Monday, December 29, 2003

More Merchandise

I did not actually see this, but I saw a picture of it on one of those ceramic trays where your change is put so the cashier doesn't have to make actual contact with the customer: a candy bar or choco-wafer thing called Doping.

Plus, we are now drinking "Final" brand tea because it's what our market across the street had.


Another weird consumer behavior: the paper versus cloth thing. In the U.S., we like to blow our noses on something we can throw away. I am perhaps the only person at any one time on Rustaveli who actually carries Kleenex. Georgians do blow their noses in public, but always on a small plaid square of cotton. You occasionally see these things folded carefully and put up on a ledge or curb so that the owner who comes back looking for it can find it. [I cannot verbalize the shuddering gesture I am making right now. Imagine it.]

But, they have a fetish for paper napkins. If I gauge the guest to napkin availability ratio correctly, each person is expected to use at least three during a meal. But these are not your big multi-ply Vanity Fair napkins, mind, they are small, shreddy, cocktail-size napkins. It's funny that they are evidently squeamish about mouth wipings when (a) nose goblins don't do it to them, and (b) they share glasses, cups, forks, yea anything, with strangers. I wonder what they would make of that haut-WASP habit: the use of a napkin ring to decorously fold up the cloth napkin you have just used so it will be available for the next meal. (I have explained this in detail so that Georgians reading this can understand. They are probably shuddering even now.)

I Love a Test

If you loved the AQ test as much as I did, you'll love this one, too. Thanks to India who posted this on her blog. I scored 40, a little higher than India, but in the same category: geek liaison.

Normal: Tell our geek we need him to work this weekend.
You [to Geek]: We need more than that, Scotty. You'll have to stay until you can squeeze more outta them engines!
Geek [to You]: I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain, but we need more dilithium crystals!
You [to Normal]: He wants to know if he gets overtime.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

All My Chickens Back Together

After a week of final exams and associated end-of-semester projects, a day and a night in a friend’s empty apartment because the college calendar lied when we bought the ticket and the dorm was closed, no sleep for any of this, and then 36 hours either in the air or in Akbar and Jeff’s Pretty Good Airport World, James has finally landed in Tbilisi. He looks great.

His plane came in at 5 a.m. We have found that many planes in Tbilisi arrive and depart at completely stupid times. Elizabeth had to fly home for an unexpected family visit, and she had to leave at 4 a.m. Why? we ask. I have heard that the answer to the stupid flight times is an exorbitant tax on arrivals and departures at reasonable hours. Tourism could be so lucrative for Georgia, if the government didn’t keep shooting itself in the foot with moves like this. And let’s don’t get started on why British Airways (justifiably) gave this country and its airport the finger. It may have something to do with European connections, but how many flights normally leave after 10 p.m.? James’s flight left Vienna at 10:15 local time. I bet they have to keep the Vienna airport open that late just for Airzena.

Anyway, rant over. We are glad to have him here. He is glad to be here. Just like his late grandfather, he is already looking forward to dining out on getting to go to this odd location for Christmas break. For some people, you understand, it’s all about the planning and the memories. The actual experience is nice and everything, but the real pleasure is before and after.

Wilson was so beside himself to see his big brother that he stayed up all night so he wouldn’t sleep through the wakeup call and miss the trip to the airport. I stayed home and tried to go back to sleep. I was getting regular updates by telephone, though. (“The plane has landed. Bye.” “I am looking through the vertical blinds at passport control. I can see him in the line. Bye.” “We’re in the car and we’ll be home soon. Bye.”)

Since he hasn’t slept in days, and since many of his recent end-of-semester days were upside-down anyway, he stayed up all day until about 4 this afternoon. In that time we: (1) fed him homemade khatchapuri (I’m getting pretty good at this) and matsoni for breakfast; (2) took him to the Tbilisi State University of Art and Culture for the last day of classes; (3) took him on a quick walk-through of the dry bridge market; (4) took him to lunch at his friend Mr. Chegrinyets’s favorite Tbilisi restaurant, the “Point ’n’ Eat”; (5) shopped for a bedside lamp and a pillow at the UniverMag; (6) went to the central market and bought some food and stuff; and (7) came home and hung around for a while before collapsing for a couple of hours before (8) dragging him—voluntarily I might add—to the Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel for the Embassy Christmas party. What a trouper.

It’s amazing how people can get used to things. I have come to think of Tbilisi as a fairly regular city with a certain Eastern flavor. Yes, it’s a little short on spit and polish, but it’s a reasonable place, isn’t it? Then I look at it again through his eyes as he sees it for the first time. Oh. My. God.

For example, guys with cherry picker trucks that last saw a mechanic while Stalin was still alive are stationed along Rustaveli and they are amputating the London Plane Trees. Logs 8 inches in diameter crash to the sidewalk. They dislodged a set of window bars and broke a window in an upstairs office today. The bars fell amid a shower of glass shards and hit a guy on the head. He was OK. Note that nowhere is there any blocking off of the sidewalk, not even a person holding the foot traffic back while the timber falls. The acronym FUBAR comes to mind.

Wilson asked him, “What are your impressions?” “I haven’t been here long enough.” Two minutes later. “What are your impressions now?” I’ll let him get some rest then I’ll ask him what his impressions are and report back.

