Georgia on my mind

DSC_2581The Tsminda Sameba Cathedral in Avlabari, Tbilisi, one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world.

That’s right. I went there. Hoagy Carmichael would be proud.

Here are some photos that tell the story of my time in Georgia. All pictures are either mine or DJ’s, and are linked accordingly. I hope these little vignettes give a sense of just what a country this is and just how much you need to go here someday.

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I have a hard time describing Marjanishvili, the neighborhood I lived in for three weeks. The best phrase I’ve come up with is “a ramshackle fairy tale.” It’s a tangled web of streets full of Art Nouveau houses with years on their façades – 1895, 1886, 1904 – marking both the date of construction and the last time they were ever maintained. Paint is peeling, stucco has fallen off in chunks, but the beautiful filigrees, the wrought-iron balconies, and the haunting faces in the plaster are all still there.

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It’s as if time here has frozen, but the processes of disintegration and decay have not.

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I love the way the Georgian alphabet looks. And strange as it is to say, I had a blast learning it. I felt like a little kid again, walking down the street and reading all the signs out loud just for the pleasure of reading.

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On my second day in Tbilisi, DJ (in front) introduced me to the Hash House Harriers, a running/walking/drinking/social group with chapters in 1,700 cities around the world. The Tbilisi chapter is mostly expats, but with a solid contingent of Georgians as well. Basically, how it works is, a small group of organizers, the “hares,” gather in a particularly beautiful, interesting, or significant part of the city to create two trails – one for runners, and one for walkers. The trails are usually marked with chalk or little handfuls of flour, and they include copious dead ends, double-backs, and devious schemes to lead participants astray. A few hours after the trails are laid, the entire Hash group meets up, divides into runners and walkers, and figures out how to get to the finish line. There are numerous rituals traditions, enforced by the chapter’s Religious Advisor, who also controls the weather and brings down sunshine or storms depending on how much the group has displeased him. Suitable punishments are meted out to those who fall afoul of tradition, which is generally everyone; most require the chugging of beer (or a non-alcoholic alternative). Bawdy songs are involved.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have sought out such a group based on description alone. But I’m glad I tried it out, because I found a fascinating and diverse group of people, an atmosphere of frivolity and self-mocking gravitas, and, of course, a chance to hike through some of the most beautiful parts of Tbilisi on a regular basis. I’m planning on checking out the Hash here in Baku to see if this chapter is just as enjoyable.

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But the best part came after the Hash, when we repaired to the house of one of our group members to partake in a traditional Georgian wine-making festival. The party started out on his front porch, where we all pitched in to pick about two piled-high garbage bags full of red grapes. (In such a wine-oriented culture, it’s no surprise that pretty much every Georgian household grows its own grapes – DJ says she’s even seen them hanging from the windowboxes of high-rise apartments.) We all gathered around a bunch of giant pots to strip them off the vines, and then a couple of folks stayed back to do the actual squashing into grape juice. A whole lot of fun, and a perfect way to kick off my time in Georgia.

Line of the night: one of the grape squashers, Dirk, bursts into the room, his hands dripping red, and shouts “IT’S A BOY!”

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Me, DJ, and some grapes!

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I’m proud of this shot.

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This is one of the things I love about Tbilisi and Philadelphia alike: the simple act of walking down the street reveals surprises in the most unexpected places.

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One Saturday, we were invited to visit DJ’s Georgian friend Paco, whose family owned a summer house in the eastern region of Kakheti. Their property was covered with persimmon and pomegranate trees bowed low with fruit, and being the strange American workaholics we are, we jumped at the opportunity to help them with their harvest. A delicious supra (Georgian feast) was waiting for us at the end, with pomegranate-flavored shashlyk and their neighbors’ homemade white wine. (Photo by DJ)

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Paco’s mother, our delightful hostess for this weekend outing. There were grapes on their property too! I’m telling you, where there are Georgians, there are grapes. (Photo by DJ)

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The mother’s description of this dog:
“She eat the soap.
We can no find the soap.
I send Paco to get new soap.”

After we finished cracking up, we decided the dog was to be named Bubbles. (Photo by DJ)

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On the grounds of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta.

