Saturday, March 24, 2012

In Which I Get Married and Kiss a Live Chicken

Tonight, I spent the evening (along with my mother and a subset of the Oxford Georgian Society) at my favourite French Brasserie Tartine, attending a participatory piece of "cafe-theatre" entitled "An Evening 'Cafe-Theatre Du Bagarkistan'" performed by a "Franco-Georgian" theatrical collective "du theatre aerien". The piece involved the travails of three gentleman from the fictitious land Bagarkistan, a post-Soviet nation with a rather lax sense of Western taste, who arrive at a French Brasserie entitled Tartine, begin to harass the "patron" in Bagarkistani (one speaks simplistic French, the other equally simplistic Georgian, the third only Bagarkistani - a clever device that allowed the actors to a mixed Franco-Georgian audience). While the first act was largely an exercise in audience-participatory theatre - the fellows ordered food, complained at the waitress, and established their general rubeishness (while the audience, to my disappointment, largely steadfastly ignored them - being a Good Audience Member is an underrated skill), things swiftly got underway when they announced that one of their compatriates - the Barkgarkistani who spoke only his native tongue - was seeking a bride! After refusing angrily the first potential bride presented to him, storming out of the cafe (the large glass-paned windows of the restaurant were used to great effect here as we saw his fellow countrymen attempting to induce to return in the background), five volunteers - keen young women - were sought!

I, of course, could not resist: it is the duty of any theatrical professional (or would-be professional) to join the fray and be a Good Audience Member. Thus was I, along with four other women (three Georgians, I believe, and one French), presented for the consideration of this charming fellow. The fellow turned his back to us to avoid judging on looks, asking us questions which we could answer in French or Georgian (I chose French) and which the other would translate to us: "how do you define freedom?" - my response "to sleep as late as I like", "how many kilos can you lift?" (I almost-lifted my potential groom), "what are your measurements" ("enough but not too much"), and "do you like animals?" For this last question I was compelled to kiss a live chicken upon its feathered neck, which I did with gusto.

Apparently my answers pleased this bizarre cohort, for I was chosen as one of two finalists for our Bagarkistanian gentleman's hand. I was asked to recite a poem (I chose Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" - which to my surprise confused the Georgians in the audience; I would have thought that pop music bridged all barriers in this globalized age!), to kiss my would-be suitor (on the cheek, passionately), to dance, to lift heavy pails of water (a task I managed bravely, to my mother's surprise), and so forth. At last, following an excruciating intermission, I was chosen as the bride of the evening! Showered in a dowry (chocolates, fig jams from the associated Epicerie, Uzbek money, an old record, and a bottle of champagne), I danced with my beloved fiance before breaking a plate with my feet and allowing him to carry me off! A screening of a film entitled "Life in Bagarkistan" terminated the proceedings, as I learned the fate that would await me in my new native land: a life of drudgery, taking care of a lazy, shiftless husband, and allowing him access to my feminine charms. But before my mother could leap in to save me, the play was ended, and I was released from my marriage (dissolved! annulled!) to bring home my prizes in peace.

The piece, though certainly making use of familiar tropes (Borat is the most obvious comparison), was winning and funny: the actors played on the "tramp" archetype with great success, at once parodying and casting light on life in the Caucasus. I was most impressed with how they handled the challenge of playing to a multilingual audience (and one, I'm guessing, less accustomed to site-specific or interactive theatre than your average thespy Londoner) - their energy was charming and palpable, and by the end, the entirety of the audience joined the actors in a ceremonial Bagarkistani dance. (The actors, for their part, were enormously gracious and kind, and I look forward to their subsequent pieces. I have also discovered the immense joy of a 20-lari cheeseplate).

Only in Tbilisi, folks. Only in Tbilisi. Photos to follow.

Friday, March 23, 2012

English Bookstores Abroad: [The Owl Bookshop, Antalya]

I have perused The Strand. I have spent languorous hours in Blackwell's. Much have I seen and known (and loved greatly) of The Albion Beatnik. But I declare - as contentiously as I am able - that the single best English-language bookstore in the world is The Owl Bookshop in Antalya, Turkey.

Me and Justine
The Owl Bookshop (less, in reality, a bookshop than the personal library of a mad Cappadocian intellectual ) consists of two rooms of an Ottoman house in the Kaleici district of Antalya. The books within are in no discernible order, but they are universally excellent (and gleefully esoteric - I discovered a copy of Moltmann's The Crucified God v.2). The bookshelves, tables, and benches are apparently reclaimed from Orthodox churches, as are the wall-carvings.

The highlight of our visit to the bookshop, however, was not the books themselves but their curator, the Cappadocian himself, Kemal. Kemal, who tore himself away from reading a biography of Nietzsche in English (or was it German?) to speak to us. Upon bemoaning the desecration of Black Sea monasteries, introducing us to his all-too-sadistic black cat Justine (with whom Very English Boyfriend got on quite well - the reference, Kemal assured us,w as intentional), and grilling us as to the last book we had each read (I am pleased to say that my selection satisfied him; he had, of course, read everything), he proceeded to provide us with specialized recommendations (including some handwritten ones for texts not available in the shop), he offered us enormous slices of watermelon (although his assistant infuriated him by providing it improperly sliced) and proceeded to speak with us about Literature. He informed us that we should visit Mustafapasa in Cappadocia (we did!) and that we should read various treatises on Victorian sexuality (we did not). We passed two enormously enjoyable hours in Kemal's company, and spent the rest of our trip carting eight books overland from Antalya to Cappadocia to Trabzon to Batumi.

When asked from whence he procured the tiles and fixtures for his renovations, Kamal replied somberly: "From the dustbin. Like Trotsky says...the dustbin of history!"

