Georgia, minute by minute

In the morning I get a call in Berlin from an unknown Georgian number. Before I know who it is, she first asks, in Russian: “Do you speak Russian?” After a year of painful absence, this whiff of another large cultural world strikes me nostalgically, where it is so natural to speak Russian on the phone, even if you called a German number, like for us it would be to ascertain that they understand English at the other end of the line. Russian is the mediating language of that world, used by everyone, even if we aren’t much aware of it here, and learning English there so that one could connect to another, distant cultural world is almost as much a curiosity as, say, learning Russian here.

I am called from the Tbilisi guest house where I booked our stay for the weekend before next week’s big mountain tour. We discuss sending a shuttle car to the early morning flight, “my sister will come for you, send me a selfie so she will recognize you”. Once we get into a family relationship like this, she switches to the familiar, as is typical in Georgia, and she says, “Would you mind canceling your reservation at Booking? Now that we’ve talked, I’ll keep the room and send the transfer, but why pay them a commission, right?” Yes, I recognize, this is that culture.

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One gradually diagnoses which neural pathways of the world have been restored after the great shock. Wizzair flights have already started from Budapest to Kutaisi, we book for the first flight, but then the enterprise seems to be too early, and the flights in June get canceled. After some searching, we instead fly LOT from Prague via Warsaw to Tbilisi.

From Berlin to Prague I go by train, in the gentlemanly way. I no longer have to cross the green border on foot or connect the border towns of the two countries with a workers’ local train. Incredibly, the train runs directly, without any border control, to Prague, and then even further east, to Budapest or wherever. Passengers are not accustomed to such long journeys. In the beginning, the children still exercise on the armrests of the seats, but after Dresden, everyone is already sleeping. The sandstone cliffs along the Elbe – the farthest excursion site under covid times – finds only me awake.

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In the early afternoon I arrive in Prague, an important scene for my previous months. It is a strange feeling how many hours I have traveled so far, and what a great change this is, compared to Berlin. However, it is only a trampoline: tomorrow at this time I will be in a completely different world, one that I could not have dreamed of last year.

The confluence of Vltava (left) and Berounka (right) at the southern border of Prague

Foreigners are free to enter Georgia from June 1, for the time being only by air, with a 72-hour PCR test. The Hungarian immunity certificate, provided after the first shot, is accepted by the Georgians even without a test, but the Czech and Polish authorities do not accept it, so a test must be presented in any case to take off on Polish planes. At the Georgian border, however, they look understandingly at my lizard-skinned refuge pass, and I’m at once in the country. Lloyd, whose Czech authorities did not make such sly, advantageous agreements with the Georgians, must present the certificate, plus repeat the test in Georgia on the third day. And its outcome is doubtful, because the night before the test, Lloyd notices in himself his sixth and hitherto gravest covid infection of the year [The author exaggerates. –ed. Lloyd]. Its symptoms probably do not reach the level of detectability, but Lloyd is infallible in these things [Idem. –ed.]. In any case, I ask him not to mention them at the test.

The sister is in fact waiting for us. She holds high my selfie on her phone, asking me whether I can identify myself. I would prefer a better portrait, but for the sake of the transfer, I take this one. We proceed outside, in front of the airport, surrounded by the hypermodern buildings of the Saakashvili era fifteen years ago. The last time I was at this airport was almost thirty years ago. Back then, you had to walk from the flight to the wire fence around the airport across the grassy field surrounding the runway, where, at the small gate opening onto the street, a single armed soldier stood there, on the rare occasion when a foreign flight arrived and passports had to be checked.

Shortly after sunrise, we reach the old town. Crossing the Metekhi Bridge, the quartier under the castle hovers in a fairytale light. After we unload at the hotel, we walk back to photograph it.

We stand under Metekhi Church when, at six minutes after five, the show is over, the lights go out in one fell swoop. I loook up at the still steel-gray sky, where eight dignified snow-white egrets fly over the river and our heads. A good omen for the next month to be spent in Georgia. King Vakhtang Gorgasali, whose equestrian statue next to the church watches the flight of the birds, also founded the city of Tbilisi following a sign from a bird, a falcon felling a pheasant.

