This coming Sunday is Easter Sunday according to the Orthodox calendar, and that means tonight is that often-forgotten night of the Holy Week, the one where you jump over a bonfire. Oh no? You don’t do that one? Must just be Georgia. Yes, tonight is Chiakokonoba, the night where you jump over the bonfire to rid yourself of evil spirits, a ritual (like many spring rituals around the world) with an obvious pagan heart. It may be something borrowed long ago from the ancient Zoroastrians – the old fire worshippers that used to live next door in Azerbaijan and parts of Iran.
In a sublimely Georgian approach to health and safety, this ritual is primarily performed by children. It’s hard to imagine in our world where we can’t let a child eat a piece of trick-or-treat candy on Halloween before the chemical lab results come in, parents shooing their kids out the door to go jump in the fire. I can say with some confidence that Chiakokonoba ranks even above soccer in the hearts of 11 year old boys, as the hooligans on my street chucked their nightly match for an evening of setting stuff on fire and running through it. The only apparent adult supervision for the festivities consisted of, well, me. Gawking from a distance. (Though in all fairness, their fire wasn’t half as impressive as this one. Maybe I should have helped. After a winter spent nursing soggy logs into flame, I feel like something of a fire whisperer myself.)
The Georgian Orthodox Church made a declaration about Chiakokonoba, and from what I could make of it via Google Translate, he either said that it sounds like a fabulous tropical island, OR the more likely interpretation: he is not so keen on the pagan roots of Chiakokonoba and suggests people drop it and focus on the real rituals of the Holy Week. You can see his point, but the 11-year-olds have not.
This is my street, and the view from the front door of my building. It might not look like much, but I like it a great deal and think it’s one of the most satisfying places to live in the city. This is the Old Town, but not the tourist-ready part of the Old Town where they’ve painted everything new and where charming cafes and restaurants spill out of every building. This is the tucked-away part, where the streets maintain a tangled and stubborn logic that befuddles intruders and so serves a fine defensive purpose – cars become lost and oppressed and abused – it is not unusual to see a bewildered BMW driver from a more affluent part of town with a stricken look upon her face as she tries to escape the scarred streetscape of trenches and ditches and impossible tight turns afflicting that vehicle made for saner carriageways. By and large, cars avoid these little streets entirely. For a city of vehicular mayhem, it is something of an oasis.
My affection for this neighborhood is not shared by a great many Georgian friends. Like any people in any place, they are much more aware of the meaning of where you choose to live than a visitor might be, and as good friends they naturally take an interest in my standing in society. They tell me that the Old Town is not a prestigious address. The only people that live there are there because they have to be. A great advantage of being an outsider, of course, is that you float in an uncategorizable stratum of your own and so can do exactly as you like and live in the charming old center rather than the sterile neighborhoods of note, and not bring down your family name in the process. My friends also do not have the same delight in old things that I have. Where I see charming decay in lopsided staircases and peeling paint, they see reminders of the miserable dark days of childhood interrupted by war, collapse of empire, dark years without power, and they are running from these things as fast as they can. I understand them, and understand too that my own affection comes from a childhood spent among houses and towns where everything was brand new, and worked perfectly, but held no old stories. No mysteries except those I could conjure up on my own.
There is the best sort of security force here, and that’s the one led by watchful grandmothers. It is perfectly clear that the families living on this street have lived here for a hundred years, and know everything about everyone. Their boys colonize the street in warm twilight with their soccer game and their shouts. I think about my childhood street in Colorado, safe from traffic, full of kids my age, the watchful eyes of everybody’s mother and father tracking us between backyards and driveways. It is a very good sort of childhood to have. When I come home in the evening, sometimes one of the boys will be sitting on the stoop with his soccer ball. He will grin up at me and practice what he’s learned in school “Hello, how are you?” he’ll say in English. So much for anonymity. But their girls, if they have any, are kept well hidden away and don’t come out onto the streets to play.
