Wednesday, September 7, 2016

a city at war

A square in old town

Tbilisi is a city at war. At war with pedestrians, at war with cars, at war with good sense. A walk down the side of the street is akin to an acrobatic obstacle course, where one must lunge past opposite walkers, over roots, under branches, around cars. A drive through Tbilisi must be accompanied by the sign of the cross, a blessing from a priest, for the dead die before they know it. It’s a demolition derby of Ladas, Mercedes, and Land Cruisers, where no one leaves alive but some just might enjoy going down and taking a few pedestrians along with them. 

I left Tbilisi a few years ago and moved to Prague. I come back to visit every now and then, and when I hear Georgians calling themselves “European”, I chuckle. It’s cute. But one only needs to look at their traffic, the way they drive and handle pedestrians on streets, to see that they’re no more European than Genghis Khan leading his Horde through the steppe, lobbing the heads of the Qara Khitai and piling them up outside of failing traffic lights, spinning dust clouds around badly implemented traffic circles. If you still don’t understand, if you’re some vajkaci here actually trying to make an honest argument, then read on.


I’ll start with some rants about walking on this blog, and onto driving on the next.

I’m in Prague now. Walking is nice. Pavements are nicely done, little stones placed together in sequence, creating a nice pattern throughout the city. In poorer parts there are consistently laid asphalt. The uniting theme though is this—people can walk. Two abreast, at the very least. People can push baby strollers, wheelchairs can navigate. Life, without a car, can exist rather calmly and nicely. This model is repeated ad nauseum throughout most of cosmopolitan cities of the world even, from Paris to Moscow to New York to Marrakesh to Bali. But curiously not so much in Tbilisi. 

Leselidze 2 years ago, now with another lane of parking
Walking up what should be the most tourist-ified street in the country, Leselidze, I came to the realization that perhaps Georgians just hate pedestrians. Perhaps they have some sort of passive aggressive rage built up towards ambulation and the usage of ones feet as a legitimate form of transportation. At some parts, one must squeeze between a parked car and a church wall, another part, jump over wildly sprawling roots, which lead from road to vendor, new street vendors are popping up and place themselves conspicuously in the way of flow, providing even less space for maneuvering. And don’t, by God, step into the street. You’re likely to get your arm broken by one of the speeding cars jetting by—on a good traffic day—but more likely your toe rolled over by a slow moving Niva whose engine stalls and then can’t roll off. 

Old Town

In every cosmopolitan city in the world, one thinks of their most romantic journeys strolling through the town. In Barcelona, there’s Las Ramblas, a 1.2 kilometer, low traffic stretch dividing two old town neighborhoods and connecting the main metro station to the sea. In Denver, 16th Street Mall, a 2-kilometer pedestrian only stretch of granite, coffee shops, and skyscrapers. In Paris, there’s Montmartre, winding streets and allies, filled with cheese smells and hipsters. Camden in London. Venice in California. All of Venice in Italy. Karlova Street and Staromestska in Prague. If you want a beautiful city that loves you, you need to feel that love, and the way you feel that love is by the street experience. Even if it’s just in the old town. There are a few streets that are nice, but that's the sum of it. It's a good start, but it's a long forgotten start, it seems.

There are a few nice streets. More of this and less of above=win
Really, Old Town Tbilisi—along with every other city center neighborhood—must be entirely re-imagined. It’s as though everyone in City Hall dozed off after eating one xatchapuri too many and never woke up again. Tbilisi needs a Prince Charming to kiss their zarmaci asses awake. Old Town must be closed down to traffic. I realize this goes against the grand scheme of some who must only move around the city by helicopter if they think they have a good dream of it. And the reality is that the city is being strangled and destroyed, ever so slowly; the long death is the most painful and shameful. The powers that be could at least have the grace of a matador and give it a quick death, if that’s their intention.

Main old town square. Zebras aren't only in Africa folks!
To the side streets and Leselidze, cars must be limited to residents and service vehicles only. All other cars—heading to Sovlolaki or beyond—should route to Pushkin or the embankments. Cross walks with lights must be installed at Meidan. It might be possible to still allow driving on Leselidze, but it should be entirely cut off on weekends, to allow for restaurants to spill out with chairs and tables, and musicians on the streets. Parking must be compensated, with a huge parking garage at Freedom Square and one at Abanotubani. Think big, guys. Go big.


I’ve never seen smog until I went to Tbilisi. I mean, I’ve seen it in the sense that it taints a sunset, brings out the pinks and the purples, like in LA, or where there’s a vague blur on the horizon like I’m wearing someone else’s glasses. But in Tbilisi—and maybe this is used in tourism marketing for the city—you can really get to know smog. You can see it. You can breathe it. You can take it home and make a night out of it. 

When I came back, I was in shock. Before it was only in lower regions of the city, like that Satanic sigil of a traffic circle they call Hero’s Square. But it had crawled up, spread its Cthulu-like tentacles from Hero's Square up to Chavchavadze, along Rustaveli, strangling everyone in sight, confusing everyone’s doctors to think that they entire city must be smoking cigarettes. The next time I go, I’ll remember to bring a medical mask before daring to take a breath in the streets.

