Tuesday, January 31, 2006

When the Going Gets Tough...

...the tough go skiing!

From the Top

Bakuriani Morning

After two delightful days on the slopes, a clean, warm hotel with homecooked meals, (and not to make you cry, but all for a total price tag including equipment rental that probably comes to half of a one-day lift pass in Vail), it was not easy coming back to a powerless apartment with insufficient gas pressure to heat tea.

Tbilisi Winter - Power Out

Sigh. I left my heart in Bakuriani. Along with my sunglasses.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Snow Gangs of Rustaveli

Indignities upon indignities.

The snow was general across Tbilisi. I was coming from the gym, for which I'd braved the blizzard—or to be more precise, I'd braved the blizzard for the hot shower at the gym. But the buses were no longer running as the streets were solid ice, and the taxis weren't stopping. Hordes stood on the sidewalks waving down cabs with increasingly frantic gestures, but none would stop. It was a long walk home, my feet were wet, my hood was falling off, I'd lost my hat, and was in a bit of a foul mood.

Then, as if I were in a Charlie Brown cartoon, about 40 minutes into my walk, two grown men pelted me in the back with snowballs. Good grief. I mean, what the hell. Actually, I was a bit more impolite and turned and yelled "What the fuck, you guys?" because that is not the time to politely attempt to use the native language of your host country, and they realized I wasn't Georgian and this was newly sidesplittingly hilarious to them.

Next day, on Rustaveli Avenue, the main boulevard of Tbilisi. I noticed that almost every single person on the street was carrying a snowball. Five times, five times I tell you, I was nailed with snowballs in the space of three blocks. Two separate times, young teenage boys ran at me and pretended to slip and grabbed me around the middle and spun me around. I'd see groups of young kids bouncing snowballs in their hands, waiting for my approach, and I'd just hold out my arms in resignation. "Fine, just do it." If you average it out, I think I was assaulted about every 30 feet.

Is it because I wasn't carrying a snowball? Should I start packing heat? Do I need to pre-emptively start tripping small children as they come at me? Did somebody open the gates of the juvenile delinquency center for the snow day? Should I take this all personally?

So on the one hand, the streets are ruled by roving gangs of snowball-toting hooligans, and on the other we have sidewalks and streets that aren't shoveled or plowed and have been melting and refreezing every day into thick sheets of solid ice.

What's a girl to do?

Go skiing. Photos from a ski weekend in lovely, charming Bakuriani to follow.

Wish You Were Here

Last week I was tricked into eating brains.

It's kind of poetic justic in a way, as many years ago, back when I was 18 or so I tricked my then-boyfriend into eating brains on our first date (which ended in an all-night taqueria somewhere on the wrong side of Chicago's tracks). The karma wheel, she takes her time.

But that's not what I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to say, to all my dear friends back home suffering from arrested development: after my girly squealing subsided, this made me really miss you guys.

Because when you're sitting at a table with a steaming skillet of fried brains still bubbling in butter, there's obviously only one thing to do. But I couldn't do it, because not one person at the table, not a one!, would have gotten the joke if I'd tilted my head to one side, glazed my eyes, and, drooling a little out of the side of my mouth, said "MMMMMMM BRAAAAAAAINS."

A crying shame, I tell you.

Friday, January 27, 2006


I can't smell Tbilisi anymore.

A blessing, you might say. It's a stinky place, but that's not what I'm talking about. There's a hot, sandy smell to the city and when I landed here last August and I inhaled, I smelled it strongly and I remembered at once that smell from when I had been here the very first time a year before.

You know how smells are.

At my parent's house in Texas, I keep in my old dresser drawer an empty spray bottle of cheap grocery store perfume that I bought when I was 14 because even now, when I sniff it, I feel exactly what it was like to be so in love with Kevin Moore from summer camp that I thought I would die.

So this Tbilisi smell was full of good memories and for the first week, when I was still walking the streets nervously and still troubled by the staring old men ruling over their plot of sidewalk, I'd smell that scent every morning and it made me both excited and calm.

But I just realized, today, that I can't remember the last time I could smell it and I know that the only way to get it back is to leave first.

I've started taking pictures, of all things, of myself sitting in a chair.

