Sunday, March 23, 2014

the Tbilisi metro

The Tbilisi metro, the remnants of the glories of the old Soviet empire, though the superficial symbols, like brass Lenin or Stalin heads, had long ago been removed and replaced by the more Georgian symbols of roses and crosses. Everything else seems untouched, with cracks in the walls and peeling paint where there still is paint. Advertisements are occasionally plastered onto the walls, but even those look ancient, as though they were from ages past - the hieroglyphic marketings of a proto-Georgia. The escalators continue in fine working order, steep and fast as in any Soviet built metro, the extremities of these two dimensions almost able to be compared to an amusement park ride by uninitiated Westerners. I've heard it's improved a whole lot since the 90's, when trains would stop working mid trip and the lights would unexpectedly go off, but those days are over.

As I descend, I watch the crowds of people who had just got off one train, and hope that my train will be soon - but not too soon. The scheduling of the trains seems bizarre and random, sometimes during rush hour I have to wait for over five minutes to get on a train that is bursting at its seams with passengers, and at non-peak hours, I wait for only two minutes and step onto an empty car. Like in most things in Georgia, planning is always an afterthought.

While I go down, watching the people pass me going up, they all watch me as well. All eyes to the local non-Georgian, like in a zoo, it becomes impossible to feel ignored or one of them or - blessedly - invisible. As soon as you step past the turnstiles of the metro, wearing anything but black, you become as though stuck in a concrete cage, iron bars on one side and open sky, everyone watching you because you are different, waiting for you to do something unexpected, to rap, to sing, to dance, to do something that they could talk to their friends about. To do something.

The isolation of a zoo. 

I step off the escalator, putting those thoughts aside and I move onto the platform, always in a slight hurry, praying that the train would be soon. I look up at the digital clock. 10 seconds. Good, it will be here shortly. No - I forget - the clock counts up. It lets you know just how soon you had missed it. It doesn't let you know when the next train will come, because, a voice in the back of my head reminds me, perhaps no one knows that answer. No engineer, no conductor, no one knows. A schedule is a myth perpetrated by societies of decadence and sin. Relax man, it comes when it comes.

And it comes. And the people squeeze on, no room to move, like being wrapped in swaddling clothes, except these swaddling clothes are made of people not cloth, sweating, smelling people, many of whom maybe don't have gas or water at their homes, some of starving children, or thieving children, trying to survive reptilian drugs that savage across the skin. It's life. At least my gas clicked back on yesterday and I got a shower, but after the metro, or the bus, or a marshrutka, I often question the utility of my showers.

I follow the first guy onto the car, and he stops within one step. The next person moves no farther. But I see space there in the middle, no ones standing in the middle, no ones standing away from the door, why don't these people move? And I push them out of my way, so that I'm not in the way myself. I hate being in the way, but this tall bald guy in a green army style jacket doesn't seem to have the same disposition.

The train stops. Time to get off. People pushing and shoving. It's chaos. The people on the outside of the train trying to get in before the people on the train can get off. More pushing. I have to elbow someone, to dodge an elbow myself. If people would just wait a moment, to let us off before they got on, there would be no fighting and everything would be quicker and smoother. By waiting, sometimes we save time, if only everyone were waiting the same. But here, no one waits. It's a gladiatorial arena in the metro, losing means getting trampled to death or thrown off the platform, winning means getting mashed in-between two babushka behemoths holding sacks of potatoes which they wield like iron morning stars.

Now freedom. Now a breath. Now a look at the bronzed face of the Georgian thespian, Marjanishvili, founder of the Second State Georgian Theatre in Communist Georgia - true to this, the face is in Socialist Realism - watching the hurricane of violent movement the metro system creates. And back on that steep and quick ascent, back out of the cavernous metro, under the overcast skies of a Tbilisi spring day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

why Ukraine is important (for me)

Church at Pechersk, in Kyiv
All the world's eyes have temporarily left other conflicts and focused on Ukraine for the last two months. Indeed, there's always an importance when Russia decides to rake her claws at another little neighbor - and though Ukraine is by no means a small country, it's still a fraction the population of it's larger kin. Anyone who follows my private account on Facebook has noticed that I've been keeping up with developments constantly - whether reading the right news sources or not, who knows. When a guy I know from Honduras, made the comment on one article, "You should post about, Afganistán, Irak, an Siria or maybe that is just democracy," it kind of irked me, with the implication that I was just following the news about Ukraine because everyone else was - and since half of my friend's list live in Eastern Europe, it certainly seems to me that everyone is following those developments. While it is true that the media's Eye of Sauron has certainly focused on Kiev, is it fair to all these other conflicts and warlords that they're not getting the same amount of attention? Should I split up my attention equally on all the world's problems, and then allow my head to explode because that's about the only productive thing I can do about all those things? Even if I signed up for a mercenary army, trained for six months, and jumped into the middle of it, could I as a single man make all that much difference anyway, like some Captain America staring down the Red Skulls of Putin or Assad? And how to choose which one? Choosing one conflict would make the statement that all the others are insignificant, wouldn't it?

