Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Georgia on my Mind

Back in Turkey to teach summer school at BELS in Erzurum, I was only in the country for one week, when we got a one-week holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It’s family time for Turks. For me, it was a chance to visit a new country, one of Turkey’s neighbors. As I was going to Georgia for eight days on my own, it was a giant Artist’s Date (shout out to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way). I packed my camera, sketchbook, and journal- three items I bring on any adventure, short or long. I found myself in art galleries and bookstores perusing translated Georgian poets. I attended a modern ballet, wandered and photographed off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, sat for long periods of time sketching old buildings, visited the history museum, wandered a botanical garden- all the things I enjoy doing in any town I live- but I did so with a thirst. I wanted to understand, to “get” the vibe of Georgia. It was my first time in a post-Soviet state. Seventy years is a long time to be occupied, 15 years is a short time to recover from it, and eight days is a really short time for a tourist to put her finger on the feeling of a place, so I suffer from the ol’ But who am I? syndrome in writing this post. But consider that my disclaimer, and consider this my credibility: I really paid attention.

the bus ride from Erzurum, Turkey to the Georgian border
Like Cattle at the Border

I took an eight-hour bus from Erzurum that dropped me off past midnight in the Turkish town of Hopa, near the border of Georgia. I stayed at a Teacher House (öğretmenevi), which can be found in towns all over Turkey- cheap accommodation just for teachers, underscored by the elevated Turkish value on educators. Gotta love it!

ogretmen evi, Hopa, Turkey
Georgian border at Sarpi
The next morning, I took a taxi to the border town of Sarp (called Sarpi on the Georgian side), and went through customs by foot. Going to Georgia went fairly well, but my return trip was atrocious. Both Georgians and Turks have more of the eastern habit of queue-less ‘lining up’; that is, I found myself in a huge crowd of people bottlenecked into one hallway with no moving air, just trying to get to the entrance to the customs booths. Everyone was pushing up against each other with their baggage, and it took me 30 minutes to go 50 feet while two Georgian customs officials periodically opened a red tether at the entrance to the booths and yelled in Turkish, “Come, come! Slow, slow!” to let a small group through before putting the tether back into place. But what most disturbed me was how they seemed to get a kick out of our pathetic behavior, shouting out directives and laughing at us like we were cattle. I’ve jumped ahead to the end of my trip.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Back to the beginning. Once on the Georgian side, I caught a bus 20km along the coast to the resort town of Batumi. Batumi is home to the Greek legend of “Jason and the Golden Fleece.”
Jason arrived in Colchis, the ancient kingdom which is now western Georgia, to claim the Golden Fleece in order to regain the throne in Ellada (present day Greece). Colchis King Aeetes promised to give it to him only if he could perform three seemingly impossible tasks. Luckily for Jason, the gods conspired to make Aeetes's daughter, Medea, fall in love with him. Love-struck, Medea helped him complete the tasks and together they escaped back to Greece with fleece in hand.
Georgia’s Ministry of Education claims the Golden Fleece was likely derived from the local practice of using fleeces to sift gold dust from rivers, causing them to become flecked with specks of gold. The Museum of Georgia conjectures that the Colchis were known for their goldsmithery as early as the 3rd century BC so perhaps it was just gold Jason was after. Or, since they wrote with gold in their ink, perhaps it was a special scroll Jason was after.
In the town square of Batumi stands a monument of Medea with the Golden Fleece in hand.

In comparison to Tblisi, Batumi has more money; it is a popular tourist destination for rich Georgians, Turks, and Russians. I am not much of a crowded, touristic beach person, so I only planned to stay there one night. I did enjoy exploring the old town; it foreshadowed what I would enjoy about Tblisi.

the ceiling in a cool coffee shop
where Jason might have landed on the Black Sea coast of Batumi
Oh, wait! The food! Everyone always wants to know about the food. I am not a huge foodie, but I did take one picture of the national fast food, Khachapuri Adjaruli, which is from Batumi. It’s their version of pizza- boat-shaped bread with TONS of salty cheese, a fried egg, and a wad of melting butter on top. Delicious, and a total gut bomb!

The next morning, I took a six-hour train eastward to Tblisi, where I would spend four nights in a guesthouse in the old town and take a day-trip to eastern Georgia, before working my way backwards to Turkey.

My Guesthouse in Old Town Tblisi

My guesthouse was a renovated double-story house built in the 1900s overlooking a courtyard. It was refurbished only in the most necessary ways, like the insides of the four guest rooms, the kitchen and the shared bathroom. It was located in Kala, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tblisi.
the door to my guesthouse
four private rooms opening to the balcony
the balcony
 Old Tblisi architecture no longer contains any straight lines. My guesthouse and the surrounding buildings all had dipping roofs, undulating rows of bricks and buckling steps, as if the neighborhood was experiencing a slow motion earthquake. The houses were so tightly packed, they were falling into each other. The neighborhood reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The air was sultry. The neighborhood was quietest during the hot middle of the day. Then kids played games on the narrow cobblestone streets. After dinner, women would sit on the steps watching and gabbing, and late at night, adults (mostly men) could be heard drunkenly shouting at each other into the wee hours. The walls of our guesthouse were so thin, it sounded like they were actually in our rooms.


         Georgia was occupied by the Soviet regime for 70 years, from 1921 to 1991, and afterwards suffered a huge economic collapse from which they are still recovering. To have been so recently occupied, and to be struggling economically alongside the pride of sovereignty was the heart of the Georgian “vibe” I was so interested in exploring.
I visited the Soviet Occupation Hall at the Museum of Georgia, where looped news footage of air strikes and bloodied limbless victims played, and a bullet-holed carriage used for deportation was on display. Walls contained statistics of the exiled and the executed, copies of breached treaties, and pictures of religious men and artists alongside their execution dates. It was so dimly lit, I could barely read the signs.
A striking take-away was how in the 1940s and 50s, two noteworthy anti-Soviet-occupation groups were formed by 14-year-olds and 17-year-olds respectively. Fourteen-year-olds! I couldn’t fathom how void of play and carefreeness their childhoods must have been that they would apply their youth towards organizing political rebellions.
         Since the post-Soviet economic collapse 1991, supposedly the middle class has been slowly rising, but the lower class hasn’t budged. I met an older gentleman artist at the “dry bridge market” which is open daily along the Kura River.
Most of the market consisted of poor elderly folks trying to sell their china, old cameras, knife collections, and jewelry spread out on blankets along the sidewalks, but one section of the market consisted of artists selling their paintings- a really beautiful outdoor gallery to stroll through.

           The artist from whom I bought a small painting of old town Tblisi asked me if I liked Georgia. He said it was a beautiful country, but the “economy was sleeping.” 
         In general, people seemed weary to me. Though the city was not ostensibly dark as summer brought with it blue skies, many people had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark circles under their eyes. We joke about the “resting bitch face” in the US, but in Georgia it was a “resting joyless face,” especially those who were generations older than me. However, as soon as I smiled, their faces would light up, and they would smile back. The millenials had a very different spirit- more upbeat and dynamic. 
Customer service was really different than anywhere I’ve been. If I entered a store or restaurant where there was an older shopkeeper, often there was no communication at all, no Hello. Welcome. How are you? or Have a nice day. Only silence. Granted, very little English was spoken, but even if I asked a simple question like, “Visa?”, the shopkeeper would shake her head no instead of saying it. Here’s the money, here’s the change, the end. American customer service is so over the top, it drives me nuts. A waitress will interrupt your dinner conversation every 10 minutes to ask if everything is okay, and then at the end give you a survey to fill out about whether or not you enjoyed her interrupting you every 10 minutes to ask if everything was okay. In Turkey, one or two shop attendants will follow you around the store extremely closely in case you happen to have any questions or needs, which feels super awkward and it’s hard to relax or make a decision. There must be a happy medium somewhere.
         Some streets in old Tblisi were full of buildings renovated into cute cafes, shops and bars. I felt like I was in Italy, eating a tasty meal at an outdoor café on a pedestrian cobblestone street. 
feels like Italy!

the opera house
"The Peace" bridge, known as the "Always" Bridge because of its resemblance to a maxi-pad
outside of Narikala fortress
maybe not such a funny name for a restaurant?