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There is a legend about how Russia became an Orthodox nation. According to the chronicles, the Kievan prince Vladimir the Great became dissatisfied with paganism and sent emissaries to all the neighboring peoples to determine which religion he should adopt for his state. He sent an emissary to the Volga Bulgars, a Muslim people, but rejected Islam because of its prohibitions on alcohol: “Drinking is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure.” He sent an emissary to the Jewish Khazars, but neither could he embrace Judaism; he viewed the Jews’ loss of Jerusalem as evidence that they were a defeated people. Finally, he sent an emissary to Constantinople, to the grand Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia, and he was stunned: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” On the strength of its beauty, then, Vladimir adopted the Orthodox Church as Kievan Rus’s own.

Orthodox churches give me the same feeling. Golden icons shine in the flickering candlelight. Dim sunbeams filter through the smoke from the incense. Frescoes, barely visible in the gloom, twist up every column and every wall. A priest with a censer faces the iconostasis, chanting the same two notes he has been chanting for the past 1,500 years. Purest devotion all around. It gives me chills. Maybe Vladimir was onto something.

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A portion of Mtskheta’s ruined hilltop fortress. I scaled this castle tower from the inside with my bare hands. What did you do with your Thursday?

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On my last full weekend in town, there was another Hash, and despite my inexperience, I got roped into being a hare – along with a motley crew of three other Americans, two Georgians, and our intrepid English chapter leader. We went up to beautiful Turtle Lake in western Tbilisi for this one.

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I try not to have political opinions if I can help it. But given the Tsarist conquest, Soviet occupation, post-independence meddling, and the most recent war in 2008, it’s hard not to be on Georgia’s side here.

On our way to Gori, we passed by some of Georgia’s German-built IDP camps (internally displaced persons), housing refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia who had to flee when Russian soldiers occupied their towns. Seeing those orderly rows of identical cottages at the foot of a mountainous border made a strong impression on me… strong enough to spark an intriguing post-grad-school career idea.

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So you know Stalin? He was Georgian. His hometown, Gori, is one of the only places left in the former USSR where the unalloyed worship of bloodthirsty dictators is totally okay. The main drag is called Stalin Avenue, which culminates in Stalin Square where a massive statue of Stalin still stands (one of the few that survived Khrushchev’s 1950s efforts to cleanse Stalin from the Soviet pantheon).  Here, too, is the Stalin Museum, a classic Soviet-era educational institution impressive for the caliber of its whitewashing. The entire 1930s, including the Great Purge, is more or less skipped as if no one would notice; the Ukrainian famine is replaced by a picture of a traditionally dressed Ukrainian peasant woman beaming as Stalin signs the deed to her collective farm. All of World War II is excised except for the Soviet troops marching into Berlin. They even had a picture of Stalin voting, a symbol of the voice of the people under his rule.

At the heart of this museum is a darkened room with a red carpet and a ring of white columns surrounding its only exhibit: Stalin’s death mask, elevated on a pedestal above a sunken circle in the floor. Despite the shoddy construction, despite the absurdity of this tiny disembodied Stalin head dwarfed by its grand surroundings, it was still an intensely creepy place. I couldn’t stop seeing rib cages and spilt blood.

On the car ride back from Gori, we were discussing the sheer surreality of our visit and the various depredations of Stalin’s regime. Our driver, a Georgian, was having trouble following along with our conversation until we asked him, “What do you think of Stalin?” He drew himself up proudly and said in Russian, “A man like that comes along once in a million years.”

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And then we had a sheep traffic jam on our way back to Tbilisi. The end!

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About Arbutus

learner, traveler, music-maker, explorer, rabbit extraordinaire
This entry was posted in Georgia, Kiva Fellowship, Personal Travels, Stories of Places. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Georgia on my mind

  1. Kim says:

    If only every story could end, “And then we had a sheep traffic jam.”

    Glad to see you’re still alive! We were worried over here for a bit.

    Also, EI’s wife had a baby boy about 2 weeks ago.

    And then we had a sheep traffic jam. <– see how cool that is?

  2. Pingback: Looking for a soul to steal | Nothing Ventured

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