Skip to content

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #9

October 21, 2016

picture-430

My 4:05am flight from Tbilisi was cancelled due to the airplane computer not working.  We sat on the runway for a couple of hours before being bussed back to the airport and sent to the Marriott for a few hours of sleep (yes, the infamously exorbitant, luxurious Marriott where Bush stayed).

I slept solidly there, for which I am grateful.  It helped to have lots of North American standard sized pillows for the first time.  At my other Tbilisi hotel, there was only one GIGANTIC square pillow.  I should have asked for smaller pillows, but there was the language barrier and wanting to be a gracious guest living Tbilisi style.

That last night in Tbilisi, I went to Keti’s house for dinner after the evening of theatre.  It was just four of us – Keti, Coka, Yossef (an Israeli theatre critic and guest of the festival) and me.

I said to Keti that I would love to see one of her films, and she showed me a documentary called White Scarf about a world peace movement she began called “The White Scarves Movement.”  According to Georgian legend, when women throw white scarves between fighting men, the fighting must end. When civil war broke out in 1993, Keti led a group of 2000 women to the front lines of battle and worked hard on a cease-fire.

It is absolutely remarkable what she has done.  Women in 38 countries celebrate White Scarf Day as part of the movement. In the documentary, she reads a John Steinbeck quote from his travels in Georgia in 1947.  I loved the quote, so searched for it online. I don’t think this is the exact excerpt, but it captures the essence:

“If one tried to describe Georgia using one single word, the right word would definitely be ‘hospitality’… Wherever we had been in Russian in Moscow, in the Ukraine, in Stalingrad, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly. People who had never been there and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and a great admiration. They spoke of the Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven. Indeed, we began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will go not to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die…. It is a magical place, Georgia, and it becomes dream-like the moment you have left it.” . – John Steinbeck, 1947

In that sense, Georgia hasn’t changed over these 60 years.

Oh, there are so many more stories to tell about my trip!

[End of 2006 Email Series]

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #8

October 21, 2016

picture-385

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 25, 2006

I asked Keti’s nephew about the Georgian flag and where it came from.  He said for a while they had a red flag with a black pattern.  But they opted instead for the current flag which was the symbol of the Nationalist party.  He didn’t make any reference to the crusades.

Twelfth Night didn’t fit into my festival schedule.  Several other fascinating plays did.  I saw a production of Waiting for Godot in Azerbaijani language (similar to Turkish), and a play about Marlene Dietrich in Georgian, as well as a play Keti directed in Georgian by an Italian playwright who is apparently very well known, but who I hadn’t heard of.  His name is in the program in my checked-in luggage.

Keti’s production was absolutely incredible.  It was about a married couple, and although I didn’t understand a word they were saying, I understood absolutely everything.  They were a couple that had probably been married 30+ years, and Keti explained before hand that the husband suggests that they have an open marriage, and then gets jealous of his wife.  Well, it was done in such a funny, clever, creative, imaginative way.  The actress who played the wife is considered to be one of the finest comedic actresses in Eastern Europe, and I would add in the world.  She is absolutely crushed and devastated and infuriated and humiliated that the husband would suggest such a thing.  She goes out and sleeps in the living room.  She become suicidal, and tries to kill herself, and her husband finds her, and in her unconscious state, you can see his deep love and care and concern, and he cradles her in desperation and doesn’t want her to go.  When she becomes conscious again, there is a brief period of warmth between them, but then she suddenly remembers why she’s mad at him.  He still hasn’t withdrawn his proposal to have an open marriage.  So she gets angry again.  But it’s all funny, funny, funny (it’s extremely expressive, and recognizable).  At the beginning when the husband suggests this, her hair is in curlers, and she looks like a frumpy middle-aged housewife.  And you can kind of understand why the husband might not find her appealing.  They’ve clearly fallen into a routine with each other, and their life together is predictable and boring.

Then, after she’s overcome her complete depression, she pulls herself together and starts jogging, and wearing flattering clothes, and putting herself together in a fresh, attractive way.  She gets dates.  You can see the husband gets interested in her again, but she’s still so hurt that he asked for an open relationship to begin with, that she won’t have anything to do with him.  And you can see they argue with each other.  Then in his frustration he gets very aggressive with her, and this alienates her even further.  So he becomes incredibly self-condemning, depressed and suicidal and tries to kill himself.  Now the wife finds him in an almost unconscious state, and you can see her deep love and caring for him, and wanting him to live, cradling him.  Then when he becomes conscious again, the same storm arises, because the open marriage proposal still stands.

Then she has a date with a young Latin-lover type at their house.  She looks fantastic in a red evening gown.  She cooks dinner, and the Latin lover starts to carry her into the bedroom.  The husband sees this and explodes at the Latin-lover, and tries to grab the wife from his arms.  And the wife is at first batting off the husband, but her attempts are not heartfelt.  And then she ends up transferring to the husband’s arms, and batting off the Latin Lover who leaves, and it shows the husband carrying the wife off – and they look like two blissful love birds.  And the bed which is a square box standing upright – a flat – to suggest a bed shows the two of them sleeping (standing up against the bed – with the illusion of lying down) with sparklers spinning around over their heads.  I suppose what made it so good was the cleverness with which it was staged, and the brilliant hilarity of the direction, and actors.  And the interplay of music and effects.  It was done very cinematically (Keti is famous film director throughout the former USSR).  Also, it reminded me of a clown show (in the best sense) in which the characters are very innocent, transparent, and over-the-top.

Something about not understanding the words captured even more the essence of the story for me in a way that made the play all the more memorable and distinctive.  I have seen some of the best theatre of my life in Georgia, and was riveted even though I didn’t know the language.  Everything I’ve seen has been so vivid and clear.  Such a great example of how theatre is about so much more than words.