Syria though, was and is an interest to me. Why? Because a friend of mine who I've known for two years is from there, and I know that his family is at risk. Also because it's two countries away, and the geopolitical framework is such that it could have easily spilled over to neighboring territories and sucked Georgia into a wider conflict. But thankfully, Russia pre-empted that spillover with its own chutzpah maneuverings in Ukraine. And if I have to rank which is more important to me - the endless wanton slaughter by Assad's regime and the rebels fighting him, or Putin's fandango with Crimea and the possibility of the development of a truly democratic Ukraine, I'll have to go with Ukraine.

Ukraine is new. That's why the news latches on to it. They're vampires - or better, mosquitoes - who jump onto any new thing and suck all the blood out of it until it can find another new conflict. Really, that's why its' called "the news", because they're supposed to deliver new information. A 13 year old conflict - like in Afghanistan - despite all the pain and bloodshed that has gone on there, for both America and Friends' soldiers and for the native folk who have had to put up with one army after another rolling through their poppy fields - well, it's not new. 13 years, by any definition, is old. It was news when they got bin Laden. But after that, when Obama decided to keep us there for who-knows-what-reason when he could have jumped on an aircraft carrier, said "Mission accomplished" and brought everyone home, it was no longer news. Same old same old. And it sucks to have to say that, but when every day's headlines are "Marine dies in conflict, kills 3 Taliban", you just grow to wonder exactly how large is the population of Afghanistan and how much more can it take for all of them to be wiped out? Or is it that our friends in Saudi Arabia just have an endless bucket of wahhabiists to lob over there? And what are we fighting for? Revenge? We've killed enough, yeah? Resources? All they have are poppy fields. Access to the Indian Ocean? We're not tsarist Russia. So yeah. No news.

Ukraine is new. Iraq we've pulled out of. Now they're fighting again. No major changes. People killing each other in places where people kill each other all the time anyway isn't news. That's why in the US you never hear anything about Detroit or Baltimore. It's just not news.

Ukraine however, is something new. Other than the problems concurrent in Venezuela, it's been the most recent thing to happen. And it's overshadowed Venezuela because it's a situation that brings up the limits of NATO's diplomatic power and purpose, and could - though not likely - drag the Western world into war with Russia. And when the Western world gets into a war, it goes global. Venezuela is a local conflict, and whereas I could care more about it, I don't. And I do care more about Ukraine, but not for the reasons stated already.

For a long time I've had an interest in Eastern Europe. In university, I studied Eastern European history and Russian language. During the 6 years of my boring desk job, I thought of various ways to relocate to this side of the world, and then when I joined the Peace Corps, I finally did relocate. And though I was really hoping for Ukraine - because I've always had a curious interest and delight for Slavic cultures, not just Russian, but all of them - I got Georgia, which was just recently pulled into a war with Russia, through Putin's clear and clever provocations.

The Ukrainians, luckily, are a little more familiar with the provocation game than the Georgians, as their leaders from the ramparts were constantly warning them against being provoked. Provocation is a classic Soviet and Slavic game, one played throughout the centuries in a constant dance of power and struggle. It's what makes them such damn good chess players, and what makes their history so provoking for me to study. And as history progressed, their skills progressed, Lenin and Stalin themselves students of the Germans, who might not have fared with chess insomuch as they fared with war. Bismark was the master of provocations, so much that when he mastered the Alsace-Lorraine in falsified claims against France, most people simply shrugged, no matter that those events would lead to the depths of despair that was World War I not long after.

Maidan before the ramparts
After my tenure in Georgia, I left and eventually landed in Kyiv, where I spent three amazing months - not just in Kyiv, but also in Kharkiv and Lviv - where I met tons of people and made connections with some where I know I can always just drop in and say hello and they'll be there for me. When looking at videos of the struggle on the ramparts of Maidan, I looked at them with the eyes of a friend - I knew some of those people. When I saw the video of Maidan activists being rounded up in Kharkiv by pro-Russian brutes, I was touched, because I recognized some of them. And the Ukrainian situation isn't isolated on those borders - I also have a handful of friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A war between those countries is a personal thing for me. I don't blame anyone with friends in Venezuela for keeping an eye on their news, or with people who have friends in family in the military for paying attention to Iraq and Afghanistan. I used to have friends serving in those countries, and most of them came home safely. But now I don't have friends in those areas, so they concern me less. Though I do have a friend occasionally doing NGO work in Kabul, and I do care for him as well, but I've faith the US military has him covered.

