One Day in Tbilisi

tbilisi-in-portrait

Here are parts I and II of my trip into Georgia.

As daybreak came, we set off by foot to find our host for the night. The instructions he gave were vague. After walking up and down a steep street, the weight of my backpack rendered me irritable, and I insisted we get better directions.

We went into a subway station in the busy strip of town and tried to hand signal our question. It was fail all around – nobody understood us, and we were politely escorted out of the station by security guards.

We continued to wonder along the main road, looking for people that might have been able to help. Spotting a bakery with English on the sign, we dived inside. Not understanding our intelligible question, the cashier ushered someone in from the back to help us, and a well-dressed young woman emerged. After hearing our question, she furrowed her brows and asked if we spoke German or Russian. We looked at each other in puzzlement and shook our heads.

I did not understand the German-Georgian connection until a couple of weeks ago, when I got into contact with a German artist residing in Georgia named Hans Buhr. This is what he told me.

There is indeed a long tradition of Georgian-German relationship. It started in the 19th century, where “discovery journeys” were undertaken by German scientists, ethnologists, linguists (sometimes in charge of and paid by the Russian Academy of Science), traders and businessmen. They headed to the Caucasus, especially Georgia.

A couple of thousands of Germans from Schwaben arrived in Georgia for religious reasons between 1817 to1820, and settled in Tbilisi. They found villages around Tbilisi and other regions in the Caucasus. Georgians liked their attitudes and discipline, and by character the two people fit quite well together. There was an exchange from Georgian writers, artists, scientist in the direction Germany as well, especially in the 20th century. In fact, Germany was often their first stop on the way to Europe.

During Soviet times, Russian was obligatory in public schools. But as the third language, German was most often chosen. Many Georgian writers and teachers were also fascinated by German literature and transported this feeling into Georgian society. Today there are strong economic links particularly in specialty cars and spare parts that are imported from Germany. Thousands of Georgian students study in Germany, and others go there for a year as au-pairs.

Where language fails, more primitive communication tactics kick in. Barred by her lack of English, and our lack of pretty much everything other than English, we resorted to drawings. It worked. Half an hour later, we offloaded our backpacks at our destination, and I was finally able to pay attention to our surroundings.

We walked up the street and tried to make our way back to the city centre. The streets were quiet, and many fruits and vegetable stalls emerged from crumbling exteriors of buildings. Many had fallen into disrepair, and resembled the old-world charms and perhaps falsely romanticized images of decay, as well as the kind of anarchical disarray in the forms of scribbles and graffiti that are usually reserved for subway and train stations.

Back on Rustaveli Avenue, the contradictions continued. One side of the street is lined with leafy trees, various cultural and musical theatres, while the other is dominated by the humongous Georgian parliament. The Soviets left their marks everywhere, Georgia had not been exempted (How could it have been, being the birth place of Stalin?).

I had seen similarly scaled monstrosities in Berlin and Egypt, where the resulting monuments never fail to distill and embody the very essence of absolutism. Karl Wittfogel, a one-time German communist that escaped the Nazis by immigrating to the US, called the aesthetic effect (via Kaplan) as an achievement with “a minimum of ideas and a maximum of material.” The very size of such construction dwarfs the individual and espouses power of the collective, and the impression it gives off is not unlike those massively choreographed dances and gymnastic displays so common to the Communist era.

We continued to Freedom Square, where most of the rallies and anti-government protests had taken place a week prior to our arrival. It was unsurprisingly quiet by the time we had arrived. Armed soldiers line the street every few steps, the occasional police van revealed soldiers in riot gears. But putting it into perspective, short of their willingness to shoot, they looked no more threatening or dangerous than European riot police during soccer matches and May Day protests, or armed Turkish police during state visits by foreign dignitaries.

Back of the parliament building was awkwardly juxtaposed with the quaint alleys leading up to it. The inhuman size of it was even more staggering than the front. The colour and texture were hideous and the structure as a whole had an unfinished feeling to it. Plain clothes police walked up and down the stretch, occasionally stopping to check us out. I put my camera away.

As day turned to dusk, we met up with our host. We heard about his work in Georgia, the riot and never ending political tension between Georgia and Russia, drinking games, famous baths, the beautiful countryside. I can’t remember much from our conversation, because I was overwhelmed and distracted by the pervasive cold. Sitting next to the only heater in his Georgian apartment house and wrapped in my thickest sweater, I could not stop shivering. I conceded my defeat to cold that night, and decided to depart for a place where I was not enveloped and consumed by physical discomfort.

As a postscript, I need to thank the surprising number of readers for their responses on my writings on Georgia the past two weeks. It’s flattering and uncomfortable at the same time, as my contact with Georgia was both short in length and shallow in depth. Needless to say, my account and experiences of the country cannot possibly in any way reflect, deflect, or generalize what long-term expats and local residents live with on a daily basis.

I understand and feel strongly about the difference between the kind of selectively lasting yet misleading ideas a traveler get from passing through a place. It is in stark contrast to the concrete and more difficult truths one is shown once settling down in a place they had once idolized from photo albums and glossy journals.

To that end, I will continue to write about my travels, this time about a place I stayed on for three months. After Georgia, I found myself in Cairo (via a short retreat in Instanbul). During those months, I lived in hostels and shared a local flat; tried to learn Arabic from a Palestinian teacher; got stalked and harassed by Egyptian men on many occasions; met and mingled with Egyptians and ex-pats; traveled through most of the country on trains, shoddy buses and shoddier taxis; joined an ex-lobbyist from America that taught English to Eritrean refugees; explored ghettos, mosques, bazaars and the Cairo ballet alike.

Egypt knew how to push all the buttons. For all the cities I had traveled to, Cairo was the one place that rendered me emotionally paralyzed for weeks. It was a place where going out of my apartment was not unlike going to war, where my already cynical self was pushed closer to the edge of fatalism on a daily basis. But when I least expected it, a small act of kindness would pull me back and reduce me to tears. It was a place where poverty and suffering had no shiny exteriors to hide behind, where indignities and unfairness were out in the open for all to see. Knowing the dangers, it was a place where I could not help but symphasize with the ideas of relativism.

All that wordiness aside, I hope to share my time in Egypt with you in a way that I could not with Georgia. Instead of relying on descriptions and knowledge acquired after-the-fact, I hope to leave you with some first-hand emotions and reactions from me, and the people I interacted with. And needless to say, I look forward to hearing from you – thoughts, experiences, reactions. Till then!

picture source: Mikhail Lermontov

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