Unlike the oppressive tenement high-rises on the outskirts of the city rising 20 and more stories high, these buildings are low to the street and so it is very easy for each family to keep track of one another. In places like those high-rises, well-trafficked places where hundreds and hundreds of people live anonymously and desperately, you might find strange men that nobody knows anything about standing in groups of 3 and 4 on corners. They can do what they like without anyone finding out about it. Not here, though. Just neighbors, known faces.
This season, everybody is wearing black. As a matter of fact, it was the same last season. And the season before. It is very easy to imagine that in this neighborhood it has been one unending season of black since, perhaps, the Persians and Arabs were running through the streets with their exotic silks and rugs. The women are wearing their skirts long, and although the young ones chase trends with their skinny jeans and fashion boots with vertiginous heels and faux leather jackets, they are still all in this season’s color. In other parts of town, this is not still so true and you can find quite a rainbow of colors on young people and middle-aged alike, but here in the Old Town the classics never go out of style and my bright pink pencil skirt is not well appreciated by the matrons of street corner and balcony watch.
At the farthest end of my street, where the fashionable district with the cafes and restaurants begins, they’ve taken one of these old buildings and some photographers have opened a cafe. As a place for acquiring food or drink it is completely useless, but as a dreamy place to sit and work, it is simply unimprovable. The staff is darling and helpless, and it is best not to ask them to do anything more complicated than provide you with a tea bag and hot water. Nothing on the menu is available, and neither is the cook, who tends to disappear for extended stretches without telling anyone. Sometimes the cook will come back and tell you what you can have, and it’s usually not too bad if you have it, but this is not the place to come with any sort of plan for your afternoon. In the daytime nobody is ever in here but me, and they play old Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and I drink tea among the fresh flowers they’ve put everywhere. It is the most calming place I know in the city.
I suppose one day these old streets may become fashionable again. It is in the heart of the city and the very best cafes and restaurants in the cleaned-up Old Town are very near us. One day new families or maybe rich Iranians will come and buy up the old buildings and fix them up and these families that have known each other for 100 years and more will have to decide what to do. Some will take the money and some will not, but there is no stopping the change when it comes one day, not even here.
In lieu of writing, some images of life in Tbilisi…
(all photos from my Instagram account: susanastray)
Two weeks ago, such was the scene in nosebleed seats. Green in the valleys, and heaps of ski-able snow in the peaks. Goggles and gloves for the top of the chairlift, US Marines in short sleeves dancing on tables at the bottom. (they’d been diligently liberating all of the beers from the slope-side bar).
And now last weekend, in the valleys of southwest Georgia, earliest spring was erupting on every skeletal tree branch. The snow melt had rivers roaring, and the green was already resurrecting the hillsides from their dead brown hibernation.
Like in any city, it can be hard to escape the gravitational pull of routine and urban distractions to get out into nature for the weekend. And as with any city, once you do, you wonder why you don’t do it more often. Three friends and I managed to break out of the Tbilisi orbit last weekend to go greet the spring in southwest Georgia. The destination? Vardzia. A very old and very cool cave complex that has the distinction of being one of the parts of Georgia to which I have never been. Consider yourself oriented:
To get there you pass through Gori, Stalin’s old home town, following the river round the bend through Borjomi (not pictured) of famed salty mineral waters, and into utterly nondescript Akhaltsikhe, which means “new castle” in Georgia. The last time there was a new castle in Akhaltsikhe was probably the 15th century, but I am writing to you from a part of the world where “new” and “old” take on hues we hardly dream of in America. The land where Tbilisi is the “new” capital, seeing as how the seat of power got moved there in the 5th Century. Whippersnappers.