So these other conflicts are no less important on a global scale. They all effect someone. Somewhere, someone's mother, father, son or best friend is struggling, bleeding and dying. But they're not mine. My heart is big, but it's not so big. And if it were so big, there would be too much darkness for it, so that the darkness would consume my heart, rather than the other way around. If you are so big to be personally concerned with every ill that happens in the world, then bless you. May your strength be a beacon for others to swarm around. Meanwhile, I'll do what I can for my Slavic and Kartvelian friends, not that passing along Putin jokes is doing much to begin with.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

a sense of time

My high school band teacher once said, "If you're early, you're on time, if you're on time, you're late, if you're late, you're dead," the common Georgian version seems to be, "If you're early, you're crazy, if you're on time, you're early, if you're late, you're on time." The Georgians certainly aren't unique in this stereotype, most Mediterranean peoples fit this tendency of perpetual lateness - and being similar to other Mediterranean people is something Georgians take pride in, except in regards to pizza.* It's the Northerners in Europe that have the stereotype of always being on-time, like Germans, Swedes, and Estonians. As for Russians, they seem all over the map, as some people I've met say they're quite punctual and others say they have no sense of time whatever. In my personal experience in regards to Russians, it's true.**

As for me, I grew up in mid-Western Tulsa, a driving city that has always seemed big on punctuality, and I've always learned it's extremely rude to be late. And if something is rude to other people, it means they are not considering those other people; so then if someone else is late, it's because they're not considering you. I first came to work in Texas, where punctuality also seems to be important, except for "fashionable" people, and as we know, fashion comes from France, where it's fashionable to be rude, and thus late. Living in Georgia, I've found people are usually about half an hour or an hour late to almost any sort of engagement, as though they've got a schedule like an American dentist. The usual excuse is traffic - as if no one has learned that traffic is just about always the same given certain times - but the usual actual reason is that they bumped into someone they knew while on the way somewhere and breaking away from someone for the reason of a schedule is more rude than actually making it to an appointment on time. At least, that's the only reasoning I can wrap my head around. However, as soon as you stick a Georgian behind the wheel of a car, they become the most anxious people about getting somewhere on time or early. It's a transformation that is almost as complete as Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk.***

Having lived in other places abroad, I've found myself more inclined to punctuality, though I've learned to master time so that I can be lazy about getting anywhere, hating to rush. If you calculate the rough time it takes to be somewhere, and then plan for that, you can take your time with anything. Good time management allows a naturally lazy person to be lazy about everything. Which is why I've grown to be a master at time management - I hate rushing anywhere. And personally, I like the journey almost as much as the destination, so I like to give myself enough time to walk and take the bus and whatever else is needed without ever worrying about being late. Then I can let my mind wander and go through it's creative process, thinking about songs or stories or just enjoying the very breath of life that sweeps the city streets in all their congestion and madness.

From what I saw of Poland, I could tell the Polish were big on being on-time to things, but in the typical, maddeningly Slavic inconsistent consistency. And Beata, my hostess, truly reflected this. She just hated waiting - and making other people wait - to such an extent that she eliminated all waiting times for public transit - causing her, to her dismay, to often be late. Where we could stroll from her house to the bus stop in five minutes and have a two minute possible wait, she would rather just run from her house to the bus stop in 3 minutes and make it just before the bus closed the doors. How she perfected this manner of travel, I have no idea, but it always seemed to work for her, and I guess served as a form of exercise, since she was always running from one place to the next.

From the moment I met Beata at the airport, we were on the run. We first ran to ATM so I could withdraw some cash. Then we ran to the tourist desk to find out where to buy a train ticket. Then we ran to the little shop that sold train tickets. All so that we could make it to the train on time. When we found we were late for the train, Beata threw up her arms and was angry. "Was that the last train?" I asked. "No, it wasn't, but we will have to wait twenty minutes now!" "That's not so bad is it?"

One night, we decided to visit the historic Villa Nuova just outside of Warsaw to see a light show. At the palace, they were doing an Alice in Wonderland themed holiday light decoration. As Hasaan and his wife both had to work, we met them in the evening at a small bar mliecny, or milk bar, a Communist era type cafe that serves a surprisingly small amount of milk products for being called a milk bar. Mostly milk bars serve dumplings and beer, which is fine by me, I suppose, since I do rather beer to milk. And the dumplings in Poland have a far greater variety than the four types in Georgia, so I was both impressed and satisfied with the selection, choosing the dumplings stuffed with spinach and feta. Since we both had to wait for the working class folk that were my friends and we had to eat, we had a somewhat late start getting to the palace.

"We will be too late!" Beata chanted in the back seat of the car. She clutched her hands tight, watching as our car only meandered through the streets of the downtown.

