018I drop my 5 tetri coin into the slot by all the buttons and ride the elevator in our building down nine flights to the street.   I am going out to explore for a few hours while Janet, Elyse and Doris share some time.

I walk thru some small streets, past apartment buildings and the Swedish, Romanian and Czech Embassies.   Off of one balcony, a rope is suspended over to a tree where a pulley is mounted so that the apartment owner has a good 30 feet to hang their laundry.


On another clothes line, a couple of stuffed animals are hanging out to dry.

You might think that the buildings appear unfinished (which sometimes is the case) or as if they’re falling apart a bit.   But the outside of buildings don’t always reflect what’s inside.  Rough exteriors often contain beautiful spaces within.

???????????????????????????????I make the walk to the main boulevard – Chavchavadze Street.   Most streets in Tbilisi seem to have at least 4 syllables in their name!  That’s when you see the names, because street signs are scarce in many parts of the city.  You can go blocks and blocks without seeing any — a challenge for a map fiend like me!  And when you do encounter street signs (on the sides of buildings), they are often only in Georgian.  I think Georgian script is elegant.  It appears, to me, like a cross between the flowing sweep of Arabic and rounded curls of Korean writing.

Once I get to Chavchavadze, I take one of the underground pedestrian walkways to get to the other side of the street.  These underground passages are lined with shops selling vegetables, kitchenware, electronics, clothing, pharmacy items, and a host of other merchandise.   Old ladies and men often sit on the side of the steps to sell some produce.

139One generally doesn’t walk across the main boulevards at street level — which is wise.   Even Georgians admit that driving habits here are insane.  Taxis and regular cars  constantly jockey for that extra centimeter which they can then leverage to shoot ahead in traffic, swerving abruptly to avoid merging cars and on-coming traffic that may be straying across the middle line — all while traveling at break neck speed and maintaining a continual staccato of honking.   New York City taxi cab drivers might seem genteel in comparison.

110Given this state of affairs, it’s a bit alarming that, generally speaking, people only wear seat belts in the front seat.  In the back (including in taxis), the belts are usually tucked deep into the creases of the back seat, or removed altogether (despite signs which sometimes say “Please fasten your seatbelt”!).  When we take taxis, we try to be selective (minimal dents, etc.) but windshield cracks, as on a recent ride, are par for the course.

It is, however, pretty cheap to ride a taxi — generally 5 Georgian Lari (about $3) gets you anywhere in the center city.   The yellow buses, which are everywhere and run frequently, are cheaper yet (.5 Lari per trip); and they feel safer.   So on this day,  I hop on the 140 bus and head to the Old City.   As we move into traffic, it feels to me as though the bus is like a whale with all the taxis and other cars shooting around us like schools of kelp in the sea.

082As the bus travels down tree-lined Chavchavadze, we pass Ilia State University (“ISU”!) and long stretches of shops.  Much of the avenue has ornate lanterns and balconies.   Tbilisi is known for its balconies — in many locations, they reminds me of New Orleans.  Some are very ornate, others may be just concrete slabs.  But everyone, it seems, treasures these open spaces and lookouts to the street.


Amidst these beautiful balconies and lanterns one may nearly stumble over a shocking site — a toddler left on a blanket on the sidewalk to beg.   It’s common to see older people asking 029for money (frequently around churches).   But I have been stunned to see what appears to be 2 – 3 year olds laying on small blankets in the middle of busy sidewalks holding a little cup.  The children are often asleep or look half dazed.    The added shock is that there’s no adult I see in sight watching over the children — although they presumably are somewhere close by.  I did observe one woman (at left — the mother?) one day smoothing out a blanket on the sidewalk for a child and then speaking with the child  before,  I expect, leaving them.   I have passed these children several times with my own 8 year old daughter, whom I know finds the sight disturbing.   How do you explain to a young child that a 2 year old might be left alone to beg?

These children (and families) appear to me to be of a distinct ethnic group — and I’m told they are Roma — gypsies who live a somewhat nomadic existence across Europe.  Someone who works for a  local aid organization told me that the Roma often resist efforts of assistance, preferring to rely on their own established social networks.

075As the bus turns onto Rustaveli Avenue, we pass the Opera House, House of Parliament and other large buildings.  One of these is the National Georgian Museum.  Janet, Elyse, Doris and I went the other week and saw, among some Georgian treasures, an exhibit on “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia.”   This region, sandwiched between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, is a crossroads and has been conquered and reconquered over the centuries.  The Russians were the latest occupiers, controlling Georgia from 1922 to 1991, until they were expelled during the breakup of the old Soviet Union.  The exhibit in the museum traces the pattern of oppression which locals say persists today in two regions of Georgia (map below).