I'm just past the halfway point of my time here, and losing my head a little bit about memories. Not the big memories, the train to Baku, the trips here or there. I'm afraid about the ones that I don't notice when I'm having them. What it feels like to just sit here. And so I take a picture of it, and it doesn't look like anything special, but I think that when I'm back home in DC I'll see something important there and it will be like having the smell again.

I'm trying to notice all my memories while I'm having them, and I don't mind telling you, it's a little tiring.

Last week, I was down in Javakheti, that remote region of Georgia where the ethnic Armenians live. We bought 50 kilos of potatoes for $5 and a sack of some kind of meat, and then loaded enough wood into the stove in the office until it was red hot and cooked our meat and potatoes on the flat iron top of it. We wanted eggs, but didn't know that you can't get them in the store, you must buy them from somebody who has chickens, in the market. In the evenings we took turns racing out into the freezing cold for more firewood, drinking wine and chacha, throwing things into the stove to see what would happen.

And then, I swear to God, without even thinking of the incongruity of it, the time-warping lopsided absurdity of the act, I'd swivel in my chair and check my e-mail.

I try not to reminisce about things as they happen, but I'm so terrified of forgetting. It's been some kind of a time here, I can tell you.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Cruelest Month

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Yeah well, T.S. Eliot, you never relied on the Russians for your winter energy needs, did you?

Energy crisis continues, Georgia's PM is announcing that we are under an energy blockade, and massive snows have cut off a main power line resulting in a blackout in Tbilisi that's lasted all day and officials don't know when it can be repaired. And if this is to be believed, then my gas may have been turned off at home since I've been sitting here elsewhere.

But here's the local spin. What this all means for me, practically, is that I have an excuse to a) spend all day at a bar with a generator and wireless access that can be reached on foot, when I'm not doing: b) accosting adorable local children. So many cheeks to pinch, so little time.

Playing in the Snow

Old Town in Snow

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Why I Was Robbed

Remember when I was held up at fake gun-point?

Now that I have a camera you can see why. There, in the middle, past the piles of trash, see that squalor? That was my morning commute before I discovered a secret route to the office through somebody's apartment complex. Apparently they're squatters and can't be gotten rid of. Also not pictured: the pit bull chained to a tree past the piles of trash. We're tight.

My Morning Commute

(Incidentally, my photos look terrible when viewed on Firefox. It seems that Firefox does not support imbedded color profiles and the shots come out looking terribly desaturated, at least on my monitor. On Safari (maybe IE?) they look like I intended.)


Among the text messages I really haven't been keen on receiving, I must definitely number the following, received Sunday afternoon from a Georgian pal:

"Are u ready for what's gonna happen in Georgia?"

On the one hand, no matter what it might be, the answer is undoubtedly "no." On the other hand, I at least need to know how many bottles of wine I need to buy for my bunker. I responded requesting clarification as to what, precisely, is going to happen in Georgia. Got this:

"Shit is gonna happen. Where are you?"

This just makes me nervous. Finally got the drama queen to cut the suspense and clarify: there were explosions in North Ossetia damaging the pipeline which brings gas from Russia to Georgia. We're cut off.

President Saakashvili went on television to explain that the government was in negotiations to get gas in from Azerbaijan and Iran, but that we may be without any gas for an indeterminate amount of time. And because the turbines at the Gardabani power station run on gas, we may not have electricity either. The Russians claimed that it was a terrorist attack, but the President of Georgia himself stood up and said outright that this was a lie, that this explosion was deliberate sabotage against the Georgian nation. This also makes me nervous. Although I totally agree. These days, nothing makes you feel more Georgian that huddling around some wine and vodka and cursing the perfidy of the Russians.

Luckily, having somewhat acclimated myself to a cold apartment and no hot water, I'm not terribly concerned. I lost electricity for a good portion of last night, but that's normal. Besides, gas is already coming through from Azerbaijan and so I think Tbilisi will stay up and running alright. They say that half the city is without gas, but everybody I know is doing alright so far. Much ado about not too much here in the capital city, which is a bit anticlimactic. The people in the regions, as usual, are utterly screwed for a while.

(For more on Russian-Georgian relations and the energy crisis and insightful analysis mixed with football championships, you've come to the wrong place. I've been scooped.)

