Last week, for the second time in a year, I was all keychain, no keys. There was nothing I had that needed locking. No home. No car. No bicycle. Just my suitcases and as we all know the TSA brought the hammer down on locking those. It should feel liberating, but it’s just as easy to feel like a refugee.
Here’s a little secret for maintaining poise in the run-up to transatlantic moves. Funnel all of your anxieties, doubts, night terrors, and hobgoblins into a laser-like focus on some trivial aspect of the move. When anybody asks about any aspect of your move except that thing, you’ll seem exceedingly composed. When I relocated to Tbilisi back in 2005, I lost sleep over how on earth I’d get my two 75-pound bags (oh the heady days of free luggage allowance!) up the narrow spiral stairs to the hotel room I’d stay in on arrival. No configuration seemed workable. If I attempted it after 20-some hours in transit and a 4am arrival, I’d surely keel over. If the kindly old proprieter insisted, he’d die of a heart attack or else make disparaging remarks about everything I’d packed and I’d die of embarrassment. Everything else seemed well in hand up to the moment I got on the tarmac, but this? This seemed worth canceling the whole thing over.
This time, outwardly the very picture of calm resolve, I was in fact all aboil about how I’d tell my taxi driver – once I arrived in Tbilisi – where I was staying. They don’t know anything – you have to direct them – and I’d never been to the place I’d arranged to stay. It gave me cold sweats. It seemed undoable. I wanted somebody familiar to pick me up and bundle me brainlessly away. I contemplated just going to a well-known hotel instead of the flat I’d lined up. People camp out with the mujahideen in Afghanistan with less dread. I am not the stuff Pulitzer Prizes are made of. I practiced in my head the whole flight over and with fervor as I felt the dispiriting pull of descent into Tbilisi. “It is near the Patriarch” I knew to say. “A right on the third street.” I practiced this in multiple languages. I braced myself.
The taxi driver was in the grand old “welcome to my country” mold that my last visit here had convinced me was extinct: done in by the late-breaking phenomenon of foreigner saturation. He told me of a new museum up Pushkin Street – a very serious and important place indeed that I absolutely must go see. Then there’s the new cable car hauling people up to Narikala fortress on the hilltop (perfectly safe, he assures). And the Old Town. The Old Town! You won’t recognize it! He slapped the wheel with the palm of his hand. I’d fibbed and said I’d not been back in three years — a mask, I hoped, for my appalling Russian and worse Georgian. We pulled into the Old Town. It was nearly 4:30am. “Everything is open, everything is lit,” he gestured with evident pride. Not content to leave it at that, he continued with a line of hogwash that, as a Texan, I happily allowed to pass unremarked. “There are no police needed, there are no hooligans. Tbilisi is safe, quiet, peaceful. Women walk around on foot like in the old days, everything is safe, everything is open. It’s a different Tbilisi.” And then he tried to bilk me for twice the stated airport fare, and I stiffed him – still overpaying. He stuck a cigarette between his lips, darkly muttering, no longer the welcoming native. “It’s very little,” he scolded. I didn’t care. I was tired and irritated and too steady on this turf for the old charmer bait-and-switch. I had bags to haul up four flights of stairs. And so some of the first Tbilisi is still here.
* * *
Four-thirty a.m. and dead tired is no way to arrive anywhere that you’ve arranged to stay ahead of time, sight-unseen. I’d forgotten the entrances of these buildings, and how they shock you at first, done up as they are in air-raid style. Rubble, construction materials piled up in corners, sickly dangling horror movie bulbs wanly lighting up things you don’t anyway wish to see.
Tired, sweaty, exhausted, I dropped my things and looked around. “Oh hell.” I thought. “I’ve done it again.” Decrepit Old Town, uncomfortable flat. I’d fancied it a writer’s garrett from photos, and it did look just the place to produce some syphilitic masterwork, working one’s way up to tuberculosis. The charming photos of wood floors and antique carpets did not broadcast the telltale smell of eastern european plumbing funk: the sewage vapors one of the more appalling household scents and impervious to incense and candles.
Then there’s the small matter of being unable to stand up in it. It is a redone attic after all, and the low sloping ceilngs render most of the bathroom, half the bedroom, and all of the “kitchen” out of reach. The kitchen much more on the campsite end of the spectrum anyway. Any inkling of despair held off by the bathroom, which unlike my previous Old Town flat is clean and sanitary and there is hot water when you turn on the tap. Well, when you turn on the cold water tap anyway. The first Tbilisi, persisting through plumbing too.
Once I cooled off and shook out of my gloom, I noticed that the view extends nearly 360 degrees to all the great sites of Tbilisi and they were lit up in panorama splendor in the dark hours. There was Narikala and Mother of Georgia just above the desk. The President’s shining new Reichstag monstrosity promises to cast its brilliance directly into my bedroom window every night. Next to it, Sameba Cathedral rising up monumentally like a Sphinx in the desert, shines a warmer glow. The little flat suddenly seemed like the crow’s nest of a ship coming into harbor, with all the land spread out before you in welcome. Happy with this new outlook on things, I hung half my torso out the east window in hopes of catching a free wireless signal and failing that, crawled wisely into bed.
Of course in the light of day I warmed to the dreamy charm of the place. The sun streamed in from every direction, the Old Town woke up slowly, and fresh breezes came in like lost friends after a summer attached to the life support system of Dallas air conditioning. I also realized like an idiot that I had been in this building before, many times, when my friend John had lived here. The photos I took down the street of children playing had been taken before, and my younger head and torso had leaned out lower windows in years back. It is hard to escape that first Tbilisi.
Of course there are signs of a new Tbilisi. At the Doll Theatre, which is being redone, a couple of men stood hacking down a high balcony with sledgehammers. Great colored planks would squeal and snap and then fall three stories to the bare ground in a plume of dust. Directly below all of this, a foreman in a safety jacket swigged his beer and said you cannot walk through there due to the construction. In the first Tbilisi, he wouldn’t have been there, or would have said nothing.