Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Warning: This is a really long entry. Just thought I’d let you know.

Postcolonialism, Terrorism, War and Loss, Overplanning, and Love (Lots of Love)
Though Not Necessarily in That Order

A Long Day in Kakheti


Sunday, September 28
We woke up early for our trip to the wine country; Gocha picked us up at 9 a.m. When we got on the highway, it was a kind of miserable drip-drip cloudy day, but we saw a brighter edge over to the east, where we were headed. We remained optimistic about the weather.

We had made two plans for the day. Plan A: Find the family who looked after Clif last summer when he was here for two weeks, see what they are up to, and go with the flow. Plan B: Make a loop from Tbilisi through Sagarejo, Gurjaani, Tsinandali, Telavi, Ikalto, Alaverdi, Kvetera, Tianeti, and back to Tbilisi, though the condition of the road from Tianeti to Tbilisi looked sketchy to say the least. This is the route on which more old churches (at least those not already seen by Clif last year) are located. And after all, we were in the Niva.

Kakheti is divided roughly east-west by the Gombori Mountains--tall hills, really--which are moderately steep and forested. South of the Gombori range, the land is flat and very dry. (This is where David-Garetja is, a complex of cave monasteries in the desert near Azerbaijan.) North of the Gombori Mountains, between them and the Greater Caucasus range, is the Alazani Valley. Near Gurjaani, the Gombori Mountains are lower, and you can make a big turn around into the Alazani.

We headed east and the weather improved with every kilometer. By the time we crossed the line into the province of Kakheti, the sun was out. The landscape hereabouts looks a lot like the southern part of Tuscany. The typical Tuscan hills, vineyards and poplars are there, but the landscape is dryer. Rolling hills, neat farm plots, charming stone houses with red tile roofs, substantial old women wearing all black and head scarves, roadside stands, and a sense of tidy fertility dominated the view. I thought to myself: “Welcome to Traditional Agriculture World!” No tractors, no food processing factories, no meatpacking plants, no migrant workers. Charming, in’nit?

We reached the valley immediately south of the Gombori Mountains and passed several villages and towns that I’m sure were worth a stop, but we were on a mission. Where the road rounds the low spot in the Gombori range, almost to Bakurtsikhe, there is a beautiful, large, modern restaurant overlooking the river. This restaurant is owned by the family of the young man who was Clif’s number-one minder last summer, Goga. We pulled off into the parking lot of the take-out section, a separate cottage right by the highway. The staff all looked at us like we were from another planet. Were we planning to rob the place? Were we trying to sell something? What in the world did we want? Matters were not improved when we asked if Goga was around. Goga who? they wanted to know. They were really suspicious. We finally asked them to call Goga and tell him that his American friend Clif was here.

We cooled our heels for ten or fifteen minutes, stomping on the walnuts that had fallen from the trees, much to the evident delight (not) of the restaurant staff. A car pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant proper, and a young man stepped out. He looked miserable and cranky, like he had been wrenched from bed after a hard night out, to run some stupid errand for his dad and see who in heck this was at the restaurant (all of this was true). He walked up the sidewalk with a scowl on his face, looked up, spotted Clif, and broke into a huge beaming smile. “Clippton!” he said, laughing, hugging, and kissing. It turned out that the family thought we were the Shalikashvilis, their other friends from America. Not that they wouldn’t have been thrilled to see them also, but that was not necessarily Goga’s idea of a good time. He called his father and mother immediately and said, “Follow me!” We piled back into the Niva and set off.

Overplanning

When we were in Washington getting briefed for this stay, a State Department employee told us not to be overly sensitive about schedules, plans, or our own convenience in another, less hard-driving culture. “Americans overplan things,” he said. This statement had the immediate ring of truth, but I had never seen the principle so firmly in action until this morning in Kakheti.

Goga’s family probably had things to do on this Sunday. They probably had plans to see people, run errands, fix equipment, help with the grape harvest on their farmland, mind their general store, or solve problems at the restaurant. But you would never have guessed. They treated us like WE were the plan for the day, and they had known it all along. There were no asides, like, “Let me call Louise and tell her I’ll come another day, I’ll be right back,” or “I’m going to get someone to take over for me this afternoon, I’ll be just a minute.” Nothing like that, at all. We arrived at their home, they picked pomegranates from the tree for us, we met the (dangerous) dogs, saw the (adorable) puppies, met Goga’s precious three-year-old son, and piled back into Gocha’s Niva and their UAZ and set off for a picnic. We stopped at the store for a few provisions, and then we were off to the vineyard.

The Alazani Valley beggars description. I’ll try, but I won’t do it justice. As we looked down from the rolling hills behind us, it was a wide, perfectly flat valley divided into fields, vineyards, orchards, and pastures. It looked like a medieval painting of Heaven, and it went for miles in either direction, fading out into haze. This is why Georgia was invaded again and again. Before the Industrial Revolution, this was wealth. Directly across the valley, the Greater Caucasus Range rises up like a wall. Clif had described this to me after his visit last year--“there’s a valley with a wall, and I mean a WALL, of mountains on the other side.” I believed him--I always do--but nothing could have prepared me for this. It looked like they went halfway up the sky. They were huge, there was range after range fading back into Daghestan, and there was snow on top.

Postcolonialism

Down in the valley, the grapes hung in heavy translucent bunches on the vines, and the corn was ripe on the stalks. On the way down to the flat, we saw a few old tractors, some three-wheel motorized cart–type vehicles, several motorcycles with sidecars, and many many horse and donkey carts. This was kind of unbelievable, like “New and Improved Traditional Agriculture World--Now Even More Authentic!” There were wizened, wrinkled, yogurt-eating septuagenarians wearing amusing folklorish headgear. No doubt they sang songs to express their oneness with nature and their happy world view.

I found myself unable to take photos.

I know we all believe that the camera does not lie, but it does; for example, our pictures of Tbilisi have a kind of sanitized quality. You can’t really see what the buildings, roads, sidewalks, cars, and people look like from our little snapshots. They all look like they have been cleaned up and published in a glossy travel magazine. I knew that if I took pictures of these people, it would look like images of the cute peasantry. I did take one picture, just to illustrate this principle. We will post it, and you will see what I mean.

Love

We arrived at the family’s vineyard, and we spread a tarp out on the dirt track behind the dump truck the workers had driven down to load the grapes into. The food started coming, and it kept coming. Breaded fried cutlets, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, cheese, fruit, smoked all-white slices of fat (I skipped this, though Clif partook), Panta (tutti-frutti), and Coke. Gocha and one of the farm workers went into the rows of grapevines and scavenged old dried vines. They made a roaring fire, Goga put some pork onto shampuri (twisted, sword-like skewers), and we grilled the mtsvadi. Goga’s dad brought out a 2-liter water bottle full of faintly yellow fluid and a small hollow cow horn. I knew what was coming, now. The women sat on the tarp, the men stood. After a warning about snakes, Wilson disappeared into the field to pick grapes.

Turns out the yellow stuff is homemade cognac (konyak) that has been aged for seven years in barrels. Surprisingly, this stuff was tasty, and it did not take the enamel off my teeth. It was not as alcoholic as whiskey (or whisky), and it went down smooth. Goga’s dad stood up, filled the cow horn, and started talking. Though I understood only about every 15th word, the litany of toasts in Georgia is a set piece, so there were contextual clues. He is a very religious man and made many references to his love for God. Clif got the next hornful and was invited to elaborate on the toast. He said something appropriate and bravely tipped the horn up. After finishing half of the contents, he handed it back to Goga’s dad, who looked at it and handed it right back to be emptied. There would be no pity on this hot afternoon under the sun in the vineyard.

When it came my turn, he poured a lady-size half hornful, and I tried to say something that Clif and Gocha, whose imperfect command of English was the best translation thing going, could express for me. I emptied the horn, surprised that this local firewater was actually not nearly as alcoholic as I had imagined. It went down in two small gulps and gave me not a bit of trouble. I turned the horn upside-down and shook it to verify that I had consumed it all, and they clapped.

The mtsvadi cooked and was unskewered into a pot with raw sliced onions. The hot meat cooked them as it cooled. Then Goga squeezed a pomegranate right onto this delicious mixture. Boy, was that good. Toasts kept going around and even Gocha (who takes his driving responsibilities very seriously) had a couple and spoke eloquently, or so it appeared to me, anyway. The farm workers were right in there with us; one of them had a few words of German, so when I said I could speak German, we were best friends. The toasts went around and around. Every toast is first given by the primary toaster, the tamada. Then the next person around the circle elaborates on that toast, and so on. Then when it comes back to the tamada, there is the next topic, and the whole thing starts again. Thankfully, there was only the one cow horn, so we didn’t have to drink to everyone else’s toasts, only our own. We toasted our ancestors, our living parents, our dead parents, our children, our children’s children, our wives (well, some of us did, anyway), Georgia, friendship between the United States and Georgia, peace, and love.

