This guy has been hanging around the Old Town, looking entirely put upon, for as long as I can remember. It’s easy to like a statue eternally posed not to sing glories to victors, but to ask: “what do ya want from me?” That’s certainly how I feel most of the time, between dodging murderous marshrutka drivers and falling into sinkholes left behind by the plague of construction contractors that have swarmed every corner of the capital city. So I felt we understood each other, this poor embattled chap and I, not least because he is most often found with an unhurried bird squatting serenely upon his head. Only now I’ve learned we have something else in common: that this is Ietim Gurji, a famed folk poet of turn-of-the-century Tbilisi and namesake of the street I now live on.
It’s an unremarkable little street, anonymously twisted into the spaghetti plate mess of streets inside the old fortress walls of the city. While half of the Old Town is posing for cameras in fresh-painted walls and rebuilt balconies and evenly paved cobblestones, back here on Ietim Gurji Street we are beyond the approved tourist map and the buildings still sag and creak and the thin metal sheeting over my head bangs like a kettle drum when it rains, finally building to a satisfying white roar.
Old Tbilisi, some are saying, is starting to look like Disneyland. The government is in a prettifying frenzy, tearing down old buildings without regard for historical status or architectural value, throwing up new ones in a hurry. On the new lanes rebuilt to tourist spec, nobody’s yet living. They are antiseptic, inauthentic, literally hollow. In a hive like Tbilisi, they are eerily quiet.
And yet, they’re so pretty. Many of the buildings in this district were so damaged by earthquake and time and decades of neglect due to poverty and war and every other conceivable woe, that they were entirely unsuited for human habitation. If the area is to be lived in, if it must be rebuilt from scratch, at least it is done in keeping with the old style – and not just the ornate wooden balconies which are pleasingly everywhere, but the crush of buildings into each other, the balconies running into roofs running into walls running into courtyards. A huddling way of life has always been the way in the Old Town, and so it should stay, even with fresh paint. They will not, I can comfortably predict, stay so fresh and clean for long.
Besides there is plenty of authentic Old Tbilisi still to go around. Back here on Ietim Gurjis the streets are narrow and half buried in a fine dust that cakes your shoes. They logically connect absolutely no two things, and so — a real respite in this town — there are blessedly few cars tearing through here. From well before sundown until late, a gang of young boys plays soccer on the street, screaming and yelling and bouncing the ball of these old walls until the bellowing old hippo of a man comes out onto his balcony to bark them scurrying into their homes. It’s the sort of late summer memory I also have — in a street far away, kicking balls around with the neighborhood kids and yelling into the falling dark.
There are demonstrations around town over the prison abuse scandal – and rightly so. But there is no sign of them here on Ietim Gurji street. The ice cream woman comes around on hot days, lugging her box on a shoulder strap and singing out her wares in her crone’s call. The dogs call out to one another. An alert doberman keeps watch at night as the boys kick the ball and everyone hits the walls when a lost car slaloms through these narrow chutes. Someone on the street is calling up to a woman enjoying the cool evening on her balcony. He has the gravelled, unsettling bark of his brethren and he sounds angry. But he is only asking which is the house of his friend.