It was the airport doormat that relayed this to me, as, exhausted and elated, I hauled my summer possessions across the threshold from airport to city. The doors parted and I looked down and saw “Tbilisi: The City that Loves You” and felt relieved, excited, and quite amused. Afterall, whether or not I love Tbilisi is now less important, what with it already loving me (just the way I am?).
I had just spend the past thirty odd hours in transit, from an off license cab in Harlem, to the crowded clockwork of NJ transit, and then two international flights sandwiching an endless layover in Warsaw. As my flight was landing at 3:50 am, I’d told my new roommate to expect me around 6am, having made my airport calculations based on NY rather than the ancient capital of the Caucasus, i.e. flight delays, endless passport control lines, crowded slow motion baggage terminals, long jaunt into the city center (all that in reference to the former). He’d told me to more realistically expect to be at the apartment by 4:40, and sure enough, we were shaking hands 100 meters from the apartment in from of a statue of Rustaveli by 4:30. No complaints, either, I just has assumed that customs meant more than simply walking out of the baggage terminal and couldn’t believe my luggage had been waiting for me by the time I got there. All together a pleasant surprise. Not to mention that my cab driver showed just the friendliness I’d been told to expect of Georgians. As Russian pop music played (chorus line about a broken heart in the hands of a Georgian beauty), he asked me about myself and why Tbilisi. Once he heard that I was going to study Georgian, he switched into Georgian and we made introductions. After successfully greeting each other and exclaiming we were “pleased to meet,” he switched back into Russian and said with full confidence, “Don’t worry, you’ll meet a Georgian man, he’ll marry you, you’ll buy an apartment here and have children and never ever leave Georgia.” My cheerful, “well, we’ll see….” was rebuffed with, “No, don’t worry,” as if our entire conversation up to this point was merely some veiled cry for marriage on my part. Friendly; into marraige. Stereotypes, check, check.
Arriving at 4:30am in a strange city (now on day three of travel) is a strange way to go about things, especially for myself, since I’ve only done long term language programs under the panopticon of some Soviet university authority. (I know the Soviet Union ended. That doesn’t not change the academic culture.) My previous stays in St. Petersburg and Moscow had been micromanaged from arrival to departure, so just showing up and having no real commitments at 4:30 am was absolutely liberating. So when I woke around 2:30pm that same afternoon, I decided to walk around the city. Of course, when I say I have no real commitments, that’s not exactly true. This whole adventure is being funded by a government grant that requires that I have a certain number of hours of coursework, presumably from a particular institution. Said instituition had not yet replied to any of my requests for instruction, and I felt no real need to rope myself into my formal education on my first day. So I set out to walk around the city.
I actually live on one of the major thoroughfares of the city, which is great, because from most of the major landmarks on my side of the river (the river Mtkvari runs through Tbilisi) I can easily find my way back home. At least so far. I set out eastwards, towards Independence Square (Tavisupalis Moedani) and then wandered the back streets before somehow popping out by the river and heading for the brand new pedestrian bridge that crosses the Mtkvari.
Needless to say, it is not exactly consistent with the architecture of the city. However, when I went on a walk the next day and availed myself of the underground passway below one of the regular beautomobiled roads, I realized that crossing the Mtkvari in a well lit, non-urinated environment is vastly more enjoyable that utilitzing the more classical feats of civic engineering. Plus, at the opposing end of the pedestrian bridge is a semi-completed park, with fountains, modernist seating, blossoming flowers and vendors selling balloons and temporary tattoos (only option: butterflies).
It was around this pedestrian bridge that I made my first Georgian friend, as some guy tried to chat me up but then realized that he was not going to get very far in his mountainous language of polysynthetic crazy. (The mountainous language of polysynthetic crazy–yes, that’s Georgian. I’m pretty sure that’s actually exactly what linguists call it. And don’t tell me I should be better at small talk in Georgian. That’s why I’m here, because I am more of a reader than a talker, although, mind you, only really when it comes to Georgian.)
Anyway, I’d confused my new friend by both telling him that I didn’t know Georgian (way easier than explaining that I’ve studied it but only haltingly speak it and am hopeless under the influence of jetlag) and that I had only arrived yesterday, in order to learn Georgian. He was like, “You arrived yesterday, and you already speak this much Georgian?” And I, then confused because I had said I arrived yesterday, but then in my head I realized I’d actually arrived at 4am this morning, was like, “ara, ara, ara” (no no no!). I was not trying to debate my grasp of the world’s most basic Georgian. Rather, I had just realized that simply because you fall asleep for the better part of the day, the afternoon still isn’t a new calendar day. “I arrived today. Not yesterday, today.” He looked so befuddled that I momentarily second-guessed how you say “yesterday” (gushin) and said “tomorrow” (khval) instead. Which didn’t help. He was like “Tomorrow?” And I tried to recant–Oh no, friendly Georgian, I’m not a time traveler of American colonialization! I just got flustered because I’d been happily daydreaming in English! I have arrived neither yesterday nor tomorrow! Of course, I just said, “no, no, no, today.” I wanted to add that “I am certain of this!”, but then I couldn’t even remember how to say that. He still looked confused and asked me something I didn’t understand. Which could have literally been anything other than, “How are you?” at that point.