Yea, Unto the Seventh Generation

Clif points out that we have yet again done one of those things we thought we wouldn’t do. We took him to a Christmas party that he had no interest in going to, but he went to it agreeably so he could be Exhibit #2.

Just for the record, I did dress him in nautical clothing as a toddler. I did not, however, buy him the navy blue double-breasted coat with the red piping (with gender-reversible button pattern) and the beret with the red pompom. Though I may have spared him some of the worst humiliations parents visit upon their children, he has not been free from this stuff by any means. And we all start out with such good intentions. . . .

I call this the “Dutch Apple Dessert” phenomenon. Years ago, my friend Laurene laughed at herself for being so pure with her first child and just going directly to the aforementioned Gerber goodie for the second. It’s fruit, right?

We got home and he finally collapsed at 9 or so. We have a fire in our fireplace and a dvd of The Two Towers (extended edition) playing. And all of us are together again.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Things I Wish I Knew How to Say in Kartuli

Will you quit staring at me, already?

(and failing that . . . ) What, do I have a booger on my face or something?

Did the customer just before me pay this same amount?

Will you stop driving on the sidewalk? (Elizabeth thought of something to say the other day when she was nearly mowed down by a marshrutka on the sidewalk, but it didn’t involve Kartuli, nor did it involve anything I can write here. Lado said it lasted a long time.)

Would you quit forming a slow-moving group all the way across the sidewalk, please?

What is that smell?

If you intend to grab my purse, fella, think again. We saw you coming a block away.

That’s right, they are not from here. I bought these shoes in New York.

I am not an Orthodox Christian.

Could you put a little less salt in that, please?

Do you honestly know how to get there?

Would you mind letting me off at the next convenient stop? (I actually know how to say “gaacheret!”in a bored Vake-girl accent, but somehow it offends my sense of being polite to strangers.)

Is there any chance you could deliver that?

And, finally, my fondest wish is to be able to say:
Taxi driver, your extremely masculine style of reckless driving has made me wild with desire. Pull over! Stop immediately! I must have you now!

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Happy to Oblige

Want to get rid of your president? Send us a plane ticket. Clif went to Baku this weekend, and guess what, the president (finally) died. We're batting 1000 on this trip.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Consumer Culture in Georgia: Maybe You Should Rethink That Product Name

The desire to adopt Western consumer culture, as misguided as you and I might think that is, proceeds at a fair clip here in the former Soviet Union. Here in Georgia, there is a triple barrier: language. And not just language, alphabet, too. There are three distinct written languages here: mkhedruli (kartuli/Georgian), Cyrillic (Russian), and Latin (English). There are several other written languages that are around on a regular basis, depending on which consumer product you are dealing with: Armenian and Farsi, as well as the other languages that use Cyrillic—Ukrainian, Uzbek, Kazakh, etc.

Everyone (except the Armenians and Azeris and members of various isolated mountain tribes who live inside the borders of Georgia) speaks kartuli. Most everyone speaks at least some Russian; the younger folks are mostly learning English rather than Russian in school. TV is about half and half kartuli/Russian, so even if they aren’t taking it in school, the kids learn a bit of Russian by watching. The population is only about 4 million, so there’s clearly not a huge indigenous consumer product manufacturing industry. Russia is a LOT closer than the U.S., so as a trading partner, it’s obviously first in line. BUT English is cooler than Russian.

What all this means is that many products have to be labeled in at least two languages. Most of the imported food products we buy in the supermarket have a photocopied label in kartuli strategically scotch-taped over the only area where there might be any product information we might like to read. But hey, it’s their country.

I’m not sure what the point I’m trying to make is, if there is one, but here are some observations.

• Product names are a hoot! Our favorite detergent, Barf (how could that NOT be your favorite detergent!), is imported from Iran (“barf” means “snow” in Farsi). “Fax” shampoo claims to put “nature in your hair” with its blend of seaweed, chamomile, and aloe vera; we hope these are not facsimiles of said natural products. “Blend-a-med” is not, in fact, a thick cosmetic foundation designed to cover up scarring from severe burns or acne; it is toothpaste. “Turista” sausage is probably not contaminated with e coli, though you can’t be sure.

• I am not the first person to note the inappropriate length problem in re the brooms here. But I’ll second the motion that if brooms were lengthened so that elderly women could actually sweep without hunching over, they might be happier and more productive. When asked about this feature, which looks not just ridiculous but cruel to us, Georgian women say, “But we’re used to it.”

• I have never seen a car with functioning seat belts, unless it had been brought here at great expense by the U.S. State Department. Air bags? What’s that??? Automobile accidents claim enormous numbers of young lives. You do the math.

• Many people, not including Nino Burjanadze, wear contact lenses here, but I cannot find the stuff to clean them up anywhere. All the expats bring gallons with them, as far as I can tell. Do the Vake girls risk corneal infections on a daily basis to be beautiful? Is there a secret Walgreens I don’t know about?

• Currency exchange places risk attracting a whole new clientele with their signs that read “$exchange.” The rates seem awfully reasonable for such a complicated procedure.

• And just as I feared, I am having to buy food in open air markets, with no prices posted, speaking none of the local languages. But many of the food names are cognates for something I’ve heard before: puri is bread, chai is tea, kave is coffee, rhvino is wine. And I have learned lots of the names of things that have cognates only on other planets: milk is rdze, butter is karaki, beer is ludi. And people in the markets are kind.

