Ge­or­gia is a coun­try of con­tra­dic­tions, but that doesn’t make it any less earnest.

In the post-Soviet state of Ge­or­gia, res­i­dents woo tourists with their earnest­ness and com­plete lack of cyn­i­cism. You’ve been warned.

Fashion (Canada) - - Contents - By Is­abel B. Slone

On my sec­ond night in Tbil­isi, af­ter an op­u­lent yet rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive meal con­sist­ing of salty tri­an­gles of cheese-filled bread (khacha­puri) and a jer­oboam of wine at the Old City Wall restau­rant, I am walk­ing back to my ho­tel with some fel­low travel com­pan­ions when a car full of men­ac­in­glook­ing east­ern Euro­pean bros slowly drives past us. I brace my­self for a flurry of ex­ple­tives, but in­stead we are greeted with a ram­bunc­tious holler: “WEL­COME TO GE­OR­GIA!” The un­ex­pected salu­ta­tion is the first of many sur­prises I en­counter in this tiny coun­try bor­der­ing Rus­sia, Turkey, Ar­me­nia and Azer­bai­jan. Ge­or­gia is a study in op­po­sites. A short walk through downtown Tbil­isi re­veals crum­bling 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean fa­cades jux­ta­posed with Soviet bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture. On the hill­side over­look­ing the city of more than one mil­lion, there’s an enor­mous glass villa built by a Ge­or­gian bank­ing mag­nate. This $65 mil­lion home hov­ers like a sus­pended UFO above the hum­ble clay-tiled roofs be­low it.

The coun­try is tech­ni­cally only a mere 27 years old—its most re­cent dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence was from the col­laps­ing Soviet Union in 1991—yet it con­tains the ves­tiges of monas­ter­ies

that date back to the 12th cen­tury. Men with guns pa­trolled the streets of Tbil­isi dur­ing the early ’90s, but when you land at the air­port to­day, you’re greeted with sig­nage that reads “The city that loves you.”

Ge­or­gia didn’t em­brace a Western­style democ­racy un­til the peace­ful Rose Revo­lu­tion in 2003, yet our tour guide claims that one of the coun­try’s most sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic driv­ers is min­ing cryp­tocur­rency. If this all sounds some­what con­fus­ing and pos­si­bly over­whelm­ing, you’re not wrong, but the con­flu­ence of such un­likely fac­tors swirling to­gether makes Ge­or­gia one of the most pro­foundly be­witch­ing and enig­matic places I’ve ever vis­ited.

My mood to­day is in stark con­trast to how I felt a day ear­lier, when I landed in the city af­ter a rather bru­tal 12-hour lay­over in Mu­nich. (I can now deeply re­late to Tom Hanks’s char­ac­ter in The Ter­mi­nal.) The fraz­zled fa­tigue lifted as soon as I ar­rived at the plush Rooms Ho­tel Tbil­isi. The Wes An­der­son-es­que bell­hops and bo­hemian vibe charmed me, and my first meal—a three-hour af­fair at Shavi Lomi (“Black Lion”)—ended with shots of throat-sear­ing chacha, a grape hard liquor that’s a Ge­or­gian party sta­ple. The other high­light was the pun­gent salad of fresh scal­lions and springy morels, which had been for­aged by Goran, an ag­ing no­mad who »

came by our table to share the wis­dom he has gleaned since drop­ping out of so­ci­ety to live among camels.

I can only imag­ine who I will meet to­day. There’s an over­ar­ch­ing feel­ing of an­tic­i­pa­tion in the air, as if Ge­or­gia is tee­ter­ing on the precipice of be­com­ing the next Lis­bon or Buenos Aires. Its tourism rev­enue has dou­bled in the past five years, no doubt thanks in part to tal­ented Ge­or­gian fash­ion de­sign­ers like Demna Gvasalia and David Koma dom­i­nat­ing the world stage. Yet the most com­pelling rea­son to visit Ge­or­gia is the coun­try’s com­plete lack of ar­ti­fice.

Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than at the De­serter’s Bazaar, a food mar­ket in cen­tral Tbil­isi where lo­cals sell bun­dles of tar­ragon, des­ic­cated-look­ing pomegranates and wet wheels of imeruli cheese from ram­shackle stalls made of plas­tic tarps and di­lap­i­dated pa­tio um­brel­las. One ven­dor in­sists I try her homemade sauces (bot­tled in re­cy­cled plas­tic Coca-Cola bot­tles) and then pro­ceeds to dis­trib­ute them via mouldy hunks of bread. (I dis­creetly at­tempt to avoid the mould by lick­ing the sauces off the bread.) I buy a cou­ple of strands of churchkhela (a can­dle-shaped Ge­or­gian treat made of nuts on a string and dipped in thick­ened grape juice) to take home. Within walk­ing dis­tance is the Dry Bridge Flea Mar­ket, where ven­dors hawk jew­ellery, Soviet tchotchkes and kitchen im­ple­ments from blan­kets on the ground.

Even the wines in Ge­or­gia are mar­keted as nat­u­ral. Nat­u­ral wine may be only begin­ning to gain trac­tion in North Amer­ica, but Ge­or­gians have been pro­duc­ing it since 6000 BC. (No, this isn’t a typo. Arche­ol­o­gists un­earthing two vil­lages near Tbil­isi found ev­i­dence that these early res­i­dents pro­duced wines,

mak­ing them some of the world’s first-known vint­ners.) Nat­u­ral wine op­er­ates on a phi­los­o­phy of noth­ing be­ing added or taken away, and much of it is cloudy with sed­i­ment and tastes like tart ap­ple juice (but with no nos­tril-flar­ing acrid­ity).

“Ge­or­gia is fa­mous for its op­u­lent hos­pi­tal­ity,” says John Wur­de­man, the owner of Pheas­ant’s Tears win­ery, where we sam­pled a wine called Poli­pho­nia (made from a blend of mul­ti­ple en­demic Ge­or­gian grape va­ri­eties) that one of my travel com­pan­ions called “spir­i­tual.” Later, at Wur­de­man’s restau­rant (also named Poli­pho­nia), we sit at a com­mu­nal table that groans un­der the weight of such dishes as pick­led wild­flow­ers (jon­joli) and moz­zarella dumplings with yo­gourt-mint sauce. The meal is punc­tu­ated with pro­lific toast­ing— a Ge­or­gian tra­di­tion that dic­tates that when­ever a guest ex­pe­ri­ences a raw emo­tion, they must pro­pose a toast. The re­sult is a meal en­gag­ingly in­ter­rupted with em­phatic dis­plays of warmth and af­fec­tion. Poli­pho­nia’s co-owner, Luarsab To­go­nidze, joins us, along with a num­ber of cronies who spon­ta­neously break out into Ge­or­gian folk songs. The a cap­pella har­mo­niz­ing adds yet another layer of wist­ful emo­tion to the scene. To­go­nidze ex­plains that the Ge­or­gian way is to ap­proach life with a sense of open­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “All my life, I’ve been try­ing to at­tach a han­dle to my chest so you can open it up and see my heart,” he says.

From that even­ing on, the lo­cals’ earnest, whole­hearted and cyn­i­cism-free out­look on life se­duces me. Dur­ing my nine-day stay, I slowly learned how to drop my in­grained sense of North Amer­i­can pes­simism and just be. “You’ve been given a chunk of our heart, and you can keep that with you, for bet­ter or worse,” says Wur­de­man. For me, it is def­i­nitely for the bet­ter. That woman who once feared a car full of lo­cal well­wish­ers went home with a lit­tle piece of Ge­or­gia in her heart.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: NARIKALA FORTRESS OVER­LOOK­ING THE CITY; ROOMS HO­TEL TBIL­ISI; CA­BLE CAR TO NARIKALA; THE ABANOTUBANI NEIGH­BOUR­HOOD

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