Church of St. Nicholas, inside fortress

But then I’d wander down an alley to the street behind, and it was a completely different world. People had made their homes in whatever part of a building hadn’t collapsed.

Venomous Vipers are Less Aggressive at Monasteries

         One day, I had the opportunity to go on a daytrip to eastern Georgia with a couple from the Netherlands who I met at the guesthouse. The guesthouse owner had a friend who was a guide and would take us to Davit Gareja monastery east of Tblisi in the Kakheti region of Georgia, along the border of Azerbaijani.
         We met our guide at 7am. True to Georgian customer service, he was a man of few words. In the two-hour ride to our first stop, the only word we got out of him was his name, Giorgi. The rest of the time, the Dutch couple and I blabbed on and on about our travel plans, Brexit, and American politics. The Dutch woman said she wanted to work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s always surprising and embarrassing to me how in the spotlight American politics are all over the world, and how I cannot even name the Dutch prime minister. Yet here was a foreign woman who wanted to work for my political system! (It’s Mark Rutte, by the way. I’ve since looked it up.) I really liked this couple and we got along great. 

         After we left Tblisi, the scenery slowly changed from forested to less and less treed, and by the time we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road, there were only rolling barren hills and rocky buttes. We drove very slowly avoiding potholes for nearly an hour with no manmade structures in sight. So we laughed when we came to a fork in the road, and with nothing around us but vast scablands, the intersection had been marked with four giant signs telling us to turn left for the monastery. Ironically, when we arrived at the actual monastery, there was absolutely no sign, so when we pulled into the understated dirt parking lot and Giorgi turned off the engine, the Dutch woman muttered me, “Do you think this is it? Or is this just a stop?” This was it.
         The Davit Gareja monastery complex consists of 15 monasteries that have mostly been abandoned except for the two we visited. The first, Lavra, was restored after the Soviet occupation and is currently inhabited by monks.


It’s named after Davit Gareja, who was one of 13 ascetic Syrians who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. Before that, they were pagans. Lavra contains the original caves where Davit and his disciple Lukiane lived.
Davit's cave

The monastery was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries by the Mongols, Timur, and Shah Abbas. The most notorious sacking was on Easter night in 1615 when Shah Abbas’ Persian soldiers gathered 6000 monks from nearby monasteries, killed them and destroyed their treasures. During Soviet times, the military used the area for exercises since the topography is so similar to Afghanistan, and again the monasteries were vandalized. 
      Udabno was the second monastery we visited. To get to it, we had to hike up and over the butte where Lavra was situated.  Shortly after starting up the trail, Giorgi turned around and said to me very seriously (now that I think of it, he said everything very seriously), “If you see a snake, stop.” I turned around and passed this simple advice onto the Dutch couple, and we wondered aloud as to what the next step would be. Giorgi could only say that there was a dangerous snake that lived in the area. So we hiked on, watching our steps.
Once we crested the butte, we had a great view of Azerbaijani in the valley below. The trail that we next walked on was the actual border between Georgia and Azerbaijani. Down below we could see the border patrol station.

the path to Udabno monastery, the path = Georgia/Azerbaijani border
white buildings = border station
The path led to several cave churches and dwellings. The churches contained frescoes from the 10th-13th centuries. 

