An adopted teenager returns to her homeland of Georgia
The crowd waiting at the arrivals gate was a blur of unfamiliar faces. Were they late? Had there been a misunderstanding about the time? Could they possibly have forgotten? And then we were ambushed, crushed in winter-coat hugs, kissed resoundingly on cheeks, pulled in and held close.
"You're really here!" cried Eka, and we laughed and went out into the chilly evening together, everyone talking at once, no longer two families - one living in Abu Dhabi, one in Tbilisi, Georgia - but one large, unruly, happy family.
When Ray, my husband who works at The National, and I landed at this airport 15 years ago we could never have imagined the abiding connections we would make in this newly independent former Soviet state. We were here to make one connection, with a five-week-old baby girl named Natia, who was to become our daughter. We didn't realise that we ourselves would be adopted by an extended family of teachers, scientists, translators, theatre directors, painters, doctors and the warmest people on the planet.
The Republic of Georgia had been the jewel in the crown of the communist empire, with its bounteous vineyards and tea plantations, its Black Sea resorts and unique cuisine. But when we came to adopt our daughter at the end of 1995, the country was in deep shadow. Sundered by civil war and adrift without the paternalistic - if iron - hand of its rulers to the north, nothing much worked there. No heat, no electricity, no post, no jobs. There wasn't even running water in the hospital where our daughter was born, which is how she ended up in the care of the Kartsivadze family: Olga, a nurse; Gunar, her physicist husband; and Eka, their 25-year-old daughter, a translator.
For three weeks we sat huddled in winter coats around the family table, drinking endless cups of chai, meeting a steady flow of family and friends, taking turns holding the baby, talking politics and books, sharing personal histories, cheering when the lights would flicker on before (inevitably) flickering off. There were many toasts to the health of our daughter - now officially named Georgia Natia Anastasia Beauchemin. Anastasia was the name Olga had given her, believing she resembled the last tsar's youngest daughter. We kept the name, in honour of the family who'd given our baby such a loving start. There were tears when we left and promises to never lose touch.
Back home in Montreal, we promised ourselves we would keep our daughter's culture alive. We took back Georgian art, music, books, maps and jewellery, and even learnt how to make Georgian specialities, such as khachapuri (cheese bread) and khinkali (meat dumplings). Letters, photos and small packages went back and forth several times a year between us and the Kartsivadzes. The post was still unreliable, but we managed to find people - often other adoptive parents - to carry our offerings and news. Which is how we learnt that Eka had given birth to a baby girl herself, born on my birthday, just six months younger than our Georgia. Her name was Liza.
We managed a return visit in 1998 when Ray took part in a UN Development Programme tour for journalists. Georgia, then two and a half, and I tagged along. It was late June, as hot and humid as it had been frigidly cold on our first visit. There were some cafes in Tbilisi by then, the city slowly shedding its Soviet severity, and Eka and I spent countless hours talking and knocking back cold coffees, while our two little girls danced among the tables. Gunar, Eka's father, had died of a heart attack at 53 the previous winter; Olga was in Moscow nursing her dying mother. We were older, wiser but as connected as ever.
The photos from this trip became another album, one that, like the album we put together from our first visit, we looked at again and again. "When can we go back?" As she got older, Georgia asked this question often.
Still, Canada is a long way from Georgia, and none of us was rich. Despite e-mails and e-cards sent on each other's birthdays, it wasn't until a day last summer - when Georgia looked up from her laptop, eyes shining - that we let ourselves seriously imagine another visit. After all, we were closer now in Abu Dhabi. "It's Liza," Georgia said. A beautiful young girl waved and smiled at us from the screen. She looked just like her mother.
Which was how I found myself sitting in the back seat of an old Opel two days after Christmas, heading once again into Tbilisi. Eka was squished to the right of me, talking away about all the things we would do and see - "Eight days isn't enough!" she insisted, laughing - while on my left Georgia had her head on Liza's shoulder. I felt her hand creep behind me to rest on Eka's arm.
The sparse winter trees, the uneven highway, the death-defying speed of the drivers: everything was the same. But everything was also different: crossing the Mtkvari River, careening around Liberty Square, before turning up Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main street, we were canopied with millions of pale-blue fairy lights strung in a swath wide as a magic carpet. Lights! In Georgia!
"The electricity took a while," Eka admitted. "Since 2003, when Mikheil Saakashvili took the reins as president?" Ray asked. "No, later," said Eka. "Perhaps 2005?" For 10 years after we left with our baby daughter, our friends had lived through freezing winters and steamy summers, never knowing from one hour to the next if the grid would hold. I'd tried to impress these hard facts on our daughter before coming. "It's a tough place. Many people still don't have jobs. Life has not been easy for our friends."
