Friday, December 21, 2012

Why We Travel - Lesley Blanch - Journey Into the Mind's Eye

"I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands. That grip has never lessened. For me, the love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the kingdom of the mind all met here. This book is the story of my obsession."
This isn't a review - at least, not a proper one. It's a post that I feel ought to be made, because today I started crying in public, and it's been a good few years since the ending of a book made me do that. But Lesley Blanch's Journey into the Mind's Eye - equal parts travel narrative and elegy for lost love - had me bawling. It's ostensibly about Blanch (who is in many ways my Career Idol, possibly one of the best prose stylists of the twentieth century, and all too often dismissed as a "great life" when, indeed, her writing is easily as good or better than that of Paddy Leigh Fermor) and her search for the "imaginary" Russia - the idealized version of a country she learned about from her much-older Russian lover, known only as the Traveller.

But it's about so much more than that. It's about seeking a lost love, and coming to terms with loss, and about that imaginary city that we look for when we travel, which is never the place we come to, and which is always nevertheless what draws us from the places we leave behind. It's about the "journey into the mind's eye" we take when we travel, when we find that our journey takes us nowhere new, but only deeper into ourselves. It's about how love can shape us, infect us, and make everything that comes after us about that love.

For me, at least, as for Blanch - love and wandering are inseparable. The perfect place and the perfect Other - they're all part of that endless process of homecoming, of finding that place where we can set down our household gods, where we can belong. That's the theme that's been running through the collection of short stories I've been working on this autumn - that's how Blanch sees her travels: at once an encounter with the profound otherness of her love and a realisation that her experience is ultimately her story, imprinted upon that otherness.

It's a relief, too, to read a female travel writer (although, full disclosure, I can't get through Freya Stark). The Great Men of the business - PLF as the greatest offender, though Philip Glazebook much less so - often ignore this subjectivity. They're privileged enough to barrel through mountain passes without fear of rape or abduction; often, there's a wilful blindness about how much of what they see is of their own creation. Lesley, like the also-marvelous Bettina Selby, like I try to be (I'd be the first to admit that my article in the Spectator is as much about me as it is about Tbilisi itself), is utterly open and unapologetic about that constant dialectic between traveler and place, between storyteller and story-subject, that happens when we travel. About that relationship between the place we see in our mind's eye, loaded down with cultural baggage and emotional resonance and easy orientalizing (because we want, after all, otherness, or we wouldn't be traveling at all), and the place as it is, which perhaps is no more home to us than the places we're running from.

So there you go. Go read Lesley Blanch. 
Because she made me cry.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fantastic Duqan

At the request of the incredible pasumonok, the ultimate Hipster Paradise of Tbilisi, a hidden and largely-unmarked cafe (as of last summer) in the back courtyard of Mtatsminda's Literature Museum. I speak, of course, of the inheritor to Near Opera (in menu content, ownership, and general aesthetic), the persimmon garden and art nouveau faux-tavern that constitute my favourite new cafe in Tbilisi: Sofia Melikova's Fantastic Duqan. (Map provided, as it's all but impossible to find - it's in a courtyard with a yellow door on which the Duqan's name is scrawled, but which is often left open with the sign facing the wrong side.

With power sockets that don't quite fit (push) and eclectic Shoreditch-meets-seraglio furniture, the Fantastic Duqan is the ultimate novel-writing venture in Tbilisi. (And it has the virtue of being where I was seated when I learned that my now-agent was interested in my novel, giving it bone fide Novel-Writing (or perhaps Novel-Pitching) Credentials!)

I can say from experience that they don't mind me sitting and blathering on endlessly, typing on my laptop and eating pelmeni (the menu is largely recycled from the defunct Near Opera, although sadly without the Uzbek Pilaf that was my favourite dish there - although the excellent Asian Town now serves the best Uzbek food in  town!) Food and drink good, cheaper than the National Gallery and indeed all of Sololaki at this point, though still expensive by TBS-wide standards.

A place to write: A rueful, Lawrence-Durrell-inspired saga of love gone wrong in 1920's Paris, femme fatale seductresses, and romances on horseback.

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

From Your Resident Sololaki Hipster - Cafe at the National Gallery

Having just been termed a "Sololaki hipster writer" by the incomparable Mark Mullen over at TBLpod (I'm not denying it - I embrace my hipsterness, which in turn means I'm earnestly embracing irony, which in turn means that the laws of space and time have imploded), I feel it's my solemn hipster duty to share a few more Hipster Cafes in Tbilisi.

Where to Write a Novel in Tbilisi - Part the Billionth
Sleek, minimalist, and utterly strange, the cafe at Tbilisi's National Gallery looks and feels nothing like any other cafe I've been to in Georgia. A bit like a child's playroom, a bit like Vienna's Cafe Phil (still the gold standard in Minimalist Retro Chic, and my "home base" for any trip to Vienna, the National Gallery Cafe is achingly trendy, agonizing hip, and refreshingly air-conditioned. The terrace - overlooking the park - is one of my favorite writing-spots in Tbilisi; the interior is attractive but not exactly comfortable (credit to the staff, though; they're very nice about plugging in laptops in the corner and letting me potter about on the keyboard for a few hours at a time). Still, when I'm sick of strangely-slick, faux "shabby chic" (Tartine, despite my love for its brunches/enormous coffee cups/etc, is an offender, as is Moulin Electrique) vibe, it's nice to go somewhere that embraces its status as Hipster Capital of Tbilisi more openly. (Although it's a tough competition between the gallery-cafe and nearby Fantastic Duqan, which is its closest rival)

The food, though expensive, is absolutely fantastic - think odd, organic combinations of various cheeses and vegetables, served on lavash (Armenian nouveau cuisine, maybe) wraps? I'm partial to the tomato sandwich myself!

The cafe is on the second floor of the National Gallery. While there's technically an entry fee to the gallery itself, I've never been stopped from going directly to the cafe without paying for the museum.