Walking the streets, it’s no wonder that heart disease is one of the main killers of Georgia. Because of the smog. Cars must be limited. Less cars: less smog. Emissions standards must be tightened. Higher standards: less smog. Less smog: greater health. Greater health: less strain on the health care system. Less strain: more room for year-end office supras. Everyone wins.


Walking perhaps wouldn't be so bad if parking weren't so bad. Where there are pavements, there are parked cars. Where there are no pavements, there are parked cars. There are some streets where the only option for walking even is to walk down the center of the street, and then drivers still honk at you as though you're crazy! If there's one thing Georgians are worse at than driving, its finding and creating parking spaces.

Parking on downtown streets needs to be heavily restricted, to residents only. Garages need to be built around transit hubs, new buildings should be required to have so many number of new parking spots depending upon their occupancy. Tourists will take metro and trams gladly, but the city obviously lacks tram access, so capitalize around metros. There’s no part of the city center outside of Vake that’s hard to get to by mass transit--except, curiously, Ortatchala, one of the main transit hubs to leave Tbilisi. 

Development around metros needs to be thought out. Tbilisi is on a mall-building craze, but why build malls where people can’t go? Instead of East-Point, the city should have engaged developers to redesign Samgori as a multi-transit shopping district, with metro, marshrutka/bus station, and many levels of shopping. Instead of Tbilisi Mall, Didube would have been a much better sight. But again, either Tbilisi urban planners are asleep and ignorant of opportunities, have never left Tbilisi, or when they do leave they only end up in strip tease shows and high dollar per diem drinking sprees.

Sidewalks only existing as parking places must end. They must be reclaimed. Police must ticket violators. Require each officer to make at least 10 traffic/parking tickets a month or dock their pay. In a city like Tbilisi, this really isn’t asking much and should be the easiest job in the world still and yet. For drivers, receiving 3 violations means your car is towed and fined, 7 means your license is suspended until you pass a driving test.

Streets are disasters to walk down, and they’ve only gotten worse since I returned for a short time. I left still loving Tbilisi three years ago, I left after a two-week jaunt regretting having returned, primarily because of the pedestrian and traffic experience. It aches my heart to feel that way.

Street Life

Street life is visceral. Mostly its gypsy kids blackmailing you for money, telling your girlfriend you have no heart, its beggars, its musicians pretending to be beggars, sometimes musicians being buskers, and mostly a lot of sad angry people. A lot of that is because of the above. Some of that is because of the poverty level and can't really be immediately helped. But a lot of this can be fixed. Give people places to go outside of birjas next to deteriorating block apartments, in parks with no lights, or collapsing walls.

In Prague, they have an amazing region on the river bank, Naplavka, which has very low rents to vendors, allowing for small time bars to run nearly non-stop. The place is packed with locals and tourists day and night, drawn by the beautiful views of the castle and river, staying for the cheap beer and drinks. Tbilisi also has an embankment park with a beautiful castle view, which sits empty at all times. There’s a high dollar bar that few can afford, and I think these days it has even shut down, I’m assuming because the rent was too high. Again, re-imagine. Follow the Prague model. Make it cheap and accessible for everyone. There’s already the Peace Bridge on one end, Metekhi Bridge on the other, the place is perfectly set up for a power house of amazing tourist and local activity.

With a view of the castle and the old town, why is this empty?
A long term vision would even be to see Rustaveli no longer a main traffic corridor, limiting all future constructions in Old Town to medium or low density, with lots of traffic lights on the route with cross walks, and further narrowing the street to allow for one lane going each way. Another lane would be for a tram, and the rest of the room for trees, walking, vendors, skate parks, busker stands, and restaurants. Then you’ll start to see a city that loves you. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

it's the little things

Ukrainian Airlines, pic from
Ukrainian International Airlines. Their motto should be: “It’s about what you can expect from the name.” Now I’m not saying Ukrainian products or services are bad, it’s just that they’re not very well known for them, and the airline stands as a clear example. Starting in Prague, we sat one hour in the plane. Now, I thought this was just a fluke. We arrived in Kiev for the transfer and were already thirty minutes late on a 2-hour layover, so there wasn’t much room for error. We ran to the transfer security desk, where they were calling out for other flights, trying to find other people who were in a similar and worse situation. But the line moved okay, with Ukrainian airport staff barking orders in Russian, while Americans and British seemed to be a bit confused at everything. “She said go over there, there’s another security line behind that wall,” I let one older couple know. “But where does it go? There are no signs!” they replied. Indeed, where did it go… 

I leant to me wife—“Do you notice all the staff are all speaking in Russian?” Which was strange, given the current situation and the dramatic shift away from Russian culture that Ukraine was trying to undertake, at least publicly. Most of my bud’ laskos were even met with pojaloistos, so even an attempt to throw in something in Ukrainian fell on deaf ears. You’d think with the pivot to the West, they could afford a few English teachers at the airport. But that’s another story.