"Relax, we won't be too late," I reassured her. "And if we are, no big deal. We'll just go get a beer somewhere around there."

"But I want you to see the place, to enjoy it," she said. It was her honest intention, though her fear was not well founded, as I already had a positive impression of the city and country, just from my wandering downtown and our short walking tour of the old town.

"I enjoy drinking beer, too." The light show was somewhat underwhelming and small, though neat. However, what was really overwhelming was the tasty sausage and the male-female ratio in the bar we went to afterwards. The tasty sausage I'm referring to was emanating the smell that made me starving as we waited for my order, and not something alluding to the male-female ratio. As for the ratio, it was something around 5 - 1, with women in the majority, which led me to the thought if I ever become a single man again, then I'll find myself moving to Poland (though I was equally impressed with Lithuania, so it's a real toss-up between the countries of the formerly great commonwealth). And the women, by the way, looked as though any one of them could have starred in this video:

Of course, as I mentioned in the last blog, the trip ended in the Powilnom district on Nowy Swiat. While smoking our shisha and talking to the other world-traveling Poles, Beata suddenly stood up and made the statement, "We have to go, we will be late for our train!" Thus ending my trip to Warsaw with a brisk, drunken jog, making it just in time to catch our way back home.

*Mayonnaise on pizza guys, really? After 5 years, I still can't get over this.
** Stereotypes in general are not rules or truths in regards to individual people and shouldn't be depended upon when judging an individual. I state this because some of my readers apparently don't have the mental capacity to wholly understand that and that they don't understand that most American humor relies off of playing with stereotypes and making fun of those who believe in stereotypes.
***Again, a stereotype! Not true for everyone! Though, really, it is true for the vast majority of Georgians.****

*****Actually, not really. It's true. Georgians are pretty much, mostly the worst drivers I've ever seen. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

a brief visit to warsaw

My host in Warsaw was a girl who I'll call Beata. I met her a few years back when I first moved to Tbilisi. She was friend's with another guy, Ryan, who I had hung out with quite a few times at a bar called Canudos, one of the only bars with cheap beers, an enormous patio with a fountain and "alternative-type" people who, in Denver, would be considered fairly normal. Tattoos and dreadlocks?! How quaint. But not so quaint in even quainter Tbilisi, where the average bar is filled with guys in blue jeans and black jackets, like a scene from the Outsiders. For the American equivalent, the typical Georgian out on the scene is a "bro," and they indeed dominate the scene. I was impressed though, by the contrast in Warsaw, since you're likely to see an amazing ratio of females to males.

Beata lives with her family in Eastern Warsaw. We kept in touch through a Facebook group that James had, one that makes fun of the more eccentric aspects of Russian culture - from Putin at his latest photo shoot to Russian wedding pictures. When I found that I could have a cost-included trip to Poland on my way to the States, I decided to take advantage of the situation and see Warsaw, as well as visit Beata and another-friend-from-Canudos, Parham.

We had a full visit. I stayed at Beata's family's place, only a couple of train stops from the center. As a present, I brought some Georgian wine for Beata and her friend Janusz, and some Georgian homemade tchatcha for her parents. I was glad to get rid of the weight from my bag, since Warsaw wasn't going to be the last stop between Tbilisi and seeing my folks in their small Colorado mountain village.

The first day was spent walking through Warsaw's beautiful new old town. It's not really old, since it was completely demolished in WWII by the Nazis - no small thanks to the Russians on that one, as they patiently waited outside for the Nazis to finish the job before pretending to be heroes waltzing in*. However, the Poles since that time have really done a fine job of renewing the place, and reinvigorating it entirely. The old "historic" section was recreated from mostly photographs and memories, while outside the "historic" section was almost a free-for-all in architecture, allowing anything from the old styles to newer styles, though everything tastefully blending together. To see more authentic older parts, a visit to the Praga district should be included by any traveler, as many of the buildings are still vacant or had simply been repaired from WWII, as that wasn't the central area of bombing and destruction. In the New Town, we spent time in a small cafe called U Pana Michala, where we later ate. The mulled wine we had then was terrific, and the potato and goulash dish I had later was tasty enough to make me question the stereotype of Polish cuisine. The interior itself was something reminiscent of the "old days," and anyone eager to partake in some traditional Polish dining could do worse than eating there. Also there's live music on nights that I didn't get a chance to go.

A visit to Warsaw would likewise be incomplete if it didn't include a stroll down Nowi Swiat, which is the main touristic drag in Warsaw. It was an old, run-down area of wooden buildings until Napoleon arrived and made it into the "new world" of neoclassical palaces. The street is now lined with restaurants and bars, with the smells of bread, sausage and dumplings drifting along.