Some photos below of the anti-Russian protest.

(Which reminds me! My CAMERA came! My amazing new camera, courtesy of my main squeeze! I'd been waiting nearly two months, was convinced that it was stolen. Finally a friend went into the post office to demand my package, and managed to harass them into producing it. "How long has it been sitting here? Why didn't you deliver it?" he asked the guy. The postal worker just held up his arm and said, bored, "How do you think I got this watch? How do you think I got this phone?" Grrr. But water under the bridge as I am back in business, photo-wise.)

(That's "GASPUTIN" for those of you who can't decipher the cyrillic)

Young Patriot


UPDATE: This is sort of strange. So Russia was increasing its gas supply to Azerbaijan in order to route it to Georgia. But now it sounds like there's been some sort of strange damage to a gas compressor at the Russian-Azeri border. Apparently Georgia uses 7 million cubic meters of gas per day, and now we'll only be getting 2.5 million. Meanwhile, Russia shocks us all by claiming that repair of the gas lines in North Ossetia are going to be delayed. This may not be quite over yet.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Party of Ideas and What-not

Today's Washington Post:

Rove Outlines Battle Plan for 2006 Elections: “Fighting terrorism, cutting taxes are central issues in Republican strategy to appeal to voters.”

I mean, gosh. Just thinking of the effort that must have gone into crafting this finely honed battle plan. The sleepless nights, the piles of crumpled papers ringing the wastebasket, the candles burned down to waxy stumps. The sweat and determination of the Svengali of our generation, soaking his nightclothes, until one morning he emerges triumphantly from his bedchamber, the bags ringing his eyes not dimming the gleam of triumph when he shouts: "By Jove, I’ve got it!"

Around his bedchamber door crowd the chambermaids, the attendants, the eager interns throwing elbows to edge closer. After the hushed silence, Rove flicks back the fluffy ball of his dangling nightcap, parts his fleshy lips, the crowd leans ever closer as if drawn in by his inhaled breath, he raises one trembling, stumpy finger and lets loose the fruits of his unfathomable mind:

“Taxes and terrorism!”

The chambermaids faint on the spot, the interns high-five, and Rove, satisfied, retreats into his bedchamber to rest his weary mind and gather the strength to summon, incredibly, yet a third ingenious plank in his party’s strategy: “The gays are coming, the gays are coming!”

You really must hand it to the guy.

Friday, January 13, 2006


What can you say about a girl that doesn't know her own address or phone number, but has mapped out shower locations and times for the next ten days? My bathing strategery is reaching unprecedented levels of planning and logistical nuance. I'm like Napoleon, except instead of directing troop movements to conquer Europe I'm marshaling scrubby poofs and travel-size shampoo bottles from gym shower to the sulphur banya and back again.

Landlady's father was going to come by today and investigate the hot water situation. Meanwhile, I'll just keep getting all the mileage I can squeeze of this little pity party I'm throwing for myself. And if you're counting, yes, that's three mixed metaphors in one sentence.

Notes from the Cold Side of my Apartment

Did you know that toothpaste and shampoo can sorta freeze and then it's hard to moosh them out of their containers? Because I'm here to tell you that they can.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Under the Tbilisi Sun

I fear I might have made a mistake.

As I have said before, after too many rounds in the ring with my conniving landlady, I decided to move to a new apartment. The charmingly run-down place in the old heart of the old city. I knew it wouldn't be quite as comfortable as the renovated, modern place I was leaving behind, but it was sweet and well-located and it's so hard to find a place in the old town; I thought I was pretty lucky.

Here's the scorecard so far.

Con: The internet providers laughed when I asked if I could hook up DSL in my "new" neighborhood.
Pro: I'll be reading a lot more instead of screwing around on the internets.

Pro: There is a safely ventilated gas heater!
Con: It can't quite battle the drafts from the crooked wooden windows. It's pretty cold inside.

Con: The kitchen is so cold, I have to shut the doors to contain the temperature and cut it off from the rest of the house.
Pro: I thriftily save energy by unplugging the refrigerator and just keeping the milk and butter on the kitchen table.