We made it to the gate in time. We were lucky even, since they had only just started flashing the “WAIT UNTIL BOARDING” sign. A sigh of relief. Relief that was met by an even longer wait, which was met by groaning. One lady, with a long red cape, black dress, hat, doing her best villager Cruella deVille impersonation, but failing awkwardly by only buying cheap Turkish clothes, came into the line from the side. She was speaking loudly in Russian on the phone and either completely oblivious to the fact that there was a line past her or just not caring. So I did what any rational, approaching middle-aged red-blooded American man would do—bitched and moaned, just loudly for her to maybe hear me. “Ungh, no respect for lines means no respect for civilization!” She also didn’t notice my continued grumbling, so score one for passive aggressiveness.

The Princess’s efforts were made in vain though. We had another thirty minutes on the ramp, on which I pondered loudly, “Why would anyone even want to cut in a line to get onto an airplane? It’s not like you’re going to miss your seat.” Really, it’s best to be one of the last on the airplane, even better to be one of those people who the airplane has to wait for ten minutes on, so that you can zero down your standing in line time. But this lady was in a hurry!

We were seated after some time, and then back to waiting on a runway. I believe it must be some sort of Ukrainian Airlines policy to wait on the tarmac for an hour or so, just to let you remember what exactly has recently happened for passengers flying over Ukrainian skies. That’s right, let the fear settle in. There now, here’s how to buckle your safety belt and we’re off!

More Russian speaking from the flight staff. “Sandwiches? Would you like some sandwiches?”

“Ah, yeah, I’m starving!”

“5 dollars for a half!”

“No thanks!” How much did we pay for this flight again?

The flight landed without disaster and the Princess was the first to squiggle on out past everyone. She had somewhere to go! And clearly no one else did. But the last laugh was on her.

As we got to the baggage claim, we all gathered around our conveyor belt—it’s not too hard to find in the Tbilisi airport, as there are only two. Ours was shared with Tel Aviv, who was also still on the sign despite having been served 20-minutes prior. Then the conveyor built moved. Our luggage was coming!

Ten minutes.

Twenty minutes.

It stopped. No luggage. Everyone raced to the other conveyor, maybe it was there!

It wasn’t.

I went to a worker there, speaking in Georgian:

“What’s up? Where’s our bags?”

“Do you speak Georgian?” she asked me. “I don’t know English.”

I repeated in Georgian, “Where are our bags? We’re from the Kiev flight, thirty minutes ago.”

“Just wait over there, they’ll come.”


“Just wait.”

“Maybe you can call someone?” I asked.


Ah, how sweetly I remembered Georgian customer service. Later, as a crowd of protestors formed around her, making a fuss, she acknowledged the situation. “The manager doesn’t want to come down to talk to you. There’s been, ahem, some technical difficulties. It’s the Ukrainian Airlines’ fault.”

Now, I’m not sure what sort of technical difficulties could happen toting luggage from a plane 10 meters away to one of two luggage pick-up stations, but it must have been serious, since another 45 minutes passed. But no problem, I had my accordion. Laid down, it made a great pillow/backrest, at least that Princess was forced to wait as well. It’s the little things.

Awww, welcome to Tbilisi, the city that loves you! Maybe the city, but certainly not the airport.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The steel roads of Chiatura

Sign reading "Chiatura" in Georgian and Russian
This season always makes me nostalgic for Georgia. May and June are the perfect times to be there, when the weather is not sweltering, but good for shorts and beer gardens and traveling, the flowers are out, and the air is always fresh after a rain. The best time, of course, is the fall, when the grapes are out and the scent is so strong in the air that it makes you hungry just standing around. But that's a distraction, this is spring folks. And in spring, it's a good time to visit one of my favorite towns: Chiatura.

Young Stalin

Chiatura first came into my radar when I was reading Simon Montefiore's half-adventure, half-history book, Young Stalin. If ever you want to read an Eastern European history book that somewhat resembles a Western flick about an evil version of Jesse James, check that one out. After many of Young Stalin's bank robbery schemes, he would take his bags of gold by donkey over the mountains to the small mining town of Chiatura, which was in 1910s Georgia a Bolshevik stronghold. The people of Chiatura were rewarded for their fidelity too: under Stalin, development soared, with electrification, a road link to Tbilisi, and new housing blocks piling up. It also soon became the Manganese mining capital of the world. The more than unique thing about this canyon community, besides the Manganese mining, is how many of the city outlets and work areas are connected by a network of seemingly ancient gondolas.

Steel roads of the man of steel 

One of the gondola stations in Chiatura
It was the gondolas that led me to really want to go to Chiatura. This article from the Atlantic and this one from the Daily Mail on the things went viral, talking about how rusted, old and dangerous they were and how they hadn't been updated since their construction 70 years ago. It also wrote that the town Chiatura itself was somewhat of a post-apocalyptic nightmare community, and that heading their might get you killed via pollution, frog plague or whatever have you.

