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.

1 comment:

Maya Topadze Griggs said...

"I don't belong anywhere" is what I always say too. At 41 almost half of my life (until I was 22) was spent in Georgia and the other half (well almost half) in southern USA (talk about my initial culture shock, I might as well say I had two shocks: one American and the other Southern culture shock). Being married to an American and having children here makes it a bit easier than when I first came here and went to college in 1994. I remember the feeling of being a perpetual foreigner and not being able to blend in. Back then I worried about it while now I like it. It what makes me me. By the way, I've always felt as a foreigner in Georgia even being born and raised there. For example, after having read my first Bible as a teenager (Bibles printed somewhere in Scandinavia flooded Tbilisi streets in late 80's-early 90's) I was questioning some of our Orthodox practices such as having saints, praying to an icon etc. Later when I got to the U.S. and went to a Christian college, it was very natural to convert to Church of Christ. But don't tell this to the Georgians :) lol. My Georgian Godfather was terribly insulted. And also when I visited Tbilisi with my American hubby, we were told at Sioni that we were not really officially married unless it was done at a Georgian Orthodox church. So I guess (at least according to that priest) I am not really married to my husband and i guess we are just living together for the past 13 yrs. lol