Monday, October 31, 2005

Excuses, Excuses

Well, there's a friend in town visiting, for one thing.

My first visitor.

Since his first day here, on Thursday, the sun has not even bothered making an appearance. Steady drizzle for four days running, and I cannot tell you what a dreary, mucky, boot-sucking mess Tbilisi is in the rain. 24 hours after he arrived, the electricity went off. This is pretty normal in Georgia, but on day 2 sans light, I noticed that all my neighbors had power. So as we sat in the dark, shivering between candles, I made frantic phone calls and accomplished things the Georgian way: I know somebody whose brother knows somebody who works at the power company Telasi and poof! Electricity was back at once.

A Georgian friend said that back a few years ago, when the electricity situation was really terrible, his pal was one of four dispatchers for Telasi in charge of determining the schedule for which sectors of the city would have power on which nights. When this guy would show up at a party, he'd knock on the door and the lights would all come on. I'm sure he had a packed social calendar. Besides, says my friend. You cannot imagine how much these Telasi guys can drink. As a result of this, some innocent billpayers will be cut off by mistake.

So: mucky rain, no electricity for an entire weekend, and on his first night out on the town my mobile phone was pinched and somebody tried to steal money straight from my guest's pockets. "Give it back!" he said. And they did. I find, so far, the thieves in Tbilisi lack a certain gusto, or commitment.

Furthermore, there is the trip to Azerbaijan on Wednesday night. It's an overnight ride and we will be traveling in a compartment with a group of friends, which sounds pretty fun. I will be in Azerbaijan for about a week, or exactly a week since that is all the visa I could wrangle from the consulate. The elections should be interesting, and I hope to share some thoughts on those soon. I fully intend to stay out of violent clashes, but I can only imagine that some sort of trouble with the riot police would only be the icing on this crap-cake of a visit that I've concoted for my poor guest. Don't let it be said that I don't provide the true South Caucasus experience!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lessons Learned

1. When a German says, "We're going out to the mountains to fly kites on Saturday, want to join?" What he means is: "We are going to jump off of a mountain on Saturday." Paragliders have a funny sense of humor. [Before you ask: no, I didn't. I got back down the mountain on my own two feet, thank you very much.]

Asmus in Flight

2. Georgia is trying to maim you. The inappropriate footwear must stop. (I'm SORRY. I was told KITES. One does not, in my experience, typically fly kites on the side of a mountain.) Look, everybody is simply lying to you:if they tell you that the evening's activities will be attending a ballet, followed by a pedicure, you better be wearing your hiking boots below that petticoat, sister. Undoubtedly, someone will have forgotten to mention that the ballet is at the bottom of a canyon, and pedicure is Georgian for walking on coals.

3. Three words: Four-wheel drive. And also, when it's your turn to off-road, don't mind the sliding and spinning. There's really not much damage you can do at 3mph so you can quit being such a big scaredy-cat baby about it already.

Why You Need 4-Wheel Drive

4. On the drive, always stop the car. Marvel at the fact that each time you've visited this storied fortress in a heartbreakingly picturesque setting, nobody else has been there. Here is history and art that is not behind glass or beyond velvet ropes. Here there are no souvenier stands or tour buses or even signs telling you what you are looking at. You can be moved by the vulnerability of what you see; the unnerving closeness of it all. You can pretend for a moment you've just stumbled upon some ancient thing orphaned into the modern world.

Back to Ananuri

5. I really cannot stress the shoe thing enough.

More photos up on Flickr, just click on one of the above and the magic of the internets will take you there.

But just for good measure:

Georgian Military Highway

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Your Mama's So Fat

One of my tried-and-true traveling tactics for jumpstarting conversations when I'm in a foreign land is to ask people about local stereotypes.

"You know," I'll say, if they look confused. "Where I come from in the U.S., we will say that people from the state of Arkansas sleep with their mothers and sisters."

Invariably a delighted smile of comprehension; incest jokes and such are a bridge spanning cultures from Appalachia to remote Svaneti. "Oh yes! Kakhetians are very stupid and Megrelians cannot be trusted." "Oklahomans are too friendly with their sheep!" "Yes! We say this about Azeris."

And when I tell people that I'm studying national minority enclave communities, out fly the Armenian jokes.

See, Georgia and Armenia can just about out-ancient anybody, and it makes for some pretty intense competition. Georgia converted to Christianity in the early 4th century, but Armenia beat them out by a few decades. Georgians will tell you that Armenians think that they invented everything. Any Georgian who did anything of note, any Georgian literary or political luminary, well those Armenians will try to sell you that he was actually Armenian. An Armenian invented the Georgian alphabet. Georgian epic poet Shota Rustaveli was Armenian. Tbilisi was an Armenian city. This is supremely annoying to Georgians, which one must assume is at least half the fun for Armenians.