• Buying “stuff” is both harder and easier. Most of the food is farm-produced pristine ingredients, so you don’t ever have to evaluate the fat content of a frozen burrito. There’s a lot more cooking, though, as a result. Any esoteric ingredient you find missing from your life, you just make do without. When in doubt, add salt.

• Clothing is an interesting category. You can shop at the Wolford shop in Vake and buy $100 pantyhose. Or you can go to the Lilo market out by the airport and buy turtlenecks for $1.50 from the Azeris and Kurds who bring them in from who knows where. Not much in between. I paid $2 for my tights, and they’re really nice. Of course, the Lilo market has all the ambiance of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds on the Monday after the fair has closed, but whaddaya want?

Shopping--always a quick pick-me-up in the near 100%-female household I grew up in--is fun.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

And I'm Not Even Going to Talk about Her Hair!

Another fascinating (in the sense that a disaster is fascinating) character on the political scene these days is Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia. "Loose cannon" does not BEGIN to describe this woman. It seems like every few days she delivers another wild accusation; at this point, it doesn't matter what her batting average for these blame-fests is, because she just comes off as crazy. She may be absolutely correct in every particular--I have no idea--but from where I sit, it sure does look like "WOLF! WOLF!"

It is a fact, however, that she survived an assassination attempt in 1994, during which her husband, Gia Chanturia, was killed.

Also, it is my speculation that she has Graves disease. Take a look at those eyes. It also might explain the slightly hyper and "off" nature of her public spewings. Remember, folks, that GHW Bush got us into Iraq the first time when he was suffering from Graves disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. How about that wild accusation?

Anyway, I have gone back through the web archives and found an incomplete list of strange comments she has made.

Dec. 8, 2003
Armed Chechens will be given a green light to cross into Georgia (Pankisi, Kodori, and possibly Gali District), where Russian troops are supposed to pursue them and penetrate into Georgia as well. She first put this idea forward back in the summer.

Dec. 7, 2003
After talks with the Ajaran leader Aslan Abashidze, IS-C that the country is not prepared for holding elections on Jan. 4 and that they should be postponed.

Dec. 4, 2003
On December 2 an unknown person fired at Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia’s house. In a televised interview Sarishvili-Chanturia said that the shot was deliberately aimed to take her life.

Dec. 1, 2003
TheFor a New Georgia (pro-Shevardnadze) bloc has spun apart. IS-C has formed a new movement “New Force,” which aims at resisting the dictatorship that threatens the country.

Nov. 27, 2003
“I am warning everyone who dares to touch my children. I will not leave them alive.” [Who? the children? Gotta watch those dangling modifiers. —MN] Apparently, someone has been threatening to tell her adopted children who their birth parents are.

IS-C either quit or was fired from her position as a head of the National Democratic Party. “There is a vacuum in political spectrum today, and the new force to be soon formed by us aims at protecting Georgia from the looming threat,” she said, adding that everyone will miss Eduard Shevardnadze’s governance quite soon.

Nov. 26, 2003
"If he [Saakashvili] becomes president, it will be an economic and political disaster for Georgia. Saakashvili is not very sane.... He's absolutely uncontrolled.... He's really dangerous."

Nov. 24, 2003
IS-C accused the PR managers of Shevardnadze's government of acting under the orders of Armenia's government to disrupt the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

Nov. 11, 2003
Along with Labor and the Industrialists, ISC has branded the TV channel Rustavi 2 as dangerous for trying to incite the public. "Rustavi-2 will bear main responsibility for possible bloodshed in front of the Parliament," said Tsotne Bakuria, chairman of Revival’s Tbilisi organization. "I will talk to you, when you stop spreading lies," said IS-C to a Rustavi-2 correspondent. CEC Chair Nana Devdariani refused to appear on a Rustavi-2 program, claiming scheduling conflicts [but not the beauty parlor —MN].

Nov. 6, 2003
IS-C accused the opposition National Movement and the Burjanadze-Democrats parties as well as unnamed fellow members of For a New Georgia of bargaining over results of the ballot counts.

Nov. 5, 2003
IS-C accused opposition leaders of acting on instructions from both the US and Russia. She accused “certain” US officials based in Georgia of fueling the protests. "These officials have a right to remain in Georgia but they have no right to intervene in its internal affairs in any manner, especially given the activities of Russian special services in Georgia.”

Oct. 14, 2003
The Georgian Parliament held a special briefing on the subject of transferring documents proving the cooperation of Nino Burjanadze with Russian special services. The accusation was made by the IS-C to the Minister of State Security.

Sept. 4, 2003
IS-C accused leaders of the opposition parties of perpetrating the current energy crisis in the country. Most of Georgia was blacked out on September 3 as a result of damage to the high power line Imereti in western Georgia. “Recent sabotage in the energy sector has been ruled from the Headquarters of the United Democrats party. The advisor of the Electricity Wholesale Market, Zurab Nogaideli, is in alliance with these parties and the regular blackouts are taking place just under their instructions.”

And going back to last year . . .

Oct. 22, 2002
At a press conference IS-C came out with the initiative of annulling the presidency. She reported that signatures would be collected to this end in the near future.

. . . and the year before . . .

