Thursday, September 29, 2005

Things Were Different Back in My Day

A few years ago, Grandma had a stroke that left her half paralyzed. Her mind is quite intact, though she has days that are more lucid than others. I was visiting her this morning and chatting about the upcoming nuptials of my dear friend, and how I hadn't yet prepared a toast, which was one of my few Maid of Honor duties. She was quiet for a moment, staring softly and thoughtfully ahead.

Then without turning her head towards me or taking her eyes away from whatever indeterminate point in space had brought back her memories, she slowly said, "One time, as a Maid of Honor, I had to give a girl an enema."

[Apparently there had been an auto accident the day before the wedding and my grandmother was assisting the doctor by holding the bride's enema bag. Nevertheless, I feel certain that fate is instructing that I somehow work this splendid anecdote into my toast. Surely there's a prize to be won for making enema references at a wedding celebration? Side note: how awesome is my Grandma?]

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Ho Hum

Idyllic Georgian pastorals will be on hiatus for a bit as I'm jetting back to the US of A tomorrow. I'll be in DC until Tuesday, then down to Texas for my best friend's wedding. Although I suppose I could fake it, I've really not been in Georgia long enough for this re-entry to provide amusing culture shock, so we'll just have to cross our fingers that a crackhead Joe sighting or wedding shenanigans will provide entertaining fodder until I'm back in the land of the Karts once more.

Holy crap. I just realized I'm the maid of honor. I have to write a toast. Oh hell.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Everybody knows that the best memories come when our plans veer off-script. We'll always remember that night when we stumbled into some unmarked restaurant we'd never heard of and laughed with new friends we'd just met, more than dining at the cafe carefully selected from the guidebook for its perfect ambience and view. Endearingly, the Georgians I've spent time with seem to rely on serendipities. They're part of the plan: we'll go, and somehow, everything will work. Relying on the kindness of strangers may not have worked out so well for Blanche duBois, but I'm starting to sense that Georgia couldn't exist without it.

This weekend, when I joined a friend and his NGO colleagues on an outing to the countryside for hiking and barbecue, things seemed pretty planned out. A marshrutka (that's the mini-bus) had been arranged to take us to the countryside in search of the ruins of two 11-century castle fortresses on twin peaks. (Incidentally, driving here is really something. Imagine a windswept beach, inland a bit from the flat shoreline, where there are high dunes and valleys, smaller rises and deep grooves. Now imagine that these have hardened into a crust. Now generously spread a final layer of loose, fist-sized stones over the tableau, and you have some idea of Georgian roads. A kidney massage, is how my boss generously described the experience of traveling on them. The trick is to make sure your marshrutka has a high roof, or you’ll end up with a concussion by day’s end.)

We drove until we arrived at the village at the base of the hills that were said to hide these ruins. We stopped among the villagers for a protacted discussion on directions. I wondered what they offered. Turn left at the seventeenth field of corn? After the pomegranate trees, veer right? You can't miss it? Negotiations seemed to conclude and we poured back into the marshrutka, but this time, I noticed with three local teenagers crowding the front seats.

I turned to look questioningly at Epo, our leader. She smiled broadly, "This is how it is in Georgia! These guys, you know, they just stand around the village wondering what to do with their day. So we come by and they say they will show us how to get to the fortresses. Why not? Something interesting for them, maybe."

Village Boys

The boys led us up a steep hill, the marshrutka spinning wheels and spitting out rocks and we bumped our way along until the road abruptly stopped in a farmer's yard. The rest of the way, we'd have to hoof it.

Here's the next thing I learned: if you ask a Georgian if it's far, and they say no, then that translates into a 4 hour roundtrip hike off any discernible path, up nearly vertical rock climbs then down on your rear careening into a gorge on a vertical slide, then up again, down again. Because none of was expecting this kind of thing, nobody had packed any water. Our stomachs were completely empty. And I? Was in flip-flops.

I am also a huge weenie, and so was nearly delirious with thirst and sore, dragging my limbs as I watched these insane Georgian kids sprinting up rock inclines so that they could attach themselves barnacle-like to the walls and then haul us up by hand.

