Friday, April 15, 2011

Running Errands, Running Scared

Another week of trying to outsmart the weather (no, Tbilisi, the ability to lie on my terrace in a bathing suit on a sunny day only to spot snow-capped hills in the distance is NOT NORMAL), to get strings for my new guitar (50 lari at the Dry Bridge!), and to acquire boxes for my loose tea.

Yes, that's right, I managed to defeat the pesky
language barrier and acquire churckhela.
Mostly by creative use of mime.
One of the wonderful things about living here is that I feel so gosh-darn-ain't-that-swell proud of myself whenever I accomplish something that would require absolutely no mental stimulation in Oxford. Getting my prints framed, buying flowers, explaining precisely how much jasmine tea I require (something between "small" and "big"...) - all these things make me feel like the most accomplished, skillful, brilliant, fabulous person in the world! I mean, clearly nobody else in the entire world is capable of pointing at "ispinakhi" and gleefully chanting "erti kilo! minda es!" until said spinach has been procured! Just me - I'm just that special! (To be fair, the smug self-satisfaction I get out of running errands in broken Georgian manages to last for a good few hours, and is in fact redoubled when I come home and manage to ARRANGE said spinach in a picturesque manner in a wicker basket alongside some equally picturesque tomatoes!) That takes skill, damn it!

Furthermore, errand-running usually turns into finding-exciting-new-things.
Exhibit A: I had been told that there was a Populi located in Ortachala, much closer to my house than the "nearest" one on Orbeliani Street. Now, this Populi was in fact in no way closer than the other one, but walking there took me through the single most bizarre street in Tbilisi (and that's saying something.) The Ortachala end of Gorgasalis Street is not just "Tbilisi-odd", it's "Kafkaesque nightmare" odd. Ruined caravanserais give way quickly to an Art-Deco-esque faux-Egyptian obelisk (WHAT?), followed by some enormous shards of pseudo-Classical pottery, including a massive Trojan horse (WHAT???) followed by what appears to be a (pseudo) Ancient Burial Ground (WHAT WHAT WHAT??). Followed, naturally, by a pharmacy and a Populi. Odd.

A house near the intriguing one in Betelmi. A house I
*WANT*, damn it.
Exhibit B: Not quite an errand, but bears mentioning. An attempt to go to Mtskheta with my friend N., and her Georgian husband on Sunday is delayed by three hours because N's husband wants to look at a potential house he wishes to buy in the lovely district of Betelmi. We drive up to the address listed and discovered that the house is, in fact, not a house but rather a pile of rubble. The workmen explain that the house is in the process of being rebuilt, but that in order to avoid a price increase the money should be paid immediately. N's husband considers the rubble. "I think we should get this," he says, stroking his chin and surveying the empty, rubbish-strewn lot. "It's a good deal." He is completely serious.*

Though the delay forced us to rather rush through Mtskheta, it all worked out in the end, because Saakashvili bloody turned up at our restaurant - Salobie - while we were eating, with the world's least secretive Secret Service/posse imaginable,. (Hint: if a passerby asks "Is it Misha?" it's not exactly discreet to wink and say "Yeah...").

Don't ever change, Tbilisi. (Except for clearing up the rubble between Botanikuri and Median so I can walk up that street in heels. And more permanent electricity would be good. And I'd quite like a Populi and an Indian restaurant near me.)

*Upon further reflection and research, it IS actually a good deal - a good enough deal that my mother is considering returning to Tbilisi and buying a being-built house herself! This in no way diminishes the hilarity of the moment.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Twelfth Night

I promised to write this post a week ago, but life (read: power outages, work, a trip to Mtskheta, headaches) waylaid me. But I'd be remiss if I didn't write about my attendance of Robert Sturua's Twelfth Night (which I idiotically referred to as The Tempest in my previous post - blame aforesaid headaches and a preponderance of shipwrecks in Shakespeare!)

It was absolutely bizarre. Not, like The Decameron, which was on at the Marjanishvili Theatre and is one of the best pieces of theatre I've ever seen. Twelfth was simply...strange. I know the text well enough to be able to follow the story, and while I may be rusty on minor plot-points, I'm quite sure (spoiler alert), it doesn't end with a thorn-crowned Jesus turning up carrying his cross while Viola and Sebastian run away in terror! Nor does it open with the annunciation to the Virgin Mary and the despairing of Joseph (I was wondering why Duke Orsino was wearing tallit, and Olivia a wimple). Having caught onto the Holy Family presence once the donkey turned up (...and didn't leave during the dramatic homoerotic Orsino/"Cesario" scene), I came to the conclusion that we were meant to contrast the frivolous festivities of the twelfth night celebrations with the gravity of the true meaning of Christmas.

