Thursday, March 25, 2004

Georgian Love Story #3

Today I met a Georgian man who owns and operates a hotel in a strange part of town - neither here nor there, but actually, if you think about it, convenient to a lot of places. I was in the company of a Finnish woman.

Halfway through the meeting we had a break, and spent some time in the courtyard outside the room. Beso emerged from the reception area to talk to the Finnish woman. In Finnish. Which he speaks perfectly, although he doesn't speak a word of English, German, or French, the three most common tourist languages here after Russian.

Apparently, he has been all over the world, but Finland is where his heart is; he lived there for a while, fell in love with the country, fell in love with a Finn, learned her language, and today he spoke it for the first time in four years.

"I've had this hotel for ten years, I see all these international organizations come in and they have people from Germany and Poland and America and I say 'send me your Finns!' to stay if they ever have them but they never do until today!" Then he called her his precious, and kissed her on the forehead.

Sadly, the Finn he fell in love with said no when he proposed.

Spring has sprung, for all potential visitors. The light is beautiful.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Panning for Gold

The day before yesterday, President Saakashvili tried to travel to Adjara, the semi-autonomous region in the southwest corner of Georgia. Adjara borders Turkey and is the main port for Georgia, but is controlled by one Aslan Abashidze, descended from the former princely family of the region, who megalomaniacaly controls the region like a little fiefdom. Last election he threw one of the observers from the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association in jail for allegedly obstructing the election (or maybe obstructing the stealing of the election); allegedly the man was "swinging his backpack like a weapon." Anyway, Saakashvili was stopped on the road by a mob, which fired a warning shot, and then blocked the way. Apparently it was aggressive of him to travel there with bodyguards.

Saakashvili went up the road to Poti, and gave a press conference. Everyone was expecting him to go in with weapons, but instead he closed the ports, closed the airspace, and is going to blockade the country. The Adjarians had already torn up the rails connecting the two areas. Today all the ships left Batumi and moved to Poti (which is the end of the Georgian part of the silk road and a former Greek port named Phazis, which is in the old kingdom of Colchis, which is where the Argonauts landed and met up with Medea and went off to steal the fleece that the Svans were using to pan for gold in the mountains of Svaneti.

As far as autonomy goes: Adjara doesn’t have a president, and under law shouldn’t be independent from the central government in Tbilisi, but Shevardnadze gave Abashidze a lot of freedom, and Abashidze has kept several million dollars (from the port trade and the border taxes with Turkey) from the central budget for years. The background to this is very deep and goes back to Stalin of course, but the most recent is that Saakashvili had said he was going to eliminate the KGB minister in Adjara since there should only be one in the country. But a lot of the press has been calling Abashidze "president of Adjara" for a while, and they say things like "Adjara and Georgia" – a conjunction that carries a lot of political baggage. The mayor of Moscow, Lushkov, is in Batumi (the capital of the region) – Abashidze has strong ties to Russia. Lushkov says that Abashidze is his friend and brother.

The Procurator is talking on tv right now, explaining the narcotics trade in Adjara and the entire Abashidze clan’s ties to the trade. A few minutes ago Rustavi 2 showed a secret witness saying that Abashidze has entire factories of narcotics in operation in Adjara.

Gosh I hope I get posted to monitor elections in Batumi.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Georgian Love Story Number 2
(names have been changed).

Medea had been having an affair with a married man for about a year. She knew it wasn’t going anywhere, that it had no future; and yet she kept on, for no reason other than he was there and she was there and there he was, part of her life.

He had a wife and a disabled child, and the disabled child had to be taken to Czechoslovakia for treatment one summer. So he was free, and hers for several months.

They decided to go on vacation on one of those very nice Soviet vacations for middle class communists. They bought tickets on a flight to Moscow, and from there they would sail down the Don to the Volga, take the Volga to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, and come back – 22 days in all.

The day before they were to leave, he got a call from his wife in Czechoslovakia: he was needed. He told Medea, go to Moscow, and we’ll meet on the pier the day we’re to leave. I’ll catch up with you there, I swear. Then he left for Prague, and his wife, and his disabled child.

Medea got on the plane with an empty seat next to her that was soon filled by a babushka taking an upgrade, nattering in Medea’s ear about grandchildren and the price of garlic in Tbilisi. She got off the plane and spent two days wandering around Moscow, which was disturbingly warm. The Russians looked strange without their fur hats. The streets were strangely devoid of people, who put up with and even enjoyed the cold, but who ran to the countryside at the first sign of spring. The hot water was off in the region of the city where she was staying, so she felt the bitter cold all the same every time she washed her face.

The pier was a nightmare of indecision. He was not there. She waited in line. She let people ahead of her as much as she could in Russia, land of the unclear clump of ticket holders. It became more and more clear that he was not going to appear before the final call. She considered and reconsidered spending her vacation alone on the ship, or alone in Moscow. Staring at water or staring at galleries, all by herself. She got on the boat.

