Isi Brisi, Tbilisi, or, Thanks seems to be the hardest word

First things first: I’ve run into all kinds of time-consuming headaches trying to upload my photos on the blog. Also, Heather’s pictures are far better than mine, and she takes far more of them than I do, so if you’d like to see as well as read about what we’re seeing, check out her Instagram feed.

If, as Ortega y Gasset wrote, “a translation is not the work itself, but a path towards the work,” then the transliteration of the Armenian for “thank you” is not the word itself, only a path toward the word, which is usually rendered shnorhakalutyun. You can use phonetics to sound that out, and after a handful of tries get close enough that an Armenian will correctly understand you rather than reply gesundheit, but you won’t quite have said thank you. That may be partly because the Armenian alphabet contains thirty-nine characters. There are a lot more sounds they can make with their mouths than we can with ours, and a handful of them seem to be required in saying shnorhakalutyun, because when we say it, we don’t sound like them when they say it.

We told our driver of our labors to say “thank you” in Armenian, and he was quick to reply: “It’s hard for us, too!” In fact, it’s so hard that Armenians will frequently say “merci” instead. Meanwhile, everybody twists their tongues around the native word, natives included.

I’ve often gone around thinking English is a difficult language: vexing inconsistencies in the grammatical rules; usage funhouses like there/their/they’re and its/it’s (which are actually really easy); silent e’s and all those other trickster letters and clusters of letters whose pronunciations are often only guessable from without; and by conventional measures the largest vocabulary among all languages—an abundance and variety that make English a wonderful language for writers, of course, but I wouldn’t want to try to learn it.

Except that it must not be that hard to learn, at least not the basics; otherwise, it wouldn’t be the international language. (I have no educated objection to the argument that it’s actually the international language of capital, not convenience, and that its spread owes to colonization, homogenization, etc.; but it would weary me to sit through this argument expounded on at length, as it will likely weary you to read all 4,000+ words of this post.) During our travels, Heather and I were told—by someone, I no longer remember whom; or maybe it was my Korean hiking pal, Lee—that English is actually comparatively easy. Nouns and verbs, we were reminded, are stable, and if you have the ones you need in your corral, you can pretty much get across what you mean in at least some rudimentary way. And for all that some elements of English can be slippery, it doesn’t generally, for example, change a word depending on its context or on who’s saying it, as other languages do; nor do we cram words and senses together to make more, really big words like shnorhakalutyun, thankyouverymuch. Despite its big vocabulary, English tends toward simplification. “They are” shrinks to “they’re,” that sort of thing.

Which takes me back to “thank you,” or even just “thanks.” The languages Americans tend to learn are like ours in at least one way: they have simple, easy ways to express gratitude. Merci, gracias, danke; the Chinese xièxiè is a little harder (beware tonal languages!) but still just two syllables. Get out into the rest of the world, though, or at least the parts of it I’ve visited, and five syllables are not uncommon. I’ve been to Indonesia three times: they say terimah kasih. Albanian: faleminderit. Georgia (madeloba), Greece (efcharisto), and Laos (khop tchaï laï laï) get it down to four, although it can be hard to guess where the emphasis goes, or exactly what to do with the umlauts. (Turkish requires six syllables, plus two diacriticals: teşekkür ederim, although the shorter sağol, which obtains in Azerbaijan, as well, also means thank you—but it’s deceptively hard to say properly: that ğ?)

Are we to read anything into the above? What does it mean where it’s hard to say thank you? I’m skeptical (but then, I’m Generation X: born skeptical), so I’ll consider the question by way of skeptical Nabokov, in Ada, whose hero, Van, has honed the skill of walking on his hands, which begets his “inability in later years to shrug his shoulders. Question for study and discussion: […] Was Van’s adult incapacity to ‘shrug’ things off only physical or did it ‘correspond’ to some archetypal character of his ‘soul’?” A perhaps more resonant line from Ada, which also has some relevance to this post (further down), and which is seldom very far from my thoughts, is: “You lose your immortality when you lose your memory.”

Here we are in the Caucasus, a place that may be as complicated to puzzle out as “thank you.” What exactly is the connection between the mountain range and the region? Is the region part of Europe or Asia or both or neither? Does it comprise Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia? How much of Russia should be included, eastern Turkey, northern Iran? To what degree is it convolved, immixed, with the Middle East? What exactly is the etymology of “Caucasus,” and why is “Caucasian” synonymous in English with “white person”?