The next day, I went to see the Warsaw Uprising museum by myself. For those ignorant of the Uprising, it was a movement in occupied Poland to overthrow the Nazis. The museum is pretty honest and not entirely propaganda, as I expected it to be. They did mention that the Uprising received a lot of aid from the Soviets, though the aid was quite to the Communists' aims and not really for the general public's aims. When, for example, it came to rescuing the Uprising from annihilation by the Nazis, the Soviets stood back, since they saw a clear gain. The Warsaw Uprising supported the London exile government, which was decidedly not Communist, so the Soviets deemed it fit not to help.

The museum itself was a pretty interesting experience. The outside is all brick and mortar, with a tower on top and bare walls surrounding the place, looking almost like a prison camp. Inside is dark, with spotlights passing over the walkways. The walls were made of red brick, with holes and crumbling parts, as though you were walking through a city under siege. As a history museum, there were plaques and pictures everywhere. Also it had a couple of differently decorated rooms - one was a "cafe," described as a typical underground restaurant that Uprising members might spend time in, and which also operated as an actual cafe. The other room was a listening room, which seemed like someone's office, lined with different hand made radio equipment, where the Poles would receive information from the outside world, like from Radio Free Europe, which broadcast coded messages that some of the Uprising knew how to decode, so that they could cooperate with the Polish government-in-exile in London.

I then met with Beata and her friend Janusz, and we ate at a place along Nowy Swiat, since I was wanting something "typically Polish." I ended up eating a sauerkraut stew, and one can only guess what happened with my digestive system after that, much to the dismay of the folk I shared an aircraft with later that night. Do I regret eating it though? Not at all, just only next time I'll save the sauerkraut stews for a time when I'm not traveling. After eating there, we went to meet Parham nearby in the Powilnom district, which was an area just off of Nowy Swiat, packed with small, one room bars, each with their own unique flavor - Communist milk bar, Moroccan shisha dive, African tribal club, and so on, the themes nearly as endless as a walking man's thoughts. Every bar there was filled with the more "alternative types" common in Canudos. We started in one milk bar and ended up in a small basement covered in tapestries smoking shisha. Two other Poles there joined us, after learning Parham was from Iran and wanted to share their Iranian experience.

My time in Warsaw seemed limited and short, and with a bit bigger of a budget and time-line, I would have seen more and would have made a short stop to Krakow, which I hear is a necessity to any trip to Poland. Next time, perhaps!

*Sorry Russia, but the US has the monopoly on waiting until people "bleed each other white" before getting involved and becoming heroes. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

'Murica, the purdy

I'm no drinker of Coke. It tastes like watered down maple syrup and you can remove rust with it. Usually they make really sappy and stupid commercials that somehow end up into movies - like the polar bear ones. And, sadly enough, the soda pop company's commercials are often reflections of modern American culture, like it or not. I say sadly enough, not because of the new commercial where they sing "America, the Beautiful" in different languages, while people do the all-American activities of horseback riding in the mountains, watching movies, camping and eating at Asian restaurants, but rather because I think that our culture being measured by a commercial from a marketing company whose soul purpose is to get money out of your wallet is a pretty sad thing in itself. But hey, that's capitalism. Cultural output is sponsored these days.

That brings me to the topic of the commercial where they sing the song, "America, the Beautiful." 

On-line, the commercial garnered all sorts of thought provoking comments that probably showed how off Coke's latest measure of America is. Just a review of Coke's twitter and youtube feed can be quite amazing. Amazing in the sense that Americans never cease to amaze me. Here's some of my favorite comments (spelling in the original):

"That coke commercial sucked. Mexicans, terrorists, jews, and niggers are not "American"."

I agree that the commercial sucked, because in general it was lame, but the second statement I'm confused about. While one might argue that if you are a terrorist, then you aren't "American" since you're trying to kill innocent (Americans), I can't really figure out the rationality of the other two. Also, don't the "niggers" speak the English? And haven't their families been around longer than most of the "American" folks have?

"NO ONE is saying you can't speak Spanish or any other language, but In America I should never have to push 1 to continue this conversation in ENGLISH"

Why? Would you rather press 5? In Mexico, you generally have to press 2 for English. And in most countries, 2 or 3 is the common number, lots of post-Soviet countries have Russian as No 2. Why do you even have the option to press numbers for English in non-English-as-a-first-language countries? You know why? Nationalistic Americans might hate the answer, since it has to do with their Russian-as-a-first-language speaking icon, Ayn Rand, but the answer is because of capitalism. A company usually wants to support and reach out to its widest audience, and its audience isn't always working best in their second or third languages. An American living in France? A Brit living in Ukraine? A South African living in Georgia? A Peruvian living in - gasp - the USA? And here's another bit of trivia, over the recent past centuries, we've become the home for millions of people who's first languages were never English - Ayn Rand being one of them - and whose contributions to this country have helped to shape and create both modern America and the modern world. A brief list - Einstein, Oppenheimer, Sikorsky, Vonnegut, Sergei Brin (the guy who invented Google), Tesla, Kissinger, Pulitzer, Stravinsky, just to name a few.