After a couple of hours, we packed up and went on to Gurjaani to pick up Ika, the other minder from last summer, who actually speaks English. We met him and his friend at a café over coffee and cake and decided to go on, with him, to Alaverdi; then we would all return to the family restaurant for supper before returning to Tbilisi. So, off we went toward Alaverdi. On the way, we stopped at Ika’s grandmother’s house to pick fruit. She has an orchard in her tiny yard in which there was an abundance of apples, pears, cornelians (a kind of cherry?), persimmons, pomegranates, figs, and grapes, grapes, grapes. Wilson went kind of crazy and picked a lot of fruit.

Terrorism

Back into the Niva we went. Ika teased Clif about his fear last year of going into the Pankisi Valley, where the inhabitants were supposedly sheltering Chechen terrorists. This year, the terrorists have been chased out, thanks to the U.S. Army’s Georgia Train and Equip Program. Ika did admit that the situation really was tense last year, and that Clif had a point. We all agreed that we would be pathetic kidnap victims in any case, because none of us has any money.

Now, I’m not an expert on terrorism, Russian-American relations, Georgian-American relations, Russian-Georgian relations, or anything that has anything to do with the Chechens or the Pankisi Valley. But neither are the newsreaders on the tube in America. Some people would have you believe that Osama bin Laden is right there in Georgia, plotting the next horrendous deed. I have no idea where the advantages lie for any of the players in having their view of the situation be the most accepted. But I am sure that the situation is more complicated, more gray, than they (whoever they are) would have us believe. I am also sure that no one who does not live there can every truly understand it. Here are few things. Ethnic Chechens, known as Kists, have lived in the Pankisi Valley of Georgia for two centuries. Their family ties across the mountains in Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, have not been cut off. Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, has been razed. A huge percentage of Chechens have been put into refugee camps. Some of these are terrorists. Some fled to Pankisi. They are not there anymore.

So, there we were in Akhmeta, headed toward Alaverdi. This is technically in the Pankisi Valley, though I could not for the life of me figure out why this was a separate valley from the Alazani. I have heard the terrorist hideout area called the Pankisi Gorge, so there may be some such place up in the mountains, but I don’t know. Ika didn’t know either. I didn’t see Osama bin Laden. I did see poverty right next to the fertility I have already described. People were walking down the highway with large containers, going to get their clean water for the day from the tanker. When “Traditional Agriculture World” is rolled up for the day, the inhabitants do not say, “O.K., the tourists are gone, you can pull out the microwave and the DVD. I’m going online to check the Dow.” There aren’t any tourists, anyway.

We arrived at Alaverdi, Georgia’s tallest church. Joseph, one of the Syrian fathers, founded the first church here; this structure was built in the 11th century, partially destroyed by Mongols in the 15th, by an earthquake in the 18th, and by the Russians in the 19th. To their credit, the Russians did start restoration of the frescoes in 1967, and what they have uncovered is beautiful. It is a triconch church, meaning three apses and long nave. I guess it is different from a basilica in that the arms end in apses rather than square walls (?). There used to be ambulatories on the north, west, and south, though only the one on the west remains. It is made of tufa, a lightweight, porous, volcanic stone that is a warm cream color. At the intersection of the axes, a drum cupola rises to 50 meters from the ground and ends in a witches hat–shaped conical roof. Surrounding it all is a fortification, complete with guard towers. Inside the fort is probably about 2 or 3 acres, on which are a couple of ruined structures. One wall has a few buildings, which are now a convent.

To our surprise, the annual church festival was underway. This is scheduled for September 14, but it was delayed for some unknown reason. This church is dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of Georgia, so this is a kind of national festival, too. The lane leading to the church was really crowded with cars, people, animals, souvenir stands, and drinks kiosks. We parked and went in. The cleverest money-making venture was the person selling wraparound aprons for women to put on if they were wearing pants. I pulled out my handy headscarf and in we went. The church is surprisingly light, given that the cupola’s barrel has only slits for windows. They are so tall, and so numerous, that a lot of light comes in. It is also really tall inside. All Orthodox churches seem more high than wide--I guess they really are--but this one seemed particularly that way. The madonna and child inside the apse was partially restored, and it was beautiful, but not very early. Other frescoes were cooler. There were, as usual, lots of icons with cast iron doodads for fastening candles onto, and they were on fire in a big way.

Outside, picnic tables were set up, and families were doing their thing. Unfortunately, their thing often involves animal sacrifice (not kidding, here), and there were several potential victims staked out or under their owners’ arms. One sheep got free, but was caught by some helpful boys. Coming out of the fortified part, we saw a drinks kiosk and decided to get a bottle of water. Two stalls down, there were Khevsureti socks, which I have already purchased enough of, and exquisite knitted lace shawls pinned out on a line. The price was 4 laris. I bought two, one for me, one for Ann, so the total for the two came to $3.50. They are made from unscoured wool from mountain sheep, and you wouldn’t want this scratchy thing next to your skin. In fact, I’m totally perplexed as to what to do with it. It will have to hang up somewhere. But how can you pass at $3.50? I would have paid more. I should have bought more.

I asked Ika if people traveled here from other parts of Georgia for the festival. He looked around and said he didn’t think so. The people here looked different from folks in Tbilisi. They have darker skin, and though that could be from being outside most of the time, I don’t think that was the whole story. They had different features, more oriental. But some of them still had those light blue eyes. They were gorgeous. I thought of Lesley Blanche and her (unadmitted) fantasy of being kidnapped by a wild Caucasian mountain man. Hmmmm.

We left Alaverdi and retraced our steps all the way back to the restaurant. This took a couple of hours. It was about 60 kilometers.

War and Loss

Back at the restaurant, we waited for almost an hour for Goga’s dad to appear. Goga’s mother had to stay home, and Goga was in Tbilisi for a previous engagement. We were seven: me, Clif, Wilson, Gocha, Ika, the dad, and Goga’s brother-in-law (though he was sort of dropping by from time to time). I was still full from the picnic. I could hear my stomach saying, “Noooooooo!” in Mr. Bill’s voice. But on it came: salad, mushrooms sautéed with tarragon, cold smoked fish, kebabs, veal mtsvadi, and fried steaks of “mountain fish” (one of which was in the fountain pool out front--it was three feet long). Veal was linguistically problematic until Ika said, “Delicatessen (meaning delicacy), bull, but small.” “Ahhh! Veal!” we said (and groaned internally, not at the veal, just at the prospect of more meat on a completely full stomach).

There was pear soda and the ubiquitous Kakhetian wine in a plastic jug. This is a product I have become used to, but it took a while. It is slightly cloudy, light brown--not quite as dark as iced tea--and it doesn’t taste like wine as we know it. It is more like strong juice, with a moderate wine plus vinegar edge. It’s not very alcoholic, but when you are doing the toasting thing, and everybody has a glass, and the dad keeps your glass full, and you have to drink to everyone’s toast every time, you can get a buzz on.

The toasts went through the same sequence as they did at lunchtime, but there were a couple of differences this time. When it came time to toast our parents, we all told which of our parents were still alive. Gocha shook his head sadly. No parents living. And also, the anniversary of the loss of Abkhazia was just commemorated this weekend, and Goga’s dad and Gocha sat next to each other and traded war stories. This is weird, like the story of the Marriott: these two men, who are about my age, fought in a war about a decade ago, and they lost. Gocha is from South Ossetia, which now exists in a kind of limbo--inside the boundaries of Georgia, but really part of Russia because they wanted it back.

They were speaking Kartuli, so we couldn’t really follow what they were saying. Ika translated one story: they were laughing while Gocha told a story about how they used walkie-talkies to say, “Yeah, we have 30 of this kind of gun and 50 of that thing and 100 of something else will be here soon,” when they actually had nothing and were hoping to be overheard by the Russians. Goga’s dad made a very moving toast, to the soldiers--Georgian AND Russian--who had fought in the war. There was a lot of looking down sadly at plates at this point. The stories went on, but Ika did not translate. There were long, sad silences. Ika finally said, “Gocha’s parents did not have any weapons.” That’s all the story I heard, but no matter what kind of spin you put on that sentence, the only interpretation is heartbreaking.