Go to write: an experimental piece of neo-modernist stream-of-consciousness fiction about the impossibility of human connection in an unnamed Central European city, told from the point of view of a coat hanger.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Exiles and Homecomings

It's been a while. The problem with having a Tbilisi blog is that I'm only in Tbilisi some of the time the time - right now, I'm spread out mentally (and physically) over three continents, living what feels like three parallel lives.

Technically speaking, Oxford is home. I'm there now, co-habiting with the Very English Gentleman, working on a doctorate in fin de siecle French literature, learning to cook Sunday roasts and taking walks through muddy fields and musty libraries. But I'm also very much, mentally, in Tbilisi. Most of the work I've found as a travel writer is Georgia-centric; Tbilisi was the first place, in a whole lifetime of growing up and moving from place to place, that ever felt like mine. Growing up, so much of my experience of place was predicated on my mother's experiences, on family history, on my mother's memories of this or that piazza, or this or that street. I took the "homeliness" of those places for granted. England, I suppose, was "mine" in a sense - but in moving to Oxford I never quite felt that I was moving to England. Jokes about Oxford not being part of the real world aside, England felt less like an active decision in its own right and more of a by-product of other considerations: university, field, degree - and later on, romantic entanglements. I'd never choose to live in England by itself; it's all the "other stuff" - Oxford, my partner, that tidy graduate stipend that pays my rent.

But Tbilisi - where I rented my first apartment on my own, where I ghostwrote romance novels to pay off my undergrad tuition, where I decided to be long after my family had left it (although - full disclosure - my mother eventually came back) - still remains a different kind of home for me. It'll be the first place where I stopped thinking of myself as my mother's daughter, as a "student-at", constantly in relation to the safety of structures. It was the first place that I ever challenged myself to exist in as myself, with all that dizzying vertiginous freedom that comes with it. It was where I got up the nerve to send out those pitches, to send out my novel, to take serious steps towards being the person I wanted to be. It was where I grew up, in the truest sense of the word.

A few months ago I was back in New York renewing my student visa, and I did what I always do - I nested. New York is where I was born - it's where things are easiest for me. It's where my grandmother lives; it's where I remember being five or six, and coddled. It's where I revert to childhood so easily. I love New York - I feel alive there in a way I don't feel alive anywhere else (except perhaps the McKittrick Hotel). It's that adrenaline rush of a place that's mine. But that's what scares me. How complacent I become. How "home" holds me.

Of course, anywhere I go, I'm foreign. I've figured out long ago that "Home," for me, is a terribly elusive place - I don't belong anywhere. The frustration - invigorating but also frightening - that I wrote about in my Spectator piece was never a frustration with Georgia. My landlady is wonderful; "Nino", about whom I wrote plenty, was one of the kindest, most intelligent, most awe-inspiring women I've ever met. But that divide - between me and what felt like "real life" - that subtle boundary between one of us and stranger - that's the divide that makes Georgia so maddening and so challenging and so wonderful.

I continue to not belong anywhere. I continue to make cultural faux pas - in Georgia, but also (perhaps even more so) in England, where I still do everything wrong. In New York, too, because I don't fully belong there, either. So I keep writing.

(Speaking of which, for those of you who wish to follow me on twitter, you can do so here. This is all part of my Grand Career Development plan of having one of those "social media" presences, in part because when you google my professional name you get not only my website and my recent publications, but also, somewhat awkwardly, the adorable/terrible "novel" I wrote when I was eleven (think Ann Radcliffe meets bizarre mysticism meets finger paintings), and which my family thought it would be so sweet to self-publish with a vanity press. Now, its terrible-ness is mitigated by the fact that I was eleven, and so there's something ALMOST cute about the sheer ambitious pretension of it - characters are oh-so-subtly named "Raoul" and "Christine" because I was a huge Phantom fan, and the word "azure" is probably on every page...). But it's still the internet equivalent of having embarrassing naked baby photographs online.)

Don't worry - next post will be a Useful Review of an excellent cafe or two in Tbilisi.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lermontov in Kazbegi

Photo by Kamila at
And...another one, up at Literary Traveler. With actual blog content to come in the days ahead, I promise.

"That Black, Dragon-Haunted Pass: The Mystery of Lermontov’s Caucasus"  
“I was traveling along the military road back from Tiflis.” 

So begins Mikhail Lermontov’s 1833 A Hero of Our Time, the classic novel of the Caucasus: the mist-shrouded, emerald mountain range that once delineated the southern stretches of the Russian Empire. For Lermontov—whose own exploits in the Caucasus were as daring, dangerous, and unabashedly romantic as those of his anti-heroic protagonist, Pechorin—the Caucasus was more than merely a frontier outpost for Russia’s colonial power. For Lermontov, as for Pushkin before him, the Caucasus was the land of passion and possibility, of amorous intrigues with beautiful women, of frenzied duels and fatal blood feuds, where even the Tsar himself could not encroach upon the long-held customs of the region’s mountain tribes. 


Tbilisi: The Edge of the Real » The Spectator

Essay on Tbilisi - up at the Spectator:

Pic by Kamila at

The electricity will be on in one hour, says my landlady. She tells me that it is dark out all over town (ignoring the glittering chrome bridge over the Mtkvari River, ignoring the casino that casts neon shadows on the banks at night). She calls me ‘daughter’ and evades specifics. Won’t I come upstairs for dinner at eight, or perhaps nine? (She is so busy; she works so hard; she’ll ring when dinner is ready.) The call never comes. Read more.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Georgian Recipe Time - Trout with Pomegranate Sauce

I'm breaking the over-long hiatus on this blog to share a new recipe I've come up with as part of my Cooking Georgian Food Abroad programme (I'm now semi-permanently installed in Oxford with the Very English Gentleman, albeit with regular time spent in Georgia).

Image from NAMI-NAMI. Possibly not of pomegranate sauce,
certainly of a trout.
This recipe was based on the memory of a similar dish I've had at Cafe Flowers in Tbilisi, among other places (although the addition of cinnamon in the pilaf I credit to an online recipe, as well as to the guidance of a former Tbilisi expat neighbor). It's relatively straightforward, rather simple/quick, and utterly delicious.

