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Taxis in Tiblisi

Yesterday, I told myself my reluctance to head into Tbilisi was simply inertia, even laziness, brought on by vacation freedom from daily chores. Now I think that it was just reluctance to face the taxi situation.

With no knowledge of Georgian, or Russian (a second language here), I can’t just phone for a taxi. We are on the outskirts of town here in a raw new suburb, with big, imposing, houses (rented by expats or owned by Georgian government higher-ups) interspersed with ragged bare lots or even raggeder lots on which even newer houses are being built. The houses are all surrounded by 7-foot-high cement walls with big solid metal gates with security systems. The ‘streets’ are dirt roads, gravel dotted with patches of bare dirt, mud and puddles, it’s been raining lately; if I want a cab. I walk the few stony, muddy, blocks to the main highway and hail.

I’ve been told to get an English speaking driver. My first and best driver, a rosy- cheeked old man, not only spoke English but insisted on giving me a bunch of grapes. When we stopped, he tried, very gently, to flick what he thought was a crumb off my nose. They all say they speak English whether it’s true or not, and anyway I can’t bring myself to say ‘go away’ when a driver has pulled over and stopped.

Once seated, I give the address of a well-known spot in the center of Tbilisi, in Georgian as well as English, and the driver just looks blank until I’ve repeated it and tried mime. As well as not knowing English he also doesn’t know any French or Italian, the languages I might get by in. One driver helpfully offers several others, “Turkish, Armenian, Mingrelian, Ingush . . .”

If getting into town works only moderately well, getting back, doesn’t work well at all; the houses have no addresses in this new area. On my return from my first trip, a young man seeing me dejectedly turning away a couple (I’m getting tougher) decides to help. Unfortunately, he picks a driver with less English than usual, “It’s okay,” he assures me, “I have told him where you want to go in Georgian.” After repeating my few parroted words of Georgian the cab-driver and I are able to get as far as the giant mounted statue of Davit Agmenashmenabili, King David the Builder. (Approaching the horse from the back and I see why expat. children call the statue ‘big balls’.)

Relieved to have made it this far, I jab vigorously, straight ahead, to the Toyota dealer, where I need to be dropped off. Unfortunately, on my first trip I forgot that the dirt road I needed runs right past the Toyota showroom. and mistakenly remembered the road as being several blocks west. After thirty exhausted minutes wandering around, I asked in the Toyota show room if anyone spoke English. One of several young women, all tall, dark, and glamorous, phoned my hostess. When I got on the line to ask for directions, everyone hovered over me: “Does she speak English?” “Would you like us to translate from Georgian?” they ask.

Today, I force myself to get going, I have only few more days here after all, and I decide to visit the highly recommended Turkish Baths. Perhaps a good leisurely soak in the sulphur pools Tbilisi has been known for since antiquity will help dispel my sluggishness.

The entrance to the Orbeliani Baths looks like a mosque, a façade of Moorish arches in old blue tiles. I am ushered to the women’s side and, knowing no better, and unable to understand the notices or attendants’ questions, opt for the public bath. Once through the door I find myself in a very plain room— reminiscent of a run-down high-school, or Soviet-era hostel, changing room. I guess from the naked women wandering around that I’m supposed to get undressed, and one of the attendants mimes putting my belongings and towel in a cubicle. Then she takes me by the hand and leads me, naked, down the steps to the public ‘bath’, a large room completely lined with more old blue Moorish tiles with shafts of sunlight coming down through irregular geometrically shaped openings in the domed ceiling.

Apart from the dome and the tiles, it is nothing more than a shower room, without the showers; a row of open cubicles, each with a metal pipe gushing hot water. Naked middle-aged Georgian ladies (mostly very Breughelesque with rolls of flesh) wander around or stand in the cubicles, soaping themselves and washing their hair. Apparently this is what you do if you don’t have a bathroom at home. It’s all very like old etchings (Durer?), or illustrations of ‘women in the baths.’ Disappointed that there’s no pool, with a private bath I would have had a blue tiled pool to soak in, I console myself with the thought that then I would have missed the mediaeval bath-house scene.

To compensate, I decide on a massage. The attendant who had led me in, now naked herself except for bikini panties, , takes hold of me and lays me on my back. She pummels and pounds me, then turns me over and pummels again, then scours me with what feels like a pot-scourer.

The whole time, nearby, another masseuse works on a large woman with dyed grey hair who complains in a loud voice, rising and falling—on and on. The two masseuses respond now and then, exchanging knowing smiles with each other. Not knowing any Georgian I can only guess that the customer is complaining about her husband or daughter-in-law or the cost of heating fuel— or maybe her aches and pains. It’s amusing rather than annoying, perhaps because I don’t understand—the cadences are a background theme, or a non-conversation in an old ‘Monty Python’ show. My masseuse, meanwhile, lifts my arms and legs and moves me around like a rag doll, while chatting with the other masseuse and her customer. I feel relaxed and comfortable, but a bit like a small child. I dress and go off to find an outdoor café for an adult cup of coffee.

On the street, not knowing even a smattering of the language I feel helpless. I can find Gorgasalis Square on the map and can even ask for ‘Gorgasalis Moedani’ passably well, but with hardly any signs in English I cannot find it on foot. People I ask answer readily, and volubly, with many hand-gestures directing me this way and that, but none of it makes any sense to me. Either a ‘to the left’ gesture means more blocks than I imagine— or fewer; things that look a hundred yards apart on the map turn out to be almost touching.