We left the restaurant after 10 p.m. and drove back to Tbilisi. As we were driving away, Gocha said, “Those are good people.” It took almost two hours to get back, with Wilson--Gocha’s “little friend”--in the front seat, with the window down and his hand scooping the night air and the raindrops.


Saturday, September 27, 2003

9/27/03
I don’t get all “Stendhal” over visual art. It just has never struck me that way, but music will do it to me, as will dance. I would never dare to attend a live performance of a boys’ choir. I would probably sob and make a scene. SO, it was a close thing today when we had the opportunity to go to a performance rehearsal for Erisioni, but I didn’t cry. Well, maybe a little tearing up, but nothing embarrassing.

When Clif went to a dinner for the big Robert Capa show opening, he was seated across from four men who burst into traditional polyphonic song. He told them how much he loved it, and one of them, Otar, gave him a business card and invited him to a performance rehearsal for their company, Erisioni. This name is unfamiliar to us, but to the Georgians, this would have been like running into Placido Domingo and being invited to hang out. Erisioni is a Georgian music and dance troupe who tour the world with their show. They are leaving next month to go to Moscow, then on to Europe, the Far East, and Mexico. The show has been choreographed, and these are the final rehearsals.

We walked up a large, unlit marble staircase to a loggia that led into a big ballroom. This had a beat-up wooden floor but magnificent baroque plasterwork on the upper part of the walls. Below, there were several arched openings around the room. Each was set off with fluted pilasters and was closed off with blue velvet curtains. One had the troupe’s logo on it. Along the back wall, where we entered, there was a single row of old-fashioned metal and wood flip-down seats. We sat down with our friends Bill, Martha, her daughter Julia, and friend Marina, who had joined us. There were about ten French visitors, and maybe 15 or 20 other folks there for this rehearsal, so this was really up close and personal!

There is nothing I can say that can describe the magic of this show, and we only saw the performers in their classroom clothing under room light. There were about 16 men who sang traditional polyphonic songs, sometimes in large groups, sometimes breaking out into smaller ensembles. There were musicians: two accordions, drums, that thing that is sort of like an oboe, a bagpipe obviously made from the skin of a whole sheep, pan pipes, and many stringed instruments that must be some kind of lute. (I’m not very good at identifying the instruments, so forgive me the “kind of” and “sort of.”)

The musicians started a slow, Eastern-sounding number, and 12 lovely sylphs floated in. I am not kidding. These girls wear floor-length skirts and look like they are rolling on wheels. It is an amazing feat of muscular control. Try it. You can get across the floor using tiny steps and waving your arms as if they were seaweed in a gentle current but just TRY to keep your shoulders and trunk out of it. No bouncing. I dare you. It is the most ethereal thing I have ever seen. They wove in and out of each other in a slow-motion pattern; the music seemed to waft them on the air. Then the men came in, one for each dancer. They paired off and kept weaving in and out, the men doing a similar trick with their upper bodies, but keeping a lot of fancy footwork going underneath.
The numbers segued into each other with very little gap. Some highlights included a dance where the young men tried to impress the young women with their physical prowess; a wonderful song I have heard every time there is polyphonic singing (I’m going to find out what it is and get a translation); a dance in which the men waged guerrilla mountain war against each other; a wedding dance where the women did fancy footwork, then paired off with the men, and together they danced figures like a square dance; an adorable group of 8-to 10-year-old boys who did a prodigious drum routine; and several lovely pas-de-deux, showcasing particular dancers. All the while, the music continued, sometimes with no vocals, sometimes with. At times the musicians were the only ones on the stage, and one soloist would sing a melody backed up by the others. It all flowed so nicely together. Marina tells us that each kind of dance comes from a different tribe in the mountains. It never ceases to amaze me that all Georgians are familiar with these traditional arts and can tell you a lot about them.

But the highlight of the show had to be the sword fight. The men danced in with swords and small round shields, and it looked like it was going to be a fairly tame formation-type number where they would occasionally clang the sword against the shield, and one of them would come to the center and leap about a bit. But they started hitting the swords against each other HARD, and sparks started flying. Really! Wilson says he saw char marks on the floor. The choreography for this was something I would not care to be responsible for.

First it was eight pairs of men sword-fighting in unison. Then a group of three got going in the middle, and the fighting got more intense and cunningly intertwined. Then, there were four. Swords were going up, down, under the feet of two dancers who would jump up, spin around and bring their swords down hard onto swords that were placed to parry them with split-second timing. Choreographed fighting was going on all the while: a man tried to jump onto another and was flipped judo-style onto the floor, where he spun like a top. No fingers were lost in this rehearsal, I am glad to say, but it seemed like a distinct possibility.

The last part of the dance performance involved the men in a fierce competition for most outrageous individual dance move. They tap danced on their toes, curling their toes under and stomping on them, hard! They spun from a pirouette up into the air only to land, still spinning, on their knees; they leaped into the air kicking legs out Cossack-style; and one daring young man did Castle-walk–style turns around the room at high speed on his knees. I thought he would crash into me and Clif, but his control was complete. He stopped about six inches short.

This was a great show. The man who had invited Clif is one of the singers, but he is also one of the directors. We can go back every Saturday until they leave for Moscow. I think we should invite a different guest each time, so we don’t look too much like groupies.

If anyone is going to be in Brussels, Paris, or Prague in November, please try to catch this show! If you are not, here are some photos from their 2000 production, The Legend of Tamar. http://www.mc.gov.ge/imageviewer/erisioni.html

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Gaumarjos! Which is what people say when they are drinking a toast, like “Cheers!” I think it literally means “victory” in Georgian.

We went shopping on Saturday for a wedding present for Keti and David’s son’s marriage. We were been invited to attend the wedding on Sunday afternoon (and the dinner afterwards), and were really looking forward to it. Keti and David, already introduced as our hosts for the visit to Mshketa, are terrific people, and this would be a great experience.

So, we went to the dry bridge market. We had a couple of secret agendas going here. Clif wants old guide books to Tbilisi, ones published during Soviet times. Wilson wants military medals and weapons. I was still thinking about that chicken footed thing (hereafter referred to as the CFT). We arrived and found a great guidebook from 1958 with beautiful full-page gravure images of the city. It’s just what Clif wanted. We then saw Tomas, a used book dealer Clif had already met. His three or four buddies have a booth(ette) with some old things, including military decorations, and they let him have a corner of the table for his books. So the two of them talked books for a while, and Wilson negotiated the purchase of a whole set of anniversary medals for 10 GEL, a little less than $5. These are on ribbons and look very cool. Some are put together in three’s, which looks very “Brezhnev on May Day.” Clif bought a book of Chechen poetry, which is really rather good.

And then we went toward the booth where I had seen the CFT. As I suspected, it was not there. It was too good to be true; someone had snatched it up. But wait! Look over there on the shelf sitting between a couple of samovars and teapots. It was still there! Trying to look cool, so as not to give away the whole game, Clif asked the price (in French, so we would not be identified as Rich Americans right away). I looked at the samovar and tried not to hyperventilate. We had already decided on a price that was doable and an amount that was ridiculous and not doable. I feared that the price would be in that horrible gray area in between.

But the muse of crazy flea market purchases was kindly disposed toward us on that day, and the price quoted was well below what I was prepared to pay. We bargained for a little while, just because. But the bottom line is . . . I am now the proud owner of a CFT. Pictures will be available soon on the picture link. I still don’t know AND DON’T CARE what I will do with it (or how I will get it home).

So, on to the wedding gift. After an inordinate amount of time spent in the Super Babylon appliance market, we decided on a blender, bought it, and had it wrapped. This took hours. The great thing about the Super Babylon and other “super”markets in Tbilisi is that the help follows you around, very closely, to make sure you don’t shoplift something I guess. Again, it’s like being a black person. We made them miserable with our indecision. We were finally happy with the choice of the blender. The young couple will be setting up house (not everyone does), and they will need appliances.

So, Sunday came along and it was time for the wedding. I am nothing if not sensitive to the manners and mores of other religions, so I showed up in the exquisite tiny Georgian church wearing a demure dress and a headscarf. But there were only a few devout women who wore scarves aside from the wedding party itself. Everyone else showed up in jeans, cargo pants, sundresses, pant suits, pretty much whatever they were wearing when the idea struck, “Hey let’s go to that wedding after all!” Not even the grandmother was wearing a scarf. She did speak a little German, so we had a brief conversation and got to the end of our inventory of German words. We smiled a lot after that.