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #7

October 21, 2016

picture-597

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 19, 2016

I must emphasize again how exquisitely delicious and fresh Georgian food is. I feel spoiled by these feasts we’re served at different fine restaurants, sponsored by the festival in the wee hours of the morning after the performances. Full of the most delectable, mouth-watering treats unlike anything I’ve ever seen or tasted before.

Unfortunately, back at the hotel, the cook must have found out that I’m American. I went to the hotel dining room for dinner the other day, sat down and was presented with a giant chicken McNugget, mashed potatoes with catsup and a Wonder Bread knock-off.  I was so disappointed.  I took one bite of the chicken McNugget just to confirm that it was indeed a chicken McNugget, and left the rest.  Not particularly gracious, but I had to cast my food vote somehow.  I did eat the delicious Georgian cucumber and tomato salad.

This reminded me of a a gourmet grocery store I visited once in Paris, with an international import section.  The American section was full of products like “Shake-‘n’-bake”, PAM, Marshmallow fluff, Cup o’ Soup, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and sloppy joe mix at exorbitant prices. As much as I love America, I’m not proud of our international culinary reputation.

             *              *               *

More on George W. Bush’s visit to Georgia. I just had dinner with Keti and she said that when the Georgians got Bush to agree to come, it was the first time in the history of the country that an American President set foot on Georgian soil.  Georgians were so gaga over the idea of the American president coming, that they spent 1-2 years preparing for his visit. They gathered together the finest traditional Georgian polyphonic choirs and dancers, and built three stages in the restaurant where the dinner was to take place.  If Bush looked left, he would see the stage performance to his left. If he looked right, he would see the performance to the right, if he looked in front of him, he would see the performance in front of him. All three performances were masterfully coordinated and the polyphonic music was perfectly interwoven among stages. Keti said Bush, a known teetotaler, went crazy, got up and started dancing – not only because he was drunk on the Georgian wine, but because he was drunk on the Georgian honors bestowed upon him.  She said there was a huge procession when he arrived and left for the airport. So they named the street leading to and from the airport “President George W. Bush Street”.

picture-547-edit

Illuminated billboard identifying the street leading to Tbilisi International Airport

While in the Tumanishvili theatre yesterday, in walked one of the lovely young women who led me to the ladies room at the Opera House Sunday night.  One of my non-smoking soulmates!  We immediately recognized each other and she ran over to greet me.  We officially introduced ourselves.  Her name is Nini and she’s studying acting at the university.  I told her I had just performed a show on this stage the night before.  She was so disappointed to have missed it.  I regretted not inviting her as we stood together in the smokey opera house bathroom.

Later I went into the theatre canteen, and Nini was sitting there with friends. She invited me over to join them.  She will be performing the role of Juliet in an afternoon of scenes tomorrow at 3pm, and invited me to come.  She introduced me to her friends who are also acting students at the university and they invited me to go with them to see Twelfth Night at the most famous theatre in Tbilisi.  I hope it works out!

Apparently the best foreign language translation of Shakespeare in the world is in the Georgian language.  Isn’t that fascinating?  Few in America have heard of Georgia – we think of the state – and yet here are all of these superlative facts about this tremendous country completely unknown to us.

I was so delighted to see Nini again, because I was really touched by her in our brief encounter at the opera house. Another person who touched me was Keti’s husband Coka, who is a great-grandfather. He knows almost no English at all.  He has a childlike innocence and love.  For example, he stands on his head for his youngest grandson Luka.

Coka sat through the entire performance of Lilia! and afterwards said, “My English…”  and shook his head, pointed at me and said, “Your–” – motioned towards the stage — “Excellent!” and kissed his fingers.  He kisses everyone’s hand as though they are deeply treasured.

       *            *            *

Another seatbelt encounter.  The driver came to the hotel to take the Americans to the theatre.  I climbed into the front seat and without thinking, reached for the seatbelt.  The driver, who spoke no English, grabbed my hand to stop me. He shook his head and sternly motioned not to use it.  I found out later Georgians consider it dangerous to use seat belts because they trap you in the car, should the occasion require for you to escape quickly.

The Americans joked about the contradictory safety practices between countries. I reassured myself with the fact that no one wore seat belts in America when I was a kid.  When the seatbelt law was first enforced, my mother would forget, until we were pulled over by a policeman. All of us remembered after that.

             *                 *                 *

Yesterday when we were driving to another theatre to see a Georgian play, we drove by several flags.  I asked if the white flag with the big red cross in the middle dividing the flag into four squares with a four red crosses was the Georgian flag.  Keti said, “Yes.”  I asked what the red crosses symbolize.  She said, “It’s an old flag from the crusades.  When Georgia won its independence from Russia, they chose that crusade flag to use as the national symbol.”  I’m not quite sure what to make of that.

picture-611-edit

Then we drove by a monument under construction.  Hilary Wood, the British director who was sitting in the front seat (the one who directed that Shakespeare production here in the middle of the civil war) asked what the monument would be.  “St. George.  But the Georgian people are very upset about that because they say that St. George is not one of the saints of Orthodox Christianity.”

Hilary said, “That’s ridiculous.  He’s the patron saint in England, too.”  So, now I’m curious about what the big controversy is about St. George, and what his saint status is in Orthodox Christianity.  And also, is the dragon really representative of the Muslim religion?  Because we drove by a drawing of what the monument would look like when completed and sure enough there is going to be a big dragon at the feet of the horse of St. George.

In the brand new Georgian play I saw last night, Keti sat beside me and translated.  It was about two men who had grown up as brothers, and the civil war in Georgia had made them enemies of one another.  They were trying to come together again as brothers.  There are a few powerful points that I captured.  One brother accuses the other of being among Georgians who killed innocent women and children at the end of the civil war.  And then the line came, “No one wants to claim killers among their people.”  I felt a longing for redemption and reunification.