Anyway. We were escorted to Vardzia by an Armenian Georgian called Arsen who seemed decidedly unhappy with his lot in life. It seemed nothing pained Arsen more than driving around a group of chirpy Americans (plus token Canadian), which is unfortunate given that driving around groups of foreigners for money is Arsen’s profession at present. Arsen displayed his displeasure by whipping around curves at sick-making speeds and chain smoking with the windows up. (Arsen did not get a tip at the end of the weekend, which only deepened the scowl lines etched upon his long-suffering face.)
In any case, even a sourpuss Armenian Georgian (an ethnic combination capable of quite operatic depths of sourpussdom) could not dampen the fresh delights of spring in the valley. No! Arsen could not do that. But upon arrival at our guesthouse in Vardzia, my fellow travelers tried their best to accomplish it themselves by overindulging in the local offerings of wine. The next morning, impatient to go greet the spring as I’d been promised, and greet breakfast at the agreed upon time, I decided to remind my traveling companions about the fresh delights of spring by banging on the boys’ door. The local vintage seemed to have put them into a solid slumber. I banged again. Nothing. Noticing the door was unlocked I threw it open, letting the delights of spring explode with a major chord into their dank and smelly hangover den. “Rise and shiiiiiiine!” I chirped loudly to a chorus of groans and a wave of blankets being pulled over wretched heads. “Time for breakfaaaast! It’s a beautiful day! YOU’RE LATE.”
At breakfast the boys regarded me with the same hooded glare of displeasure as the one to which Arsen had been treating us. “Where’s my coffee” groaned one. Another sent the smoke from his morning cigarette in my general direction. “That’s for the perkiness” he clarified to my wrinkling nose.
After coffee and showers, the entire party seemed revived and ready to conquer our actual objective, the cave complex of Vardzia.
I’m a bit fuzzy on the history, and there weren’t exactly informational plaques abounding, but our printout from Wikipedia explained a thing or two. Human habitation here since the bronze age, but the main portion of the complex was built during Georgia’s golden age, the blossoming years in the 12th century under Queen Tamar.
Caves dug out of the soft stone for dwellings, bakeries, proto-pharmacies, water systems, you name it. When the Ottomans strolled over from Turkey in the 16th century for a friendly couple-hundred years visit, the site was abandoned. The upshot of that is that one can find in the church at Vardzia something that is very hard to find in Georgia, ransacked as it’s been by tidal waves of marauding Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Tsarists, and Bolsheviks: untouched frescoes in the church. Tucked into this hillside, the saints eyes were not scratched out by the swords of the Shah’s men, nor whitewashed by Tsarist bureaucrats. The golden heights of Georgian religious art were left unmolested here, and while they’re not going to topple the greats of Florence or Siena for tourism value, for these eyes accustomed to the permanent disrepair of everything in Georgia, it was miraculous to see. I did not take photos inside the church itself, where the finer frescoes are, but here is the open area just outside the doors, exposed to all the elements.
Vardzia, incredibly, is still a working monastery. A rope keeps visitors (although we were the only ones) from the northernmost section of the complex, where the monks still live in the caves. Their caves are finished off with windows and wooden frames, but it still must be a remarkable way to live for some time. Stretching north to south along the river bed, the whole wall of caves is poised to greet the morning sun. “Can you imagine,” asked Mitch, a yoga enthusiast, “doing your morning sun salutations here?”
In all a splendid weekend getaway. (Though I don’t think Arsen would agree.)
You can see a few more shots from the weekend here.
Brian, when he bothers to come into his office, shares his office space with a loose collection of oddballs all pursuing their own projects. It’s a cheery space and so I often work from that office too, even though it’s not (strictly speaking) where I’m supposed to be working.
Last week one of the guys discovered Photoshop. All sorts of mayhem ensued – the President of Georgia’s head being superimposed on various things, you know, the usual. He also decided to make Brian Employee of the Month. Even though, obviously, everybody there works for themselves. Here’s what he came up with:
Yes, yes, all very cute. When Brian bothered coming into the office, he had a quick chuckle, and nobody thought more of it.
Except the cleaning lady.