Summary: Over the course of my longest ever conversation with someone who speaks Georgian but not English, we had established that I was from America, lived in New York, did not speak Georgian, and had arrived sometime within a three day time frame of the present moment. I caved in and asked in Georgian, “Do you speak Russian?” “Of course,” he replied in Russian. Elated, I then explained that I had definitely arrived today, for a two month stay, and dammit, I would be learning Georgian soon. We actually ended up talking for the better part of the afternoon, but mind you, it was all vanity. I just wanted to establish that I really had not arrived tomorrow.
So for the record, I normally don’t actually indulge strange men in long conversations, I mean, unless I’m at a party or something (Sam-that’s how we met), but I had time to kill and I also wasn’t really sure how to shake this guy. I mean, I literally had NOWHERE to be, and assumed I could subtly mention the BF at some point and then he’d just bounce on his own. Not to sounds narcissistic either, but if some guy tries to pick you up out in public in the middle of the day, one assumes that its not because he wants to talk politics.
So we chatted and overall, I don’t know if he’s representative of the type of dude who chats up a lady on the streets of Tbilisi, but if so, Georgia probably has even more character than I thought. First the guy insists I read Limonov, a Russian-French intellectual and dissident writer, with whom I was familiar but who I’d never read. “I’ll give you my copy!” He insists, “it will make you rethink the Yugoslavia war.” ! Ends up he’s also a huge fan of Hemingway and seemed to be truly disappointed in that I only vaguely remembered Green Hills of Africa, which I’m pretty sure I read in high school…More bizarrely, we had both finished reading “Ali and Nino” this past week (I’ll be posting on that later!), which is a love story written in the 1930’s about a romance between a Georgian (Christian) woman and an Azeri (Muslim) man during the Bolshevik revolution. My friend proudly told me that he has an Azeri friend himself, a Muslim, as would be expected, and that he’s known many cunning Armenians, just like in the book. The only Armenians I ever knew went to my bougie liberal arts college and had never really struck me as all that sly, but then maybe I just didn’t know to look out for it then.
At some point, after I’ve established that I’m not looking for a man and that I even have one, he looks at me very seriously, and says, “You should think about leaving your boyfriend (paren) for a Georgian man. He would marry you. What do you think? Would you like to do that?” Holla, I’m in the country twelve hours, only awake for about three and the taxi cab drivers’ premonitions are true. Except that I don’t say yes. I do tell him I’ll email him though, because he was so sweet, and seemed desparate to talk about literature with someone. He told me that most girls don’t read and that only 17% of Georgians care about books. I have no idea where he came up with that number, but you just can’t point-blank shoot down a man who loves literature (at least not according to my own personal manual for how to navigate awkward international conversations).
Finally, as we were parting ways, he apologized for disturbing my whole evening. I counter-apologized, insisting he’d probably had somewhere to go (politely ignoring that he started this whole thing). He was like, “Well, yes, but its embarrassing…” And then proceeded to tell me he had been on his way to court for getting into a bar fight. He got a bit impassioned retelling the story, constantly switching into Georgian and then half translating back into Russian. Insisting that he is not a violent person, simply a man of honor who responds to an offense (men-all the same), all I could gather was that there was a nightclub and some jerk, who he called a “something something pioneer” (an upstanding communist scout under socialism) and hadn’t thought that that would elicit a punch. Which it did. And then somehow there were cops, gunshots (from cops). He’d run screaming “Help me!!” to an old man across with way with a car, but this particular old man was a Russian and didn’t know what was being shouted at him. The assumption seemed to be that had it been a Georgian, they would have dropped their evening plans to make a getaway. As this was not the case, an arrest ensued (“Most people sleeping in prisons are just normal people, I know that now!”), and finally a hearing (or something) which he’d just missed. We both shrugged, and in total honesty (from close, but not personal experience–you know who you are), I concluded, “it happens.” And I wished him good luck. I don’t think I’ll run away to Svaneti with him, but I’m glad he didn’t get shot.