I'm not sure it translated emotionally, but nevertheless, Twelfth Night was extraordinarily technically brilliant. I've noticed, both here and in The Decameron, that the predominant theatre-style here tends to be far more physical/visual, over-the-top, commedia-dell'arte-style than is fashionable in the US or UK. There's little here of "method" acting, or rough "kitchen sink" drama - if anything, the style here is far less naturalist, far more choreographed, stylized and theatrical. (As a devotee of commedia dell'arte, I happen to vastly prefer this sort of theatre.)

And the thing is - pulling off that kind of theatricality is bloody hard. You don't simply need to be a "good actor." You need to be able to control your breath, facial muscles, body, posture, timing. And the cast at the Rustaveli theatre were bloody fantastic. Maria and Feste were played as stereotypical "harlequin clowns" (complete with balloon-popping and head-knocking and gleefully unironic skipping about), with Malvolio as the mincing, prancing, fantastically hammish star of the whole production. The three of them (and indeed, the cast as a whole), displayed some of the best vocal/physical training I've ever seen in an ensemble - even with my lack of Georgian, there were few lines whose "points" didn't come across physically or aurally.
(Meanwhile Olivia was played as an overly melodramatic femme fatale, and got rather subsumed into the "clown" narrative, while poor, dreadfully earnest Viola and Orsino were all but forgotten...)

After three years of Oxford theatre, which can get terribly pretentious/full-of-itself/"relevant", there's something truly joyous about going to a show like this - a show where the actors stop and preen when the audience goes mad over a certain funny line (and Malvolio deigns to wink at the front row), where the audience leaps up in applause, where nobody is afraid of being theatrical or over the top - there's such a sense of delight and play, in the best sense of the word, that renders the lugubrious earnestness of so much "kitchen-sink" theatre ridiculous in its very attempts at gravity!

Between this and The Decameron, I think I've been won over by Georgian theatre. (Lest ye bloggers think I'm obnoxiously positive about everything in Georgia, however, be sure that nearly had a conniption last night after suffering the THIRD long-term (almost 12 hrs) blackout in my flat in eight days (after months of no problems at all), and that I haven't slept in almost a week due to my neighbors' noctural tendencies (but they deserve a post all to themselves)

To be fair, I'm still not sure I got much out of the donkey.

Also - a special mention to commentator Mixho, who recommended the "Patriarchy Food Shop" to me. I'd been wondering where to buy produce in my area, as I'm a twenty-minute walk from the nearest Populi, and most of the markets in my neighborhood focus on bread/eggs/canned goods, with only a few pathetically bruised vegetables. While slightly pricey, the food shop associated with Sioni Cathedral (to the right, facing the church from the river, in the little garden) is amazing. Monk-produced honey, beans, bread, cheese, phenomenal produce - including delicious oranges and armfuls of spinach - all procured for you by World's Nicest Orthodox Priest. Take that, Dean and DeLuca!*

*English readers, read: Waitrose and/or Fortnum and Mason.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Home, at last

I've been nesting over the past week or two, clinging to moments of quiet between enormous piles of revision-work, paid-work-to-fund-my-currently-unfunded-postgrad-work, more funding applications, bazroba-visits (30 lari for an enormous chocolate cake, seven or eight different spices, and about 5 kilos of fruit and vegetables), and a few sunlit moments with a book and Uzbek pilaf at a sidewalk cafe.

Home sweet...
I've managed to make a home here. I love this apartment - its bright-painted walls, the guitar hanging from the study wall, the lilies in the living room vase. I knew when I moved here that I wanted more than a flat, and this apartment is a repository of beautiful things - things that had previously been living in storage in my grandmother's apartment, under my mother's bed, at my boyfriend's house, in the basement of Oriel College: at last I'm able to gather up this fragmented collection of memory.

For the first time I can remember, I'm not divided - not sprawling my stuff over continents. Everything that was beautiful or important to me at some point in my life is here, making up this chaotic, colorful whole - from the bedspread I had when I was thirteen and living in Paris (Indian, orange, now living on the guest bed), to the one I bought while living in Rome a year later (emerald, fraying, now covering my study chair), to the Venetian masks I made eight years ago (hanging in my bedroom), to the black-and-white photographs in my bathroom (from a Parisian coffee table book entitled "Girls") to the stuffed llama I bought in Piazza Navona shisha pipe once used in a Pirandello play I directed at Oxford. I have the boxes my mother made for me out of antique Bible pages for Christmas, and the Thai box my grandmother couldn't take with her when she moved.

