Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why I Am So Awkward

I'd like to devote this post to a particular quirk of mine, a ballet of grace, studied movement, and high theatre.

By this, of course, I mean the Almost Not-Quite Sort-of I'm-Not-Really-Crossing-Myself Cross.


It is customary, as it happens, for Georgians to cross themselves when passing or viewing a church (possibly any cross - I haven't figured out the intricacies of when it happens). The practice seems near-universal, regardless of the actual beliefs of the people involved; a sort of Durkheimian articulation of Georgian-ness.

Which puts me in a rather precarious position: do I cross, or not cross? As a Christian, wishing to be respectful of church tradition, and frankly moved by the idea of "reminding"myself, in some way, of that identity (I'm similarly drawn to Jewish dietary laws or Orthodox fasting rituals or Muslim daily prayer - orthopraxy that reminds one, in daily life. "Oh, that's right, I'm Christian/Jewish/Muslim," which in turn makes one aware of God). On the other hand, I'm not Orthodox, and more pressingly I'm not Georgian, which immediately makes me convinced that:

a) I will of course in some way get the crossing-myself wrong. And
b) That every Georgian within a 10-mile radius is staring at me hawk-eyed to make sure I don't screw up said crossing-self because
c) If I get it wrong, people will silently smirk and laugh and decide I'm an ignorant poser*


This results in me doing the awkward Almost Not-Quite Sort-of I'm-Not-Really-Crossing-Myself Cross, in which I play with my hair, scratch my face, fix my sweater, and otherwise get my fingers to the four "points" of the cross in the most uncomfortably unobtrusive way possible, desperately hoping nobody notices that I'm trying to cross myself (which, of course, I'll get wrong regardless) and therefore decides I'm just a silly foreigner who is trying to play along:

"No, I'm not crossing myself! I'm just - erm - twirling my hair, yeah, and now I'm just picking the lint off my sweater - nope, no crossing here."

I realize this is completely neurotic and ridiculous, and there's no reason for me to either fail to cross myself in the Orthodox manner or for people to laugh at my failures, but, in its way, the degree to which crossing or non-crossing is an issue for me (insofar as it requires thought) is just another reminder that I'm not Georgian. Not, in and of itself, a problem, but another element of foreignness to negotiate.


*I have a lesser version of this condition in Catholic churches, although my Very Catholic Boyfriend is quite helpful in getting me through this.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dinner Party!

A good half of Tbilisi descended on my doorstep last night, from English journalists to Georgian filmmakers to American writers and teachers (only half of them expected, but no matter!). The pasta was plentiful (I used a particularly spicy arabbiata recipe/spice mix bought in Rome this July); there was baklava, bizarre pastries*, plentiful chacha, and some rather limp-looking cured meat that went untouched.

My terrace (with the inexplicable pool table) was overfilling with smokers and pool-players; the kitchen and living room were equally crowded. Somehow, in the space of about two weeks, I've gone from knowing nobody in this city to hosting twenty-five in an evening, with a relatively even split of Georgians and non-Georgians. Proof, I think, of the power of the Internet (and my blog, several of whose readers were in attendance!) I had a phenomenal time, and for the first time got a proper glimpse of what a "life here" might mean in anything more than the abstract and talk of afternoon strolls in Sololaki.


 Success, overall, although I'm terribly anti-social in general: I've spent the day in bed drinking tea and reading Hegel, and would be perfectly happy doing that for four months straight (replace Hegel with Durrell or DH Lawrence, or possibly Victor Hugo)

Of course, then I get terribly confused, as ever. I love my apartment, my life here, my friends, my job - which lets me live here, and gives me spare time to write novels (or dissertations on Hegel). But then again, I have a life and a rather significant other and an academic background and so many good friends in Oxford, too, and balancing these two selves gets increasingly difficult. I belong in Oxford, although I very much don't in England; but I belong in this apartment, on this street, with my Chaikhana and my Mucha prints and my shisha pipe in the makeshift Cabinet of Curiosities in the study.