And what about the Caucasus’s ties to the ancient world, which are profound but considerably less hallowed than those of, say, Israel and Athens? After the flood, Noah’s ark made landfall on Mt. Ararat (some Armenians believe it’s still up there), and you can see the mountain looming over Yerevan, the Armenian capital, although the peak is officially just over the border in Turkey, which annexed the territory. (An apparently restricted military road, its bright chain of lights visible from dozens of miles away at night, runs below Ararat and up the slope of the next mountain over.) Prometheus’s Cave is allegedly in Western Georgia.

Our Armenian driver said: “Every stone have a story.”

I knew I would like Georgia the minute Heather and I walked into our rental apartment in Sighnaghi, on our first day in the country. The place was by no means luxurious, far from it, but its furnishings included an old barrister bookcase and an upright piano. The piano was out of tune, unplayable, and the bookcase was full of volumes in Georgian that we couldn’t read (and it was locked in any case), but here was a place where high culture mattered, just as the abundance of grapevines signaled that viticulture mattered, and ancient viticulture at that. You go around Tbilisi and Yerevan, the respective capitals of Georgia and Armenia, and the monuments and statues seem to be mostly of writers, composers, and artists. The very scripts of these two languages, especially looping Georgian, are beautiful, and I couldn’t resist thinking that any language that looks as lovely as these must also naturally express shapely thoughts.

Our first order of business on arriving in Tbilisi was to go to the theater. We saw a dance-theater rendering (no words; good for English speakers) of Faust. After our trip up to Mt. Kazbegi, we returned to Tbilisi—which is pretty much the only place you can go, owing to the lateral impassability of the mountain ranges—and went to the stately opera house for Abesalom and Eteri, an excellent work by a Georgian composer based on folk myths—and quite famous here—in which the villain sells his soul for the favor of the heroine. Both of these productions seem to have run during our visit just so I could say, twice, The Devil Went Down to Georgia.

Tbilisi has a half-modern, half-antique feel that is the perfect physical setting for the character of the city. There’s a surprisingly good, fast (and really cheap) metro, but the local buses are mostly cram-full dilapidated minis that would be cited for safety and environmental violations on sight by traffic police in other countries. There are dressed-to-kill kids and visiting Russian dolls, jostling with old folks in babushkas. You cross the street anywhere and maybe traffic will let you sneak through. There are malls, always malls, outside which vendors peddling everything from old books to new nuts spread out their wares on the big planters; as you pass by them an old man will approach and try to sell you a single, just-picked peach, which is the only object he possesses. Anywhere tourists go, there are touts there to leap out at us with tour brochures and restaurant menus, as though the goal is to startle rather than entice us into saying yes. Tbilisi also has a lot of beggars, mostly on the stairs to the pedestrian walkways under the boulevards; those underpasses are also retail zones—I got good Georgian-grown bilberry tea down there (and, elsewhere, real tea, almost the rival of the serious Chinese stuff, produced by a bookish man who has plantations out in western Georgia.)

The city’s southern boundary is a steep mountain ridge, well-wound with pleasant and often pleasingly strenuous walking paths. Atop it are monuments and attractions, including a newish twenty-meter statue of “The Mother of Georgia” (wine in one hand, sword in the other); an amusement park complete with massive Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, and including a fake ruined fortress; and a real ruined fortress to and from which you can take an airborne cable car over Tbilisi’s river. It drops you off near a super-modern building that perhaps Zaha Hadid herself wouldn’t sniff at. Around it is a spacious park liberally marked by odd, half-built or perhaps abandoned structures—pavilions, kiosks, etc.—whose purpose is now or always was mysterious.