Then came the line: “Wars are created by historians because all history is written from a political point of view.”  There were so many universal truths that were pouring out like poetry that I said to Keti I would like a translation of this play.  Because this is its first production, there’s no script yet available.

I caught a ride from the theatre, now I’m back and ready to sleep .

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #6

October 17, 2016

picture-198-small

Tbilisi, Georgia – 10/18/06 2:07:26 AM

The performance of Lilia! went well last night. We ended up not using the subtitles. The other American artist thought it would ruin the performance because people would be laughing in two different places, and everyone had seemed to understand the Pinter play the night before without translation.

I’d asked Keti about the Georgian translation of the words “Christian Science,” since my grandmother references that in the play and Europeans often confuse it with Scientology. She said, “Of course everyone knows it’s Scientology.”

I said, “I want to make sure that it isn’t mistaken for Scientology.”

She said, ‘Of course, no, no.” (Another reason not to use the subtitles.)

After the performance, Keti said, “I’m so glad we didn’t use the subtitles.  Everyone understood.  You made me cry.”

The audience was filled with young people. There was even a little boy maybe 5 or 6.  They laughed throughout.  A very lively crowd.

Afterwards, two young Georgian actresses introduced themselves to me, and said they work in this theatre, and my show was a master class for them.

A young man said that even though he couldn’t understand every word, he understood everything because of the way it was played.  One Georgian woman said she was laughing and crying at the same time.

The people were so warm.  The instant the lights went down at the end, people were yelling Bravo in the darkness.  They clapped, and their claps became united in one ryhthmic beat.  I did one bow after another, after another.  I even blew kisses.  I tried to leave the stage, and Keti in the front row motioned for me to come back. So, I did, and they brought me another bouquet of dahlias.

I was very grateful and touched by the receptivity of the audience.  Whenever I said something during the show like “Nothing is impossible,” or “Shoot for the stars, our capacities are limitless,” or “All things are possible to God,” I thought of these people and their longing hearts striving to move forward as a people and a country.

It changed the way the puppet theatre scene ended when I told my grandmother that I wouldn’t go.  It wasn’t out of defeat, it was out of respect for a higher standard.

When Lilia turns down a million dollars for the 5-year television series contract, the audience cheered.  That has happened maybe once during the hundred and sixty-odd performances I’ve done.

After my last performance, which was on Orcas Island, a woman said she felt the entire play was a prayer.  That came very much to mind while I was on stage, since this is the first performance since.

Afterwards, the unanimous comments were, “What a wonderful grandmother.”  “I love your grandmother so much.”  “What a wonderful person.”  Sometimes, I get the impression North Americans are put off by her toughness, but the Georgians understood it. They felt the love.

Today, when I went back to the theatre, the sound operator Ani, who knows a handful more English words than I know Georgian, told the interpreter to tell me that she thought Lilia! was “really great.”  I asked the interpreter if Ani had been able to understand what was going on.  The interpreter asked her and she said yes, she was able to understand all of the emotions and what was going on.  Meanwhile Ani looked at me smiling and nodding enthusiastically.

picture-264

Ani, the sound technician and me, after the performance of Lilia! in Tbilisi 2006


Preparing for the Show:

The morning of my performance, I awoke at 4am unable to get back to sleep. A dark, heavy cloud hung over me, with a sense of alarm about all things “foreign,” which in those moments seemed synonymous with “horrifying.”  I’m embarrassed to admit this, because the last thing in the world I would ever want is to be is closed-minded, suspiciously distrustful and afraid of the unfamiliar.

I thought of Jill Carroll, a journalist taken hostage by Sunni insurgents in Bagdad while on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor – 500 miles away from hereHer dramatic story was told in a multi-part series. When she was finally released after 82 days in captivity and returned to America, she swore she would never leave the country again.  I so identified with that sentiment and couldn’t wait for this trip to be over.  I kicked myself for elongating it to include Paris, London and Dresden.  The words “divine adventure” were incomprehensible to me.  Feeling trapped and panicked, searching for solace, this hymn came to me in desperation:

“Love now is dawning over every nation, showing true brotherhood, publishing salvation.  Love bids all discord cease, conquering hate, enthroning peace.  Love, love alone is power.”

Tears came with the thought that the Georgian nation is beloved, and I get to witness that firsthand.  I sang comforting hymns for probably an hour and a half until the fear of “foreign” left me. I went back to sleep for a couple of hours, and awoke to go to the theatre for a tech rehearsal.

 

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #5

October 16, 2016

picture-112

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 16, 2016 – Continued

Okay, here I wrote myself some key words to remember in the morning.  Now it’s morning and we’re supposed to have a car pick us up and take us to the theatre.

I must say, I really enjoy not having to choose something off of the menu and just having food brought to me – one plate after the other creating a big spread.  Each plate containing something different and surprising and unfamiliar and delicious.  The food has lots of flavor because they use all kinds of herbs and spices probably from Asia.  When I look on a map, India doesn’t look that far away.  The most delicious thing I’ve had is khinkali. The “k” is pronounced with a rough sound in the throat – like you’re gurgling.

So, the telephone in my room isn’t receiving calls.  Maybe the ringer is turned off? Let me check.  Eh!  Voila – what do you know?  Gmadlopt (thank you). I just turned it back on.

Yesterday, I was told to wait in my room and the front desk would call me when my ride to the press conference arrived.

Well, I waited and waited, and the call didn’t come (since, as we’ve discovered, the ringer was turned off).  So, finally I went downstairs and they told me my ride had left 5 minutes ago.  They called Andro’s cell phone from the front desk, and he sent another car to pick me up while I waited in the lobby.

The press conference was held at the opera house in a magnificently beautiful room.  I have so many photos and if I had the luxury of a chunk of time, I would download them from my camera and include them here.  That would be so fun to do!  I’d love the afternoon to do that.