Pomegranate Trout on Rice

A) To make "Georgian Spice Mix"

Blend, in a food processor:
-Three heads of garlic
-250 grams of walnuts
-A splash pomegranate molasses
-A pour of grape vinegar
-Half a bunch of fresh coriander
-Lots of coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, dill seeds, fenugreek leaves, chill

B) To make trout
Marinate whole cleaned trout for thirty minutes in pomegranate juice
Toss in flour (lightly)
Put in baking tray, cover/baste with a mixture of pomegranate molasses, pomegranate juice, and grape vinegar
Stuff with "Georgian Spice Mix" (see part A)
Bake for 20 minutes (turn over halfway through) at 250 Celsius
Garnish with LOTS of fresh dill and pomegranate seeds, serve over rice

C) To make rice pilaf:
Cook rice with the following added/stirred in:
Pomengranate seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon (dash), turmeric, dill seeds, fresh dill

Friday, August 31, 2012

New Guide Live - "Weekend Break: Tbilisi" over at Unanchor Travel Guides

I enjoyed ringing up Rod McLaughlin from the Azumano Travel Show on Portland's KPAM radio for an interview about my latest articles for the Huffington Post on Tbilisi and Batumi, part of a series of interviews I'll be doing for KPAM Portland on travel in Georgia.

For you early birds out there, the show airs this Saturday Sept 1 6:00 am Pacific Time (that's 9:00 am EST) on Portland's AM860 (or live here), with a repeat on Sunday Sept 2 at 11:00 am Pacific/2:00 pm ET. Will do my best to upload the audio to my website following the airing of the interview.

Taking a city break in the Caucasus? My new Unanchor weekend guide to Tbilisi - Georgia's romantic capital - covers everything from the decaying grandeur of the Sololaki district to the trendiest nightclubs in the shadow of the Narikala Fortress - is now for sale from Unanchor Travel Guides for just $4.99

(As, as always, my professional website can be found here.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Batumi Article Up over at the Huffington Post

Georgia's Black Sea Playground

Two years ago, the port city of Batumi, Georgia's pastel-colored playground on the
Black Sea Coast, was hardly postcard-worthy. The cobblestone streets were almost uniformly obstructed by rubble, the splendid art nouveau facades hidden beneath layers of scaffolding, plastic sheeting, and an ever-present coating of grime. The few high-end hotels dotting Batumi's main boulevard, which juts out onto a flotsam-dense and particularly oily attempt at a beach, seemed designed for the well-compensated mistresses of oligarchs, a seedy ethos that trickled down to the more economical accommodation options: No sooner had I left the lobby of our ramshackle courtyard hotel than my boyfriend received -- to his superbly Anglo-Saxon befuddlement -- an impromptu lap dance from a member of hotel staff. I warned all my friends and acquaintances passing through the Caucasus that Batumi's place on the international resort roster was just below Blackpool. But this summer, I find myself issuing a complete retraction.... Read more at the Huff

 And for a bit more shameless self-promotion, I now have a real-live professional website, here! For all your novelistic editing/ghosting/freelancing needs!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Breaking and Entering: The Tbilisi State Academy of Arts

Note - this new series of posts follows Tbilisi's interior hidden treasures - entry halls, courtyards, and other secrets that can be accessed with a simple push of a door.

I'd always thought that the most beautiful entry-hall in Tbilisi was the ornate pink Moorish one in the building at the corner of Asatiani and Machabeli Street. However, an accidental wander into Tbilisi State Academy of Arts at 22 Griboedov St in Mtatsminda, a mad combination of William Morris wallpaper, gilded carvings, and a few stray stone lines, may cause me to revise that theory. As in most Tbilisi entry halls, nobody much seemed to mind (or much notice) our presence. Some of the more beautiful rooms (which I've found in online archives) are closed off - the entire building is poised to implode into ruins at any moment. But what's still accessible - palatial art-nouveau-meets-orientalist-fantasy - is among the most beautiful examples of architecture in Tbilisi.

(Note - I didn't have a camera when I went in - all photos are internet-sourced)

Historical information about the building - (sourced from the TSAA website). It was apparently designed as a palace in the nineteenth century by one G. Ivanov, before being restored in the twentieth by its owner, Nino Kobulashvili, to a design by Simon Kldashvili. In the late nineteenth century the building was known as "Tbilisi Club" - and was home to a number of amenities, among them libraries, billiard-rooms, and performance halls - only to become an arts school in 1922. An appeal for restoration funding - along with some stunning archival photos - can be found here.

Also notable - if slightly less sumptuous - is the Academy outpost at the Toidze Building, located at 21 Chonkadze Street, into which I wandered on a couple of previous occasions, and which is famous for having the most utterly dangerous-looking steampunk spiked chandelier I'd ever seen (and for being all-but abandoned and hence more prone to chandelier collapse than the Opera Garnier.)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where to Write a Novel in Tbilisi: Book Corner

I probably shouldn't write a review of Book Corner, my official new favourite cafe in Tbilisi. The last few times I've written about a favourite cafe in Tbilisi (to wit: Caravan, Tashkent, the Abano St branch of Nero, and my all-time favorite Near Opera), they've closed down within months. But Book Corner, a characteristically bizarre, artfully mismatched collection of typewriters, upside-down umbrella, upright pianos, gramophones, modern art, antique chairs (and, in typical Tbilisi fashion, almost no books) tucked into a side street in the heart of Vera, deserves a much wider audience. Less slick than Moulin Electrique or Literaturuli, less horribly smoky and hipster-crowed than Salve, Book Corner is the closest thing I've found to an Old World Viennese cafe in Tbilisi. Its furniture is properly old, rather than suspiciously shiny; the ceilings are high and the decor is reasonably simple, giving the interior the atmosphere of a particularly bohemian dowager's living room. (The terrace is, by contrast, utterly bizarre, and largely occupied by murals of various writerly quotes and a ceiling fashioned from colorful inverted umbrellas). The bill comes in an old photograph box and the menu contains several varieties of cake, as well as proper food.

