Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Why Georgia reminded me of Scarlett O'Hara

 This is a draft of my next piece for The Caspian Post that I want to share with you all here. 

My mother reckons I had been to Georgia before. When I was four years old. Of course, that just does not count, so I claim this visit now as my first ever experience of Georgia.

It is surprising, in hindsight, that when I lived so close to it, I had not visited the neighboring country. I remember expat friends of mine in Baku going there skiing in winter. I always heard it was beautiful. But still, for some reason, I never went. In the recent years though, I kept wondering about it, and wanting to visit. My mother had been there twice already and was absolutely in love with Georgia. 

So during this recent Eid, for which we, lucky government sector employees in Qatar, get a ten-day break, and with not many options of where to travel to (without quarantining for weeks), I decided I absolutely had to see my mom after all this time of lockdown. And, we decided to meet up in Tbilisi. Finally.  

My boss cheekily mentioned to me once that he had heard Georgia was nicer than Azerbaijan. More beautiful, he said. “According to whom, may I ask?!” I was quite outraged.

“Now you can judge yourself!”, he mocked me as I told him about my plan. “And let me know where you think is more beautiful.”

I cannot, of course, claim that Georgia is more beautiful. Is like a mother saying her child is not as good looking as the neighbors’ one. And, in many ways, the two countries are quite similar. As my taxi drove along empty leafy early morning streets of Tbilisi, I felt for a moment I was back home in Baku, with the old shabby buildings, and dodgy looking little shops. It had that unmistakable post-Soviet era look that, I suppose, all post-Soviet republics have, to a certain extent.

My very first impression of the five star hotel I chose ( I told my mother that, this first post-lockdown vacation was going to be special, and that I was not prepared to not travel in style this time!) reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara when she attempted to appear wealthy, making a gown out of the velvet drapes. Poor, yet proud.

The room I booked was in the old, historic part of the building; and as I looked out of the window, at first glance all I saw was poverty, garbage, tattered buildings, and fenced-up construction sites. Hmmm, I thought.

But, when I opened the curtains in the morning, I saw beauty. And it took my breath away. And once I saw it, it could not be unseen, and it was everywhere I looked, for the rest of my visit. Behind the old poor shacks and broken fencing, there was the old Tbilisi, charming and unique, with those gorgeous, intricately woven old wooden balconies, light and elegant. And the mountains. And the beautiful old churches. 

And even the tatty fencing had cute artwork on it.

Georgia is breathtakingly beautiful, there is no doubt about that. However, it isn’t simply its beaty that bewitched me. I am quite spoiled in that I had visited some truly beautiful spots in the world. But there is something else about Georgia that is difficult to describe but impossible not to feel when you are there. It is everywhere. Georgia has an immense amount of soul. That’s probably the only way to describe it. It is in their wine, and the way they drink it- making drinking wine a form of art. It is in the intensity of the emotions in the voice of the Sighnaghi street singer. It is in their stunning valleys; it is in their food and people. It is in those balconies, mountains, rivers and monasteries. It is the country that I would want to escape to as I grow old, to spend my last peaceful days, gazing at the valleys below, drinking wine and writing my memoirs, just like that old hobbit in The Lord of the Rings did.

If Georgia were in The Lord of the Rings, that’s where the elves would dwell. It is that magical.

Everything is so old. And because the country is poor, but still maintains its historic charm and pride, and because its people are so beautiful too, it gets right through to your heart, and makes you love it, immediately and forever. 

Georgians are funny, too. The first time you see their faces, they appear very stern. Especially men. “Excuse me?’, you say as you approach someone, and you get this majestic stare back. But don’t let that exterior fool you. Georgian people are charming, funny and welcoming. They are generous, even when you know their financial situation may not be at its best now. The two different tour guides I hired during our trip both did something that they didn’t have to do. Went that extra mile.

Dima, our first tour guide, when we stopped at a local pottery making stall in Mtskheta, suddenly asked my mum which fridge magnet she liked the most and bought it for her. Our second guide, Kostya, who took us around Kakheti region, stopped the car to buy us fresh local strawberries off the road- “you have got to try these!” And later, as we stood in the middle of endless Kindzmarauli grapevine fields, he surprised us with full glasses of wine which he, like a circus magician, pulled out from the back of his minivan. It was that kind of kindness and attentiveness that I found everywhere during our stay.

Kostya wouldn’t let us drink the wine at lunch without teaching us proper Georgian toasts. “Wait, wait!” he would exclaim every time I raised my glass. This toast must be for women! This one is “thank God for everything we have today. Because, look! -He waves at the valley stretching out endlessly below us as we sit on the top of the mountain, in a small guest house café- “look how blessed we are today?!”

“And now we must drink to peace. This is one of the favorite Georgian toasts.”

"To peace", we nod, ordering another jug of local white.

How can somewhere so beautiful not be the most successful tourist destination, I kept wondering. How come the locals are not filthy rich by now? I suspect I know the political reasons, and I am not going to go there now. But, with all my heart, I wish Georgia success and happiness. Because it deserves it.




1 comment: