Anything Can HappenAnything Can Happen
by George and Helen Papashvily

I first discovered this delightful book when I was about 13 or 14 years old, in that wonderful semi-circular fishbowl of a library at Britton Road Junior High. Ten years later, when the school closed, I stumbled on this book at the library discard sale and snapped it up. It has never failed to give me a lift and a smile during all the years since.

It’s the autobiographical account of the author’s journeys from Vladikavkaz, Georgia, Russia, to New York City, and after that to Detroit, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and assorted roads in between. Along the way, he meets people of every culture — both locals and transplants — with open-minded interest and open-handed generosity — and takes the reader along for the ride.

It’s a laugh-out-loud funny book. His embarrassing predicament when his package of yeasty dough — for making k’hinkali — squirms out of control and starts a panic on a crowded streetcar always makes me smile. The story of “How Chancho Sold My Nose” is another good one. So is the day they took the depressed Ilarion on a quiet beach picnic to cheer him up, and got into a a fight with armed men who seemed to be bootleggers, only to end up drinking wine and cooking shashlik on the beach together with their attackers. But probably the funniest story of all is the multi-chapter account of the road trip from Detroit to California with Anna Feodorovna, her father the General, the children, Ermak, and Madame Greshkin — and the samovar and the canary cage and the General’s sword. Sometimes, when I haven’t read this book in a long time, and I come across it on the shelf — well, it’s the story of the California trip that I turn to first. And that usually draws me into starting over at the beginning and reading the whole book again, chuckling happily.

But it’s not just a funny book. It’s also a cheerfully philosophical book. Giorgi Ivanitch has an outlook on life which enables him to travel with equanimity through its ups and downs, and an outlook on humanity which enables him to see friends in the most unexpected people. He has been through war, poverty, wandering, and yet he doesn’t let the dismal side of life get him down. There is always an interesting new sight to be curious about, a lovely small moment to appreciate and savor. There is always hope that something wonderful is just around the next bend. As for the people he meets along the way, they are all members of the same human family, and all are greeted like long-lost cousins. Some are a tad annoying — he has his exasperated moments with the drama queen Anna Feodorovna and the slow-thinking Chancho — but the annoyance is irrelevant when measured against the deeper value of the human being. We are reminded that we are all laughably flawed creatures. It’s simply an inescapable aspect of being human. We judge each other gently, remembering our common vulnerability.

As the characters in the story meet and get to know each other, America reveals herself as the place where all the world meets and gets to know each other. Russians and Syrians, Italians and Turks, Californians and New Yorkers, farmers and factory workers, all bringing their own customs and viewpoints into the mixture. The author is sometimes ignorant about the customs of those he meets, but always curious and open-minded, ready to learn and happy to find common ground. At one point, he says, Now I didn’t feel bad about my broken language any more or my stranger ways. I saw everybody is a foreigner. Only difference, some came early and some came later.

Food as the glue of good fellowship is a running theme all through the book. When some Plains Indians pull his truck out of a muddy river, he trades recipes for lamb with them, cooking them some shashlik while tasting with interest the lamb recipe they cook for him. He shares good red wine with Italian farmers on a California beach after they initially mistook each other for bootleggers. His American wife Helen has the idea that on orange juice runs everything but steam engines, so he learns to like orange juice. Cornbread and corn whisky — and Kathleen’s whisky concoction Boilo — are all delights he picks up from Virginia kitchens, and his Maine-bred mother-in-law introduces him to lobster and the New England shore dinner.  When people sit down to eat and drink together, even if it’s just box lunches, something in the way of bonding can happen.

The larger-than-life glorious figure of Dzea Vanno — Uncle John — is threaded all through the stories. The author first met him when he was a miserable lonely apprentice boy in Vladikavkaz. As Giorgi lamented, “What I’m living for? Might as well I be a dog, too?” he was startled by a man who overheard him from the other side of the fence.  Must be he was seven feet tall with fierce mustaches and hair black like a devi’s. Only his eyes was laughing. “Have a bone … If you like to be dog, that is. But if you rather be a man, and believe me you gonna enjoy it a lot better, I been a man now fifty years and I’m not sorry yet, why then climb over the fence and eat at the table with me.” So I did and he was right.

Whenever Dzea Vanno turns up somewhere in America, it’s always the occasion for food and drink, storytelling and singing, friendship and happiness. When Giorgi marries the American Helen, it is Dzea Vanno who stands in as the family of the groom, the caterer of the wedding, and the life of the party. In the end, Giorgi wonders, “How could a man like Uncle John be dead? Man who loved so deep the world. Man who made such friend of life. … What good he did was wrote on the faces around his casket. But then comes the feast in his honor, and the quarrels made up and friendships restored as they ate and drank together. “… All for Uncle John’s remembry. Is good this, even if an old-time way. It lets a man be sure he will finish from the grave, at least, what he has a duty to work for through his whole life — bring peace among his friends.

To bring peace among friends. That seems like as good a way as any to follow through our lives. The central idea of life is that we are all in this together. The miser, the misanthrope, the loner, these are to Giorgi the saddest figures imaginable. Connecting with our fellow human beings is the only way that we ourselves can be fully human — the only way in which our own selfish selves can fully develop and flower and become fruitful.

After all — If you’re not father or husband or son or brother or neighbor or friend to somebody, who are you then to yourself?

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