The proprietress is absolutely lovely (She remembered me and the VEB after a single visit!); there is wifi; all these are amenities necessary to a Local Haunt. But what makes Book Corner utterly delightful (other than the marvelous paradox of being a largely bookless bookshop) is its genuine secret-hideaway feel, something that's largely absent from both the posh eateries of Vake and the rather glitzified cafes in the old town.

Increasingly, my own geographic sympathies are likely moving in the direction of Mtatsminda (perhaps the only part of Tbilisi I prefer to Sololaki) and Vera - between this cafe, the nearby Uzbek restaurant Ferghana/Asian Town (replacing the departed Tashkent with a slightly less "mother's kitchen" vibe and insanely friendly and charming waiters), the German beer garden, and the as-yet-untested Tarkhinshvili branch of Literaturuli, nearly all my favorite cafes are (alas) an hour's walk from my house.

Book Corner is located at 13b Tarkinshvili St (the second street to the left as you take Melikishvili past the Philharmonic). The entrance is not on the street itself but rather on the side-street just to the right of the main street. Ferghana is located the next street towards Vake (Janashia St) at the top of the hill.

Find me at the Huffington Post!

Yes, that's right, Fleur Flaneur's expanding her Internet horizons. I'll keep posting here (probably adhering to a new schedule of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday updates), but some slightly tidier journalism of mine (under my real-life name) now appears at the Huffington Post!

When Off The Beaten Path Becomes Mainstream: Rediscovering A 'Discovered' City In Tbilisi, Georgia

A few nights ago, at an Ossetian dive bar in the heart of the Tbilisi's historic district, my long-suffering English boyfriend was forcibly (if amiably) abducted by a table of Georgian men who insisted on testing his Anglo-Saxon constitution with copious amounts of cha cha (essentially gasoline schnapps). They had grown up nearby, on the street on which I now live. Their ringleader had emigrated to Strasbourg; this was his first visit back in 10 years.
Together they toasted and drank and sang along to gloriously kitschy folk songs and celebrated the old coterie come together again; they celebrated wine and women and the street on which they had lived. I -- an expat with a respectable command of Georgian and the ability to hold my cha cha -- was just along for the ride.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Retraction: Batumi

A few months ago I posted in no uncertain terms that the Black Sea port city of Batumi was a seedy, filthy, gloriously miserable conglomerate of prostitute-hunters, truck-drivers, and oligarchettos looking to play "master of the universe" at seaside nightclubs only slightly marred by oil spills and washed-up jellyfish.

I was wrong. Gloriously wrong.

When I decided to stop in Batumi for the afternoon en route from Mestia (the new road gets from Svaneti to the seaside in five hours flat - vastly preferable to a day's layover in lush but utterly dull Zugdidi), I did so on the expectation that I'd be shutting my eyes, avoiding the probably-insalubrious Glamour Elit Exclusiv Premium tower-block hotels (general Georgia assumption: the more a hotel attempts to convince you that it caters to an exclusive set of well-heeled individuals, the more likely it is actually a roach-teeming brothel), and engaging in a series of quick Black Sea dunks while avoiding radioactive poisoning.

Instead, I found that in the past few months, the reconstruction of Batumi and the renovation of its historic districts has been so utterly tasteful, whimsical rather than tacky, that the city feels less like Trabzon and more like - well - Trieste. The old town now suggests faded grandeur rather than post-Soviet kitsch: the newer buildings serve to highlight the fin de siecle feel of the art nouveau townhouses rather than negate them (the most successful new architecture is that that's willing to wink and nod at its balmy playground past - displayed here). Cafes are no longer empty battlegrounds in which to stare down sullen waiters in a desperate attempt to get a glass of milk (an "Irish coffee," however, still consists of dumping cointreau into an Americano, much to the chagrin of the VEG) - seaside cafes like Nostalgia and Cinema sport artfully mismatched antique furniture and jazz-fusion soundtracks. The seaside boulevard is youthful and thoroughly Mediterranean: packs of Georgian teenagers linger under archways and against colonnades, engaging in a subtle yet intricate form of ritualized wandering I haven't seen since I was a teenager in Rome, trying desperately to understand why on earth my friends were aimlessly meandering around the Campo dei Fiori instead of actually sitting down somewhere.

Tbilisi is Central European, melancholy, filled with gargoyles and ghosts. But Batumi is Mediterranean, colorful, joyful and utterly alive. Its old town (a meandering collection of piazzas and outdoor cafes, vine-tangled windows revealing moldy chandeliers, pink and yellow houses with still-smiling cherubs carved into the doorframes) is a stately pleasure dome - recalling Rivieras and forbidden love affairs and everything that easily-shocked nineteenth-century novelists associate with summertime playground resorts. (Think Eliot's Baden-Baden and Proust's Balbec and something clever out of Tolstoy all in one).

Which is to say, the prostitutes are better-hidden now.

(The beach at Gonio is still lovely and largely empty on a late-July weekday, and the intense chromatic green of the Adjaran mountainside largely distracts from the few distressingly concrete hotel-block-towers.)

LINK: Petre Otskheli at the National Gallery

I've put the blog ever so slightly on the back burner over the past month, in part because I've been working on a number of Tbilisi-related travel articles for additional publications. The first of these extra-blog projects - a review of the Petre Otskheli retrospective at the National Gallery over at Kunstpedia - has hit the press:

Staging Alienation: Petre Otskheli at Tbilisi's National Gallery

For the ill-starred heroes of Greek tragedy, the life of the individual was a study in alienation: the self, whether Oedipus or Antigone, forever caught in the meaningless machinations of quibbling deities or subdued by the incomprehensible decrees of Fate. So too for one of Georgia's greatest modernists, Petre Otskheli (1907-37), the theatrical wunderkind whose creative partnership with Kote Marjanishvili, director of the avant-garde Marjanishvili Theatre, was cut short by the terrors of Stalin’s Great Purges. Otskheli’s phantasmagoric collection of stage sets and costume designs, currently on display through September 7 at Tbilisi's National Gallery, suggest an equally grim picture of the plight of man. Trapped in increasingly geometric worlds of sharp angles and collapsing shapes, dwarfed by swaths of fabric that grotesque distort the body's silhouette, Otshkheli's characters, from the battered Othello to the imperious Beatrice Cenci, contend with a surreal landscape that is at once profoundly Classical and, in its nods to Art Deco and expressionism, thoroughly twentieth-century.

