Last weekend I had a wonderful trip to Tbilisi with friends, new and old. Whenever I go to Tbilisi with Jason and Susy we always stay at our favorite place, a little hotel run by a filmmaker and a graphic designer. The location is great; the facilities even better. Completely modernized rooms, bathroom, and kitchen hidden in a crumbly building you would never suspect of having such a place. A little more expensive than many of the other hostels in Tbilisi, but we happily fork over our laris because it is comfortable, relatively private, with a wonderful porch and kitchen and because the owners now feel like friends.
When Susy first discovered this place we agreed not to shout it from the rooftops because we didn’t wish it overrun with undesirables. We’d found it, loved it, and planned to keep it. Just like the Hotel Lotus of O. Henry’s Transients in Arcadia, a favorite short story of mine:
There is a hotel on Broadway that has escaped discovery by the summer-resort promoters. It is deep and wide and cool…At every strange footstep the guests turn an anxious ear, fearful lest their retreat be discovered and invaded by the restless pleasure-seekers who are forever hounding nature to her deepest lairs…Thus in the depopulated caravansary the little band of connoisseurs jealously bide themselves during the heated season, enjoying to the uttermost the delights of mountain and seashore that art and skill have gathered and served to them.
Tbilisi is only a 2 hour martshrutka ride away from Korbouli, but it always feels like entering a different country entirely: Western food, metros, supermarkets, etc. And that’s why we come. Because things are there as they are not in villages: hot showers, unlimited coffee, the facilities to do our own cooking, non-Georgian restaurants, and plenty of good English conversation.
In the States, there is this negative interpretation about how foreigners tend to stick together. “Linguistic ghettos” is the term that I remember being specifically applied to Hispanics. Yeah those immigrants, hanging out in their “linguistic ghettos,” refusing to learn English, refusing to acculturate to our ways. Ungrateful. If you don’t like it, go home. And on, and on. But folks who say this have obviously never lived abroad. Probably never even left the States.
You only have to leave your country and go somewhere else to realize how instinctual and natural this is. In Georgia, who do I by choice and preference hang out with? Other English-speakers, of course. Not because I don’t like Georgians. Far from it. There’s just not any that speak English in my village. And nothing needs to be explained much when I’m socializing with other English-speakers. It’s just so much easier. I can be sarcastic, tell jokes, make references to pop culture, American history, speak at a normal speed, etc, etc. The conversation is richer, more enjoyable, and just so much easier. Everyone needs the opportunity to speak their native language.
I completely understand the urge of immigrants to call home, to be with others from their homeland, to eat their native food and dance their native dances. It’s natural, not ungrateful. Making an issue of it in America reveals our lack of understanding about the world, a certain ungraciousness and a great deal of insecurity.
Anyways, back to Tbilisi.
In the course of the weekend I was able to see several things around the city that I’d been meaning to see for awhile. Since my time is getting short, putting it off is no longer an option. On Friday I climbed to Narikala, a 4th century fortress with a commanding view of the city. On the way there I passed through the bath district, for which the name Tbilisi comes from, tbili being the word for warm. The local mosque, also on the way, was at prayer and I lingered to hear a bit before moving on. Thunderstorms had been forecast for the day and arrived shortly after I made it to the top. This made picture taking even more problematic as it was already. As I was alone, I was relying on my camera timer, which is a marvelous invention I depend on. So some of my pictures have rain drops on them.
With the storm I felt less inclined to go the tippy top of the fortress, lightening poles being in my mind, so I made way along the bottom of the fortress to go see the massive Kartlis Deda, “Mother Georgia,” statue. A bowl of wine in one hand for friends; a sword for enemies in the other. There was then a true “and suddenly” moment as the rain ceased entirely and the sun rolled out so quickly and warmly that the pavement was actually steaming. Being rather soggy from the downpour I sat and dried for awhile before heading down the hill.
Friday night we went to the Irish pub, owned by an authentic Irish woman, which serves Guinness and has rugby playing on the telly. You can even get Strongbow.
Saturday I went with a pair of wonderful Polish girls who were also staying at our place on a trip to Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia. Mtskheta is located at the convergence of two rivers, right outside Tbilisi. I’d seen it every time we drove into town and was determined to see it before I left.
I’d been awake since 9, but the girls hadn’t rolled out of bed until maybe 11, so we got brunch on the way to the martshrutka station. The girls love Georgian food and so I had the chance to introduce them to lobiani, which is like a thick quesadilla with wonderfully spiced beans inside. They were a little skeptical at first, but once they tried a little they were as enthusiastic as I am about it.
After riding the metro to Didube, a main transportation hub, I wandered around trying to find the right martshrutka. Didube is huge and I had no idea where to find it. After walking all the way in the wrong direction and having to go back, we found our ride. Should’ve asked someone before trying to find it on my own.
Once we reached Mtskheta we drove along the river for awhile, crossed the bridge, and headed into the central part of town. We’d been warned to jump out as soon as we saw the big church, so we did. The roads and gates in the center of town have been beautifully redone, though it looked eerily like Sighnaghi. We went and saw the big church, which has the highest ceilings out off all the churches I’ve seen. There were both weddings and baptisms going on inside. Plenty of visitors, foreigners and Georgians alike, were roaming around. All three of us commented on how we liked that it was clearly an active church: a living community rather than just an old building. There was the obligatory ice cream, Barambo, of course, and then we went to find a taxi to Jvari.
Jvari is a church perched on top of a tall hill opposite Mtskheta. So when you drive through you do a little head-whipping back and forth: Jvari, on your left; Mtskheta, on your right, and then repeat. All together it’s an impressive area with the rivers flowing and converging between. Extremely picturesque. The church itself was smaller than expected: a circular layout with the usual icons and burning candles. Plenty of people in attendance, flowing inside and out, with everyone jockeying for the best picture taking spots. Even some newly married couples in their wedding finery.
We took our taxi back into Mtskheta to the martshrutka station. All the taxi drivers tried to convince us that no martshrutkas were coming, that they’d be crowded, that their taxis were so much more comfortable and really quite affordable. It was all in good fun. When the martshrutka was seen coming up the street, the most persistent one who’d still been hanging around threw up his hands in a good-natured sign of defeat and saw us onto it.
Sunday we went to Sameba for morning service. Sameba is the newest and largest Georgian Orthodox church completed only a few years ago. Built in a central part of the city, it can be seen from very far away, gold roofs and domes shining. It’s positively gigantic in comparison to any other church in Georgia. York Minster, it ain’t, but it still is very big. Like Mtskheta the day before, service was going, but there was constant movement in the church: people moving around, lighting candles, kissing icons, even answering cell phones. And no dirty looks or hissing in response to this. Church is much more relaxed than in the States. We explored and found a whole other sanctuary underground, mirroring the one above. Whoa. For all my prickliness about Georgian churches, I enjoyed my visit to Sameba very much.
So it was an extremely successful trip: plenty relaxing, good food, and actually more sightseeing than I anticipated. While I feel rather mournful about leaving Georgia, I take comfort in knowing that when I do return it will be in a sense like coming back to a good friend and not a stranger.