Have you ever taken an extended trip by yourself? I do on a fairly regular basis for work. I find myself to be an utterly terrible traveling partner. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, though. I’m different when I’m with people. I like having a good time with people. It’s just that it’s not so easy to do that by yourself. Especially in another country. A far, far away country.
I woke up in Tbilisi today, already having planned out my day. I was going to complete the following:
1) Walk a good part of Tbilisi.
2) Have a big damn meal of Georgian food.
3) Buy a postcard for my girls.
4) Ride the gondola up to the top of the hill and take pictures.
5) Buy and consume plenty of Georgian wine.
Scanning the ring of grassy peaks around the town, churches catch the eye as well as the shining monuments left by the Saakashvili administration. The both loved and reviled wine bottles lying on the side of a hill. Actually, they are a concert hall and convention center under construction. With a new Prime Minister in power, some are calling for them to be torn down. I call them perfectly Georgian.
I paid my three Lari ($2) for a round trip ticket for the gondola that begins just next to the wine bottles and ends at a silver statue of a maiden clutching a bowl in one hand and a sword in the other. Her features are distinctly Georgian, in my view. The bowl is raised high while the sword rests just under her waist. Welcoming but intriguingly dangerous.
Back down at the bottom of the hill I walk through the old town of Tbilisi. Wooden houses perched next to the river. The thin wooden columns and picket-type fences that adorn the front seem strangely out of place in this rocky, sulfur aired capital city. As is, they represent the warm, soft underbelly of a city that has seen countless invasions, sackings and fights regularly to keep its borders intact with varying degrees of success. Out of place and at home in the same instant.
After looking in vain for the Saturday market that I was told way by the “dry bridge,” I decamp to a restaurant around 3:30 in the afternoon for some classic Georgian Food. Cozy and hungry in the brick interior, I order veal ribs that sound incredible on the menu. I neglected to ask the waiter if they were spicy. Would he even have understood?
I have a 6 hour ride to Yerevan tomorrow morning. The ribs arrive in a clay pot surrounded by the aroma of the sweetness of the meat and slightly suspended above a bubbling broth. “I should have asked if they were spicy,” I think as the twinge of spice from the aroma reaches my nasal passages. I dig in. One bite and I knew that this dish would not be dinner. As the meat pulled effortlessly away from the bone, the spice reached my tongue and my mental warning lights flashed. A 6 hour car ride, across a border, with a belly full of Texas-worthy, spicy ribs? Not this time. Maybe next.
I made a strategic retreat to a crispy, flaky plate of traditional khachapuri. Imagine cheesy bread mixed with saganaki and you have an appropriate approximation. Three pieces went down with some sort of local Georgian beer and I was off to the wine store to taste the fruits of the land. It wasn’t the food orgy I had hope for but caution seemed the order of the day considering the schedule for the next.
Wine aged in clay. That is a typical Georgian method for wine-making. I haven’t read up on it but I can only imagine that it is a process as old as the Caucuses themselves. The flavor is completely different than any wine I have tasted. They also have wines aged by “European methods” but I bought one of the classic wines for my cellar at home. I’ve never tasted anything like it and likely never will again.
I walked home with a nice buzz adding a cottony warmth to the cool December air. In front of the old Parliament building, workers were busy stacking the pieces of the Christmas trees that would soon adorn this meeting point of the city. The denizens of Tbilisi passed buy in a blur of black. Black shoes, black coats, black hair. I had taken note of this before setting out and was dressed in the same fashion. Granted, the graying of my brown hair may have been a tell-tale sign but the headphones in my ears kept all but the most tenacious of street hustlers from noticing me – and me them.
Now, back upstairs in the generic comfort of my hotel, I wish I could travel again out into the city. Out into the dark streets that I only casually strolled during the daytime. Into the bars and cafes that looked like they were furbished to match the beauty and mystery of this city. Just past Freedom Square. Where the lights glow a pale yellow and the stones of the sidewalks jut up at perilous angles.
This is a city worthy of a family visit. A long weekend to show my wife and kids that there are no strollers on the street. Here, mothers carry their children in their arms until they are old enough to walk. When they can walk they do so. A different currency and no spaghetti on the menu. A city under siege. A city pushing back with all of its might. And at the same time completely beckoning and welcoming. Completely different, completely foreign. Completely Tbilisi.