The blog will return to full functionality in the coming weeks, with profiles of the new Best Cafe to Write a Novel in Tbilisi (following the heartbreaking closures of Near Opera, Caravan, and Tashkent), a full retraction of anything bad I might ever have said about Batumi (since restored to fin de siecle glory as a result of some long-overdue renovations), and profiles of Svaneti and Khevsureti - the latter perhaps the most beautiful place in Georgia.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Kartvelian Media Roundup

Is it a genuine awakening of interest in the Caucasus - or the copious amounts of money being spent on Ivanishvili and Saakashvili's "invest in Georgia" lobbying campaigns?

Whatever the reason, I've noticed an overabundance of Georgia-related news in the mainstream media lately - CNN has been hosting an "Eye on Georgia" campaign; the normally immune-to-trendiness BBC is promoting Georgian tourism via an equally starry-eyed piece on the return of Russian tourism. The Independent is salivating over Georgian food (via the highly-recommended new Islington of Little Georgia - which, unlike its Hackney forebear, has a liquor license and plenty of Rkatskiteli - so I can't complain too badly). I'm happy to see Georgia getting coverage in the (inter)national press, but I do wish that cultural coverage (I can't speak to the political) would expand beyond Georgia's "Europeanization," khachapuri, and wine.

We're getting our requisite checklist of Georgian tropes and stereotypes (there should be a Stereotype Bingo Drinking Game) - according to the English-language media, Georgia is a magically mysterious crossroads between East and West, where ladies in [insert posh brand name here] mingle freely with [insert crude orientalist stereotype here], where the people apparently spend their days providing viticultural hospitality to well-meaning locals. (Oh, and did I mention the cheese bread). I know my own writing on Georgia's likely just as crude/Orientalist/cliche as the next attempt - but can't we talk a little about Sololaki, Mtatsminda (rather than just the same shot of shiny Meidan), Abramishvili, Georgian poetry (and its lack of availability outside of Georgia), etc?

That said, I couldn't resist throwing my hat in the ring at CNN's call for reportage, so if you want to read a brief sample of pseudo-journalistic writing, do check out my article on CNN's Ireport:

In the Back Streets of Tbilisi, A Struggle for a City's History

It's by no means proper journalism (for starters - I'm unclear about the ownership of the square - although in my defense the English-language coverage has been vague and contradictory), but it's an inspiring start and hopefully an impetus for CNN to do a bit more coverage (they say they'll pick up and run with the suggested stories.) But do check it out and vote for it - in the hopes that CNN can do more than I, with my lack of training and current location in London, can do...

(In other news, my first piece of fiction about Georgia has been picked up for publication, so the UK-based among you, do check out June's issue of Babel Anthologies, for my story "In a Thousand Different Cities")

Also, a seeming exception to this bizarre tourism-board-meets-reportage: the NYTimes coverage of the gay rights movement in Tbilisi by Haley Edwards (full disclosure: my mother apparently sat next to her on a plane a few months ago, though that's the extent of any contact)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where to Write a Novel in....Budapest, Hungary

As part of a wider programme to expand the remit of this blog beyond its Kartvelophile roots, and towards a larger (if Georgia-centric) exploration of Ways and Places to be a Decadent Bohemian Novelist (on a freelance ghostwriter's salary or graduate student's stipend), I bring you the international edition of "Where to Write a Novel In...":

Budapest is a horrible city. However, in its bleak and filthy melancholia, Budapest (unlike, for example, London), is a fantastic city in which to write a novel. Beautifully decayed, gleefully seedy, and the perfect place to contemplate ending a tragic love affair while sitting in tepid hair-infested sweat-water at  the Gellert Baths and ruminating on the existential filthiness of mankind, Budapest is filled with the sort of places in which you can scribble away entire novellas of infidelity, moonshine, and man's tendency toward sin at a moment's notice, preferably while eating cake.

I visited Budapest from Vienna in late 2008, perhaps unsurprisingly while stiff-upper-lipping my way through the last days of a tragically doomed Romance (as one does), and reacted all too defensively to the city's raucous despair. However, the art-house Urania Cinema (and Cafe), where my Belarusian friend A. ("I am from Minsk, and even I find this city depressing!") and I ended up after a failed attempt to find a jazz club (predictably, it had been turned into a strip joint), managed to help me transubstantiate my misery into high art (and cake). The cinema programme is highbrow enough for me to forgive the fact that it's no longer a theatre, and the cafe looks like what would have happened if William Morris had taken LSD and stumbled onto the Orient Express.

We watched the excellent Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day and I hatched an idea for a novel...

Urania is located at Rakoczi Utca, 21, near the Astoria Metro Stop

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Inspiration of the Day: Alexandre Bandzeladze

One of the particular highlights of this spring's Kakheti trip was a visit to the Tsinandali winery. I can't speak to the quality of the wines (although the idea of taking a drink in Romantic poet Alexandre Chavchavadze home was almost as luxurious as that of having tea at George Sand's house), but the house-museum itself (a sumptuous recreation of Alexandre's salon) was outstanding, featuring not merely records of Tolstoy, Pushkin, et. al., but also an exhibition of some quite fascinating modern art: illuminated manuscripts of The Knight in the Tiger's Skin by my (other) new favourite Georgian artist, Alexandre Bandzeladze:

Bandzeladze, according to his homepage, at least, is to be considered "the founder and the spiritual leader of the abstract painters", representing the "avant-garde" in 1970's Georgia. I'm an absolute weakling when it comes to neo-illuminated mansucripts (Abramishvili had one in his exhibition, although I can't find a photo of it anywhere), as well as for artist-writer house museums, so I might be heavily biased in this case, but I was certainly impressed. Here, as with Abramishvili, much late-twentieth-century Georgian art seems to be actively engaged with the past canon in a way I find is missing in all too many pieces of contemporary Anglo-American art - it's certainly what draws me to it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Where to Write a Novel in Tbilisi: Moulin Electrique

As my quest to find the Perfect Novel-Writing Haunt in Tbilisi continues (Black Lion and my old favourite Near Opera are too far away, Cafe Literaturuli is too much of a chain, Konka just doesn't feel decadent enough, Caravan's closed down, everything in Meidan's too bloody expensive now), I may have identified another worthy contender.