(Then again, I belong in Paris, where we used to celebrate Christmas by buying ornaments at Bon Marche, and in Rome, where the portiera used to sing me lullabies in Italian, and in New York, where I used to wear pink wigs, and in Trieste where I wrote my novel and got love letters from a waiter in Piazza dell'Unita and Vienna where I lived for a month on honey and yogurt and Dubrovnik where Emma and I spent days cafe-hopping in the rain, and Ischia where my mother has gone to the same village for thirty years, and Marrakech where I read Dumas and ate croissants in a riyadh courtyard and...

...Well, you see the problem. I love everywhere, and so I'm always homesick. I grew up everywhere, and I miss fifty cities in the course of a given day. Clearly some timeshare involving Paris, Rome, New York, Tbilisi, Vienna, Trieste, Ischia, Marrakech, Dubrovnik, and Oxford would be the ideal solution.)

*Apparently my local supermarket will sell me dessert for twenty for 8 lari!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Day in the Neighborhood

In between acquiring ingredients for my first dinner party (cooking for sixteen), which largely included buying ropes of onions, garlic, and peppers, and mewing back at the kitten in the shop, and frantically reading secondary scholarship on Hegel, I've taken a break to eat pie in the Bambis Riga branch of Cafe Literaturuli (which I refuse to believe I've completely missed for nearly a year; it's not signposted as such, and gets lost in a street filled with cafes. Its waiter looks like a haunted Romantic poet, and I've decided to be quite in love with him.) and blog about Abanotubani.

I'll devote future posts to other neighborhoods, including my old haunt of Sololaki, but I'd like to begin by pointing out that I'm quite convinced Abanotubani, the tiny tangle of streets around the Botanical Gardens, sulfur baths, mosque, and river, is the nicest neighborhood in the city! Let the rich expats have their Vake; the first thing I see when I step out of my courtyard is an ancient fortress! My "local" is an Iranian Chaikhana. When the hot water goes out, I treat myself to a spa, massage and private pool for about 20 pounds!

Or, more systematically: The Top Five Benefits of Living in Abanotubani


I'll start with the most pressing, My Land-family
I often refer to my "host family" in conversation, which isn't quite correct. Giostan, Tamriko, Alessandro, and Sophie are in fact my landlords, but they've been such a part of my life here that, at the least, "land-family" feels more apt. They ply me with Egyptian tea, fix my broken lights, inform carpet-sellers to give me reasonable prices, and - lately - surprise me with tiny ornament-laden Christmas trees on my doorstep, a very welcome reminder that I come from a place with snow, carols, and mince pies!

(This is also a shameless plug - a gorgeous 2-bedroom flat with a terrace view of the fortress is available in my building for $500 a month; if you're interested, contact me!)

The food
I'm not a massive fan of the expensive, sterile Bread Cafe, but Abanotubani has a fantastic spread of Georgian and foreign restaurants, from my beloved Chaikhana to the French Salve and L'Accent Francais on Abanos St (the latter is a wine bar, rather than a restaurant, but its inventive tapas are some of the best food I've had anywhere.) The brilliantly inexpensive Alani, a basement Ossetian restaurant with heaping portions and live music, is another favorite. I've yet to try elsewhere, but I will report back!

The strangeness
One of the things I've never understood is American expats who choose to live in Vake. It's a bit of a "Western" enclave, with plenty of high-end chain stores and elegant coffee houses, but architecturally it resembles a watered-down Central European city. Living there, I felt, often feels like pretending not to be in Georgia (I've struggled to find a Georgian restaurant there..), and while I enjoy the occasional meal there, I find living in Abanotubani to be a far more rewarding challenge - it looks nothing like anywhere I've lived, and life there is a constant re-negotiation of my own boundaries and expectations.

Also, it's just beautiful.


The baths
When I first moved into The Flat, my regret that the flat (like most others) lacked a bathtub. At which point I realized my intense stupidity. The Flat is about a minute's walk from the sulfur baths. I've been twice - both times with a friend - and while I found the "cheap" private room at the Orbeliani (blue) baths to be a bit uncomfortable, spending just a bit more at the Royal Baths allowed me to live the dream of Orient Express hammam decadence for an hour (during which my friend Caitlyn and I discussed the ironic hypothetical of creating historical fiction erotica involving a Grand Tourist and her chaperone in various escapades).