Oct. 22, 2001
Mikhail Saakashvili and IS-C ran against each other for a seat in Parliament representing the Vake district of Tbilisi. IS-C stated that Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava faked the elections in Vake to Saakashvili's advantage. The Dilis Gazetisaid, "According to the latest information, unfortunately for Sarishvili-Chanturia, the majority of electorate voted for her actual competitor Saakashvili." During the election, two ballot boxes were stolen. Each side accuses the other. Both deny it.

Jan. 11, 2001
In the wake of the government's resignation following a wave of protests, IS-C accused Rustavi 2, Zurab Zhvania and Mikheil Saakashvili of orchestrating the popular protests and of attempting a coup.

. . . and the year before that . . .

July 11, 2000
The Interior Minister said during a press conference that he filed a suit against IS-C, accusing her of calumny. IS-C had claimed that July 9 events in Zestaponi (during which Akaki Eliava, heading the act of mutiny in 1998, and one of his companions were killed) were planned by the Interior Minister in advance.

May 3, 2000
"I believe, that Shevardnadze sincerely wants to settle the Abkhaz problem during his term of Presidency. And any person who is not crazy would not doubt it, " said IS-C.

. . . deeper, deeper into the past . . .

Dec. 16, 1999
IS-C filed a suit against M. Saakashvili to the Prosecutor General Jemal Babilashvili. She had intended to file it directly to the appropriate court, but the court refused to note a claim, saying that her accusation of calumny was criminal in character.

Aug. 24, 1999
IS-C announced at a press conference that "There is only one serious political alliance, between the Citizens' Union (Shevardnadze) and the Revival Union (Abashidze) of Georgia." She claimed the two parties have common political ambitions, and the opposition between them is only an image, created by the parties themselves.

May 10, 1999
"Aslan Abashidze and I are friends, however, our political views do not coincide," IS-C said. Sarishvili-Chanturia was not satisfied with Parliament chair Zhvania's reaction to the increasing the election barrier from 5 to 7%, and she walked out of the session.

April 14, 1999
IS-C declares an alliance between the NDP, the Republican Party and the Georgian Businessmen Union.

June 18, 1997
IS-C accused the security ministry of tapping the telephone conversations of Nodar Grigalashvili, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper "Sakartvelo." She submitted what she called transcripts of the editor's telephone conversations, signed by state security minister Shota Kviraya to a parliament committee. Grigalashvili confirmed that the "transcripts" were authentic. Earlier, Sarishvili had accused Kviraya of collaborating with the Russian security services.

January 1995
On January 11, in a special Parliamentary session,the opposition failed to force the Cabinet out of office. IS-C, who appeared in parliament for the first time after the December terrorist act in which her husband Gia Chanturia was killed and she was wounded, claimed that during her confidential meeting with Shevardnadze on December 1, he promised to consider Cabinet changes after gas supplies were resumed, but later failed to carry out the promise. Her speech was full of allegations against Vice-Premier Avtandil Margiani, Head of the Security Service Igor Giorgadze, Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze and the "Mkhedrioni" leader MP Jaba Ioseliani. They were accused of involvement in illegal anti-state activities, and/or links with Russian secret services.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

More Politics Tomorrow, I Promise

But in the meantime, yes, it's . . .

Fiber Arts in Tbilisi

Yesterday, our friend Nino the textile artist met some Kirghiz felt artists who were in town for an unspecified event with some Swiss company or NGO or something. Is that vague enough? She invited them to come to her textile arts center, an attractive space she and her partners have renovated in a daylight basement near Freedom Square, to show their work and perhaps do a little workshop. Last night she got on the phone and called all the textile artists she knows, and she knows lots, to ask them to come. Somehow, we rated, so this evening we went and met the artists, two women—one middle-aged, one young—and learned how to make beautiful felt art.

The younger woman bounced through the crowd taking digital pictures of everyone, and the older one (her mother?) answered questions about their techniques and the samples of work they had brought. Then it was workshop time. Wilson got a corner of the table, although the grown-up artists who had been invited weren’t terribly generous about sharing space. Each was given a 10-inch square piece of cheesecloth, and there was a pile of vibrantly dyed loose wool in the center of the table. If you remember the old special sales at Filene’s basement, when you would dress in leotards so you could try on things in the aisle, and there was lots of tearing things out of the arms of other shoppers, this was that scene.

They arranged the pieces of wispy wool in patterns on the cheesecloth—some more successfully than others. Then, they got a little bowl of water and a bar of soap. The water was first sprinkled and patted on the piece to wet it a little. Then she pulled out a piece of what looked like lining fabric (she said it must be synthetic) and placed it over the laid out patterns. With wet and very soapy hands, she patted and pressed for about three minutes, making sure not to dislodge the wool underneath. When the patting was done, she peeled the lining back, and then picked up the whole piece and balled it up really tight. She rolled it around and around in her hands vigorously for about five minutes. As she went around the table assisting, I looked to see if she was putting the pattern on the inside or the outside of the ball, but it was completely random. She just picked the thing up and balled it up any old way. She really worked it as she rolled. After the five minutes were up, she teased it open, making sure not to pull it or stretch it. She rinsed it, then patted it out on the table. The squares were much smaller, ranging in size from about five inches to about eight inches square.