More views

Once More Into the Breach

Finally, parched and crazy, we reached these fortress ruins, sticking up into the sky, nothing as far as we could see that would differ the landscape from how it looked when Tamerlane came to conquer it. One fortress was named "Mother's Castle," the other, laughably, "Inaccessible." It was some hell of high ground, I can tell you. Davy Crockett and the Alamo boys would have had a different tale to tell if they had this piece of real estate to defend. I can also say that we never, never would have found this place without these village boys. If you hire a tourist agency to take you on climbs, it will cost you about $200 per person. These boys refused to accept any money. "We don't do this for money" they replied scornfully before two of the three scampered off to other obligations.


Castle Wall Ruins

The third, we took him with us for the barbecue. Another serendipity. "Where shall we go to eat?" I asked. Everyone shrugged. We'll see. We drove only five more minutes before stopping by the edge of a stunning lake, a lake that would be packed with weekend picnickers at home, but which was completely alone for us. While the men prepared the pork for grilling, we raced down to the lake where the Georgian women jumped in, clothes and all, laughter and splashing.

Picnic Spot

Cooling Off

When dinner was ready, we couldn't find our little guide. He'd gone off to hide while we ate. He refused to come join us, claiming, no, no, really, he wasn't hungry at all. He'd not eaten a thing all day. Epo told him that she was about to make a toast to him, and perhaps the only thing worse than accepting some sort of payment for your services is refusing a toast in your honor. He came. When he wasn't looking, a fully prepared plate was shoved in his lap and he laughed. He tried to ignore it but eventually ate it up. Later that night, when we dropped him back off at his village, Anton tried to give him the bag bursting with leftover food so he could take it to his mother and 5 brothers and sisters. He tried to run away in the street rather than accept, but Anton grabbed his arm and yanked him back. He squirmed and thrashed and broke free, all the while yelling "no, no, no!" and so Anton dropped the bag of food in the road and said he would leave it for the dogs. The boy took it. I am sorry if we embarrassed him, but I am sure his mother will be happy to have it. That's him pictured in the post below, by the way, sitting by the lake.

As we drove back to Tbilisi in darkness, the women all started singing the songs they know, in that lovely 3-part harmony that every Georgian seems to know how to do. What is it about this place? After the USSR imploded, Georgia had the most sudden and precipitous economic collapse, a bloody civil war, a complete meltdown of infrastructure and supply that left the economy so crippled, it remains one of the very poorest countries in Europe. But somehow, there is so much joy everywhere, something of a different breed completely from what I've experienced in any other former Soviet republic. Spontaneous song, always, grown professional women laughing like little girls and jumping headlong into a just-discovered lake. I don't mean to paint a simplistic picture, and certainly people are as quick to anger as they are to laughter, and the black-jacketed toughs of Tbilisi surl with the best of them on street corners. People complain endlessly about the hopelessness of their government and their screwed-up society. Everything is a mess, and everybody knows it. Nobody can find work, crime is rampant, and hard drug use is epidemic among young men. But there's somehow a sort of defiant optimism in private life. I asked some Georgians about this. Why, basically, aren't you like the Russians? Some said that despite everything, their quality of life is still somehow better: they have fresh fruits and vegetables, they have good water and beautiful nature. I think just as important, they also have these ties to each other, that didn't break down when everything else did. They can rely on a strange village kid to spend his entire day showing them around; he can rely on a van full of strangers to feed his family that week. No Georgian would ever worry too much about getting stranded somewhere unfamiliar (unless it was wild Svaneti): just knock on a door, ask for some food, this is Georgia! Can you even guess how many times a Georgian, without rolling eyes or placing tongue-in-cheek, has quoted to me what their 12th century poet Shota Rustaveli said: that which we give makes us richer; that which we keep is lost. I mean, sure, we all say this kind of rot when we want to think of ourselves nobly, or we cynically doubt the motives of anyone spouting such nonsense, and one intellectual Georgian went so far as to ponder whether this aphorism described Georgians at the time or somehow created a subsequent cult of Georgian hospitality, but, can you imagine, nobody has winked that it's all a bit of sound and fury.