The Owl Bookstore single-handedly rendered Antalya one of my favourite places in Turkey (aided, admittedly, by the seashore, the Old Town, the bougainvillea, and the wonderful man who attempted - very kindly - to convert me and Very English Gentleman to Islam). It is worth a visit for the shop alone.

Haul: Iris Murdoch's The Unicorn, von Kleist's The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Ambler's Epitaph for a Spy, Joseph Roth's Tarabas, Moravia's Contempt, Olivia Manning's The Rain Forest, Lawrence Durrell's Antrobus, Ned Sherrin's Scratch an Actor. Total cost = 60 YTL (approx 20 quid) for eight books.

Enter Kaleici not via Hadrian's Gate, but rather via the entrance off Ataturk Caddesi (near the clock tower). Turn right and walk 30 seconds. Alternatively, wander about until you find it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fleur Finds Her Local: "Tashkent"

Much of my time in Abanotubani (as detailed in this blog) has involved finding a convenient "local" - a place to sit comfortably, eat inexpensive yet reliably good food, and write, roughly analogous to a cross between one's "local" (pub) in England and one's "local" (cafe) in Paris or Vienna. Unfortunately, most of my favourite places - while excellent - tend to fail as "locals." Near Opera, my local when I lived on Rustaveli Avenue, is now a good thirty-to-forty minute walk away (ditto Black Lion). Pur Pur is a ten-to-fifteen walk away (a stretch in "local" terms), and - while it's possibly the most atmospheric restaurant in Tbilisi, as well as the one with the best food - it's too expensive to be considered a "proper" local by any standards (ditto Cafe Gabriadze, slightly cheaper but slightly further away). The Chaikhana, though cheap, comfortable, and less than five minutes away, doesn't serve proper food, is open at completely arbitrary intervals, and has tables situated too low for comfortable novelizing. Nero, though right next door, is much too expensive (and, unlike my mother who swears by it, its French fare isn't my favourite). Tartine is excellent for breakfast, but too obviously Rich Foreigner-centric to be a legitimate novelist' haunt. The restaurants on Chardini Street, with the exception of the charming Konka Station and the comfortable Literaturuli (neither of which serves "anytime" foo) are likewise too expensive.

But this quandary has been solved at last! For a new restaurant/cafe has opened off Median (in the covered staircase between Median and Chardini Street) - the extraordinary, cheap, comfortable, bohemian, and delicious Uzbek Tashkent, replacing a perpetually empty record store/cafe. From its location and unpromising exterior, I expected characteristically disappointing Chardini Street atmosphere: slick, excessively corporate, exquisitely manicured, overpriced, and inevitably owned by a shadowy group called B-Investments-Corp (or similar) that mysteriously owns half the restaurants in Tbilisi.

I was wrong, reader! Gloriously wrong! This tiny hole-in-the-wall, spruced up with kaftans and colorful wall hangings, fits all my criteria! Its three long tables/banquettes are large and comfortable enough for novelizing. The service is surprisingly friendly and lends itself to hours of table-sitting. But the food, reader! The food defies expectation, defies sense: it is perhaps the best food in Tbilisi. The "lunch menu", for a mere 9.00 lari (approx 3.75 GBP), consists of aromatic lamb soup, fresh-baked bread, a small but substantial serving of Uzbek plov (a fruit-and-lamb rice pilaf, easily the best iteration thereof in Tbilisi), Georgian salad (tomato, cucumber, onion, dill, parsley), and tea. (Additional options can be purchased a la carte for comparable prices).

Distance: Five minutes from the house. Check.
Food: Easily among the top meals in Tbilisi. Lunch menu always solid, but the a la carte provides a range of alternatives (including promising-sounding "pumpkin manti" and astoundingly good 4-lari carrot salad).
Price: 9 lari for the Plov lunch menu; 7 lari for the manti (dumpling) lunch menu, 3 lari for a glass of Saperavi wine.
Atmosphere: Bohemian bolt-hole. Limited number of tables may force me to avoid peak mealtimes,  but it's far from crowded.

Tashkent is located off Meidan Square, on the covered stairway descending onto Chardini St from Median Palace (not the uncovered staircase near The Oval). Please patronize them because they are excellent, but do not patronize them to the extent that they are no longer a best-kept-secret.

Mtskheta Calling (and religious reflections)

Lifted from "thelittlethinker" at wordpress
On Tuesday, my mother and I escaped the city for Mtskheta. A quest through the crowded, sprawling masses of Didube proved to be one of the highlights of my Georgian experience so far: there's something thrilling about thousands of dirt-cheap taxis and marshrutkas crowing about all the exciting places they could take you (an excitement somewhat mitigated when I realized that "Vladikavkaz" and "Vladivostock" are two different places - ambition can only go so far...), attempting a "don't touch me" Amazonian swagger while convincing Georgian men to point me in the direction of the correct marshrutka in cheerfully over-confident Russ-gian. (Now that I can swear and shout at any would-be pinchers or gropers in both Russian and Georgian, I'm almost disappointed to find that no man in the past week has been worth informing that I fucked his mother). I'm tempted to go back to Didube with five lari in my pocket on a daily basis and hop on marshrutkas at random; I hear there's a bus all the way to Thessaloniki.

