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