Temuri carried two plastic jugs, one filled with red wine, the other chacha, a local brandy. “He makes these at home, and he wants you to try them,” said Temuri’s nephew, a university student who had come along to serve as translator, from the van’s back seat. Showing off a set of teeth browned by age, Temuri winked, rolled a cigarette, and put the van in gear. I had hired him to take me from the Georgian seaside resort town of Batumi into the surrounding Adjara mountains. But a snowstorm brought us instead to the village of Akhaltsikhe.
Our conversations had been brief and stilted, but that changed after we gathered for dinner in one of the two rooms we’d rented at an unmarked guesthouse. Temuri placed a roast chicken on a stool. He generously poured chacha and wine. The wine was bold and rich; the chacha a minty counterpoint to the chicken. Temuri chain-smoked while tearing off strips of chicken, never letting anyone’s cup get below half full.
When his nephew succumbed to the drinks and fell asleep, I pulled out my phone and booted up Google Translate. Temuri asked me the one thing I had found everywhere on my travels. I said hospitality, motioning to our smoke-filled room. He brought up politics. Temuri preferred the strongman approach; I supported diplomacy. He worried about the values espoused by raucous youth; I celebrated those same values. Like a surprisingly large contingent of his generation, he spoke of Soviet times with nostalgia, describing an era of stability lost to the uncertainty of democracy. I countered that I, a journalist who came into Georgia without even a visa, would likely never have met him back then. He insisted I would see that he was right when I was older, his eyes sparkling with the sly wisdom of a willfully contrarian grandfather.
Through the device we began to understand each other, despite our differing world views. Tensions fell away as we laughed at misunderstandings and poorly translated jokes. I could feel this stranger becoming a friend, even as the autocorrected conversation widened the gulf between us. By two in the morning, our eyelids heavy and the chacha bottle considerably lighter, I got up to make my way to my room. Temuri stopped me and motioned for my phone, then spoke with a mischievous smile. I played back the translation. “We have lived such different lives,” he’d said. Or something like that.
This article appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.