My first trip to Mtskheta last year was somewhat disappointing. A combination of poor weather, stress about my impending finals, and the contrasting sight of bright red recently-renovated terracota roofs against grey skies managed to get in the way of Proper Religious experience (although I did manage to run into Saakashvili at Salobie Restaurant) But one year on, the disingenuous shine has faded, and Mtskheta is beautiful instead of merely "well-restored". While the Eccentricity Factor of the trip suffered from choosing the young, fluent-in-English, serious guide instead of the utterly barking elderly woman I chose last time, I managed to learn far more about the church itself. Our guide deftly placed the history of the church within the context of the Kartvelian saga as a whole: thus did we learn that only a few of the frescoes survived Soviet whitewashing, that the invading Muslims scratched the faces and eyes from many more, that the use of wood in the iconostasis rather than stone was a sign of Russian cultural influence in one of the smaller linked churches (or perhaps it was vice versa?), and that the church itself is full of secret passages once used by escapees from invasion. HIghlights of the cathedral included the miniature church - a reproduction of one at Jerusalem - built inside the main cathedral, the unique use of horoscope imagery in a religious icon depicting Christ and the Psalms, an icon depicting three women that has been used as the basis for one of the most famous Georgian folk dances of all time, the "hand" of the architect allegedly mutilated to ensure that nothing more beautiful was ever created by his hand, and - most humorously - the "aliens" (unidentified flying objects) apparent at the crucifixion in one fresco. These "aliens" are, in fact (our guide explained) the sun and moon, shown as "diminished" during the eclipse of the Passion. (My aspiring-iconographer found this particularly fascinating - how do you iconographically "depict" an eclipse?!)

In Ideas that Are Ripe for Novel-Writing, I was told that the "miniature" church serves as a sort of Jerusalem by proxy, such that if one visits it three times, one is considered to have visited Jerusalem. (Hence, three visits at the beginning, middle, and end of a book? Three-act drama?)

After Svetitskhoveli we took a taxi to Jvari, and I realized once again how many people have apparently been speaking Russian to me over the past few years without my noticing. (I feel Enormously Empowered since starting Russian. Clearly nobody else in the entire world is capable of asking "where is Jvari, please? How much?" in Russian! Nobody at all! I speak ALL THE RUSSIAN!). Jvari reminds me quite a bit of the Uffizi in Florence, in that architectural/artistic beauty are perfectly juxtaposed with vast Romantic chasms of natural beauty (here, cattle-ridden ridges; there, rolling hills) such that it is impossible to tell whether the beauty is a result of implied contest or synthesis.

Now, whether I convert to Orthodoxy remains to be seen. I'm in the lucky position of having been raised a generic Liberal Protestant (only in New York does the daughter of a vaguely-theistic American Jew and a non-English-speaking Sicilian Catholic end up raised as a Fifth Avenue WASP): a combination of High Church Episcopalian liturgies at Christmas and Easter, an ethical rather than theological view of doctrine, and plenty of challah bread/Jewish celebrations on my maternal side of the family (that I might be "Jewish" rather than "Jew"-ish never occurred to me until I left New York, where everybody has at least one Jewish relative whom they can visit to latke, to the rather more noticeably anti-Semitic England (where I, "passing" as a blonde WASP, was present at far too many instances of derogatory chatter). Unfortunately, I'm a theologian with the incipient ardor of a convert (I want to choose a religion, take the Kierkegaardian leap, cast in my lot with the fantasists and the folklorists and the Ethics of Elfland. I feel strongly that, if I have to pick a side, I pick the side of the irrational and the mystic and the altars to the Virgin Mary I see on the street on Mediterranean islands. I stand or fall with the irrationalists.), but an innate awareness that, while the Catholic Very English Boyfriend can certainly get away with disagreeing with elements of his Church on an institutional level, as a potential convert (to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or even Judaism - right now I'm at a complicated religious crossroads), I have no such luxury: it's all or nothing for me, for better or for worse.

And hence I hedge. Certainly, on "paper", the Eastern faith (of the Cappadocians/Cabasilas/Palamas/Pseudo-Dionysius) variety appeals to me, and upon graduating last year I was all but certain that, having made a careful study of theosis and Transfiguration icons, I wanted to convert. Yet what holds me back is perhaps more aesthetic than intellectual: the churches I feel the most connection with are those that hold the memories of my youth, not the enormous stone of Jvari or Svetiskhoveli (which fill me with awe and reverence), but Italian and French Catholic churches like Santa Maria del Popolo (in Rome) and Notre Dame (in Paris), in which religious sentiment is mixed up with memories of childish wonder and a wider cultural attachment/sense of belonging. (In this latter sense, the "sense of belonging" is what attracts me to Judaism (well, that and the fact that I've got an Old Testament temper) - as someone who has grown up everywhere and belonged nowhere, the idea that I'm ethnically connected on the maternal side to a disapora of like-minded exiles is an attractive one. Without being a "Jew for Jesus", I'll always identify - regardless of the path I take - as a religious Christian, but a cultural Jew (who, to complicate things, seriously objects to (the current state of) Israel politically). Sympathy for Palestine or not, belief in Jesus or not, I still get shivers at "Next year, in Jerusalem."

I look at the men and women at Svetitskhoveli who kiss the icons, trace their fingers along the pillars, engage with and love the saints and angels in the church. That's not something I can do just yet. Not, perhaps, out of a lack of religious feeling, but because that freedom (to kiss, to touch, to engage) comes with belonging, and as much as I love Georgia and fetishize Eastern Christianity in, admittedly, a slightly Orientalist way, I don't belong here. I don't have the privilege of the insider that allows me to feel like anything but an imposter when I cover my head or cross myself. I don't dare approach the icons. Not yet, at any rate. 

But I'm learning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Agmashenebeli Renovations

A week into my return, and Tbilisi has at last become wonderful to me again! After some initial disappointments (world's ugliest casino, the proliferation of astoundingly terrible restaurants on once-charming Tabdize street, "unseasonably" seasonable March weather), the skies have cleared, the weather has been restored, and I have begun meeting Thoroughly Interesting People (including, most notably, a thoroughly charming Romantic-poets-reading Augustine-challenging English composer who, if he gives me permission, ought to be the subject of his own Blog Profile) anew. I've started taking Russian lessons (I can now string sentences together of the "This is my green orange. Where is the milk? Do you know if he is working in the square?" variety, and have resolved to name my future kitten the incredible adorable sounding почему ("pochemou" - or "why?")

