Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

THE ACCIDENTALIST: City Limits

In the capital of a former Soviet republic, the new and decomposed create fantastic possibility.

Michael Greenberg


My friend Tom invited me to visit him in Tbilisi. He's a fearless, openhearted man, an international aid worker who had put in hard time in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Now, he was the head of child protection for UNICEF in Georgia. "You can stay at my apartment, I've plenty of room. It'll more than cancel out the price of the ticket to get here." To entice me further he quoted a piece of graffito he had seen scrawled on the side of a building that afternoon: NO GOD, ONLY KINGS. "That's the kind of place this is. Original. Enigmatic. Unexpected." He reminded me that Joseph Stalin and George Balanchine were both Georgian—"a major murderer and a major modernist"—a fact that seemed to suggest a great deal about the country, while at the same time increasing its aura of mystery. "I'll book a flight for next month," I told him.

Tom met me at the airport. He appeared to enjoy my startled reaction to the new, gleaming terminal, which seemed much grander than required for the small former Soviet republic. "It's one of Georgia's many attempts to make its fantasy about itself feel real," he said. The fantasy sharpened when we drove into the city along George W. Bush Street, smoothly paved and with a billboard of Bush waving to his Georgian comrades, free marketers all. There was talk recently of changing the street's name. In August 2008, Georgia went to war with Russia over disputed provinces on the border. Russia defeated the Georgian forces in five days, rolling within forty miles of Tbilisi and annexing a fifth of the country's land. During this time, Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was filmed in a panic, chewing his tie and waiting in vain for Bush to come to the rescue. He was convinced that the United States would risk armed conflict with the world's largest oil producer to defend a country of four million inhabitants with no resources other than its radical willingness to deregulate every aspect of its economic life.

Turning off Bush Street and into Tbilisi proper, I felt as if I had been set down in an imaginary, improbably beautiful world. If I could have dreamed a city, it would have looked something like this: a vast artist's studio where everything was in some form of abeyance—the elegant and the tacky, the throwaway and the composed, lying thoughtlessly side by side. It astonished me that rubble from an earthquake in 2002 had yet to be removed, but after a while I understood that this was consistent with the city's guiding philosophy of chance. The crumble that pervaded the streets—many of which were built into the side of the hills, connected to one another by arranged piles of bricks or dangling stairs—seemed organic and monumental. Scores of stalled construction projects—airy cement hulks with reinforcing bars sticking out of them like braided spears—gave the city a phantasmagoric feeling, adding to its aura of a perpetual work in progress, a kind of Finnegans Wake, if that novel could be embodied in a far-flung European capital. Because of the thermal springs under Tbilisi, the trees and flowers were in a state of riotous bloom.

Tom's apartment building had been completed just before the global bust but still seemed unfinished, with thick cables dangling from the hallway ceilings. At the building's entrance was a minuscule glass room, like a military checkpoint, every inch of which was taken up by a bare mattress and a TV. A man lay on the mattress, apparently drunk. "Security," explained Tom. He invited me to wash up after my trip, but there was no water, a common occurrence that rendered his science-fiction shower, with its blue space lights, side jets, and built-in radio, useless. "Another fantasy. Like the airport," he remarked. Looking out his fifth-floor window, I could see the limits of the city close by—hills with wild dogs roaming along them in packs, thin and voracious.

In the evening, Tom took me into those hills, to a hotel bar where his fellow aid workers and expats hung out. They seemed a lost collection of latter-day Graham Greene characters, floating around the world, two years here, five years there, dispensers of aid while living off aid themselves, heavy drinkers and psychologically scorched, relieved to be posted in a relatively safe country for the time being.

We sat at an outdoor table near a tiny swimming pool and were immediately joined by a succession of diplomats and human rights watchers, as well as a middle-aged Dutch backpacker who had become romantically involved with a woman working for a British NGO. Weathered and ingratiating, the backpacker had difficulty finding listeners for his travel strories. He grew sullen and withdrawn; this crowd had seen more than he had, and from the inside. His girlfriend patted his hand reassuringly. A rotund midwesterner staggered over, exaggerating his drunkenness, I thought, granting himself the license of inebriation. Apparently, he had recently been in Darfur. He had just come from one of the low-rent casinos that dotted Tbilisi like strip joints. Throwing five hundred bucks on the table, he said, "If you match this I'll take all my clothes off and pound on the door of the French ambassador's house down the street." He tore off his shirt. "How about now?" The backpacker took the money. "You're on." The midwesterner grabbed it back from him, shouting at the top of his voice that he had been robbed. Chris, the owner of the hotel, came over to calm him. No one acted as if this were anything other than a nightly occurrence. Conversation rambled on. Chris sat down at our table. A pleasant, sleepy-looking man from Provo, Utah, he had fallen for a Georgian girl twelve years ago and stayed on. I asked him how Georgia continued to remain afloat. "Donor countries," he said. "The IMF, the EU, the US, the World Bank." He explained that he paid 20 percent on his loans, not because of inflation but because the government had borrowed the money first. "You have to pay their interest, then the bank's interest, then the profit. The vig on instability."

The next day, Tom traveled to a settlement for refugees from the war. I remained in Tbilisi, wandering the streets with the growing sense of being in a city I was intimately familiar with, though it was unlike any I had ever known. It was elusive, this sensation, a result of the emanations of the place, its delicateness and secretive creativity. Far from being grim, the decay seemed an expression of Tbilisi's singular vulnerability. They were natural dadaists, the Tbilisians, I thought, with an instinctive way of making the accidental seem preordained. There were sculptures everywhere amid the rubble, skewed human figures that reminded me in turn of Giacometti, Botero, Picasso, Henry Moore, yet that were unlike the work of any of these artists. They most resembled the living beggars on the main shopping drag who wore suits like characters from a De Sica movie, gripping your attention while avoiding your eyes.

One afternoon, I found myself in a square with an iron railing around it in the shape of large, looping flowers. At the center of the square were two painted bronze lovers in a melding embrace. I entered a restaurant on the square. From the ceiling hung an upside-down place setting, replete with glasses, platters of food, utensils, and a wine jug. A mad Chagallian still life, but not. The diners, for the most part, were silent and poor, curious but avoidant. I asked the man sitting at the table next to mine about Abkhazia, a province on the Black Sea that the Russians had seized. His eyes filled with tears and he turned away, either insulted or embarrassed. "Garmajus!" he said after finishing his meal—may victory come to us all together. Later, when I got up to leave, I learned from the waitress that he had settled my bill.

Tom returned to Tbilisi on the day I was to catch the first leg of my flight to New York. He seemed moved that I had come. Few of his friends outside the aid community had any idea of what his life comprised. "No one understands this except the people who are in it. You're stuck with this piece of knowledge about the world."

As we drove to the airport, I thought of Italo Calvino's line about how a traveler arriving in a new city finds a part of himself that he did not know he had. "The foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places."

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