To be fair, the process involves getting naked with a female friend inside what looks like a giant breast. I've often wondered whether local children try to peek in through the slight windows at topless women below. If so, they would look rather like they were gathered at a giant teat, which would be an incredible image for an Almodovar film.


Puppies and Kittens!
Perhaps this is a reaction to my passionate hatred of dirty, sterile, impersonal, dead-eyed London, but I find Abanotubani so extraordinarily alive. There's a good number of stray dogs and cats here (who seem less "stray" than "neighborhood-raised" - they're remarkably well-fed and healthy looking), all of whom seem to live peacefully and contentedly - drinking out of fountains, mewing in my courtyard, and otherwise living entirely parallel existence to the humans who have dared to infringe upon their solitude. I've gotten to know a good number of the strays (and was very pleased to see that the kittens I met in Betelmi in September are now cats!), although I don't think I've rediscovered my beloved Marius, the kitten I fed khachapuri to on Baratashvili Street a few months ago.*

I love hearing life when I wake up in the morning - crickets, kittens, running water - all of it! It fills me with a Whitmanian joy in the glory of the world, and makes me want to stay in Tbilisi forever.

*I choose to believe that the kitten I met yesterday at the shop was, in fact, a better-fed Marius, adopted by the kindly woman who foisted 200 grams of chilli pepper on me!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Where to Write a Novel in Tbilisi, Part II

Life in Tbilisi has been a marvelously splendid, if busy, collection of anecdotes and antique-hunts. I've bought out what feels rather like the entirety of the Dry Bridge antique market in an effort to further transform my apartment into a 19th century kitsch-and-nostalgia wonderland/fever dream, (and wept not a few tears over un-affordable luxuries, such as the $6000 organ grinder, 90-lari dueling pistol, enormous golden $5000 Liberty angel/lamp suitable for an art nouveau cafe, and an incredible chair and table set carved from a single block of wood).

I've also met a number of lovely new friends, in large part through this blog and my web browsings, so thank you again, PasumonokInk, and Michael for highly enjoyable outings!

With that in mind, more cultural posts will have to be delayed in favor of a post on my new favorite Tbilisi place, my "local" cafe, the Persian Chaikhana (I'd been in September, but today's experience solidified it in my mind).

The gregarious proprietress in charge of Chaikhana does not offer you a menu, nor does she inform you of prices. Instead, she presents you and your merry band with steaming pots of Iranian tea, heapings of baklava, peanut candies, what seemed a bit like Turkish delight, dried fruits, refills, and other such un-ordered niceties (while lighting a roaring fire in a corner of the lusciously caravan-draped room), and, upon request, will produce a bill. (Three of us went through two large potfuls of tea and four plates of goodies, for 22 lari - pronounced highly reasonable, given the quantity of food consumed).

Also high on my list, though possessing quite a different aesthetic, is minimalist-elegant Kafe Literaturuli, which already occupies a favored space in my heart (The Batumi branch provided Boyfriend and me with shelter from the pouring rain during our rather ill-timed seaside trip last September). The Saburtalo branch of the small chain reminds me of one of my favorite cafes in the world - Vienna's Cafe Phil - with a sleek, minimalist (read: Apple Store) aesthetic, decadent cherry cakes, and two floors' worth of books.
Photo of the Vake branch, as Google won't give me one.
I'm told there's a branch nearer me that I've mysteriously managed to miss on several occasions (the only other one I've been to is the cramped outlet in the Amiran Cinema, which has no tables and, oddly, almost no books), which I ought to check out when I get a chance!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Flat Redecorating

I'm too tired to write anything substantial tonight, so - instead - the long-awaited Flat Post! I live in Abanotubani, a district of Old Tbilisi known for its sulfur baths (which can be a luxurious, Orient Express alternative when my hot water goes off), in a two-bedroom apartment with a semi-private terrace (the apartment next door is unoccupied), views of Metekhi Church, and a gregarious, unbelievably lovely Georgian family upstairs that toe the line between landlords and hosts!


And now, a self-congratulatory paean to my decorating skills:
Living Room, before and after (art nouveau theme)

Why yes, that is my lovely boyfriend in the photo, why do you ask?


I'm especially proud of the art nouveau knife stand.


Study, before and after (Orientalist fantasy)





Bedroom, before and after (Florentine villa)


View from my street

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tbilisi Film Festival

Through some bizarre confluence of events, mostly involving a last-minute call to my manic actor friend Tornike (whom I last met in September, when he was subsisting on a diet of sour cream of a film role), I ended up at the opening gala of the Tbilisi Film Festival, photographed by paparazzi, and otherwise in the thick of the international cinema scene.

I spent most of the opening gala people-watching, coming at last to the conclusion that the Georgian women in attendance - actresses, filmmakers, and cineastes of all descriptions - were the single best-dressed, most stunning group of women I'd ever seen. The event was by no means black tie; instead, the dress code for women resembled something out of a nineteenth-century Baudelarean androgynous fever dream: a combination of tailored androgynous suits (black, naturally), shorn hair or, in one case, shaved heads, and dramatic Garbo-esque makeup!
A much more muted variation on the theme - but the only photograph I could find.

In attendance were Maryam D'Abo (of Bond Girl fame), Greta Scacchi (I believe - she's giving a talk this week), and journalist Marie Colvin (who was also on my flight) as well as the director of the opening night's film (Chantrapas), Georgian screen legend Otar Iosseliani, who refused to allow the interpreter to translate his speech into English, deplored the festival's requirement for subtitles, and announced that, in contravention of requirements, he had banned the use of subtitles from the scene (lest they distort the unity of his vision), relegating them instead to a tiny additional screen shoehorned into the bottom right hand corner of the stage. "You don't need subtitles," he allowed the interpreter, at last, to explain. "I made this film for the people of my country." This I have decided is an Excellent Thing, because I have a weakness for eccentricity, especially when it comes from  elderly gentlemen who could almost be parrot-keeping violinists.


The film, I'm afraid, didn't move me - I got the sense the audience collectively felt that Iosseliani was at once a genius to be revered and an artist past his prime; the film succeeded, if it did so, on his past work. Tornike meanwhile had dashed off post-gala for a meeting, but by half past eleven my energies failed me, and I neglected to meet him after the show, instead collapsing in my Florentine bedroom.

Today was spent indoors reading Hegel, working on writing projects, and otherwise cursing my inability to wander (a brief excursion for Georgian salad and kuchmachi aside) due to overwork. I've got plenty of plans this week, however - from more festival films to a Dry Bridge antique market run to a trip to the baths.
 (I'm the blond blur in the back, second from right)


Recent Tbilisi Images: "L'Amour est un oiseau rebelle" from Carmen echoing from the Iranian teahouse, a newly-erected, utterly mad art nouveau clock tower on Shavteli street, sitting outdoors at a coffee truck/cafe by the Philharmonic with newfound friends in December (take that, England!),  the ability to see Metekhi Church from my window.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

First Impressions upon Returning to Tbilisi

So, I've arrived in Tbilisi at last. Some slight issues moving back into my flat, but at the end of nearly twenty-four hours of cleaning, hanging Mucha prints, transforming my study into a bedouin caravan, and unrolling the world's loveliest art nouveau-meets-traditional-Georgian-carpet, the flat has been transformed. I haven't been able to see much of the city - a 2 am walk from Abanotubani to my mother's place near Freedom Square and a meal at Near Opera aside - but the flat is habitable, and ready to be transformed into a place for Serious Hegelian Scholarship on the morrow! Redecorating post to follow.

Tbilisi has changed, because it's always changing. The construction on Gorgansalis Square and Europa Square has finished, and now it's possible to walk from Chardini Street to my house without sprinting past dented Mercedes. The leaves have gone from the grape-orchard running down from my terrace, rendering it somewhat less scenic than it was, but in the fog of December the top of the Mtatsminda TV Tower becomes invisible, and the neon beacons at the base, shimmering upwards, vanish into nothingness. The trees have thinned, and now I can see Mother Georgia from Rustaveli Avenue, and even from Abanotubani I can see the lights by the statue of St. George. Without the leaves, everything here is more full of light, more visible; the city feels smaller.

At three in the morning, stray dogs tussle with each other, and drink from the fountain on Abanos Street.