I have mixed feelings about the renovation of the Old Town. I find the rebuilt streets to be beautiful (the newer crop of rebuilidings rather more successful than the initial) but somewhat lifeless; despite my addiction to brunch at Tartine, it - like much of Chardini St and Median - has become terribly bourgeois when compared to the decrepit-yet-wonderful back streets of Sololaki and Mtatsminda which have become my go-to haunt. (The Black Lion is thus all the more fantastic for its secrecy!) However, I'm enormously impressed by the renovations of D. Agmashenebeli Avenue across the river. Its eastern end remains cluttered with peeling Art Nouveau facades, extravagant bridal stores, the best-kept-culinary-secret Lazi (a hole in the wall restaurant at number 62 with outstanding ostri)and excellent vintage clothing shops (my latest find, an Indiana Jones-eque beige shirt, was seven lari); however, west of Marjanishvili, the avenue has been restored to its former Belle Epoque grandeur: the streets are cobblestoned, the brands high-end (it's very Un-Bohemian of me, but I went into raptures at discovered that the store Jahello stocks Pimkie, the world's only manufacturer of trousers-that-fit-me at prices comparable to/less than Parisian prices), and - best of all - everything remains Overwrought and and Filled With Opulent Faded Grandeur Melancholy as before!

There's a surprising lack of cafes in the area to complement the influx of shops (although I did spy an outpost of Vake's Cafe Canape poking out in a side-street about halfway down towards Tamar Mepe), which is a shame only insofar as the area demands an Opulent Viennese Cafe, but there's quite a few Turkish restaurants in the area, as well as a cluster of restaurants (the wonderfully kitschy English Tea House, a branch of Shemoikhede Genatsvale, a few more expensive option) around Marjanishvili. Certainly I find New Agmashenebeli vastly preferably, as a Promenade and Shopping experience, to either Rustaveli (which can be noisy and overly automobile-centric) or Vake/Saburtalo.

Thus I give my Flaneur stamp of approval.
On an unrelated note, can anyone inform me why the ruins between the Narikala Fortress and Mother Georgia apparently belong to the Greeks?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Black Lion (and other returns to Tbilisi)

Returning to Tbilisi has been something of a mixed bag. While elements of my return have been extraordinarily positive (I have discovered Vietnamese Coffee at what continues to be the World's Best Restaurant Cafe Gabriadze; Tartine is opening a French epicerie down the street from me; there is now a Georgian takeaway near me; my landlady makes amazing cheesy mchadi), others have been somewhat disappointing: I had the distinctly humiliating experience of being assaulted (full-on ass grab by a group of men who laughed at me when I reverted into full-on New Yorker "fuck you!" mode. In front of my mother! The laughter was worse than the grope); an enormous and hideous casino by the Freedom Bridge rather ruins my lovely historic terrace view; my beloved local overpriced French wine bar L'Accent Francais has relocated to - gasp - Vake; my equally beloved restaurant Sherikelebi has been replaced by a branch of Shemoikhede Genetsvale; I have discovered that many of the new restaurants on trendy Tabidze Street have absolutely dire food that in no way resembles their menu offering.

Spring is apparently construction season: a new cable-car is being built from the new park by Freedom Bridge up to Narikala Fortress, a beautiful new canal is currently in progress on Abanos St (by the baths), and my favorite ramshackle baroque building has been torn down altogether.

But most exciting of all is that I have finally proved the existence of the mythical Black Lion restaurant, for which I have been searching since September. When my half-Georgian friend Bella informed me that such a place existed "around Davitashvili 19, up the hill in Sololaki", I was very confused to find no such street on my map. Google Maps gave me an alternate Sololaki address - 32 Tabidze St, so I assumed that perhaps Davitashvili was, as is so often the case, an archaic name for Tabidze.

Not so! After my friend Robin and I spent a full night aimlessly wandering Sololaki, we determined that there was, in fact, no 32 Tabidze St and promptly gave up. Two weeks later, my mother and I discovered a new (and lovelier) hidden part of Sololaki away from the touristic centre (keep going up Asatiani St past the Tabidze St turnoff torwards Freedom Square), and - thus buoyed - I renewed my search. Thus did I discover that Davitashvili Street is in fact now Amagleba Street.

credit to katalina_bakradze on flickr
But no such luck! Despite wandering up and down said street, we could find nothing - until Bella helpfully posted a photograph to my facebook. The Black Lion is (how did I miss this?) marked by a large painting of aforementioned black lion, but is in fact off the street itself, and thus could potentially be missed from the street.

It was worth the wait. As eclectically Victorian-charming as Pur Pur, but about a third of the price, Black Lion is friendly (laptops, couches), gorgeous (carpets, mismatched furniture) and affordable (lunch options, largely of the Large Sandwich variety, run 6-8 lari). The proprietress was uncannily friendly, and the sangria plentiful. Possibly my new favourite Novel-Writing Haunt in Tbilisi.

The Black Lion is off 23 Amagleba St (keep going up Asatiani, turn right at the fork, pass a Populi on your left, right side of the street, look for the Black Lion)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

English Bookstores Abroad: The Albion Beatnik, Oxford

(technically, this column was meant to cover English bookstores in non-English-speaking countries; however, The Albion Beatnik deserves to be an exception).