And yes, I hear myself. I've spent enough time snorting at wild-eyed naivete to know it when I spot it. And I am trying, I really am, to avoid being taken in by people's myths about themselves. But it's not easy to maintain your steely resolve and clinical detachment in the face of so much generosity of spirit.

Generosity of spirit. DC is going to eat me for lunch when I come back.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A Good Day

Local Boy - sepia

Storytime later; it's past my bedtime.

Okay, now Flickr linkable. Photos of me are hidden, so stalkers you'll have to look elsewhere. Although if you stalk me clear to Georgia, that's pretty impressive.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Things I learned from watching my upstairs neighbor

If you have a dumb waiter, you do not have to leave your house to buy mineral water or potatoes. All you do is tie a plastic sack to a rope. When some guy enters the courtyard behind your apartment and starts yelling some strange words, you lower the plastic bag four stories down to the ground. He will fill it with potatoes, or whatever you need, and then you can haul it back up.

If you have a dumb waiter, you also do not have to leave your apartment to sharpen your knives. All you do is wait for this guy to show up, then send your knives down to him. Presumably in the same fashion; hurling them downwards is considered impolite, though occassionally tempting when children are screaming and playing as you try to work. Oh ho! Only kidding. Love the little ones.

Kart Blanche

This is Kriston's name in Kartuli. Almost. I forgot a little tail on the second letter that would have made it an "r" instad of an "o". So now it's Koiston's name. I also forgot the little hearts and stuff around the name.

Kartuli is what the Georgians call their language, and their alphabet is one of the world's 14 alphabets. "Mama" means father and "deda" means mother. They call themseles Kartvelebi. They call their country Sakartvelo, the land of the Karts. I wish they would go by Sakartvelo instead of Georgia, because although nobody would know where it was, they would know the capital is not Atlanta, and my explanations would all become much shorter.


The grapes are ripening beautifully. Before they were small, transluscent, tart. Now they're fatter, juicier, sweeter. It would be such a shame to lose them to the winter. I'm thinking: grape juice, grape jam, and with those beautiful broad leaves, fresh dolmas.

If anybody has any idea how to make grape juice, grape jam, or dolmas, feel free to chime in. Otherwise, I'll just ask the internet.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


And here's the post in which I do nothing but whine.

I was just going to delete it, but if Tom can do it so can I.

I had my first meeting today with a prominent local scholar with whom I'd been corresponding about my research, and I was a little intimidated. The meeting went fine. The going there and returning did not.

What follows is a chronicle of my travails.

I thought I had mapped out the location of his office, and I thought I had figured out the bus system. Wrong on both counts. When the 21 bus veered off in a direction markedly different from the route it had taken on my last sojourn, I hopped off and hailed a cab. The driver had no idea what street I named, he couldn't understand my attempt at directions, so I called the office and his assistant directed the driver in Georgian.

So far, so good. This is all pretty normal. The office turned out to be in a derelict building on the ass side of nowhere. I arrived intact, but when it came time to leave, it was a pretty safe bet that no cabs would be coming by. We'd driven around in cricles back there on the way in, so I was pretty disoriented and just decided to stake out confidently in an arbitrary direction.

I was humming along, fine as you please, until I ran smack into a honest-to-god shantytown. I mean, just one rung up the settlement ladder from refugee camp. Tbilisi proper isn't exactly Tomorrowland, but this was squalor. I was also, I should add, standing in freshly pressed Theory by Tahari pinstriped pants, black kitten heels, and a spunky Mazrahi for Target shoulder bag, staring into the face of children who could eat for a year off the resell value of my pants. I felt terrible.

I zipped around and tried another direction. Dead end. I basically wandered for ages through the wasteland, past abandoned buildings with jagged glass everywhere, until I commited a winding road with potholes so deep that trees were growing out of them. This led me to a main thoroughfare that I recognized. It was only after I found this winding road, rather than before, that I was informed that this particular road is infamous for prostitutes and it is dumb luck that there was not an attempted pick-up. Or maybe that guy wasn't asking for directions after all?