Well, anyhow the people included in the press conference were Keti, Paco Pena, the festival publicist, another American artist, and myself.  There were lots of cameras and press people with tape recorders.  The press would ask Keti questions in Georgian directed at one of us. Keti would translate.

The only questions they asked me were “What countries have you performed your show in?”  (Probably because the Lilia! press release opens with the words: “Internationally acclaimed”). That introduction always seemed a bit over-the-top to me. A colleague once read my understated press release and said, “No, no, no this will never do.”  He rewrote the whole thing with such exaggerated superlatives that any reader would think “If she’s so phenomenal and internationally acclaimed why haven’t I ever heard of her?” Then not believe a word that followed.  So, I’d toned it down A LOT, but “internationally acclaimed” was still in there, since I couldn’t argue the fact that I’d received great reviews in Canada, Scotland and America.  I named those three countries for the reporters.

They asked if Lilia! was the first play I’d written, and I said yes. I also said something about how I’d always admired my grandmother, and how it was natural for this show to be written because I wanted to share the woman I knew with the world.  Yesterday, I had a foot-in-mouth experience with a lingering feeling of “why did I say that? That’s not what I intended…”  But I’m learning to let that go. I used to torture myself over that kind of thing.

I’m jumping all around here.  Oh, The Cherry Orchard was in Georgian, not Russian. Everything here is in Georgian.  For many years Russian was the second language. A new president came in a few years ago and said the only way to bring Georgia into the 21st Century was to make English the second language for everyone to learn in schools.  So now apparently most people under 40 know at least a bit of English.

I read somewhere that Georgia was the second country in the world to convert to Christianity, after Armenia.  But maybe I got something confused because – what about the Holy Roman Empire?  What about Constantine and Constantinople?  Unfortunately my recollection of that part of history is fuzzier than fuzzy.

Oh, and here’s an amazing story.  Ylena and Nina drove me past a restaurant on Saturday where [George W.] Bush ate when he was here.  She said the prices shot way up after he left. Bush got very drunk there and started dancing.  The Georgians were so amused and delighted by this, it made them love him even more than they already did.

Bush stayed at the Marriott in the middle of Tbilisi, which was already expensive, but after he left, prices skyrocketed. The room he stayed in became astronomically expensive.  Bush is a superstar to these people – bigger than The Beatles.  When he was scheduled to ride through the center of town, the entire city gathered and screamed as he went by: “Bush, you are president of the world!  President of the world!”  Isn’t that fascinating?  My guess is that he represents a model of democracy that Georgians admire and aspire to.  I made this comment to the other American, and she said, “I think the other reason they adore Bush is because he’s Christian, and this is an extremely Christian nation.”

Ylena said there was a man in Tbilisi who had built a bomb to kill Bush when he drove through the crowds.  It didn’t go off, and the man was infuriated.  Ylena was pleased that the man wasn’t Georgian.  “He was an Armenian who lived with his very elderly mother and hated every political leader except Jacques Chirac.  Now he’s in an insane asylum.  If the bomb had gone off,” she mused, “none of us would be here now because we were all there.”

Last night, Paco Pena’s performance opened the festival at the Opera House, which is a magnificent building with painted gold leaf designs on the interior walls. Crystal chandeliers hang throughout.

As part of the opening ceremony, Keti asked the other American and me if we would say a few words to the audience before the Flamenco performance began, since Georgians LOVE Americans. The other artist and I agreed we would address the audience in unison with the word “hello” (in Georgian). “Gmarjoblat.”

It sounds exactly the way I’ve spelled it. The Georgians pronounce it the way an American would read that spelling aloud for the first time.

(It’s an amazing language.  There are so many syllables for the simplest words.  For example “please” I think has 5-7 syllables.  They chalk it up to being such an ancient language.  English is by comparison a relatively new language.  And our written form is even newer.)

So, I practiced and practiced “gmarjoblat.”

Our arrival on stage was met with warm applause as we were presented with huge, magnificent bouquets of colorful dahlias.  I never imagined the day I would be standing on a European opera house stage receiving a giant bouquet and applause. I thought of my grandmother Lilia who always wanted to be an opera singer.

Then we said it. “Gmarjoblat!”

Our efforts received another round of applause.  I followed by saying how honored I was to be a part of this festival, how honored I was to get to know the Georgian people and their warm hearts that were embracing the world by hosting this festival.  A translator translated.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house which sat maybe 800.  Everyone wanted to be there for Paco Pena.  At 9:30pm, the concert began and went until midnight.

I was sitting in the 7th row, so it felt a tiny bit more intimate, though I longed to be around a camp fire watching the dancing, rather than in this elegant palace with dripping crystal and gold.

(I came to know and love Flamenco in Seattle when I befriended and studied with a professional flamenco dancer named Alison Adams (Alicia Adame), a patient, gentle teacher with very high standards. I even had a pair of castanets handmade for me, and she taught us how to use them, before she moved to San Francisco and I to New York.)

People smoke like chimneys around here.  Fortunately, I was so fully in wide-eyed absorption mode when I initially encountered it, that I didn’t have time to get irritated.

The first day, Ylena and Nina asked me if it was alright with me if they smoked. We were driving through town in Ylena’s Mercedes with the two side mirrors missing.  Ylena said, “Someone stole the mirrors off of my car.”  Once again, she didn’t seem appalled, just slightly annoyed in a passing way.  Resigned.  I didn’t have the feeling she would replace them any time soon.

I told them it was alright with me if they smoked, as long as we rolled down the windows. With sighs of relief, their cigarettes were lit in their mouths in an instant. “Everyone smokes here,” Ylena said, “Georgians are very nervous.”

The people in Tbilisi do drive in a crazy way.  And NO one wears a seatbelt.  When I reached for my seatbelt, they laughed and told me that no one wears one. I told them it’s the law in the US.  “Not here,” they said.  I felt I was being handed a cultural behavior cue. What not to do in Tbilisi: wear a seat belt. So, I went without.