Annunciation Church

The refectory was the most impressive structure. Here, the monks knelt to eat. On the wall was an 11th c. fresco of the Last Supper. The Annunciation Church contained the best frescoes of Christ and his disciples.
         We had lots of questions about the monastery and tried to imagine what it would have been like to sleep there at night with campfires, staring out into the barren valley below. Did they choose such a desolate, isolated locale because they were hiding from Persian raids? Giorgi said they were just trying to be away from society and closer to God. It was strangely beautiful, so we asked him if people could feasibly camp up there. He reminded us about the snakes. “Very dangerous,” he said. “After one hour, you cannot move.”
         From then on, all our questions were about the snakes and not about the monastery. In his simple English, we could gather from him that they were not long, but they were fat, and that they were brown and grey. We asked if the monks had ever been bitten, and he said, “I ask monks. They say no. Not aggressive. In other places, snake is more aggressive. But here, it is a monastery.” Sooooo the snake knows it’s in a place of God and chills the fu*k out? Hmm, neither the Dutch couple nor myself were convinced. Nevertheless, we all made it safely back to the car, unbitten and unparalyzed, and it really was a great hike and a beautiful place to visit. And waiting for us in the parking lot was this man, who had driven all the way down that awful dirt road to charge only two lari (75 cents) for a coffee made in the back of his "bug."

Creatives as the Key to a Culture

I bought a collection of translated poems of famed Georgian poet, Galaktion Tabidze. He was part of the intellectual and artistic elite of the Soviet Communist state in the 1920s. “But if my country fails to treat me well, Yes! I’ll die a death, a poet’s name deserves,” he wrote, as a young poet.  His first wife was a victim of one of Stalin’s purges. She was sent into exile, and during that time, wrote him letters, but he didn’t respond out of caution. When she was executed five years later, his first bout of depression hit him. The mental state led him to attempt suicide several times before he successfully threw himself from the upper floor of a mental hospital when he was 67 years old. Unlike many poets, he achieved fame in his lifetime, and was known as the “king of poets” amongst his peers.
Many of his word combinations were considered indecipherable by scholars; equally, these enigmatic expressions intrigued poetry lovers.

Here’s a poem of his I like. Just a tolerable bit of enigma.

The More Away

The more away, the more I love!
In you I love my dearest dream,
It feels- as if in Eden lives,
Untouched- as if the sun’s bright beam.

You differ, maybe, from that dream,
I never grieve about it now!
My aching heart is apt to wish
You were an angel white endowed.

Let ardour strange all burn my heart,
Let seas be filled with tears I shed.
To trust the miracle of Love,
And ravings of a lover mad.

Niko Pirosmani is probably the most famous Creative of Georgia. He was a self-taught painter who achieved fame posthumously, considered Georgia’s national artist. Most of his works are shown in the National Gallery in Tblisi and the Museum of Sighnaghi, both of which I visited. Giorgi brought me to the musueum in Sighnaghi on the way home from the monastery. He told me he really liked Pirosmani, that “his paintings are so powerful.”
Pirosmani was orphaned at a young age and moved from the countryside to Tblisi with his two older sisters as guardians. He taught himself to paint, and remained poor his whole life, taking on ordinary jobs here and there, like whitewashing, or painting signs for shopkeepers. He died at 55 from liver dysfunction and malnutrition.
He is known for a legend about being so in love with a French actress who visited his town that he bankrupted himself to buy enough flowers to fill the square in front of her hotel window. It is speculated that this painting, called “Margarita,” is of her. 

His style is very primitive. His paintings include little detail or 3-D depth. He painted many frontal portraits of ordinary people in the countryside as well as animals in nature. I, myself, am not a huge fan of the primitive style, but spent some time trying to appreciate an artist so revered by a country that he is on their currency.


