Okay. Let’s start writing about Georgia again. Sakartvelo. საქართველო. I arrived here a couple of weeks back on the 22nd of December just a couple of days before Western Christmas. And I checked into the same guesthouse I’d stayed in during my 2016 stay. Mostly for continuity, to say hello to Tamuna and Shako and young Mariam again. I would within five days change to my long term apartment. But for now it felt good to have the same map coordinates and to have some familiar faces to start my sojourn of more than three months.
After arriving in Tbilisi at 6:30 in the morning I slept in till noon, and being this was Georgia I did not feel like I had slept in too late, eventually I went out to find the lari (Georgian money) I needed. Connect to the Georgia phone system and buy a metro card.
The next evening I found myself wandering past the Kachueti Church on Rustaveli Avenue. I heard sounds coming from a loudspeaker outside the church, so stepped down into it. An evening service in progress was full of people standing before the altar. (The Georgian Orthodox stand, believing that sitting before God, unless one has a physical condition, pain, age, etc. is a bit disrespectful. Sitting denotes rest. One stands before God.) They were dressed mostly in street clothes. The words of the scripture were being read in a definite musical key. The language was, of course, Georgian, and at specific moments with reference to Christ or the Trinity many Georgians would cross themselves. At one point there was a gesture of touching the ground, which puzzled and touched me simultaneously. Candles of the congregants, very thin tapers, were also being lit during the service. I was standing behind a large column. After the reading stopped I heard voices arising from a group of seven or eight men, who were dressed in gray robes standing before the opposite column from the one I was near. They sang an excruciatingly beautiful hymn in multipart harmony. As I absorbed it I was struck by the need for such beauty in my own country where it seemed that so much of our society had been rendered empty by our pop cults and cuteness fetishes. And just as they stopped singing and my heart was ready to enter a moment of rest, suddenly from directly in front of me on the other side of the column I was standing behind, another male choir began to answer them with an antiphonal song in an alternative key. And this just gripped me. I could scarcely take it in. Nothing in my life had ever sounded so evocative of the mystery of God’s world. And then the other group sang again! And then were answered again! In contrasting swirling harmonies. And finally the voices all came together before returning to their antiphonal chanting one last time. And all of the Georgians around me took this as normal.
As I continued my wandering down Rustaveli Avenue towards Liberty Square (or is it Freedom Square?) I came upon something I had not noticed before. In the place of the empty lot that had been there back in April 2016 the Galleria Tbilisi had just recently opened. And I stared at it with an open mouth at the gaudiness of the new mall. I walked into it to experience the strange deja vu these glossy beasts always elucidate and the vertiginous sinking feeling I had as I rode the escalators up six floors to the food court and then finally the movie theatres on the top floor. The place was illuminated pretty much in the standard Christmasy manner. And Santa Claus had children on his lap beneath the Levi’s and Calvin Klein stores. I suppose it had to happen. I walked outside where a Georgian boy was playing a drum and singing for a few lari. It was the perfect metonym of the country being caught between two worlds and two Christmases. The multitudes near him entered the mall as multitudes do all over the world, like Mister Toad from the Wind and the Willows, eyes bulging, caught by the shiny newness of the thing. I couldn’t blame them. They just want what they think everybody else has. They just don’t understand the trade they will make to get it. And that in the end you don’t get very much.
Western Christmas came, which didn’t feel particularly like Christmas to me, since Shoba, Georgian Orthodox Christmas, doesn’t come until January 7th. But on December 25th I did meet up with Sophie Zhvania a friend and translator from my last Georgian visit. And we had an excellent conversation at Fabrika, which proved to be hipster central for Tbilisi, and she helped me gain a bit more needed realism about her country. She was glad to be leaving for Berlin for the New Year. But she will be back soon, and we have film work to discuss.
Eventually I said nakhvamdis to Tamuna’s family and met up with Mariam and Kote, also friends from last year. I would be staying in their Airbnb apartment in the Saburtalo district for my next three months. They carefully explained to me the way the apartment worked. Mariam had artistically decorated the large room. We would be seeing each other again soon. And now I felt I could begin to settle into Tbilisi.
I began to look around my neighborhood to see what was available. I soon discovered many things including dried persimmons, tarragon soda, cheeses made with wine and honey, the delicious smoked scrumbia fish and much more. I often found myself saying “I have no category for this.” Tarragon soda was like that. Sometimes I see faces on the metro that are like that. And I have talked to people who are like that. (But we’ll save these encounters for another time.)
