When I look back on what I saw and learned in Georgia what stands out above all are the people I met. Now in a way I can say that about wherever I go. But somehow it’s not quite the same. When I first visited Paris I can safely say the people did not glue themselves to my memory in the same way. Nor in London, nor Prague, certainly not Zurich. Even on my first visit to Alaska, a very friendly place filled with memorable folks, I recall only a couple of faces after three weeks. Yes I met people in all of those places, some must have impressed me in some way. But with Tbilisi, Georgia, it’s 3D technicolor when it comes to the faces and personalities I remember. Yes I came to meet musicians, dancers, puppeteers, photographers, filmmakers. But I’ve met many creative types before and in many cities. It took years to build up relationships in Prague. Likewise Paris. And after many visits, except for a couple of puppet filmmakers, London remains a closed book.
Now that might lead the North American observer to assume that Georgians are friendly the way Americans are friendly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Often with Americans greetings are big toothy smiles, people act interested in you, you’re already famous friends from the first moment you are introduced. Only later you discover that a good deal of this ritual was done for show, the teeth are masks, the interest possibly feigned, the introductions perfunctory. Once the day is over there’s a very good chance you will never talk with these people again. Obviously this is a generalization. But it’s a generalization Europeans see all of the time. Americans are great at introductions; not so good at follow up.
Georgians value friendship as a serious part of their culture. Their great epic poem by Shota Rustaveli, The Knight in Panther’s Skin , is a tribute to friendship. And they value it in a way we (Americans and Europeans) could learn from. Yet when you walk around people aren’t immediately warm. One could wonder where is that much vaunted Georgian hospitality. Well it is there. But it is not spectacular in the way Americans demonstrate, our manners being intimately related to our pop culture. And yet I found things that I would rarely find in my own country. I entered a tourism office at Liberty Square. Until this moment most Georgians I had passed have minded their own business. I ask where the nearest bank is. I’m desperately in need of finding a bank machine to withdraw my first infusion of Georgian laris. I ask a couple of rather attractive young women at a counter. They suddenly brighten, like someone had just turned on a 200 watt bulb and are glad to give me information. I turn to leave. Now in America in such a situation what would happen at this moment is this, an older man leaves a couple of younger women, they might say goodbye, or just get back to work. I get to the door and they call out to me, forcing me to turn back around and they ask “Where are you from?” And we have a little conversation. And they are genuine towards me, never American-girl-suspicious.
And this brings me to another observation about women, unless you live in very small town America, you don’t stare or smile at unknown men. Many were the times I found myself being directly apprised by Georgian girls, women, who obviously recognized my deep level foreignness. But this was not the scrutiny of a suspicious other. There was no wariness in their gaze. Nor naïveté. Rather just natural curiosity. And when my eyes met theirs, rather than the usual game of turning away, I was often treated to warm smile. And this something I’ve never met in any other large city or suburban situation. It wasn’t a come on. It was simply natural warmth. And I thought how sad by comparison was all of the wary behavior I’d encountered in my life among girls who had to protect themselves from uninvited advances. This is how it should be.
And that was another thing. Tbilisi was a city that had many dark, lightless, corners. In big cities darkness tends to attract predators. But here I’d walk through the streets late, through dark streets, and at some point I realized that I didn’t feel that sense of hyper-vigilance that often accompanies such a scene.
But again rather than the general mood of the city it was the people that really stayed with me. I had contacted film director Tinatin Gurchiani, after having seen her documentary, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear. And had only had a couple of brief email exchanges with her. I let her know that I was coming and that I would like to meet her. I also mentioned that I was working on my puppet documentary Gravity From Above as well as starting to poke around to make connections for a future documentary about Georgian music and dance. She then asks what she can do to help. I arrive and after a few days we meet. She arrives to greet me carrying a basket, like luggage, holding her newborn baby daughter. She starts trying to figure out how to help me and introduce me to people. Before I leave Georgia she’ll apologize for all of the people I did NOT have a chance to talk to. There was a death in her family midway through my three weeks in Georgia. She obviously had to bow out our next meeting. But we did have breakfast together again before I leave.
