The Pursuit of Happiness
“He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.” - Harry Emerson Fosdick
One day in the supermarket I met a young man who caught my attention with the way he was dressed – draping, black chiffon pants, sleeveless jacket decorated with vintage accessories, flat white golf shoes and a heavy grey scarf.
If Johnny’s phone hadn’t rung at that very moment, I would have never known he was Georgian. I approached him and started a conversation, which marked the beginning of our warm friendship.
Johnny is an artist. From earliest childhood, he loved drawing and making collages. He was never interested in fighting, football, guns, or cars, which became one of the reasons most of the boys made fun of him and kept their distance.
"The test of tolerance comes when we are in a majority; the test of courage comes when we are in a minority," wrote theologian Ralph W. Sockman.
This was Johnny’s fate, and he had to have courage to defend himself from the endless insults, classmates who thought it was funny and unusual that he went to the theater or the opera, enjoyed classical ballet and listened to Mahler. His parents never really understood what their child was going through.
As he grew older, his sketches got better and he became interested in fashion. At the age of 16 he had decided that he wanted to become a fashion designer.
However, he knew his dream would never come true in conservative Georgia, where a male designer is stereotyped as gay, which he was not. He would never be able to dress in the way he saw fashionable because being different and special was considered more a fault than an advantage. In Georgia, individualism is not welcome.
After decades of communism, a society has a fear of change, and people are afraid of new things that they don’t know how to deal with. If you want to be respected and treated nicely, you have to belong and be a part of the mass. Wearing colorful clothes, tight jeans and handbags for a guy is ridiculous in a country where black is the dominant color, the indicator of power and courage, as if the nation is in a state of endless mourning.
But to me art is liberation, the freedom we never really had.
After finishing high school, Johnny applied to the university, majoring in architecture with the hope that in a mature world his personality would finally be respected. After a week he already knew that his only salvation was leaving Georgia and moving to a place where his nightmare would end.
After a long search he found a very good university located in Vienna and sent his portfolio. He lied to his parents, saying he would major in architecture, because his father would never have tolerated him studying fashion.
This is what he told me, drinking his shot and trying to make eye contact, trying to guess my opinion of his life story. He seemed afraid he would see pity in my eyes. That’s what he hated most. But how could I pity a person who had such enormous talent and was fighting for the right to use it? I was quiet for a while, examining him, blond and blue eyed and lanky, as if for the first time.
I know it’s difficult to leave your country and totally change your life, even by your own choice, and I can imagine how hard it is when you are forced to do so because of the unbearable life society has created for you. I left Georgia three years ago. It was a decision I made after two years of weighing all the possibilities.
And even though I live in Vienna with my family, even though I have friends and am studying at the University, it has been very hard to adjust, and there are moments when I feel homesick and lonely.
For Johnny it was different. He left because he had to choose between remaining true to himself or acting fake for the rest of his life. But he still loves his country and hopes to return there one day. Every time we talk about Georgia his eyes start to shine.
But maybe there is something else. And I wonder if John Cheever wasn’t closer:
"Homesickness is . . . absolutely nothing. Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time," Cheever wrote. "You don’t really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don’t have, or haven’t been able to find."
Last year Johnny’s collection was named one of the most successful in his class, and he is now working successfully as a designer. Still he looked unhappy the last time we met. Now I know why: Loneliness.
Viennese culture is very different from ours. Here people are much more reserved; they don’t seem to care about those around them.
In my country, people live each other’s lives, always ready both to judge and discuss. Neither of these appeals to me. Johnny ran away from those who judged him, to those who didn’t seem to care about him at all.
From a conservative society, he moved to the liberal one. Here his peers understand and recognize his talent; he is accepted and he has right to be proud of himself. But somehow, this isn’t enough.
One day I went to the fancy flower store to buy a nice bouquet. I saw Johnny there. He told me he got this job recently and he fell in love with it. Decorating the flower shop and designing bouquets is also fashion.
He picked the best rose for me and told me that his life reminds him of a plant, his profession of water that helps him survive, giving reason to his existence.
But plants need the sun; they need people to pay attention to them to help them flourish.
Every nation has its prejudices; if Johnny had been born in Europe his life would probably be different. But then, perhaps he would not have been as good in his profession as he is.
When you must defend what you love, you start to love it more. A passion awakens and gives you courage you never thought you had; it makes you speak up, not recognizing your own voice.
The last time I saw Johnny was this summer; proudly, he invited me to his first fashion show. Tears welled in my eyes as I gazed at the models walking across the stage, dressed in his gorgeous outfits, accompanied by the music of a famous Georgian composer, as Johnny bowed to the heartfelt applause.
But perhaps nobody but me knew just how precious this moment was.