“What are you doing here?”
That’s the question I most often heard when I traveled through the Caucasus, a region that lies just south of Russia, between the Black and Caspian seas.
It took me awhile to realize that people weren’t asking it out of animosity, but a genuine curiosity. They were puzzled at why an outsider would possibly want to visit the places that many residents would rather forget, like Gori.
The tiny town in the Republic of Georgia isn’t a popular tourist destination. It’s best known as the birthplace of Iosef Dzhugashvili — the poet and seminary student who grew up to terrorize millions as Josef Stalin — and the current site of a museum erected in his memory.
What I remember about the day I spent visiting the historic site isn’t what you would think.
The dates and names I learned that day often escape me, but I can recall the shoe-leather smell of the tiny house where Stalin was born, which still stands on the grounds of the museum.
More than anything, I remember the lunch we had after visiting the museum. Over carafes of homemade wine, a local student told us that in school, she had been required to commit some of Stalin’s early poetry to memory.
She recited it in Georgian, a language completely incomprehensible to me. The Russian translation revealed he was talking about spring blossoms.
Looking at the work of Eugenia Maximova reminds me of that day, and not because the Balkan region, like the Caucasus, suffered under a communist regime.
Instead, it brings me back to all the meals I had on my trip, and the peculiar memories — like a dictator who started out as a poet — that tend to stay with people even after facts fade away.
Only now, five years later, can I attempt to answer that question: “What are you doing here?”
Although I was writing papers and proofreading articles for a travel magazine, that wasn’t truly what I was doing.
I was, and still am, collecting memories and impressions for later use. Maybe five years down the road, they will turn up again, prompted by another photograph.
Call Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 575-8641.