Medea didn’t leave her cabin except for meals. She was alone, owning two tickets for the round-trip cruise. She lay on her bunk with the curtains drawn, reading, until it was time to eat, nursing her wounds.

The curtains covered most of the window, except for a small bit at the top, through which she could see a strip of sky, a strip of water, if she picked her head up off the pillow. One day she heard a lot of shouting in the corridor and felt the light through the window change.

She looked out and all she could see was concrete wall – no sky, no water, just wall. She ran toward the shouting, up on the deck. Through each window there was nothing but wall. The wall closed in and she fainted.

When she woke up, she felt herself in someone’s arms, wanting to push away but unable to move. She looked up and saw a face looking down at her. She asked the face what happened. The face told her, from beneath worried eyebrows, not to worry.

He was Georgian, too, and had been watching her since the pier in Moscow. He told her it was visible even then, some kind of unhappy aura around her, like a view of an animal curling in on itself to heal. He had watched her on deck, at meals, by herself. They became acquainted, sailing down the Volga. They shared her cabin, as the cruise chugged its way back through the imperial hinterlands to Moscow. And where the Volga joined the Don, she saw for herself how the ship sailed over a manmade hole between the rivers, where the water levels were different; how the ship descended into the sluice as the water slowly drained out; how the water filled and lifted them up again, back onto the Don, back to Moscow.

They married, and moved to Tbilisi. For fifteen years they lived fine, until, during the awful period of the end of the Soviet Union and the civil war, when the Mkhedrioni – armed bandits controlled by various factions – controlled the city. He was killed by one of the blacked-out-windowed cars that raced up and down the streets of Tbilisi.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Dr Seuss

Today is international women's day, so I had the day off. Lado and I went for a three-hour walk across to the other side of the river and back again. But first we passed by the russian church, and there we saw a green dog.

We almost cried, the both of us. There are so many stray dogs, and so many people do mean things to them. Lado said that it was probably some kids who painted him, and named the two colors of oil paint he thought were combined for this particularly lurid shade of blue-green. A man passed us by and heard us talking, and said in Russian "that's nothing, there's also a green cat back there too."

We decided to buy the poor animals something to eat, and went to the nearest baked-goods hole (as opposed to the bread hole, my favorite invention). The baked-goods hole is a place with a tiny window that obscures just exactly how complex the whole operation is, and you stick your head in and choose. I've seen a person stick almost half her entire body inside one of these tiny windows to get the full range of options, but she was obsessed with meringue and cannot be accounted for. Anyway, we ended up buying some blini with meat for the poor thing.

We went back and fed the green dog his first blini, all the while lamenting his sorry state. A bundle of knitted fabric by the Russian church unfolded into a small round woman. "Oh thank you for feeding the puppy" she said. "I'm sorry he's green, someone lied to me, I wanted to paint him with iodine so that he wouldn't get infected in his wounds and they gave me zilonka (a russian antiseptic) that made him green."

We told her how relieved we were, that we thought some kids had been really cruel, and fed the dog some more blini.

"No," she said, "just zilonka. And now, his hair was falling out, now it's growing back again."

I am thinking of starting a small trade in hair loss products.

This evening, after the long walk, we went to Anna's house. Anna is a writer and journalist, and has this basement flat that is always kind of damp (which makes the russian toilet paper as soft as the expensive kind!) and is always full of people sitting around this tiny table, eating potatoes and having strange conversations. She read my fortune in my turkish coffee cup, and it seems to be a good one, but whoever you are associated with the letter B just go ahead and leave me alone.

This International Women's Day also happens to be our one year anniversary. Lado and I met on the 8th of January, his birthday, at his exhibition in Club 22, another wettish kind of place on the hill above McDonalds. His exhibition was called "Waiting for Barbarians" and I, in the extremely broken Russian I was using at the time, asked this very cute painter I had just been introduced to if he had ever read J.M. Cotzee's book by the same name. The gears in his head visibly whirred in chagrin. As I later found out, Lado has read almost every book under the sun EXCEPT "Waiting for the Barbarians" by J.M. Cotzee.

I went off with my friends and he with his, but as he tells me, he spent the rest of the evening trying to talk loud enough to his table full of worshiping girls so that I would look at him, but I, like the true foreigner I am, spent the time writing in some not-understandable notebook.

