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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Georgian Holidays


Barbaroba, or St. Barbara's Day, which falls on December 4th, may or may not mark the beginning of the holiday season. If it does, it's because it is the first feast of the month. You see, Georgians exploit any possible opportunity to indulge in the joie de vivre of eating and drinking big, and as New Year's Eve approaches, the intensity of satiation increases.

While a family may spend large sums of money on a restaurant banquet or a home cooked feast, they do not go into debt to prove their love by buying junk nobody really needs. Jesus can look down from heaven and be pleased that the Georgians have not blasphemed his name by turning it into some gazillion dollar consumer phantasm where people are compelled to feel inadequate if they don't go along with the program or labeled scrooges if they dissent of such artificiality. The holiday season is the most lively time of the year and you can enjoy it fully without ever having to step into a shopping mall or sing We Three Kings.

In lieu of the mall, Tbilisi has vogzal bazroba (the central bazaar) the last place you ever want to drive to this time of year. While always anarchic, during the winter holidays bazroba is absolute bedlam as swarms of people elbow their way through swarms of people haggling over mountains of shelled walnuts, fish, chicken and piglet carcasses and every imaginable seasonal fruit and vegetable; fresh, dried or otherwise. People consume natural homegrown food products, not plastics. Much of the waste will even feed Tbilisi's stray animal population.

This is not to say the symbolic act of gift giving is ignored, for on New Year's Eve (the December one), gifts are modestly exchanged and Georgian Santa Claus - Tovlis Babya - arrives that night with a present for each kiddie. December 31st is the big bash, ordinarily celebrated at home with family and close friends until midnight, when many people continue their festivities elsewhere till the morning hours. Rustaveli Avenue, the city's main drag, is blocked off and a stage or two or three may be set up with musicians performing in the freezing temperatures while people stroll up and down the street swigging champagne from the bottle and dodging fireworks aimed at the face.

The New Year's day is spent at a relative, neighbor or friend's house, working on the previous night's leftovers, inevitably washed down with more toasts. For the next two weeks, Tbilisi closes down for an extended binge.

Technically, being a good Georgian Orthodox Christian means one should fast through this period of gluttony, but Georgians for the most part make an exception for the holiday season. Nevertheless, on December 7th, Georgians will attend mass to commemorate Jesus' birthday according to the Julian (Orthodox) calendar. Mass is preceded by a feast of course, although it is nothing on the scale of New Year's or the western Xmas dinner.

Butterball turkeys can be found, but only foreigners buy them. The standard holiday fare is Satsivi – chicken in walnut sauce. Chicken is often substituted with fish or Georgian turkey, which Americans may find hard to recognize as they are not plastic wrapped and have not been injected by a slew of hormones or fed nuclear pellets. Piglets are also a tasty seasonal treat, particularly if they have been taken to the baker to roast in the tone – traditional oven.

January 14th is the old New Year and the last party of the season. Tovlis Babya has long returned to his igloo on the North Pole and it is safe to drive to bazroba. It is when I take the lights off our Christmas tree and hang them somewhere else in the house. And like the rest of Georgia, it is when I consider it about time to get back to work.

(For my cousin Ken, who asked how the holidays were celebrated here)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Georgian Army

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili inherited a non-army when he came to power in 2004. Ranks were sold, soldiers were underfed,under-equipped and under-trained.

"In my two years of duty (1995-97)I fired my gun twice. We had no bullets," my friend Beso says. "For two years, all we did was march." On a salary of about 3 dollars a month, Beso was expected to buy his own uniform.

When Saakashvili became president, he made restoring the country's territorial integrity his first priority and revamping the military a top priority. By 2007, Georgia had the highest average growth rate of military spending in the world, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The total defense budget of 2007 was GEL 1.271 billion (about USD 765 million) or 6% of the GDP. Two months before the August war, parliament proposed a defense budget increase of GEL 1.395 billion.

Despite recommendations from the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) to cut back the total manpower of the armed forces from what was in 1998, 38,000 to an optimum level of 13,000 - 15,000, Saakashvili established an armed forces of 33,000 professional servicemen and 100,000 reservists.

Maybe that's fine on paper, but during the August war, I saw how busloads of reservists were called into Gori, many in tennis shoes and ill-fitting uniforms to await orders to be cannon fodder. Meanwhile, Georgian troops were hanging out near the front lines, distraught and exhausted, while the officers were trying to figure out their orders over cell phones, sometimes asking locals for directions.

While today's Georgian army is a far cry from the decrepit institution Beso served in back in 1995, you cannot build an army in 5 years. Chris Chivers has a very good story about this in the NY Times.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

THE FILM FEST FOLLIES (or "why my jacket got ripped")

The 9th annual Tbilisi International Film Festival kicked off with a bang this year, and I mean “kicked” in the very literal sense.

Last week I went to see the new Bond flick, in English. Sometimes a Sunday night with a bucket of popcorn at the cinema is the perfect remedy for any ailment – all the more so if the film happens to be mindless, plotless garbage. Or in other words, in Tbilisi we take what we get, particularly if it hasn't been dubbed into Russian.

Once a year though, for one week, cinema lovers in Georgia can devour films which haven't come off the Hollywood assembly line. With this in mind, my lady and I hoofed it down to Amirani cinema theater to catch the opening night attraction, Atonement, by Englishman Joe Wright.

I was thrilled to see such a crowd in front of the cinema. The film fest organizers boast that one of their main aims is to expose the Georgian public to new trends in world cinema, and by the looks of it, a hundred people or so appeared to be hungry for exposure. But why were these people standing with their backs to the cinema? Why were they holding pictures of Georgia's first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and chanting “Georgia for Georgians?” More importantly, why were they physically preventing me from entering the cinema to watch a film?