“Also, no one takes the metro or public bus here,” Ylena said. “It’s not cool.” She’s lived here all her life and has only taken the metro or bus once.  “It’s a small city and everyone knows each other.  Someone would see you if you did. It’s okay to have a car or take a cab.”

I was sitting in the backseat, Ylena was driving and describing certain landmarks, getting involved in conversation. Her head was turned around to the backseat the way people do in movies when I’ve always thought how obvious it was that the actor wasn’t really driving, because his eyes were so rarely on the road.  Then her cell phone would ring, and she would talk with her phone to her ear while negotiating hair pin turns on the side of a hill at outrageous speed. In those moments, you can only say, “OK, God, my life is in your hands.”

Back to the opera house.  People smoke in it.  I mean when I stepped out of the auditorium into the lobby areas people were smoking.  Maybe it used to be like that in the US, too. Though in my recollection, there were always “smoking areas.”  Here, everyplace is a smoking area.  So, I’m getting used to eating with smoke blowing in my face without mentally complaining.

At intermission, I needed to use the restroom, so I set about looking for one.  I heard two girls asking someone for the ladies room.  My ears perked up. “I’m looking for a ladies room, too.”  They smiled, took me by the arm and I was adopted.  “Come with us, we’ll find it together.”  They asked if I was from England.  They were Georgian.  Both beautiful with excellent English pronunciation.  I complimented their English, which pleased them. When we found the ladies room, it was so thick with cigarette smoke, you could hardly see in.  They were both disgusted.  Two young Georgians who don’t smoke!

I told them in America you wouldn’t find this kind of smoking everywhere.  They said it was terrible here for people who don’t smoke.  We waited to get to the stall.  There was no line, just people jammed into the room.  Whoever was standing closest to a stall that became available would go inside.  This elegant opera house didn’t have toilet seats. They’d been broken off long ago.  There were no dispensers for toilet paper, or signs of toilet paper anywhere.  Apparently they don’t provide it.  I was so grateful to have tissues in my bag. There was no soap or soap dispenser by the sinks, nor were there towels, towel dispensers or air blowers.  Just cigarette smoke.  Wow!  There’s so much to be grateful for in America!

The intermission must have been longer than 1/2 hour.  When the concert was over, we were taken in cars to a restaurant for dinner which started around 1am, and lasted until 3am. Then we were all bussed back to the hotel.  The flamenco performers didn’t speak English.  Only Paco Pena did.  They were fantastic.  I mean, top notch.  I can see why they are considered the foremost flamenco company in the world.

Though, I must admit – jumping back to the concert – that although I was not tempted to nod off this time, I was at times a bit of a zombie, and I wasn’t able to take all of it in.  I watched with glassy eyes, and sometimes the applause of the others was my cue that it was time to applaud.  Other times, I watched with my mouth hanging open because the performances were so breathtaking, and I found myself calling out “Bravo” with a Spanish accent.  The other American turned to me and smiled.  The Georgians yelled “Bravo” as well. It must be universal.

——————–

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #4

October 16, 2016

picture-168

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 16, 2016 – continued…

We were supposed to have a ride pick us up at the hotel at noon, but it didn’t come, so I decided to go back to my room and not join the other Americans for the pickup, but rather to stay here to rest and write everything down.

———————

This morning at breakfast, I was served uncooked bacon on a plate.  It looked EXACTLY like uncooked bacon rolled up decoratively – four slices in four rolls.  The presentation was so nice, I wondered, “Could it really be uncooked bacon?”  So, I took a bite.  Yes, it was. Cured in the same way, raw, greasy, cold.  I wondered if maybe the cook had been to a grocery store in America, saw a package of bacon, and assumed Americans serve it straight out of the package.  Wow.  Bacon tartar.  One bite was enough for me.  Not that it tasted terrible. Just the idea of it . . .

The same over-easy eggs as yesterday, yogurt, a different kind of bread. The same cheese and preserves.  This time two huge slabs of butter on the plate with the cheese.  I think I hit the jackpot with breakfast yesterday. Didn’t eat too much this morning.  I was still full from our 1am multiple course dinner last night.

I had read in the travel guide book that Georgians are not easily insulted. There’s almost nothing you can do to insult your host except not to accept his wine.  The big white statue of Mother Georgia on the hill in Tbilisi overlooking the city portrays a woman holding a goblet of wine in her left hand a sword in her right.  The wine is for guests that come in peace. The sword is for those who come with ill intent.

Since I don’t drink wine, I strategized about how I would handle this. I imagined how, if offered wine, I would graciously accept it, and leave it on the table in front of me, then marvel over the food.  If asked why I hadn’t tasted the wine, I would hold it up dramatically, bring it to my lips, then return to marveling over the food.  This scenario has not yet presented itself. There’s been plenty of bottled water offered with every meal.  No one has batted an eye about my drinking that instead of wine.

On Saturday when Ylena, Nina and I walked through the narrow streets with shops and restaurants, I noticed grape vines draped over awnings which hung over tables and chairs in front of a restaurant.  The grapes were ripe and I commented how fantastic it was to see grapes hanging from a vine in the middle of the city.  “I have grapes in my yard,” said Ylena, slightly blasé.  I asked if Georgia had much in common with Turkey, their adjacent neighbor.  Very emphatically Ylena said, “Georgia is NOTHING like Turkey. No grapes in Turkey.  They’re forbidden.”

“Forbidden?”

“Yes, the first rule of the Muslim religion is NO WINE.”  When we went into the Georgian souvenir shop, she proudly pointed out the Georgian wines for sale. I nodded in impressive recognition, then moved on to the traditional woolen shepherd’s shoes.

