Monday, October 27, 2003

Thursday, October 23

Georgia State Puppet Theatre’s “Battle of Stalingrad”

On Thursday night we went to the puppet theater to see a performance of “The Battle of Stalingrad.” What an unusual subject for a performance of puppet theater you are thinking. Well, so did I. But it was amazing.

The theater itself is on the edge of Old Town, the very medieval, twisty, cobblestoned part of Tbilisi that was the limit of the city until well into the 19th century. Turning off Baratashvili St., one of the main streets that crosses the Mtkvari River, there is a tiny uneven street marked by a bronze sculpture of a dvornik (something like a doorkeeper or concierge). A block into Old Town, there is a basement entrance that leads to a lobby displaying sketches of the piece to be performed. Next door, visible through the interior windows, is the Sans Souci Café, a funky (and good) restaurant owned by the puppet theater folks. The theater itself can probably hold 80 or so on the short (hard) wooden benches. Our seats were on the first row, so we were sitting with our knees around our shoulders, as if we were in a preschool classroom.

The lights went down, the soundtrack came up, and we heard the chugging of a steam locomotive. A puppeteer dressed in black, but making no attempt to conceal himself (like Bunraku), came forward. The stage itself was a platform about four feet high. It had raised edges almost like a planter, and inside there was sand. The puppeteer stood behind the stage, carrying a green smoking bucket. OK, smoking bucket, I thought. Hmmm. Spotlights shone down.

The bucket had a lid with what looked like a little chimney, and several squares cut out of the sides. He placed the bucket on a lazy susan, and started to spin it very slowly. The squares, we saw now, were windows into the passenger compartment of a train. The inside of the bucket was cream colored, and there were passengers in their seats. (The color scheme matched the livery of the Soviet Union’s trains.)

Two more puppeteers joined the first one. Each brought her own lazy susan, and they positioned themselves at either side of the bucket train. They set their lazy susans to spinning slowly, and delicately placed telephone poles at the perimeter, so that the poles passed by the windows of the train. After every couple of revolutions, they would switch the piece of scenery. There were factories, apartment buildings, shacks, guard towers, farm buildings, trucks, animals. The sound of the train sped up, and so did the velocity of the spinning. The train left the city and went out into the country.

Atop the bucket, curled around the smoking chimney was a puppet on a bed of straw. The spotlights faded as night fell. The lights came on in the little shacks and railroad signals on the lazy susans. The interior lights came on inside the train. The puppet vagrant spoke (in Russian with simultaneous English translation) about his experiences in Kiev.

To me, this was so beyond creative—this was truly thinking outside the box about exactly how much do you have to specify, how much can you simply imply, to create a world? It was really beautiful.

The show continued for about an hour and a quarter. Each scene was a vignette, most of which were not connected to each other, about some individual’s experience of the Battle of Stalingrad. Another outside-the-box scene was created with three rectangular pieces of board, each covered with straight lines and rows of miniature German soldier helmets. They moved in time to the soundtrack of marching, sliding precisely across the stage from left to right. As each puppeteer reached the edge of the spotlight, she would remove her board, pass behind the other two, and place her board at the beginning of the line. There was no “Heil Hitler.” There was no martial music. There were only miniature helmets, scooting in formation across the stage, in seemingly endless numbers.

My favorite characters were Alyosha and Natasha, a pair of horses, whose star-crossed romance was a recurring theme. Alyosha was a broken-down farm horse, made of articulated sticks and cotton yarn. Natasha, on the other hand, was a glamourous entertainer, who dropped down from heaven inside a golden circle (think Evelyn Nesbit). Her legs were also articulated, but they were shapely women’s legs with pink ballet shoes en pointe.

The puppeteers, who were as I said all in black, interacted subtly with the action. They occasionally wore hats, for example, to complement what was going on in the scene. Not every scenario was successful, but each one displayed that same economy, that same thoughtfulness about what could possibly make that world come alive with the fewest strokes. Because each puppet and each piece of scenery carried such weight, they had been meticulously crafted. The Weimar-era German artiste who had jaded eyes, a spit curl for a sideburn, and a cigarette holder with a stick of incense was a particular favorite of mine.

This theater and everything that goes into making it is the work of Vladimir Meltser, puppetmaster, animator and technical director, Marina Tsitsishvili, managing director, and Rezo Gabriadze, company founder. This show was performed last summer at Spoleto and New York’s Lincoln Center.

To top all this off, we were with a fairly large group of fascinating people: Elizabeth (last year’s Fulbright student), her friend Lado, some of his expat friends, and Michael. Afterwards, we all went to Rainer’s and had a lot of pizza and beer. It was a great evening.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Oct. 18 and 19

I hope you took note of that mention of the chest cold. By Wednesday, I was laid out by that sucker. Every time I got horizontal, I would go into complete lung lock, unable to take a breath without coughing. It made sleeping difficult, for me and for Clif; I had to move to the sofa. Anyway, by Friday evening, it looked like I was going to live, so we accepted the invitation of Clif’s translator, Anna, to visit her relatives in, yes, you guessed it, Kakheti. The neighbors were going to be making churchkhela that weekend, and she thought we would be interested to see it.

So, bright and early Saturday morning, she and another neighbor guy picked us up and we got on the road. I am starting to get used to this highway, now. I know where the speed traps are; I know where to get the good homemade gasoline; I know which churchkhela stands to avoid. This no-name neighbor guy drove like a maniac, which is to say, like a Georgian, and I suffered in silence, thinking to myself, “If we die on this stupid highway, I am going to be SO MAD!” At some point, though, you have to let go and let God, so I made it to Kakheti without making a scene.

Anna spent her senior year of high school as an exchange student in Asheville, North Carolina, and her English is perfect. There was some story about having to change host families after trying to strangle someone, and she loved Disneyworld, especially the barf-o-matic rides. Anyway, she is what we would call a “spitfire.” She is twenty now, and I think she has calmed down a little.

Anna’s mother called three times while we were en route just to see where we were exactly, and whether it was raining where we were—they were all so excited that we were coming. We pulled up to the house, or rather, we pulled over to a blank masonry wall with a metal gate in it, and Anna said, “We’re here!” We went in to the courtyard/driveway, and people started pouring out of the houses on both sides. The cast of characters, which I never DID really figure out all the way, included, in House #1, Anna’s mother, Keti, and Keti’s best friend from Tbilisi (forgot her name, it was probably Nino). In house #2, there was Ilio (the man in charge—a gentleman of about 50); Ilio’s wife, Deda (a woman of indeterminate age, but at least 50); Papa (I think Deda’s father); Khartuna, Deda and Ilio’s daughter; Makho, Khartuna’s son, age 13; and Lali, Khartuna’s daughter, age 10. Makho had a few words of English, but he was shy about using it. No one else had any English beyond “Hello.”

NB: In kartuli, “Deda” means “Mom,” and “Mami” means “Dad.” I am not kidding. “Papa” does mean “Grandfather” though, in a comforting twist. So, while Ilio had an actual name, Deda (“Mom”) did not.

After meeting all these people (and remembering none of their names), we met the neighbor ladies, who were already out in the yard making tartara (churchkhela coating) in an inverted cone-shaped vessel over a fire. We were handed a small glass of light brown clear liquid, and Anna said, “This is the grape juice they are making the tartara from. Taste it.” It was very fruity, and it was sweeter than a Coke, like REALLY sweet. They had pressed the juice from the grapes in their yard the day before, and I think they started cooking as of the third phone call. The tartara in the vessel was medium brown and opaque; a bit of flour had been added. The neighbor-lady-in-charge was fishing out lumps of flour as we stood around, and it was going to cook until it thickened, then three hours more. This process is called tartaroba.