New Year’s Eve was upon us. Unfortunately I had picked up an annoying but noticeable sniffle. And since this was my third such attack since I first landed in Europe I decided to play it safe and stay home for New Year’s Eve. A thoughtful mood descended upon me as I reflected back on the year. But I decided I would fulfill my usual tradition of eating and drinking something new after the stroke of midnight. This wasn’t hard to do. I had the purple wine infused cheese and a three dollar (in US dollars) bottle of Georgian ‘champagne’. Quite sweet. I imagined that what would happen was when midnight came was that somewhere off in the distance I would see fireworks. With some sort of echo on the street. I had been seeing firework sales everywhere. Well for one thing you couldn’t tell when it was midnight whatsoever. An increasing roar had been developing throughout the evening. With one hour to go I looked outside to seeing the city erupting in fireworks everywhere you looked. I was completely thunderstruck by this. And as the clock approached the New Year I just heard it getting louder, I even thought I heard rounds of ammunition being fired. And so I recorded my envelopment for posterity. The next morning was the quietest I’d ever seen Tbilisi. Busy Vazha Pshavela Avenue beneath my sixth floor apartment was dormant until well past noon, only interrupted by the occasional firecracker explosion.
On the 4th of January I went to the Nutcracker at the Paliashvili Opera House on Rustaveli Avenue. It was the first time I had ever seen it performed as a ballet live. I was thoroughly enthralled. The afternoon audience was at least one third children. And it was clear that the Christmas season was still continuing strong here as I walked up the brilliantly lit Rustaveli on my way back home.
Finally came Shoba, and I found myself unprepared for the way that Christmas is celebrated here. Christmas Eve was not the still time it is even in New York City (the only quiet moment in that city). Not much seemed to be closed on Christmas Day in Tbilisi. And yet there was indeed a huge event taking place. In a feat of civil planning all of busy Rustaveli Avenue was shut down for the Alilo Procession. (Alilo means hallelujah.) Near Rustaveli Square hundreds of people prepared for this religious parade. Orthodox priests mingled with children in white robes. Real buffaloes and donkeys pulled carts. And puppet camels and elephants, even a giraffe (?) pulled up the rear. (Finally puppets!) Some people wore traditional Georgia costumes. Some held Georgia flags. The procession began around 14:00 (2pm).
Unlike any parade I’ve ever seen, you could walk completely around this procession as it went, which I suppose is quite Georgian. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. But eventually it was clear by the time we hit the halfway point to Liberty Square that thousands upon thousands of people were on the street. And this was very much an Orthodox event. Priests controlled the movement of the crowds. Thankfully the whole thing did not end with or even include a Santa Claus figure.
And so the introductory slice of my Georgian journey had come to an end. Now I’ve emphasized the new and unusual things as I saw them. And you might be tempted to see Georgia as some magical dreamscape through my description. But fear not. I am not in anyway blinded to the realities of Georgia in the 21st Century. The Tbilisi Galleria was one thing. It was like the mothership had landed bringing with it the big thing. Even the Alilo Procession was somewhat diminished by cars with loudspeakers above them playing almost Disneyfied versions of an Alilo song. (But also traditional Georgia songs.) And I had read descriptions of this parade including singing from the streets. The amplification stopped anything like that from occurring. And this is Georgia. And of course there is the poverty, the lack of anything like recycling, the endless smoking, and one could go on. And my own state of mind was not one unbroken stream of wonder and discovery. Although often something would come along just when I needed it. Whether finding problems with my bank back home, concerns about how far my dollars would stretch , unresolved issues in my life, and illness, why it was in many ways just like being home.
But truthfully I’m in the best place I could be right now. Led here by more than circumstance. And I already have made contacts amongst the puppeteers. And I have had excellent conversations and met new people. I look forward to my submergence in this surprising culture. I have had other experiences that will eventually probably work their way to the surface. But since I will be here until the end of March my reporting back will be different than at the other stops on this Gravity From Above journey. I will allow some stories to develop over time. So you might not hear from me quite as regularly, then without warning there will be an avalanche of ideas and observations. So this is a good time to catch up on my older essays. More will come. And feel free to write your thoughts as well.
(Update from January 14th: Evidently I wrote this too soon. Last night there was a second Julian New Year’s Eve blow out. Not nearly as crazy as the first. But far more fireworks than most of us see all year! Happy second New Year!)