I still gasp when I see Old Tbilisi from across the river, and think I live there. I still smile every time I catch a glimpse of the fortress at night. I eat a (second) dinner at my land-family's and drink tea until midnight. Soon my friend Kam (of blog fame) will be moving in next door, and then we'll transform our shared private terrace into a summer wonderland of flowers and deck-chairs!

I get a bit tetchy when people here (often expats) complain about Georgia - that it's a "backwater," "barbaric," what-have-you, that its nicer bits are filled with nouveaux riches and its less-nice bits are Soviet terrors. I saw Robert Strurua's The Tempest at the Rustaveli Theatre, and in terms of technical skill the actors/direction easily outclassed anything I've seen in England (and the Decameron came second, in recent memory, only to Al Pacino's Merchant of Venice in New York). The food here - both Georgian and haute-European - is phenomenal. There's so much here - especially in Old Tbilisi - that's affordable or free (just walk around), and I hate to think that so much of the public/expat discourse about Tbilisi is what it "needs," what it "lacks," what needs to change. Of course there are serious issues here, as in any country, but there's something dreadfully imperialist about demanding that a developing country fit the paradigm of uniformly "poor/miserable/depressed" - as if the idea that there are plenty of Georgians who don't need "saving" somehow threatens the "first-world-ness" of the expats in question. (Though most of my expat friends here are lovely and non-imperialist!)

When it's sunny out (rare these days), I sit outdoors on Erekle St, at Cafe Kala or the Grand Cafe. The four cats (the imperious albino, who enjoys rolling around on colorful carpets just to be contrary, the sweet gray one, the energetic ginger, and the enigmatic other-ginger), that haunt the area have come to know me: they mew at me and I feed them bits of chicken liver, and from time to time they jump in my lap. The artist across the street (long white ponytail, wifebeater) sells his paintings and plays Edith Piaf and jazz on his stereo.

I'm home.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sioni Cathedral

Now, as an Eastern Christian theologian, I'm quite happy to tell you what Gregory of Nyssa thinks of the idea that there are three gods, but I'm not so comfortable with the practical things (i.e, what on earth I'm actually doing). I've been thinking about converting to the Orthodox Church (I think Cabasilas's writings are astonishingly beautiful), and studying the liturgy of the Byzantine Church in preparation for finals, and so I thought I might as well make the leap, as it were, and attend a service at nearby Sioni Cathedral, a largely thirteenth-century (with revisions) church that served as the former Georgian cathedral before the building of Sameba:

Academic, it wasn't! It was two hours of sheer sensual assault, both extraordinary - the feeling of kneeling on a marble floor alongside two hundred congregants, the sound of the choir (the three-part harmony apparently meant to reflect the ultimate unity of the Trinity - I quite like that, actually!), the mosaics, the iconostas! 
Stolen from someone's blog - respectfully!
 I don't have a camera and the Internet had very few interior shots.
Then again, there were difficulties when it came to effecting spiritual reflection! I wore a pair of heels (the only non-open-toed, non-trainer shoes I could find) that proved very painful after two hours of standing in a sardine-packed church, and the density of the crowd made it impossible to see the priest. That, combined with my inability to follow Georgian liturgy, made the experience somewhat trying... I'd like to go to a smaller, more intimate service next time around, in order to better focus on and take in the actual order and process of the liturgy.

I love the idea, expressed in Maximus the Confessor and Cabasilas, much later, in Zizioulas, that in the church on earth one can be an icon of the heavenly Church, the heavenly world. Not an icon in the sense of mere "image" - but rather something with two meanings: I am partaking of the Eucharist, for example, both in the present, literal sense, and also simultaneously undergoing the process of theosis: the twofold reality of art. I am drawn by the idea that by participating in sacred space and sacred time, and performing certain actions, I can participate in that two-fold reality. 

What was particularly striking, however, was how much less FOREIGN the adoption of certain mannerisms (here - a head scarf, a long shirt, and a modest skirt for church) made me feel! I've rarely experienced harassment in Georgia, but I found that, having identified myself as a "religious orthodox person" (if not a Georgian), I moved differently; I walked differently. My sense of space and time and self was so much less other - and I acquired far fewer stares than usual. (And was even taken for a Georgian by one (Georgian-speaking?) woman asking me a question/directions - no mean feat for a pale blonde blue-eyed girl!)