I feel foreign here, of course, but it's a comfortable kind of foreign. I'm used to living places where I don't understand everything: at least, not at first. I speak what Georgian I can and people are kind enough to help me muddle through. In this, at least - and in much else - I feel much less foreign than in England, where it seems like I ought to know everything, and yet am always on the outskirts of understanding. I go to buy bread and greet passersby. I bump into people not unintentionally in order to say "bodishi," because even this is contact.

In a way, being in a place where I'm so totally foreign - where everything is another opportunity to make meaning out of glances and glottal stops - is being entirely at home.


In other news, I've realized that I generally dislike female travel writers. I want action and adventure, not moaning inwardness! So I promise - more adventure, now that I'm in the thick of it!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Spaces and Symbols

Like Sydney Bristow, I often feel that I'm leading a double life. In Oxford, I'm an academic theologian, buried in notes on Hegel, Greek translations, postgrad applications, and articles printed from JSTOR. In Tbilisi, I'm a traveling adventuress-novelist, buried in Continental novels (right now, I'm reading Dictionary of the Khazars) and freelance writing work. But I'm happiest when the two sides of my life intersect, and nowhere is this more prominent than in Sioni Cathedral.

It is in the churches of Georgia that my academic life and my aesthetic life at last meet each other, each feeding into the other. When I first came to Georgia, one of the ways in which my outsider status became clearest to me was in my inability to penetrate beyond the rituals, the gestures, to discover what was really happening. Clifford Geertz writes of "thick description" - the way in which an action, say - the twitching of an eye - has meaning only within the context of a network of symbols (a wink? a flirtation? a mockery? a shared secret?). I am reminded of this every time I enter an Orthodox church. I may be able to tell you all about the Cappadocian Fathers (hopefully the subject of my master's thesis) and Nicene formulations, but I don't have the instinctive cultural understanding of orthodoxy that would allow me to internalize the theo-drama taking place behind the liturgy. I can't identify saints from icons, nor can I participate in the sacramental communion (in all senses of the word). I can cross myself in front of a Georgian church, but that doesn't mean I'm part of the body of the church. I can intellectualize a great deal of Eastern Christian thought - it's what I want to do a doctorate in, after all - but that doesn't necessarily translate into "belonging-ness"


Over this past Michaelmas Term, I've been attending an incredible seminar and text class covering Byzantium 1000-1453, a blend of theological and social history. Through our discussion of Byzantine icons, the cruciform layout of churches, and obscure patriarchs, the "codes" of orthodoxy have become clearer to me - I 'm getting closer to seeing what's really happening at a church service.

And it strikes me that this, this is why I study theology - the history of human thought, human experience, and the constant interplay between the two. I want to understand how and why people move through spaces, how they see themselves - how we got from Jerusalem to Jena, how the Haussmanian boulevards I used to walk down in Paris meant something altogether different when they were constructed to allow the police to shut down riots, how Medieval men were but a fraction the size of angels. How do I move through space; how is my own sense of reality constructed? How do I delineate time (cyclical? linear?)? How do I separate "us" from "not-us"? (Christian vs. non-Christian? East vs. West? Pork-eaters vs. non pork-eaters? Blondes or brunettes?)

In Tbilisi, intellectual history meets practice for me. One of my goals - in my return to Tbilisi - is to begin regularly attending Orthodox services, to combine my intellectual study of Eastern doctrine and tradition with an intuitive understanding of the meaning behind the symbol, and the story behind the signs.

(As for my own faith - I was raised "generally Episcopalian theist," have become gradually more religiously aware, and yet - while I would call myself a Christian - I'm wary of saying more than that until I've finished my degree and become able to articulate at least basic answers to my own questions of faith and belief, and am able to "stand for" my own faith - in the sense of explaining and defending it - however it comes to be identified.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lost and Found in Tbilisi

NOTE: I was going to write a post in response to Neal's call for blog entries on Money in Georgia, but a half-dozen false starts have convinced me that I am incapable write about money in Georgia without sounding either oblivious or patronizing. My experience of Tbilisi has been so varied - from the intimidatingly-priced bottles of wine at L'Accent Francais on Abanos Street to the haggling at the Dry Bridge market - that I don't think I can write about "money in Georgia" any more than I can write about "money in America." Some people have it; some people don't. I have enough. I'll be useless and write about alleyways instead.