A burly man shoved me away. His timing was bad, for my mood had been sour for a couple days. I pushed back only he was supported by a mob. Undeterred by their aggression and my lady's pleas to leave the crazy idiots alone, I took a few steps back and tried to make a break up the middle, like a fullback (or crazy idiot), shouting in English that I have a right to enter a cinema. The problem of course was that I was shouting at Zviadists, who at this moment smelled blood - mine – and like a horde of George Romero zombies, were determined to snuff my soul. The women were especially vicious as they kicked me and ripped my coat.

You see, the Zviadists are an informal cult of psychotic pseudo-fascist supports of Georgia's first democratically president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a soviet era dissident whose nationalistic policies basically turned Georgia into the mess it is in today (my Zviad story). Ousted in a coup in 1991 and found dead with a bullet hole in his head two years later, Gamsakhurdia is a martyr to a rabble of social flunkies led by his widow Manana. They simply refuse to let go and move on. While they have given up their daily protests in front of George Soros' Open Society building, they continue to gather in front of former president Eduard Shevardnadze's house and shout (Shevardnadze replaced Gamsakhurdia after the coup).

My jacket was torn in front of Amirani Cinema because the organizers of the festival refused to show a documentary film about Zviad Gamsakhurdia - not because of their opinions of the man, but of the film.

“First of all, we are not showing documentaries at this festival this year,” organizer Nino Anjaparidze said. “And secondly, it was a terrible film. But these people think we should be showing it on opening night.”

We had followed Nino and dozen other film lovers through the exit door on the side, which the Zviadists goons quickly blocked off.

“These people remind me of those Americans who believe Elvis is still alive somewhere,” said Zura, a man who slipped in with us. “One woman was shouting that the festival is showing pornography.”

The cops eventually got off their asses and set up a perimeter so festival goers could enter. The cinema was standing room only. As for the film, well, it started off really well but then got too full of itself and lost the plot, which ironically is exactly what happened to Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

(the man responsible for ripping my coat)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


He was wearing a tie as classy as his pointy shoes. It was too dark to see the dandruff on his shoulders but I did notice he had a blotchy dermatological condition. His name was Gari and he was just another manager of yet an another exclusive Tbilisi nightclub.

Gari was not jacked up on crank, he just talked like he was. We showed up at 7 for a sound check and waited an hour for the sound man to come and bitch that nobody told him he would need microphones. It took him another hour to find some. In the meantime, Gari told us that we needed a manager. For two hours, Gari rambled about how a good manager could get us to Kiev, Moscow and money.

“Show business,” he affirmed.

We had a separate gig to get to and the sound man's lack of inertia was grating on my nerves. While he played with the wires I noticed a wad of gum had stuck to the bottom of my shoe. The gum was Gari.

“How do you like the sound?” he asked.

“I don't know Gari, he hasn't turned anything on yet.”

Later, at midnight, we filed through the metal detector at the entrance but Gari grabbed me by the arms.

“No, you can't walk out there,” he says. “It's not professional. Showbiz.”

He ushered me into a dressing room by the kitchen. The room smelled like toe cheese. Gari told me to wait. I said I'd wait better with a beer.

I left the door open and watched Gari walk around in zig-zags. “Your band does not look professional,” he said. “They are dressed like alpinists. It's showbiz, you know.”

“Well you tell them how to dress if you want,” I muttered. That's when I noticed how his black coat was a collector of bits of skin that had flaked off his face.

Then Gari instructed me on how to address the audience when we start – so that we appear professional. Gari went on and I tuned him out. The band came in and Gari told them how they should dress. As we were were preparing to go on stage Gari stopped me and unbuttoned one of my coat buttons.

It was a pretty decent stage, but if the management had invested as much money into sound as it did into lighting, the scene would have been a lot better. Yet despite all the fancy lights everywhere, the club remained dark, except for the intermittent floods of spotlight in my eyes. I could only make out two blond hookers at a table right in front and Gari, sitting in a chair next to the stage. Although the club looked empty from the stage, there were people in the shadows.

Thirty percent of Tbilisi is officially unemployed, which means if you are a parking attendant making 10 lari a day, you're not a statistic. But this is a city full of restaurants, expensive cars and exclusively cheesy nightclubs, like the one we were playing in - facts I will never understand.

We watched people dance to our music, which for a blues band in a land unaccustomed to such music, is always a particularly extra positive stroke, especially when the dancers are female. The problem was we couldn't hear what they were dancing to. There was only one monitor on the stage and we had to put it in front of the kick drum to keep it from sliding across the floor. The callouses on David's fingers began to split from the beating they took on his bass strings.

After the first set, Gari escorted us to the stink room.

“Hey Gari, no beer for the band?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “But Gari, it's showbiz.” I reminded him.

Gari told me that Giorgi Baramidze, the Minister of European Integration, was in the house and asked me if I could go out and personally thank him for coming. I would have preferred to thank the two hookers.

“No, Gari. I'm not going to go out there and thank him. But here's my phone, if you want to call him.”

“OK, OK, well when you start your next set, thank everybody for coming. It's professional, you know. Then thank me, the manager, Gari.”

I thanked the hookers for coming first and then thanked Gari for the beer I hoped he would buy the band. We played through our last set and the sound cut out about a half-dozen times. But people were drunk and they danced. I thanked them at the end of the night, for if we had been playing to an audience of chair huggers hiding in the shadows, this gig would have been murderous.

In the end Gari did not sport us a round of beer but he did pay us in medium notes, which was the most professional thing he had done that night.