I wander up and down steep cobbled streets uphill away from the river, then give up and wander back down again. If I visited Georgia again, I’d learn at least a smattering of the language, not an easy task. Georgian has no connection with, or similarity to, any other European language except for a few borrowed words. Written or printed Georgian looks like embroidery. Meanwhile, lost though I am, I wander happily along the Mtkvera River, which like the Thames or the Seine, flows calmly between stone embankments with tall trees. I drink delicious Turkish coffee at an outdoor table, and when I do find Gorgasalis Square there are Armenian and Eastern Orthodox churches, a synagogue and a mosque peacefully cohabiting almost next to each other. The churches and synagogue and Gorgasalis Square are all in one of the old parts of the city, where narrow cobblestoned streets, wind between houses with overhanging balconies, all wonderfully detailed, varied and textured.

The biggest church, Sioni Cathedral, long the seat of the Tbilisi diocese, overlooks the river but the entrance everyone is using is down wide steps in a sunken square behind the church, next to the Museum of Georgian History off a narrow cobbled street.. The museum, which I had wanted to visit, is closed, ‘every day’ according to the guard, so I follow everyone down the steps into the cathedral. Inside it is dark, lit by many candles and hanging lamps. The shadowed, rounded, arches soar above and become part of the domed ceiling and the flagstone floor is dotted with shrines to various Eastern Orthodox saints. Devout Georgians kiss the glass cases of the different Saints’ altars and genuflect repeatedly.

To one side is a sort of cloister, very plain, with deep arched windows high up in the 4-foot thick walls. The window embrasures are painted with mediaeval frescoes of saints and prophets, the paint faded and cracked but glowing in the sunny light. The guidebook dismisses Sioni Cathedral, originally built in the sixth century and rebuilt in the 13th century as a standard Georgian church of no particular interest. After all, in the old capital, Mtskheta (pronounced ‘Sketta’), the newer church was built in 600 AD, the older one in 300 or 400, depending on which guidebook is dating it.

Finally, tired but happy, I decide it’s time to leave, and go back to the taxi wars.

Returning from this second foray into the city, the driver veers off onto another road and becomes lost entirely. Luckily, after driving around and asking questions we end up at the school where my hosts teach, which makes for a longer, more tiring day than I had intended, and doesn’t help my incipient cold a bit.

There is another Tbilisi, that I haven’t yet explored, the more modern, European, town, with wide thoroughfares, elegant stores, and tall stone buildings. Rustaveli Qcha, (pronounced, and sometimes spelled ‘Kucha’) has imposing 19th century government buildings and elegant restaurants and hotels, on streets that could be in the ritzier parts of Paris or Rome, with ornate pediments and cornices and a general air of luxurious well-being. So far, I’ve only caught glimpses of this driving at night through the brilliantly lit up city; well-dressed people on the steps of the opera house, or, by day, a white stretch limo waiting for a wedding party posing for photos at the glass-covered bridge over the river.

I get a taste of this Tbilisi, doped up on cold meds, when I escort thirteen-year-old Ruby to the ballet at the Opera House. Ruby’s parents, my hosts, teach at one of the English-language International schools in Tbilisi, and have been given great seats by the parents of a student. They are embarrassed because this is the second time they will be unable to use them and ask if I will accompany Ruby—I’m doing them a favor!

Ruby and I, dressed in our best, stand out, palely, against a wall of fashionable, mostly black-clad, Tbilisians. They, in turn, stand out against the cream and gold columns and pale marble steps of the entrance foyer where we wait, sternly held back by women ushers holding velvet ropes.

The performance, by the Georgian State Ballet, is of “Laurentia”, a dramatic story of revenge against an evil prince and his henchmen who harass innocent village girls. The dancing is excellent, with a first-rate corps-de-ballet and satisfyingly muscular male dancers, all in the Russian tradition, but I wonder what the numerous small children in adjoining boxes make of the two rapes (one a case of ‘droit de seigneur) and one murder. One hopes they just enjoy the bride’s finery— at tutu-length oddly brief for a wedding dress— the red and purple costumes of the gipsy dancers, and the murderous sword play.

Dressed in velvet and lace, they lean, as we do, on the plush-covered railing of our first-balcony boxes. Looking up, fringed scallops of crimson velvet above us frame a view of horseshoe-shaped higher balconies rising up to the domed ceiling. The ceiling, is white and gold, garlanded with plaster putti playing various gilded musical instruments. Ruby points out that the curving lattice, a third of the way down from the crystal chandelier, is a trompe-l’oeil window with a painted blue sky and wispy clouds seen through the painted dividers. The whole opera house, newly refurbished, is gorgeous in czarist-Russian style but lighter, with less gilt and crystal than in St. Petersburg.

After the ballet, we walk along Rustaveli Avenue. Ruby, at thirteen, is slightly taller than me and almost all of her height is legs. She races ahead. I shout, “wait up Ruby, I can’t walk that fast.” She is nearly hidden by passers-by. At 10:00 on a Wednesday evening Rustaveli Avenue is crowded. They can’t all be ballet-goers, so casually dressed, although some of the male members of the audience had been in windcheaters and khakis despite the dressiness of the women. Having heard that Georgian men are traditionally very macho (as evidenced by their murderously competitive driving) I had wondered if there was a message there: I’m really too manly to go to ballets but my wife, you know. . .?

With its expensive clothing stores and boutiques, Rustaveli Avenue is comparable to London’s Bond Street or Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, but, if anything, even more elegant. Wide and straight, the center divider planted with small trees, shrubs and flowers, Rustaveli is bordered with spacious sidewalks, also planted with tall old trees. It’s no surprise to discover that it was laid out by the Russians in the 1800s as part of the plan to make Tbilisi a European style-capital of the newly named Province of Tbilisi, the old kingdom of Georgia recently absorbed into the Russian Empire. This was the second time Russia had engulfed Georgia. Georgia always resists, but you can’t blame Russia for wanting it.

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