Thirty minutes later, after one unfortunate traumatic trudge through an underpass that turned out to be freshly carpeted in wall-to-wall sewage, (in which, to my unending horror, my heel stuck, ohgodkillme), I finally made it back to a regular street on my route. A street that I knew regularly fielded buses that would whisk me directly to my apartment.

Except something had changed since this morning. The street was, inexplicably and suddenly, one-way in the wrong direction.

All in all, one bitch of an afternoon, but while I would never say that everything happens for a reason, I'll maybe concede that this happened for a reason. Post sewage sludge I decided to reward myself with a grocery trip, and I popped into a market I'd never visited before. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? There with the lavash and the loaves of bread? Tortillas. Fresh. I'm sure if I return tomorrow, like a mirage in the desert, they'll be gone.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Le Photos

Alright, first we'll start with my sweet apartment:

See? Too big. But I spend a bit of time here, so I'm glad to have the space. And my favorite part, the balcony covered in grapevines:

Now, some tasty Georgian grub. This is badrijani: eggplant stuffed with walnut sauce (the Georgians put this stuff on everything: peppers, chicken, whatever. It's so good.), spices, oil, and pomegranate seeds.

Here's a little guy outside the Metekhi cathedral up on a hilltop in Tbilisi:

And an Orthodox priest chatting up his boys on the cell. I tried to play it off like I was photographing the church, but he totally knew what I was up to. He waved.

At some point, I felt that my photos of Tbilisi were giving the wrong impression. They appeared pretty and charming and sanitized. In fact, looking over my photos from my last visit, I bought into the myth myself and somehow remembered Tbilisi as a city practically on the verge of being Prague. When I arrived, I was surprised all over again. Your first impression, I'm sorry to say, is of the filth and the disarray and the crumbling buildings and the smell of gasoline everywhere. After awhile you don't notice the dirt so much and you start to see the old, faded, but very vibrant charm of the place. But not at first. I took this next shot trying to capture that side of the city, but it still looks somehow quaint.

I'm sure there'll be more to come once I upload my camera again. I haven't taken tons of pictures, to be honest. So far, most people on the streets seem to assume I'm Georgian and I've been reluctant to dispel that impression by publicly photographing the city. Crimes on foreigners, as the Embassy incessantly reminds us, have really skyrocketed in the past year, and violent crime in particular. Anecdotally, women are not the typical targets of these crimes, but until I feel really comfortable with my surroundings, especially in the area around my apartment (where people can see where I live) I'm being extra cautious.

This never gets old

Tbilisi Price Index, September 2005, approximate conversion

Small bag of sunflower seeds from lady on the corner: 10 cents

Blowout at the salon (don't get excited gents): $2.50

Monthly gym membership at the Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel: $120

Monthly gym membership at your hidden little dive: $20

Scrumptious Georgian meal from the family around the corner who would like for you to marry someone, anyone in their family, and which lasts for two days: $3

City bus, on the days when the streets seem to be open: 10 cents

A vegetable haul consisting of: onions, cilantro, tomatoes, grapes, carrots, peppers, and lettuce: $3

The expression on your face when you point out your little vegetable market to your Georgian friend and she says "God, it's so expensive there, what are you thinking?": Priceless

Mastercard: only useful for picking your teeth in Tbilisi

Monday, September 12, 2005

Erti, Ori, Sami, Otkhi! (1, 2, 3, 4!)

I just got back from my first Georgian aerobics class, and it was in many ways, one of the more awesomely bizarre and hilarious experiences I've had here to date, but in ways that are really just too difficult to describe.

Just try to imagine the Coen Brothers or David Lynch shooting an aerobics class and you'll probably come close. Weird, skipping music (really, one song, over and over: "A kiss is still a kiss in Casablanca. But a kiss is not a kiss without your sigh"), power failures, a very determined instructor leading us as we breaststroke through the air, the cigarette smoke clouding the room. The treadmill in the corner was an inclined plane made up of, essentially, giant abacus beads for you to run on, and there was one girl in the class, sort of a Paris Hilton lookalike, super hot, but apparently so dim that when we were laying on one side doing manic leg lifts and the time came to switch to the other side, she couldn't figure out how to switch to her other legs and still face the instructor, so she just flipped her back to the instructor and watched the rows behind her to see what to do.