Con: The "bathroom" has a gas water heater that requires 3 levers, a wrench, a match, two faucets, and a mechanical engineering degree to activate before you can get hot water.
Pro: You don't actually have to do this, because the gas is too weak to heat up any water.

Con: You don't have ANY HOT WATER.
Pro: You go to the gym a lot more often because you can shower there. Will be fit and trim by bikini season.

Pro: If you ask, your new landlady (who is sweet as pie), lets you shower at her place, next door.
Con: This nets you a luxurious 2 minutes of hot water before you jump out hopping with cold and still sudsy.

I was a little depressed about it yesterday, and I tried to think of something that would make me laugh about it. The cold water isn't funny yet. I think the funny thing is this: I completely knew this would happen, and I moved here anyway. I knew that I was playing the part of the foolish naif renting an old apartment with romantic ideas of quaint, rustic charm, only to find that the reality is far less dreamy and not very charming at all. I knew this, and as if impelled by forces of destiny, I moved anyway. It's like I'm trapped in a third-rate screenplay and am powerless to resist. Except I think the story is supposed to end with the girl conquering her new surroundings and totally rocking the hard-knock life with grace and tough-as-nails resolve (all the while looking fetching and fresh despite lack of showers), whereas I'm probably just going to move away in another month or so.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Summer Lovin'

Relations are dreadful between Russia and Georgia now, but we all know that geopolitics rarely filters down to the level of personal relationships. And nothing short of full-on invasion, I think, would sour things between Georgian men and Russian women. Ask any Georgian man, and he'll proudly tell you how Russian women just love Georgian men. In the Russian imagination, the Georgians are these somewhat wild, romantic, hot-headed, dark southerners who are quick to fight and can drink like elephants and who are a bit mad when it comes to love. There's a wrong-side-of-the-tracks appeal, as far as I can tell, and during the Soviet times everyone would come to the seaside in Georgia for their vacations, so generations of Russian women cherish the memory of a seaside summer romance with some Georgian boy.

I just heard the loveliest story about just such a summer romance.

Some years ago, Dato was in Yalta for his holidays. Yalta, of course, is teeming with Russian and Ukrainian girls and so Dato was enjoying himself very much. One night, at a Yalta club, he spotted the most beautiful Russian girl. He watched her for a little while, and noticed that she seemed to be there at the club with an older woman, perhaps in her fifties. Nevertheless, as soon as the older woman left her side, Dato came to start speaking with her.

They had a nice conversation, and it turned out that the older woman was her aunt, who was escorting her on this trip, and that they had just arrived in Yalta that very afternoon. Dato also had only just arrived in Yalta, and so, exercising his Georgian charm, he told her that they must absolutely stay up and walk outside so that they could watch their first Yalta sunrise together. He could see in her eyes that she wanted to, but she said that she must ask her aunt first. She left to ask and came back with bad news. "I'm sorry," she said, "but my aunt feels that it's already so late and we've been traveling all day and it's best if we just go to bed now."

Dato was not ready to let her go so easily. He asked if he could try speaking with the aunt himself, and try to persuade her to let her niece see the sunrise with him. The girl said yes, of course he could try.

So Dato approached the aunt and told her that he was a trustworthy character, that he would look after her niece, that there was nothing for her to worry about and that he just wanted to spend a little more time with her. The aunt stopped him suddenly.

"Are you Georgian?" she asked. Dato looks Georgian, and he has a bit of an accent in Russian.

"Yes I am," he replied.

"And what is your name?"

"Dato," he said.

And suddenly this Russian woman was not looking at him at all, exactly, but through him and past him, fixing her gaze on some distant point. Her eyes went soft and she slowly murmured, half to herself, "Dato Chkaidze."

Now of course, Dato's family name is not Chkaidze at all.

That's all the woman said before she turned her eyes back to this present-day Dato, brightly now, and smiled. "Go!" she said, urging him forward to her neice. "Go, you two, and have fun!"