In the meantime, Papa started a fire in the tone (two syllables, no emphasis: toe nay) using dried grape vine trimmings. This burns like gasoline, if you will remember from our first trip to Kakheti and the picnic in the vineyard. A tone is a clay oven, shaped like half of an egg, with a hole in the top. Around the clay oven part, there is a barrel that is a few inches larger in circumference than the clay itself. This creates a gap, which is filled with sand to insulate and keep everything in place. They kept adding vines and wood to the tone and explained that they were waiting for the clay to turn white. Then it would be ready. The flames roared out of the top of the tone, looking for all the world like a flaming jet engine. Wilson, of course, loved all of this activity, because it was (a) activity that he knew he could quickly become an expert at; and (b) it involved fire. He made himself useful almost immediately, much to the delight of the neighbor-lady-in-charge (NLIC hereafter), Deda, and all the other ladies.

A note on the appearance of these folks: Anna, her mother, and her mother’s friend are city-dwellers, educated, and artistic. Keti is a beautiful woman, with large black eyes and fashionable clothes, who does not look old enough to have a twenty-year-old daughter. She is a pianist. I found out later she was in her mid-forties, and I was floored. Her friend is of similar age and is also very attractive. Anna is pretty, has curly brunette hair and a few freckles. The relatives and neighbors, on the other hand, look like they have worked hard all their lives, and I expect they have. No one had a full set of teeth, and the little girl was well on her way to losing some, given the state of her dental hygiene. Deda looked very wrinkled and tired and walked with a serious limp. Khartuna, always in a bathrobe, looked beautiful, and Makho was a chick-magnet-in-training. (I found out later that Khartuna was operated on last summer for breast cancer, and I wish her well.) Ilio has a gray comb-over, a beautiful expressive face, and permanent dirt ground into his hands. They all look much older than they are.

The NLIC was a big woman probably in her fifties, with absolutely no teeth in the front, a few gold teeth to the side, a head scarf, and a unique wardrobe (more about this later in the photo section). She is obviously extremely intelligent and funny. Given that we could not speak kartuli, I can’t explain how I could tell she was intelligent, but I really could, no kidding. She joked with us (Anna translating) about getting a visa to the United States based on her ability to make churchkhela. Sounds good to me! Need more good women like that.

While we were waiting for the tone to turn white, the NLIC came out, dressed in a lab coat and a white kerchief. She was holding a huge (at least 24” diameter) metal bowl full of dough. The tone had a dough board right next to it, and she pulled wads of dough out and shaped them into balls, which she covered with a towel. At last the tone was ready, and she and Deda went into action. First they pulled and rolled a ball of dough out into a long strip and wet one side of it with three or four pats of water. Then, with a lack of urgency that I found astounding, they leaned over the hole, reached in, slapped the strip up against the wall of the tone, and spread it out into a long shape. Their hands and faces, mind, were directly in the intense heat. They covered the inside of the tone with these strips, which are called dedaspuri (mom’s bread). After twenty minutes or so, the dedaspuris were finished, and they pulled them out with their bare hands.

Meanwhile, the other ladies were on tartara duty, and somewhere in here, it got really thick and hard to stir, so they were taking turns. Wilson had a couple of turns, too. Deda got some spoons and pulled a little out for everyone to taste. It has the consistency of not-quite-cooked fudge, sort of taffyish and a little grainy. It’s really sweet, with a caramel flavor in addition to the fruitiness.

It looked like there might be a lull in the action, so over at the other house Keti made us some khachapuri. This is the ubiquitous lunch and street food here in Georgia, like pizza, but even more available and MUCH cheaper. She made the dough from flour and yogurt (makes a softer dough, she said), and patted it out into a 7” circle. She took a handful of crumbled salguni cheese and mounded it in the middle. Then she picked up one edge of the dough, then the adjacent bit, and pleated them together. She continued right around until she had something that looked like the shape of an onion with all the little pleats sealing it at the top. Pleat-side down, she pressed this out on a floured board until it was again about 7” in diameter. She put this into a hot iron skillet and let it cook for a few minutes. She turned it over and spread butter on the cooked side, which was brown in spots. After a few minutes the other side was done, and she slid it onto a plate. Couldn’t be easier, though I’m guessing that dough-pleating action might take a bit of practice, especially with such a soft dough. Salguni cheese is crumbly like feta, but harder. It’s salty and tangy, a little grainy, very white, and has little tiny holes in it. A whole cheese is usually about half as high as it is round, and they range in size from 6” to 20”. When it cooks, it doesn’t create melty cheese so much as soft tangy curds. Yum. For less than $0.25 in Tbilisi, it’s a lunch most everyone has every day, although with that kind of frequency, the experience does tend to pall after a while.

Next, Ilio took us around to see a nearby church, St. Saba. It was a drum church, like Alaverdi, and like most Georgian churches, set in a spectacular location in a cleft halfway up a hill. A church-tending-lady told us that St. Saba lies incorrupt in Jerusalem, but that he had never actually been to Georgia, and that she really didn’t know why the church was named for him. Right down the hill from St. Saba is an earlier church, a three-aisled basilica, that was only recently unearthed. Only a little piece of it had been visible, and when people started digging, they found more and more. The ground level was left at least twelve feet lower.

Back at the homestead, we explored the back gardens. There are fruit trees, grape vines, cucumbers and tomatoes, chickens, a tiny goat from next door (the other side), the Alazani Valley view, and so many things that were fertile and beautiful. Also, the outhouse, fertile if not beautiful. We hung around on the ground-level porch talking with Ilio for a while, with Anna translating. I don’t think he had ever met Americans before, and he was a little guarded at first.

The tartara was pronounced finished, and the ladies brought out the threaded walnuts to make churchkhela. I had imagined that it was like candle-making, but it’s not really. You have to push the string of nuts into the tartara with a paddle, then pull it up at just the right velocity to create a perfect coating with a point at the end. We did this for a while. Wilson made a few—he got pretty good at it. They were strung onto long poles and hung between two tables to dry. Deda grabbed me one as soon as it was congealed, and I have to say it was pretty good. Not the kind of thing I want to be eating every day, but definitely tasty. Chocolate would improve it. Hmmm. Bright idea. Khatchapuri and choco-churchkhela stands in New York. . . .

Wilson had completely integrated himself into their life by this point. He was befriending the chickens, picking fruit, stirring tartara, feeding the fire, helping to make mtsvadi (kebabs), and generally making himself useful and adorable. Boy, when he has a job to do, it’s like a dog with a bone. He is motivated. Why he can’t be motivated by school or sports or anything available to a normal American boy is a question I ask myself over and over. So many times in his life I have come up against the fact that he just loves rural village life, and that he probably should have been born in another century.

After the churchkhela were dipped, Deda and Keti set the table, and I began to get that foie-gras feeling before the meal even started. The menu is pretty much the same at these feasts: baby eggplant with walnut sauce, sliced cheese, ground meat cutlets, cuke and tomato salad, fried potatoes, lobio (kidney bean casserole), and mtsvadi with pomegranate juice, all washed down with gallons of Kakhetian wine. This wine, however, was dipped from the kveris buried in the shed right next to the tartara fire. How cool is that?

Sufficiently lubricated, Ilio really warmed to us. Many toasts of friendship between us and our countries were exchanged, gratitude for Anna who brought us together, and so on, well into the night. Wilson collapsed at about nine o’clock (!). We hung out in the driveway for a while, sitting on benches and folding chairs, watching the stars and talking. The NLIC stopped by, as did her (drunk) son, and more neighbors. We went to bed in Deda and Ilio’s house, an immaculate simple cottage, and slept on their best linens, brought out just for us.

In the morning, we had some tea, pastries, and khatchapuri, because we needed more fat content after the night before. I was really starting to feel like a French goose at this point, plus which, you must imagine that I have been coughing the ENTIRE time all this has been going on. After breakfast, we went on a quick car tour of Sighnaghi, a walled town on top of a hill. It’s lovely, but Ilio had a mission—to take us to see Bodbe, the convent where St. Nino is buried. The church at Bodbe is covered with frescoes that have a pre-Raphaelite quality, much more rounded and fanciful than most Georgian frescoes, which tend to look stiff and Byzantine. St. Nino’s tomb is in a tiny chapel off to one side. I went in and saw it; it looks like a saint’s tomb, what can I say? Not as good as St. Catherine of Siena and her mummified head, but nice. There is some controversy about this being the burial spot of St. Nino, but I don’t know what the opposing team thinks is the right place.