The wedding party arrived, and the bride was exquisite. She looked about 16--a tiny beautiful girl wearing a white halter-top sheath with rhinestone straps crossing over her (flawless) back. Her name is Eniso. The wedding was conducted by a young man all dressed up in gold, complete with burning purse. The couple wore crowns for part of the service, and marched around the church three times. During this, the attendees were talking and coming and going as comfort demanded.

The groom, too, is very good-looking. He has intense dark eyes with a shadow that runs from the inside of his eyebrow down the side of his nose. His bearded chin is pointed, giving his face a slightly triangular shape. He looks exactly like a picture from an icon, except that he has red hair!

Finally the service was over and we walked to a nearby restaurant for the dinner. Many tables were laid out with an amazing amount of food, pitchers of light brown Kakheti wine, limonade (soda), and Borjomi water (sort of like Vichy). Toasting, dancing (Clif and I had to cut the rug to the sounds of “New York, New York” played in our honor--not a pretty sight), eating, drinking. Wilson disappeared with the teenage brother of the groom and his (also teenage) cousin. They came and went, and generally looked like they were up to no good. I think Wilson was sampling the wine, but this is a traditional activity for boys at weddings, isn’t it?

A group came in and was seated with us: among them was a couple of about our age who were introduced as Zurab and “Princess Diana.” Princess Diana was shy about her English, but Zurab was very friendly. We talked about where we come from and how long we are staying in Tbilisi. Turns out she stayed in New Paltz for a month while her sister, a pianist who lives in Chicago, studied with Feltsman. (Somebody in New Paltz, please call Janet the piano teacher and tell her about this remarkable coincidence. Or maybe you are already reading this blog, Janet. I can’t remember if I gave her the url.)

More dancing, drinking, eating. I was only drinking tiny sips; Clif was guzzling great big mouthfuls and swearing undying love and allegiance to all sorts of things. The cigarette smoke was choking me, even with windows open. We left around 9:30, with the party showing no signs of breaking up. Clif felt—predictably—bad the next morning. I did too, but that was because, after two weeks of perfect intestinal health—I have succumbed.



Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Today we went exploring in search of the dry bridge market. It is fascinating, if a bit sad and weird. The “dry bridge” is what we would call a viaduct I guess: it’s just a bridge over another street. It is evidently so unusual in this country that this one is unique in Tbilisi and is called THE dry bridge. And the market isn’t actually on it, either.
Anyway, we walked over the darned thing and passed the real estate market. This was completely enthralling. People stand around under a certain group of trees wearing index cards on strings around their necks. These cards describe the properties they would like to sell. Other people wander around reading the cards. They negotiate. Also, the trees are covered with sheets of paper with apartment descriptions and phone numbers cut into little strips on the edge of the paper just like you would see on the grocery store bulletin board. I guess some people have jobs so they can’t stand around all day with cards around their necks.
We passed this up and continued to the real market. This is a strange thing. People set up on the sidewalk—some with a table, others with only a blanket—and they put their stuff on it. As in, all their household stuff, including what looks like family treasures. I am reminded that this is a desperately poor country. There are also tables full of little electrical bits (used and new), plumbing pieces, rusted tools, circuit boards, (hot?) car stereo equipment, and pirated software. The treasure-y things included sets of beautiful china, silverware and cutlery, lots of cut glass vases, a few icons, jewelry, terrible paintings in fancy frames, chandeliers, nothing much different from a flea market in the U.S., although a little more sad. There were also stunning pieces of jewelry from the tribes in the mountains—silver necklaces and earrings with coins hanging from elaborately pierced plates, etc. These may be fakes, but it doesn’t really matter. Whether it was yesterday or a hundred years ago, somebody had to make it here.
Down some stairs there are four or five rows of tables set up in stalls under blue plastic tarps. On one table at the end of a row, I found my heart’s desire (as far as an object can be my heart’s desire). It is a wine container/server. I don’t know what you would call it. It is the nineteenth-century equivalent of a cube-tainer for wine. Remember when you could get cheap Almaden--and Kodak developer, for that matter--in a cube-tainer? It looks like it would hold about two gallons. It is shaped like a barrel on its side. It is made of silver. It has a hatch on the top where you would pour in the wine. The hatch opens with a knob that is shaped like a chicken head. It has a spigot on the side. And it is sitting atop four legs that end in chicken feet. I must have it. We didn’t get it, because there is evidently some messiness about exporting antiques. Clif will find out from somebody at the embassy who knows about these things. But I fear my chicken-footed silver wine server will be snatched up by someone else. Clif wants to know what I would do with it. DOES IT MATTER?


GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

Walking around in our neighborhood of Tbilisi is sort of like walking around in any city: the sidewalks are wide, but you still have to kind of thread your way through groups of people. The buildings are 19th century for the most part, with massive entryways. Some storefronts are beautifully renovated, particularly on Chavchavadze Ave. There are shops selling elegant clothes, electronics, and cd’s. But it is different. The people amble here, even when it’s time to go to work in the morning or go home at night. We, with our New York sidewalk–style walking, practically run these people over even when we are trying to slow it down a little.
Men wear gray or black pants—no jeans. They wear dark short-sleeve dress shirts; many are dressed in all black. (This looks a little goonish.) And Clif pointed out to me that many of those things that look like beepers at the waistband are actually the handles of pistols tucked into the trousers. But there is no violence on the street, not even arguing. [We have seen only one clearly deranged person, many fewer than you would see in New York. There are beggars—about as many as you would see in New York, but they are not dirty homeless guys. They are old women, a few old men, Gypsies with children. We always give money to the old women who are begging in the vicinity of churches.]
The women wear a lot of black. Their clothes come in many styles—from Stevie Nicks to Eileen Fisher and everything in between. For the most part, the only colors are neutrals. Shoe fashion is a bit different from the states. Long (and I mean long) pointy toes and low heels are the rage here. Some of the toes are needle-sharp at the end; some are squared off (one inch wide at the end). Most are (guess what color?) black. My very up-to-the-minute completely square-shaped Steve Maddens look real odd here. Some women wear pants. The twentysomething career girls wear pant suits; the older women wear dresses; and the younger girls wear flared jeans with tight, brightly colored t-shirts. Young men and boys wear jeans, usually with a short-sleeve shirt, occasionally a t-shirt.
The most noticeable thing about these women is how elegant they look. The dark hair and beautiful eyes go a long way toward this, but the main difference from women in the U.S. is that they are slim. Amazing how elegant this looks, a sidewalk full of nicely dressed women and no fatties. It makes me even more aware of how overweight Americans are.
Both women and men walk down the street arm in arm or holding hands. They greet one another with a big, slow-motion cheek kiss, not a peck or an air kiss. And the language is musical and spoken with clear articulation. To say hello is “gah mahr joe baht,” and it is said very slowly and with the same emphasis on each syllable. If you didn’t speak Italian you could be forgiven for thinking this language is similar in its musicality. But Italian doesn’t have the guttural KH’s and GH’s (sounds of expectoration) that one hears in Kartuli.
There are very few children on the street; I only see them when school is dismissed, and even then, they are uncommon. But then again, we are living in a very central neighborhood, and the main drag our street connects to is Tbilisi’s largest thoroughfare.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Monday night 9/15/03

The photos are here! Click on the picture link on the left to see amazing things! Our team of crack (headed) engineers has worked out a kludge. There are larger versions of the images if you click on them. Use the back button when needed. Margareeya! (Cool in Kartuli).

We have just returned from an amazing weekend in the mountains. On Saturday our driver, Gocha, picked us up with his white Niva. A Niva is a small 4-wheel drive vehicle with two doors, a hatchback, and no creature comforts, but it was really necessary for our trip. I think Clif would like to take a Niva home. They cost around $7,000 new. Reliability is probably at least as good as a Yugo. Maybe we should take two, one for driving, the other for parts.
We set out a few minutes before 4 p.m. and left Tbilisi in a fog of exhaust fumes. It was cloudy, but with the promise of better weather the next day. We arrived at the Hotel Cross Pass (tel. 995 32 943 446) at around 6:30 (90 kilometers/2.5 hours), with our spines jarred, but our nerves completely intact. Gocha was an excellent driver, and made the trip very pleasant.
The main range of the Greater Caucasus runs from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. It is a wall of mountains that separates Russia from Georgia (west/Black Sea) and Azerbaijan (east/Caspian). Mount Elbrus, at 5,642 meters, is entirely in Russia and is the highest in the range. [O.K., I’ll do the math: 18,511 ft.] Other biggies inside Georgia are Shkhara (5201m./17,064ft.), Kazbek (5047m/16,559ft.), Piz Bezingi (5040m./16,536ft.), and Ushba (4710m./15,453ft.).

