Happy birthday to the Judo Nomad project! On August 2, 2022, it will be exactly one year since I picked up my bag and left Amiens bus station watching my family greet me, worried about this crazy challenge I was facing.
According to my calculations, if no one helped me, I could follow this project for about 18 months but with the kindness and generosity of my sponsors (IJF and Fightscout), private donors and all the people who host me , I know I’m still safe for another year.
Before continuing, let’s go back to where I left you last time (CLICK HERE). I told you how Kubra helped me in Istanbul; she also did it in Izmir where I met Mesut Kapan who also works with the IFJ.
Mr Kapan invited me to the regional competition in Izmir. It was very interesting because he organized it as an IJF competition even though it was for young people. It was only a mat but it was very exciting, with ceremonies before and after the contests. It was really nice to see all the kids cheering!
Shortly after, I went to Antalya where I joined some friends who were traveling there and took the time to experience a bit of Turkish culture. Sometimes I need a break to enjoy my family and friends.
After that I went on a bus to Kilis. It took me something like 18h from Antalya to Adana and 4 more to Kilis. I then realized how huge Turkiye is. If you don’t know Kilis, it’s a special city, known in some circles as the judo city of Kilis. It’s special because only 5 km from the Syrian border and the town is mainly made up of refugees.
Huseyin and Julien
I was invited by Huseyin Erkmen who is one of the founders of the Judo for Peace project, while Mesut, whom I met in Izmir, is one of the leaders of the Turkish Judo Federation. For many years they have worked with the IJF to help Syrian refugees settle in Turkey, through judo. It has been a great success so far. You can find the video of my stay in Kilis:
And that of the IJF: https://www.ijf.org/news/show/judo-for-peace-turkey-syria-the-film
While I was in town, I tried to make the best documentary possible. It was very risky to fly the drone in such an area so I decided not to use it but while eating at a restaurant the owner told me it was safe to fly over his property. I did but a few seconds later I lost control of it and it crashed further. When I went to fix it, the engineers told me that it was possible that military forces had taken control of it and crashed it.
Being a judoka doesn’t mean you can’t be a princess
The reality of this city was different from my expectations. Of course, it didn’t feel like a tourist town. I had read on the French government website that it was not recommended to travel to this area but I felt safer there than in many places in Paris where I lived. I had an amazing time with Huseyin and his friends who tried to show me most of Kilis.
I had the chance to meet Turkish and Syrian judokas and it was good to see that the project is going very well. I really look forward to returning to Kilis in the future to see how the project progresses.
With my drone broken, I had to change my plan. I was supposed to go to northern Georgia but decided to go to the only drone repair shop in the country, Istanbul.
I was lucky enough to find someone willing to do couch-surfing who agreed to host me for a week, which became two in the end. I always try to be hosted by locals, to see how people live and I was able to enjoy this experience again, thanks to Cagla, his brother and his friends. I stayed while waiting for my drone to be repaired.
I always feel like good things come from bad things. I had crashed my drone but built an amazing new friendship. So, with my repaired drone, I decided to skip Ankara and go straight to Georgia.
Cagla told me that she had never traveled anywhere other than Turkey. She agreed to host me partly because she is building a van to travel everywhere. I wanted to thank her for her hospitality and decided to invite her to join me for a few days in Georgia. I was very proud that she agreed to come with me to Batumi for her very first trip.
Cagla and Julien
After this beautiful part of my journey, it was time to get back to judo and thanks to my contacts I knocked on the right door. Ulker, the secretary of the Azerbaijani judo federation, gave me the contact of David, vice-president of Georgian judo but also coach. He invited me to Kvareli, where the cadet and junior teams had a training camp. I was excited to go there.
When I arrived with my big backpack, David immediately told me to come and train. I didn’t train a lot the previous weeks, so I was a little afraid of injuries, since I don’t fight so much with high level judokas anymore.
When I arrived the training session had already started and a few people looked at me wondering who I was. I spoke with David and the other coach, who told me to step in, so I did, without filming first, because I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.
David Kevkhishvili and Lasha Bekauri
I was surprised no one came to talk to me or ask for a randori. Usually, when I’m with a national team, I can hardly rest because everyone asks for the randori.
Somehow it reminded me of French or Japanese judo, those countries where the judokas are so strong that seeing a foreigner is nothing special. I was sad at first, thinking maybe I had too high expectations. I let the day pass and then the second day was a rest day for them. The juniors went to the lake to have fun and the coach told me to join them and bring my camera too. They were already much friendlier and were curious about the camera. I noticed that some of them spoke French; one was half-French and another hired by the Bordeaux judo team. A few also spoke English so it became easier to interact.
To my surprise, Lasha Bekauri the Olympic champion came for a training session the next day. I met him and started filming while he was training.
Later, I went to the barbecue with the coaches and after some toasts for the Georgian churches and for the friendship between our countries, we became best friends. The next day we went with David and Lasha for a day of fishing in the mountains near famous Dagestan. It was just amazing, I believe those are some of the best times I’ve ever had. Everything was authentic.
I did a nice interview with David who told me the secrets of Georgian judo but a few moments later I slipped in the river and lost one of my cameras. We tried to find it until it got dark, but there was no way.
The next day, I went to film the young athletes and it was very different; everyone was very open and wanted to be filmed. Later, I filmed Lasha who came for a late private practice. I understood what made him a champion. He is one of those athletes who only stop when the light is gone. Besides that, he is also a great person, very humble. Since he is a big big star in Georgia, he often gets stopped by the public and he always likes to give judo fans time. After that moment I realized that Georgian culture is a bit like Japan where you can’t just show up and expect everyone to be your friend, you have to create your space first and then you be part of the family, but once you’re in, it’s for real!
I came back to Tbilisi and as you remember I had broken my drone and lost a camera. The funny thing about the drone is that it hasn’t been repaired at all. He just flew a few more times before giving up. I decided to buy a new one, but in these regions it is a little more expensive than in France, so it was better to wait until I was in Azerbaijan. The drone is not the number one priority but I had to get a new camera ASAP.
I went to a GoPro store in Tbilisi. I spent $700 plus the drone so July was a very expensive month. Without my sponsors and donors, this could have been the end of this project. More and more people are giving, sometimes $1 a month, which seems like small change, but if a lot of people are giving it, it becomes big.
I am in Tbilisi at the moment and will probably go to Gori to see other judokas before going to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan starts straight away as a pretty crazy story, even before I arrive. Since I challenged myself to go to all countries without flying, it can complicate things. Azerbaijan is one such country that is still preventing tourists from entering by land due to Covid restrictions.
I contacted Ulker and she arranged a special clearance letter for me to enter, direct from the Ministry of Sports so that’s a whole thing!
Now I’m waiting and enjoying Georgia to the fullest. Stay tuned for the next edition and once again happy birthday to my project!