To this day, on occassion at their dinners and celebrations, amidst the toasts to nation and friendship and love, there is very often a toast to Dato Chkaidze, whoever he may be. As for this Dato, he did his very best to pave the way for some future young courting Dato, so that in thirty more years, when the beautiful Russian girl is an aunt or a mother herself, escorting a young girl to the seaside, she has such a memory too.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Eyes of Tbilisi Are Upon You

Tbilisi, Georgia.
2:30 pm
9 hours and 30 minutes after Rose Bowl kickoff
4 hours and 30 minutes before Rose Bowl broadcast kick off at the Hangar Bar

Mobile Phone: Ring ring!
Me: Hello?
A: Hey, Susan, it's me A.
Me: Hey, A, what's going on? It's been a while!
A: Yeah, I know. What are you up to?
Me: Ah, not too much, you know, just catching up on some reading. What's going on?
A: Oh, nothing, just wanted to call and say congratulations.
Me: Oh yeah? What for?
A: For the Texas game, for uh, winning the championship.

And that's when all the yelling and the throwing of things began.

But, being the good sport that I am, I nevertheless donned my Texas shirt and trudged down to the bar to catch the game. I made sure to arrive 30 minutes before "kickoff" to secure a seat, so imagine my surprise to glance at the screen and find that the third quarter had just begun.

I started cursing and asked the next both of patrons when they had started screening the game.

"Oh, it was about--" they stopped mid-sentence, glaring at my burnt orange shirt. "Oh I don't think we can tell you." And then, the woman, she hissed at me.

"What, California?" I sneered down my nose.


Oh God. Two booths worth of Aggies in the place. And a lone contractor from Galveston saddled belly-up to the bar, helping me decipher ref signals and remembering college regulations from pro. Though, to their credit, the Aggies mostly rooted for Texas. "What?" said one. "Are we really going to cheer for California over a Texas team? California's like Raisin Bran! Full of fruits and nuts!"

Well, the glory of the game was only partly spoiled by foreknowledge. I watched those fine moments, and it was very clear to me that I would be very tense if I didn't already know what happened. And sure, last two minutes, I was standing stock-straight next to my bar stool screaming at the television and jumping up and down and howling like a banshee, and after it was all over and I climbed back off my stool, I was only too happy to accept the handshakes and congratulations from my fellow patrons.

Well, it's not how I would have scripted my viewing, but I'll take it. What else is there to say?

Hook 'em!!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Year of Vodka and Secrets

"So either this is another holiday," said the SMS I sent out from my deserted office yesterday, as tumbleweeds cartwheeled down the corridors, "or my entire office collectively called in sick. Why don't people tell me things?"

"You're an idiot," came the reply. "Come drink with us!"

I glanced at my watch. 3:30 pm. They'd be well into the vodka by now. This group doesn't mess around, and I'd have some catching up to do. Well, a holiday is a holiday, even if nobody could think of a proper translation for what this January 2 holiday is supposed to be. "It's like," they'd say with knitted brows, "what you do on this day is like what you'll be doing for the rest of the year." Sure, whatever.

Looks like 2006 is going to be the year of vodka and terrible secrets.

Cut to this morning: not, incidentally, a holiday anymore. Eight hours of sleep not nearly enough to counteract the eight hours of vodka, and I started to mull over the evening's events.

As I pieced together floating conversation fragments, shuffling memories and filing them into the appropriate categories of real or imagined, ("Okay, Nino's foot amputations. Dream."), one terrible conversation from the very hazy, sodden end of the evening crawled back into the weak light of my consciousness. But it wasn't real, was it? Please say it wasn't real. Unable to stand it, I called Giorgi: "I'm sorry, I was probably a little drunk last night and I'm not remembering things clearly. But did you tell me that your little brother was stabbed seven times on New Year's?"

File it under real. It was in front of their home, in a nice part of town. Some street toughs, nobody knows who, were causing a scene and Giorgi's brother intervened. They attacked him fiercely. His mother, who lost her husband earlier this year suddenly and unexpectedly to a swift cancer, is the one who heard the fight and found her son and called the ambulance. "I spent the night carrying my brother from one doctor to another," Giorgi said. Miraculously, none of the wounds were life-threatening, and he is recovering at home now. "I would kill them with my own hands," said Giorgi, and here, this is not a euphemism. But nobody knows who they are.

