In May, I observed municipal elections in the predominantly Aremenian state of Samatshke-Javakheti in the Republic of Georgia. My observation partner, Ruslan, was Kazakh and spoke fluent Russian – as did Aremnui, our interpreter and Valiko, our driver. When the three of them spoke Russian, I patiently waited for an abbreviated explanation of a 15 minute conversation or a joke that was lost in translation. Likewise, when the three of us would speak English, Valiko would turn up the radio. There was a disconnect between Valiko and I based solely on our inability to communicate directly with one another.
On the eve of the election, after we finished mapping the routes to the polling stations, we stopped in the sprawling countryside for an impromptu picnic. Valiko threw out a wool blanket, cranked up some Armenian pop music and offered us all bread that his sister-in-law had made fresh that morning. He opened a bottle of cognac, passed small glasses around and gave a toast with the typical flare that Georgians are famous for.
“Cheers, Valiko jan.” I used the diminutive “jan”, a familiar ending added to one’s name akin to “dear”, a custom I picked up in South Asia that I noticed was also used here.
Valiko froze. A huge smile plowed across his face. He squatted down on his haunches. “Jan?!?!?!?” He echoed approvingly. This little word bridged a cultural gap that volumes of Russian could not.
“To you, Jiffer jan”, he said. We smiled and clinked glasses.
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