Moulin Electrique, located in a slightly continental courtyard off Leselidze Street (follow the Hebrew sign on the left side of the street (ie, with Freedom Square at your back) to the lesser-known synagogue (not the one near Chardini St), manages to avoid the slightly disingenuous sheen so many "European" cafes in the increasingly gentrified Old Town have adopted, in which sleek minimalism and plastic shine replace authentically European cramp and acceptable sleaze. Its Toulouse-Lautrec posters are a bit new for Paris - but by Tbilisi standards, it's positively authentic, with a painfully hip (and, it seems from a cursory eavesdrop, largely Georgian) clientele too cool for Chardini. Like the rest of Leselidze Street, an unrenovated street with a mercantile history famous for its icon-stores and craftsmen, Moulin Electrique has managed to weather Old Town's transition into the occasionally plasticine picturesque: it's charming without ever appearing manicured.

The place is at its best in the summertime, when the continental courtyard is transformed into a semi-piazza, with outdoor tables and awnings. But for a varied coffee menu (chai lattes, elaborate cappuccinos), reasonably priced sandwiches, Moulin Electrique offers year-round casual comfort all too rare in this slick, pricey part of Old Tbilisi.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Only in Georgia: Propaganda Edition

Why yes, that is Ronald Regan. Sit down and pose for a photograph talking to Regan! It's tourist gold!

Oh, Georgia, don't ever change...

From the article that alerted me to this new piece of modern art, a right-wing blog called The Foundry:

"I look forward to the day when I can visit Tbilisi and see that Thatcher has also been honored with a statue. She should also be facing northeast and looking over the Caucasus..."

I knew there was a reason I couldn't find fresh milk in Georgia!

Readers, I put it to you to answer in the comments section - where should Lady T's statue go in Tbilisi?

Georgian Food Abroad: Lobio Recipe

When (as it often happens), I grow "half-sick of shadows" and homesick for Georgia (when Oxford ceases to be interesting, for a time, and I start to long for the back streets of Sololaki or the moon over Mtatsminda), I try to channel my homesickness into Georgian cookery. Now, as a certified Non-Georgian (albeit one seeking Honorary Status), I have very little license to cook Proper Georgian Food here in Oxford, where I live in a bizarre neo-Gothic drafty Victorian Orthodox Christian boarding house with a kitchen full of fenugreek and olive oil. (I did make khinkali here one, but most of the dumplings opened up and my Georgian friends were mildly judgy...I stand by their taste, however)

However, given that my diet in Georgia consists of 9 parts lobio/lobiani to every 1 part "other food sources", I may well have, in two on-and-off years, eaten comparable amounts of lobio to the average 20-something Georgian, who may, like any normal person, eat bean-based dishes in rotation with other kinds of food. After several iterations of lobio, however, including attempts made with Caitlyn (also known as my "bellydancer/medieval-historian friend", with whom I went to Armenia) and in Paris at the home of the loveliest Couchsurfing hosts of all time, I have created the ultimate lobio recipe for those attempting to re-create the flavours of lobio abroad.

Hence, without further ado, Fleur Flaneur's Recipe for Lobio Abroad

-3 cans of red kidney beans in water
-1 enormous bunch fresh coriander
-1 package walnuts
-2 plums ("tkemali" isn't available here, but this serves as a substitute")
-1 head garlic
-1 onion
-2 leeks (other recipes give carrot and celery, but I prefer leeks)
-Spices: dried coriander, fenugreek seeds (lots!), fenugreek leaves (lots!), chilli pepper, parsley, salt, pepper to taste

1. Finely chop the onions and leeks, sautee until brown.
2. Add beans, just enough water to avoid burning. When it boils, lower flame to simmering. Add *loads* of dried spices (keep adding more every 20 minutes or so).
3.While beans are cooking, prepare the "paste." Finely chop a head of garlic, combine with diced walnuts (or, if you're me, simply place the walnuts in a plastic bag and stomp on them for a while), add LOADS of dried spices and chopped plums. Add most of the fresh coriander. Set aside.
4. When beans have been cooking for approximately 2 hours (or "when properly soft"), add combination of walnuts-raw garlic-fruit-herb-spice paste. Stir in for 2-5 minutes (don't let the coriander get soggy)
5. Stir in lots more fresh coriander, immediately remove from flame. Serve, garnished with even more coriander.

What makes the dish, for me, is ensuring a) that the garlic is raw, b) that the coriander isn't soggy (ie, add dried spices throughout, but  fresh spices only at the end), c) that there are plenty of plums in there, d) that you add ridiculously large amounts of every spice listed on this menu.

Dear Fleur,
What if I *am* in Georgia? Where can I get good lobio and lobiani in Tbilisi?
-A Human Bean

Dear Human Bean,
Google-sourced image.
While I normal decry chain restaurants with every fibre of my being, if you're looking for cheap and reliably delicious lobiani in a charming atmosphere, the Machakhela in Meidan (which is open 24/7 - hence for breakfast) has a stunning terrace overlooking the river, serves serviceable Nescafe with milk, and uniformly excellent lobiani. (Yes, I know, it's an overpriced chain, but it's the only place I can get my 7 am lobiani fix.) The upscale Literatuli chain offers another variety - thick lobio inside a flaky croissant pastry, which is reasonably priced (3 lari or thereabouts) and mindblowingly delicious.