Sometimes I convince myself that Tbilisi is a massive found-art exhibition, a magnificent, gleeful playground for wrought-iron statues and abandoned rocking-horses, street-corner pianos and a kitten named Marius who ate my khachapuri on Baratashvili St. One of my favorite Tbilisi pastimes is walking from Rustaveli Avenue into the Old Town and collecting curiosities:
I could spend my life walking city streets in a velvet cape, letting places call back memories. Tbilisi, I think, is one of the most wanderable cities I've been to, in that regard. I let my thoughts take the shape of a streetmap, and my mind runs to the oddest places:
I tend to find the bars on Chardini St somewhat overrated, overpriced, and inauthentic, but this Jungendstil sentry has promised his art gallery will be different!


STELLA! STELLA! STELLA!

It's by no means an ordinary city, but every corner has the first line of a novel. That's why I stayed.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Where to Write a Novel in Tbilisi

While half my life seems to involve hunting with a story-shaped net, the other half requires the grisly skinning of such experiences: transforming experience and knowledge into poetry and narrative. (The half of my life that involves getting excited about this guy belongs to my grad-school-applying alter ego). My life tends to run in cycles: a few months of years of intense, overwrought experience, followed by a period of frenzied reading and writing to put my emotions into intellectual context, followed by the hard  but oh-so-aesthetically-pleasing work of writing a novel.

The writing, I've found, is often the easiest part, when done in an appropriately literary and inspirational setting. I've been lucky, over the years. A large part of my most recent overlong, footnote-replete manuscript* was written this spring at this cafe in Trieste, which has rather set the standards for all literary excursions.

But enough about other cities! The question is, if you're an ink-stained scribbler in Tbilisi, where on earth do you go to write a novel? Somewhere decadent, bizarre, haunted by literary ghosts (and possessed of good coffee!) Naturally, in its gleefully chaotic way, Tbilisi has a cafe-option for every novel you could dream of writing!

The haunted, meditative, Proustian narrative of longing and regret
Near Opera, Lagidze Street (across from the opera house)

Looking rather like an Aubrey Beardsley drawing, this multi-leveled coffee-house is an ideal venue in which to ruefully meditate on your sexually ambiguous lost love, rhapsodize about ruined city streets (and how they remind you of your sexually ambiguous lost love), drink lime tea, and mourn the slow but oh-so beautiful decline and decay of Old Europe. Also, less poetically, where yours truly stumbles out of bed for an 11 a.m. khachapuri brunch.


The Slightly Colonialist Travel Narrative
Caravan, Purseladze St.

Care to sport a panama hat and type furiously about your time in the Foreign Office, various feats of espionage, inter-war encounters in Lybia or Damascus, and how that chap Russell got you in with his sultry foreign wife in Alexandria? It's East-Meets-West at Caravan, a literary art-cafe near the art nouveau cinema on Rustaveli Street.


The Postmodern Hypertextual Piece of Meta-Fiction
Pur Pur, Gudiashvili Square


Rather expensive (though not as needlessly overpriced as the shallow expat-traps on Chardini St), Pur Pur nevertheless offers a 10 lari lunch menu and/or reasonably priced leaf teas. But, rather more importantly, it's a topsy-turvy, senseless, postmodern, chaotic wonderland of repurposed items (including lampshades that look like courtesans' skirts), light, and color. I tend to avoid the evening crowd of people far cooler than I, and come in the afternoon instead.

Special mention: The Iranian Tea house.
Mostly unmarked and menu-free, this carpet-piled tea house on my street in the Old Town features a lovely woman who plies with with Iranian tea and baklava and gets terribly flustered when I fail to finish a second cup!

Of course, I'll be spending most of the next few weeks in Tbilisi working on my extended essay (on Hegel's use of Romantic narratology to divinize history Trinitarian-ally. Say that three times quickly!) But if I've missed anywhere important, or blindly pointed you in the direction of an infamous tourist trap or expat holding pen, let me know in the comments section!


