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.