There are Orthodox churches where tourists mingle with believers, and priests anoint either almost indiscriminately as long as they’re standing within arm’s reach. There is an immense amount of traditional Georgian food and drink (especially the wine, a dizzying number of places to buy it), and there are also newish places reinventing that traditional food and drink: I had a glass of Georgian “gin” that tasted nothing like gin and suspiciously like the raki-like hooch the Georgians make and call chacha (all over the world, this stuff exists in various iterations). Down by the river, there is a sprawling market which seems to emerge out of holes in the banks, full of rank ratty oldsters selling everything from tacky souvenirs to obscure hardware to pop LPs to Soviet memorabilia—the latter is a hot item right now, and we stumbled on a hip new boutique dealing in midcentury eastern bloc furniture, light fixtures, telephones, etc.: they’ve got all you need to give your apartment that vintage Gagarin-Khrushchev flair. Tbilisi is also hot with flashy “concept stores,” where you can buy inventive, whimsical, and sometimes marvelous fashion, usually made right there on site, the brainchild of a wave of Georgian designers, plus trendy art and music, and so on.

There is enthusiastic protesting in front of the parliament building every single night: music, readings, demands for the Interior Minister’s resignation (sample banner: Russia Is an Occupier); vendors of all manner of stuff come and set up on the fringes (I bought a vintage teapot from one of them for $3.50). The demonstrations are mostly high-spirited yet nonviolent, although one night’s actions, not long before we arrived, sent more than two hundred people to the hospital. Georgia is a fairly peaceable country, all things considered, but you do have to be watchful.

There are lots of old, half-decaying buildings, sort of New Orleanian in places, or perhaps more accurately Savannahian. Grapevines drape like moss over the gallery railings. The architecture makes for atmospheric walks around Old Tbilisi, and that atmosphere is redolent of the smell of fresh-baked bread, which is cranked out of tone ovens (basically tandoors) and which I buy, compulsively, almost every time I pass one of these little holes in the wall or ground (usually around $0.35/loaf). The best lobiani (fenugreek-scented mushy beans inside crispy bread: delicious) can be found in a place everyone seems to know about—I get the sense it’s actually kind of famous locally—but is underground and has no sign. Heather discovered it by searching online and utilizing a resource we have come to call, fondly, “Some Girl’s Blog.” This is our way of referring to the copious travel blogs, mostly maintained by Millennial and Gen-Z females, that take us virtually in and around almost anywhere we go or are thinking of going. Some Girl’s Blog is a great resource, as long as you take all the exclamation points more as wingdings than as emphases.

On the bluff right above our AirBnB rental is an eye-grabbing piece of contemporary architecture I have to take some time to tell you about, because it nearly grabbed more than our eyes.

Not long ago, around the vespers hour, we went for a walk that took us up the mountain behind Tbilisi. We ended up in the city’s surprisingly expansive botanical gardens, which are back behind the hilltop fortress, spreading down into the succeeding valley and then up to the next ridge. Out of curiosity, we followed our map app (mapp from here on out) to a monument intriguingly called “Owl,” which turned out to be a tiny little sculpture of no special interest—we are constantly amazed at what does and doesn’t make it onto the mapp. Then we continued up to a site called, literally, “Beautiful Place,” which in fact it most definitely was, and Tbilisians know it: although this sylvan spot, with its lovely little plots of freshly planted flowers amid alleys of cypress trees, is high up on the far side of the gardens and seems like an obscure find, when we got there at dusk Beautiful Place was amply attended.

With night coming on, we followed the mapp to an egress at the other end of the botanical gardens that would deposit us very near where we’re staying. The path took us up behind a truly weird and really enormous building that sits halfway up the incline behind our neighborhood—practically right above our apartment. On previous strolls around Tbilisi, we had already taken note of this super-modern, fortress-like, glassy structure, which is obviously very new and which I surmised might be some sort of convention center or other mecca for rich businessmen. Heather found it more ominous, something where power was at work, looming and impenetrable. Both of us turned out to be at least partially right.

As we neared the final turn, a few hundred meters from where the park ends and the streets begin (it’s really fun, once you’re out of America, to be able to express distance in terms of “meters”!), we heard a voice calling from behind. We turned around and there was a man up there, waving us back in the direction we’d come from. He was in a t-shirt and jeans. When you’re in another part of the world, you don’t know who’s legit and who isn’t, and that especially includes you. So we turned around and walked back up, and the guy told us we couldn’t go out that way. “Closed,” he explained. Closed? But there was a street down there. Our apartment, too—we showed him its very nearby location on our mapp so he wouldn’t think we were deliberately trying to trespass (and also to let him know we were just gentle clueless hippies, i.e. tourists).

“Closed,” he said again.