[Digression: During that period before we left, when I was worrying, Clif was looking for online sources that made Georgia seem fun and exciting. He found a really great website by a photographer and mountain climber, Joe Bensen, who had come in 2000 to teach journalism. This site was extremely entertaining and informative. Early on, he met and hired a mountaineering guide, and he planned to do some skiing and some climbing while he was here. His description of trying—unsuccessfuly—to ski in Turkey during the Christmas break is priceless. The last entry in his site includes a photo of Mt. Ushba with a red dotted line marking the route he and his guide were planning to take. It was going to be the highlight of his year in Georgia. Unfortunately, they fell and were killed. Clif didn’t find out THAT part; that took me—obsessive worrier and researcher. It is a sad story. I saw some of his photographs in the embassy; they were great shots of the rodeo out West. His website is http://jbworldviews.net/tbilisi/tbilisi.html

Anyway, we left Tbilisi, passed Mtshketa, where we had been the week before, and turned north up the valley of the Aragvi River. The highway toward Sokhumi (Black Sea coast) turns off to the west a few clicks out of town, then the road becomes “the Georgian Military Highway.” The Aragvi River valley is wide, lush, and fertile; it looks like paradise, with fields and roadside stands of gorgeous fruit and vegetables. The valley gradually narrowed, and we passed a dam behind which was a lovely reservoir. The mountains around here are a little larger than those around Tbilisi, but they are tree-covered, very green, and look like North Carolina. At the far end of the reservoir is the ruined palace and fortress of Ananuri. It’s right up there with Dunvegan Castle (Scotland) for spectacular siting.
After Ananuri, the valley is considerably narrower, and the Aragvi is a very swiftly running small river winding back and forth in a much larger riverbed of stones, boulders, and smaller channels. The effect screams, “I may be a small river now, but wait until the snows melt!” It looks as though it would be truly scary then. We started climbing slowly. We went higher and higher and higher. I was thankful that Gocha was a careful driver because the road switches back and forth over precipitous drops (and no guard rails, just a few large blocks of concrete between you and a chance to fly—for a while).
We kept getting higher and higher; the trees pretty much played out, replaced by short vegetation punctuated with deep eroded gravel gullies. "Gullies" doesn't seem the right word at all but I guess that's what they are, but really big—say 300–400 feet deep, and a similar distance wide. The mountains are steeper than you can pile gravel or even sand. The cows and sheep we see are risking their lives with every new step forward. One misstep, and they would just roll down 2,000 feet. BBQ anyone?
We arrived in the small village of Gudauri (four syllables: Goo dah ooh ree), elevation 2196 meters (7,205 ft.), and found our hotel, the Cross Pass Hotel, an intimate ski lodge with a huge addition—under construction and covered in bright green insulation—between the two original buildings. Gudauri has a European-standard ski resort, complete with multiple chair lifts, big Marco Polo Hotel, professional staff etc. We had our Georgian-style supper and made plans to hire a driver for the next day to go to Kazbegi.
The next morning dawned cloudy, but with a few spots of sun shining through. The folks at the hotel assured us that weather on the other side of the pass would be better, and they fixed us bag lunches of sandwiches and fruit. Our driver, a grizzled and taciturn man with no name, showed up with his WAZ, a hardcore jeep-type vehicle. It has four doors, seven seats (2 jumpseats in the way back), and extremely low gear ratio. Seems like a safe vehicle, in the right hands. We set off up the mountain toward the pass.
The road is unbelievably bad. From about 10 kilometers before Gudauri, it is the worst road I have ever been on, short of a dirt road after months of hard rain, and this is the main highway between Russia and anywhere south: Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq. There is no stretch longer than 200 feet smooth enough for second gear. There are some potholes deep enough to break an axle on and wide enough to drive all four wheels in, but most are your standard 8-inch deep 24-inch wide variety, just a lot of them. Opposite lanes for traffic? I don’t think so. Each vehicle uses the smoother side, whether it’s the right side or no, then they veer away from each other at the last minute. This sounds more dangerous than it is, because they are traveling at an average of 3 mph. We came out at the pass, Jvaris Ughelt, at 2379 meters (7,805 ft.). Cross Pass is named for the giant cross erected by General Yermolov in 1824. It replaces one put there in the 12th century by King David the Builder, though I doubt he placed it there personally. General Yermolov was responsible for constructing this highway along the track that had been there from time immemorial. I wouldn’t have taken this job on with a pistol at my back.
Sure enough, on the north side of the pass, the clouds broke, and we saw blue sky. We descended through a very barren landscape of low scrub and rocks (think Highlands of Scotland writ huge). The road was flat-out scary, especially when we met the 18-wheel trucks, some with two trailers even, that were picking their way delicately through the obstacle course. One truck had lost a piggyback trailer, which had overturned in the middle of a switchback. Attention shoppers! Blue light special on roofing felt!
Coming down a narrow valley from the headwaters (a small pond) of the Tergi River, we stopped for gas and a chance to decompress our spines. Feeling the call of nature, Clif inquired for me as to the whereabouts of the facilities. The gentleman pointed to an outhouse behind a wrecked container (cousin to the one holding the roofing felt, no doubt). The view out was magnificent: no door, just a full view of and for the village across the way. The view in was unspeakable, so I won’t speak it. Anyway, Clif says I get extra oak leaf clusters for showing adaptability here.
As we came down the valley, we could see a ridge of snow-covered very pointy mountains ahead (Mt. Kabardzhin, 3155 m./10,351ft.). At the foot of these peaks, we entered the village of Kazbegi, elevation 1850 meters/6,070 ft. We turned onto a stony track that led through the village and up, up, up to the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) church at 2170 meters/7,119 feet. We let the driver stop a quarter of a mile short of the church and walked the rest of the way up. (“Please!” he said when we suggested this.) By the time we got there, we were really winded, no kidding. I wouldn’t have thought that 7,000 feet would be a significant altitude for hiking and oxygen, but I was wrong. Next time, I take the canisters!
The church is beautiful, the location spectacular. I wished Daddy was here. Across the valley is Mt. Kabardzhin, and up the ridge behind the church is Mt. Kazbek (Mkinvari in Georgian, 5047m/16,559ft.). The shorter peaks, 9,000 feet give or take, between the church and the peak of Mt. Kazbek were creating weather while we stood there, so we got only glimpses of the high peak. If I put the jigsaw puzzle together of what I saw during different breaks in the clouds, I think I saw most of it. It was tall, snowy, rocky, and scary looking. We stayed for an hour or so, then got back in the WAZ and went back down toward the village
Instead of the usual itinerary, turning back toward the Cross Pass, we continued north on the Georgian Military Highway. Soon, we entered the Darial Gorge, a canyon with the by now fairly mighty Tergi River at the bottom. Again, the river flows along within a much larger riverbed with its implication of springtime violence. Roger Rosen’s book about Georgia calls the gorge “somber and oneiric.” I’ll say. We arrived at the Devil’s Bridge and saw the border crossing, so we turned back. Our driver asked us to put away the cameras because the Russian soldiers are touchy. I think he said something about sharpshooters in the canyon walls above. We turned around and went back.

[To my mother: Don’t read this paragraph.]
On the way back up the gorge, through Kazbegi, and up toward the pass, I’m sure the driver was trying to scare us (“stupid Americans with their money!”); I swear we came very close to going over the edge, especially when were nearly sideswiped by an 18-wheeler from Iraq. Clif says I’m exaggerating a little.

