It happened this past Saturday. TLG offers excursions for the teachers; basically they take us out to do something traditionally Georgian, or just to see more of Georgia. About two weeks ago they took 200 people living in Tbilisi on an overnight stay in Batumi to see an opera. Yours truly was not able to go because I didn't sign up in time. But it's that sort of thing- all paid for, transportation included, you get fed. Pretty good deal. So this weekend was an excursion to pick grapes in Kakheti- the region of Georgia most known for it's wine and also where I was living last semester. I signed up thinking it would be a nice thing to do on a Saturday. But a few days later I found out that the president was going to be there! I was incredibly surprised because he had been at the opera in Batumi and he had been to another excursion the week before. Nonetheless, it was still exciting!
Saturday got off to a cold and blustery start. We had to meet for the bus at the Radisson Hotel here in Tbilisi at 9am. One thing Georgia doesn't seem to be big on is transitional seasons. A few days earlier it had been in the upper 70s, but Saturday morning was down in the mid-50s and the wind cut through my thin blazer so easily. They had us waiting outside the buses for a good 45 minutes in the cold. No idea why; we were looking at the buses, but we still had to wait outside. By the time we arrived in Katchreti, the vineyard school where we would be picking the grapes, everyone was kind of cold and grumpy. It didn't help matters that we had to wait around for another half hour just to pick the grapes. The morning was pretty unorganized. But everything got very organized very quickly when the president's helicopter got in sight. The security guys, who had been there the whole time, suddenly started walking around, telling people where to go. We weren't even allowed to take pictures of the helicopter as it landed.
Once Saakashvili was on the ground there was a huge group of people that flocked to him. Not being one for large groups I kind of stood off to the side. Close enough to see him, but without getting mixed up in the crush of people. As luck would have it he started making his way past the rows of grapes, shaking hands and saying hello. He wandered in my direction and I was able to shake his hand. I even said, "It's nice to meet you, Mr. President." First time I've ever been able to say that!
He had a little conversation with an older woman next to me. She was talking about teaching in Tbilisi when there was a bit of a lull in the conversation. He kind of looked off in the direction of the donkey, who had all of the grape baskets on his back, when Saakashvili starts telling the goofiest joke about a Kakhetian donkey on vacation as a school headmaster in Svaneti (another region of Georgia, in the mountains). It was so bizarre! But it was even funnier looking around at all the people doing the awkward obligatory laugh; that's what I was really laughing at.
So after his corny joke he moved on, shaking more hands and all that. Having felt satisfied with my handshake I stayed where I was- talking to my friends and just enjoying the sun that had just come out. We were goofing around with the grapes that were in buckets everywhere. We were taking a group picture with everyone holding a grape cluster when who walks up from behind us but Saakashvili asking if he could get in the picture too! We said, "Ooooh, okay, Misha. If you really want to be in our picture..." (or to be more accurate there was a collective, "YES! PLEASE!") How do you you turn down a president when he wants to get in your picture? It was so crazy! After that there was another swarm of people handing their cameras off to people. At one point I think Saakashvili had ten people on either side of him trying to get in.
It was such a surreal day. It wasn't so much that I was star-struck, I was just surprised that the President of Georgia was kind of a goofy guy. Especially the way the Georgians speak about him (the amount of languages they claim he knows boggles the mind. I think I've heard one report that he knows 12 different languages. Crazy stuff like that). But hearing him tell a goofy joke about a donkey and then asking us if he could be in our picture was definitely not what I was expecting.
And don't worry folks, I documented the day in pictures!
|This is the security guard's feet at the front gate. There were police officers lined up and down the road for half a mile before we even arrived at the vineyard!|
|This is Dante the Donkey|
|Despite the intense security checkpoint, once we were inside we were given really large, sharp box cutters to cut the vines.|
|See! Large box cutter! Also, look at them grapes! I think I ate more than I picked, though. Oops.|
|Don't worry, Georgian Military, this isn't Saakashvili's helicopter, it's the second helicopter carrying all of his security guys with the very large guns and bullet proof vests|
|Dante the Donkey is a very hard worker|
|The picture that the president asked to be in!|