The Georgian cleaning lady.
Who comes at night, when everybody’s gone, and does not speak English.
But she saw the photo and knew at once what it meant. Brian was dead.
She called Brian’s assistant the next morning, wailing at the injustice, the shock. “He was so young!” she cried. Poor Tamar could not keep from crying herself, in hysterics, when she heard who the prank was really on.
Now Brian calls himself Lazarus. At least he knows the cleaning lady’ll miss him.
Georgian men are big-time starers. In fact the primary occupation of a healthy portion of the male population of the city is to stand outside in clusters, wear black, smoke cigarettes, grunt, spit, and from beneath hooded eyes, stare without any thought of subtlety or shame at every passing girl.
It could be worse, certainly — they don’t do anything but stare. But it’s tiring. So I felt entirely justified, when I got a very gratifying glimpse of the back of one of the starers as he and his buddies moved on ahead, in taking my little piece of revenge.
It’s important to learn English, kids…
Look what little bun I pulled out of the oven!
This might be the most impressive thing I’ve ever done.
If you recall where we started, when this was just a twinkle in my eye, it all looked like this:
Only later was I to learn that most sane people do not start a sourdough starter with grapes and a muslin bag, they start it with a sourdough starter pack that they send away for. You live, you learn, I like my way.
We moved on to this:
The pile of mush that fermented in the bucket for a couple of weeks. Then came the pain-in-the-butt period. Constant feedings, morning and night. I’d come home tired, ready for bed, then glance accusingly at the bucket in the corner. Didn’t I just feed you this morning? You’re hungry again? It is an unfortunate fact that I struggle to adapt my life to handle the weighty responsibility of a sourdough starter.
But it was all worth it when my starter started gurgling to life and my finger, after a dip in the sticky sludge, came back with a distinctly tarty tang. And so although I’m buying my weight in flour, and accidentally buying double my weight in corn flour because these old ladies keep handing me giant bags of that when I ask for flour and I keep forgetting to check (anybody planning a late thanksgiving for a small island population and in need 10 pounds of corn flour?) — anyway, in spite of all that, I am pleased to present to you my pride and joy.
The cleaning lady who did not approve of my use of salt also does not approve of my wearing flats without stockings, and the taxi man who has appointed himself my personal driver does not approve of my haircut. In this the cleaning lady is siding with my Mother on footwear standards, and the driver is siding with me on everything that is going wrong north of my neck.
It is very difficult to please everybody.
Perhaps you would like me to expand on the taxi driver who attached himself to me? His name is Gia. This will be short for Giorgi, which is the name of every Georgian man. Being the name of every Georgian man, the Georgian men must have some way to differentiate. And so the nicknames for Giorgi are basically any combination of G’s and vowels you can think of – a baby talk soup. I personally know the following Giorgi’s: Gaga, Gigi, Gia, Goga, Gogiko, Giga, Gio, and Gagi. But NOT, obviously, Gogo, which is patently absurd seeing as how it means girl. I was present when a visiting American of Indian extraction called Aparna was in town. The fact Goga called her “Apartheid” was considered by orders of magnitude less offensive than her dubbing him “Gogo.”
So Gia. Gia sits at the end of my street in his navy blue Opel and tells other people who want a taxi to go away because he is waiting for me. He beams up at me like a proud 60-something chain-smoking labrador when I arrive. It was all just an accident. He happens to hang out in his cab at the end of my street, and that’s where I go to catch cabs to work when I’m running late, which is always.
I don’t really speak Georgian. I speak restaurant-and-taxi-directions Georgian. I speak “yes you have a beautiful country and yes I have a Giant Fake Husband” Georgian. Gia does not care, expanding upon the news of the day, asking me who knows what. I’m passable in Russian and tried to convey this fact. Gia does not care about this either, being less interested in the exchange of thoughts than in the act of ferrying me to my office and, as mentioned, expanding upon the news of the day, asking me who knows what.