Oh hell, now I feel bad. I don't mean to be cynical and disparaging and elitist: I know it's probably not nice to come to a struggling country and laugh at their gym facilities. But it might be more insulting to walk everywhere clucking your tongue in pity at the poor dears, and anyway, my Georgian friend was laughing harder than I was. Yes, okay, there are some nice fancy Western-style gyms available if you want to pay for them. But does their athletic equipment include giant bamboo poles? I didn't think so.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Texas Texas Yeeha

I tried to stay up for the game, but 4am is just too much for these old bones. I put the computer in bed beside me, and at 7 am, I woke up in time to watch the 4th quarter, or at least the play-by-play listing of it.

I'm telling you. It's National Championship year, because I'm not around to watch any of it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Sometimes, you just meet such characters.

The pair I'm thinking of would knock the crocodile hunter into oblivion if I could get them their own Animal Planet TV program. They're birders. And they have the single-minded obsession of the truly gifted. Ergo, they're blissfully crazy.

We have, on the one hand, the emotive Peruvian we'll call Ricardo. And his sidekick, the morose, wild-eyed bird afficionado we'll name Eric. They've traveled the world tracking birds and illustrating them. I'd always pictured bird watchers as rather benign, binocular-wearing, belted-trousers-up-to-the-chest sporting, middle-aged, retired salesman from Dubuque kind of folks. Well. Ricardo and Eric are the next generation of birders.

“So I was nineteen, living in south Florida.” Ricardo was telling us the genesis of his obsession with birds. “And I saw this mockingbird, only it wasn’t quite right. There was this dark area around the eye that was extremely unusual.”

At his side, Eric is nodding vigorously, knowing where the story is going, eager for the revelation.

Ricardo continued. “I realized, this was a Bahama Mockingbird! So I called the Audubon Hotline to report it. And I tell this guy, 'I saw a Bahama Mockingbird!' And he said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘I am nineteen years old.’ He said, ‘you have seen a very young mockingbird.’ And I could not convince this fuck, what I saw!" Ricardo's arms sliced the air in front of him. He reddened. The wound was still raw. "So two days later I call the South Florica Tropical Bird Hotline. What do I hear?" He adopted a nasally twang and mimicked: “'Hello. You have reached the Audubon Society Tropical Bird Hotline. James Smith has spotted a Bahama Mockingbird on the Blablah Pier.’”

Ricardo shook his fists angrily in the air and his voice was quite loud. “I wanted to kill that fucking Audubon guy! I wanted to take every limb apart and fucking kill him!!!”

Eric cocked his head as he continued to examine his napkin laconically. He nodded. Yeah man. Fuckers.

"A-a-and...that's a wrap!" I thought, in the Animal Planet pilot in my mind.

Eric and Ricardo borrowed my pen and busied themselves sketching birds on napkins for the other to guess. Some they got instantly. And some sketches caused dissent. “No way man, the beak should curve up more here.” “Oh, yeah, you’re right.”

My friend joined in. At his family’s summer house in Ontario, there was some bird. He couldn’t remember what it was called, but whenever they appeared, his grandparents would become quite excited. Eric sensed a new challenge. “Ontario? They stayed in the grasses near the lake?” “No,” my friend replied. “They’d come right up to the feeder from the grasses.” This was enough information. Eric nodded slowly as the answer came and he smiled with dawning comprehension. “Ah. The Evening Grossbeak.” “Yes!” from my friend, excited. “Grossbeak! That’s it!” Eric returned to his sketching. The challenge done. “It’s a very special bird.”

“This guy has something really special,” Ricardo told us, indicating Eric. Something you can’t get from any university. He’s an amazing field specialist. He’s one of the best in the world.”