So one joke goes like this.

Some Georgian archaeologists found a telephone wire that dates back to the third century before Christ. So they proclaimed Georgia as the place where telephones were invented. Well, the Armenians couldn't let this go, could they? So they start digging up the whole of Armenia looking for their own old telephone wire. After three months with no success, their scientists gather a press conference and announce that they didn't find any wires because even then Armenians used mobile phones.

Georgia News Tidbits

Two items that caught my eye today. No falling back for us this year, and the meeting of eros and science.
[Courtesy of Jonathan Kulick]

Georgia to stay on daylight saving time

Svobodnaya Gruzia reported that according to Deputy Minister of Economy Natia Turnava, Georgia will not change back to standard time this fall. The paper reported that the presidential decree regarding time change was approved by the government.
Svobodnaya Gruzia stated that on October 30 the country will not move clocks back one hour. According to the paper, Turnava said that this would reduce energy consumption. "Moreover, summer time corresponds to our biological rhythm," Turnava stated, adding that starting from now, Georgia will no longer change time with the season. According to the paper, daylight saving time, or summer time, has been in force in Georgia since the 1980s.

* * *

Academy of Science under fire for unregistered brothel

Police claim they have found an unregistered sauna operating as a brothel on the first floor of the Planning and Research Center of the Academy of Sciences.

According to news reports, police discovered the sauna on Saturday, October 15, when they responded to noise complaints. Residents living in the neighborhood also reportedly complained of fights and occasional shootings.

"This was den of immorality. There are no other words to describe this organization. How is it possible to deliver lectures to students when immoral actions take place on the first floor of the same building? The investigation is underway," Deputy Head of the Constitutional Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Rezo Topuridze said.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Hi Honey, How Was Your Day?

I've already mentioned that in order to get to the institute where I'm working, one must choose between the two approaching routes: through gypsy shanty-town or Prostitute Road. For a variety of reasons, I take the path through gypsy shanty-town, and this hasn't really been a problem.

Today, I was returning home in the evening and as I approached gypsy shanty-town, a young boy of around 16 or so approached me with his hand upturned for spare change, muttering in Georgian. "I don't speak Georgian," I replied.

Undeterred, he shimmied forward to block my way. "Ken you help me?" he said in English, upturned palm thrusting forward.

"Sorry, I only have my bus fare."

Then without changing the bored expression on his face, he extended his arm and I found myself looking dead-level down the barrel of a small pistol.

"Do you hev mobile phone?" he drawled.

One often wonders what one would do or say in such a situation. One even has a variety of guesses has to how she might behave. Never would I have guessed that this is what I would say:

"Oh my god. Are you serious?" in a sneering accent I can only call High Laguna Beach.

He paused for a moment, and in that moment I realized two things: he was not serious and his gun was not real.

"No," he said and clicked the trigger on his toy just to prove it.

"That's really not nice!" I absurded. "You kids today!"

With his friends snickering and his half-hearted call of "Bye!" I realized that he might have even been trying to flirt with me.

Well, now tomorrow presents a new challenge. Do we continue down Cowboys 'n Indians Avenue or blaze new trails up Prostitue Boulevard?

Sigh. Between this and the old fat guy who was unceremoniously rubbing his business on my thigh on an insanely crowded bus the other day, I think it's time to explore my telecommuting options?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Nobody Home

Catherine's having trouble with her upstairs neighbor. My upstairs neighbors aren't a problem. There's the odd banging and shuffling, but more often than not, the noise I hear most clearly is the sound of somebody playing Rachmaninoff on the piano, which is absolutely delightful.

My discomfort comes from other sources. To wit: everybody on this street seems to know who I am. I blame this entirely on Landlady Khatuna running her mouth to everybody she sees. When I first went to the market across the street, the woman working there was able to tell me where I was from and what apartment I lived in before I could even say "eggs, please." More recently, at the market next door, some young man started jabbering at me in Georgian. I told him that I didn't know Georgian, which he took as a sign to continue his one-sided conversation at me. I was actually able to make out "third floor" and "Khatuna," and I realied that he was also telling me that he knew where I lived. He lies on the fifth floor. That's great, man. On the one hand, this is all very charming and small town-ish. On the other hand, being identified as a foreigner is to be identified as a walking piggy-bank and I enjoy the illusion that nobody knows who I am.

