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I am at a jazz cafe called Near Opera. There is no jazz band. The opera house is shut. The furniture is ill-proportioned, dollhouse pink; there are imitation Beardsley paintings on the walls.
It is lunchtime and I am the only one here. This is Tbilisi; this is normal. Georgians dine at vague hours, nowhere is ever open or closed. Business hours, like thresholds, are permeable.
My waiter teaches me how to ask for water in Georgian, piling up consonants like pick-up- sticks. He flirts with me and tarries when I ask for the bill. I have been in Tbilisi for four days; I memorize the names of the different varieties of cheese-bread – imeruli, megruli, the egg-doused adjaruli – and decide that this is home.
I scribble letters of the Georgian alphabet on a napkin and decide how life will be here. On Saturdays I will buy swords in the flea market; I will take tea at the bathhouses at the foot of the fortress, and read Lermontov in the park. Sundays, I will kiss icons in church. (I am not Orthodox; vaguely I make plans to become a hermitess at the monastery at David Gareja, near the Azerbaijani border.). I will go daily to Near Opera, where the waiter knows my name, and write a novel about warrior-poets in the Greater Caucasus. It will be my local, my haunt, the headquarters of my international outpost; here I will belong.
I develop a routine. I order the same dishes – bean-bread, aubergine with walnuts – every afternoon; I learn how to get what I need. The menu is meaningless; nothing it advertises is ever available, with the possible exception of Turkish coffee: a sedimentary mush of grounds and sand. Nescafé can be haggled for. Milk is more difficult: the dairy industry was shuttered under Stalin, and nobody has bothered with cows since. (Milk can be found in the shops, but I have learned long since that my shopkeeper’s refusal to sell it is a mark of respect. It is generally sour, and she unloads it only on people she does not like).
Sandwiches take an hour to arrive; sometimes two. Sometimes the waiters leave for a cigarette, and I am left clutching at banknotes until their return. The jazz band never appears, and the electricity goes off every four or five days.
But I have wandered up and down the emptiness of Rustaveli Avenue, its facades gaping onto a smoke-suffocated street, and peered into courtyards I do not know, looking for a bulwark against this strangeness. Prospero’s – the expat cafe – is too obvious; the proprietress of the bakery in the basement of the seminary on Sioni Street mocks my accent when I ask for tea.
I tried first to go to the Cafe Lagidze, known for its marble tables, for the tarragon-flavoured syrup stored in cones made of glass, for the poets and dissidents who used to drink here in Soviet times. I found a branch of Next and the marble stripped from the walls.
If I’d only come earlier, cried the shopkeeper. Everybody knows Cafe Lagidze closed down in 2008.
So I sit at my corner table in Near Opera, drafting a jejune journal entry about Tbilisi, of the mountains. I overload my paragraphs with adjectives, and go into orientalist raptures at the smell of fenugreek in the bazroba, which in reality smells like the expulsions of cats. I take pride in bringing my new friends here.
“This is my local,” I tell them. It means that I belong.
I don’t belong anywhere else, after all. I am half-Italian, half-American, alien and mongrel everywhere I go. On the New York street where I grew up, I am regularly mistaken for a foreigner: my accent is eternally strange. But here, I tell myself, where the ivy winds round the houses and mirror- thin cats slink through the courtyards, where everything is foreign to me – here I will find a way to orient myself. Here, in the midst of all this strangeness, I will feel less strange.
Some months later, Rustaveli Avenue grows too expensive. I move into a garden flat in the heart of the bathhouse district, where grapes knot around my washing line and lizards dart in under the door. I toast to friendship with my new landlord; we get drunk on chacha and pledge fealty to one another. His wife calls me daughter and brings me dinner at strange, green hours.