I warned Gia that I would be gone for Christmas for three weeks, at which point he made the polite inquiries about my family that Georgians, sweetly and (it seems to me) sincerely, always do. It was not until February that Gia reappeared in my life, however. Down to the end of the street. Hailing the cab. And then a man appears. He has jumped out of his navy blue Opel and has come across the street to shake my hand. “Go away” – he shoos the taxi driver that I just flagged down. “This way!” he says, with that labrador grin.
Reunited, we swap Christmas notes. As it so happens, both were “good.” In a further coincidence, we both ate food. This line of inquiry was interrupted for Gia to express a grave disappointment in my hair, to which I could only concur. And then he launched into his Gia chatter. I once shared a taxi with an American friend who marveled at my advanced ability to understand Georgian. “I don’t understand anything,” I told him. “I have an advanced ability to BS.” I can tell with absolute precision precisely how to modulate my “mmhmms” and my “wow!”s and my “really?”s. I can give a very convincing impression of comprehension, and it works a wonder with taxi drivers who only really want you to pay heed anyway. I quake in fear of questions, but otherwise it works out fine. So it went with Gia, me agreeing and murmuring, when suddenly he turned around to face me with his birds nest eyebrows raised to say: “Yes?! Really?”
Screeeeeech rewind! What had he been saying? My mind quickly tracked back to key words. Teacher…. English… “Only if you have time!” Gia wagged his finger at me. Then he said: “What a lovely teacher I will have!”
And so I decided at once that it would sadly be necessary for me to avoid Gia from this point forward. It is unfortunate. He was sweet and kind. I didn’t have to haggle over prices or explain where to go. He only smoked sometimes and usually opened the window first. But we crossed the point of no return. I don’t have time to be an English teacher and I don’t have the vocabulary to say why not. Maybe there’s another Gia out there for me somewhere. Or a Giga. Or a Gogi. Or a Gogiko.
I am very sorry to learn that sometime between 2007 and today, I was robbed of my favorite Diplomat-mocking talking point. It is no longer true, as it was then, that the post differential (that’s hardship pay) for Tbilisi was the same as Kabul and Baghdad. Back then both posts would net you 35% on top of your base. To be fair, this was before the Russians came stomping through, but even after they did, the idea of Tbilisi existing in the same threat universe as those active war zones was a joke.
Teasing a seasoned Embassy guy on this very point, I was treated to an unfortunate sense of humor failure. “Well, life can be very uncomfortable here,” he said. Of course this is also perfectly true for the entire population of Oklahoma and nobody’s topping them up to keep American boots on the ground, although I’d think they’d need more incentive. “The power still isn’t that great,” he went on, cataloguing his woes. “International flights all leave at 3 and 4 in the morning. There are no Western grocery stores.” My hand flew to my heart. “You’re right!” I gasped. “Thank you for your service to our country!” I joke. I did not say that.
In any case, it’s no longer true. Georgia’s bumped down to the likes of Nigeria and Angola in the official U.S. Government pain-in-the-ass scale. It’s hard to say exactly what knocked it down to the 25% bracket. The flights still leave at ungodly hours. But the Western grocery stores have arrived in force. To wit:
I used to scorn such things as comfort and 24 hour electricity. Live on the frontier! I thought. But after much aging and soul searching over dark and fitful nights, I have concluded that I very much like beautiful places where people are paid to be nice to me. And hand me free samples of exfoliating masks. Which is why I have made the financially foolish but mentally healthy decision to work out in a locale that may ALSO be responsible for that little ding in the hardship scale. It looks like this:
Not pictured: me working VERY HARD I swear in the other room. The one with the treadmills and what not.
But in my private life, I still fight the fight for the 25%. I duck from flying rodents. I get the sardine treatment on the bus. I cook over a glorified zippo lighter. And I go a-guesting to receive notes like that one below. Hanging tough.