But worse than all of this is the knocking and buzzing at my door. Look, I'm very sorry, gents. I'm sure you're a perfectly lovely foursome of black leather-jacketed toughs, and that your persistent buzzing and pounding on the door of a single female foreigner today, as well as the angry rattling of my door handle, was just your way of welcoming me to the neighborhood. And I'm sure that I just didn't notice the welcome basket of freshly baked bread that you were undoubtedly bringing to me. I furthermore don't care if you just saw me walking in the door 30 seconds ago, or if you live below me and heard me tap dancing in the sitting room above your heads. For there is, compadres, no way in hell that I will ever open that door. Move along.

The Next Election

Eurasian news outlets are running out of new ways to say that tensions are high in Azerbaijan. A parliamentary election looms in 3 weeks, nearly weekly public demonstrations by the opposition are suppressed with increasing force, and now an exiled opposition leader (who, some say, has robust support within certain government structures) is preparing his re-entry to the country to stand in the November 6 election. The authorities warn that they will arrest him before his heels have cooled on Azeri soil, and opposition activists counter that they will clog the streets of Baku should he be touched.

The tendency to crown opposition leaders with halos must, of course, be avoided. I am no expert of Azeri politics, but if this Rasul Guliyev was the former speaker of parliament who fled the country after a falling-out with former President Aliyev (and the subsequent embezzlement charges that dog any political leader who finds himself on the wrong side of crony ex-communism), well, it's not a stretch to assume banal power struggle rather than noble democratic crusader. An obvious point but worth repeating given what a great story David v. Goliath makes. In fact, Guliyev comes from the same clan as current President Aliyev, and for that reason, has the power to divide the loyalties of Aliyev's power base.

Well, so obviously I'm going. If all goes according to plan I'll be assisting with the exit-polling process rather than observing the voting itself, which will be an interesting new twist for me. And, given the reputation of exit polls following Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the proliferation of competing polls in this election, it should be nice and controversial. Unless I'm mistaken, multiple exit polls were conducted in Ukraine as well (depending on whose propaganda you buy, to counter the US-funded polling data and reinforce official results). Obviously this didn't prevent popular protests, but muddying the waters in this way is still a smart tactic for a threatened government looking to shore up defenses, and we'll see how it plays out in Baku.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Night In

It's a Friday night, your banya plans have fallen through and you are utterly without any prospects for the evening. Do you panic? Do you cringe with anxiety that you are not taking advantage of every waking moment of your time here? Do you foresee a day, one year hence, when knuckles are white around a steering wheel on the Beltway and you think of that warm night when you lived back in ramshackle Tbilisi when you should have gone looking for adventure and stories and instead stayed in? Well, do you?

Of course you do. These days you're a twitching bundle of neuroses and emotional calamities. But only for a minute!

Then you set your jaw, clench your molars, squint yer eyes, and tie a frilly apron round your middle. You uncork a bottle of wine (with screwdriver and pliers. note to self: buy corkscrew), you harvest a mountain of grapes from your balcony, you set iTunes to French crooners and you start making grape juice.

And now this night, when you think of it one year hence, will be the night you got drunk on $2 Saperavi and watched a mad thunderstorm roll in and made your very first ever homemade grape juice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Perhaps there's something metaphorical about my Sunday.

We intended to spend the day in the eastern vineyards of Georgia to see the grape harvest, but my friend and I started too late and instead went to Stalin's hometown. And thus good intentions did indeed pave the road. Or more literally, good intentions would have been a step up, asphalt-wise.

Perhaps it says something about Georgia that both idyllic vineyards and Stalin are a day trip from the capital. Gori, his town is called, and I guess it's nice enough as birthplaces of genocidal despots go. I had been warned that the Stalin museum was quite the snow job (how many millions did what? anyway, back to our collection of Stalin samovars...), but I wasn't prepared to see, in the middle of this hayseed town, the cottage of his birth enshrined in a mauseloum of columns and marble. Subtlety and taste, thy name is Stalin.

Stalin's Birth Cottage Enshrined

Also learned great new evasion technique courtesy of my travel companion, an American girl with much better Russian than me. Some Gori gent was trying to chat us up on the bus, (his impressive technique: stand for the entire 90 minute bus ride, in the aisle, hovering heavily over my shoulder), and when he asked where we were from, my friend quickly responded, "Latvia."

I nodded politely in agreement, but then turned to her.

"My Russian isn't good enough to pass for Latvian."

"Young Latvians wouldn't have good Russian either. Being American just attracts too much interest. He won't have any questions for Latvians."

Sounded good to me. But I thought I detected a flaw in her plan.