The road to Chiatura was under renovation. For the most part, most of it has been fixed up and smoothed over - we'll see how long that lasts, due to the nature of Georgian road construction, but at least someone is trying. The road itself was riddled with scenic outdoor cafes, snuggled amidst the forests and brooks that litter the Shida Kartli and Imeretian countryside. When the forests end, rolling hills take over, with the vaguest outline of the towering Caucasus in the distance. Most of the hillside lies mysteriously unused, as it seems to be premium farming land, but for the proximity to the disputed territory of South Ossetia just nearby. Finally, after entering well into Imereti, the road descends back towards the main East-West highway, following a sharp and huge canyon, not so grand as America's Grand Canyon, but big enough to mystify any common viewer, and steep enough to send any cliff climber into spasms of ecstasy. If you go to Chiatura, forget going for a dilapitated town, go for the countryside, preferably with a car of your own so you can take as much advantage as you can.

The black river

In fact, contrary to what that aforementioned article hints at, Chiatura is quite a nice little town, once you get past the complete black waters of the lazy Kvirila River that it traverses. The river is black from some process of the Manganese mine, and littered with Coke and lemonati bottles and cigarette packs, but that latter part is to be expected in any Georgian town. Besides all that, the center of the town shows some beauty and perhaps even potential for tourism. When I was there 2 years ago this was true, and I'm hoping some hotels have popped up since then. The buildings are a mix between the grand Soviet styles and the more blocky housing units, but most are painted and fairly nice looking. We stopped at one hole-in-the-wall cafe that was on the park which served as a boardwalk along the inky river. They served a kebab that came in a soup - which ended up being quite amazing and spicy. We also had some Imeruli xatchapuri, which was again better than most places I had tried in Tbilisi.
Chiatura's bazaar district on the bank of the Kvirila

From the cafe, we went to find a gondola, which wasn't hard to do. All you have to do is look up and follow one of the lines that hang over the skies to its base and there you can find your Soviet-era pot of gold. Some of the lines have been retired from lack of use - more than half the town is a ghost town - but there are still many that continually function. They operate on a "jig back" system, where there is one car for each way and they run on the same line; as one car goes up, the other goes down. We walked up to one, where three guys were sitting on the bench. Assuming they weren't the workers, I asked in Georgian, "Where is the operator?"

View from the gondola
"I am the operator," one of the sitting guys said.

"Oh," I said.

We stood silently. They sat silently.

"Can we take a ride?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. He still didn't move.

"Good," I said, trying to figure out the trick to this exchange. "How much does it cost?"

"It's free."

We decided we should just get on, and maybe the guy would do whatever it was he had to do. And he did. He stood up, rang a bell and sat back down. The gondola itself was a blue box, not unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS, but instead of flying through space and time, this thing flew up the cliffside, in about the same wibbly wobbly manner. However, I was a bit disenchanted. The construction, though clearly old, looked solid, and nothing about the trip seemed dangerous or even that exhilarating, except the fact that you were hanging by a steel thread some 500 feet in the air. But fear of heights aside, it wasn't really that big of a deal to worry about, or to write an article commending the bravery of the author on.

Where beergardens should have been

At the top of the gondola was a big patch of dirt, a block of apartments, and a road block, behind which was some operation going on that was probably linked to the mines. There was also an amazing view of Chiatura, and a great place to at least put a beergarden, of which there was none. If in the two years since I've been there nobody has since put one, I'll bang my head against a wall! I mean, really, what a spot for beer drinking! In fact, the most terrifying thing in Chiatura is the locals lack of vision when it came to the beauty of their landscape and the tourism potential.

Cross marks the spot where there should be a cafe

View of the left bank from one of the gondolas, another gondola can be seen

The article showed a common tendency in media today, to show that the photographer or writer was in much more danger than they were in reality, whether it's showing the gondolas of Chiatura, the riots in Turkey, or the streets of Detroit. The friend I was with then called it, "Disaster Porn," when the writer wants to portray himself or herself as some brave adventurer, spurred on by a crowd of armchair readers too lazy or ignorant or inexperienced to know that much of the world isn't actually that dangerous and most people in the world are simply people trying to get by.* It's a secret that most travelers don't want to let out, because then all that mystery we create at a bar while trying to pick up women just drifts away like a puff of smoke from a nargile out the window of a seedy Arabic cafe filled with sheikhs and businessmen. The truth makes some disaster seekers ever more disappointed and ever more willing to take real risks, until they end up backpacking on the borders of Iran and Iraq and sent to an Iranian prison, accused of spying, or with their heads chopped off in an IS propaganda video. What Iranian officer could ever believe that, "Well, we were just looking for adventure" could actually be the truth? People who live in the bonafide dangerous areas, or those who have had to deal with the real dangers of life, are probably hugely confused by disaster porn and its pornographers. And when reading disaster porn on the net, one should remember that it has about as much to do with real disaster as porn has to do with real sex, that is to say, about nothing.

Spot the gondolas!

