For three days, the wind blows like nothing I’ve known. When you’re out in it, it threatens to knock you off your feet if you turn a corner unprepared. It rattles the windows at night and hollers. I lie awake, waiting to hear a pattern in its wails, sighs and whoops.
It’s like that at the school. There are children in the hallways, and everywhere. There is a comb and scrap of mirror on a ledge. There are drawings of castles, rabbits, and apple trees, taped to the walls in classrooms and corridors. There’s a young man who wanders around near the steps to the main building. He always smiles and wants to say ‘hi’. We don’t know the significance of any of it yet. We keep on listening and hope that a pattern will emerge.
We spend Tuesday with Darina at the school, trying to get a sense of an ordinary day. Every time we walk into a classroom, though, we are interesting novelties, strangers, and we change things.
In a first grade sports class, a small, dignified boy called Baccho makes it clear he is not going to crawl through the hoop his teacher holds unless we both do it first. The music class becomes a performance of Georgian song and dance, with Darina, Alastair and I the audience. In Life Skills, where they are supposed to be learning how to bake a cake, all the children turn around in their seats to look at us.
‘They are interested to know who you are,’ Darina says.
‘Quite right,’ Alastair says.
The teachers, also interested to know who we are, ask our opinion on integration for children with special needs into mainstream education. This is a new-ish Government policy just starting to affect the school. Like the good unknowing therapists we are, we fudge it, asking what they think, and telling them what we know about the way it is in Scotland.
At the end of the school day we spend ages with Darina, deciding which children it’s best for us to work with and how to structure our time here. We want to make groups with children of similar ages and abilities. We want to focus on children struggling with some kind of communication difficulty or emotional distress, children we think could benefit from therapeutic music. Darina runs backwards and forwards in high heels. It all looks complicated, then impossible. We share out the remains of a bar of chocolate to keep us going. Then, out of nowhere, it’s all arranged. We will work with six groups of children, two groups per day. One or two of the ten women who came to the meeting on the first day are assigned to each group. They will observe and participate. Later, they will take over running sessions themselves. Each day will end with a training session for all the adults.
So this is the basic beat, the rhythm and structure of our days. The way the music unfolds is still before us, still unknown.
Thea has been cooking for us each night. We come home tired from the school and there is aubergine simmered in yoghurt, cabbage stew or spiced beans, all served up with white bread. There are various homemade chilli and tomato sauces that appear on the table in old jam jars and water bottles. There is Irakli’s wine, which he makes in vats downstairs and brings up a jug at a time.
One night, Irakli has his friends round, two brothers, Roma and Baccho, electricians like him. As we eat, we talk. Ika tells us that he came to Tbilisi in 1993 at the age of twelve, fleeing the war in Abkhazia with his mum, sister and brother. He tells us during a toast that his dad was killed in the war. He mimes a gunshot, crosses his hands over his heart, and then lifts them above his head.
‘With God,’ he says.
Georgian history is littered with wars, occupations, and oppressions. Most recently, in 2008, Russian troops crossed the border into the disputed region of South Ossetia, forcing thousands from their homes. Many still live as refugees within their own country, in temporary settlements around Tbilisi and elsewhere.
We toast all the different kinds of God. We toast Russians, Georgians, Scots, the English, and everyone. We toast ancestors, brothers and sisters. We toast Thea, who does not come to sit with us at the table, and their children Mari and Gio, who run in and out, sitting on laps and chatting.
The men do their best to get Alastair drunk, encouraging him to knock back a tumbler of wine with each toast.
‘Once,’ he says, holding a forefinger in the air.
He drinks the glass in front of him with a flourish and they leave it at that.
The phrasebook gets passed around again. Irakli sings a Georgian song. Alastair sings ‘Charlie is My Darling’. They all go down to the cellar to inspect and stir the new wine. Alastair comes back declaring himself a man. Somewhere along the way, they invite him to go fishing with them at the weekend.
Thea and I sit in front of the computer and, with a lot of help from Google Translate, she tells me about her family and her life. She is also a refugee from the war in Abkhazia, as are many of their friends. She and Irakli met in Tbilisi when they were still children and married young. She’s a graduate in something that sounds like philology, something to do with Georgian literature. In the evenings she works in her parents’ grocery shop across the road.
Mari borrows my notebook and draws moons, hearts and clouds, telling me the Georgian words for each.
We are planning to work with children who struggle with verbal communication. And here we are, struggling with verbal communication. It’s different, of course. There’s no version of Google Translate or phrasebook to help out for children who don’t speak at all. But I am finding out how much you can say with sounds and tone of voice and gesture. Without many words, there is an ease in our meetings and a sense that we are welcome.
From what I’ve seen, I think this ability to offer authentic welcome is embedded in Georgian culture. A knack for hospitality seems like a pretty good basis for creating the safe space in which therapeutic music can happen.
I hope we’ll find a way to encourage staff at the school to bring their singing, heartfelt, family selves to work.