Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tbilisi, again

Here in Tbilisi, I’m staying at a nice little hotel called the Villa Mtiebi. It is tucked into a crumblingly charming neighborhood in Old Town, a short walk to great restaurants and shops and interesting sights.

Tbilisi is a complex city. Somehow, all eras of history seem to exist simultaneously here, shifting translucent time. One look out into the city from the hotel window can encompass 6th Century Persian and Christian ruins, 12th Century Byzantine ruins, 19th Century Georgian buildings, 20th Century Soviet ruins and buildings, and 21st Century Georgian construction. The food and wine traditions span time and culture, with a variety of flavors encountered probably nowhere else in the world. Beliefs and practices are a mélange of modern and traditional, international and parochial.

Many of the buildings here retain the scars of the destruction from earthquakes past. Scars is actually an understatement: many of the buildings are broken nearly in half, with one entire part of the building sitting on a perilous angle, or part of the roof fallen into the courtyard. You can actually see into some of the cracks. Formerly elegant townhomes lean against one another as they slowly collapse into history.

In addition to poverty, there are reasons why people, particularly in Old Town, don’t fix their homes. They don’t get government assistance to move unless their home collapses, so they just let the buildings crumble around them. The business people gentrifying and renewing this trendy area just wait. They can’t buy the people out, but when the buildings fall, they are there like vultures, maybe keeping the façade or old shape of the building, maybe demolishing it to build a concrete architectural nightmare. There are some parts of Old Town where the old buildings have been repaired and made into chic restaurants and shops.

The Game
On my first Saturday in Georgia on this trip, I accepted a friend’s invitation to meet for lunch and then head to the Georgia vs. Russia rugby game.

Six of us met for lunch at the World of Wine. This absolutely lovely wine shop/restaurant is worth of visit for the friendly service, good wine selection, and great food. However, it will be forever known among those of us who ate there that day as the House of Urine. Gross, but true. The reason for this is the sign outside. The “w” for wine looks more like a “ur”. The World of Wine is just off Rustaveli, the main drag in Tbilisi (the Lonely Planet guide for the region describes it as “the street you always find yourself walking on”, and they are right), on the street to the left of the Paliashvili Opera.

The rugby game was a real trip. Tickets were dirt cheap: only about $2.50 a piece. The huge arena was barely 1/3 of the way full, but I didn’t see a single Russian. Given the state of relations between Russia and Georgia right now, I’m not surprised. I even felt bad for the ref who had to make the occasional call in favor of the Russian team. The Georgians showed a lot of team spirit, but were surprisingly tame as far as fans go. The Georgian army provided security in the first row, but they were unarmed. The team was supported by a handful of “Castel girls”, apparently some sort of cheerleading squad sponsored by the beer company. They wore shiny pinkish-silver outfits that clearly showed their panty lines and stiletto boots. They didn’t do much cheering, but they did get on TV quite a bit.

It was a rout, and by the end of the game, we were all rooting loudly for Georgia. I’m not sure if it was the skill and brawn of the Georgian team, which ran roughshod over the Russians, leaving a trail of wounded in their path, or the banner of St. George, which a faithful fan held up over the crowd the entire time. Maybe it was the traditional polyphonic singing that followed “We Will Rock You” from the stands. Whatever it was, the Georgians emerged victorious, and we emerged at the German pub Kaiserbrau.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Flying to Georgia (the country)

This trip began with a very long series of flights: DC to London, London to Munich, Munich to Tbilisi. There were no serious problems on any of the flights, but so many layovers and such long flights is exhausting. I’m sure that this isn’t the first time I’ve griped about Heathrow Airport, and I’m equally sure that there are many who would point out its finer features, but I really don’t like it. It is a huge shopping mall full of bad pop music and jangling food noises. The gates are absolutely secondary to the place, so much so that you could easily miss them amid the noisy advertisements and myriad duty free and cashmere and luggage and food shops.

My biggest pet peeve about Heathrow is that they don’t post the gate for the flights until the last minute, just before it boards. So everyone waits, glancing periodically at the monitors, until suddenly there it is. If you watch consistently, it doesn’t appear, much like the proverbial watched pot. So the monitor secretly announced “Gate 42”, all the way through the gauntlet of shops and down this corridor or that one, a five minute walk, we are notified by the sign on the wall, but it seems like a race against the clock, which it can be if you don’t look at the monitor at just the right time. “Boarding” it reads.

To eat or not to eat? Who knows what the mysterious “snack” on the plane will be, or if the “dinner” will be edible. Eating at the airport passes the time on a layover, but in Heathrow, that requires that you leave the precious monitors.

Anyway. I arrived, short one bag but safely nonetheless. The food was terrible and the child in front of me was noisy, but I arrived.