Georgia part 1. Some introductions and some eating
Immediately, Georgia was different. Last Fall, this country just barely registered on my awareness, due to the opening track of The Beatles White Album. Then in November, a non-violent Rose Revolution blew Georgia briefly into the world spotlight and thousands of Georgians onto the streets of Tbilisi. Anna wanted to work there this summer, so I planned a short visit. No one had heard of it, they wondered what we’d do in Atlanta (if only! I’d visit eats). Even a friend from Turkey (which borders Georgia) couldn’t place it. So we started researching. Georgian is one of 14 world alphabets. The second Christian country (after Armenia). On the ancient Silk Road. Stalin was from Georgia. They were well known for drinking heavily throughout the Soviet Union (think about that). They make long toasts. Their problems with electricity spawned a documentary. There are plans to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian to Black Sea, basically slicing Georgia in two.
Obtaining the visa request form was a byzantine introduction. The form is available from the London Embassy website, behind a login/password. To obtain the codes, I had to phone a number with a 70p/min surcharge and listen to a two minute recorded message til the very end, when the code was read off quickly. I was informed that the code was only valid until midnight, when it changed. My pulse quickened. Someone on the embassy staff seemed to long for the intrigues of the Cold War. Perhaps these codes were leftover from the Soviets, and they were putting years worth of extra codes to good use. It’s hard to see how the 1.40 per call could compensate for the pain and expense of changing the message and codes each day. A head slapping, beautiful combination of beauracracy and scam.
Tbilisi itself is not great on first impressions. My flight (as most flights) arrived in the dead of night, to a huge queue at immigration (Anna had suggested I run from the plane). Baggage was rotated out on the carousel, then stopped. Someone came around and took all the luggage off, onto the floor. The process was repeated several times. Outside, I met Anna and our driver, and we chugged off onto wide, desolate, crumbling Soviet highway. Rotting monuments and hundreds of small kiosks, remnants of Georgia’s thriving Communist era black markets and all selling a slightly different combination of soda and cigarettes. By endless towers of apartments through empty inner city streets, we came to Anna’s apartment in the “swanky” part of town. The streets broken or completely unpaved, piles of trash and wild dogs roaming, a loose donkey and crowing roosters. Yet inside, it was a comfortable place.
One of the first things to do was eat. This was tremendously fortunate. Georgian food is really distinct and delicious, plentiful and cheap, and all the ingredients incredibly fresh. It’s not often you get to try an entirely new cuisine. Grilled pork and chicken, plum sauces and tomato sauces with cilantro, eggplants with walnuts, fried cheese, the sweetest cucumber and tomato salad. Semi-sweet cold red wine. Breads, they are masters of breads, with several regional varieties, soft and chewy golden, and one corn bread that retained heat like a stone from the fire. In the morning, loaves are distributed ad-hoc — we saw a car trunk filled with bread and more piled into the back seat. The bountiful agriculture of Georgia was evident at the bazari, centrally housed in a huge concrete block. Vistas of repeated produce of pears, peaches, raspberries ($1 per kilo!). Incredibly delicious and fresh. The meats however are kept out in the open, which explains are multiple epic battles with stomach illness. Still, the Greens Movement of Georgia (where Anna is working) initiated the vast improvement of keeping chickens and pork on tables, rather than lying on the floor of the bazari.
more to come this week…