Back to the plantation, and it was time to stuff more food into us prior to the driver guy showing up to take us back to Tbilisi. Off we went, having probably bankrupted this family, on our way back home with the certain knowledge that we had served once again as ambassadors of good will. There are now at least two families in Kakheti who love us to pieces.

I'm Still Here . . .
I have been laid low with a terrible cold for more than a week, but I promise an update on the third (and God willing final) trip to Kakheti. Also a really great performance at the puppet theater.

Clif points out that "terrible cold" doesn't begin to describe it.

But I'm better now, really.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Oct. 13 and 14
In the morning, we had hot dogs (2 large) and mashed potatoes (huge mound), plus mayonnaise-y carrot salad breakfast. Plus, I forgot to include in the description of yesterday’s breakfast, there was something served in a stemmed glass (one per table) that was the consistency of thick syrup but was fruit-based. We didn’t know what to do with it, so we put it on buttered bread. Tea came more promptly. I was happy about that. We had big plans for Monday. In the morning, the botanical garden; in the afternoon, a visit to a Roman fort and/or a boat ride. We stepped on to the bus confident and full of nitrites.

We drove past the abandoned tea plantations again; they looked better in the sun. We stepped off the bus at the top of the hill near the entrance to the botanical garden. I have never seen so much back-and-forth about entrance fees in my life. This took ten minutes. The entrance fee was 50 tetris per person ($0.21). All the energy was being consumed over $10 or so. After this was resolved, during which time we completely lost the children who had run on ahead, we started down the hill. Our guide was able to tell us the Latin names of most of the trees. Her usefulness stopped about there, so we spread out into several groups and strolled down the road, while the children covered about seven times the distance by running back and forth. The garden is another one of those untended, unmaintained Georgian things: it’s almost an LAO (Large Abandoned Object—another Wendell Steavensonism) in itself.

At the bottom there was a formal garden-shaped space leading to a half-built pavilion at the shore. (Note that I did not say a formal garden leading to a pavilion.) We walked down there, then returned to the bus and got on. The bus would not start. It would not start again and again. Why do guys keep cranking it when it is clear that the thing is not going to start? Finally, the driver moved us from the front of the bus so he could lift the access panel. The local men’s committee sprang into action. They ambled over, hands in pockets, and stood around looking solemnly at the engine.

Meanwhile, one of our party, a real mechanic, had already pretty much sussed out what was wrong, but the men’s committee had confidence in the cranking method, which had not exactly failed yet. Marika asked the driver if we shouldn’t get another bus. He ignored the question. After twenty minutes, the men’s committee reluctantly admitted defeat. Our mechanic guy had the bus started after a few minutes, with no tools and no voltage tester. No fuss, just taciturn action. Off we rolled, on the way back to Batumi to get to the garage, where we knew we would undoubtedly be forced to mill around aimlessly for a couple of hours. I had visions of the Batumi Central men’s committee standing around solemnly, but in a repair shop. Oh goody.

We passed the tea plantations yet again, and started chugging up the hill. The mechanic was telling the sad story of how he had bypassed the bypasses, there being absolutely no fuses anywhere in the system. We came around a hairpin curve and heard a loud bang, that if it was not exactly an explosion, was much louder than a backfire. Plus there was a lot of black smoke coming from beneath the bus AND a really bad burning smell. Out of the bus, Out Of The Bus, OUT OF THE BUS we scrambled. Our friend looked underneath and saw a broken air line, the one to the brakes. We were lucky that the line had not broken on the way down! He said it was probably because of a short in the rigged up repair he had done, which he had done that way because of a myriad other repairs that had NOT been done correctly. Makes you think about what kind of secrets are lurking in any mechanical contraption in the Republic of Georgia.

Finally, after emptying the shelves of a nearby kiosk (what a sales day THAT guy had!) we heard that another bus might be available, but it was dirty. Oh my. If it was dirty enough to be remarkable in Georgia, what could that mean? We waited anxiously and tried to find places to relieve ourselves. The new bus arrived, and while it had not been washed, it wasn’t the pig sty I think we all expected. So we got on and went in to Batumi to find lunch. The Marseilles Restaurant had no electricity (darn! no bouillabaisse!), so we soldiered on to the waterfront, where we found a very elegant restaurant with several empty tables in the outdoor café. Clif and I sat down with two other members of the group, and the children were given their own table. I went off in search of the facilities, having missed my opportunity to go earlier al fresco. Much to my surprise, Martha and crew were in an upstairs dining room along with two more families. Go figure.

Our table was halfway through our first bottle of wine before the other larger table of about 15 people had even ordered. The waitress, a beautiful blonde with gold teeth, walked away in despair at least twice. Finally, food was ordered, including pizza for the kids. They ate a little and ran around a lot. The kids from upstairs came down and ran around a lot, too. No one fell into the harbor.

After lunch, it being about 4 p.m. at this point, we decided to punt the boat thing and go on to Gonio, the Roman fort. We headed south from Batumi toward the border with Turkey. There were many abandoned barracks on the way, lots of watch towers, fragments of broken concrete walls. During the Cold War, this was the only spot where the Soviet Union actually shared a border with a NATO country. Marika said that during that time, no one could go to Gonio. Even to go south of Batumi required special permission.

We arrived at Gonio and went in. It is a walled enclosure of about 20 acres, with artifacts from the 6th century B.C. to the 18th century, when it was finally abandoned by the Turks. I tried to pay attention to the nice director, I really did, but I can’t remember much of what he said. Wandering around and watching the kids collect and make sculptures of snails was really interesting, too. The snails kept trying to ooch away. Many different archeological excavations are going on; some are under plexiglass covers, and all of them look well maintained. I always find Roman plumbing interesting. Various intake and outflow pipes were excavated; they ranged in age from 1st century A.D. to 16th century, but the later ones were no more sophisticated than the earlier.

This was the easternmost outpost of the Roman Empire. The soldiers, approximately 1,200 as determined by archeological evidence, were mostly Syrian. There were ruins of a palace, of baths, of barracks. The walls are amazingly intact. The battlements on top were constructed by the Turks, but the main part of the wall is Roman. What a difference from the Antonine Wall in Glasgow—a rock here, a rock there—“It’s a wall!” someone cries. Well that’s not exactly fair, but it goes to show how weather, and a later need for building materials, can really change a site. So now I have been to the northernmost outpost and the easternmost outpost of the Roman Empire.

Brave and reckless people, Wilson included, climbed the wall and stood around on top, looking over the orchard that is most of what is going on inside the fort these days. We got back into the bus, and had a brief discussion and election over what to do next. The decision was made to go to the Turkish border just to look at it.

I know this is a cheap thrill, but I do love to look at some piece of territory that looks EXACTLY like where I am standing and say, “Well. There’s another country!” And just like the Roman Empire, I have now been within spitting distance of two borders in Georgia: Russia on the Georgian Military Highway, and Turkey, at Sarpi. Many trucks were lined up to go through customs, a few guys walked around desultorily with automatic weapons, the truckstop café looked inviting. What a difference this must be from the Cold War, when this must have been Checkpoint Charlie South. There were those in our group who thought this was the stupidest thing ever, but after all, the majority was right in there with me on the pleasure of the cheap thrill, not that I was the instigator or anything.

Back at the hotel, dinner was served at 7 p.m. Remember that we finished lunch at about 3:30. Again, I don’t remember what was served, but it must have been O.K. if it remains unmemorable. More sitting around in the café bar after dinner, many good stories were exchanged. That night the trains were particularly loud, I don’t know why. The freight trains rumbled through with tank after tank of petroleum. The passenger trains came through faster and louder. It had mixed with the sound of the waves on Saturday and Sunday, but somehow Monday night it woke me up again and again.