Voila. Felt art! The ladies who thought Wilson had no business being there were surprised to see how beautifully his piece turned out. So there.

But the best thing, besides the way cool felt vest she was wearing, was the work they had brought to sell. There was a panel of black felt with holes where fine white crinkled silk showed through. There were traditional Kirghiz floor cloths with typical bold curvilinear patterns. There were beautiful little felt dolls of Kirghiz men, women, and children. But best of all were the felt house slippers I bought for $6 and the exquisite silk ikat stole for $12. The money goes back to buy more materials for disabled people to make more craft items.

Tomorrow, they are evidently doing whatever it is they came here to do with the Swiss company or NGO or whatever. I am told it involves a yurt. Imagine! A yurt in Vake (Tbilisi’s Buckhead). This I must see. We are On The List for tomorrow at 6.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

A Real Coup—For Me, That Is

I am so chuffed. I figured out a pun in Russian! The book I am helping to translate, "The Way Through Flour" is a pun on a Tolstoy title, usually translated as "I Come to Grief."

The Russian words for "flour" and "torture" are really similar, and I figured this out for myself.

I know, I know, it's a small victory. But now I have to think of a new title for the book.

Well, since I am writing this, we can all safely assume that we made it back from Sapara later that night. It was all the way dark so I couldn’t see what we were driving through, plus which all the mud had frozen so the road was marginally better. We arrived back at the hotel and went to the restaurant to feed Nick. At the other end of the huge white tile restaurant, complete with generic wedding reception decorations, was a long table full of supra celebrants. We had a great time people-watching as they went through their rotation of predictable toasts and got drunker and drunker. My favorite episode was when one guy got up to do his toast, and everyone just kept talking, without even looking at him. Before he was even done, another man stood up and started making a toast, and everyone put down what they were doing to pay attention. They must really hate that first guy.

Anyway, we made our way back to our emerald green room with its one 15w light bulb and went to sleep. The next morning, we got up and put on many layers of clothing in preparation for a day outdoors exploring Vardzia. We packed up and got ready to go have breakfast, walked out of our room, and noticed that the carpet in the hall was soaking wet. We could hear water running in the room next door, where we had seen some American engineer types. (Apparently, this hotel is not really a hotel as such, more a dormitory for people working on the BTC Caspian oil pipeline.) I ran and got the lady from the front desk, who came and started pounding on the door. No one answered, and my thoughts immediately went to dead bodies, gallons of bloody water everywhere, that whole scene. But, it turned out to be an empty room with a busted shower valve. The carpet in the room was floating on top of three or four inches of water. We walked away and went to the restaurant.

The restaurant, however, is directly under these rooms. The white tile floor was a giant hazardous puddle, and it was raining on the supra table. We went to the kitchen and pointed this out to the staff, who led us to a private room in an adjoining building. This is an odd feature of most Georgian restaurants. There is usually one large room, but there are more tables in individual small rooms arranged around a courtyard or in a long strip. Think of a motel of small dining rooms. It’s a really nice idea, except that they don’t heat the rooms until one is needed, so it’s pretty uncomfortable. We had our breakfast of khatchapuri or eggs and extras and got on the road, leaving a large maintenance man sitting on the (closed) toilet in the next room with his head in his hands.

It was a cold, misty morning, and the fog was freezing on the branches of the trees. The road was in decent shape as we drove east out of town. A short distance from town, the road starts up a narrow valley next to the Mtkvari River again. (This is the river that runs through Tbilisi—it starts in Turkey.) The landscape was intermittently visible as the fog lifted and fell. It was more of those melty rocks or grassy hills, most of which were terraced. This terracing was mind-boggling. It ran for miles through the valley. There were perhaps twenty or more levels to the terracing, and each one was faced with the rocks dug out of the strip of land behind it. This is very time-consuming, so miles of this stuff represents perhaps thousands of years of human effort. I found it depressing that most of it wasn’t even being used to grow anything after all that work. But descendants are usually ungrateful, so I should get over it.

Many locals were consulted as to directions, which was completely unnecessary since there is only one road, and it goes to Vardzia. Bill and I were in the back seat discussing what in the world this behavior represents. If anyone is a behavioral anthropologist out there and can answer this question, I’d be interested in knowing. My only guess, and this is pretty lame, is that making a connection with someone by actually having a brief conversation makes it less likely that the individual will run up the road and rob you at gunpoint. Bill (who speaks Georgian) pointed out that the conversations do NOT end in “thanks for your help,” or “have a good day.” They just end abruptly, and the big city car drives off, leaving the consultee in the exhaust fumes.

After an eternity, we arrived at Khertvisi, a tiny town at the confluence of the Mtkvari and another river. The triangular piece of high ground is topped off by a tenth century citadel in remarkably good shape. It looks completely Hollywood—the valley, the river, the castle—someone should airlift a camera crew here for the next Indiana Jones movie. Of course, you’d have to airlift in generators, every scrap of food, gasoline, potable water, sanitary facilities that involve making waste actually go away—you know—all that stuff.

A few kilometers past Khertvisi, the little holes we had started to see in the cliffs began to show up more often, sometimes in groups. These are naturally occurring but have been enlarged by monks seeking solitude. Some of them are very solitary. You couldn’t possibly reach many of these holes without a rope and a whole day to get there. People somehow lived in these—I guess someone brought them food. It’s a very stark landscape, and I don’t think this life would suit me a bit.