"If we are both Latvian, why are we sitting here speaking English to one another, when he can hear us?"

"Because I doubt he can tell the difference between Latvian and English."

And if this wasn't the case, he was too polite to point out otherwise. So, I think that this was the case.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Bath Envy

In the men's banya, the biggest fear is that in their company there may lurk a banya snitch.

Because you know, there is no excuse. There water is not at all cold.

Old Water and New Skin

Yesterday was my first bath.

It was a Friday afternoon and the weather had suddenly dropped into crisp Autumn temperatures, and there was arranged a women’s banya. That’s bath.

You may not know this, but Tbilisi is actually the new capital of Georgia. Of course here, new means 5th century. The story goes that King Gorgasali was out hunting and in the course of this and that, stumbled upon Tbilisi’s natural hot springs, warmed by sulphur below the ground. So he built Tbilisi on that spot, the name Tbilisi comes from the Georgian word for “warm” and moved the capital here. The hot baths were first a playground for kings, then Russian poets in the Imperial days, then Soviet bureaucrats, and now, who knows, local Georgians in the public baths, and in the cozier private rooms, businessmen with their deals and vodka, foreigners with their money.

There were about 12 of us in total: the men went to the left for the boys’ bannya, and the girls headed to the right. In our private changing room, we left behind our shoes and our clothes and our modesty. We ordered tea and massages and then went into the next room where under a high domed ceiling with mosaic tiles sloshed our great marble tub.

The air was heavy with sulphur steam and the water, constantly filling from a lion-head spout above the pool, spilled over the edges and warmed our toes as we crossed the room. The water was so hot our heads spun and we could barely slip in. So we lounged along the edges of the pool, dangling a lazy arm or leg in the soup, and I imagined we were in some renaissance painting where we’d have grapes and plump figures and there would be the allure of the exotic east in everything. We felt slow and drugged and stupid with woolly warmth.

I should probably say something about the nudity. In any other context, you would imagine that meeting a group of girls and then seeing them completely naked a few minutes later, (or since there were some latecomers, being already naked entirely when you first met them), would be uncomfortable. And I think that if it were in America, and these were my close girlfriends from home, it would be awkward and we would giggle and make jokes. But here I eat mushrooms (the normal kind) and don’t worry about bugs and don’t think twice about lolling about in the buff with strangers, and something else too:

We had each ordered a scrub, and I knew it was time when in walked a middle-aged woman I’d never seen before, wearing nothing but some black-lace underwear and a bored expression and carrying a big plastic bucket. She dipped the bucket into our steaming bathwater and splashed it over the stone slab bench next to the tub. I would be first. It’s my first time, I said, grinning up at her dumbly.

Last week, a few days before my friend’s wedding in Dallas, we went to get massages at a day spa in Grapevine. There we would lay discreetly under crisp blankets, and even so, my friend became quite uncomfortable with the leg massage neared her thigh.

Thinking of this modesty during my scrub-down, it was very hard not to die from laughter.

Because here there are no crisp towels or careful, inoffensive hands. You lay down on the warmed marble slab, and you are completely naked and your friends (for after you’ve bathed together, you should be able to say friends I think) are sitting in the pool to your side. And the woman grabs the rough scrub and flips you onto your back, onto your stomach, and let’s just say, your full acreage is roughly scrubbed. Brown twists of dead skin come flying off your back and some people with dry skin might bleed just a little. Then back over everything again with soap and sponge, and you trying not to laugh at being handled in this surprising way, and then buckets of warm splashed on you for a rinse. After, I felt that I had molted a decade of skins.

Outside again, there in the oldest heart of an old city, the cold air doesn't make it past my warm core and I think, in the winter, I will come here constantly.

The beehive domes of Tbilisi's underground sulphur baths.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Getting to Know You

It's so hard to suss out the complex faculty-student relationships of academia. I enlisted Kriston's input via Instant Messenger.

Me: so here's an interesting ethical question: if I'm taking a bath* with a professor's girlfriend tomorrow, does that mean I can be excused from writing the essay for his class that I'm auditing?
Him: yup. you're going to see her naked?
Me: yup
Him: pfft. you're done with essays
Me: right?
Him: totally
Me: good. because here was my opening line, which I find hilarious:

"Unsurprisingly, Karl Deutsch and Stalin approach the concept of nations from entirely different conceptual frameworks."

Him: "It should be noted that Adolph Hitler and Dr. Spock employed different criteria for evaluating worth in society."

This could be the greatest game ever.

*This really ought to be left without explanation, but we're talking, you know, recreational public Turkish-style baths, with which Tbilisi is blessed.