Not only did we receive two wake-up calls, but our alarm clock went off, so we were up in plenty of time to have our breakfast. What would it be today? Warm bologna? The same sliced cheese, third viewing? Omelet? We had come to expect a belly bomb, so we were confused when it was only 2 blinis per person. A tiny slice of ham per person was on offer, but no fruit preserves, no sour cream, no caviar, either. Well, the same cheese was indeed out for a third viewing, but there were no takers at our table. This was really disappointing because we were about to get on the provisionless train for 8 hours, and there was no store to run to in order to stock up. So, we made the best of the situation and made bread and runny jelly sandwiches and wrapped them up in the festive green and yellow napkins. Later, the sandwiches tasted just like the napkins.

To our delight, the little girl with the bellyache and her mother showed up. She was apparently feeling fine—the whole thing was still a mystery, and she will have to be closely monitored, but she looked normal and seemed in fine fettle.

We loaded up onto the bus and arrived at the train station in plenty of time for Wilson to make himself completely obnoxious to the other parents by standing way too close to the edge of the platform, which made the other kids try that, too, of course.

The train arrived, and we got into our ASSIGNED seats. The train ride was interesting for about thirty minutes, boring for about 2 hours, and excruciating after that. I was head-drop tired, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep with the bouncing and the noise. The kids were all crammed together in four seats, with Wilson generally sitting on the littlest one, trying to play Gameboy with only two units and six kids. Gridlock irritation was threatening, then the father with the most authority took matters into his own hands and arranged a visit to the cab of the locomotive. This was accomplished fairly soon, but only for a few minutes. The engineer was apparently so pleased with the enthusiasm showed by the children, not to mention Clif—who pronounced this one of the highlights of his life thus far—that he asked them to come back for more. They ducked every time a train passed in the other direction so they wouldn’t be busted by the inspector. (I remember reading Airframe by Michael Crichton, in which an airplane crashes and all aboard are killed because the pilot allowed his son to fly the plane for a lark.)

Anyway, the dreaded bored children disaster was averted, and Wilson amused himself with going back and forth to the snack bar or out onto the platform for various nonnutritious treats. In his defense, he did eat half of a khatchapuri. The Responsible Dad kept all six children supplied with Pantas, thereby saving the day. He even thought to tip the train engineer. When we arrived at the station in Tbilisi, we snagged a couple of telephone numbers of people we really would like to see again, found a taxi, and went home.

Tired, but happy, we came back to no disasters, not even important e-mail. That’s what we like. Of course, that was when my chest cold struck. Even an episode of Angel on DVD—The Demise of Doyle—couldn’t make me feel better. I always did like him better than Wesley. But wait, there was one e-mail that, although it was not truly important, did carry a tidbit of exciting news. My mother went to the bookstore to get a copy of Lord John and the Blah Blah Whatever signed by (gasp!) Diana Gabaldon in person. The next REAL book will be out soonish (a year or so). A reason to live.

By the way, the Georgian tea was just awful. But it was only 3 laris for half a kilo, a worthwhile experiment.

Uplis-Tsikhe is the real name of the cave city.
Tochna is how you say "exactly" in Russian.

Can Anything Else Go Wrong?
A Really Fun Weekend Full of Disasters

Part I--October 11 and 12
Saturday morning we got up at dawn to meet the bus at the Sheraton Metekhi Palace Hotel for a group visit to the Black Sea coast and Batumi. We had received strict instructions to join the group at 7:30. Never mind that the train left at 8:40 and we live closer to the train station than the hotel. But, dutiful people that we are, we got up at 6, caught a taxi at 7, and arrived at the Sheraton at 7:20 or so. I didn’t feel like we knew anyone, and it was dark and cold, and everyone else seemed to know each other, and all that kind of uncomfortable stuff, plus I was worried about Wilson fitting in with the other kids.

We got in the bus, and off we went to the train station. Our guide was Marika, and she gathered us all together on the platform. The train actually pulled in to the station early, and we boarded. The seats and cars were reserved and assigned, but our fearless leader (OFL) thought it didn’t much matter where we sat. So Wilson sat down at the end of the car opposite the conductor’s compartment and would not be moved, so there would be no opportunity to, you know, interact with anyone.

Luckily, some other people got on and ground to a halt in front of us, grumpy expressions on their faces. So we had to move, which made the people sitting in THOSE seats move. Anyway, I ended up sitting across from some members of our group who were themselves fascinating and also quite knowledgeable about the country.

The kids bonded over their Gameboys. Just like Pokemon, this is a very effective ice-breaker. Somehow, “How ’bout those Knicks?” just doesn’t have the potential for forging a spiritual connection that these kid things do. I am envious.

The Mtkvari River Valley runs from Tbilisi through Mtskheta and then turns west. The farther we went, the landscape grew more and more sere. Clif said it reminded him a little bit of Uzbekistan. It reminded me of the Badlands of South Dakota sort of. There are eroded mesas, scrubby vegetation, and trees only where there are rivers and creeks. We passed a small cave city called Uplashika. We will go back for a dedicated visit. The little caves are everywhere in this landscape; at one time I guess that each one had its ascetic-in-residence. The mountains to the south of and parallel to the train tracks, got a little higher as we made our way west.

The city of Gori has two special things you can see from the train; (1) a medieval walled castle that is enormous and looks really cool; and (2) a giant portrait of Josef Stalin in the train station. Lots of folks were hanging out of windows and jumping off the train to get a picture of Uncle Joe, but I didn’t really want to. It’s funny and all, I guess, that this little town where he was born has nurtured the cult of personality, but you don’t see Braunau am Inn, Austria, opening an Adolf Hitler theme park, do you? This guy was even worse, although that point is endlessly debatable. He killed far more people than Hitler did, both in wartime and peacetime.

I’ve heard that the nicest suburbs and parks of Tbilisi were constructed over the mass graves of Stalin’s and Beria’s victims. That way, the two connivers reckoned, no one would be wanting to dig them up anytime soon. I don’t know if this is true, though. Makes a good story. Also makes one more good reason for not living there.

Anyway, past Gori, the dry landscape continued for a good while, then the land started to get more mountainous. My seat companion knew a lot about Georgia’s history and geography, so he was fun to sit with. As the Mtkvari river valley sides drew nearer, we started to climb. He told us about the natural geographical division between east Georgia and west Georgia. East Georgia was invaded many times; west Georgia, hardly at all. The mountain range between the territories kept the west safe. I don’t know if the train went through the Sumari Pass, but I will now pass along a recommendation: don’t ever see the movie called something something Sumari. I could have made a better film. It was both amateurish AND impenetrable. So even if it is one of a handful of films made in and about Georgia, please save yourselves and run! I know I’m insulting the entire 3-person Georgian film industry here, but really . . .

The pass through the mountains was very dramatic and beautiful, in a small mountain kind of way—nothing like the Aragvi or the Terek river valleys. It was getting more and more lush as we went along. There were trees and shrubs along with the shack-y houses and wandering livestock. We came out of the pass into a subtropical zone, where persimmons were ripening on the trees. There was an occasional palm tree. The land was dead flat, so the train picked up speed. By this time, I was good and tired of being on the train, but our destination was still hours away. The train was not going slow; it just takes eight hours to get there!

As we neared the coast, things got more and more lush, and the sky clouded over. We had seen that pattern several times on the satellite weather maps we could find online. (Rant time: Just TRY to find an accurate weather forecast for Georgia on the web. First, they ask you to choose a continent. Europe? Asia? Neither one will have good info for Georgia. They point at each other and say, “Try over there.” You CAN get a completely inaccurate temperature and rain-or-not icon. Whoo hoo. Thanks! The best information comes if you assume that Georgia is still part of the Soviet Union. Click Russia--which I remind you, Georgia IS NOT--and you can get a satellite picture! The coast is almost always cloudy, and Kakheti is almost always clear. Tbilisi is in the middle but closer to Kakheti. That’s your weather forecast. Accurate and dependable, if a bit unchanging. Rant over.)