*With a great number of exceptions.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

even the water is different

The toilet at the village school
Back then, we got to spend insane amounts of time with training. Training went from Monday through Saturday, about 8 hours a day, and that was to go on for two months, in July and August. Summers in Georgia are filled with heat and sweat, time passed in the misery of blazing punishment of the sun and the stifling odor of the humidity, where most villagers hang up their tools and lift up their glasses, since such a heat saps the will to work and to live from even the hardiest folk. But we had training to do!

The first four hours of each day we spent with language and the second four or so hours we spent in discussions concerning Georgian business and NGO practices. Then I would get home, take a nap, and study more Georgian. Before arriving to Georgia, I had spent some time memorizing the alphabet, which was key to my early success in studying the language. I easily surpassed my classmates, much to their anger, and my showing off of my ability to say “gamarjoba” faster, and my intention to not waste time on the alphabet for the first three weeks since I already learned it, didn’t gain me any friends. But as soon as I got back to my host family house, no matter how much I wanted to learn Georgian, I could always fall back to Russian. Living there got me plenty of practice with Russian, but in the long term, it stunted my growth in Georgian, which was a pity. But there were others to talk to who didn’t know I knew Russian. Until at the local shop:

“Me minda tskali, tu sheidzleba,” I said, asking for water in Georgian.

“Ra – what?” the reply.

I repeated myself.

The man shook his head.


So I switched to Russian. “Vodu xochu.”

“Oh, shen ginda tsk’ali!” the clerk replied, as though he were saying, “Oh, you want water, why didn’t you say so!” I could then understand how it must feel to be an Englishman in the United States.

Inside the school
In the mornings, we studied the language in the local middle school, which had been recently renovated. There were heaters and working doors, though still no toilet – that was around the back in a fly infested shack composed of holes in the floor. Inside the school building itself was a huge courtyard, which had the main function of drainage, but at least made for a beautiful arboretum, the green climbing up the floors, and I imagine in the spring the floors would be so thick as to lighten up that place better than any bad 1970s wallpaper. 

The main street
We hung around at the local high school and tried to puzzle this language out. Then we would break to go to the magazia (really tiny convenience store) next door, buy some carbonated mineral water and ice cream. Always carbonated mineral water. They never had anything else. This was so entirely alien to me. In the States, rarely anyone drinks carbonated water. It was only for the crazy person who preferred the syrup out of his soda. But here it was all the rage and stories abound all across the country – and indeed the region – about the healing properties of mineral water. Stories of ancient queens bathing in it, to northern armies massing across the mountains so that their kings might drink from it. If Coronado were Georgian and could have given a name to the water of the fountain of youth, he would have named it “Borjomi”. It’s certainly an acquired taste, which after many years I acquired, but at first, when it’s the only thing around and drinkable, it’s just a reminder of how much a foreign land the place is. Even the water is different.

So yeah, lots of salty water and ice cream. Then we would sit around in the hot, sweltering sun for a bit, pretending that we're on a nice balmy beach in Batumi, and then we would go back to class. After that, we headed to lunch where we were told by whatever family that was serving us to “chami chami chami – eat eat eat”. Then to another class, where we would fall asleep because we ate way too much food at lunch and it was too hot.

One project from the second sessions classes was to kind of get to know the local community. We brought about ten people in, five guys and five women, split them into two groups by gender, and then asked them about what the jobs in the village were throughout the year. The male group primarily did wheat farming, some trade, cattle ranching and vegetable farming. All of the farming and trade was done on a small local level, though they did sell to larger distributors that might go nationwide. At that time and still, cheap Turkish produce was flooding the market and killing the local farmers and which was leading them to their biggest problem of not being able to sell all of their own produce, neither on a local nor international level. Before the Russian embargo began in 2007, they were able to sell easily on the Russian market, but after that they had nowhere to turn (it's curious that the Georgians had not sanctioned Russian goods in turn, as you could buy loads of Russian made products everywhere there, thank goodness, since Russian chocolate is pretty awesome) Рthis is a very important thought when considering why Georgians see so much hope in their relations to Europe. Probably, they could solve the problem by lowering their own prices, to make their better quality goods more competitive with the cheap Turkish stuff, but I think they might take that as a point of denigration. Georgian produce is the best I've had, certainly, so they aren't lying on the quality. But neither do they have any sense of market economy. Blame it on Communism or just blame it on laziness, take your pick on the clich̩.
Some locals sharing
Everyone at the meeting seemed pretty positive about Georgia's future and the future of their own community and they had come a long way since the days of civil war in the 90s, though they were still not quite where they were under the Soviet Union (the GDP for instance, was still only at 56% of the '89 level, but it had been rising until the recession). That day will come though, as it seemed to me that those were a pretty hard working and smart people and they were a whole lot freer now. The largest setback was the situation with Russia.