*The Great Franco-Italo-American Novel! Possibly the only Franco-Italo-American novel.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Getting Past East and West

Disclaimer - much of the ideas behind this post were inspired by the fascinating, vastly-superior, Carpetblogger:

If you've ever thought, as one does, of traveling to the Caucasus, you may well have picked up one of a number of travel books on Georgia, and they more than likely began something like this:

Standing at the crossroads between East and West, Tbilisi encompasses an organic blending of two cultures.


The book will then in all likeliness continue to use "East" and "West" as convenient reference points (i.e., "Westernized" Rustaveli Avenue, "East"-ern baths (with conveniently placed mosque to tell you precisely HOW Eastern Abanotubani is), and measure everything in Tbilisi, implicitly or explicitly, in that frame of reference.

The problem is, however, East and West are relatively meaningless terms. Geographical issues (East of WHERE?) aside, Rustaveli Avenue looks a fair bit like Paris or Vienna, but not a great deal like Rome or New York City. Abanotubani looks a bit like Ischia, and a great deal like New Orleans.

But of course, it isn't about architecture, really; nor is it about geography. What every (American or European) travel writer is saying, consciously or consciously, is this:

Standing at the crossroads between Things I Understand and Things I Find Foreign, Tbilisi encompasses an organic blending of Stuff That Makes Sense to Me and Stuff that Doesn't. 


There's nothing wrong with this statement, of course. But it's terribly generic. What travel experience, with the exception of the local grocery store or Mars, doesn't involve a blending of the familiar and the strange? Yet fetishizing that experience, as all too many travel writers seem to do*, allows visitors to sort their experiences neatly into "Western" (chain stores, stuff that works) and "Eastern" (people in funny scarves, languages I can't read), without participating in any meaningful discourse about what Georgia is in and of itself, without reference to other countries, cultures, or hegemonies. No self-respecting Toqueville-in-training would begin a discourse on America with "Well, it's less liberal than Canada, and it's colder than Mexico" - and it's equally intellectually lazy to start every conversation about Georgia with reference to familiar cultural archetypes, whether they're reassuring golden arches of McDonalds, or the oh-so-exotic baths and bazaars of Otheristan. Just once, I would love to read an account of Georgia that considers Georgia on its own merits, rather than as a useful playground in which to toss around evocative but ultimately meaningless images (oh look! People can have cows AND cell phones!) that serve to replace challenging discourse.

So, how to write about Georgia? I don't have any answers yet - and I'm all too easily enchanted by oh-so-exotic things to pretend otherwise - but I hope that the rough sketches of thought in this blog lead me towards a better understanding, and make me a better writer.


Is this Moorish opera house, based on architecture common in Medieval Muslim-ruled Spain, Eastern or Western?  I can't tell! What will I do without  my easy frames of reference! My head is exploding!

*And I can be as guilty of fetishing Other-ness as this guy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Foreign Tongues and Kindred Spirits

I mentioned in my first entry that my experience in Tbilisi has been vastly different from that depicted by other bloggers. I don't live with a host family, nor do I have a built-in network of colleagues or co-volunteers. I do my job with a laptop and a wireless connection, and live alone in the heart of the Old Town. This can be enormously liberating; I have space and silence. I can drink tea on my porch at sunset, or sleep until noon, and never become prickly through lack of privacy.* But it also means that I'm starting my life in Tbilisi completely ex nihilo; finding friends, for me, is less an easily organic process than another item on my morning shopping  list: (To pick up - Milk, coriander, kindred spirits).

This hasn't been an issue up to now - I lived with my mother whenever I returned to Tbilisi. But with her return to New York, I find myself in the all-too-familiar position of building up a new life for myself. I don't want to socialize exclusively with expats; I attended a few embassy-related functions, but in the end foreign in the American diaspora as I do in the heart of the bazaar (that I might want to leave the posh boulevards of Vake for cobblestones, or learn Georgian to communicate with "locals," was roundly treated as ridiculous. When I mentioned I was a writer, I was immediately asked "who for?" as if my identity could not exist without reference to an American paradigm of prestige and systematization)

Nor is my (functional but basic) Georgian good enough to allow me to just "meet" people - a fact brought home to me when I eagerly clicked hundreds of blog profiles of interesting-looking people based in Tbilisi, just to find their entries locked away by language. This puts rather a damper in my dream of being adopted by:

a) an elderly, eccentric violinist, with trembling hands and novels in his head, who keeps parrots
b) A radical group of bohemian artists, who shout their visions from the top of the Narikala Fortress. OR
c) The brilliant soprano I saw performing La Traviata at the Georgian National Music Centre last September.