As we neared the coast, we got all excited about seeing a new body of water, so we could say, “Black Sea: tick,” keeping track of where we’ve been in the world. It looked sort of muddy, but there were waves. The wind had picked up, and it definitely looked like rain would be coming. Within 30 seconds of stepping off the train, the drizzle started. This was probably particularly depressing to the poor man whose arm was still in the train door when it closed on him and the train started to move off with half of our party still on board. What in the world were the “conductors” doing?

These are the ladies who sit in each train car in little compartments of their own. They are vestigial provodniks. When I was in Russia a few years ago, I got to see a real provodnik in action on a night train to Novgorod. She brought us hot water for our tea from her samovar, which was being heated with coal. She made sure we knew how to make up the beds. She brought us bottled water when we needed it. She was solicitous, if stern. These Georgian provodniks changed the videotapes so we could see, and hear, many fine Russian pop videos. And they all crowded together in and around one compartment and chatted. Or they knitted scarves using variegated blue, gray, and white acrylic yarn in a large rib stitch. Ooooh. Tweedy. And they acted as conductors at stations. Or they were supposed to. Small comfort for that squished arm.

Our tour bus was at the station to pick us up, so we got aboard for the five-minute drive to our resort hotel. By the time we got to the hotel, it was full out raining. Just for us! We checked in and found ourselves on the seventh floor in a two-room suite: foyer with matching coat rack and shoe shelf as well as dorm fridge, salon with color TV and pull out double bed sofa; chambre with two twin beds, a giant armoire, and an elaborate mirrored bedside credenza with built-in (nonfunctioning) nightlights. Both rooms had doors to the balcony. Tres classy. But there was the most amazing horrible odor throughout our room. Sewer gas does not begin to talk about this. But we are troupers, not complainers, so we poured a little water into the floor drain to fill the J trap in case that was the problem, put a plastic bag over it in case it wasn’t, turned on the fart fan, and unpacked. The beach and swimming pool beckoned.

The rain kept us from the beach, but the indoor swimming pool was nice, and Wilson had his trunks on in five seconds flat. The other kids were headed there, too, so it looked like the place to be for the 12 and under set. After a bit, dinner was served by one frantic waitress. Only four days later, I can’t remember what it was. Anyway, it compared favorably with Intourist fare. There were beets. I do remember that.

Somewhere in there Martha showed up with her entire entourage including her sister, who is visiting for a couple of weeks. She had planned to join the expedition in a limited way, and they were happy to see Wilson when they opened the door to the pool. There was general adjournment to the café bar after dinner, and much hilarity and fellowship was experienced as we did the meet-and-drink thing. By the end of the evening, I felt as though I had met about half the folks on the trip.

The next day we got up, had breakfast of breaded and fried chicken sausage and mashed potatoes, beet salad, bread and butter, Tang, but NO TEA. I had to get ugly to get my caffeine, but when it finally came, the tea was good. This seemed to bode well for the discovery and acquisition of Georgian tea, a major industry during Soviet times. We assembled at the bus for our trip in to Batumi. It was still raining. The drive over the headland to Batumi was beautiful. First we passed the abandoned tea plantations. Marika told us that the tea industry collapsed with the end of the Soviet Union. After independence, Georgia completely lost its market for tea. They just walked away, leaving the plantations to grow wild. So, perhaps no Georgian tea, but we remained hopeful.

Over the hill and around the curves we could see a vista of forested, steep, hills meeting the coast. Barbados? Capri? Thailand? All these were floated as suggestions. Batumi is on a peninsula, so it is very contained. We had a “windscreen” tour, noting the existence of a central market for future reference, and parked at a large church near the end of the peninsula. The service was in full swing. I scampered out as soon as the worshippers hit their knees.

Then we got back on the bus for a tour of the art museum, which was—of course—closed when we arrived, despite earlier assurances of availability. So, on to the history museum. This was great! The first hall had one whole wall of dusty glass cases containing dusty taxidermied specimens of all kinds of critters. The birds of prey perched atop the cabinets in threatening postures. I liked the vulture quite a bit. The last cabinet contained white things in jars of slightly yellowish liquid, somewhat evaporated. This is always one of my favorite museum exhibits.

The next room contained archeological artifacts, some nicely mislabeled. I always like that. History marched forward, and the room sets chronicled the many ages of and influences on west Georgia. Out back, there was an abandoned fountain and a large storage room with a glass wall, behind which was the skeleton of a whale. I liked this museum better than the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery, and that’s saying a lot.

Then we visited the mosque. It was beautifully decorated in polychromed carved wood and had Arabic calligraphy on all the walls. The men who had opened it up for us to see were very curious about Islam in the United States; I think they were surprised when we were somewhat familiar with it and were able to give information about American Muslims. We ducked into a café across the street for some Turkish coffee and baklava to cut that full feeling from the breaded and fried chicken sausage and mashed potatoes (BaFCSaMP).

Sufficiently caffeinated, we split up at that point and decided to meet at the Boulevard at 5 p.m. Some people wanted to go eat, which I thought was completely insane on top of the BaFCSaMP, not to mention the coffee and baklava, but you never know, those fat cells get hungry too. We tried to get directions back to the central market. This took 20 minutes; at one point the bus driver was going to walk us there; at another point he gave us confusing directions; there was much discussion; at yet another point, he was back to the walking with us plan. Finally, we just walked away with another member of our group in tow. She wanted to see the market too.

I had spotted umbrellas hanging from a display outside the market, and I was not going to be denied this time. You just about cannot get an umbrella in Tbilisi. I have looked for weeks and have only seen a child’s transparent-with-hot-pink-flowers number that I would not carry if it was raining ectoplasm. Not even the UniverMag was equipped. The Super Babylon has a few for 75 laris. Riiiiiight. When it rains in New York, out come the tables of $5 umbrellas. What is so hard about this basic business idea? It would be a better way to make money than having the 23rd used book stall in a row, or the 61st IDENTICAL kiosk of soda, vodka, and illegally imported cigarettes, I tell you what.

Anyway, we found the market, and in we went. The building itself houses the food market. The first floor is fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and a little bit of TEA! We bought some sweet pepper powder from a friendly woman, some adjika (hot pepper sauce) in a mayonnaise jar from another friendly pair of women, and a half kilo of large-leaf tea from a young woman who claimed to have picked it herself. Of course, the rest of her booth was entirely canned and packaged goods, so the claim is dubious, but I appreciate the effort on her part to make the tourists feel good.

The second floor was meat, poultry, and dairy foods. This was the predictable show of many carcasses and pieces thereof. I tried basturma (dried beef) for the first time and didn’t particularly like it. Hormel chipped beef in a jar is much better, plus you get the juice glass. Dead-looking chickens lay there with their yellow feet sticking out. I know, I know, they look dead because they ARE dead, but you know as well as I do that they don’t look like dead animals when they are properly cut into pieces and packaged on a Styrofoam tray.

On the landing were two men with turned and carved wood kitchen implements. Our companion wanted to get some of these things so we shopped and talked for a while. The owner of the booth didn’t know at first that we were Americans (what was HE smoking?), but after he found out, he ribbed us gently about the Governator. She bought a scimitar-shaped cake cutter in blond wood, an implement that looked like a policeman’s baton that has some use I cannot remember, and a gorgeous turned mortar and pestle in bicolor wood. All this cost 25 laris. I might add that nothing had prices on it, so we were being royally cheated, but I mean, what does it cost us to pay 1 lari for 3 ounces of spice? Glad to do it.