It is to my great shame that, despite having lived four years in Oxford, I have never before entered the Albion Beatnik bookstore on 114 Walton Street. As a devotee of second-hand bookshops, charity shop classics (which, in Oxford, seem to be confined to a ridiculous number of Virago Modern Classics and disproportional interest in Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence), and (it must be admitted), downloading Free Classics onto my Kindle, I had always mournfully assumed that the shiny books at Albion - specializing in my personal favorite genre of "bizarre 19th and 20th century fiction with a bohemian edge" would be far out of my gradstudentmeetsfreelancewriter price range. I assumed - quite idiotically - that going to the Albion Beatnik would be rather like going to (the somewhat overrated) Blackwell's: I would sigh longingly over copies of favorite-press New York Review Books Classics (the stuff of dreams!) that I could no way afford.*

Yet - on Sunday's visit with the VEB - I discovered to my great rapture that The Albion Beatnik has a second-hand section. A full half of the shop is devoted to an exquisitely curated selection of secondhand books, combining the affordable prices and rag-tag exploration of the charity shop (books range between 2 and 3 pounds) with the specialist quality of a generally Good Bookshop. Secondhand discoveries included Primo Levi's The Sixth Day (purchased, two pounds), Natalya Ginzberg, some lesser-known novellas by Colette, the poetry of Lawrence Durrell, and even a copy of a novel by my other-favorite-press (which, to my eternal regret, no longer accepts contemporary manuscript submissions) Dedalus Books. 

The section of new books, while less affordable, is maddeningly tempting: European Literature in Translation (!) receives a good half of the shop, divided by country/region. Not only is this scope for more NYRB Classics and Dedalus (and hence my slow descent into destitution), but it also necessarily presages many more hours of pawing fruitlessly at copies of Bizarre Central European Fiction of which I have never previously heard. (Attention, friends-who-like-to-buy-me-things: if it has a "senseless yet melodramatic plot" set in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire possibly involving melancholia or faded grandeur, I will probably read it.)

And yes, there is a coffee shop! Not - mind you - a Costa, but an informal "choose your own teacup, sit in a comfy couch" setup. Teas and coffees are a mere two pounds per pot; flavors are plentiful and include a properly sweet black chai. If I weren't so terrified of the imposingly clever proprieter, I might even bring my laptop to work on Novel Revisions. (I might compromise and bring along the decidedly less-offensive Alphasmart)

Thus have I discovered my new favourite bookshop in Oxford. I've been unable to make the writers' meetings in the past due to Play Commitments, but I'm eager to start attending events there in earnest!

*Yes, Blackwell's has a second-hand section. No, it is not affordable.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"The Myth of the Strong Woman"

This post was intended for International Women's Day; however, work and life have conspired to delay its publication somewhat.

About a year ago I met with a prominent Georgian writer at Prospero's. Somehow the conversation turned to his mother - a woman, he said proudly, who not only cooked and cleaned and took care of her family, but was also extraordinarily educated and had a career in her own right. "Here in Georgia," he crowed, "the women are strong. Men, you see, are weak - women are the strong ones!"
When we first moved to Georgia, I remember my mother marveling at the prevalence of young, educated, powerful women in the workforce - well over half of the government officials, CEOs, ministry members, and businesspeople she met were female. "This is a woman's country," she informed me. Certainly for my mother - who had for so long been the only woman in the boardroom - the visibility of Georgia's woman was enormously inspiring.
Georgia's women, I have been told, are Strong. They are capable of cooking with one hand and doing spreadsheets with the other, of writing up doctoral dissertations while suckling young children. They are - according to this trope - often more intelligent and harder-working than their male counterparts, who are (in their own, often smugly sheepish estimation) merely child-like, venal beasts who need women's Power and Strength to get anything done.
This is far from an exclusively Georgian trope. I've found it equally prevalent in Italy (for more on my love-hate relationship with Italy and my Italian background, check out last year's posts) - on my single, ill-advised foray into teaching EFL to children in Liguria, I failed utterly in convincing the half-dozen twelve-year-old boys in my charge to pull their weight either in the classroom or during mandatory meal-cooking/room-cleaning sessions. (The girls, meanwhile, had internalized the same trope to an equal degree, often refusing to let boys help them clean on the grounds that they were bound to fail, picking up after their male counterparts' messes). I've found it to a similar degree in America, where the trope of the Man Child and the Woman Who Has It All have managed, via Judd Apatow and Sex and the City, to create a grotesquely unbalanced model of gender relations.
It's easy to praise the figure of the Strong Woman - Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Almodovar's heroine - as a kind of paradigmatic female, an example of strength intended to serve as a retort to all those irritating feminists like myself who insist on harping on gender inequality: "See? We can't have problems with sexism here! Our women are so Strong! We love our women - if anything, it's the men who are weak!"
The trope of the Strong Woman may not be as immediately offensive as the trope of the Frail Delicate Woman-Child (English sexism, I've found, largely tends to take the latter route: I once had the oh-so enormous privilege of having the Daily Mail charge in to rescue my poor, virginal, tarnished, lily-white honour (while posting bra-less vacation photos of me from my facebook account!) after a drunken idiot heckled me during a Conservative Association debate). In the surface, it's an attractive paradigm of femininity: the Strong Woman is sexually desirable, intellectually capable, maternal, devoted, powerful, complete.
But this very charm renders the trope all the more insidious. What is the myth of the Strong Woman, after all, but a simultaneous abdication of male responsibility and a privileging of cultural "maleness": women should gladly "raise themselves" by entering the traditionally male sphere of the workplace and the university, but God forbid that men - Georgian, Italian, or American - do the reverse: helping with the cooking, cleaning, or childcare. It is acceptable - even encouraged - for a woman to seek out spheres of existence once dominated by maleness; after all, why shouldn't every woman wish to have the dignity of Maleness conferred upon her? But for a man to exist in the feminized sphere of the hearth and home is an implicit lowering: to be feminized is to lose one's dignity.
Those Strong Women my mother met were doubtless, like the Italian girls I taught, educated and highly capable. Yet so many of them are expected to live double lives: to exhaust themselves at work during the day, and exhaust themselves taking care of the home at night. Their perceived strength comes at a price: men, casting themselves in the role of weak children who simply "cannot help themselves", are now required neither to provide nor to nurture. (And somehow, naturally, this is not their own fault but the fault of those damn ball-breaking feminists - at least, according to every hand-wringing "But What About the Men?" piece currently clogging up every opinion column in the country)
The myth of the Strong Woman, furthermore, has even more unsettling implications. It places the onus on women to be the guardians and gatekeepers of responsibility: men "simply cannot" take care of themselves; they "cannot help themselves" - thus it is a woman's job to ensure that the house is kept tidy, the accounts are in order, that that she is not raped. The pervasive sexism informing the trope of the Strong Woman - men are primitive beasts; women are civilizing angels - places the burden of not-being-raped squarely on the shoulders of those who cannot, systematically, prevent it.
It's a paradigm (as, indeed, most sexist paradigms are) as insulting to men as it is to women. It infantilizes a full half of the population while placing an undue burden on the other half. And, as we inculcate our sons with the notion that "boys will be boys" and warn them against loose girls who have the audacity to sleep with them on the first date, as we socialize our daughters to "work hard", keep their heads down, and "avoid boys who are only after one thing", we are - with each generation - making that paradigm a reality.
If I have a daughter, I want her to be a Strong Woman. Not the fetishized, barely-human Strong Woman I see as the secondary lead on male-dominated cop shows (I'm looking at you, Castle) - somehow miraculous in her ability to balance being the object of male desire and the facilitator of his pleasure - but a woman who is capable of entering both traditionally male and traditionally female spheres, breaking down the dichotomies between them, and capable too of asking her partner to pull his or her weight when she needs a helping hand.
And if I have a son, I expect him to be an equally Strong Man.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Flaneur Series: English Bookstores Abroad [Prospero's, Tbilisi]

