Thursday, September 08, 2005


Most times, if you were looking for me on U St., you just had to spot the girl with her back turned to the street, face pressed to empty storefronts, trying to read the tea leaves of city permits taped to the window.

Ooooh, this one's applied for a liquor license! Another Ethiopian restaurant? Or maybe a bistro?

I really dug the excitement of a neighborhood in flux. Each new establishment had the potential to be any number of commercial delights that would improve the quality of my capitalist life. I'm sure this is the product of a suburban upbringing, where a closed Applebee's just meant that Bennigans was moving in, vacating the space about to be taken over by Chili's, whose former space would be inhabited by the Applebee's that just closed elsewhere. It was a torpid musical chairs of, like, five restaurants.

So to live in a city like Tbilisi, where everything--not just the grub halls--is changing from top to bottom? Well, it's fun. For a short-term resident like myself who isn't having a comfortable well-trod rug yanked from under me.

It's not just the marshrutka system turned upside down. City landmarks have changed since last I was here. The old ugly concrete reviewing stand put up in the Soviet years, and referred to by everyone as Andropov's Ears recently looked like this:

Now, I was shocked (but not sorry) to see, it looks like this:

More striking still was the Iveria hotel. When last I was here, this former Intourist Hotel sticking up like a tomb in the heart of the city, was a de facto refugee camp housing displaced Georgians booted from Abkhazia in the war in the early 90s. Here's a photo I took last time:

And now, it's been purchased by the Silk Road Bank for renovation. What happened to the refugees? It's hard to get 2 Georgians to agree on the dollar amount, but several seemed positive that each family was given $7,000 and sent on their way. That's not a bad nest egg in Georgia; you can buy a house on that.

And then, as I mentioned before, there's the roads being paved and lanes being painted and new buses, and stop lights and cross walks, that are even occassionally heeded by motorists! But somehow it does Not quite organic. It feels as though somebody in the mayor's office decided that some laquer and sheer force of will can turn this wild city into a domesticated, respectable European capital. And maybe it will be some day. But so long as my drivers cheerfully zoom the wrong way down one-way streets, madcap headlong into headlights, and nobody honks in protest, I think that day is still a good ways off.

My bashful and reticent Georgian friend is fed up with the government: "Our president, he will fuck up anything moving or still. I am ashamed that I broke into the parliament with them on that day! I should have known it will all be a fuck in the end." But still. Disparaging the government is as time-honored a tradition in Georgia as it is in the U.S. and I sense that despite the inevitable post-revolution disillusionment, Georgia is not in the same place it was. It is not in static, depressed torpor. People may feel it is moving in the wrong direction, but nobody seems to deny that it is moving, and where there is movement, there is opportunity for change. And here, I think that's worth something.

As for me, my Georgian language lessons start soon. To give you a sample of what a herculean undertaking this will be, here is a name of a street I recently tried to offer to a taxi driver: Tsinamdzgvrishvili. And to correctly pronounce "Kazbegi" you must make a noise that well-bred ladies do not emit in polite company. On the plus side, I bought new sheets today and so my flea-infested blankets are a thing of the past. Good morning hygiene!


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