The following week, we arranged for a trip to Tbilisi to talk to some local NGOs, one of which I could potentially have been working for. Then we arranged for a trip to some touristy spot as a method of language training, then we had a week where we would teach a class to the people in our local village. We had a bunch of other training exercises in there as well, so there definitely wouldn’t be a break to get bored on. I hear that comes once service actually begins.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

my old host family and a bucket full of grenades

A look down the street
This is another bit from my old Georgia file, when I was a volunteer back in the Peace Corps and I first moved to my training site in Giorgitsminda, Kakheti. 

I found myself sitting across from an old Georgian man in army fatigues, smoking some stale cigarettes, staring at me as though trying to figure out why the hell an American would come and live with them. We sat in a dark, low-ceilinged living room, with wood paneling on three sides and a brick wall and fireplace on the fourth. It felt something like my grandmother's house in Louisiana, complete with aging furniture and floral patterns on the upholstery. Everything smelled of cigarette smoke and there was a general thickness to the air.
I was thinking nearly the same thing myself though. Finally he began to talk to me. It felt as though man had first discovered words, primal grunting followed by spurts of confusion. Finally, it dawned on me that I was understanding what he was saying, that is, he was speaking Russian. I had studied Russian back in university though had barely kept up with it, mainly only as a bar trick to write in another alphabet and impress girls. He shook his hand at me, exasperated, thinking I didn't comprehend. It didn't matter though, since I couldn't think of how to reply to what it was he had asked me. My Russian seemed to be at the level of a four year old. Quickly being able to comprehend more and more, though at times being at a loss for words at not having enough vocabulary. It is, at least, an easier language than Georgian.

The front of the house, my balcony
I had arrived there only a few hours before. The Peace Corps had put all of us volunteers and host families into a high school gym, separated from each other like at a dance, with the volunteers slightly shy, hands in the pockets, trying to read which one of those people would be our hosts and if there were any cute host sisters or mothers over there. The Georgians were on their side, relaxed, smiling, excited to show these adventurous young foreigners what their country was all about. They read off our names one by one, one volunteer to one family, and each volunteer would awkwardly advance and try not to make a fool of himself in front of everyone. "Do I kiss on the right cheek, or left, or both?" "Should I just shake hands?" "Should I just keep my hands to myself?" All these things that formulate a sturdy first impression that were completely alien to us, like we were just out of a crazy house, unsure of how to cope with the outside world.

When I met my host dad, I had mixed feelings. He was a short guy, bald, with a huge scar that split his face. At first I thought perhaps it was from a war - in which he had fought many - but later I had learned he was in a car wreck and the windshield had tore apart his face. He was fit, energetic and always helpful - he knew everyone in the village and was quick to hook one family up or another with a favor, working the lines of the birja - the local town collective - like a telephone operator. He brought me to a black Mercedes and they drove me back to their house. The Mercedes was not their's, but a loan from a neighbor. I suppose he wanted me to feel comfortable coming in, especially since his car was a pale blue Lada that you had to kick in order to start. He then was off to help some neighbors out with something and I was there alone on the couch, across from the grandpa.

When my host father got back, as he showed me around the house, I tried to adjust my thinking - perhaps he was more of the host brother. He was about my age and much smaller than me, the top of his head barely reaching my chest. I felt like a clumsy giant thudding around the place behind him. And here was the tour of the house, in broken Russian so that I could understand: "This is the living room, as you know. And here is the kitchen. And the marani, where we make the wine." We came into a dark room with only one light bulb shining,  the incandescent wire glowing a bright red. The walls were dark grey, solid cement, and there were holes in the ground, each hole containing a wax coated clay pot called a qvevri, where the wine was fermented. Along the walls were pots and pans and bottles of jams and water.

Then the next room. "And this is the arsenal." This was a much better lit room. Camouflage nets hung over the sides of two bunks, there was a row of automatic weapons on one wall and a bucket of grenades sitting next to them. "Do you fish?" he asked smiling, holding a fishing pole. 

"Um," I said, staring at the rifles, trying to pretend all of this on some level was normal for me. "I guess." Then I took the pole from him and pretended to inspect it, though all the while thinking, "What the hell have I gotten into?"

The upstairs to the house was my room - I got a gigantic room with a balcony - the view of Stalin from my last post, and there was another dining room, a piano room, and their bed room. The grandparents slept on the groundfloor, in a room that also led to the arsenal. 

The walking area of the garden, grapes overhead
The backyard was a gigantic garden, grapevines hanging down over pathways that led to tomato plants, carrots, olives, cabbage, and whatever else you could imagine. Chickens roamed about, squawking and fluttering their feathers and there was a golden-red dog that helped with the hunting who would also make sure the chickens were in line. Further back there was a pen for a small family of pigs, and they were far enough not to stink up the place. The grounds were idyllic, to say the least, and from the balcony, you could look across the grapevines as though it were a sea of waving kelp, and across the sea a tropical mountain rose, green and misty, shimmering in the light. What was the shimmering was the waves of grass, the endless steppe. 