In between stressing about my future, experiencing feminist rage at this ridiculous article (best moment of cognitive dissonance: combining an article about how Bad Boys are overly concerned with their own wants and needs with an embedded link to an article about "His Top 10 Secret Sex Wishes" - perhaps my fellow readers might prefer to ask their partners about said "secrets" before springing a phallic feather duster out from under the bed), and attempting to get the coffee-stains out of a lovely silk top I've destroyed, I've been packing my Books for Tbilisi. Oxford, in addition to being the Best Place in the World for a whole host of reasons, is home to approximately one million charity shops, each of which sell a wide range of respectable Classics for between one and three pounds. (Suitcase currently contains: lots of Kazantzakis, Giono's Horseman on the Roof, Stael's Corinne, Zola's La Bete Humaine, lots of Jan Morris, and some neglected vintage travel narratives).

Not so in Tbilisi. The availability of English books here is limited to a single stand towards the back of the permanent stalls of Dry Bridge flea market (not terrible: I've picked up Chesterton, Hemingway, du Maurier, and Fowles for five lari apiece) and, more prominently, to Prospero's.

Prospero's Books, of course, is not a real bookshop. It is, rather, like the sort of Englishman Abroad outposts one finds in most charmingly bizarre nations (see Bucharest's Hotel Athenee in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy), where foreigners and wealthy locals mingle over American coffee and suitably functional air conditioning to simultaneously escape one's host country and revel in the sheer pseudo-Orientalist delight of being Eccentric Anglos Abroad. The crowd is less Embassy-centric than similar haven Betsy's (no "my security clearance is higher than yours" one-upmanship, fewer discussions of the various merits of Tbilisi's private schools, a pathological fear of leaving Abashidze St); however, there's a healthy infusion of backpackers and TLGers (hence: plenty of "my last trip was more dangerous than yours" one upmanship, more discussions of the various merits of Tbilisi's chachas, a pathological fear of enjoying something that costs more than 5 lari lest they be labeled as bourgeois sellouts.)

Photos linked from ""
I say this with great love. The courtyard of Prospero's (34 Rustaveli Avenue - cross away from the Opera, turn right, cross the street - it's next to the SONY stone) is reminiscent of Notting Hill; the tuna and tomato sandwiches are among the best in Tbilisi, and 6 lari can purchase an enormous cafitiere of Russian Caravan tea containing at least ten cups' worth. I have struck up many a friendship in Prospero's (indeed, the best way to meet any expat in Tbilisi is to stake out that front courtyard).

The books, however, are hit or miss: the selection of Caucasus-related books is extraordinary, but prices tend to hover in the 30-40 lari range for Georgian guidebooks or copies of Ali and Nino - although rather flimsy Dover Editions classics are widely available in slightly dubious translation for around 10 lari. The relative lack of a Second-Hand Section is a major strike against Prospero's, as is the judicious positioning of the Georgia-related guidebooks as far as possible from the cafe section, in a separate wing of the store, hereby somewhat defeating the entire point of being a Bookstore Cafe for Travelers.

However, judged on its own merits, Prospero's is just the sort of unstable cultural fishbowl Prince Yakimov himself would doubtless frequent: forego the books and, with a gallon-ful of Russian Caravan tea, simply watch the crowd.

While it's far from my favorite English bookstore abroad (that distinction may go to The Owl bookshop in Antalya - it's certainly a worthy Expat Destination).

