Finding Home in a Bottle of Chacha

by Shawn Brooks Swinger

When an English teacher in Gomi, Georgia is evicted by his host family, he wanders the village streets in a daze… until comfort is offered by a kindly, heavy-drinking stranger…

Sometimes home is found at the end of a bottle of moonshine. Especially when shared with an absolute stranger. Especially when you are on the verge of becoming homeless in a foreign country.

I came to Georgia (sandwiched between Russia and Turkey) to teach English for six months with the Teach and Learn with Georgia program (TLG). In addition to working at a local school, teachers also have to live with a host family, pay them a modest rent, and formally teach them English at least once a week. I was sent to the West coast of Georgia, near the Black Sea, to a tiny spec of a village called Gomi. Population under 1,000.

The host family consisted of two women: Diana, about 50 years old, and her mother-in-law, around 70 years old. Diana’s husband had died, and her children were grown up and out of the house. Diana hated her mother-in-law, that much was apparent from the first day in the house. Our first meal was full of stilted silences until Diana exploded at the older woman, screaming at her for wanting to change the TV channel.

Diana did not speak English; I could only speak a few phrases of Georgian. Most communication passed between us via gestures and facial expressions.

I moved into her house a full seven days before the job at the local K-12 school started. As such, I had nothing to do. The TV only showed Russian-dubbed American shows, with the original English audio still in the background, resulting in having to listen to both languages at the same time. There were five minutes of internet access a day. No stores in the village. The closest town was a 30-minute hitchhike away.

But I was ready for the challenge. What better way to start learning the language than with minimal distractions, right?

My first and only week living at Diana’s was… awkward. I had nothing to do save for reading Tolstoy’s behemoth Anna Karenina. I finished it in one week. 

Diana did a lot of chores by herself: cooking, chopping wood, and cleaning up after her mother-in-law’s bathroom accidents (which frequently occurred on the kitchen floor). I wanted to help, so I offered to chop wood one day.

This was a death sentence to any future relationship.

In Georgia, guests do not help out with things (unless you’re a woman, then maybe you can help cook — maybe). Also, men do not help out with chores like cooking and cleaning at all.

Diana would grow visibly frustrated every time I tried to help, so I quickly learned to shut up. She also decided to stop trying to speak with me all together.

I did get to familiarize myself with my surroundings. I found a harras of horses just randomly walking trails with no human escort. The village itself was surrounded by mountains that jutted straight out of the ground. Bears, wolves, and other beasts populated the nearby woods. Once, I even found a giant metal disc with the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle emblazoned on it, hidden behind an abandoned home in the forest. It was the size of a school bus, a thing of glory.

Right before I was supposed to start teaching, I got a phone call from TLG.

“Sorry, Shawn, your host mother doesn’t want you in her house any longer.”

I asked why, but the woman on the phone didn’t know (or didn’t tell). All I was told was that I could stay at Diana’s for two more nights, but then I had to go. Where to? She said there was an opening on the opposite side of the country.

My heart sank. I was just settling into Diana’s house. Sure, she never talked to me, but her giant Soviet-era mansion was growing on me. Her mother-in-law as well, as she was always nice.

Depressed and wanting to run away to America, right into the open arms of an In N’ Out, I walked around the village with my eyes on the ground. As I shuffled about the streets, a man wrangling his cows and goats back into his yard saw me. He shouted and waved his hands.

I drew near. He was a ruffled man dressed in greasy clothes, smelling a bit of vodka. He smiled and made a gesture with his knuckles, clinking them together. I understood this as “Hey, let’s drink.”

So, I did the perfectly safe thing and entered a total stranger’s house. His wife was there, looking shocked that a foreigner had just materialized in her kitchen. She sat me down, and the husband made a bunch of phone calls.

Bit by bit, people started coming over to the house. They stared at me, slapped my shoulders, grunted, and smiled.

We ate and drank for six, seven, (fuck it) eight hours or so. This was my first run-in with chacha, Georgian moonshine. It can run into deadly levels of alcohol. It tastes like gasoline and kills brain cells en masse. The first time I took a sip, there wasn’t so much a taste as there was a black curtain falling over my eyes, coupled with me losing my sense of equilibrium.

As the evening progressed, I melted into a drunken mess of blathering nonsense. I couldn’t speak much Georgian then, and nobody there spoke any English, but somehow we ended up hanging off each other’s shoulders and toasting each other.

One man looked me dead in the eyes and said (as far as I knew), “God bless your mother and your father, and God bless America.” He pointed his thumb at his chest and said, “Georgia and America, friends!”

A little kid named Koba, six years old and BUFF, came out and drank wine with his dad. He got drunk fast, picked up a machete, and chased the family dog around the yard. Turns out he was going to be a first-grader in one of my classes. Later on, he made sure to bring up drinking at the start of every class to no horrified looks from any of the other teachers in the room.

We finished drinking around midnight. The village was completely dark, with no streetlights. Several kids took my hand, Koba led the way with his machete, and they took me back to Diana’s unharmed.

I went to bed that night, blitzed out of my mind, sleeping in a house where I was no longer welcome. But for a few brief hours, I found a home with hospitable strangers and their moonshine.

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