Georgia: In Eight Acts

Tbilisi, Georgia – For all the post-Soviet gloom that gets projected on Georgia, what I noticed most was its quirky and unusual, even carnavalesque, quality. With the air of an animated novel—heavy subjects viewed through a light medium. A story full of cartoons that, despite their ink and crayon composition, are fully capable of being sad or violent. My time in Georgia (a place I fell deeply in love with, btw) passed like the flicker of a film roll. It was a series of vignettes, not unlike the fantastic puppet show I saw in Tblisi on my last night there. And so, in tribute to my affection for Georgia—in a mood both gregarious and dark—I offer you Georgia In Eight Acts…

Act One – Border Trades. An hour or so past the border we reached the brothel. Earlier in the drive, Lev—the Georgian sitting next to me—had counted to me the women on the bus, whispering under his breath, “prostitute…prostitute…prostitute.” When he explained that this was a common “border trade” I thought he was just being piggish. I was still skeptical when we pulled up to the house, where a woman in lace sat reclining in the second floor window. As we entered the house, another in a bath towel lay sprawled on a couch. In the kitchen, where bus passengers ordered lunch, a harem of young waitresses carried meals to the famished drivers. I sat with Leo and Francesco—a young gay couple from London—whose company I welcomed like personal bodyguards (albeit very dandy bodyguards). We sipped dark coffee uncomfortably and I wondered if the girls hadn’t laced it with some dangerous, odorless substance. I would wake up disoriented in a windowless dungeon, bound, gagged, and outfitted in leather. Fortunately, it turned out to be just a lunch stop, and twenty minutes later me, Leo and Francesco waved whimsically to the girl in the window as our bus pulled away.

Act Two – What Brings You to Georgia? It was September 11th and Georgia’s national opera was performing a 9-11 tribute. Posters outside Tbilisi’s opera house announced the event, so Quan and I decided to give a listen. However, we arrived at the hall to find that it was invite-only. The ticket collectors were unimpressed by our American passports (“but it’s our 9-11”). Later, when the U.S. Embassy’s public affairs attaché met us at the door, our motley crew had grown to two Americans, an Israeli, and an odd older Englishman. The attaché was visibly anxious. “What brings you to Georgia?” She probably suspected we were student protestors, preparing to unfurl banners during intermission (the U.S. is a steadfast Georgia ally, despite its sketchy politics). We struggled to ease her fears, emphasizing Quan’s violin training, while the Englishman prodded her about Georgia’s northern Abkhazia conflict (doh!). Eventually we were seated with the attaché who looked ready to tackle Quan if he so much as rose to applaud. Nothing happened of course, but after forty-five minutes of Aaron Copland I nearly threw a shoe.

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Act Three – Nazi Guesthouse. I would have avoided the place entirely if it wasn’t so highly recommended. I’d taken Georgia’s old military highway north to Kazbegi—a mountain village on the Russian border—where I asked for the place by name. After struggling, I managed to stutter the name to a kind old Georgian man: Nazi Guesthouse? He pointed up the road with a wide smile. The place was teaming with hikers. When a kind old lady checked me into my room, I couldn’t muster the courage to ask. Ask? What would I ask? It’s the Nazi Guesthouse. I said, “Nice porch.” I was distracted by the slight accents of the hikers occupying the place—there was no question, they were all Israelis. Noooo, you say. (Yes.) The Nazi Guesthouse was full of Israelis. I later met several of them and sipping tea danced around the question. Interesting place, I said. And later,curious names Georgians have. Nobody was biting. Is this not funny to anyone else? I wanted to scream. That evening they invited to a Shabbat dinner and I gave up, and resigned myself to devouring cake and thinking, When in Rome…

Act Four – A Vacation from Vacation. You spend a lot of time in hotels or hostels when you’re backpacking. More than you’d expect. You might find yourself in the most beautiful place on earth, but it’s too hot to go outside or you’re laid up with altitude sickness. Sometimes the best thing about a city is the people you meet there, and you spent days just cooking and watching movies. Other times, you simply need a rest. In Tbilisi, there was a traveler who’d spent months sitting at a table drawing unicorns (I can’t explain). Five months into my trip I needed a rest, and I found it in Yerevan, Armenia. A short detour brought Quan and me to this capital city for ten days of sleek cafes, mixed drinks, and American breakfast. We came to see the countryside—and we did, sort of—but soon fell for the capital, which is a sort of “Manhattan of the Caucasus.” We made a French-Armenian friend, became a trio, and even took in a stray dog (“puppy”). A few beers (and lots of lotus) later, a week had passed. Some would call it time wasted, but when traveling for long periods you sometimes need to recreate a home. Mine was Yerevan, briefly.