When Ylena took the other Americans and me around the city Sunday, one announced she would like to visit a Synagogue because she’s Jewish.  I held my breath for a moment, unsure of how this news would affect Ylena. Ylena responded, “Georgian people are very close to Jewish people.  I’ve been to Tel Aviv before.”

I asked her if Georgian people felt closer to Jewish people than to Muslim people. “Of course!” she said.  “But we have Muslim populations here, too.”  I got a flavor of how hospitality overrules prejudice.

Ylena took us to the Tbilisi synagogue, and said “I don’t know if we can go in.  I don’t know the Jewish customs.  We may not be welcome inside.”

“Jews embrace everyone as much as any other group of people, if not more.  I promise it will be fine to go inside,” said the other American.  There was a man standing outside – a kind of gate keeper, or maintenance person.  He told Ylena in Georgian that there are only 6,000 Jews left in Georgia.  Most have left for Tel Aviv, America or Austria.  (Austria?).  He invited us to enter, and turned on the lights.  The temple was very beautiful – crystal chandeliers, lots of gold leaf designs painted on the walls.  I asked permission to take photos.

This is getting very long!  So, I will have to write more in the next installment.  There’s so much more to say about yesterday.

Here’s a fascinating story a British theatre director told us last night about her first visit to Tbilisi in the early 90s.  She was directing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Georgian at the theatre where I will perform.  She said there’s no faster way of learning Georgian than to be looking at Shakespeare’s texts every day translated into Georgian.  In the middle of rehearsals, civil war broke out.  Tanks were riding through the streets.  She contemplated leaving the country, and asked the actors if they wanted to continue rehearsing.  They said they wanted to come to rehearsal now more than ever, so she stayed.  The actors rehearsed by day and at night they would climb to the rooftop of the television station with rifles to defend the station from being taken over since it was the only free media left.

She said the revolution occurred during the term of the first Georgian president elected democratically.  He’d been elected because of his nationalistic platform.  Once he got into office, he became totalitarian and dictatorial, and the intelligentsia protested, which prompted civil war.  He ended up fleeing to Chechnya.

Until the next installment…

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #3

October 16, 2016

picture-097-small

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 16, 2006

It’s 4am here, and I must go to bed, but first a few more impressions, because tomorrow there will be new ones, and I don’t want to miss out on capturing a single detail. I’m looking forward to some private time that doesn’t cut into my 8 hours at night in the hotel room after dinner and before the noon pickup.

There are two main things that left an impression.  When Ylena was driving us around today (oh it was such a long day – somehow I’ll have to start at the beginning).

I got up at 9am, because some noise in the hall woke me, and I decided not to go back to sleep because there was free breakfast waiting in the restaurant downstairs where I ate lunch yesterday.  Part of the hotel deal.  So, I got down there by 10:15am.

Yes, it’s 8 hours difference from NYC.  Oh, dear, I’m going to have to go to sleep.  Ahh! There’s so much to say that I don’t want to forget.

The breakfast was fantastic. First they brought me a yogurt in a Yoplait-type container. Only there weren’t any words on the packaging with our alphabet. And there was a picture of what looked like clusters of blueberries, but the leaves weren’t blueberry leaves. They were kind of lacy. They brought a big basket of the bread.  (Oh, no, this is going to take way too long to tell – I wish I had a few leisurely hours.)  And what looked like a dish of preserves of some kind.  A very dark color.  Maybe plum.  Then came a pitcher of orange juice, a plate of long thin dumpling-like items with string cheese in the middle, eggs over easy.  Oh!  And a plate of little cheeses.  The kind that come in the little triangles in foil, that you have to unwrap individually.

Ron had advised me – because our per diem is so minimal – to take the bread and cheese from the free breakfast and make cheese sandwiches to put in your bag for lunch.  Because there’s so much cheese and so much bread and it’s all yummy.  The bread is flat and round which is great because it’s really crusty.  Every bite has chewy crust, and the middle section is doughy.  I must go to sleep.   Must. Must. Must.

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #2

October 16, 2016

picture-542

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 15, 2006, 1:37 AM

Someone just woke me up.  Probably another festival artist arriving. These crazy airline flights all arrive in the middle of the night!  I could hear the electronic lock spinning around and around until it arrived in the right position.  Then they took a shower. I could hear the water running.  As I tried to fall back to sleep, a number of things came to mind which I forgot to mention in my previous email.

Today the festival opens.  There’s a press conference at noon which I am expected to be a part of.  The newspapers will ask me questions about American politics, I’ve been told, and I will talk about the unity between our countries through the arts, the importance of freedom of expression, and I’ll say that as an artist I’m not political.

Paco Pena and his dance company will open the festival at the opera house tomorrow night (tonight), which I’m very excited about.  I LOVE flamenco.  Keti and Nina said he’s now the foremost flamenco guitarist in the world, and his dance company is the best.

On Tuesday, I will perform Lilia! in the same theatre where I saw (the first two acts of) The Cherry Orchard last night.  It’s a beautiful theatre with a couple of huge lobbies with art exhibits.  Beautiful art work.  I’m told this theatre, “M. Tumanishvili Film Actor’s Theatre” is the third most famous in Tbilisi.  It’s really lovely with red velvet seats.  It doesn’t have typical theatre style seats.  But very wide upholstered chairs with wooden arms and legs.  The style of the furniture here is unlike anything I’ve seen.  Lots of curvy lines of wood, velvet and brocade.

picture-093-small  picture-203-small

There are thick velvet curtains on all the windows I’ve seen – in my hotel room (no problem with light leaking in), at the restaurant downstairs where I ate lunch, in the lobby of the theatre.  I commented about this to Nina and she said it’s the Russian Influence.  Russian windows are always covered with thick velvet curtains – especially in the Hermitage.

picture-102  picture-094

She also explained that the style of acting in The Cherry Orchard is considered pure Stanislavsky.  She summarized it with: “I don’t believe you.” He was constantly questioning whether his actors were being truthful from the inside out, every moment.