Now, what I really don't get, is how people not speaking English in America - a country built on the backs of millions of immigrants - can consider doing so to be compared to the invasion of Rome by the Germans or, as a more modern example and actually pulled from one of the Facebook comments I read, like "how English has supplanted Navajo, Cherokee, Creek and all those languages, so people need to speak English." Woah. Way to support mass murder and genocide, lady. But she has a point, all the white folk who are nationalistic to such an extent that they hate the thought of people speaking another language in America or about HOW AMERICA IS BEAUTIFUL, really should take up a Native American language and start speaking that, since, you know, they were here first - and one of the ironies here is that one of the languages used in the commercial was Pueblo, a language used in the States you know, before English and "Americans." All I remember are the words, "How" for hello and "pow wow" for "meeting," so I guess I have some studying to do myself.

Lastly, is Coke even making the point that people shouldn't be learning English? All the ad shows are a bunch of activities that clearly can only be done in America, like swimming and watching movies at a movie theater. They're being done by non-white people who the viewer might assume are Americans since really, what ethnicity is an American? And then there's the song, "America, the Beautiful" being sung in different languages. The commercial seems to say that America is beautiful because us Americans are from all sorts of different backgrounds, we look all sorts of different ways, and we have fun doing stuff. Or maybe even these people are visiting the country doing stuff and they've got such a good impression of the USA that they're singing "America, the Beautiful" in their own languages? I don't know and really it's not so interesting to me, since the commercial is really a sleeper compared to their past commercials with the cute little bears sliding down ice tunnels. But what I don't get from comments is that I'm supposed to hate Coke for these positive messages regarding America, rather than because they're a shrewd, capitalistic, monolothic company who creates a product you can dissolve metal with and will probably give you ulcers and cancer, and they use up the water resources of many countries that use those other languages' as a first language to supply the world with the drink that does those things. But dang, they made a commercial that says "America is beautiful?" Those bastards!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

first impressions of Warsaw, upon coming from Tbilisi

If there were any city or country with an excuse to be an absolutely miserable place, it would be Poland, and especially its capital Warsaw. The country has been treated like a scrap of raw meat by a pack of wolves for the past two centuries, being repeatedly divided by Russia and Germany, and for the seventy years prior to the modern era being under the de facto control of the Soviet Union, only seen - and treated - as a “buffer state.” Warsaw itself had been completely demolished during World War II, and in some magic way, remained as city through and after the war. Living in Tbilisi, I often hear excuses about why they haven’t been able to develop properly, and usually it’s blamed on Soviet oppression or the 90s civil war (in which they were their own aggressors) - but if any country could have a real write off on having trash everywhere, water-outs being a usual thing, and unemployed masses lining the streets drinking their miserable lives away, it would be Poland. And yet...

The first leg of my vacation from Tbilisi was to Warsaw, where I would spend three days visiting a couple of friends and then flying on back to the States. I was excited to see Poland, since I had been to nearly every country bordering Poland but not yet to the country itself. From both the Polish and other travelers, I never heard a good word about Warsaw - I was always told that I must go to Krakow or Wroclaw or even Gdansk. Warsaw, it was always told to me, was a “new city” - a pale reflection of its former glory - that was devoid of any real culture and interest. But my schedule didn’t allow me to get to see any city but Warsaw - it seemed cheapest to fly to Denver, where I was going, from Warsaw, and to Warsaw from Tbilisi by Wizzair - so I took my chances. Anyways, I had two friends living there, and where there are at least two friends, there’s never really a bad experience.

That is one thing that I’ve appreciated about Tbilisi. Not only is the city beautiful in its own right, and snuggled in one of the more beautiful regions of the world, it’s also a kind of tourism mecca to the more alternative types of travelers. Anyone searching for the more off-the-beaten road places, places that aren’t Germany or Switzerland or the United States, end up in Tbilisi, because it’s different and more interesting - don’t get me started on what it means that the government has been bent on trying to make it look like Germany or Switzerland. Being a small city, with very few interesting bars to visit, you are able to meet a lot of travelers in a very short time and make a great deal of friends. I’ve literally traveled across Europe, meeting friends I made in Georgia in every country there. Not only is the local hospitality generous at the least, but it can also be contagious, making each visitor to Georgia that much better of a host.

downtown Warsaw
Back to Poland - I arrived at night, met a friend of mine there and went to her friend's house where we drunk the night away discussing books and drinking the Georgian house wine which I had brought as a gift. The next day would be the first to really see the city. I stashed my stuff at the train station - a 24 hour locker is 15 zlat - and started off to explore the city. On my own, I was completely turned around and without having actually looked at a useful map, I ended up just wandering around the downtown, which was quite pretty on its own right. 