But Eric didn’t look so good. His eyes were red, his head was drooping and only aloft thanks to the support from his hands. He looked badly in need of some sort of fix, or as if he hadn’t slept in a millenium.

Ricardo glanced at him and shook his head. “When this guy got here, I told him. Take a good look at Tbilisi, man. You’re going to be buried here.”


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!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Well, Georgia continues to surprise. Just over 48 hours since I contacted the local internet service provider here and I'm already connected. Ah, it feels so good. So long, MegaByte Internet Cafe. I'm not sure why your proprieter insisted on blasting Georgian drinking songs at 10,000 decibels in the middle of the day, nor why his companions all felt it necessary to join in with full-throated enthusiasm, but it was more distracting than the Doom-playing teenagers, and that's saying something. So long human intereaction, hello, fortress of solitude!

Monday, September 05, 2005

People Too

I just remembered that there was something i wanted to say about the whole Katrina disaster, aside from the obvious expressions of outrage and sympathy and condolence that I'm sure the rest of the blogosphere is covering adeuately.

And I have 8 minutes left at this here cafe so forgive if this ain't too refined-like.

I was watching the press conference given by the Congressional Black Caucus, and one of the Congresswomen indignantly chided the media for referring to the displaced New Orleans residents as refugees. "Stop calling them refugees!" she said. "They are American citizens."

Now this rubbed me the wrong way. I know what she's saying, I think. That there is a connotation with refugees as this unfortunate detritus from far-off problems that we deplore but basically detach ourselves from. But, that's the whole problem. Refugees are citizens of countries too. They're innocents in the crossfire too. I had been thinking that this might be an eye-opener for America in some ways. NOw that we've had our own refugees, we can empathize in some closer way with the spectacle we're all too often faced with elsewhere. So this idea that, no, refugees are other people that are less special than our people seemed like at once a telling sentiment, and a missed opportunity. Of coure her agenda at the moment isn't global awareness for refugees, I understand that, but still. It was telling.

Domestic Bliss

This is frustrating. I'm brimming with stories to tell and thoughts to think out loud, but the hour here and there in the odd internet cafe isn't conducive to my blogging. It's not that i require silence or peace, but I think i must require work that needs avoiding. When the purpose of a given chunk of time is to sit and fart around on the computer, well, my muse flees.

But! I called the DSL company today and they claim they'll come to my apartment tomorrow or Wednesday to connect me. Fool that I am, I believe them. Then we'll be back in business, my friends.

So yes, I have found myself an apartment. It's probably a little too big for little ol' me. I was starstruck by how far my US Dollar could go, and only on my first night in cavernous throbbing silence did I realize that something more cozy might have been wise, with regard to loneliness. Also, the plastic 2-litre bottle of soda that i bought for a dollar turned out to be a plastic 2-litre bottle of beer, and that was all that sat in my frat-boy fridge that night so dinner was fizzy. (It's very funny to me that i made this purchase at, like, 9 am. Unbeknownst to me I'd revealed myself as an ill-bred young lady by sticking my head into the corner store early in the morn and demanded from the old lady a box of detergent and a GIANT BEER, NOW.)

Well at least she probably won't try to wed me to her son, unlike my landlady Khatuna. (We can only communiate in Russian, which worries me a touch because she was explaining important things around the house involving turning off gas lines and activating water heaters. Either for two hours, or after two hours? Who can say?) Khatuna and I were shooting the breeze when she put her hand on mine and told me I as a nice girl and she has a son, unmarried, very big and tall. Oh, what a shame, I murmured as I waggled my utterly fake engagement ring in her face. I have a fiance. He'll be coming after some months. The fake ring, by the way, has been the greatest idea ever. I mean, yes, Kriston broke out into hives when he spied it, but he's not going to have to look at it for a while.

Aside from being too big, though, my apartment has the advantage of two balconies, one of which is laden in actual grape-bearing grapevines. I mean, you can go to your porch and pick breakfast off a vine. Nature, man. Wow.

On the down side, again, I think I have fleas.

You win some, you lose some.

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.