Ladies and gentlemen I bring grave news from the Caucasus. Drawn by the sounds of hellish screams that any sensible person would instinctively retreat from, I turned a corner to discover the awful truth: One Direction had arrived in Georgia. Their fans were awaiting the start of their film at the cinema and displaying appreciation for their heroes in the way only teenage girls can. For those unfamiliar with this musical? phenomenon all you need to know is that their mission statement, carefully crafted by their management, is to exploit the first sexual stirrings of teenage girls and hence empty their wallets in purchasing pointless paraphernalia displaying images of the alluring band members.
Normally this would be sufficient evidence to demand immediate departure from the city and preferably call in a squadron of B52’s to carpet bomb the place, lest there was any risk of infection to the surrounding areas but I was feeling charitable and opted to give Tbilisi one more chance.
Barely a decade ago, blighted by the chaos of post Soviet disintegration, the city was a crime ridden den of corruption, a period which, alas I missed out on, so how had it evolved into a delightful tourist attraction with a teenage culture apparently little different from western Europe? President Saakashvili may have instigated the almighty cock up of giving Putin’s tanks the excuse to roll into South Ossetia a few years back to steal another chunk of the country, along with Abkhazia but he certainly, in other respects made great improvements. Lured by budget airlines, the Polish in particular have created a flourishing tourist economy. Poles tend to have learnt both some Russian and English at school, which puts them at a communication advantage with the older and younger generation of Georgians, respectively.
The gleaming modernism of recent architectural creations in metal and glass clearly display the hand of investment but these are but trophies for political egos and say nothing about the soul of a city and cities of gleaming spires are soulless wastelands that serve only to impress tourist brochures. So, it was time to hit the back streets.
Only metres behind the tastefully restored facades in the old town is a winding maze of crumbling houses of little interest to the bulk of tourists. Networks of rusty pipes and drainage systems hang from cracked walls, where rattling windows will offer little protection from the bitter winters. Doubtless, the benefits of future investment in the old city will offer little to many of its poor inhabitants, who will, in all likelihood be consigned to ancient Soviet tower blocks at the wrong end of a long bus route. Though hopefully if the economy improves further, they may at least taste some crumbs of trickle down economics.
A stroll around a suburb, far from the brochure pictures revealed the aforementioned Soviet tower blocks in all their stained and rusty glory and also the first real evidence of the soul of the city, it was there: in the weary lines of ancient women selling a few handfuls of herbs, vital to the rich tang of Georgian cuisine; in the joking banter of men playing backgammon on the pavement; in the vines around simple suburban homes, testimony to the millenia of wine making tradition; in the flourishing pomegranate trees battling the dreary concrete of the social housing and in the succulent wafts of warm bakery air.
A flea market reveled further clues amongst the 70’s china tat. A preponderance of military knives and bayonets displayed a familiarity with the violence of the past, especially of recent times, but given the city has been sacked and destroyed to some degree or other over 30 times in nearly two thousand years, London’s emphasis on the Great Fire of 1666 looks fairly paltry. Battered Jethro Tull LP’s sitting side by side with bootleg Russian pop CD’s tell of changing times: when the rebellious young man in 1973 bought the vinyl album during the Soviet regime it was a symbol of decadent, western corruption, not of some pompous, prog rock old farts; despite many good reasons to loathe Russia, the power of pop music will overcome even the most tortured of histories. Heaps of recycled electrical components, carefully retrieved from failed devices, spoke of a resourcefulness born of hard times. The garish amateurism of paintings revealed what masterpieces can often fail to: the hopes and loves of ordinary people in wine, women and song; sentimental images of the Tbilisi of yesteryear celebrate a pride in the city and a longing of something lost.
The city centre said little of such things as careless drivers hurled their metal boxes past well tended trees and pavements and over the pedestrian subways vital to citizens’ safety, each signposted as, “underground retail zones”, which perfectly captured their charming ambiance of concrete and piss. Graffiti is common but not too liberal and mainly in our script, rather than Russian or the elegant Georgian alphabet, more evidence that the youth are moving away from their parents values and adopting those of the West. Today it may only be wetting themselves to One Direction but before we know it they’ll be hanging out on street corners, tanked up on legal highs, rapping badly along to “I got 99 problems but a bitch aint one”. Certainly they have gained a political pluralism, as three consecutive pieces of graffiti attest to: “fuck the IRA”; “Georgia for Georgians” (followed by a swastika) and “make love not war”. Times are certainly changing in Tbilisi.