[O.K., you can read now.]
We came back over the pass and back into the clouds. After dinner, we played checkers, watched a little BBC World, and went to bed.
The next morning we got up and arranged to go horseback riding, an activity promised by the hotel brochure. Emissaries were sent out to fetch the horses from the high pastures, and we had a couple of hours to kill. We walked through a cow pasture over to the wreckage of a Soviet-era chair lift on the ski slope. With his unique mechanical ability, Wilson managed to locate how to engage the gears and hand-cranked the engine to start it moving again. It went about 3 millimeters, but he was very proud, as were we all. He is fascinated with the Soviet-era wreckage so abundant throughout this country. We may come home with a suitcase full of rusted shit.
When we walked back to the hotel, there were a few guys standing around a small horse with a home-made saddle/blanket thing. Clif asked what the horse’s name was, and the guy holding the bridle, thinking he was going to be a smart-aleck and put one over on the stupid Americans, said “Shamyl.” “Imam Shamyl?” Clif asked. Surprised that we knew who Imam Shamyl was, he pointed out the brands on the horse’s side: sh and b. He said, “Shamyl Basayev.” We laughed, and the joke was on him, not us. [Imam Shamyl was the 19th-century Daghestani leader who, with very few but fervent Islamic fighters kept the Russians out of Daghestan for a generation. Shamyl Basayev is a leader of the terrorist Chechens, as opposed to the refugee-and-tired-of-the-war Chechens, who suffer terribly.]
So Wilson rode Shamyl Basayev for an hour and a half while the neighborhood men’s morning get-together went on, ostensibly waiting for the other horse to show up. “What’s this horse called, Dudayev?” asked Clif. Dudayev was the democratically elected president of Chechnya who was assassinated. Dudayev the horse never did show up. He was helping with the hay cutting on the mountainside above. They cut hay with a scythe and pile it into tall mounds shaped like Dalleks. They do this on the most astounding slopes.
Wilson loved horseback riding. He was blue with cold, and wanted to keep going, but we called a halt to the fun. Gocha, the good driver, showed up with his reliable Niva, and we left for home. Gocha is personable and chatty, and enjoyed teaching us Georgian words. I can now say, “pig,” “cow,” “Wow!” “beautiful,” “good husband,” and “grilled pork.” I think he is our best friend, or maybe that’s just the mtsvadi, khinkali, and pivo we stopped for on the way home. He also helped us negotiate the purchase of some perfectly outrageous Khevsur-style hand-knitted socks from a bazaar of LOL’s on the side of the road. I hope Ann will be thrilled.

Friday, September 12, 2003

We went to the Bazroba (huge, open-air bazaar) today to buy Mary Neal a cell phone. The bazaar was intense: labyrinths of passageways, roofed with that blue plastic tarp material hanging low, and stall after stall of every imaginable piece of foodstuff and consumer junk: car power adapters;
cheap sunglasses;
ball-point pens, shiny pencils;
plastic tubs, plastic vats, plastic cups all in bright primary colors;
canning lids and jars;
decks of cards;
screwdrivers, big, tiny, yellow, red, blue, phillips or otherwise;
three kinds of apples: small, medium and large;
sticks of walnuts dipped into grape must until they dry into candle-shaped sticks;
small green plums;
cheap Chinese backpacks;
shoddy Turkish shoes with hilariously long toe points;
Iranian soap;
stolen cell phones;
sunflower seeds—both in flower form and loose;
huge piles of round watermelons;
red red tomatoes;
green figs;
strips of plastic in many colors;
lottery tickets of some kind;
bunches of opal basil, coriander, parsley, dill, and another herb I’ve never seen;
piles of spices of various kinds, sold in little folded-up bits of newspaper;
demijohns of amber or red wine;
cheap polyester black shirts;
stationary stalls with notebooks and cheap pens, small radios;
headsets for cell phones, cases for cell phones, faceplates for cell phones;
belts;
black slacks;
khatchapuri sold from greasy cardboard boxes by wizened old ladies;
luridly colored plastic toys;
cheap velour stuffed animals;
one whole table of small bits of bent metal;
grapes–green tables grapes so far, wine grapes are still a few weeks away;
yellow-orange melons with a powerful musky smell;
thumb-sized bright red oval berries of some kind;
a warty-looking green thing, like a pear only bigger and not sweet;
huge bins of very dusty cucumbers;
and all the stall-workers: mostly tired-looking women, most reading books in the heat, for it was really hot under all that blue plastic, reading books in the hot blue light. We staggered through endless aisles, trying not to look as American as we are and failing.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

I Am The Other

Although I am white, I am like a black person among these Caucasians.

I have never stood out so much in my life.
Let me count the ways.
• I have waist-length red hair. No one here has red hair. In a week I have seen 3 redheads, and one was probably from a bottle. And the women all have shoulder-length layered hair. I try to keep it up most of the time to seem less different, but I’m not sure it works.
• I have freckles. No one, not even the redheads I have seen, has freckles. My skin is a completely different color (pink).
• I walk around town with a blond child in tow. There are no blond children. He was accosted by a crazy man in the metro today and yelled at for being Russian. I guess that was the best guess the crazy man could make.
• Clif sticks out, too. Although he dresses in grey pants and short-sleeve shirts, he has fair hair, avant-garde glasses, and (worst of all) a backpack.
• We have SO MUCH more money than these folks. When we go into a grocery store and buy 3 containers of takeaway, two boxes of juice, bread, and a couple of bottles of mineral water—and we spend a total of $8 in the process—people stare. This is a month’s salary. This is hard to hide.
• We are occasionally whisked away to an official function in an armored car belonging to the embassy. Tell me that doesn’t scream “OTHER!”
• I think that any one of us might pass unnoticed, just because there would be only one, but we generally travel as a pack, with Wilson declaiming at full voice.

What does NOT stick out is my wardrobe (for the most part; see below). I wear all black anyway, so that works.

The best story about this is returning from a tea at the ambassador’s residence. I had taken a “tea at the ambassador’s residence” dress in case this happened. It is a sleeveless linen princess-seam dress with pink roses. Does that scream “tea at the ambassador’s residence” or what? So, afterwards, Clif went to an opening, and Wilson and I walked home down Rustaveli. The waters parted for us to pass on the sidewalk. It was amazing. I felt like I was walking down Rustaveli stark naked. Like a bad dream.



Sept. 7
Sunday, Clif, Wilson, and I walked from our apartment up to the mountain behind Tbilisi (Mtatsminda), where we saw the outdoor museum of traditional Georgian architecture. They have moved buildings from various parts of the country to this location, reassembled them, and loaded them up with artifacts and things to be interpreted. We had a very knowledgeable guide who spoke perfect French, so I found myself linguistically useful after all. Then we had lunch with a young German banker who Clif met on Solovetski Island in the far north of Russia. This young man, Michael, and his friend wandered in soaking wet and miserable to a hut where Clif, Yegor, and James were staying. They made friends over tea and have stayed in touch ever since. He now lives here in Tbilisi, making loans to small entrepreneurs.

Sunday night we were collected by Kheti Kintsurashvili, an art historian, and her husband David for a trip out to Mtskheta, an unbelievably beautiful spot 25 kilometers outside Tbilisi. Here, two rivers meet among three high mountains. On top of one is a 6th century tetraconch church (a fancy word that means symmetrical, not like a basilica with its long nave). The church was built of native stone, which comes in two colors, pinkish and greenish. Apparently the interior was never decorated with frescos or mosaics, but it is lovely, much taller than wide, with light streaming in from windows at the base of the dome.

The big draw, however, is the site. Picturesque? You bet. Clif points out that Georgian churches always have perfect sites, and this one wins the prize, I think. There is a precipitous plunge down each of the three gorges to the rivers, the mountains form chains of perfect cones, and to top it all, there is a spectacular mercurochrome-colored sunset with a 3/4 moon right in the midst of the clouds. Eat your heart out, Spalding Gray.

We then saw the 11th century cathedral Sveti-tskhoveli, meaning “living tree or column.” A piece of Christ’s crucifixion robe was brought to this site, which was at the time an Iverian king’s palace. The king’s sister died of joy clutching the robe, and it had to be buried with her. A tree grew out of her grave; this tree was cut down to build a church when St. Nino came here. (She was the saint who brought Christianity to the Caucasus in 337 AD.) But one of the columns refused to be placed in its posthole. It hovered in the air until St. Nino prayed it down, hence “living tree.”

The present 11th century church is the third church and umpteenth structure to be built on the same site. Glass panels at the base of the columns and in the floor show earlier columns, and even the postholes of St. Nino’s time.

We repaired to a roadhouse for fabulous lobio (bean casserole), cornbread, and shashlik (cubed grilled meat), washed down with plenty of beer and cognac toasts to all kinds of sodden sentimentalities, truly meant. (One never toasts with beer, except to insult the subject of the toast.) A good time was had by all.