He was in no way menacing about this, and he did not appear to have a weapon; if he did, he wasn’t using it to scare us. But something about this uniformless guy’s very mildness, his affectless half-concern yoked to his laconic stubbornness, made it clear that something not at all mild awaited us if we disobeyed him. You got the sense that there were a hundred guys like him, concealed in the garden and woods all around us, and he knew they would perform their job if we didn’t abide by the parameters (and perimeters) of his. Bite worse than bark.

Even though he didn’t say as much, or in fact much of anything at all, it was clear that the road wasn’t “closed”—or if it was, that its closure had nothing to do with the road itself. What he was keeping us from getting near was that big glass building beside which the road descended. I asked him what that big glass building was.

“Business center,” he said.

And why, again, can’t we go by way of this business center? I asked him.

“Closed,” he said again.

As in, discussion closed. Case closed.

The long and short of it—actually, just the long—was that we had to walk all the way back across the botanical gardens, all the way back up the hill, then down into the ravine, then back up the hill again to the Mother of Georgia, more or less where we’d entered the park in the first place. It got dark while we walked, and the gardens were now officially closed. We got out by pushing on the big slab of particleboard that blocks the entrance/exit after hours. The detour probably extended what we’d intended as a pleasant evening stroll by an hour at least, as well as a few hundred feet of elevation gain. Mother of Georgia!

Now exactly what had gone on there by the “business center”? My speculation: “Rich assholes,” keeping people out, simply because they could. Heather: possibly something government-related, something perhaps top-secretive, surveillant. In any case, once we were home, we went straight to the internet and Some Girl’s Blog (which in this case may have been Some Guy’s).

Both partially right again. The “business center” is the private residence of Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. It was designed by a fancy Japanese architect. Its features include a giant, World’s Fair-sized globe that apparently contains an entire café inside its orb; a gazillion-dollar art collection (Ivanishvili is known to introduce the works to visitors as copies of the real things, which he says are safekept elsewhere in order to discourage thieves); and a shark tank. If you are thinking James Bond lair, you’re not alone. Locals in Tbilisi refer to the lair as “The Glassle.” The Glassle is a couple hundred meters directly above our apartment.

Ivanishvili made his money on Russian metals etc. etc., the usual scary-sounding ways in which his ilk gets superrich, with its customary trail of dead bodies; and although he holds no public office in Georgia he is said to run the country, sometimes by having his albino-rapper son (you read that right) rap political opinions that could perhaps foretell political decisions. Ivanishvili can and does do whatever he wants. According to one article, he once spent over half a million dollars to have a tree moved (it wound up getting stuck in the Black Sea). This article uses the metaphor of Ivanishvili’s Fitzcarraldo tree-moving venture to wonder whether Georgia is “a deracinated democracy stalled at the banks of the European Union and NATO after being uprooted by a secret ruler and torn between currents from East and West?” Could be. We’re really just here for the lobiani.

After the OMG-can-you-believe-what-we-just-almost-[etc.] giddiness wore off, I thought back to the beginning of our walk, when we had no idea what lay in wait at the end. We were going along Sololaki Alley, a cobblestone footpath that runs along the ridge underneath The Glassle toward the Mother of Georgia monument. You don’t expect to find this alley here, halfway between the city and the mountaintop. It has the feel of a secret way, yet it’s a popular walk for Tbilisians, who climb all over the hills behind the city every morning, noon, and night: couples young and old, and couples young-and-old (I mean Heather and me); bored kids looking for a high and finding its nearest approximation up here; solitary walkers on their regular courses; and the many stray dogs that roam Tbilisi (they’re almost totally harmless—probably). Tbilisi feels well and truly used by its inhabitants, a city deeply lived in. And we felt almost instantly at home here, even though all we can really say in Georgian is madeloba, thank you; but I think thank you is the most important phrase you can learn in another language, no matter how many syllables it takes: you’re telling them, in their tongue, how glad and grateful you are to be in their country. And anyway, toilet is toilet.

