Friday, September 02, 2005

Road Rage

This past week, small talk about the weather has been replaced with small talk about the roads. It seems all of Central Tbilisi has been torn up without warning. To compare to Washington, DC, imagine that you wake up one morning like normal, and suddenly Pennsylvania Avenue has been utterly shut down from top to toe. And then the next day 16th Street joins it. And then Connecticut is closed and one-way streets are made two-way, then the next day they're back to one-way, but the other way. Now, imagine that on top of this, Metro decided to simultaneously cease all bus services.

On my last trip to Tbilisi, the main drag, Rustaveli Avenue, was absolutely choked with bumper-to-bumper minibuses called Marshutkas. They clogged traffic, they stunk up the air, but they got people to work and back. On Monday last, without a peep of advance warning, all Marshutkas were taken off Tbilisi's main streets. Suddenly people had no idea how to get to work, to school, to home. Taxis are expensive for your average working Joe and not everybody is in the health to hike it. A fleet of lovely new yellow city buses have appeared, but nobody has any idea where they might go.

At dinner the other night, a cousin of my friend was in a fury.
"How can they do this? Now it takes me one hour and twenty minutes to get to my office, and it used to be only twenty!" She turned to my friend, "Why don't they tell us? What are these buses? Where do they go?"

My friend threw her own hands in the air and shouted back,

"Excuse me, why are you asking me? Don't you work in the Information Office for the Mayor?"
Her cousin volleyed back with an annoyed glare that asked, "So??"

So Tbilisi's main roads will have proper paving, eyesore Marshutkas are scuttled out of sight, and heavens to betsy, I saw them painting lane dividers on the giant bumper car arena that was Rustaveli Avenue. I marveled at these changes to a Georgian acquaintance, and he was unconvinced.

"Yes, yes, it's all very nice, but it feels like it is not Georgia. I am afraid we are becoming too Western and we are in danger of losing what makes us Georgia."

I suppose it's not my place to volunteer that batshit insane driving conditions are not, in my opinion, among the most precious aspects of the admirable Georgian tradition. Instead I told him that perhaps as Tbilisi develops, it will become like other countries: a modern capital indistinguishable from other modern capitals, from which you must escape in order to experience the real country. But really, I added, it must mean something that every third Georgian I meet shares his fear. Conversations run roughly thus:

"Sorry, is this the way to Chavchavadze Ave.?"
"Yes, just a bit further. And by the way, I fear that we are in danger of losing our Georgian culture."

It seems to me that the culture and traditions are somewhat insulated by this collective, ardent concern with preservation. I don't doubt that things are changing rapidly, and I'm sure it is unnerving and disorienting to witness. And with my one week in-country, I'm hardly the accurate arbiter of the Current State of the Georgian Soul. But I told him that in my estimation, they're not yet in danger of becoming, gasp, like us. His eyes rolled heavenwards in thanks.


Post a Comment

<< Home