At that first meeting though she talks to meet in extremely calm measured tones, which I discover many Georgian women do. Confident tones. Besides puppeteers, with whom she arranges a meeting, and musicians, likewise setting up a meeting, she asks who else I wish to meet. I mention that I really want to talk to Nina Ananiashvili, the most famous ballerina in the country. I ask if she knows her. No, she replies. So I put it out of my mind. She drives me over to set up a meeting with Budrugana Gagra, the hand shadow puppet theatre run by Gela Kandelaki. Then as we leave there she turns a corner at the rear entrance of the ballet and opera house. She parks her car on the sidewalk, typically Georgian style, then walks up to the security guard, tells me she’ll be right back, returns in five minutes and says, “There will be a press conference for the Firebird tomorrow afternoon at 2:30. Enter at the front.” Tinatin hands me a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it. “Ask for Tamar and she will let you into the press conference. You might be able to talk to Nina Ananiashvili then. After that you can watch the dress rehearsal and take photos.” Incredible. Tinatin actually hardly knows me. Yet she’s opening doors for me. Interested in my success. Glad to be of assistance.
Then I do meet the great ballerina. And I have a wonderful conversation with her alone in her darkening tenth floor office in the early evening. I arrived in the country an absolute stranger a week earlier now I’m having a warm human conversation with Prima Ballerina Assoluta Nina Ananiashvili, one of the most respected people in her country. And she is the first to ask if I had been to a supra meal yet. And she would have invited me over if they had not been leaving the next day to tour the Firebird in Italy and Spain. And she makes it clear that if I was still there when they returned I’d have an invite to a supra as soon as possible. I said it would have to wait until I returned. No problem, she enthused. Absolutely astounding! I will return!
Things like that kept happening. There was a line somewhere. The second I ceased being a tourist, another individual wandering the streets, I was suddenly welcomed in to another world. And seriously too. Not simply as a stranger, but as someone whom it was hoped would not remain a stranger.
Another good case in point, Mariam Elieshvili, Mariam was a young folk and pop singer and national television personality. She answers my Facebook request to meet her. Now she has thousands of Facebook ‘friends’. But she takes me on as a cause. And so I met her three times in three weeks. And each time is was as if someone had switched on the lights. And she was always accompanied by her mother Ia. (That’s a name pronounced Ee-ya.) And after a while it was just natural to be a small part of Mariam’s musical world. She introduced me to the guys of Chveneburebi. Quiet introductions yet I could feel a genuine interest in what kind of person I was.
Shako, the son of Tamar, the woman who rented my guest room to me. Was likewise generally low-key yet I felt he had is hands in many interesting pies. And the longer I stayed at Tamar’s Guesthouse, the more friendly he became. We had many little discussions about music and culture. And he recommended more to me than I had time to pursue. He even purposely returned home at three in morning to see me off.
And there were so many others. Sometimes just seemingly random people. I passed this youngish street woman begging. After a few days of passing her near Marjanishvili Square I threw some coins into her bowl. As I continued walking I heard a young voice behind me. “That was nice of you mister.” I turned and saw a boy about 13 years old. “Oh.” I said. “I just felt I needed to do that.” “You must be a good man.” And I’m wondering if he talks to strangers often. He says he saw me at the folk music school the day before. I told him I was going there now. So was he. We walked along together. He hands me a small fruit about the size of a walnut. I’d just seen them go on sale on the streets. I put it in my mouth. It’s sour, yet quite tasty.
By the time I see Tinatin again we’ve become old friends. I go back to say farewell to Gela Kandelaki, the puppeteer is most likely in his 70s. He tells me that in Georgia they believe in real friendship. I do too. He gives me an example. He pulls out a set of keys. They belong to a friend of some sixty years. If he wants to he can go there anytime, sleep there instead of going home, cook, make himself at home. And he’s been doing that for those sixty years. I had to admit it. That pretty much wiped the floor of any thought I had of thinking I knew what deep friendship really was. But I was already finding an entrance into his world. He would put his hands on my shoulders at times in a symbol of trust. As I was about to depart Gela grasped me firmly by the hand and he spoke something poetic in Georgian. I turned to one of the Elenes, she translated. It was an old Georgian blessing. And that was a perfect benediction to a culture that taught me things I didn’t even know were possible. (For a full account of the trip start here.)
My journey Georgia was a cornucopia of memorable faces and names. There was Aneta, and seven year old Mariam; photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote; the three Elenes at Budrugana Gagra, plus Sophie, and Ketivan; Nino Namitcheishvili, the puppeteer; Giorgi Ushikishvili the folk music authority, singer and teacher; and finally Nino Sukhishvili, the director of the Sukhishvili dance company. I have not done justice to all of these encounters. It’s been nearly a year since I met this fragrant assortment of souls but they all stay with me. And that is why I have to get back to Georgia as soon as possible.
For more of my writing on Georgia click on the large fonts below.
For my first essay series on Georgia before going there.
Then for my extensive 2016 tour journal start here.
And then for the beginning of the Georgian Lessons.