Sept. 8
So I made it until my fourth day in Tbilisi before the fatigue, the overstimulation, the air quality, the strange goings-on between our neighbors and our landlord (we are the subject of MUCH discussion), the alcohol, and the very foreignness of it all left me curled up in a ball. But all was cured during a meal with the other Fulbright scholar here, an anthropologist, Martha Tappan, from U Minn. She has a daughter Julia who is as bright, and as contrary, as Wilson is. They got along great, and they even ate some vegetable material while the adults talked about Martha’s project (a paleontological dig that has turned up 1.7 million-year-old hominid remains), Clif’s project (strangely undefined), and life in Tbilisi.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Scene from a restaurant: we are a sedate table of ten or so, but nearby is a table of 30 or more, beefy Georgian men, lank Georgian men, and a few women. One very substantial guy is the tamada (toastmaster)–I think I saw him drink a liter of wine from a cow horn in one pull–who is leading toast after toast to all the usual subjects: parents, to women, to peace, to Georgian song, who knows what else, since I can’t understand Kartuli. They are drinking white wine, a kakhetian white wine form the look of it, since it is dark amber. We are drinking red wine made from Saperavi, the noblest red wine grape in these parts. The fact that we are drinking red wine tells me that this is not intended to be a heavy duty drinking party: I asked one Georgian guy why men drink white wine and women drink red wine and he said “if you drink this much red wine, it will kill you.” Normal consumption at a real supra (the name for a dinner party) is at least two liters of wine per person, frequently more. I have learned to never touch my wine glass except after a toast–I think this is normal good manners here, but also an essential survival skill. I hate that tired feeling in the morning, but I fear it will be a frequent occurrence. The restaurant is a picturesque building, intended to evoke Georgian villages though its use of rough stone walls and reused grape vines. I have no idea about the prices here, or even what’s available, since there are no menus. I have been to several restaurants here where there are no menus, an idea which used to terrify me, but now it seems great, a kind of promise of seasonality. Giant menus promise giant freezers. In Georgia, the fruits and vegetables seem strictly seasonal.

We had dinner with Keti Kintsurashvili and her husband at a road-side restaurant I remembered from last year: on the highway outside Mtsketa. It is a kind of truckstop where you order through a window and a waitress finds you and brings your food to you at low tables with short stools. The lobio there were baked in clay pots and really memorable. Beer, beans, and cornbread really go well together, and we threw in some cognac to toast with. MN still hasn’t seen the full-blown supra style toasting, with long, sentimental speeches, nor the sudden vast consumption of wine. The views of Jvari church as the sun went down were truly spectacular: the reddish light of the sun playing on the reddish stone of the old church, high up on the mountain–the moon coming and going, three-quarters full, through the fluffy white clouds. The brandy, the wind. Night and a ride back to Tbilisi. Home. More brandy.

Sept. 5
The next day, we go to the university to meet the folks at the center for American studies (where I pick up a little editing work!), do a little food shopping, and visit the closing party for a joint Georgian/Dutch art exhibit organized in a decrepit wine factory (one of those incredibly creepy rundown industrial spaces). At the art exhibit, we hear nine men singing, a capella, some traditional Georgian songs with their haunting harmonies. This is the kind of stuff that makes your hair stand up and makes you want to stand there with tears streaming down your face, even though you don’t understand what they are singing about. It might be songs about how much they love their pets, I don’t know. Somehow I suspect it is not. The most surprising thing I noticed is that many young men were singing along. They knew these songs and were clearly comfortable with the tradition.

Finally it is time to join the real estate crowd for dinner. It’s a real scene, two massive cars with bodyguards, and I have no idea where we are going. I am just ALONG FOR THE RIDE. We tear out of town, and pull up at a handsome stone structure. There is a gate in a stone wall, a courtyard, several low stone farm-type buildings, a wooden stairway leading WAY down, and the sound of rushing water. But that’s not all. There is a Gypsy organ-grinder, who starts up his thing at our approach. Yes. A Gypsy organ-grinder.

This place, although clearly modified from real agricultural use, is very elegant. Waiters hustle by with trays of food and drink. The Gypsy collars Wilson, places his hat on top of Wilson’s head, and invites him to crank the organ. Unaccountably, Wilson agrees, and does so with strangely agreeable demeanor, even when pictures are being taken. He only makes a face at us once. Maybe even he is intimidated by the crowd. We wait around, with all the guys’ cell phones ringing. They wander off to have their conversations, then drift back to the gradually increasing crowd. Apparently, this is a large group assembling itself. The two cars of people were not the whole story.

Finally, we descend. Turns out this restaurant is called “The Mill,” and the sound of rushing water is the millrace. There are many rooms in this restaurant, not all under the same roof. Covered walkways lead from one to the other, and everything is open to the air. We go down, down, down, through a lobby, down some more, and are shown to a large table. Food appears, conversation proceeds in many languages, but mostly Russian. The food is delicious, the wine is a red saperavi (grape variety), and the conversation is delightful. Toasts are made and drunk, and the wife of one of the guests shows up. She speaks excellent English and helps me out with the toasts, etc. We are about the same age, both have two sons, and seem very compatible. Her older son is 23 and has a 2 year old son. She laughs and says, “I am not a grandmother; I am married to a grandfather.” She and I make plans to get together again. I hope it really happens. A group of singers, two women and three men, drift from table to table singing those beautiful traditional songs, and one Eric Clapton number for us.

I find that I can understand a good bit of the Russian, which is a surprise. (Must be genetic osmosis—both ways, mind—James has tested into third-year Russian as a freshman at Reed. Way to go.) Anyway, it was a late night at the Mill, we were ground up very fine, and the next day, Saturday, was kind of lost.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Sept. 3/4
Well, the good news about my flight from New York to Tbilisi was that I had two completely fascinating guys in my row on the JFK to Vienna leg. They were on their way to a bioterrorism conference in Dubrovnik. Details about exactly what they do were sketchy except that it involved inventing, manufacturing, and marketing equipment to test for bad germs and stuff.

The best part of meeting these guys, however, was that they were from Salt Lake City, and they were NOT Mormons, so I got to explain that I was a Mormon hobbyist, and we traded factoids. I now know something that I didn’t know before. Zowie. I can’t wait to ask the next Mormon bride I meet if it’s true. Enough said.

Now for the bad news. [The following is a very boring account of the kind of details you obsess over during a really long flight. Feel free to skip it.] The flight attendants on Austrian Airlines were mean, both stingy and surly. And all this involved a drink of water. My seatmates and I ultimately figured that there must have been a mix-up in the delivery, and that only 4 liters of water were available to the entire plane. Nothing else would explain the behavior of these gals. So we kind of made it an issue, asking for more and more glasses of water, though to tell the truth we were very thirsty, it being a long flight that was even longer because we sat on the tarmac for an hour. Blonde ice princess #1 fired the first salvo when she asked what I wanted to drink. “Water,” I said. “PLAIN water??” she asked. I got a full although teeninecy plastic cup that time. When she came through again and I had the temerity to ask for more, she whipped that tiny plastic cup away and threw it in the garbage. The next request was met with a smirk and grudging compliance. The third glass was only half full. I’m not kidding. So, if you are planning to fly Austrian Airlines in the future, take a liter of water with you.
[Really boring bit is over.]

The airport in Vienna, the INTERNATIONAL Airport in Vienna, looks like a landing strip in Paducah, Kentucky, no offense to Paducah. Miles away from any urban center, surrounded by agricultural fields and swamps, it has a certain international flavor, that flavor being cigarette smoke despite the many signs warning that rauchen is verboten. Clif had warned me that the downstairs gates, where flights go to former Eastern Bloc countries, was a kind of warmup for that FSU (former Soviet Union) experience. It was NOT as bad as Sheremetyevo, however, and all the Georgians waiting for the Airzena flight to Tbilisi looked like they were having a good time. As were the American NGO folks who were evidently experiencing some kind of impromptu reunion. I couldn’t tell if the Georgians all knew each other, or if they were just the kind of people who strike up conversations and act like they are best friends. Black people in America do this, and I have always been faintly envious. But here were Caucasians doing the same thing! Go figure.

So, the Caucasians in the airport: They are very good looking. The fellows in their mid- to late-twenties were chatting up the barely adolescent girls. The women my age were traveling alone, with each other, or with their daughters. Speculation: their older husbands, acquired when these women were barely adolescent, had not survived. Or maybe they are just at home hanging out watching soccer while their wives whip out to Vienna for some shopping.

My favorite look so far: ivory to olive skin, very black hair, and light blue or green eyes. Pretty striking. (Although the 5 queer eyes would definitely be ordering up dorsal waxings all around for these straight Caucasian guys. Not that I have any direct evidence, just strong hints about the collar area.)