They made it look easy that first night, treating us to a sumptuous Georgian feast in one of the many restaurants the city now boasts: platters of khinkali and khachapuri, mountains of fresh-baked flatbread, bowls of salade Olivier, all our favourite things. We couldn't stop grinning (or eating): Eka; her ex-husband, Lado (still prominent in each other's lives); Ray; me; and two giggly, in-and-out-of-shyness teenage girls.
Eka was right, of course: eight days wasn't nearly enough. Our days got shorter as our nights got longer. New Year's Eve we barely went to bed. One afternoon Lado drove us all to Mtskheta, the original capital, where a stately 11th-century church has survived the best efforts of Persian, Arabian, Turkish and Russian conquerors. Another day, we piled into a hired van and visited the mountainous 18th-century village of Sighnaghi, the plains of Azerbaijan visible in the distance. We took in the Tbilisi State Ballet's Nutcracker and saw Rezo Gabriadze's wonderful marionette play Autumn of My Springtime, the same show we'd seen in an unheated theatre 15 years before.
We paid visits to our old friends Dodo and Daly, the two women who'd arranged Georgia's adoption. Neither could get over how tall Georgia had grown and how pretty. "It feels like we just talked yesterday!" Dodo said, putting her head on my shoulder. Dodo, a former physician, had opened the first cupcake cafe in Tbilisi only days before. "I want real American cupcakes," she told us. Ray found a copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes in an English bookstore and seven of us - including Dodo's 17-year-old daughter, Mariam - spent an afternoon testing recipes in their kitchen. We laughed as much as we ate.
Our time as a threesome was sweet, too. We walked the still-familiar streets, Ray and I pointing out special spots to Georgia, remembering funny moments. "This is where Dad and I walked with you. Olga bundled you in a giant snowsuit. You hated your Snugli." But one evening glows brighter than the rest. Olga, who suffered a stroke four years ago as she was recovering from a mastectomy, wanted to see us, of course. Since Gunar's death, she has lived with her son, David (Eka's older brother and a surgeon); his wife, Tamar; and their two teenagers in a three-room communal flat that has been in the family since the 1920s. It was where we first met our daughter, the place we spent so many happy hours.
Nothing had changed - the table set for as many visitors as it could possibly hold, family treasures from the Stalin years, the same maroon sofa where a tiny baby had lain so long ago. Olga held out her arms to us from her wheelchair. Georgia, looking a bit apprehensive, bent to be hugged. When she stepped back finally, tears were on her cheeks.
It was that kind of evening - dabbed eyes, rounds of toasts, Tamar's khachapuri; Georgia and Liza periodically going into hysterics over the wacky photos they were shooting of one another and promising not to post on Facebook; David raising his glass to our health, our children, our friendship; Olga at the head of the table, sneaking misty glances at Georgia.
When we said our goodbyes to a send-off party of seven a few days later, Liza hugged me for a long time. "You're like family," I said, trying really hard not to cry. (Georgia was doing enough of that for all of us.) "Not like family. You are family," Liza corrected me.
Liza wants to see Abu Dhabi and Dubai; so do Eka, Dodo and Mariam. We're hoping to open up the sofa beds in June. Georgia, meanwhile, has already told us where she'd like to spend her 16th birthday.
'I had to go back', Georgia says
She hugged me so tightly. And I hugged her back. Here we were at the airport on our last day in Georgia. Our eight days together had gone so quickly. Liza and I had become fast friends during our awesome visit. We'd talked and laughed and been quiet together. We'd played endless games of Hearts on the bed in our hotel room, taken crazy pictures of each other and frozen our butts off hiking to see a sixth-century monastery. And now we were having to say goodbye. I couldn't believe it. We had become family. Now I love her like my sister.
Liza is the granddaughter of the nurse who took care of me when I was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, 15 years ago. She is six months younger than I am; we met last summer on Facebook. Even though we'd met when I was two and a half, I have no memories of that time, just photos in an album. Liza and I couldn't really communicate last time because she spoke Georgian and no English. Now Liza speaks really good English, so we could talk all we wanted, sometimes until 4am!
I'd wanted to go back to Tbilisi for a long time, but it wasn't until I met Liza on Facebook that I really felt I needed to go back. I had to go back now. We had so many great moments in our time over Christmas and New Year's Eve. But I think the best was the night we met her extended family and shared a lot of old memories. That night we were up until 5am, laughing, talking, eating, crying from happiness. I really felt like I was "home" in a way I haven't felt anywhere else. Like I belonged there. Of course, we're already making plans for our next reunion. I cannot wait!
Georgia Natia Anastasia Beauchemin