Friday, March 2, 2012

Varieties of Tea-Drinking Experience

As a wee young'un, growing up divided between Paris, Rome, and New York, I inexplicably became addicted to the most English of beverages: tea. (Or so I believed; having moved to England, I have discovered that the selection of flavoured tea borders on the abysmal here, and I have taken to drinking paper-cup coffee in the mornings). Indeed, as an awkwardly home-schooled preadolescent seeking some measure of stability during my solitary teen years (I spent my thirteenth and fourteenth years nearly entirely without human company), I spent a disproportionate amount of time scouting excellent flavored teas across the globe. While nothing ever quite lives up to Chez Pauline - which my grandmother brought back for me from a trip to Argentina five years ago, and for which I've been pining ever since), I have - for your reading pleasure - compiled a list of Excellent Tea Shops whose flavors have, essentially, defined my childhood.

1. BiblioTeq, Via dei Banchi Vecchi, Rome, Italy
When I lived in Rome back in 2004, I was the kind of socially maladjusted, Anais-Nin-reading, Baudelaire-quoting fourteen year old who accidentally starts a fire while attempting to ignite a teaspoonful of Sweet and Low over a glass of absinthe (New Year's Eve, 2004). I dropped out of school and spent my days cycling through Trastevere, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and wishing that I could be a beautiful, glitter-wearing, glam-rock-listening, fin-de-siecle-inflected Harlequin. This eccentrically overcrowded tea-and-chocolates shop around the street from my house provided me with props to realize that dream: teas with decadent flavours like "orange and chocolate rooibos", "Father Christmas," "pear and cinnamon", and "chocolate almonds." The owner also had an excellent dog.
To buy: "Pear and Cinnamon tea", "Gen Mai Cha," art nouveau tea containers.

2. Castroni, two branches, Via Cola di Rienzo and Via Ottaviano, Rome
At fourteen, I attempted to convince
my mother that this was the prettiest
area in Rome.
The nineteenth-century district of Prati, with its staid architecture and geometric boulevards, bears no resemblance to any touristic conception of "Rome." A thoroughly middle-class residential neighborhood without any particular sights of interest, Prati somehow became (to my mother's great consternation) the locus of my teenage quasi-rebellion. Still resentful at having been plucked from Paris, I was just too cool for Renaissance palazzos or Baroque churches - I insisted on dragging my mother to the colorless boulevards of Prati to indulge in my "art nouveau boulevard" obsession (Prati does, after have, have a gorgeous fin de siecle pharmacy!) and eat mediocre Chinese food. Castroni (and not, as I thought for years, Gastroni) - an enormous food shop with "expat-friendly" ingredients and a selection of absinthe chocolates - also sold a selection of flavored black teas by the "etto." I distinctly remember eating all of the caramel out of the "caramel black tea" bag. And I still stand by my defense of Prati as a neighborhood.

3. Mariage Freres, Rue des Grands Augustins, Paris
It's a cliche - but what a cliche! When we lived on Rue Dauphine in 2003, steps away from the most luxurious, decadent, bloody overpriced tea shop in Paris. But each eleven-euro canister of "Marriage Imperial", "Casablanca" or "Marco  Polo" tea brings me back to my inexplicably loose-reined childhood (why wasn't I enrolled in school again? Why was I cycling through Montmartre, pretending to be a nineteenth-century prostitute*, listening to Debussy? All things that would have been poetic if I wasn't a thirteen-year-old truant with a hypothetical fixation on laudanum.) When I turned up at an actual legitimate educational institution a few years later, I was referred to by my chess club friends as "the girl who talked like Shakespeare." (And when you're too nerdy for the chess club, well...). But a few months of drinking the incredible, twenty-euro "Falling In Love" chocolate-hazelnut-vanilla tea? The most delicious route to social ostracism ever. (Tied, only, with the the des celts at Passage Dauphine, which deserves a separate post).

*I didn't quite understand the whole "syphillis" thing.

4. Tea and Sympathy, Greenwich Avenue, New York
Back before I was a Mucha-and-lillies-and-consumption obsessive in Paris and Rome, I was an equally ill-adjusted pink-wig-wearing, fishnet-and-corset-clad, David-Bowie-obsessed thirteen year old who once wore a shirt from Religious Sex emblazoned with "Subversion Sells" to an Upper East Side private school (re)admissions interview*. I was convinced that England, as the home of David Bowie and Oscar Wilde, was filled with Awesomely Bohemian Things, and I spent my weekends (I was actually enrolled in an educational institution at this point in time, albeit the sort of weird school that allows its thirteen-year-old to wear corsets to class) in the East Village, browsing the local Wiccan shop, listening to My Bloody Valentine, nursing a daily Tasti-d-Lite habit, and thinking that regular attendance The Rocky Horror Picture show made me the coolest thirteen-year-old in existence (I totally was). Tea and Sympathy, home of chocolate-and-vanilla tea and imported Murray mints, was therefore the coolest place in existence for the coolest thirteen-year-old in existence. Tiny, cramped, and demanding a $15 p-person minimum spend, Tea and Sympathy is acceptable as a sit-down venue; however, it's preferable to just buy loose tea from the sister shop next door.

Of course, I haven't found a single good decadent tea shop in England (although excellent cafes and dilapidated-chic Tea Rooms abound). Tbilisi, conversely, has loads of untapped potential, and the selection of loose teas at the tea stand near the Orbeliani St Populi is worth a review post of its own. Memories of coffee-houses abound - but, like Proust's madeleine - only the smell of Mariage Freres "falling in love tea" can evoke the utter pseudo-decadent chaos that was my teenage years.

*I attended the school between the ages of 6-12, left to attend an arty-hippie school, thought briefly about returning, then ended up in Paris instead.

