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The Pigeon Priest



This is the story about how I ended up in an Orthodox Church drinking wine and a Georgian brandy with two priests.


Needless to say, like many strange stories, it wasn’t planned.


For quite a few months, I had been hoping to photograph a priest Corie and I had seen a while ago on one of our walks. We had passed by the Kashueti St. George Church here in Tbilisi and watched one of the priests feeding a flock of pigeons in front of the church. He took a pinch of sunflower seeds from a sandwich bag in his pocket and held the seeds in his outstretched hand.


The birds flew up and perched on his hand and shoulders, enjoying an afternoon treat.


I don’t know how I had ended up with a handful of sunflower seeds that day with two pigeons perched on me, but it was an experience I’ll always remember.


But there was one problem. I didn’t have a camera, just my phone.


Since that day, I’ve strolled by the church several times when I was in the neighborhood with the camera, but I kept missing him, the man I had started referring to as the Pigeon Priest, whom I discovered later was the dean of the church, Elizbari Odishvili.


Fast forward a few weeks to a month ago when Corie and I were walking by the church one Saturday afternoon, and Dean Odishvili was outside again, surrounded by his feathered flock.


If I told you there was an item I didn’t have with me that day, I imagine you would guess what it was.


This last Saturday, I decided it was time to try to get the photo of the Pigeon Priest that I’ve had in my mind now for months. I took the forty-minute subway ride to get to the church and told myself I would wait all afternoon if I had to for the priest to come out and feed his birds.


Fortunately, I didn’t have to.


I sat on one of the benches in the church yard near two priests talking on another bench not far away. It was a hot afternoon, and neither of them were wearing their skufias, a headwear worn by Eastern Orthodox priests.


One of the two men looked like he could have been the Pigeon Priest but, without his skufia, I wasn’t entirely certain.


When he stood and walked across the church porch, I knew immediately, he was the one I was looking for. About 20 pigeons flew down to the walkway and followed him.


As I’ve mentioned before, my ability to speak Georgian is limited, but I managed to ask with a little bit of language and a little bit of charades if I could take a photo of him.


He retrieved his bag of sunflower seeds and held his hand out. One brave pigeon perched on his finger.


After I took a few photos, he handed me a few seeds and motioned that I should feed the birds as well.


Dean Odishvili took a cell phone out of his pocket and showed me a photo that was taken of him several years ago. “UNESCO,” he triumphantly said as he pointed to the organization’s logo on the corner of the photo. The caption, in English, read, “A Tbilisi priest and his birds.”


I knew from my previous encounters Dean Odishvili insists people wash their hands in a small fountain after feeding the birds. After I did, a pigeon flew on the fountain, its eyes fixed on the dean.


“Drink,” he said in Georgian to the bird. “Drink, drink!” The bird cocked its head sideways then put its beak in the fountain as if it were listening to the dean’s instruction.


Now that you have patiently read the events leading up to me drinking wine and brandy with two priests, we’re finally at that point in my tale.


I thanked Dean Odishvili for letting me take the photo. He asked me if I drink wine. I cautiously said yes, and he motioned for me to follow.


We went inside the church, stopping here and there so he could greet and bless parishioners. We stopped at the side of the nave, and he told me to sit on a padded bench while he retrieved a small bottle of wine and a plastic cup from a wooden cabinet.


He sat next to me and started talking. My response was the same for almost all of his questions: ver gavige. I didn’t understand.


A second priest joined us, setting a bottle of cha cha, Georgian brandy, on a small table next to the cabinet. He poured glasses for the three of us. When we finished, the second priest left and came back with a cup of a different kind of wine sweetened with sugar.


A man in his twenties came by and the priest asked him to ask me in English if I was from New York. It’s a fairly standard question here. If you’re from the States, it must be either New York or California. I explained where New Mexico is, a routine many people from the Land of Enchantment are used to, and pulled out my phone to show the two priests my church photos from my home state.


Through the young man, I asked how long Dean Odishvili has been a priest. The answer didn’t seem that unusual at first, 40 years. Until the dean started putting it into perspective. He became a priest while Georgia was still occupied by the Soviet Union.


At some point, I want to return with one of my Georgian friends who's fluent in English so I can ask him more about his history. I’m sure it’s a fascinating story I’d love to hear.


After two hours with the priests, I had a feeling the two would have continued pouring all afternoon, but I had to decline. I will admit to being a lightweight when it comes to drinking these days. Worse yet, I have been known to easily break into a round of the Choral Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when I’ve been overserved and explaining that unfortunate aspect of my personality in Georgian is simply a skill I do not possess. (In case you think that was a euphemism, it wasn’t. If you’re in a bar and you hear a voice rising above the din singing, O, Freude, nicht diese tone, tell the bartender to cut me off.)


The two priests seemed disappointed that I was leaving. In Georgia, hospitality is a national art, and I felt a little guilty that I was understaying my welcome.


Dean Odishvili motioned for me to wait and capped the plastic jug of wine we had been emptying. He handed it to me with instructions to give it to my wife.


As I stood to leave, I asked the young man to thank the two priests for their kindness then asked the man if he could ask Dean Odishvili why he feeds the birds.


The young man chuckled like the answer was obvious. “Because he loves it.”



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