More to come - I saw an absolutely MAD production of Twelfth Night directed by Robert Sturua, which deserves a post of its own!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Back in Tbilisi

The problem with blogging about Tbilisi is that when I finally arrive, strung out on Diazepam and muttering softly to myself about the various inadequacies of Air Pegasus, I immediately allow myself to become swept up in the city (and in eight hours daily of revising for finals, which has replaced Hegel-izing as my Distraction Du Jour). I must therefore update scantily, focusing on

Highlights of My Return

a) The Market at Orbeliani Street
April 9 Park
If you need to acquire something random in Tbilisi, be it goods or services (spinach, which bizarrely Populi never stocks, or trainers...), you'll probably be told one of two things. If you look like a clueless foreigner (which I do), you may be told to go to Goodwill/Saburtalo/Vake/one of the many expat enclaves where Cheerios are imported and people's housekeepers do their shopping. Or, if you look like a clueless-foreigner-with-no-money (which I also do, especially when wearing my gym clothes), you may be told to head to the bazaar at Vagzlis Moedani, which is enormous and terrifying and somewhat overwhelming.

But I have discovered, gentle readers, that nearly anything in the world (LL bean shorts! Nike trainers! Garlic and onion on braided ropes! Obscure vegetables!) can be found cheaply and relatively easily at one of the stalls between April 9 Park and the large Populi! Ditto cheap food, flowers, cobblers, key-copiers, and more! (Except for framers, whom I consult frequently to house my ever-growing set of antique prints torn from old-book pages. They live on the steps of the Academy of Sciences.)

I *love* doing errands in Tbilisi! Where else could getting simple things done make me feel so clever and accomplished? What do you mean every Georgian woman manages to buy spinach and get her prints framed and trainers bought cheaply? I feel special!

b) My new favorite restaurant

The Chaikhana has been closed for the past three days, which is worrying; much in Tbilisi seems to be subject to Sudden Closure Syndrome. However, while little will ever replace the Chaikhana in my affections, I have discovered my New Favorite Novelizing Haunt. This being Sheriklebi, located on the right side of the Academy of Sciences, a bizarre vintage-film-meets-19th-century-meets-Pirosmani (really! I think each section of the restaurant is meant to represent a different century) Georgian restaurant with an owner who, upon discovering I spoke Italian, rushed into my arms and kissed me firmly and joyfully on the forehead. There is also an adorable puppy who lives outside. Lunch was 15 lari for lobio, mchadi, pkhali, and bottled water. 

c) Theatre in Tbilisi is Amazing
At the moment I'm disappointing myself by failing to leave my wonderful, toasty flat for a production of Jean Anouilh's Antigone, at the Marjanishvili Threatre (I directed it in high school, which gives me a shot at understanding it in Georgian!). It's one of my favorite plays, but I am alas recovering from post-Couchsurf-hosting-exhaustion-syndrome, and need a day to stretch out in my flat and reclaim ownership of my study!

This is all the more of a failure, however, because the last play I saw at the Marjanishvili - a wonderful Belle Epoque theatre on the Other Side of the River (ie, Too Far Away) was one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen...ever! This is a new adaptation of Bocaccio's Decameron, told in a mixture of commedia dell'arte and intense, visual-metaphor-laden physical theatre, which was gorgeous in exactly my preferred style (over the top, Grand Guignol, velvet-curtain-and-hooked-nose-mask, people throwing roses on the stage at the curtain call, theatre). I understood the vast majority of the plot(s), despite having no Georgian whatsoever! But amorous men and virtuous women are telegraphed the same the world 'round.

(Incidentally, I also went with my New Friend N., a writer and translator (and future co-Oxford student!), whom I met through this very blog! So write me a comment if you're reading this and in Tbilisi - I can drag you to bizarre interpretive theatre too!)

I do want to make it to Antigone (playing in repertory) at some point, as well as Robert Sturua's Twelfth Night at the Rustaveli Theatre, which is on tomorrow, as well as My Hamlet, La Ronde, and Private Lives.

I have an unexpected weekend in Tbilisi, due in large part to the windstorm overtaking Borjomi (I was meant to go horseback-riding! Alas!) What on earth should I do with my Sunday, other than a trip to Sioni Church for a proper Orthodox service. (a mixture of finals-revision and another tiptoeing step towards proper conversion...)