The first two things I had noticed was how clean it was and how functioning the traffic was. Warsawans seemed to take use of nearby trashcans and obey traffic laws, even to a point where they let you pass while not at a crosswalk (something I rarely even have seen in the States). It didn’t help that I was too lost in my thoughts that I ended up crossing at random parts of the street, but at least no one sped up and tried to run me down. But to be honest, as far as the downtown went, perhaps everyone was right, it was a bit stale. It might as well have been an American city - not necessarily a bad thing, but just something I had been used to already. I like the old (style) stuff, myself.

The center of old town
Later, my friend showed me through the old town. It was recreated to look exactly as it did before World War II. Like many of the cities that I have visited that had suffered greatly during the war - Tallinn, Vilnius, Dresden, Kiev, etc - it had the weird effect of seeming out of place and time, as though one reality were superimposed over the desolation of another, much darker reality - and perhaps that adds something to the beauty of those towns. Destruction and death are eternal things, as are life, and that’s one thing that makes these cities temporal echoes and shadows. I’m sure when Tbilisi had been rebuilt any numbers of its times after Turks or Persians or Arabs had destroyed it, there was the same sense of displacement. Would that sense occur had the old town been simply made anew, and not in a replica form?

The city gates of old Warsaw
One of the problems I found in old Tallinn was that the old city seemed slightly artificial. It was the home to only a few bars and restaurants for tourists and to hotels. It became a front to show outsiders, a “look at what we are,” even though the reality of Estonia lies in the outskirts of Tallinn or even farther inland, in cities like Tartu, where the re-creation of its former days are very minimal and life is left mostly to foster anew. Yet, in cities like Vilnius - and even in Warsaw - very much is still happening in those recreated old towns, making the juxtaposition that much stronger. The old town of Warsaw did very much seem alive - restaurants and bars were teeming - though I’m left wondering how much the average Warsawan actually partakes in that glory.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Never trust a man from Kutaisi

"The one thing you should have learned in all this," the detective told me in Russian, "is never trust a man from Kutaisi. They're the worst sorts. All of them are criminals, thieves and liars. You can't trust them." Georgians are full of considerations about other races, though they hate when people repeat the stereotypes. I've heard bad things about Armenians, Megrelians, Svans, Turks - you name it. However, a stereotype against a specific set of Kartlians, I hadn't heard until now. This was the first I heard about Kutaiselebi, and of course, it wasn't the lesson I learned in all of this. I was sitting with the man in the main room at Restaurant Chakrulo. A dozen police officers were in the other room, and the swindler and his mother were leaving. I was sipping on a coffee the detective got for me, listening to him go on about how people from Kutaisi really are the worst sort of people.

I have a terrible habit of saying "yes" to things. One of these days, I'll learn my lesson and either stop trying to please people or stop thinking of another possibility for an adventure. When I was coming home from one of my accordion shows, outside my house a neighbor was walking. "Hey," he said.

"Hey," I said, being nice. Almost home.

"Want to go get a drink?" he asked.

"Why not?" I said. "I have some friends at Cafe Gallery." I hate Cafe Gallery. It's usually filled to the brim with either gay men or men who are only looking for sex or a fight. The music is routinely bad, usually just the "locally popular" minimalist techno music. Lonely Planet says it's locally popular music, but I'm not so sure of that accuracy. But, anyway, at least I had some other friends there, since the guy clearly only knew Georgian and it wasn't going to take long before things got weird and uncomfortable when we ran out of conversation. I put up my accordion and we headed over.

After spending most of my time with my friends, and after Gio, the Georgian guy, got lost in the crowd, I decided to retire. I was tired and nothing at the club was doing it for me. I left. As I was leaving, Gio found me and invited me for some khinkali.

"You want to grab some khinkali?" he asked.

In Georgia, an invitation is an invitation to pay also, though I wasn't thinking to stick Gio with the bill. And anyway, a khinkali outing usually just costs a few bucks. As we walked down the street in the crisp night air, he met more of his friends. Now there were six of them to the one of me. Anyways, accepting invitations from random Georgians has never really gone wrong, though not always in the strictest of senses, since there usually ends up something having to do with prostitutes - note, that's just about always when I leave the scene.

But really, what I was thinking, was that this would be a time where I could bond with my neighbor and meet some new friends. And the thing was, I explained to the detective, this is certainly not a thing I would ever do in the US. Living there for most of my life, I've always had the knowledge to never really trust anyone. But also in the US, at the end of the day, everyone's responsible for their own bill.