Finally, we arrived at Vardzia, the ruins of a city and monastic complex made up of these caves. It’s amazingly extensive, and what is there represents only 30 percent of what was once there. Although there was a town built here in the tenth or eleventh century, the majority of it was built in the twelfth century under the direction of King Tamar. Bill does a great imitation of a Georgian explaining why Tamar, a woman, is called “king.” “Well, you see, she was a woman, but she was such a powerful ruler that we call her king.” This is not exactly true, he points out. She was a powerful ruler, it is true, but the word “queen” means only consort of the king. A “queen” cannot be a ruler in her own right, so Tamar is called King Tamar.

Anyway, King Tamar thought this would make a dandy monastery considering the Mongols were in an invading mood. The complex sits on one side of a long straight valley, so sight lines are good; it starts 60 meters up from the river; and—most important—the extent of the complex was invisible. These days, it looks like something termite-infested, but back in the twelfth century, the chambers and passageways were all behind a façade of sorts. There are still at least two rooms behind the exposed front room in places, and most of it is no longer there, so it must have been quite deep into the cliff, perhaps as many as four or five rooms back. The rock is sandstone so soft you can scratch it with a fingernail (not that I did this on purpose, but sometimes you have to hang on to avoid falling to your death), so it’s not at all hard to imagine that it could have been completed in a relatively short period of time.

Most of the rooms we saw are about three meters square, though there are several churches and public rooms that are really huge—ten by twenty meters or so. There are shelves and benches carved out of the stone, and most doorways are arched and have decorative surrounds as well as notches for door hinges. There are water, wine, and food storage pits in the floors. There are holes at regular intervals that suggest beams for a floor above. It’s really intricate! We worked our way over to the Church of the Transfiguration, which has contemporaneous frescoes in beautiful shape. One portrays King Tamar and her father, and since it was painted during her lifetime, it might actually bear some resemblance to her. If so, she was good-looking in a real Persian way: round face, monobrow, pretty mouth, black-lined eyes. A priest showed up and offered to show us around. Tourists don’t usually get this treatment, but Nick volunteered that we were American artists (though I think he actually said art historians), so we were in.

Behind the Church of the Transfiguration, there is another church (I forgot which saint or event), and another large room with a tiny church actually built inside it of blocks of stone. Working our way back around the outside, the priest took us to a water source called Tamar’s Tears. It produces about fifty liters of water a day, and it was enough when there were only a few monks. By the time King Tamar’s builders were done, there were perhaps a couple of thousand monks, so another system for water had to be devised. This consisted of a tunnel, 1.5 by 1 meters and 3 kilometers long. Wilson was completely rabid to see this, but it has collapsed. We drank from the spring, and I’m entirely sure that since it’s holy, there will be no—um—consequences. The water was very cold and good.

We went up a couple of ladders and through a tiny passageway and out onto another ledge where we saw the priest’s living quarters and the refectory where he and the six other monks who live there prepare their meals. It looked very cozy. On the front porch of the refectory was a sink-type thing, and they had put their packet of washing powder in one of the niches carved into the rock. He gave Wilson some candy, and gave all the guys a prayer card of St. Nino and the floating tree (the Sveti-Tskhoveli, like in Mtskheta). He pretty much ignored the fact that I was there. Again, I felt that “unclean!” thing. (These places should just provide a red tent waiting room.)

We left the complex via an escape tunnel that was about 50/50 open to the elements/still enclosed by the rock. It really gave a good idea of what the place would have been like, mostly dark and constricting. But I guess when you are praying for the salvation of the whole world, comfort is secondary.

The front of the complex fell off during a catastrophic earthquake in the late thirteenth century. Parts of it were rebuilt, but it never regained its extent. Shah Tamasp and his armies sacked it in the sixteenth century, stealing the treasures. I wish there were some kind of model of what it looked like at its height, although it would be conjecture. I imagine something rather like the Potala in Lhasa, but maybe it’s the similarity of the landscapes that makes me think that.

We stopped near Borjomi to have dinner on our way back to Tbilisi. If you are in the neighborhood, the restaurant in the A-frame does a very nice vinaigret, and the fries were good, but I’ve had better mtsvadi. There is a baby brown bear in a cage next to the parking lot. I gave it a tiny orange, but it didn’t know what to do with it. It liked apple and bread and leftover mtsvadi better. Will someone please sneak in there and let the darn thing out?

We got back to Tbilisi around 9 and realized that we now think of this apartment as “home.” It felt good to be home.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Out of Dodge, Again

Clif has been trying to put together an excursion to Vardzia ever since we had the day in Shida Kartli with Nodar. (Man, if I didn’t know what these words meant, that sure would sound odd.) Anyway, Nodar was the one who suggested it, but every time we tried to pin him down to when he would like to do it, he had another something to do. The other somethings got more and more vague, and (finally!) we got the message: Nodar was sorry he ever mentioned it, and he really didn’t want to go to Vardzia. So we tried other avenues. Every one was blocked.