But something still bothered me. How did we not hear about this until the very end, last night? After all the chat about what happened over our holidays? Nobody in this tight group of friends mentioned this terrible thing. Nobody even alluded to it. "I hadn't told anybody yet," Giorgi said. "It's not a good thing to talk about on the second of January." So he sat on this news and he answered his mother's calls when she rang every hour to hear the living breath of her other son, and only after midnight, when this untranslatable holiday had ended, when he wouldn't fear that he was cursing the rest of our year with his news, did he tell us that his only brother had nearly bled the life out of him on the street the other night.

Public Service Announcement

A bar here in town is going to tape the Rose Bowl (which starts at 5am local time) and play it at 7:30 pm on Thursday, January 5. That means I'll be under total news blackout for 12 hours on Thursday. Please keep your celebratory calls, e-mails, etc. on hold until after that time.

Many thanks.

-The Management

Monday, January 02, 2006

Overly Self-Aware and World Weary Seeks Same

Did you know that the London Review of Books has a singles classified section? Neither did I, until happening upon this article in which an intrepid reporter crashes an LRB singles night event. British self-deprecation from the cynically hyper-educated set with hilarious, if perhaps pathetic results. Some examples of singles ads from the article:

"I’ll see you at the singles night. I’ll be the one breathing heavily and stroking my thighs by the ‘art’ books. Asthmatic, varicosed F (93) seeks M to 30 with enough puff in him to push me uphill to the post office. This is not a euphemism."

"Monocled, plaid-festooned gadabout, out of place in any relationship, or century. Please help me . . . ”

Looking in the current listings, who could possibly resist:

"Librarian-looking punk, 34, seeks punkette-looking librarian"

"...me, bitter publishing marketing exec (F, 33), too drunk at the office party to keep all my slobber behind my teeth."

"Lecturer in Linguistics and Philosophy (M, 38) seeks F to 35 with interests in the subfield of morphosyntax and theories of distributed morphology. Replies, and details of major published works, please, to Jive Bunny, J-J-J-Jive Bunny, box no. 24/08"

The singles event described in the article sounds about as excrutiating as you'd expect. I can see how this sort of thing might become annoying upon mass repetition, but if you just read them all in your head with a Hugh Grant accent then it's all very cute and foppish, you know, like those funny Brits.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Holiday Greetings from Morrissey

I just got an e-mail, spam I guess, but the subject line was "Stars and Infinite Darkness." And, I don't know, maybe I'm too sensitive but I don't think this is really the appropriate spirit for a New Year's Day greeting.

Gilotsavt akhal tsels!

Three hours to midnight on New Year's Eve, I started to contemplate the bizarre twists of life that had conspired to wash me up on these shores for 2006. I was thinking in this vein, you see, because the power went out again, and when you're left sitting quietly in a room lit by candles and the burning orange of your murderous furnace on the brink of the big calendar turn, you've no choice but to squint your eyes and think philosophically about things like that.

Half a decade ago, it was Bourbon Street for New Year's. Like New Orleans, New Year's here features vodka and the shooting of things into the air, though friends assure me it's nothing like the terrible times of the early 90s when the Mkhedrioni, the paramilitary group that ruled the shot-up streets during the civil war, would shoot automatic weapons in the air because even guerillas want to celebrate the New Year.

But here, as throughout the former Soviet Union, New Year's is a family holiday. You must be at home with the family to meet the New Year and then you set out immediately after to see friends and celebrate from place to place until you cannot go any further. My old Russian colleague would damn near cry whenever she remembered aloud New Year's in St. Petersburg, crunching through the snow after midnight, arm-in-arm with friends, going visiting and eating mandarins. And of course, there is great pressure if you happen to be the first guest to enter somebody's house in the New Year. The whole balance of good and ill that befalls that family in the coming year will be laid upon your head. They say there is a funny movie set in the west of Georgia where a dog is the first guest in a family's home, and after a year of blessings, the dog is in great demand for the next year.

It seems nice. Not quite enough daiquiris, boobs, and public pissing for my taste, but I am nothing if not culturally tolerant.

Speaking of New Orleans, the French Quarter, it cheers me to see, somewhat like Tbilisi, has rebounded from destruction and mayhem just enough to become a place where, at least on this night, in this neighborhood, people can forget about the losses and the nightmares and give in to hedonism as defiance, as remembering rather than forgetting. Have a hurricane for me, my friends. Have two.