We sat down at Chakrulo. I shrugged. It's a bit expensive of a restaurant, but if we were just having khinkali, it still wouldn't be so much. However, instead of paying attention to things, I stopped really caring about what was going on around me and instead decided to text my girlfriend and pester her for a bit. Throughout the pestering, I noticed just how much food was accumulating on the table. Three pizzas, two xatchapuris, two lobianis, one hundred khinkali, several bottles of vodka, beers, and so on. It was a full on Thanksgiving feast of Georgian food. I shrugged. I guessed this guy's mom must have been rich or something. "I hope these guys don't stick me with the bill," I joked on the text message.

Then, after a bit more pestering the girlfriend, I came to my senses. "Better call the police," I texted. Nobody was left at the table and the check was sitting in front of me, it was equivalent to how many Spartans it takes to hold off a Persian army for a couple of days. I was able to catch Gio before he escaped out the door. I caught him. "Woah, what is this?"

Georgian police storming Chakrulo
Moments later, the police came streaming in. It was as if somebody were robbing a bank or there was a terrorist situation. There were over twenty cops in the restaurant, looking around, taking in clues and circumstances. One guy spotted me. He spoke English. He requested my documents. I gave him a copy of my passport (lesson learned in Ukraine - only give out copies, otherwise you'll have to bribe yourself back a passport, not so much true in Georgia, but still better than the hassle of dealing with the US government).

I explained what happened. "This guy invited me here, brought his friends, and now they've all left and left me with the bill."

If I were a cooler man, I would have just shrugged it off. I wouldn't have got the police involved. I would have just said, "Well, shit, Merry Christmas." But instead I had the police called, and became one stubborn monkey. "I'll pay my portion, but I'm not paying for this guy," I told them.

"Somebody has to pay the restaurant," the officer said. The cops all looked at me. Most of them actually didn't seem particularly interested in the affair, and they were smoking and joking. But the ones paying attention all looked at me.

"I agree, someone does," I looked at Gio.

"You invited us," he said.

"I invited you and your five friends? I didn't even order any of the food. How is that possible that I would invite all of you? And if I had, why would you order 300 lari of food, man?"

His answer? "You invited us!"

It seemed like a better answer to just stare at him. This was turning into something less as I imagined it and more like a Jerry Springer episode of idiocy. I turned to the officer. "So what now? He needs to be responsible for something. And this is out-right criminal. And you know, for a country depending on tourism, you can't allow guys like this to run around pulling things like this. He's got to pay."

"I understand. We could start an investigation," the officer said.

"And what is in that process?"

"There is so much work involved," the officer said. "It would have to be a real investigation. We would have to talk to people. And then we would have to find out who is responsible for what."

"Right," I said. "Do that."

"Well, okay," he said.

Some time passed. The officer took some notes, perhaps writing some poetry to his loved one - God knows what. It was clear he wasn't really conducting an investigation, unless it meant communicating with people through telepathy. The other guy just stood there.

"Shouldn't he show you his documents or something?" I asked. It was a far cry from the Soviet days of "no document, no person."

"Oh, yes," the officer replied. "Do you have your documents?"

"No," Gio said.

"Okay," the officer said. He took down a few more notes.

"So what is happening?" I asked the officer, after a few more minutes.

"We are conducting an investigation," he said.

"Ah," I said. "And, um, what is that process?"

"We have to investigate. Write things down. Ask people questions."

"Right," I said. "So, shouldn't you get his documents?"

Another police officer stepped in and asked for Gio's phone. He took it and called Gio's mother, telling her to bring his documents.

"There," the officer said. "His mother will bring them."

If at one moment Gio didn't really care that the police were called, he grew furious about his mother being brought into the situation. A 23-year-old man having to have his mother sort out a situation at the restaurant - I hope that was a humiliating experience. But it was probably something quite normal in a country where most men still depend on their mothers to make up their bed.

His mother came and vouched for her boy. "We'll pay half."

"Half? He should be paying all of it," I said. "I'll pay my portion and that's it."

It was a text from my girlfriend that finally convinced me. "Don't make it a criminal thing, just go. Please!" That and the thought of a real investigation going under way. If they actually did ask Gio's five friends, then it would be their five words against mine. And in Georgia, there's a 98 percent rate of successful prosecutions. And broomstick bathroom torture in the prisons.

"What would you advise?" I asked the officer.

"I cannot advise anything, but if you pay everything, it's only maybe a 3 percent chance you'll see that money."

So I agreed with the mother. "Fine, I'll pay half."

"Only," the mother continued, "we don't have half. I can pay you back later. If you'd only pay the whole thing."

I could see where this was going. But I consented to paying the whole thing. The chief detective, who up until this time had been mostly chain smoking cigarettes, pulled me over to the next room and offered me coffee, starting his lesson on what I should have learned that night, "Never trust a man from Kutaisi!"