One of the most important mission of our current trip is to map out what is still in operation in Georgia after covid: restaurants, accommodations, shops, anything that fellow travelers might need on a next tour. On arrival, it is immediately clear that the network of large grocery stores has been restructured. On the former Armenian Bazaar Street leading from Metekhi Bridge to Freedom Square, which today bears the name of Prince Kote Abkhazi, who fought against and was executed by the Bolsheviks, several private companies had run five or six large grocery stores. They still exist, but were all bought up and homogenized both externally and internally by Spar.

“ყოველთვის ახალი, q’oveltvis akhali, always new!” Only the clients are the usual ones.

Now they all operate 24/7, with the young salespeople sleeping on the counter when I walk in at half past five to buy breakfast: Caucasian kefir and Borjomi spring water.

The good things produced by Georgia: Caucasian kefir, Sulguni cheese, shotis puri bread baked in tone (a kiln), Borjomi water, Kakheti tomato, beautiful in the upper layer and tender beneath, dried squid and a withered red rose, the latter a gift from the guest house. Borjomi spring water, which has been popular in the whole former and post-Soviet world, was discovered by General Ivan Paskievich during the siege of the fortress of Akhaltsikhe in the 1828-1829 Russian-Turkish war. The whole Russian army was laid low by dysentery, so they had to retreat to the nearby village of Borjomi, where his soldiers perfectly recovered by means of the local water in a matter of days. After the successful siege, the general had the water tested, and it was certified to be excellent for all kinds of stomach complaints. Georgians swear by it, especially in the case of hangover.

And then disaster strikes. Lloyd waits out at the entrance to pick up money with his American debit card. However, the ATM displays some error and swallows the card. The salespersons are just shrugging: the ATM belongs not to them, but to Liberty Bank. Try to put yourselves in Lloyd’s mind. It’s half past five on Saturday morning, the bank is closed, and no one picks up the phone at the emergency number. But we obviously can’t guard the ATM here for two days. What would you do? Have the egrets lied? Let’s hang this story at this cliffhanger, and once you will have bitten your nails quite enough, you will se what we did.

The epidemic, like everywhere, has decimated restaurants. Closed is Dzveli Keria, the Old Hut, one of the best Georgian places, an unmissable dinner place for our travel companies. Closed is Puris Moedani, the Bread Square at the former Jewish market, where university students performed polyphonic Georgian folk songs and chansons. I am approaching Racha with trepidation, one of the gems of traditional Georgian cuisine, which in its simplicity was something like the renowned Kádár in Budapest (which also fell victim to covid). Around the corner, an encouraging new graffiti: a mother and her two children are carrying wine jugs from Georgia in the direction of ხინკალი khinkali, the Georgian meaty dumpling, which can only refer to Racha.

And Racha is open. True, it is unusually empty. For the time being, in the otherwise crowded restaurant, only the staff is present, eating lunch at the back table. Slowly, one or two regulars, gourmands, romantic couples, enter. As usual, the trilingual – Georgian, Russian, English – menu is brought to the table, but you must place your order at the counter with the cashier who writes the order into a quadrille-ruled booklet. In turn, the food is then brought out, but one must return to the counter afterward to pay.

Khinkali at Racha Restaurant. Khinkali originates from those most secluded northern mountains or Georgia, which is where we will go in two weeks for a horseback tour: Tusheti and Khevsureti, the land of the Crusaders stuck in Georgia. It was originally stuffed with minced mutton or beef meat with onions, pepper and cumin, but nowadays there are also many varieties; variously spiced or with fillings of mushrooms or vegetables on the menus. Consuming it properly requires some prior knowledge. The western visitor, who first encounters khinkali, will immediately want to fall to it with fork and knife, at which the Georgians even at the next table will feel an irresistible compulsion to correct him. The essence of khinkali is the tasty juice of the meat, which would flow out if you cut it. So it can only be eaten by hand, grabbing its tough “handle” or in Georgian kudi, ʻtail’, where it was pinched together before cooking, biting into it, and immediately sucking out the juice as Lloyd shows here. To be able to do it, you have to let it cool down for a few minutes after serving othervise your fingers, or moreso your palate will be in for a nasty scalding surprise. Perhaps that’s why khinkali are served at the end of the dinner. The hard handle is not eaten, it is piled up on the plate as a trophy, a silent boast about the number of dumplings consumed. A tough Georgian man orders khinkali by the tens, but for people like you and me, I would instead recommend beginning only with three.