When we got the ridiculous estimate for $200 just for the driver and the car, not including the driver’s hotel room and meals, Clif almost called the whole thing off. He considered putting us all on a marshrutka (minibus) which has the advantage of costing only $3.50 but the disadvantage of being many hours on public transportation in a country where we do not speak the language and have different standards—or lack thereof—for personal behavior. In other words, trying to take Wilson on a trip like this without anesthetizing him would be a nightmare.

The final round of nonnegotiations with the expensive driver (who must have imagined we were here as guests of the former government) broke down during Clif’s daily Russian lesson. His teacher said that her brother might be available. He has a nice car and only recently lost his job with an American company that left Tbilisi. So, they met and agreed on terms late Friday, just in time to plan the whole thing. The head of the armed forces of Georgia had disappeared the day before; then, in an ominous move, he turned up Friday in Ajara. It seemed like a good thing to get out of town in case there really was an armed coup d’état.

So Saturday morning, we got up early, Bill came over to go with us, and we met Nick and his Mercedes outside our apartment. It was a misty, dreary day but with better weather promised as we headed west. We got to Borjomi at around 10:30, and of course we went right up to the source of the favorite mineral water of the whole former Soviet Union. It was definitely strange. It has that eggy, sulfur taste, but it was warm, slightly bubbly, and sweet, too. Weird. Wilson drank a lot of it, not because he liked it so much, I don’t think, but just because it was so very odd. It tastes nothing like the bottled Borjomi, which is bubbly and salty. Nick explained that the fine print on the bottles says “made in Tbilisi.” I thinkhe was kidding.

After we left Borjomi, we climbed up the “Raven Canyon,” a steep walled valley of the Mtkvari River, on our way to the town of Akhaltsikhe. The hills are very steep, partly wooded and partly rock and scrub. We came out of the canyon into a large valley. Geology nuts, bear with me, I’m a hobbyist. People who don’t care about geology, bear with me, I’ll be brief. The valley was surrounded by mountains of about 4,000 to 5,000 feet. These mountains, the Lower Caucasus range, are not nearly as tall as the Greater Caucasus, but they are quite dramatic. The snow line started at about 3,500 feet, and since the climate is so dry in this area, the peaks are mostly bare of trees. Some of the mountains are almost entirely rocky, formed of what looks like sandstone conglomerate. The stone looks blobby—like it has either melted a bit, or been cheaply manufactured in a Star Trek prop shop—and there are other rocks, pebbles up to boulders, poking out of it. These are all covered with grayish green lichen.

Other mountains are more rolling and grass-covered. Many, particularly on the other side of Akhaltsikhe, are terraced. The landscape is quite variable. Maybe it’s just because it’s winter, or maybe it’s just because it was kind of a gray day, but it was very austere looking.

We arrived in Akhaltsikhe (meaning “new castle”) just before lunchtime. We had heard from someone who had observed the election that there was a different hotel from the one in all the guidebooks, and that this one actually had hot water. So we used the tried-and-true “stop a guy and quiz him” method of navigation. Nick proved his 24-karat worth by actually being able to speak Armenian, in addition to Georgian, Russian, and English, so we had many fine direction-asking halts. Parts of this southern region of Georgia are populated by Armenians, so it was yet another great stroke of luck that Nick had turned up.

After floundering around for a while, we finally found the White House Hotel in an extremely unpromising part of town. The hotel, however, was very nice. The reception we got from the gaggle of ladies sitting at the lobby television was puzzling. Yes, there were rooms available. Here’s one, is this OK? Yes, this is fine for Bill and Nick, or for the little family unit if you have an extra camp bed. How is this one? This is fine for the family, there are four single beds, we just won’t use one. Well, we could put all four male guests in this room. Um, I don’t think so. (Five minute discussion break among the ladies. I think the concept of not using the fourth bed in that very spacious and lovely room made their brains short-circuit.) Finally, they showed us a small aggressively emerald green room with a double bed. Can you put in a small bed for the child? Yes. OK. Done. Smiles all around. Back to the desk to negotiate the price. We had absolutely no idea. It could have been any price at all—you can never tell in Georgia. It turned out to be about $10 per person including a huge breakfast.

We went back out to the car to unload, and found that Nick had already made the acquaintance of the local Moose Lodge. They had informed him that a Mercedes was not going to be able to go to our first two destinations, Zarsma and Sapara monasteries. (This was not a surprise to us.) The Moose Lodge wanted $50 to go to both places in a four-wheel drive vehicle. After the gift of a $10 hotel stay, this seemed out of line, so we left to have lunch in the hotel dining room. We thought this was a very tough negotiating tactic. We ordered up a huge lunch, because it had been so strenuous sitting in a Mercedes all morning.

After lunch, we proposed $40 to the Lodge, and they accepted immediately. Should have offered $30. Volodya and his mighty Neva pulled up. In we piled, except Nick who elected to have a rest. We drove southwest for an eternity on some of the worst roads I have seen in Georgia, and that’s saying a lot. There were the usual remarks about how, under Gorbachev, the roads were paved, and under Shevardnadze, his driveway was paved. Volodya said he was a staunch supporter of Saakashvili, and that he hopes things will be much better soon. It sure does need to get better in this area—it is really, really poor.

