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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Remembering Johanna Popjanevski

My wife and I just learned with a shock that a friend of ours, Johanna Popjanevski, was found dead in her home, apparently from an accident.

Johanna lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, which is where we met her. She was a veteran scholar of strategic regional issues and human rights, the kind of journeyman international intellectual worker that has made for such an incredible flowering of freedom and prosperity across the world since World War II.

She was also an incredibly warm and joyous spirit, with an irresistible dimpled smile. Though we haven't spoken in 10 years--my wife was her close friend, and I never knew her that intimately--I truly love her, and I can only imagine that there are scores of people in multiple countries who love her too.

I want to share one Johanna story, which I keep thinking back to when remembering her.

After she first came to Georgia, she lived with a Georgian family. As with so many of us who come to Georgia and speak English but don't speak Georgian or Russian well (not that I have her excuse of knowing half a dozen other languages instead), communication was easy with young people but harder with older folks.

So she spoke with snippets of several languages, and lots of gestures, with the dad in the family. And as we all know, that's a kind of communication that sort of doesn't allow much nuance, which can combine with a cultural divide in unexpected ways!

Anyway, so at some point she goes back to Sweden for a few weeks for some events, and while she's there she gains 5 pounds. When she comes back to Tbilisi, the dad sees her and says, "Johanna! You..." and first sucks his cheeks in with his arms by his side, then puffs his cheeks out, boggles his eyes and holds his hands out as if around a huge belly; not at all to disapprove, but rather appreciating her health and gusto after appearing near-starving to him before.

Johanna told that story with a huge laugh, and a recognition that inside that blunt moment was the same directness that made an intimate friendship with this man (and so many other Georgians!) so natural and immediate.

She loved the world, and she loved Georgia, and the world and Georgia loved her back. Johanna, I wish I'd had more of you in my life, and I hope the world is lucky enough to have more like you.

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Anonymous John Mackedon on Tue Mar 22, 01:09:00 PM:
This is truly devastating news. Although I had not seen Johanna in about a decade, I adored that woman. She was truly a delightful person and the world is a worse place without her.