We walked out of the market to find the rain starting to come down in a serious fashion. Time to shop for an umbrella. Wilson got a plain black one with a pointy end. How long until someone gets hurt? I got a plaid one in chartreuse and blue. Clif didn’t get one. Another star in his martyr’s crown. We decided to repair to a pastry shop for more sugar and caffeine. We found a taxi with a friendly looking driver and asked him to take us to a place to sit down and have cakes. I think that’s what Clif said. We didn’t know the word for pastry shop in either Russian or Macedonian, which brought on a discussion of the similarities and differences between the two languages. There was a little discussion with the taxi driver about whether we wanted to buy pastries or sit down. Clif answered, “sit down,” and the driver said he knew a place exactly. Tozhna. More discussion about THAT word in Russian and Macedonian. Meanwhile, the guy drove and drove; he stopped and got out and asked directions; he drove and drove; he stopped and got out and asked directions; he drove and drove; he parked the car in the middle of an intersection and disappeared for several minutes. This is a very small city, mind. Tozhna my foot. We ended up at a cake decorating shop we had passed on our walk from Boulevard to the market. We had already seen the place, fer cryin’ out loud. WE could have given him directions! We ordered a varied selection of typical Ajaran pastries along with coffee and tea. It was perfect.

At our rendezvous point near the beach, Wilson discovered several washed up jellyfish. He really happied up at this point. I followed along, collecting different colors of perfectly oval pebbles. The beaches here are all pebbles, but the stones are the most varied I have ever seen in one place. Every color, every texture. We went back to the bus. Distressingly, one of the children had developed a painful stomachache, and her doctor happened to be in Batumi. He wanted to have a look at her, so they stayed in town. Meanwhile, it turned out that about half the group was NOT hungry because they had indeed chosen to eat lunch on top of the BaFCSaMP breakfast. Gluttons for punishment, you ask me. Dinner reservations for the group were canceled, which led to the threat of a lawsuit as best as I could understand during the many loud phone calls that were exchanged.

Those of us who had not eaten decided to eat, and drink, at the café bar in our hotel. I had an Ajaran khatchapuri, and I am lucky that I have extremely high HDL levels. This is pizza dough in the shape of an oval, but with the ends pulled out a little like handles. In the middle is a basin filled with melted cheese in a puddle of butter with a raw egg on top. You stir the contents all together and make cheesy scrambled eggs on dough. It is delicious! The classic variety is two feet long and shaped like a boat. I estimate that it would feed a family of four.

Children came and went, ate ice cream, drank Panta, and generally made nuisances of themselves while the adults traded funny stories and got to know each other better.

It was at this point that the news about the little girl started to be really bad. She was admitted to the hospital, and surgery for appendicitis was either scheduled or contemplated. After a little while, OFL heard that she was staying in a hotel room in Batumi, since she would be more comfortable there, but there was no further news.

More tomorrow . . .

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Scientists Come Through
My sister and my father-in-law have both, simultaneously, provided the answer to the laundry problem. They suggested that the water might be acidic, thus both neutralizing the detergent and destroying the clothes. I am happy to report that I will no longer be forced to go down to the creek to beat the socks on the rocks to restore their cottony softness. All it took was a little baking soda in the detergent cup. Thanks, Sarah and Clifton!

Re: Feedback
Our friend India has opined that the readers of this blog demand the option of commentary. While I appreciate her enthusiasm (and I would love to know if someone besides my immediate family is reading this) I must admit that the chance to be absolute queen of something is too intoxicating to let go of. If you must, you may select the FEEDBACK option and send me an e-mail. If it is a matter of fact-checking, I solemnly promise to admit my errors and report the Truth. Like, for example, Dudayev was not democratically elected. O.K. my bad.

Why Aren’t People of Color the Same as Colored People?
Good question. Grammatically identical, yet a world of difference. About the second day I was here, I picked up a little editing job at the Center of American Studies at Tbilisi State University? [Who knew that the very center of all American studies was in Tbilisi? Clif asks. Perhaps they should have consulted a native speaker about that preposition. And perhaps they should have chosen “for.” Oh well. I wasn’t working for them then, and the sign is on the wall, and the stationery is already printed.]

Every year, the center hold a conference on American Studies in Tbilisi. Many scholars in all fields of study are invited to present papers. A journal of the proceedings was published last year, and this year’s version is in the works. Many of the papers were presented—and will be printed—in English, but the ones that were presented in Kartuli will have an English-language abstract printed before the actual essay. I volunteered to edit these abstracts.

My contact person at the Center of American Studies is (we’re up to a prize of 1 lari if you can guess) Nino T(burbleburble)adze; she is a lovely girl and very enthusiastic. I genuinely like this Nino quite a bit. I edited about 80 of the darn things, and, surprisingly, only one was so stricken with the deadly Kartuli-English dictionary disease as to be completely incomprehensible, and that one was on Women’s Studies so I even had a running start. The rest ranged from perfect academic English to pretty darn questionable, but I managed to salvage them from the ashcan of incomprehensiblity I hope.

One of the mistakes that occurred in more than one abstract was mistaking the phrase “people of color” for “colored people.” Hmmm. Where to start? Well, here’s where to start. I foolishly volunteered to teach a seminar on what I have called “Advanced Written English for Academic Publication.” Here, I will take on such weighty subjects as British versus American usage, ordinal and cardinal numbers, noun (United States) and adjective (U.S.) forms of the name of the country we must not call “America,” why not to use so-called and quote marks at the same time, a whole section on politically correct language (during which I will try to gracefully insert the difference between PoC and CP), and—believe it or not (because I think it is one of the simple things a person can do to indicate English competence)—the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive as it applies not only to commas, but also to the diff. between “that” and “which.”

I told Nino a couple of weeks ago that I would consider doing this, and she immediately made plans for a lecture. No lecture, I said. Seminar, I said. If I have to do it five times, fine. But no more than 12 or 15 of your best at a time. Fine, she said. So, today she called at 3:30 and said it was on for tomorrow at 2. (!) I have spent two hours outlining everything I can fill an hour with, because—Clif tells me—these students do not ask questions. They listen, they wander in and out, they talk on their mobiles, and they may or may not be paying attention, but they do not engage in a mutually respectful, nonhierarchical, community-of-learners–type deal AT ALL. So I will have to encourage them to ask questions, while being prepared to fill an hour all by myself. Me and my big mouth.

The Election, Part I
On November 2, Georgians will go to the polls to select members of Parliament and to vote on a referendum to reduce the number of members of Parliament from 235 to 150, as of 2007. You might think that was a relatively simple declarative sentence, but there’s a world of trouble brewing.

This is going to be an extremely grisly story, I predict. James Baker, President Bush 41’s Secretary of Snake, came to Georgia in August to have a “little chat” with his friend President Eduard Shevardnadze (Shevy) to press home the world’s interest in having the upcoming election appear to be “free and fair” and all that. He even provided a handy-dandy checklist of suggestions.

In the meantime, there has been a sea-change in the energy sector here. AES, the American-based power company, has thrown in the towel, and UES, the Russian-based power company, has stepped in, though who knows why, since there’s no money to be made in energy here. One amazing story: One provincial government quit paying its electric bill. The power company cut off its electricity. Cause, effect. Got it in one. The governor of the province went to the district power substation with goons and demanded, at gunpoint, that the electricity be turned back on. The electricity was turned back on; bloodshed was avoided. But, ummm, wasn’t there something we forgot? Oh. The bill.

The natural gas has been off in all of Georgia since before we came. Our kitchen is equipped with a gas range. Our bathroom has a gas hot water heater. Our apartment has a gas heater. Rumors come and go every week: “I heard it will be on by Sept. 15.” “I heard it will be on by Oct. 1.” “I heard it will be on next Thursday.” But everyone believes that it will come on by Nov. 2, because otherwise Shevy will look like he is not in control. Of course, the closer we get to Nov. 2, the shorter the time period of predicted gas availability gets, if you ask me. I mean, if it had come on by Sept. 1, then there would be some reason to believe that its availability might not be completely election-related. If, however, it comes on the afternoon of Oct. 30, I’m sure everyone will figure that Nov. 4 is the last day for sure.