I recognize that there's something dangerous in letting my ideals run away with me. There's something predatory about chasing after potential novel-characters, as if Tbilisi was just an Orientalist fantasy for my amusement, but if I didn't want to encounter the Other, why travel at all? I want foreign-ness, the strange, bizarre encounters, alleyways, spices - and I recognize that what I want is shaped by the imperialist narratives of dead Englishmen. Edward Said would be disappointed in me.**

The question is, then - how do I get beyond my own expectations and desires -get out of myself, really- and meet people, make new friends, both Georgian and expat? I've made a few connections through the Internet, and met a few lovely people on the last visit I hope to see more of. I want kindred spirits, and I want them to be what I've always wanted, and I want them to be nothing like I've imagined. I suppose I want to find the very thing I can't find by searching.


(Now, if you're reading this, and you're an elderly, eccentric, parrot-keeping violinist capable of communicating in French, English, Italian, German, or any dead/Biblical/antique language, by all means do contact me! And if you see a tiny girl with enormous blonde hair hunched over a novel manuscript at Near Opera, tell her a story. She'd love to hear it.)

*I, to the astonishment of the Italian side of my social network, find little as terrifying as enforced, inescapable social contact. Blame it on being a home-schooled only child of a single mother.
**But I promise to make it up to him with my next planned post!

Monday, November 29, 2010

An introduction, of sorts

Because I cannot exist anywhere without immediately wishing I were somewhere else, I've spent the past few weeks reading a variety of Tbilisi- and Georgia-based blogs, primarily from TLG volunteers, and dreaming about the alleyways of Abanotubani. I've found other blogs amusing, enlightening, but above all things surprising, in part because my experience in Georgia seems so very different from the experience of other bloggers - in. And so I feel compelled, because I'd secretly like to be the love child of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Isabella Burton (although Sir Richard would do nicely), to add my own voice to the cacophony of stories I've been killing time with lately.

A bit about me, then - I live in Tbilisi, except when I don't. I'm American, except when I'm not. I'm a freelance and ghost-writer, except when asked about my student visa. (I have two names, too, but that's a story for another blog post). For approximately half the year, I study Byzantine theology at Oxford, focusing on the philosophy of language in the Cappaddocian Fathers, on a student visa stamped in an American passport that - among other things - allows me to avoid paying for American health insurance. I brush must off of magisterial tomes and sometimes I even read them. I like nineteenth-century French literature, chocolate tea, classical music, and cobblestones. I wear scarves.

For the other half of the year, I go adventuring - basing myself in a messy, art-nouveau-styled Artists' Den in Tbilisi - scribbling for my supper and the price of train tickets. I work as a ghostwriter of romance novels, a travel writer, a video game storyline advisor, a script analyst for a film development company: whatever pays for a) the bills and b) my tuition. I also work on the Great Franco-Italian-American Novel. Sometimes I even get published.

I grew up in Paris, Rome, and New York City. My father is Italian; my mother American. I moved to Tbilisi with my mother, who had a Diplomatic-Related Job, fell in love with Orientalist fantasies of the Caucasus, and decided to stay once she returned. I'm not affiliated with TLG, the Fulbright, the Peace Corps, or any governmental organization - which is at once isolating and liberating.

My experience of Tbilisi is art nouveau street-corners late at night, toddling alleycats on the ruined staircases of Betelmi, baklava in unmarked Iranian tea rooms, saying the word "caravanserai" aloud in a whisper, finding fin de siecle postcards from Karlsbad at the Dry Bridge market, the monarchist on Rkinis Riga who cooed at the pigeons in the Meidan cage, and informed me that he was a relative of "Konigen Erzbeth" - producing a worn, decades-old newspaper clipping of Prince Charles as evidence.

Once, I was staring down icons in the Anchiskhati Church, and a young man entered through the side door. He pressed his lips to the stone in prayer, and when he kissed the stone he stared at me, and I thought it would make a good beginning for a novel.

So here it is.
-Fleur Flaneur