Long Distance Defamation

Nearly forgot an important public service announcement.

While on my short sojourn in DC, our dear Tom got himself into a bit of trouble with the locals. For the crime of suggesting, at the barbecue no less, that Kriston ought to defecate upon the memory of his ancestors by no longer smoking a good brisket, but instead substituting some cut of meat called Boston Butt, Tom has been duly dubbed with the nickname Boston Buns. Please adjust your interactions with him accordingly.

(Seriously, Tommy, if you had just called it pork shoulder to begin with, we would have all agreed that that sounded tasty. Buns.)

The Lamentable Tale of the Tight-fisted Tenant

Sad-eyed Khatuna carries a heavy sack of woe. Upon our first meeting, when I rented the apartment from her, she held her hand in the air mournfully. There was a car accident. The hand hurts so much, it gives her such pain. Her eyes look at me, almost accusingly, as if I have done this to her, as if it is for me to fix it, somehow. There are such problems, so many expenses, and so I agree to pay her several months advance rent. This will help matters.

It is not long before Khatuna with her reproachful eyes is at my door again. The washing machine that she promised, she doesn’t have enough money for it. Just one more month of advance rent, that should do the trick. I simply don't have it, I tell her, honestly. My next stipend won’t come until November, and I have already paid rent through December. I will give you some small bit, but that is all I can do. Khatuna watches me with sunken eyes; that resentful look. Her head, it is killing her. Everything is almost too much to bear. I offer her aspirin, but aspirin is not so good as money and she is not happy with this compromise.

Now today, I sat in my apartment with my language teacher, a beautiful and energetic woman who once was a concert pianist but now, she confesses, her fingers seem impotent to her. They were so strong then; even now, she tells me, they are stronger than most people’s and could stretch so far, for such small hands. But she doesn't dwell on her sadnesses and I love the way she speaks about her young family, and we get along very well.

When the door buzzes, it is a surprise. Khatuna is there, unusually bright and cheerful. She loves to see me she says, she will help clean my apartment. I am so good and perfect she says. She settles herself at the table and my teacher and I stare at her blankly, our lessons spread in front of us, interrupted. Khatuna explains to my teacher, who explains to me. She has been very sick, you see, and she will need to go into the hospital. More money is needed, from me, another month’s rent. She has come to collect; it is in the contract.

Now I am angry and embarrassed, and I worry that my teacher will think I am a stingy foreigner who will not help out a woman in need. I simply cannot, I say. I have not received any more money since the last time you came asking. I have no obligation to pay further and I cannot make the money appear. My teacher explains to Khatuna and then it is back and forth and back and forth for a long time. Khatuna’s kind words for me have died on her tongue and the resentful scowl has settled back on her features. She sits for a moment in silence, waiting for her sorrow to sink through my skin, for me to change my mind. But I don’t, and so she rises to leave and when I show her out, this Khatuna who once clapped her hands to my cheeks and begged me to marry her son barely turns to look at me.

I shrink back to the table. I feel terrible, I say. My teacher is furious. I do not like this at all, she says. Do not give her a thing. You have already given her too much. You must be strict. She has problems, who does not? Every second Georgian has her same problems. I support both my brother’s families but do I bother other people about it? It is not your fault she is in debt, it is her fault. It is not your fault she spent the rent money already, it is hers. This is shameful, I will find you a new apartment. You must call me if she comes again; she will continue like this, I know it. My teacher sniffs. You know, I grew up in this neighborhood and they did not give these houses to just anybody, and I am surprised a person such as her has this place.

So I am validated, but not comforted. Something feels tainted now and I wonder if Khatuna is now my adversary. I have visions of her brothers and sons using the apartment keys for plunder when I'm out. I put my money stash in the place men will never look: the box of tampons.

Thus ends the honeymoon phase of my time here; that is, the vision of a nation populated only with kind-hearted locals with twinkles in their eyes who want nothing more than to embrace you into the bosom of their motherland. Enter suspicion, skepticism, doubt. Welcome back, my old friends!

Slouching Toward Redemption

Today, over here in the Republic of Georgia, I'm walking with my head a little bit higher.

May it be just the beginning.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Natural Gas

I think the only thing worse than being trapped in an airplane seat for 8 hours with a spatially gifted seatmate who regularly lets fly the most vile farts throughout the night would be having a small child puke on you while you sleep during a flight. This actually happened, according to a former seatmate of mine.

(This is, dear readers, my little way of saying that I'm in Amsterdam airport, on my way back to Tbilisi, souvenier cup from the Heinken Brewery tour firmly in hand. Posting to resume shortly!)