Clif has volunteered to be an election observer. When this question came up, it sounded like he would get to go to some suburb and stay up all night with the coffee and donuts and watch while someone counted the ballots. Then he would go home. It is seeming like it might be a little more involved now. Our new friends with OSCE (the nongovernmental organization—NGO—involved with overseeing the election), are incredibly busy now, attending various constitutional court proceedings and trying to watch what is happening with the run-up to the election. Sometimes their stories sound like a bad sitcom, but it’s all real. There has already been campaign-related violence caused by local police not allowing a candidate to enter a particular town, at which point a fight broke out and heads were bashed.

Nino (!) Burjanadze is the speaker of the Parliament now, and she is running for re-election on an opposition platform. I don’t think her policies are all that different, but she promises that everyone on her ticket is honest. She must have an amazing amount of money in this campaign. Posters of her, thoughtfully holding her chin and looking at scenes of all the regions of Georgia floating just behind her head, have plastered every vertical surface since I’ve been here. Just yesterday a new shiny double-decker bus with loud speakers and her name on the side showed up in our neighborhood. No passengers or audio messages yet, but it shouldn’t be long now.

We met someone who told us of a friend who spent a month last summer entering the names of dead people onto voter rolls. For a month. Full time. Unofficial OSCE estimates are that there are 60,000 dead people ready to go to the polls in Tbilisi alone. There are countless parties, lots of sound and fury, and a completely apathetic general population. They do not believe that voting will make any difference at all. They believe that the election is fixed, and that the best they can do is keep their heads down.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Gotta Go Back to Kakheti, Again
Sunday we got up early for our second trip to Kakheti. A different driver, Enver, picked us up in his new forest green Niva, and after some quick stops for provisions, we set out. Enver is a jolly man who teaches computer skills at Zugdidi University. He comes back to his family in Tbilisi every week. He speaks very little English, but he tries hard. He kept consulting his crib sheet, holding on to it with both hands and looking hard at it while tearing down the road at better than 90 kph. This made me nervous. We got pulled over by a local sabaka (“dog” in Russian, cute name for the traffic cops who make their living extorting fines). After a couple of minutes, Enver got back in the car and we took off. I couldn’t believe it; I have NEVER heard of anyone talking his way out of a fine here. He must have a gift of some kind. Little did I know. . . .

He modified his aggressive driving style for about 20 seconds after the sabaka stop. Taking corners at speed and too much passing into oncoming traffic turned my stomach, which wasn’t feeling that great anyway. Clif had to ask him to slow down a little. “My wife, you know, her stomach . . . ” (Isn’t it great being beards for each other?) So he slowed down a little. Actually, for the most part it was fine after that. I like Gocha’s totally careful and slow driving. Clif said that Gocha’s slow driving made him crazy.

After passing Goga and Ika from last week going the opposite direction on the road (this is a SMALL country), we went to our favorite café in Gurjaani, the one with the famous local movie star’s portrait hanging over the “stage” like a Soviet exhortation. Clif liked her faint mustache, painted in all its magnificent presence. I had a cup of tea and felt better. Back on the road, Enver pulled over and asked every person standing on the side of the road if this was the way to Nekresi. This was his fourth trip, ever, to Kakheti. Perhaps, Clif pointed out to me, we should engage drivers to take us to the areas they know. We drove toward the mountains, getting closer and closer. The sky was cloudless, although white puffy clouds were forming over the peaks. After a stop in Kvareli to get directions and food (delicious dedaspuri—flat bread—and local cheese), we sped down the road toward Nekresi. It appeared on the knife-edge crest of a hill, looking like something out of Tolkien. The bell tower (16th century) stands forth very visibly, but it’s clear that there are other assorted buildings, too.

When we pulled into the parking lot, we could see that there were several other cars and people there. Enver found the guy you pay, but worked a deal to pay on our way out, hoping I guess that the guy wouldn’t be there. We tore out across the parking lot and pointed the Niva uphill. The guidebooks say there is a quarter-mile walk in to the monastery complex from the parking lot. What they DO NOT SAY, is that the quarter-mile is straight up. That’s a lie: it switches back and forth. I was not at all sure that we were supposed to be driving up the road in the first place. The other cars were parked sedately at the bottom. Those Americans, again. I mean, I would have walked, I really would! But I think Enver really wanted to go 4-wheelin’.

The road was pebbly and washed out, so not only did the Niva careen (note correct usage) back and forth in the ruts, but it had no traction on the smooth stones. This was really exciting, especially when my head hit the roof of the car. We held on to the handles above the windows as best we could and tried to enjoy the ride while not looking out at the receding valley below. At one point, the Niva could go no farther. Luckily, this happened at a switchback where there was just enough room to turn it around and (sort of) park it.

We set out on foot and climbed the rest of the way. As we neared the top we heard the whooping sounds of what could only be students on a field trip. This was a constant feature of the attractions on this Sunday. Field trips on Sunday. Who woulda thunk?

[Digression: When Wilson was in the second grade, his multi-age double class of about 50 kids went on a field trip to the local grocery store to see the warehouse and meet the manager. I went along as one of the chaperone moms, and it was a hoot. We all found out A LOT more than we wanted to know about each family’s buying and eating habits. Never underestimate the amount of information about your family that is traveling back to the ears of your children’s teachers. The unfortunate part of this field trip was that it had been scheduled for Tuesday, senior citizens’ discount day. Ordinarily, I never walk into this store on a Tuesday; it is mobbed by all the elderly people who want bargains. Put this crowd together with 50 first- and second graders milling about, an old crowded store, and a manager who didn’t show up right away, and you have the potential for violence. In their favor, most of the ladies thought the children were charming, or at least they acted as though they did. Points for that. One or two, however, were quite nasty. My favorite comment was, “A field trip? Why don’t you do that after hours or on a weekend? This is intolerable!!” I was loathe to point out to this individual that children are not in school after hours or on weekends, but I did write a letter to the editor of the local paper thanking the people who were tolerant for keeping their sense of humor.]

The mystery of field trips on Sunday at Nekresi was solved when it turned out that these were journalism students from Batumi (near Turkey on the Black Sea) and that they were on an extended field trip.

Coming around the last curve, we spotted several small stone structures, some with tile roofs, some with nothing but walls. At the lowest level of this monastic complex, the first church was from the eighth century. The doors were barred off, but we were able to squeeze our heads in for a look. Climbing up to the next level, to the left there was a small asymmetrical structure with a short square tower and to the right a more impressive multistory building, which had lost its roof.

We walked in to the smaller one and looked around. It was a really tiny church with a brick dome inside what, from the outside, was the square tower. Its proportions were awkward, and not just from the asymmetry, which suggested a missing ambulatory (turned out to be exactly that). To one side of the remaining ambulatory was a staircase down to a crypt. Just outside this part of the structure was a grave-size hole that looked pretty fresh if you ask me.

The story behind this little church is fascinating. It was built by King Mirian’s son, Trdat. King Mirian was converted to Christianity by St. Nino in 330 A.D. So this little church is from the very first era of Christianity in Georgia. An unnamed architectural historian has advanced the theory that it was built from a written description of a basilica by folks who had never actually seen one. Hence the awkward proportions. And just recently, the oldest surviving stone inscription in Kartuli has been found here, so we suspect the grave-size hole has something to do with that.

The larger structure just across the way is a large bishop’s palace from the eighth or ninth century. I wouldn’t call it a palace, but it had several rooms downstairs, including a merani or wine-cellar with several really large kveris (amphoras) buried in the ground. Apparently, upstairs was one big room, so maybe that was a little palatial. The views from this building are stunning. It looks out over the Alazani Valley back toward the Gombori Mountains, and just as it did last weekend, the view reminded me of medieval paintings of Heaven. The final building in the complex is the largest church, from the seventh century. It is a three-church basilica, and we could see that there was some activity inside suggesting the presence of a minder.