Portrait of a Georgian Taxi Driver

My train from Tblisi back to Batumi chugged along slowly through rain, a reminder that I was re-entering the Black Sea region, notorious for its rainfall, and when I got off 6 hours later, Batumi was covered in dark, dramatic clouds, and the train station was dealing with flooded bathrooms on the bottom floor.
I wanted to eat my last Georgian meal before heading across the border to Turkey, and so I hailed a taxi to take me to Batumi's center.
The taxi driver had been parked at the station waiting, a young man in his 20s. I pointed to an intersection on my map that would put me right in the center of the city. He seemed to know the intersection. Then he asked me for one lari, and I didn’t understand why or for what. He must have said, “Never mind,” because then we got in the car.
The car’s interior was missing paneling so that electrical wiring was exposed, it smelled of gasoline, and it took him some effort to start the car.  Luckily, we were only going a few kilometers.
         To leave the train station, we pulled up to a tollbooth, where he began arguing with the attendant until the attendant got out of the booth and came to the car window to repeat himself in the taxi driver’s face. The driver forfeited, pulling out some change from a purse attached to his dash. He plopped it into the attendant's hand, and then sped away to the exit all of five meters away. He honked and cursed and wove his way through the congested intersection to turn left towards town. As we sped up to ride the ass of the next car, he looked back at me and said in a tone of That was what I was trying to tell you, “One lari.”
         In the traffic back to town, his car stalled several times and was difficult for him to re-start. Unperturbed, he fiddled with some kind of adaptor on his stereo, then cranked up some staticky hip-hop music, to which he bobbed his body as he sped along.
After a minute, he turned it down for a second, looked back at me, and said, “You. Me. Nature?” and drew a big circle in the air with his hands.
I looked at him confused.
He repeated himself. “You. Me. Nature?”
I wasn’t sure if the music had put him in the mood for a nature walk, or if he wanted to make some extra cash by driving me to some hiking trail or what, but I was starting to trust this guy less and less as the gasoline fumes of his stalling car wafted through the back seat.
Enter deus ex machina: An old man walked up to the passenger window, leaned in, and asked a question. A little back and forth, and next thing I know, he opened the door and got in next to the driver, who didn’t seem to have agreed to take this man anywhere. And that was the end of his asking me on a hot date with nature.
         As we got into town and the traffic thickened, his road rage increased, and he aggressively wove in and out of traffic, cursing at everyone around him. I checked my purse to make sure I had a small enough bill to give him so he wouldn’t take advantage of me. Then he asked me for a book.
“What book?” I asked,.
“The book! The book!” he exclaimed, as if I was the biggest idiot in the world.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, to which he got really exasperated and said something to the old man in frustration.
“Address!” he shouted at me.
“Oh, the map!” I said. “No address.” I repeated the name of the two streets and drew an intersection in the air. The old man seemed to understand, and much more calm than the driver, explained what to say to me.
“Number? Number!” the driver yelled.
“No number,” I said, and I repeated the street names.
“No number??” he exclaimed to the old man incredulously.  The old man’s body language said, Don’t worry. I know these streets. Just go straight ahead, to which the driver wove even more aggressively through traffic.
When I finally recognized an intersection- not even the one I mentioned- I shouted, “Here!”
         He stopped, I got out of the car and then started driving forward. I opened the door again, shouted, “My bag!” and pointed to the trunk.
He said, “Yes! Yes!” and pulled forward to get out of the way of a bus. He got out and opened the trunk for me. When I offered a 10 lari bill to him, and he said, “No, 22 lari.”
“Twenty-two? No, only 7-lari trip.” That was the cost of the trip when I made it four days earlier.
He pointed back to the train station and said, “1 lari,” referring to the fee.
“I know. 10 lari enough." I put the bill in his hand, grabbed my bag, and started walking away. I was super nervous that with all his anger, he might follow me, but I was surprised that all he did was throw his arms down, temper-tantrum style, and let out an “Awww-aaaaw,” like a little kid whose mother just said, No, I will not buy you that candy.
I have a feeling life is going to continue to frustrate him for awhile.

Well, that’s the end of my first impressions of Georgia. Overall, I found the country to be even poorer than I expected, the taste of the Soviet occupation still very much present, and from that the people were more worn down and less nurturing than say, Turks, so it was more exhausting to travel in than I had imagined. But I am so glad I visited because it was really interesting and different from any place I've experienced, and now it’s time for the slower percolation that usually results in poetry at a later date. 

Oh, and if you still don’t have a feeling for the culture, maybe this will help:

T-shirt Slogans in English Worn by Georgians
1.   Love me better
2.   We Need C#shtag
3.   We are unique, everyone of us
4.   Stay awesome
5.   I should have been a unicorn