So we’ve spent quite a bit more time here in Tbilisi than we will have spent anywhere else by the time we go home (which is starting to seem warningly soon). We saw some museums, and those two devilish stage productions; I did some writing; we ate and drank, strolled and climbed, rode the cable car, and celebrated Heather’s fiftieth birthday (!). That was at a wonderful place to which we returned yesterday for an impromptu late lunch, where we found our same waitress, who seemed almost as delighted to see us as we were to see her. We took such a shine to this twenty-year-old philosophy student (and she to us, I daresay), who aspires to study in Germany, where any philosopher might well dream of going, that I think it’ll be a long time before we forget Café Littera, which is tucked away (but by no means unknown; it’s in fact quite highly regarded) in a garden behind the old Writers’ House of Georgia. (There’s also a Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures halfway up the climb to the top of Mt. Mtatsminda, not far from The Glassle: a monument and statue garden of inestimable peace and loveliness, in the courtyard of a church. How this city cherishes, worships its writers!) And perhaps I’ll also remember our two meals at Café Littera partially for their reminder that the fundamentally transactional and superficial restaurant relationship of server to served can sometimes have a deeper reverberation than one tends to anticipate or appreciate. Which is a way of saying that my stupid job is perhaps not entirely meaningless, after all.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that we settled all the way into Tbilisi. A few days into our stint, we took a two-day, bat-out-of-hell plunge into Armenia that I’m not even going to get to in this post. The days there were full, long, and demanding of our attention and energy. When we got back to easy-breezy Tbilisi, we all but fell into it like tired children into bed, relieved to return to this place of something more than mere comfort: perhaps the Danish word hygge gets at it, although Tbilisi is livelier than that. As Heather put it just today, “It’s the only city I’ve ever been to where there’s nothing to do but enjoy it.”

How to account for its incomparable appeal? That it’s part old and part new, part eastern and part western, part European and part Asian but also palpably neither? That we found it all the way out here in the Caucasus, in the middle of the world? What luck, to feel so at home so far from it—and so it remains only to say thank you, Tbilisi, thank you, madeloba.

The danger that crops up around this feeling of guards-let-down and edges-retracted is perhaps related to what Heather was feeling along Sololaki Alley when she said—not long after we set off from our apartment—that she was worried she might forget the walk after it was over. There’s nothing wrong with forgetting the ordinary, of course, but travel to new places is by nature extraordinary, even if all you’re doing is aimlessly walking. You want to remember everything, but you can’t, and it’s mostly the eventful and the dramatic that tend to stick in the mind, no matter how many pictures you snap with your smartphone or how many notes you make. Nothing wrong with that, either: you should remember the pinnacles of Meteora, the near-perfection of Paxos, the kaleidoscopic chaos of Istanbul—another place I still haven’t gotten to—and the first time you drink homemade Georgian wine. But what becomes of everything else? I’m not talking about those Nabokovian nerves-of-the-novel, which tend to be snapshot-brief moments that imprint themselves onto the deeper plates of memory. I mean simple walks above a town in which you’ve come to feel at ease. I mean those restorative stops for three-ounce glasses of tea in Istanbul, or waiting at stations for minibuses to leave. These in-between periods add up, after all, to how we will ultimately have spent most of our hours on this long trip, which is why we want to make a point of remembering them even though we know they’ll slip out of mind: they are by nature exfoliating; they scrape off layers of experience and ready you to take on more.

We got lucky with that walk that began on Sololaki Alley, thanks to our close encounter above the Glassle. It will take no effort to remember it, as it will be easy to remember Nino, our waitress from Café Littera. Meanwhile we labor to record the rest, much of which can’t be usefully reported here; the ordinary is by nature not the publishable material of writers, whose job it is to sift and select, even if we are writing mostly privately, and no matter whether we are ever inducted into the pantheon, unremembered except by a few people we may have waited on in restaurants.

I suppose I’m content to let most of our time Tbilisi sink into oceanic oblivion inside me, and inside our marriage. I can already feel it working in there in ways I’ll never be able (or probably need) to describe. As the body is mostly made of water, so is the soul, in spirit if not actual matter: we’re vessels for a vast solution in which is suspended the weightier substance, scarce but solid, we declare ourselves to be—what we say and write about ourselves, the travels and photographs our eyes lead us to take; that which we love and gather to us; the families we come from and increase: everything that washes up on our shores of identity. But if there were some way to concentrate the solution itself, distil it until there was no remainder left, so that every single drop of us would count at our end, well then, mightn’t we be coming near the secret of life, to the immortality conferred by perfect memory, higher than a pantheon? And if we do get that close, does the watchman come down the hill to call us away from the castle, and send us right back over the long way we came?

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With Nino, Café Littera

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