After my spine had compressed sufficiently, and after the top of Bill’s head was softened up enough from hitting the roof of the Neva, we spotted the pointy top of Zarsma monastery. It is a walled complex, the most like a European monastic complex I’ve seen here. The church is from the fourteenth century and has a completely frescoed interior. Some of the frescoes are lovely. I particularly liked the angel to the right of the iconostasis; it’s one of those angels with wings that jut way out from his shoulders and reach down to his feet. He was quite martial looking. The lower part of the walls, however, is covered with the most appalling apparently nineteenth-century mess. It’s supposed to be painted drapery with crosses on it, but it looks like the backdrop for a grade school play. This is not mentioned in the guidebooks, and I wonder what the story is.

Although I was raised Episcopalian, I took in enough Calvinism by osmosis that the whole burning purse full of incense, kissing the icon, and crossing oneself three times every time you ride by a church on a bus kind of thing gives me an odd sense of, “And where does it say THIS in the Bible?” So when the priests arrived with their accessories, I skedaddled. Outside, there were many tiny wonders in the complex. I have learned to look for the bits of stone carving that get recycled in Georgian churches, and this place was full of these. Just outside the gate, for example, there was an exquisite angel, much eroded, that was only about ten inches high set into the wall. I took a picture of it, and Clif will post it soon.

We stayed longer than the place really warranted, but I think it was just contemplating that road in that car. Finally, we got back in and set off for Sapara. In June of 2002, Clif went to Sapara during his first trip to Georgia, and he had a wonderful time meeting the monks and having lunch with them. He really wanted to go back, and this was very high on his “do-list” for Georgia this time around. We drove back through Akhaltsikhe and out the other side. On the edge of town, we turned onto a rough road that went straight up, and up, and up.

Now, I love mountains, and this sometimes means that I have to ride around on scary roads. I have accepted this as part of the experience, and I have even learned to enjoy the feeling the Victorians called “sublime,” a mixture of fear and exhilaration much admired by aesthetes. This road induced terror. It may have been sublime, but I was beyond that. The mud was a foot deep. There was snow and ice. There were sheer dropoffs of farther than I wanted to acknowledge. The car slewed back and forth. It was being driven by a semi-toothed Moose named Volodya we had just met. It was truly awful. Clif showed us where the car he was in had stopped last year. He walked the rest of the way. I wish we’d had time to walk in, but it was already after 4 p.m. We reached the top of the mountain, came around a curve, and looked down into an awesomely beautiful valley.

“Here’s where the road gets exciting,” Clif said. I thought to myself, well, if I’m on the way to the monastery when I die, maybe God won’t hold atheism against me.

The sun was going down, and the tops of the snowy mountains were shining pink. We wound around the head of the valley and around the outside of another ridge. Coming around one more turn, we saw a vision—that’s the only thing I can think of to call it. This monastery is perhaps the most dramatic built thing I’ve ever seen. It is set back in a declivity and hugs the side of a really steep wooded mountain. Since the sun was going down, I’m not sure my pictures will look like anything. (I’m not sure they’ll look like anything anyway, just because the place is so dramatic.) We pulled in by the church and hopped out of the car.

We walked down the icy road toward the monks’ living area, but, being female, I was turned away at the gate. This was an unexpected development. I decided to go back and have a look at the church while the guys tried to find Brother Saba, the monk Clif had talked with last year. After a bit, I got cold and decided to get back in the car and read until they got back. After a few minutes, a young layman came and said I could follow him. He led me to the monks’ living room, where my visa to the land of the religious guys had apparently been issued. They were all sitting around a wood stove, onto which Brother Saba dropped pellets of faintly rose-scented incense. It turned out that Brother Saba did remember Clif and had immediately taken to Wilson. They were all very cordial to me, but I still had that “unclean! unclean!” sensation.

We walked across the road to the refectory where we met the cook for the day, Giorgi. He had a bit of English and set a fabulous dinner in front of us and the other guests of the monastery—four soldiers in camo and another man. The food was beyond good. We had fried potatoes, stewed smoked eggplant, bread, cheese they had made themselves, two kinds of fruit drink they had also made themselves, tea with fig jam, three kinds of spicy sauce, etc. etc. etc. They served the three of us adults their homemade wine—they are fasting for Advent, so they have given up wine, except for during church. They have also given up dairy products for their fast, and they don’t eat meat at all.

At the end of the meal, they gave us a jar of one of the fruit drink things—a concentrated thick sauce you mix with water to make Georgian Tang—and a whole cheese. Their cow, Rusiko—a genuine Georgian woman’s name, but one that they laughingly admitted sounded like “Rosie the cow”—doesn’t know to quit providing milk while they are fasting, so the cheese piles up. This cheese is about 8 inches in diameter, about 2 inches thick, is soft and white with little holes, is not as salty as most Georgian cheese, and has the most delicious white bloom on the outside. They gave me and Wilson each a black beaded and macramé bracelet that will protect us from harm.

We left the refectory and walked over to the church. It was completely dark at this point, and the stars were out, as was a quarter moon. Inside the church, we lit candles and looked around. It is covered in frescoes, but since I don’t have a mechanically inclined Sikh boyfriend, nor were we equipped with flares, I didn’t get much of a view. As we were leaving, Brother Saba gave Wilson a wooden cross on a string of beads. The guys are all invited back for a spiritual retreat, and they are planning to go sometime before we all leave Georgia. I will have to have a very sad few days by myself shopping and watching chick flicks. Too bad!

Tomorrow . . . Vardzia!

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