From here Near Opera is an hour’s walk, and so I start looking for a new place to call my own. Breakfast is the biggest obstacle. Café Literaturuli, with its misleadingly extensive menu and Byronic waiters, advertises an 11 o’clock opening; this too is a lie. Machakhela, open all night, is invariably full of drunks. Pur Pur, all Victorian lampshades, with a freestanding claw-foot tub in the lavatory, is too expensive; it’s a favourite of President Saakashvili and his men. There is a promising-looking café on Shavteli Street, run by the proprietor of a puppet-theatre, but to get there I must navigate an ever- changing tessellation of detritus: stray floorboards, rusty nails, and near-derelict bulldozers, which change their location – only slightly – each morning, rendering my attempts at charting a stable course impossible.
In the end I settle on a Persian chaikhana run by a henna-haired professor in the basement of an old merchant’s house on Grishashvili Street. I will write my story here, I tell myself – here where the tables come up to my knees and where the light can barely trickle in through the grime smeared across the windowpanes. I picture myself here in six months’ time, in a year, puffing on water pipes, taking notes before a winter fire, fluent in Georgian.
It will be a real existence, I tell myself: geometric and harmonious, anchored in routine. I will be like Pierre Loti in Istanbul, or else Anaïs Nin in Paris: settled into the strangeness of the place, conquering it with my feet. These moments, these corner tables, these collections of anecdotes – they belong to me. From them I can build something resembling a life.
The proprietress refuses to give me a menu, but from time to time sets baklava down before me. She charges on a whim – sometimes it is two lari, sometimes twenty. I tell myself that this is a matter of course, that I must first earn her respect.
I get used to the stone chairs, the low tables, the perpetual absence of milk. I get used to the smell of sulphur that comes from the bathhouses, to the yowling of stray cats, to the Russian pop music that the proprietress dances to in the kitchen, blaring out the illusion of exoticism. The price of a pot of tea – ever negotiable – goes steadily down. It means, I tell myself, that I have found a home here.
Nothing changes in Tbilisi; in Tbilisi, everything changes.
One of Saakashvili’s new visa schemes attracts Iranian tourists, enticing them with the promise of gambling, of women, of wine. My chaikhana, in close proximity to many of the city’s brothels, is soon full of men who puff on water pipes and drink well into the night.
I stop going to the bathhouses after being taken, one heart-pounding night, for a prostitute. A man gets hold of my phone number – I never find out who gave it to him – and calls me repeatedly at four in the morning, demanding sex. I start carrying my keys between my knuckles, just in case.
I pack up my books, my laptop, my Georgian language flash-cards. I move to Erekle Street, where a pot-bellied artist with a white ponytail and three cats sells paintings of the Old Town and plays Edith Piaf from a mid-nineties boom box. I befriend the cats – they soon recognize me as a supplier of fish bones and stray fingerfuls of cheese – they sidle up against my ankles and from time to time leap onto the table to sun themselves and lash their tails across my plate.
The Americans are the next to arrive – brought in by Saakashvili’s aggressive lobbying campaign, as well as by an ambition scheme to import English teachers (either one or 10,000 is bandied about as the ultimate goal, but nobody seems to know for sure); backpackers follow close after, and then Erekle Street is loud and full of German breweries, hawkers, drunks. It gets too loud to read at lunchtime. The cats grow fat; soon they forget me. I am now one of many, and they have no use for me.
I move my local once again, to Tashkent, an Uzbek restaurant off the meidan, the main square of the old town, which was once a parking lot but has since been rebuilt. There I communicate with the proprietress in demotic Russian and wolf down bowlfuls of lamb soup. There is no space for my cutlery and the radio is always on, but the waitress knows me here and spoons extra pilaf onto my plate; in the afternoons I read Lermontov and imagine fighting duels on the sides of cliffs.
Sometimes, though, I visit the cafe by the streetcar near the seminary, establishing myself as a presence there – just in case. I know by now not to get too comfortable.
The tourists come. The governmental programme to renovate the old town – building cheery, pastel facades for the rotting slums within – progresses swiftly; the air is thick with sawdust and the sound of drilling wakes me up at dawn. Botanikuri Street is paved and then unpaved just as swiftly – one of the workers has forgotten to connect some pipes to the main supply – this happens three or four times, at least, before the grid is firmly in place.