That night a supra - a Georgian feast - was prepared. There were all sorts of fresh fruits and vegetables stacked up to the ceiling, along with various meats and cakes. There were my host family, all of whom didn't drink much, perhaps they were just honoring me, not sure of how much the American drank, though I did learn that the grandfather was altogether sober and my house father only ever drank during supras. A couple of neighbors had also gathered there, all with their curious questions about American weather and girls. 

That night I had learned that my host father had been in the Georgian special forces and had fought more than his share of Russians and Ossettes; he had seen fields lying flat where there once were villages. But now he was done with that. He dreamed of taking his wife and his baby girl elsewhere, far away, the usual Georgian dream, because anywhere far away had to be better. Until then, while I was there, he would have various occupations: one year he was driving vans from Germany to Georgia to sell them, another year he was helping a group de-mine a nearby mine field.  

Ushangi, the father, was a puzzle to figure out for a while. He had, throughout the yard, random pieces of equipment sprawled around, on which he was constantly working. I thought this was some sort of hobby until I saw a truck pull up with a refrigerator that the driver then dumped off. Granted, even then I thought this was some sort of hobby. Finally, I had a homework assignment where I was to find out everyone's occupation. He was an electrician/repairman! This also explained why we had hot water in the shower, whereas my fellow village volunteers didn't. He was a quiet man, who was working constantly on appliances or on his garden in the back. I'm not sure if he enjoyed the simplicity of a life at work or if he just felt it as a necessity, but for some reason I put the man in a sort of Cateline type philosopher category.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

first impressions (2009)

I first came to Georgia back in 2009, about 8 months after the war with Russia. I was in the Peace Corps and we were part of the first returning group. The Peace Corps works with local NGOs who request volunteers, and as the Peace Corps had been absent since the war, they were pretty much starting anew - all the old projects had been mothballed and new organizations had come to the front asking for volunteers. That was part of the group that I was in. But at first, there were 2 months of training to live through, which consisted of half a day of language classes, half a day of general NGO organizational training, and half a day of eating. Seriously, lots of food. We lived in a village with a host family, and with three or four other volunteers in that village during training. It was a shock of a life as it was, but it was great preparation for the 2 long years to come, where we would for the most part be alone in villages. 

That's where we had our introduction to Georgia. I was in a small village in Kakheti called Giorgitsminda. And here was my very first impression, written back in 2008: 

Dudes trying to kill me with food
I think the people here are trying to kill me. Every time I sit down, they tell me to "eat, eat, eat!" (chami chami chami! in Georgian) and they will not let me stop! Normally, I would consider this heaven, but even I can have too much food. And it's all so delicious! Scores of plates fill the table, with unidentifiable foods which I think may be a variety of eggplant dishes but I'm not sure.

My uncle once said about Louisiana that the only way a person could starve is to lay face down with your mouth closed. This is even more true in Georgia. Even the poorest people have a small plot of land with a cherry tree. Fruits and vegetables grow everywhere, in gardens, on public lands, everywhere. Everything is fresh and bounteous and huge and tasty. I didn't have taste buds until I moved to Sakartvelo. And don't get me started on the wine! Georgia is the home of wine, and everyone - at least here in the state of Kakheti - makes their own wine and usually it's far better than anything you can get on the shelves of the wine store in Denver. But on this too, I think they are trying to kill me. And on the homemade cognac. This is a dangerous land for foreigners. Their sole goal here is to kill you with too much food and drink.

View from my balcony. Bust of Stalin in the center left
I live in the second story of a house, with a balcony looking out to a mountain and a statue of Stalin on one side and the house vineyard on the other (ed. Stalin's bust has since been stolen, victimized by some drunks and now a centerpiece in a neighbor's yard). Down the stairs you go to get to the outhouse and shower, and to the outhouse you have to dodge fallen cherries so as not to smash them against your slippers. This is an idyllic, pastoral life. When Republicans pine away about this fantasy existence that never was in America, they're actually imagining life in Georgia. Many people here don't have jobs, but they don't need jobs so much either. They seem rather content, tending to their gardens and caring for their families and working on their cars. These are not lazy people, they are constantly doing things (ed. the village I was in was but a microcosm and not a representative sample of Georgia). They may be poor in money but they are certainly rich in life, in a way I've never seen back home.

Of course, it's not all cherries and peaches and plums and eggplants. All along the street, there are benches where neighbors randomly meet and discuss the current events of the village, which lately has been overwhelmed by the presence of five Americans living there to learn the language. Living in a suburb of Dallas in the States, I hardly ever met my neighbors, except maybe when you'd get caught in an unwanted conversation next to the mailbox. But the people here are so intent with visiting each other, either at the gathering spots, birjas, or at home. There is never a time where either someone is visiting or when a Georgian is visiting someone else. It's such an amazingly social culture and everyone is always happy to see each other. Georgia wants to be considered a part of Europe, but if anything, there are too many nice people in Georgia. How do they think they are a part of Europe? Besides, there's not nearly enough cabbage here (ed. I hadn't been in there in winter yet).