Oh, and this was interesting.  Last night when Andro picked me up at the airport, he spoke English so well that I asked him whether he was an interpreter.  He said, “No, I’m head of the newspaper here.”  He was very young.  He said he was one of the organizers of the festival and that he’d been to New York a couple of years ago with Keti when she got a Fulbright to do her one-woman show there.  They had 3-month visas to stay in the United States, and when they returned to Georgia after two weeks, the officials asked them, “Why did you come back?”  Apparently, it’s unheard of to get a 3-month visa and only stay for 2 weeks.  People either stay for the full three months or else don’t come back at all.

I asked him if he knew Ronald Rand from last year.  He said, “No, I didn’t work at the Festival last year.  I was in the Peace Corps. Training began the day after I returned from the United States.” I asked where the Peace Corps had sent him, and he said he worked in the Georgian countryside.  I wish I’d asked him more specifics about that.

              *                 *               *

Ylena and Nina explained that although Christianity is the national religion of Georgia, the surrounding countries are Muslim – Turkey, Azerbaijan and to the South – Iran and Iraq a couple of hundred miles away.  They said “Here in Tbilisi, we have in that direction a Mosque and in that direction a Synagogue.  So we are a multi-cultural country with many different peoples and religions.”

Okay, back to sleep I go — into the drafts folder this goes.

————————–

I’m going to send this before breakfast.

Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #1

October 16, 2016

picture-049

Tbilisi, Georgia – October 14, 2006

Greetings from Georgia!

The hotel is lovely and I slept a good solid 7 hours, before taking a luxurious shower.  Great water pressure, hot water, clean, fresh.

I’m still practicing the word for thank you which sounds like:  “gmadlopt.”

Let’s see – impressions. Where do I begin?

Last night, I stepped off of the plane – the airport in Tbilisi doesn’t have gates.  A bus took us from the runway to the airport building where we went through immigration.  It was 4:20am.  I bought some Georgian currency before getting online for the immigration.  No one asked me any questions going through.  My passport was stamped.  Easy.  I got my luggage, and exited the airport.

“Taxi?”  A man asked me.  “Just a minute, I have to see…”  I looked for a sign with possibly my name on it.  There was a man holding a sign that said “GIFT.”  I was overjoyed!  His name was Andro, and he spoke excellent English.  He welcomed me, took me to the car with his driver waiting.  We loaded the trunk, and they drove me to my hotel.

I asked Andro about the situation with the Russians.  He said Georgia has no problem with the Russians.  It’s the Russians that have a problem with the Georgians.  He said all flights, trains and mail have stopped between Russia and Georgia.  He said the Russians refuse to allow their artists to participate in this festival. The festival still has excellent relations with the Russian artists, who wish they could participate.  He said all Georgians have been deported from Russia, and Russia has requested their nationals to return.  There are many mixed marriages – Georgian-Russian, and the spouses have been separated and may not be reunited for 5 years.  I’m not sure where that 5-year figure came from, but that’s what I heard him say.

There was no sense of alarm in the tone of his voice, or in the voices of others I’ve met since, when they speak of the situation. It’s more of a sigh and a shrug.  Maybe not a shrug, more a note of irony, almost humor. Not humor.  Just kind of a “Yeah, can you believe it?  I know it’s terrible, and over there is a statue of [some famous warrior who defended Georgia in the 17th Century].”

*             *             *

This morning, I came downstairs to the hotel dining room. There were no patrons, no menu. I walked in, a staff member pointed to the room full of empty tables, indicating I should sit down, then disappeared into the kitchen.

After a while, I wondered if the kitchen was even open, because no one came out.  I poked my head in, and several people working away motioned for me to go back and sit down.

Quite a while later, they put a huge spread in front of me – fresh tomatoes, cucumber, a soup of rice, potato, carrot and dill, and some kind of sausage with french-fry-looking things. Everything was delicious.

I have no idea what time it is here.  My ears and eyes have been peeled since my flight arrived, waiting for some hint of the local time.  There are no clocks ANYWHERE and no one announced it on the plane (at least in English).

      *             *             *

I’m typing this message from the computer at the front desk of the hotel.  The man working at the front desk went over to the restaurant/bar across the lobby so I could use his computer.  It’s wild using a keyboard with Cyrillic characters, where the keys are in different places.  Anyway, there’s no internet access in my room.  No wireless anywhere nearby. So much for Skype!

I was invited to use this computer any time, but it means displacing the front desk person. I was told I could bring my laptop down and hook it up to their internet connection to send and receive messages.

Tonight, I’m going to see The Cherry Orchard with Keti Dolidze, the Artistic Director of the festival. Her daughter-in-law is on her way here now to pick me up and drive me around for a tour of the city.

The next message I’ll type from my computer and bring down to send.

              *            *             *

Just arrived home after ducking out of The Cherry Orchard before Act III.  I was nodding off like crazy, incorporating the stage action into my dreams, unsure of what was dream and what was the play.

My new friend Nina, who took me around Tbilisi today, along with Ylena (Keti’s daughter-in-law), sat beside me whispering translations into my ear. I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying with her accent. I was embarrassed to have my eyes closed when she turned to me, but my semi-conscious state didn’t stop her.

At intermission, I told her not to worry about translating for me, because the relationships and action were interesting enough without.

She said, “No, no problem, I don’t mind.”  I could see it gave her great pleasure to do it, so she continued through Act II, as I continued to nod off. At the second intermission, she asked if I was tired. Yes! So she called for Keti’s driver to take me home, and here I am.

      *             *             *

The Georgians are very connected to their history and the legends of those who established their country.

