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Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #1

October 16, 2016

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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.

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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.

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