The best lobio I've tasted was the pureed lobio at the Twins Old Cellar winery/inn in Napareuli, near Telavi, Kakheti. In Tbilisi, however, I'm partial to the lobio with dried fruit at Cafe Gabriadze (9 lari - pricey but good, with larger/harder beans). Or head to Mtskheta, thirty minutes away, famous for its lobio. Salobie - outside the city centre - is rightly famous, but I was equally impressed with a tiny restaurant right near the car park called something like Dzveli Mtskheta (right towards the city centre from the enormous lot, on your right, in a small courtayard). Lobio 3-6 lari - can't recall.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Inspiration of the Day: Merab Abramishvili

Every now and then, I come across a piece of art - be it a painting, a piece of music, or a novel - that resonates with me so strongly that all my pseudo-critical, academic, footnoting, jargonizing, enframing bullshit breaks down, and there is nothing I can say but "yes."

The exhibit of the paintings of late-Soviet artist Merab Abramishvili, located at a gallery in Mtatsminda, was once such exhibition. I came across the paintings at the insistence of my (marvelously!) mad friend M., a tweed-sporting composer-poet-displaced-intellectual-extraordinaire living in Bolnisi while embarking upon any number of great artistic-poetic-cultural projects to bring about a new Romantic age in the Caucasus via a shaky Internet connection. Because M., in addition to being mad, is also usually right, I succumbed to his insistence that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the works of an oft-forgotten Soviet artist, whitewashed in the wake of the drive towards a New Georgia. (M. has requested that I point out that Abramishvili is "the greatest artist since Raphael")

Some holy combination of Pompeiian fresco, Indian tapestry, and Medieval illumination, Abramishvili's paintings restore the holy mystery of the world. Freely intertwining Indian motifs with Christian iconography, they suggest a primal unity in which the world is not some formless chaos of meaning, but is rather  "charged with the grandeur of God". I actually went twice (doubling back for the programme catalog) - many of the paintings belong to the Abramishvili family, and are hence (tragically) no longer publicly viewable. (Which is entirely heartbreaking; I'm half-tempted to track them down, sending them a pleading email to allow me to gaze upon beauty bare for an hour a week a teatime...)

I've noticed the prevalence of genuinely good, engaging contemporary art in the Caucasus over the past few years. It tends to be far more willing to engage with history - breaking rules consciously rather than as a Shoreditch-gallery gimmick - than the contemporary UK/S art I've seen, and is far better crafted to boot.

If anyone knows of any good exhibitions on in Tbilisi, do let me know - I haven't seen a bad one yet

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Not-Horrible Things to Do in London, Part II

London is horrible. Let me establish this from the outset. Nothing will convince me that London is not an overpriced cesspool of filth and stale beer, constituted of identical chain-filled "High Streets" from which it is impossible to travel from one to the other without invariable Tube signal failures (two unplanned last weekend alone), where Health and Safety conspire to ruin any sort of enjoyment of life's myriad opportunities without remotely preserving health or safety, and where sandwiches contain more mayonnaise than filling.

Nothing, that is, except the Victoria and Albert Museum, which single-handedly caused me to research property prices in London for next year before realizing that the Very English Boyfriend and I don't fancy paying 400 quid apiece to share a tiny studio and a single bed in Brent Cross.

Best. Tea Room. Ever.
The V&A is, quite simply, a Best Thing Ever. Not only is it free, gorgeously laid out in a Great Nineteenth-Century Generalist way that allows for a combination of learning and sheer awe at the vast cultural repository of beauty the monarchy's managed to build up over the years. The VEB and I accidentally wandered into an expertly-given free tour entitled "Sex, Love, and Death in the Middle Ages" ("Super!" crowed the VEB, before making quietly English remarks about Sir Gawain and the plot of Hamlet - there are few places where being a Medievalist-turned-Shakespearean-actor is more useful than on a "Sex, Love, and Death in the Middle Ages" Tour at the V&A. In fact, it may be the only place being a Medievalist-turned-Shakespearean-actor remotely useful.) It was remarkable not only for the wealth of facts, but also guide's wonderful MiddleclassEnglishness ("should we be talking about sex on Sundays?")

Also, there is This Tea Room, which has £2.50 cappucinos and £5 cream teas (reasonable for South Kensington, slightly higher than Oxford prices), and looks like the Pera Palace on crack. It's not just the sort of place to write a novel. It's the sort of place to write a bloody epic.

It must have been the sun, however, because apparently the whole weekend consisted of Not-Horrible Things in London (tube delays excepted). The area around Mile End Tube Station is quite beautiful (we found a gorgeous Gothic church tucked away behind a residential street), unlike the seedy Bethnal Green - despite smelling like beer, Roman Road is filled with exciting second-hand shops (promising shoes, not my size) and a market that feels like a cross between Palermo and Istanbul (even if it gives the VEB agoraphobia), and Victoria Park has a marvelously inventive children's adventure playground that I very nearly started clambering on!

But that wasn't all! (What, you say? More nice things in London?) We also discovered that Shoreditch, once the site of one of our most disappointing nights out of all time (ten pounds for mediocre cocktails in a 1920's-themed "decadence" bar filled with staggering hen-nighters) is actually not that bad, despite being uniformly filled with hipsters sporting grubby fur coats, bright red lipstick, and no pants. We found an eclectic used booksale in front of Shoreditch Church, sat outside (!) drinking free refills of coffee at retro pancake house (and VEB's new "best thing in London") Love Shake.

But perhaps our Very Best Thing in London (other, of course, than the V&A) was our inaugural visit to Hampstead Heath, one of the few London parks that doesn't feel depressingly manicurized. Enormous, sprawling, and possessed of a SWIMMING POND (albeit a rather small one you, predictably, have to queue for), Hampstead Heath lured us all the way from Debden for two visits in two days! It has grass, sunshine, a gorgeous pergola, and DEER in Golders Hill Park! FUZZY DEER! IN A DEER PARK! (along with a confused-looking rhea that isn't sure whether or not it's a deer)

Such a weekend would have been perfect had we been able to conclude it with falafel at Golder's Green. However, it was Shavuot, and we arrived to find everything remotely Hebraic in a two-mile radius closed...