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Act Five – A Thousand Years of Georgian History. It was four hundred years before the Romans found their way to the Caucuses to smash and tame the upstart Georgian kingdom. It would be another four hundred before the Georgians threw off that yoke, adopting Christianity and casting their lot with the Byzantines. In the Middle Ages Georgia splintered, but by the 12thcentury it was experiencing a golden age of cultural and linguistic flourishing under David the Builder. This was quickly snuffed out by the westward tide of Mongol armies, and by the 16thcentury Persian and Ottoman empires whittled the population to a mere 250,000. It was the Russian empire that ultimately claimed Georgia. But in 1918 it crumbled under revolution, delivering Georgia its independence. Re-absorbed by the U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin (himself a Georgian), the country suffered like the other provinces.  In 1991 the Russians were out, and a decade of civil war and separatist movements was in. The 2003 Rose Revolution brought hopes of democracy, but five years later Russian tanks returned nearly to the doorstep of Tbilisi over conflicts in S. Ossetia. Today, Georgia rests in the hands of two political rivals, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili. The end.

Act Six – “The Battle of Stalingrad.” The curtain rises. A pile of sand sits on an empty stage with the faint hum of a choir churning in the background. Nothing moves. Then several grains of sand slip down the surface of the mound, and slowly an arm emerges—a puppet’s arm. Gradually he extracts himself from the sand. Finding a tattered flag, a bullet-ridden helmet, and a cross, he arranges them as a headstone before lying back down in the sand to bury himself. Suddenly a train-whistle blows and the scene changes. A steam engine carries soldiers across a European landscape. An old lover finds a new love. Two horses enter the plot. A tiny ant hustles her brood across a battlefield. Through these characters… or creatures, the play recounts the horror of Battle of Stalingrad, where two million died in World War II. The performance is dark, sad, and wildly creative in its capacity to portray the gravity of death through figures that dance light-as-puppets across the stage. Eventually the curtain falls and an ant is left pondering the awfulness of war, and you find yourself pondering the brilliance of Rezo Gabriadze.

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Act Seven – A Georgian Toast. The hostel was empty for days, and then one morning there were two beautiful Ukrainians. By evening they had convinced me to go wine tasting with them in eastern Georgia, so the next day we hired a driver and made for wine-country. By noon we were sipping rich white wines aged Georgian-style in large clay pots buried in earth. Because I’d arrived with the two most charming women this tiny country had ever seen, the Georgian winemakers pampered us. At 2pm they informed us that our driver had returned to Tbilisi and we would be staying for dinner at their remote country home. (Oh, really?) It was a mansion in the woods, and when we arrived several bottles of wine sat uncorked beside a great spread of Georgian cuisine. Hours passed as lengthy toasts were made in Georgian style and I gorged on food as the girls cautiously humored the men’s tactless advances. At any moment there was going to be an argument, I figured, and doubtless I’d be the first one our mafioso hosts would kill. So I might as well dine. Luckily, before that happened one of the girls started vomiting. The wine men realized marriage was unlikely and sent us back to Tbilisi by car. I was happy to be alive, and full.

Act Eight  Snow in the Caucasus. When we woke in the morning our tent lay under a foot of snow. What had been an alpine mountain-scape at dusk was now a white-out of large, silent snowflakes. “Shit,” I said, and crawled back in the tent. The previous night we had pitched our tent on dry grass, cooked dinner, and drank from a bottle of strong Georgian chacha that we found on the mountain. And today we had planned to summit. But now this. By 1pm the snow still wasn’t letting up, and so we resolved to turn back and hike down in the stuff. This began hours of trudging, slipping, and falling in a ghostly white twilight. At one point, a number of tall dark shapes appeared—a band of horses led silently up the mountain by men on horseback. They appeared ghostly in the white-out, and I recalled the horse I’d seen struck by a car in the valley a few days earlier. Gradually the snow turned to rain, and the rain to fog. Pines appeared, then a lone cabin, and later mud dashes beneath snow. The whole landscape was transformed in the course of a few hours, and when we arrived in tiny Mestia under a damp rain the snow was gone entirely. Inside we dried our wet socks and tiptoed across old, wooden floorboards. The mountain was already a memory.

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