The girls are adorable. They wear jeans with rhinestones spelling out slogans on their butts. They have gone American girls with their camisoles one better by wearing tight-fitting tops with only one strap à la Jane. And they are pretty, so they don’t look stupid, just cute. Of course, after about age 16 this starts to pall a little, so the older adolescents move on to the more demure frosted denim. There is very little makeup. Like I said, they are extremely cute. But where are the boys of that age? It’s one of those biological mysteries, like how a Natasha becomes a Babushka with no intermediate stage.

From Vienna to Tbilisi is almost four hours. It is a long way. The first bit is farmland, the occasional forested mountain. I guess this is Hungary? Romania? Then we come out over the Black Sea, and the weather clouds up completely. What seems like hours later, we approach the coastline of Abkhazia; the clouds disappear. Way over to my left, it turns out that some of the clouds are mountains, and not just mountains, these things are HUGE. I think I can see Mt. Ushba, which has a unique profile, and I think of Joe Bensen (more about this story later). There is also a textbook perfect glacier, a river of ice flowing down a valley between two peaks. The landscape below us is at first farmland, then making a slow transition to arid scrub. As we approach Tbilisi, it is very dry. I am on the wrong side of the plane to see the city as we fly in, but I got to see those mountains! We fly over the Tbilisi Sea, one of those unnaturally aqua bodies of water that screams, “Alkaline! Toxic! Stay back!” It’s probably perfectly fine. As we descend, there is vast acreage of abandoned factories, warehouses, scrub coming up in the concrete, rust, desolation. Then, the passengers applaud when we touch down. They did this on the NY to Vienna leg, too. Must be a Caucasian thing. At home this only happens when there has been a near-death experience.

Tbilisi: The airport is like something out of a ’60s movie, where all the cool colors have been bleached out of the film, and it’s faintly overexposed. Think Mexico as portrayed in “Traffic,” but not as mannered. It just looks like that here. We descend onto the tarmac where guys in uniforms are milling around. We are bused to the terminal and shown into a huge room with 2 tiny glassed-in cubicles on the other side. There are no lights on, but the sun is glaring through the (somewhat dusty) windows. Lines form at the cubicles, but I learn quickly that Caucasians do not queue up: Much pushing in front of me by even older men, which I find surprising. Then I am surprised to find myself—feminist blah blah blah--shocked by that! Finally, when the Norwegians try to push in front of me, the lady in the cubicle takes pity and takes my passport first. I get to use my (completely fluent!) Georgian to tell her “didi madloba” (thank you very much). She smiles.

It is unbearably hot, and while we are clustered around the baggage carousel, I have to strip down to my Lycra airplane clothes. (I always try to fly wearing pajamas or at least something close.) This is clearly breaking my contract with America, but I am not in America, am I? I get the baggage, walk out through “nothing to declare,” and there is Clif! Wilson, of course, won’t make eye contact. Paata is there to drive us to town. The way Caucasians drive is fairly random. Lanes do not exist, not even northbound/southbound. And fast! But we arrive safely at 12 Petriashvili.

Clif ushers me through a courtyard and up some stairs into our apartment. How to explain? It is a palace. I have never lived anywhere like this in my life. The ceilings are at least 12 feet high, elaborate moldings, parquet floors, a lot of gilded sconces, a crystal chandelier in EVERY room—it is so over the top! There are 2 large bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms (washing machine in one), a small office, and a large European-style kitchen. Circulation between the rooms is via an L-shaped passageway that in traditional Georgian houses would have been open. It is now all windows, and is kind of like a Florida room. Then, there is a long, dark hall with a double door at the end. This is the Reception Room, which deserves capital letters. It is a salon with fancy, fancy furniture and three large French windows with a balcony onto Petriashvili.

After collapsing for a while, we venture out to the Marriott Hotel on the site of the former Tbilisi Hotel, which was destroyed in the civil war of 1992. This is kind of shocking, isn’t it? We have all heard the phrase, “on the site of the [fill in the blank], which was destroyed in the [fill in the blank] war in [some VERY removed date].” But this was 1992! Weird. Anyway, our friend Cameron is here from Moscow to see about building another hotel. He introduces us to his business partners and their bodyguards (!), and we go to the bar to have a drink. Then home and oblivion.

We have rented a wonderful apartment, right in the center! My excellent landlady from the guesthouse called an apartment finder, who supplied a driver and an English-speaking agent to show me apartments. We looked at a total of about ten places and one place spoke to me: a second-storey apartment with a gallery overlooking a courtyard. You enter through a gate, down a dark tunnel into the courtyard and then up an iron staircase, with grapes growing up and over the second storey door to my apartment. I think you would call this a three room apartment: two bedrooms, a large living room with working wood-burning fireplace, an office, a sitting room in the gallery, a nice eat-in kitchen, a bathroom with a washing machine, and a toilet. Or perhaps a four-room. I am not sure. It has gas heat, electric heat, and a fireplace, so I am hopeful that we wont freeze. The gas situation here is very iffy: The gas is still not on, and I worry that it will never be turned on. We have a small tank of propane (called a balloon, ?) in the kitchen and I can imagine using that to cook on all winter. Woof. When I was here before and stayed in an apartment block, that was the only source of hot water.
We have eaten in restaurants too much. Yegor, his wife Natasha, and their friend Andrei are visiting from Moscow and we have gone out every night. The bills seem small to an American used to New York City prices. I have missed seeing Yegor and it is worth going out every night to be able to spend time with him. The food has been uniformly tasty, but some things are shockingly good: cheese with mint, cheese boiled in yoghurt with garlic, Katchapuri (all kinds: imeruli, enovani, achara [think cheese pizza without sauce]) chicken cooked in a clay dish with garlic (wow) and the bread. Also, the wine is good.

The baths! Tbilisi was founded on a source of hot sulfur water (all the guide books say so) and the baths have been in this location for at least 1500 years, perhaps more. Yegor, Wilson, Andrei, Aleko, and I went to one of them late one night (no, not drunk), a bath next to the Obeliani baths, which look just like a small version of a madrassa in Samarqand. Our baths were simple brick domes sticking up out of the ground, with a pervasive smell of sulfur. We were admitted to a suite of rooms: a changing room, a tiled sitting room, a marble pool room, and a massage room with a plinth of marble (the tomb of the unknown bather). There was a silly black statue of a girl in the pool room. We stripped and walked into the water: warm, not hot, and slightly minerally. Russians love hot water and Yegor was in heaven. I thought it was relaxing. After a long hot soak (gradually raising the temp by adding hot water from a valve) in the small swimming pool sized “basein,” Aleko called in the masseuse. He came wearing shorts and started working on us one by one. Wilson was remarkably adaptable and let the guy crack all his joints, and rub him all over with a rough horsehair mitt. When it was my turn, I found the cracking of joints unnerving, and the rough exfoliation left me bleeding. I could feel huge chunks of flesh being removed by that mitt. Back into the pool to recover and then back onto the slab for the washing: using a piece of cloth made into a sack, the masseuse created the most amazing cloud of suds and washed me all over. I stood under the shower for a long time getting the soap off, and then soaked for a long spell in the pool. I can imagine that this will be heaven in the winter. The domes over the rooms were tiled and had vents open to the sky.
First impressions: The Tbilisi airport is tiny and Wilson and I were the only Americans on the flight from Vienna. The rich Georgian teenagers on the flight spent their time getting drunk, drinking beer, wine and finally Bailey’s Irish cream from the bottle. This, of course, led to the wearing of silly hats. Wilson had the window seat on the Airzena 737 and I craned over him, trying to see the Black Sea. We descended suddenly into mountains and there was Tbilisi. We flew right over the city and I recognized a few landmarks.

We stayed in a guesthouse for the first seven days, a place you can’t stay unless you know somebody who knows the owner. The house is brand new, very comfortable and high on Mtatsminda, the hill overlooking the central part of Tbilisi. The landlady is a fabulously generous, open, warm person, who looked after us better than my own mother. One night, Wilson and I went to the baths (see entry) and got out rather late. The landlady called me (on my cell phone) to see if I was all right. I was fine: highly exfoliated and limp as a dishrag, but her concern was touching.

Tbilisi could be the next Prague. It is beautiful here, in a very appealingly distressed way. Georgians are very creative and value quality of life on a daily basis. Huge trees line the main roads in the center and the stock of late nineteenth century buildings is wonderful. There are tons of fascinating architectural details on many buildings. The soviet suburbs are another story, huge regions of nine storey apartment blocks, and perfect evidence of the life-sucking soviet touch.

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