Needless to say, I've been enjoying my time so far. The Georgians are quite receptive and excited about the Peace Corps returning to their country. In the airport, we were greeted by the Minister of Finance and a small swab of journalists. And everyone we meet on the streets gets quite excited and talk on and on about the local Amerikelis. And the children run up and say "what's up?" showing off their mastery of these two words (ed. they also like to say "fuck you!" but they don't really mean it).

I'll try to update more often from here on out. My host father has a slow internet connection, but it is one and I've gotten it set up to go on my computer, they I do have to plug it in when I want to use it. Still, it's something.

Hope everyone is doing good back home in America.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

the grey city

Tbilisi's one exception from the car
Coming back to Tbilisi is for me always a strange feeling. Even with the free bottle of wine handed out at passport control, I still feel like a stranger or perhaps like an old acquaintance - a person you hadn't had time to call for some time, not that it was your fault, you had lots of things on your plate, but you're not quite sure how the other person feels about your absence of contact. But then, they didn't call you either, so you think there wouldn't be any hard feelings. But like that friend, I want to see Tbilisi doing well, growing, and succeeding. Riding through the city in a car or a marshrutka though is depressing. You see all the worst and terrible parts of the city and with a first-person-shooter view of the traffic and you become convinced that your friend is in trouble. 

Tbilisi: the Grey City

The grey city

Jens Lehmann, footballer on the German National team, once tweeted during his visit, "Hello Tiflis, everything grey with one exception." Georgians everywhere locked arms towards this unwanted aggression, combining a defense even mightier than when the South Ossetians and Russians crept the border inwards a few clicks south, they flew to Facebook and Twitter to humiliate and attack Lehmann in an otherwise fair statement. Viewed from high up in the Radisson where he was probably staying, Tbilisi is a grey city. It really can't be argued. And the faces of the city that the visitor might see the most - Dinamo, Ortachala, Didube, i.e. transit stations and stadiums - are surrounded by concrete leviathans. Even the post-modern structures meant to show how contemporary Tblisi is are something of Brutalist throwbacks, horrific architectural tributes to times gone wrong, using only white, grey and blue glass in their architectural themes. While riding in a marshrutka across town, passing frozen, unfinished construction projects, one after the other, dreams that never came to pass, or old Soviet buildings, falling apart and crumbling, the inhabitants doing their best to stitch balconies and wires together, I couldn't help but to think of Lehmann's tweet. Tbilisi is a grey city.

And how depressed was I at first glance. It seemed that my old friend had gotten messed up in a drunken stupor since I had left and got into one too many brawls at the local khinkali parlor. But then, didn't Tbilisi always look like that? A bit rough and edgy? It takes one to get out of the car and to start walking around to discover all the secret gardens, grapevines, new graffiti, lively markets, flowers, woodworked balconies, cliffside houses. Once I got around to this, once I left the realm of the simple visitor and back to the realms of a lover, I was able to once again appreciate the hidden beauties of this weirdly Platonic city. 

Tbilisi: the Colorful City

Erekle II Street
Tbilisi is a hard city to explain. It's a city of so many opposites and contradictions, that just the idea of explaining it threatens to tear apart the fabric that holds the city together. Even the founding of the city is a contradiction, back in the fourth century, the Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali founded the city as the new Georgian capital, but archaeological remains show that there was an ancient city here even before that. But the contradictions now are even more compelling than they ever were. The city balances very finely on the summit between two deep cliffs - on the one side, it struggles for Europe, Georgia's latest Holy Mountain, but on the other, it's pulled under the mire of an "Asian backwardness" - Georgians focus on their shared history with Greece and France while at the same time forgetting their shared history with the Arabs, Turks, Azeris, Russians and Armenians. They are held back by long patriarchal traditions that seem to both cripple and empower the people. Women have full equal rights - yet suffer from unrecognized discrimination and harassment, yet again are often held on the pedestal as both breadwinner and foundation of many families. The people often call themselves  ultra-Orthodox, but the wood cross necklace wearing warriors of Christ are usually just staring idly outside of Church, smoking, drinking and eating sunflower seeds. The city itself is in a state of collapse and ruin, but it's also in a flourishing renaissance; buildings are falling apart everywhere, but new ones are appearing almost as fast as the old ones crumble - so many contradictions that all seem to be true at the same time. And it's all of those idiosyncrasies that perhaps help to explain why I - along with a host of other expats - have come to love the city. 

"Gabriadze Square"
How the city seems to not develop, perhaps even regress, and develop at the same time, is as though it were a function on a gigantic clock, the drumhead increasing in pressure, heavier and heavier and heavier, tensions rising but nothing happening, until smack - age old halted construction products transform into finished products all at once, making the city all of a sudden an almost different city. It takes ages to get anything good and productive done, but once one success comes, others come streaming in after it. Even social progress works this way, one might think. Everything relates to the supra, to the massive quantities of watered down wine, where in the beginning it seems you can drink like a titan, and the next thing you know, some floppy breasted grandma is tucking you in into the guest bed made up next to the refrigerator in the kitchen, one too many drinking horns later.