I pulled the legs of my flares up to my thighs and whipped out my Religious Woman disguise. Scarf, check. Skirt to go over jeans, check. And in we went. There was indeed a young monk at the back of the central church, so we bought some candles and looked around. The frescoes are really lovely in this church. Most are damaged, but there are several fairly complete scenes including an impressive Last Supper behind the iconostasis, donor portraits that are as individual as these kinds of things get in the East, and a Deposition in which Christ’s body is indigo blue. On the opposite wall was a beautiful Annunciation, and some more damaged scenes I couldn’t make out. If my grasp of iconography were still good, I probably could have pegged them, but 1980 was a long time ago, and I have forgotten a lot.

We sat down and had our lunch among the screaming and horseplay of the students, and then we started back down. I hadn’t gotten ten steps before one of them, a cute girl with not-very-authentic red hair, called out, “I am learning English and I have never spoken it with someone from America.” We went through where we were from (New York is always a crowd-pleaser), how long we were in Georgia, what kind of music did Wilson listen to (not, alas, Eminem), and Did We Like Their Country? (of course!). Guess what this girl’s name was, and I’ll give the first correct answer 50 tetris upon my return. That’s right! Nino. I did not laugh. I said, “Hello, Nino, I’m glad to meet you.”

We talked all the way back to the Niva, which was waiting at the switchback. Then our party loaded up and descended to the parking lot. At this point negotiations about payment started between Enver and the man who was taking money. I was not privy to the back-and-forth because, thankfully, sometimes I can claim Female status and duck out. At any rate, we paid some amount that may or may not have been the posted (foreigner) price of $3 a head, and we left. Next stop Gremi, which Nino and her friends pronounced Grim, but with a rolled “r.” I figured we’d see them again up the road.

For a macho culture, our drivers have been remarkably quick to pull over and ask directions. In fact, it seems as though THIS is the macho thing to do—make contact with a local, chat a bit, get the next piece of road described to you, and move on with a quick toot-toot. Enver is clearly màs macho. It’s about seven kilometers from Nekresi to Gremi, and I think we stopped three times. The confusion stemmed from the fact that what we wanted to visit was the monastery, not the village, and the directions that Clif was reading from the guidebook contradicted the directions given by the locals who, when asked, “How do I get to Gremi?” answered with directions to the village. We did not want to go to the village, as charming as it was (un)likely to be.

[Rated M for Mature Digression: During a trip to Mexico, a gentleman of my acquaintance arrived at what was supposed to be a charming mission village—but was clearly a Jumping-Off Place—and said, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to find a dog to *%@^.”]

We pulled up at the right place and climbed up. This is a complex of church and residence built by King Levan in 1565. The church is notable for its frescoes. These are all of a period, finished in 1577, and are much more complete and undamaged than any other church I have seen. They are indeed lovely. I actually got to tell Wilson something he didn’t already know when I described the technique of fresco to him. The scratched-in initials on the lower portions were actually a teaching tool to show how the different pigments were absorbed and chemically crystallized in the plaster, not just sitting on top.

The best thing about Gremi, however, is the views from the tower of the residence. But first, there were more negotiations about entrance fees. The LOL sitting at the desk took one look at us and flipped the hand-lettered sign around to say “Entrance 3$.” Enver was having none of it. His wife had been an Intourist guide during Soviet times, and he was outraged that the previous system was no longer in place. Under this plan, one entrance fee covered admission to all the attractions in an area. MUCH discussion. Finally, he said, “Go on in”; no money was exchanged. The residence does not have a lot to recommend it except the tower, which is climbed by using one of those really scary twisty narrow stairways where the steps are (a) gone, (b) broken, and/or (c) slick from wear. But I love a view so I persevered. Same view as before, but I just can’t get enough of this stuff.

After we descended, sure enough there was Nino and her group. We talked for a little while, exchanging pleasantries, and having a picture taken together. When she asked, I gave her my phone number, so now I can have one of those Nino phone calls. I have already planned the first lesson. I have two sons. Do you have brothers or sisters? Who else is in your family?

Back down to the car, and back to Tbilisi. On the way, we stopped to buy some of Kakheti’s harvest treats: churchkhela. These are made by putting about ten walnuts on a cotton string and dipping them in grape juice that has been cooked down and thickened with a little flour. This is done enough times to build up a coating. It looks like a hand-dipped candle except that the color and shape are problematic. The grape juice is usually a medium brown, and the walnuts, when covered, are transmogrified into slightly shapeless lumps. The whole thing looks like dog doo on a string. But far be it from me to pass up the local delight, which comes but once a year. We did manage to acquire a slightly more appetizing variety of churchkhela made from filberts and saperavi juice. Saperavi is the high-class red wine grape, so this was the white-glove cabernet sauvignon version. I will attach a picture of one of ours, but I will have to buy one of the dog doo kind at some point just to post it. It’s not bad—just kind of like fruit-flavored plastic.

By the end of the day, I felt worn to a nubbin. The whole trip was 90 miles out and 90 miles back, with two touristic stops, and we felt like we had been shaken not stirred the whole way. Each leg took three hours.

Friday, October 03, 2003


I don’t like what is happening to our clothes. I do not understand the washing machine. What happens is, the machine goes around and around for three hours, the clothes come out wet and destroyed, BUT THEY ARE NOT CLEAN. Why is this? How can this be possible? One theory is enzymes in the detergent. The socks come out like loofahs. You can hardly wear them again. I have yet to find a product, even Tide, that does not contain enzymes. But I have hope: there is a product called Barf that might be gentler on the clothes. But I still don’t understand why they are not clean. (I am not kidding about Barf.

One of the things Georgia needs to import is a container load of new first names. All the Goga, Gogo, Gocha, Gio, Gia, and similar names are permutations of Giorgi (hard “G”). St. George, the one with the dragon, is the patron saint of Georgia. O.K. Understood. But why do you have to name every third male Giorgi? We don’t name every other child George Washington Smith, even if he was the father of our country.

Even worse are the girls’ name(s). It’s like Highlander: There Can Be Only One. And the winner is Nino. This has caused many problems for us. The best illustration is the phone call one night on the land line in the apartment. Clif picked up the phone and said, “Allo?” The other party, a young woman from the sound of her, said, “Allo? This is Nino.” “Oh, hello, Nino,” said Clif, stalling for time, trying to match a voice with an identity because that very day I think we had met two more Ninos. “How do you like Georgia?” asked Nino. “I like Georgia very much,” said the always-polite Clif. This went on for a few more minutes until he extracted himself from the conversation.

He ultimately determined that this was something between a wrong number and a prank call. Perhaps it was one of the neighbors who wanted to practice her English and knew the number? We will never know. None of the many Ninos we really have met has copped to this.

What complicates this is that there are basically two kinds of last names in Georgia: names ending in shvili and names ending in adze/idze. So when someone identifies herself as Nino burbleburbleishvili, YOU HAVE NO CLUE.
We no longer answer the land line. We just let it ring and ring. It is unreliable anyway. Cell phones work better. They have caller ID.

And tonight we had a Georgian, nay a Caucasian, art experience. There’s this arts festival/conference/symposium thing, for which the publicity and scheduling material came out less than 24 hours before it was supposed to begin. No one knew it was happening; no one knew who the people were who organized it; the theme was so vague as to be useless, etc. etc. But the French Institut de Culture was somehow involved. So yesterday, Clif went to one of the first events, a 2 p.m. lecture at the Art Academy, only find out that it was a 3 p.m. lecture at the university. Tonight we went to a 5 p.m. opening at the Library for the photography part of the show, but what was happening at 5 p.m. at the Library was a very disorganized presentation of video art. Photography was at 7 p.m. at the Goethe Institut. And why not? There were scads of Armenian and Azerbaijani artists who all seemed as disoriented as we were. (They, however, are better at going with the flow.) The French attendees did not seem disoriented; they always look like they know what they are doing, those French.

And One Good Thing: Haferflocken, aus dem vollen Korn (extra zart). Oatmeal! Wilson spotted this at the Little Big Ben. Good eyes, that one, when he wants to.

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