They tear down Lermontov’s house in favour of a shopping centre that is never completed; they guillotine the art nouveau angels over the old doorways, one by one. The streets are full of sawdust and sawed-off wings, griffins’ heads, the wrought-iron fins of mermaids; vines tangle their way about the vacant lots. Sometimes something new appears in its place: confidently plasticine, more often than not structurally unsound.
The prices in the old town rise swiftly, steadily. New restaurants open. Tabidze Street is lined with Guinness bars, new cocktail menus, Lavazza machines. A restaurant on Chardini Street – a thoroughfare already known for its stiletto-clad and oligarchic clientele – advertises a josper grill, newly imported from Sweden. They all serve milk.
The Uzbeks cannot afford the rent. They make no announcement, but one day I arrive to find the doors locked, the windows shuttered. The waitress there knew my name; I never see her again. I try to outrun it. I tell myself that I will find another place, another local, another home in which to haggle for pots of tea, to write stories about antique swords, to play at belonging. I tell myself that somewhere, hidden behind persimmon trees in some yet-undiscovered courtyard, where stone angels still peer out above the doorways, there will be a corner table, a chair, a pot of milkless tea to welcome me, and then at last I will be home.
In any case, I need to get out of my flat. The one next door is occupied by a prostitute, who solicits clients at the bathhouses and screams until late into the night. Upstairs, my landlord and his wife take to screaming arguments – about the Iranians who have taken the flat downstairs, and the Americans who are complaining about the heater not working, about their daughter’s education, about his mistress down the road. They hurl furniture at one another; I begin finding reasons to spend my days outside.
I cannot outrun it. No sooner do I fall in love with a place, settle into a corner or a window-seat, develop a sense of its mornings and evenings, than it closes its doors against me. Sherikilebi, where the owner kissed me on both cheeks and grew jubilant at the thought that I spoke Italian, is replaced by a popular local chain. Another Uzbek restaurant, nestled in the leafy hilltops of Vera, a middle-class neighbourhood of brick houses and coriander-sellers, lasts a year before the owners – friends of mine – fold, unable to afford the latest increase.
Pur Pur, across the street from the ruins of Lermontov’s house, has closed up its shutters (it was doomed the day Saakashvili’s party lost the election).
Near Opera closes down two months later.
New ones open. They are often unmarked – so much the better to deter tourists – gallery cafes and vintage clothing stores in the courtyards of 19th century mansions, bars that sell stained gloves and flea-bitten fur stoles to the fashionable Vake-dwelling set. One serves tarragon syrup, Lagidze-style, from glass cones; another, frequented entirely by hipsters, ironically calls itself after the Georgian word for a rural tavern: Duqan.
Often I slip in, uninvited and under-dressed. I get to know them; sometimes I grow comfortable in them. Sometimes, they too close down.
My landlord’s fights with his wife grow louder; I stop sleeping. When he starts to hit her, I know it is time to move on.
The opera house is re-opening this year – or so say the rumours, which usually baseless and often false. Near Opera, too, has been resurrected under a new name, and I can no longer afford the food there. I walk down Rustaveli Avenue; I slip behind the bathhouses, and find there a city I do not recognize. These streets are not the streets I have loved; these alleys are not the alleys that I walked those first few days, when Tbilisi was new to me, when I believed in the veracity of antique swords, or stories about warrior-poets on mountaintops, when I belonged.
I never finish my novel about the mountains. I never read Lermontov in the original Russian. I never buy an antique sword. I go to church, once, but find that standing for three hours makes my knees ache and affords me no spiritual resurrection. My Georgian remains serviceable; it never approaches the realm of fluency. I am not Pierre Loti, nor Anaïs Nin. I haunt no places. I belong nowhere.
So I keep walking, coming up against closed doors, and imagining that one of them will open itself up to me. So I keep wandering, hoping that the city will appear to me as it did once, when I sat at Near Opera, and I spoke no Georgian, and everything was new, and knowing that it never will.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.