Georgia on my mind – Tbilisi, 2006 – #7
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”.
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.
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 .