Letter from Tbilisi
It’s dawn in the city. I’m in a taxi from the airport. Such moments are wondrous; the first time in a new city, the architecture, the birds, the foliage, the language, all brightly and liftingly unfamiliar and fresh and thrilling (and what a strange looking alphabet Georgian has, all vermicular curlicues and swirls).
These moments are gravid with potential and excitement. What adventures await, here? What’s going to happen to me and what will I make happen in this never-before-seen place?
The place is already, or still, lively, at this early hour; shops and bars are lit, and in doorways are grouped young punks, older raver types, the sleepless and the early riser. There are voices raised in high spirits and lots of pockets of laughter I’m driven through.
Plentiful Street dogs, unafraid of humans, and the sleek shapes of cats under cars and high on walls. Corvids in the trees that overhang the yellow river. Screaming clouds of swifts, blade-swarms, scimitar-blizzards (I will discover that the Georgian word for ‘swift’ is the same as the word for ‘sickle’).
I think I’m going to like it here.
And indeed I do, hugely. In new cities, I find myself reaching in my memory for familiarities, echoes of places I’ve visited before; here, in Tbilisi, I look to the left and see Split, to the right and see Sofia, Mostar, Kreuzberg, Vilnius, a hundred other places.
Palimpsest place; a jigsaw of influence and allusion. Intriguing, alluring, and utterly unique. And, kind of apposite to this, and concomitant with the sense of connectedness, I meet an Irish man who knows one of my pals from Aberystwyth, and an American who knows one of my pals from Blaenau and another from Northumbria.
The world’s not small, it’s immense, but sometimes we shrink it. And there is an energy here which bumps in the blood like a drug.
The Writer’s House has a garden that feels tropical; I expect to see monkeys in the trees. It was bequeathed to the city by the philanthropic and artistically-drawn owner partly as redress for the purge of creative types under Stalin.
On a bluff overlooking the garden is a modernist monstrosity of a mansion in which the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili lives; in the round glass structure attached to it, he allegedly keeps sharks. He’s Russia-connected, allegedly, and is allowed to reside in the city allegedly with the grace of the allegedly pro-Putin government (despite its alleged public praise of the EU and condemnation of the Ukraine invasion).
The house was allegedly built immediately following the Russian ‘special military operation’ of 2008. I’m not making any irrefutable statements here, but I will say, and apropos of very little (except house comparison), that my house only has two storeys; I’d probably survive were I to be pushed – sorry, I mean ‘fall’ – from the upstairs window.
Look up. The ornate balconies. The cupolas. The statuary and ancient structures on the hills. The river valley; much of the old town is built on its banks.
I meet my translator in the Irish bar where, as always, the Guinness is manky. That’s the thing with Irish pubs abroad, the awfulness of the very product that allows the establishment to call itself ‘Irish’.
Guinness notoriously does not travel, so Ireland’s most recognised export is necessarily diminished in its overseas promotion. But the Georgian beer is fine.
As is the chacha and the other firewater and the wine and the electric blue cocktail I’m served in the tiny and brilliant Hobbity bar which has the name Adios Muthafucka and which puts in me such an affectionate expansiveness and warmth that Hola Muthafucka, even Ti Amo Muthafucka, might’ve been a more suitable moniker.
Although admittedly not as funny.
EU flags flown everywhere; the country is sure to join. They are flown with oppositional flagrancy; the ubiquitous graffiti of FUCK RUZZIA the same (and there is a neat play on words along the lines of ‘Lilliputin’; the shriveled little man he is, in every way).
There is an impression of The Frontier – moreso in the towns that abut the colossal wall of the Caucasus mountains than here in the capital, but it’s noticeable everywhere to varying degrees.
As is commonplace, the food, like the architecture, speaks of history and influence; East meets West here. The national palate is varied and intrepid. There are bears in the hills and wolves and lynx in the hills and at night, in the rutted lanes of the outer villages, jackals wail.
Much to the general and understandable chagrin, Russian is a lingua franca here; most young people have quite good Netflix English (maybe that should be recognised now as a dialect: Netglish), but it’s not widespread in the older generation.
This I am forced to realise when, late one night, my taxi driver and I do not understand each other; his satnav seems to have gone haywire, and nor does he understand my writing; the only words he is familiar with is the name of my hotel.
So we end up in the old town, the tiny packed alleyways and crumbling ginnels, stone walls scraping the sides of his car, red-eyed animals and staring humanoid shapes in the headlights.
He stops and makes a gesture that says: you’re in the right area, you can get out and walk. I look around and shake my head vigorously. I’m not getting out.
Do you remember the Ducky Boys sequence in the film The Wanderers? Well, this is more eerie and threatening than that; there are iron spikes everywhere, the shells of torched cars, grottoes and caverns in which burn fires, there are gangling silhouettes against red flames, swaying, staring figures sucking at bottles and roasting spitted chunks of flesh over braziers.
I’m not getting out here. I refuse to get out. A bony and gnarly hand starts scratching at my window. We need to get away from here, I say to my driver, and if he doesn’t understand my words, then he understands my tone.
So, yes: Tbilisi is magical. A word about Russia, tho; the 2008 invasion of Georgia was a dress rehearsal for the invasion of Ukraine and if Russia prevails there, it will gnash and chomp again at Georgia.
The morsels of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have not satisfied Putin’s raging thirst; the type of him are never, ever satiated. Georgia has a largely pro-western populace and that is a challenge to Putin.
The ruling political party, Georgian Dream (yes, really) has a pro-western facade but the corrosion of press freedom continues apace and it was only a mass protest earlier this year (teargas, arrests, truncheons) that forced a u-turn away from the introduction of draconian (and Putin-endorsed) civil control laws.
The Georgians know in their bones the imperatives of concerted direct action against oppressive state apparatus. A wonderful people in an incredible country. My house has only two storeys.
There are occasions when the complexities of geo-politics can be expressed simply and concisely, given the utter cruciality of what is at stake, and so they are here: FUCK RUZZIA indeed. And Slava Ukrainia.
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