Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Tbilisi - an over-long, schmaltzy, melodrama of an account

The City a wreck. Nesting in clumps in a valley, climbing partly up the high hills, and tumbling into gorges, the buildings all seem to be a freeze frame of mid-collapse. My black shoes turn grey every day from the dust kicked up on unfinished streets, and hallways everywhere reek faintly of fecal matter. Electricity zaps on and off, but nothing like the winter where it is nearly always off and the city, I'm told, glows with candles.

The Hotel Iveria stands in the center of town; once a prestigious hotel and landmark, it now houses refugees that fled Abkhazia. The balconies circling the exterior of the builing have all been finished into extra rooms with wood, brick, and blankets. The hotel looks like a tumor, crawling with a rainbow of infestation.

Still, it's the most unlikely charm you can imagine. Walking by our clean, upkept buildings in America, or even the sagging brown slums, you'd never know how the multicolor of decay can be beautiful. Look up into the hills for a peek at the ruins of an ancient fortress. Down below, the tiny beehives of the sulphur baths once reserved for kings. The incongruities everywhere are striking...this stunning panorama of hills and cliffs cradling a devastated town; stylishly dressed girls walk arm-in-arm down filthy streets as though they were strolling Milan; the terrifying Soviet apartment block that seems slick with disease houses an elegant apartment for the wealthy elite; the grand exterior of a government building that is putrid, dark, and riddled with bullet holes inside.

The People
All the boys are named some variant of George. This becomes, in local parlance, Giorgy, Gio, Goga, Gogi, Gigi. Gocha and Givi may or may not be related. Women are invariably Nino: in our office alone we have Nino, Nina, Nino and Nata. Tamar becomes Tako, which lead to the mouth-watering comment that someone was bringing two Takos to a party on Friday. I've met Zaza, Zura, Mero, and Sergo.

Groups of boys will of course hover on street corners looking tough in black leather jackets, but for someone expecting the hostility of Moscow streets, Tbilisi residents have been a relief. Of course there is danger, and foreigners are targets, but on my first free day in Tbilisi, I sat down and pulled out a map after wandering aimlessly during the morning. I couldn't have been studying the map for more than 3 minutes before some locals gathered around me. "Where are you going? We help you, come on." And I was treated to a tour that lasted the rest of the afternoon, with promises of more to come. Unlike Moscow, the grocery clerks will grin rather than snarl, and the guards say "excuse me" and "hello" and "have a nice day" instead of barking "dokumenty!" with a sneer.

But it's a chauvinistic culture with guns and machismo and settling things like "men." I stood waiting for my co-worker to come out of the McDonald's bathroom, where she'd insisted on a Big Mac for breakfast. Without any apparent cause, a burly thug walked over to swagger right in front of me. When his strutting failed to earn my attention, he thrust one hip forward in my direction and lifted the edge of his shirt as if to adjust his clothing, but clearly making sure I couldn't miss the pistol handle coming from his pocket. I was clearly meant to be impressed. I took a bored slug of my coffee and turned the other way. "I'm from Texas, sweetheart," I thought. "You'll need a bigger gun that that if you want to impress me." Firearms at McDonalds at 9:00 am - does this work on Georgian girls?

Getting Around Town
Taxi drivers have no clue where anything is in the city. Oh, feel free to give them a street name (don't waste your time with address numbers), but don't expect to get anywhere near where you're going with such paltry information. Instead, pay attention to the streets neighboring your hotel. When the name of the correct street fails to spark any recognition, start shouting out the names of neighboring streets until you see the "aha" moment. When you get into the neighborhood, start directing your driver through left and right turns. In Russian.

Also, given the utter lack of traffic laws, lanes, or lights, don't be surprised that all your cabs seem to be missing parts that you would consider useful: fenders, windshields, wheels attached by more than a hair. And don't expect to get out of a fare just because you have to push the cab down a hill and jump in to get it going. This is manual transmission.

The Elections
Good elections don't make good news, so you might have missed the blurb on Monday morning noting that Georgia elected its parliamentarians. But it's huge news here, for the people who not long ago watched the old Election Commissioner type in the results he desired into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and publish them as official. The overhaul has been breathtaking.

I traveled to 2 precincts in Tbilisi, and 5 in a nearby village to evaluate the conduct of elections there. Good elections, however, are somewhat boring to watch as well. With no flagrant violations to distract me, my attention wandered to the spectacle itself.

In the village, these ancient pensioners are hobbling in one after another. It's a cliche, but you can't help thinking about the things they've seen. This is a poor, poor country, and it's not an easy life for these people. Looking at them, you know they've survived wars hot and cold, and surely lost people to the purges perpetrated by their own leaders. They all came bearing Soviet passports as ID - these documents were compulsory under Soviet law, and what possible need could they have for a new passport or a driver's license?

I can't beging to capture the poignancy of standing in a crumbling room heated by a wood-burning stove in the land that brought us Stalin, watching pensioners with tattered Soviet passports cast votes in a free and fair election.
Many of these people could barely walk without help, some were blind. Don't let it be said that people in impoverished countries don't value their freedom.


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