Khinkali at Agerari Restaurant, Kutaisi

ჩაშუშული chashushuli, or colloquially ოსტრი ostri at Racha Restaurant. The spicy onion-tomato beef stew is the most popular dish in Georgian cuisine, usually one of the two or three items offered by roadside inns. Despite its Russian-sounding name – острый, ʻpungent, hot’ – it is not hot. Here’s a well-illustrated recipe that shows how it is made and what to expect when it is brought out. Although it has plenty of juice, it is usually served with a fork. Georgians sop it up with shoti bread, but you can also ask for an extra spoon.

To be continued.

Lions on the wing

When future extraterrestrials wonder which living beings went extinct together with mankind in the 21st century, they will come to the surprising conclusion that several mammals had winged variants, and, although their fossil remains have not survived, representations of them will be easy to find. Altogether, man, cattle and lions have each had winged subspecies, it will be concluded. But the most peculiar mutation had to have been the winged lion with the double tail, either as a result of one of the nuclear accidents that had preceded the destruction of humanity, or as a development along with the wings for aerodynamic balance. In the absence of a fossil skeleton, evidence of this two-tailed winged lion will only exist in the form of a statue on the former Klárov Square of the former Prague, on the bank of the Vltava, next to the Lesser Side bridgehead of the Mánes Bridge.

The statue, erected through the fundraising efforts of the British community in Czechia, commemorates the winged Czech lions who, in the 1940s, protected the ground-going British lions against the attacks of the German eagles.

The air force of the Czechoslovak Republic was established in 1918 and ceased to exist exactly twenty years later, when the invading German army disbanded them and confiscated their planes. The Luftwaffe offered to take the Czech pilots, too, but the vast majority of them preferred to emigrate. Many joined the Polish Air Force, and they fought on their side in September 1939, but then fled the country with the rest of the Polish army, and continued to fight the Germans in the skies above other lands. The statue, erected as a gift from the British community in Czechia, commemorates the 2,500 Czech pilots who defended Britain during the “Battle of England” i.e. the ongoing German air strikes of 1940 and 1941.

Looking at the statue, I recall an earlier encounter with such a lion. It was in northern Scotland, on the banks of Cromarty Firth, in the cemetery of the now-perished village of Kiltearn (in local Gaelic, Cill Tighearna). Lloyd and I turned off the main road onto a dirt road leading to the cemetery right on the beach for the ruins of the medieval church and the tombs of the medieval Scottish lairds. We were very surprised to see, among the tombs of the lairds and burghers, a small plot of military graves from the 1940s, of three Canadians, twelve Poles and one Czech pilot.

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The Czech sergeant, Jaroslav Kalášek was of the same age as the Czechoslovak Air Force: he was born in 1918 and died in 1944. According to the Czech war graves register, he fled to England in 1939, through Hungary and France, that is, together with the Polish army, which, after the coordinated German-Soviet invasion of Poland, was given a free escape route by Hungary, despite the displeasure of the German ally. He served in the coast guard unit of the British Air Force, which defended the industrial centers of Scotland against German airstrikes, thus making that coast a bit of a Czech sea. Their resistance is remembered, in addition to the war graves, by the artificial island in front of the middle pillar of the World Heritage Forth Bridge, with the remains of an air defense battery protecting Scotland’s east coastline.

Those of the Czech winged lions who survived the war were awaited by the damnatio memoriae at home. During the decades of Cold War, it was forbidden to talk about the service of Czech pilots in the British Army. Nevertheless, the regime remembered precisely who took part in this officially non-existent service: they were persecuted, imprisoned as enemies of the system, forced into menial jobs, and denied pensions. They were rehabilitated only after the Velvet Revolution, by a decree of Václav Havel on 29 December 1989, which restored their rank, pension and place in the historical memory of the country.

The erection of the winged two-tailed lion in 2014 also belongs among the gestures of restoring historical memory. However, it does not please everyone. A 2014 issue of Český rozhlas published, under the title “Circus in Klárov”, a legitimate criticism on the various postmodern sculptures spotted in this amorphous square of the Lesser Side, including “the extremely poorly modeled lion by the British sculptor Colin Spofforth, who makes kitschy sculptures exclusively for shopping mails, and whose work was never allowed out in public spaces”.

But Praga has even endured worse statues. This one will also remain as an imprint of our age, or at most a metronome will be put in its place.