows on the floor.  (Now my kids use those same tapestries to create play houses, and I haven't smoked a nargileh in ages ... how things change!)

I have held on to the practicality that raised me, and so, when moving around, it has never occurred to me to bring my own furniture (with the exception of our comfy king-sized bed) or to try to paint the walls.

But I married into some crazy creativity, y'all.  My husband comes from a family where white walls are viewed as an unfinished canvas, where the same house might have two different paint colors each year, where, if you are bored with the white ceramic tiles that adorn your fireplace, the natural solution is to run out and buy a dozen different kinds of paint and turn it into a mosaic.  The end result was stunning - but never in a million years would this have occurred to me!

A three-month-old Natasha with her
great-grandpa John in front of said fireplace.
Even now that I have acquired something of a home aesthetic, it doesn't seem worth it to me to try to customize a house that I will only live in for two years.  If you take away the time spent settling in, and the time spent packing up, that only leaves 18 months, tops, to enjoy the fruits of your labors.  And I'd rather spend that time sewing.

Anyway, my husband doesn't feel that way.  So while I was back in the States on maternity medevac last year, he took matters into his own hands and created a jungle nursery for Gabriel and a princess room for the girls.

The elephants are my favorite.  They represent our family, and the white doves above represent the two babies we lost to miscarriage.  I wish I could separate this part of the wall and take it with us everywhere we go.  Maybe I can get a good high-resolution photo of it and put it on a canvas.

I also really love this monkey.

The princesses' chamber.

The woodland friends wall decals by N's bed were out in the hall, but she decided she wanted then in the room, so ...

See the little frog prince to the right of the door?

Sun and moon on the ceiling:

And my favorite - the little dragon soaring up in the clouds:

The girls are going to miss this room when we leave.  I think J may want to recreate it when we move home.  It just seems like a huge pain to me.  My practical streak is ingrained.