This afternoon, Ylena and Nina took me through some narrow little streets with stores and restaurants.  We went into a souvenir shop.  Everything there was handmade in Georgia.

picture-068

There were a number of little paintings of saints, which I asked Nina about.

“Those are icons – St. Mary and St. George, the two main saints in Orthodox Christianity.”

A haloed St. George was pictured riding a white horse with an upside down dragon at the horse’s feet, and a gold leaf sky backdrop.

“Why is he riding a horse, and why is he famous?”  I asked her.

“He’s famous for defending Christianity and going into Turkey, a Muslim country, to spread Christianity. Eventually he was tortured and killed by the Turks.”

“Was he famous for slaying a dragon?” I asked.

“Well, I shouldn’t say this out loud, but the dragon represents the [religion of Turkey].”

As Nina and Ylena led me through the streets, they explained how Georgia is a mix of Europe and Asia because it’s located plunk between the two.  They pointed out the Persian and European architecture side by side. Fascinating!

They drove me by the big fortress walls on the hill. They told me how Georgia had been a country already in the 6th Century BC, and how it was constantly under attack. For 2600 years, Tbilisi has been attacked and seized again and again. For thousands of years, the people of the city have run up the hill to hide behind the walls of the fortress whenever there was a new attack.

Yet, despite multiple millennia of being overtaken by aggressive forces, Ylena and Nina were proud that Georgians had managed to maintain their own unique culture, heritage, language and alphabet. They said there are only 14 alphabets in the world, and Georgian is one of them.

I asked Nina, who studied in Moscow, if both of her parents were Georgian.  She said they were.  I asked if her ancestors were all Georgian and if they too ran up the hill to the fortress thousands of years ago for protection. She said, “Yes.”

It’s so mind boggling to think of a culture and people that’s stayed in the same place and maintained itself for so many generations.  In the U.S. we’re such a young nation, a “melting pot.”

I discovered that Georgia is still mostly an agrarian society. When all those shortages were happening in the Soviet Union during Communism and people lined up out the door for a loaf of bread, that wasn’t the case in Georgia. Families had their own farm animals and vegetable gardens.

Ylena and Nina are together in the same Masters degree program in Journalism at the University.  I asked if the Georgians had ever attacked anybody throughout the centuries.  “We didn’t have time! We were too busy defending ourselves,” they said.  And that’s why Georgia still has a recovering economy.

Up until a hundred years ago, they said, Georgian girls were forced into marriage at age 12. If the husband found out the girl wasn’t a virgin, he would have her publicly shamed, sometimes even killed, similar to Muslim practices.  Now that’s changing, they said, though chastity is highly prized in the Georgian culture – even today.

They said Georgian men love Russian women because chastity is a non-issue for them. On the other hand, Georgian men believe Georgian women are much more intelligent and interesting than Russian women.

Ylana said she was recently in Moscow riding the subway and every woman had silicon breast implants. “It was terrible. The same in the U.S. with the breast implants.”

I said, “Actually, very few women have silicon breast implants in the U.S. Those who do are mostly in Los Angeles.” (Interesting to hear foreign perceptions of Americans!)

I asked Nina if she’d ever been to the U.S.  No, she said.

I asked if she’d like to go.  “Well, maybe I’ll get there someday.  I’ve traveled all over Europe, Asia and Russia. I’m interested in cultures and societies as they developed and were destroyed.  I’ve followed the trail of societies in the order that they were created and destroyed throughout Europe and Asia.”

A natural curiosity for one coming from such an ancient culture!

                     *               *              *

My performance is Tuesday night at 6pm, and I’ve been informed that Lilia! has been completely translated into Georgian. There will be subtitles projected throughout the play. Isn’t that remarkable?  Wow!  I just got chills.  Last year Ronald Rand’s play was not translated.  He just did it and those who knew English got it, but half the audience didn’t. Keti Dolidze said to me tonight after she told me about the translation and subtitles, “It’s a very beautiful story – the story of your grandmother.  Very beautiful.”

She asked, “Do you like the poster for the festival?”  The poster has a photo of a little child sitting on the beach looking out over the wide horizon with this quote:  “Not all the darkness of the world can put out the light of a single candle”  – Assisi

Isn’t that beautiful?  I told her I love it.

picture-114

Revisiting Tbilisi, Georgia 2006 / 2016

October 16, 2016

In 2006, Lilia! was performed at GIFT – Georgian International Festival of Arts in Tbilisi. That story was never told until now that we’re returning to perform Felicitas.

picture-472

“If one tried to describe Georgia using one single word, the right word would definitely be ‘hospitality’… Wherever we had been in Russia, in Moscow, in the Ukraine, in Stalingrad, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly. People who had never been there and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and a great admiration. They spoke of the Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven. Indeed, we began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will go not to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die….It is a magical place, Georgia, and it becomes dream-like the moment you have left it.” . – John Steinbeck, 1947

It was the khachapuri that inspired me. In 2014, we were performing Felicitas at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village when Steve discovered Old Tbilisi Garden around the corner on Bleecker Street. Knowing I’d been to Tbilisi, he suggested we eat there. It quickly became our post theatre hangout. When the show closed, we went back whenever we were in the neighborhood. Then, we made special trips and brought all of our out-of-town guests there. The New York Times soon reviewed it and declared: “If there is one Georgian dish that could bring Manhattan to its knees, it is adjaruli khachapuri...” Steve’s favorite!

One day, as we boxed our khachapuri remains to savor for the next day, it occurred to me: “Why don’t we return to Tbilisi to perform Felicitas at the GIFT Festival?” I’d done Lilia! there in 2006. Steve would be able to experience magnificent Georgian food first hand. I wrote to Keti Dolidze, the festival director and the rest is history.

We leave this week for a performance of Felicitas on October 25.

I’d always intended to write about that 2006 Georgian trip. Today, I went back and reread emails I’d sent from Georgia. I will share them in segments to follow.