Fleur's Verdict: London is not horrible in small doses, as long as it's sunny and the Tube doesn't break down and you don't have to eat anything. The V&A is amazing. Hampstead has a Hungarian patisserie. You can buy comfortable shoes for three pounds on Bethnal Green Road. The Overground is preferable to the Tube. People in Shoreditch don't wear any trousers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"New Sensations, Strange Sensations" in Armenia

Sweets shop on Mashtots
I was not initially drawn to Armenia. Yerevan has nothing of Tbilisi's beauty or mystery - although, apparently, it has plenty of Farsi advertisements for strip clubs and women in six-inch heels - and the austere stone style of the churches (stark, unpainted, resisting any distraction from the adoration of God) less to my fanciful/baroque tastes than the mosaics of Byzantium or the frescoes of Rome. The city centre of Yerevan is small, ruthlessly modern, and relentlessly cool in a manner not unlike the less salubrious, oligarchs-playing-pool bars of Chardini Street. The much-vaunted "cafe culture" I was told was a hallmark of Yerevan's social scene turned out to be infinitely less charming than that of Sololaki or Kala.

Cafesjian Museum
I don't like to use the phrase "European" on this blog - it's silly and reductive and largely meaningless. But whatever magic Tbilisi has - smoky and melancholic and filled with boulevards and alleyways, in some cultural communion with cities like Vienna or Budapest - Yerevan lacks it. It's infinitely shinier and more "modern" and possesses more chain stores (and a Debenham's, for goodness' sake!), but there's very little sense there of a shared (art nouveau, dreaming gargoyle, crumbling facades) aesthetic with that part of Europe to which I, at least, am most drawn. It's that peculiar contrast that does it for me in Tbilisi - not a facile mix of East and West so much as a fusion between fairyland and melancholy, between the rosy sunrise pastels of the Betelmi houses against the hard emerald of the Narikala hill, the sense of bright promise that comes from waterfalls and carpet-shops and the balconies of the Old and the lonelier, richer walks I take through Mtatsminda and Sololaki, listening at splintered windows to out-of-tune pianos, looking for gargoyles.

I couldn't find that in Yerevan. There were a few excellent things in Yerevan - a dried-fruit-and-nut shop about halfway down Mashtots Avenue (on the right, facing the Opera), the Cafesjian Museum, which rivals the Museumsquartier in Vienna as one of the most impressive uses of art-museum-public-space I've seen, a sculpture exhibit above a souvenir shop on Abovian Street - haunting, puppet-like mechanically moving sculptures by Karen Baghadasarayan, who is, along with Merab Abramishvili, one of my favourite post-twentieth-century artists (the Caucasus overall, I've found, is infinitely superior to the US/UK when it comes to innovative, exciting, well-crafted contemporary art). Also, Armenian pomegranate wine (and Easter fruit pilaf, cooked by our excellent guesthouse hostess, who seemed to be under the impression that my friend Caitlyn and I were having a torrid lesbian affair).

But the most striking part about my visit to Armenia - that which makes the country a necessity to visit - was my trip to Geghard Monastery and Garni Temple (the former, a largely thirteenth-century cave monastery; the latter, a rebuilt Roman-era pagan temple), both of which were overwhelming, overpowering, striking in their austerity.

Geghard - with its stone lions, echoing chambers, secret doors, and slices of sunlight - hasn't suffered the way Georgian churches have from the decay of frescoes - it's been continuously bare since its construction. The divine presence here, for me, was very much the Old Testament God - enormous, awesome and terrible in the oldest and best senses of the world: wrathful and yet just. (The Jew in me responds all too well to that conception). It's rough and uncompromising and great in a way that puts all my High Church smells and bells to shame.

So too Garni - the sort of quasi-pagan ruin that - situated overlooking what can only be a vast Romantic chasm, fills me with giddy faux-classicist delight (there's even ruins of a house with mosaic floors!). It's one of the few places in all of the Caucasus where I've felt Not the melancholy of Mtatsminda, not the glorious ugliness of Perovskaya, not the all-too-easily-won beauty of Betelmi - where I do, sometimes, feel like I'm in a self-indulgent holding pattern - but some strange communion with everything atavistic and ancient and prophetic.

I'm always looking for that in the Caucasus. Something to get me outside myself, to free me from my mental repository of comparisons, from that endless self-reflection that separates me from geniune, immediate experience.

I could say I found it there, but it wasn't quite by chance. The Armenian government, apparently, was piping in gloriously subtle Armenian folk music via loudspeaker. I may have been subliminally brainwashed towards ecstasy.

Fleur's Verdict: Yerevan worth it for a half-day of modern-art-scouting; Geghard and Garni unmissable sights of a lifetime.

Where to Soak in Abanotubani

credit to panoramio user Asfur_foreveR

The first time the Very English Gentleman and I attended a private bath in Abanotubani, we expected something out of an Orientalist fantasy: coloured marble, doe-eyed masseuses, steaming pools, pearls in vinegar - and so forth.

What we got, naturally, was a horrid subterranean 25-lari room with yellowed white tiles and the distinct smell of rotten eggs.

This was, thankfully, an anomaly. While the blue bathhouse seems to have quite a big jump between the 25-lari rooms (horrid) and the 45-lari rooms (genuinely incredible, and very good for the price), and the Royal Baths are likewise similarly fantastical for 50-60 lari, I have since discovered that, for 25 lari a room, I can attend the nicest bathhouse of all.
Unlike the others, the Synagogue Bathhouse (not its real name, but it looks rather like a Moorish synagogue) is located up the hill from Abanos Qucha, on Grishashvili Street (the public entrance is located beneath the archway; the entrance for private rooms is around the corner, past the "Bohemia" sign). It's very slightly less exquisite than the blue-tiled palaces at the Royal Baths, but more than charming, and the tea room (picture above) looks like a terminus of the Orient Express, if said terminus also had Georgian soap operas blaring on television in the background. Tea is 5 lari and comes with fruit candies; massages and scrubs are the standard 10 lari each, and may be performed by naked Soviet shotputters. Manicures and pedicures are also available.

I've taken to going alone, bringing a luxurious book (best choice yet, Mme de Stael's Corinne, possibly my favourite book of the year so far), drinking tea, and wallowing in self-indulgence.

Combine with a visit to either the elaborate but seldom-open Persian Chaikhana at number 14 Grishashvili St, the less-elaborate but reliable Azeri Chaikhana next door.