Which is why, boys and girls, you should never let your twelve-year-old read The Picture of Dorian Gray unsupervised. Terrible things might happen. (And, nine years later, your twenty-one year old daughter may apply to do her DPhil in the theological study of decadence.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Not-Horrible Things to Do in London

If you have engaged in conversation with me for more than five minutes, you have more than likely been aware of my passionate hatred for all things to do with London. I love Oxford (as a city, it's easily in my top five), but London frequently reduces me to tears. Half-decent Georgian food aside, London is a city of decrepit urban sprawl and derelict foxes. However, as there is a chance that I will be living either in Northwest London or East London next year (am currently counting the minutes until April, during which month all will be decided!), I suppose the Mature Thing to Do would be to count London's miniscule blessings. Certainly, there are a few - minor - things that London does not-terribly, among them:

The South Bank
Londoners apparently hate the South Bank, deriding it as touristy and otherwise horrendous, and/or a false imposition of "European urbanization values" onto London's sprawl. As a great fan of European urbanization values, I see nothing wrong with outdoor seating, riverside promenades, or the presence of The Globe theatre, The National, the best/cheapest used bookstalls in London (I judge the intellectual tenor of my used-book stalls by the number of Virago Modern Classics available, which is a useful general hermeneutic principle), and the only reasonably priced food in London. I speak, of course, of the paella at Cafe Brood, in Borough Market across from Southwark Cathedral. A fiver for an obscenely large scoop of paella, to be consumed as the sun sets over the Thames. One of the very - very - few non-chain restaurants in the South Bank (chain restaurants representing the commodification and assimilation of cultural diversity into corporately-acceptable standardized menu cards and the flattening of diversity into a nebulous ideas of Englishness), Cafe Brood also offers dangerously large jugs of sangria.
Come Away with: A copy of Lawrence van der Post's Journey into Russia for 3 pounds from the bookstalls outside the National; flower tea at the baroque but naturally overpriced bar at the BFI, overpriced but nevertheless very good theatre books from the strong selection at Foyle's.

The only area of London I unambiguously like. Easily the best charity shopping in London (while, as Charity Shop Tourism notes, Epping and Golder's Green are up there. Clapham is also home to a proper bakery, unpretentious greenery, restaurants that look that they have been designed by genuine human beings rather than Marketing Effectiveness Teams. Highlights include (just outside of Clapham), the Battersea Power Station Cafe (our local when VEB lived on Battersea Park Road), home to the best English breakfast in London. Unlike most places in London, the Power Station offers biscuits with its cappuccinos, has decent couches, and - most excitingly - has in fact not been designed by the sort of Englishman that assumes that beauty is some sort of dangerous French innovation that will lead inexorably to sodomy, bacchanals, and the intermixing of the social classes.
Come away with: a perfectly-fitted Karen Millen cocktail dress (at left) for fifteen pounds from a Clapham High Street charity shop.

The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery
Free and eminently wanderable, the National Gallery is the "romantic date walk" of choice for me and the VEB. While I'll always have a soft spot for the Louvre and/or the Met - where I spent most of my childhood pretending to be Marie Antoinette in the furniture sections - (and, on more sentimental grounds, the Ashmolean), the National Gallery allows me to indulge my largely-inherited Italian-Renaissance obsession (with forays into Velazquez and 19th century Parisians). I don't have any personal favorite "to-visit" paintings here, but it's a surprisingly affordable way to pass an hour in London.

Come away with: a stack of postcards in which to write thoughtful birthday cards throughout the year; an intense desire for Museum Gallery Reproduction jewelry.

Hookah Lounge, Brick Lane
Nestled away amid the mobile phone shops, overcrowded fish-n'-chip joints, and drunken slumpers than line Bethnal Green Road (and a stone's throw from the "faux fur, red lips and jeggings" crowd in Shoreditch), Brick Lane is home to an uncharacteristically excellent tea room. Tastefully decorated, with offerings of about ten varieties each of tea and coffee (including Arabian, Turkish, Chinese, Moroccan, and other varieties), Hookah Lounge cannot quite compare to the Best Moroccan Tea Room Outside Morocco Of All Time (that would be the amazing and bizarrely titled Algiers, near Harvard Square, in Cambridge MA, my single biggest regret about not staying in the US for college). but it's affordable (3 pounds for a reasonable sized pot of tea) and atmospheric.

Golder's Green
Like any good New Yorker, I'm Jew-ish (ie, half) enough to get excited about my kosher roots. Like most things in London, the falafel+hummus shops are not quite as nice as they are elsewhere (The falafel in Paris's Rue de Roisiers easily wins the Falafel Deathmatch, were such a thing not Too Awesome to Exist), but they're enormous, cheap, and served by Attractive Jewish Boys. (Who operated, alas, on the assumption that I was an unambiguous WASPy shiksa who had never tried falafel before and hence kept giving me free samples - to be fair, I must be the only naturally blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sicilian-Catholic-meets-Ukranian-Jew in existence). Golder's Green is also home to another Decent Cafe: the Victorian quaint-chic Cafe Imperial (divans, enormous cappuccinos, cheap lemon cake, slightly fewer Attractive Jewish Boys).
Come away with: Oversized falafel sandwiches, modest retro gear, bread from the Kosher Bakery,  Korean-Jewish "fusion groceries"

The Last Tuesday Society, Hackney
I bought the Very English Boyfriend a taxidermied crow here for Christmas. He is called Mortimer. Enough said.

Runners-Up: The British Library, the walkways around Little Venice, the bizarre Serbian hotel I stayed at in Holland Park, any iteration of Paul, the possibly defunct "Italina" restaurant in Hackney, Battersea Park, charity shopping in Epping, Fortnum and Mason's teas (c.f. Richoux), the canals in Camden, anywhere that isn't Oxford Street, really.