I thought I'd made a mess of my acquaintanceship with the cute painter until my English friend Sophie invited me, last January, to be a part of an installation she wanted to do. As soon as we began this project, which was called "Red Riding Hood" and in which we tore this mysterious back room of the gallery apart and used the remnants to make a grandmother's house and corridor full of leaves and a bed out of chicken bones and lots of fur, the gas went out for two weeks, the lights were on for only three hours a day, the water was out, and we were all dirty as heck and needed a project. The installation took on a feeling of urgency. Which small pair of red shoes would we put in a giant bottle to make it look freaky? Where would we get a well-preserved wolf's head? After the presentation all the women involved went to a huge scrubdown at the sulpher baths (one of the best parts of Tbilisi).
The cute painter, aka Lado, was a part of the project, and we became good friends. The english people sort of dropped out of our lives. And finally we had a first date, the 8th of March, 2003.
We went to this cafe attached to a puppet theater, called "Sans Souci". It's very cute, and very civilized, and kind of small with crooked, steeped ceilings. We sat on the glassed-in balcony and frenchily got some wine and cheese (sulguni cheese, of course). And as we started talking about art, the table behind me fills up with this crowd of five huge guys – four georgians and one british guy called ozzy osbourne by the rest – all about my height and twice my weight.
Amazing amounts of muscular masculinity being thrown about. Ozzy was on his way to Iraq the next day, and they were throwing back cognac and toasting him and toasting each other and toasting georgia and toasting Iraq and slamming their meaty fists about and finally, I could not hear a word Lado was saying.

So I turn to them and say, in Russian, "You know, could you be a little quieter, I’m having trouble hearing my friend." And the biggest of them all says
"no way, we cannot be quieter tonight, Ozzy is going to Iraq!"

So I say, "I wish you would, but ok," and turn back to Lado. And then the huge guy – the hugest of them all – comes over and introduces himself, saying "I live in moscow, and I know this gangster and this other gangster and this criminal" and asking Lado if they hadn’t met each other in Moscow or something. And Lado says maybe, I was there ten years ago or something, I know this artist and this painter and this installation poet. Then suddenly this man, of course his name
was Giorgi, is looming over us. He and Lado go off talking in Georgian. He kisses Lado on the cheek, and they are suddenly best friends. And then this Giorgi,
this giant Giorgi, turns to me and says "I would like to sing you a song."

He then bursts into "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, doing all the voices, and strumpeting his voice just like Louie Armstrong, and halfway through a second
round of the first verse (I think he forgot the second), he suddenly stares out the window behind my head, yanks a pistol out of his pants, and starts banging on the glass with it, shouting "hey! Get away from my mercedes! Don’t you dare!"

I look out to see this poor soul trying to drive his car around this mercedes parked on the street, now practically wetting his pants as this pistol, inches from my head mind you, is pointed at him, by a giant in a black leather jacket inside a tiny puppet-theater café filled with otherwise calm, nicely dressed, arty gentlemanly georgians.

But apparently the driver did well under pressure, since Giorgi tucked the gun back into his pants, and picked up his song where he left off. Then he told me
that he had two little daughters he loved (he called them his puppies), and that love was the most important thing in the world, but now he had to take his friend to the hotel to sleep off the cognac before going to Iraq tomorrow. And off he stomped, after kissing me on the hand, with a drunken british soldier
on his arm.

So what to do?

We introduced ourselves to the rest of the company. We moved our table around to connect to theirs, and knocked back a couple shots of cognac for peace, love,
and happiness in the world.

So Happy International Womens' Day, and happy one year anniversary, Lado.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Dancing about Architecture

On Saturday we went to an architectural exhibition in the craft museum on Rustaveli to vote for the ugliest new building in Tbilisi. The criteria was
1. Aggressive
2. Doesn’t fit in with the surroundings, out of proportion
3. Faceless
4. Looks like it was made by a crafty handyman

There are all these illegal buildings that have been going up, and loudly – I used to live next door to one being constructed – in the expensive and prestigious neighborhoods of Tbilisi. They are apparently made by a bunch of nerds who, with a six-month course in architecture and a lifetime of computer addiction have taught themselves ArcCad, and have now begun building Eastern Trabzon in this gorgeous, architecturally rich city of elegant balconies, columns, Art Deco, and Persian-influenced buildings, and it is horrible. They look like the Montessori pink tower gone horribly wrong, all blocks and flat sides and glass, and usually painted some variant of institutional yellow.

There’s one going up in Vake Park that resembles, almost to an exact copy, the prison in downtown Cincinnati, down to the tiny slit windows. It also, not to be too explicit, resembles a giant phallus, and we are taking bets on what color it will be painted.

And the land was bought illegally. They're building IN the park.

The exhibit was super, and hilarious.

In other news, apparently the man who was supposed to be in charge of fixing the roads in Georgia ran away to Sochi with something like 63 million dollars, while the guy who illegally imported cigarettes through Abkhazia - no doubt financing part of that conflict on the way down here - was picked up, and has been paying people ten lari a day to protest outside the Omega office around the corner.


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