Throughout the exhibit, there are poignant  descriptions of those who were persecuted, from artists, clergy, political leaders and other regular citizens.

066The red areas in the map indicate regions of Georgia that are under Russian control today, stemming from the 5 day war you may have read about in 2008.  Georgians consider these two areas a part of territorial Georgia, but the future status of the regions, as well as relations with Russia, remain unclear.


One café owner has fun with the legacy of the Soviet occupation with a tongue-in-cheek restaurant theme!

Speaking of persecution, there was a gay rights march a couple days ago along this same stretch of  Rustaveli Avenue.  We were warned by Janet’s colleagues to steer clear as similar public demonstrations have been the scene of violence in the past.  As we heard and read later, 75 LGBT persons were peacefully marching when they were violently assaulted by a large mob.  (They were evacuated, somewhat belatedly, by police.)  We had taken a cab to another destination in the city that day and were tied up in traffic as streets were closed, sirens sounded, and the commentator on the radio spoke urgently (in Georgian) about the unfolding events.

098My bus approaches my destination, Freedom Square.  This used to be called Lenin Square, but the statue of Lenin is gone, replaced with a gold statue of the patron saint of Georgia, St. George, who is usually depicted, as here, on a horse and spearing a dragon.


I took the bus to Freedom Square because that puts me right in the midst of the Old City of 014Tbilisi.  My goal for the day is to explore the narrow, winding streets as they snake around the hills.   A guidebook recommended getting lost as the best strategy for discovering the charms and history of this old section of the city.   As soon as I get a block away from Freedom Square, the din of the city falls away and I feel as though I could be in a small hillside town.   An old woman sells her vegetables on the sidewalk, brooms are stacked for sale, flowers are set out on display.



The deeper I go into the Old City, the quieter it becomes. I often am the only person on the street.  I peek into courtyards and follow little alleys.   I don’t know that I’d do this in the evening, but in the daytime I feel totally safe.  (Tbilisi is generally a very safe city.)

033As I continue along, my eye catches a spire through the opening of a small street.   I’m in the Betlemi (Bethlehem) neighborhood of the Old City and turn into the street.  A dog (on a balcony) raises a ruckus as I walk by.  Ahead of me, the “Lower Betlemi Church” rises up against the hillside.

038There are a series of steep staircases leading up to the church.   It’s about 1:00 p.m. and it seems that people are beginning to gather for what I expect is a midday service.   I watch as a woman slowly makes her way up the steps.


055I enter the church and my eyes take a second to adjust to the darker interior, lit only by light coming thru a couple open windows and the devotional candles that people are lighting and placing in front of the icons that hang from the church’s interior walls.   People continue to come in.  Those gathering are mostly women (middle aged and older) and a few men.  People move around the open sanctuary (there are just a few benches around the perimeter), lighting their candles, and touching or kissing the icons.   People also write notes, as I saw people do at the Easter service.  I’m still not sure if these are prayers or confessions — I expect the former.  (I have asked a number of people about them, but each time, the person did not understand English.)   The priests begin to move through the church and collect the notes, the crowd continues to swell.

A few minutes later, the priests take their position in front of the choir screen and begin reciting  prayers.  As they do, five women begin singing a capella in the rising and falling tones of Gregorian chants — all the while the priests continue  their reading.


I have no idea how long this service will last.  I first thought that it might be a briefer midday service, but people are still entering the church.  Wanting to cover more ground that afternoon, I stepped out of the church into the sun.

I have been struck by the religious devotion of the people here.  Not everyone attends church, but I regularly see signs of the faith from people, young and old, along the street.  When I was walking the other day, I saw a man suddenly stop and cross himself — a prudent step of protection I thought as he was venturing into the street.  But then I realize that he crossed himself because he was walking past a church.   Yesterday, I saw a young teen bopping down a street, his iPod jamming the latest tunes.  As he walked past a church, he suddenly paused, reverently looked to the church and crossed himself.  Then he was off again, leaving a trail of guitar and drum music as he went.   Even people riding the bus cross themselves as they pass churches in traffic.

077I make my way back to the staircase that brought me to the church and continue to climb.  This entire neighborhood rises sharply up the hill, and as I ascend, I find myself at a small plaza and the Upper Betlemi Church.   The church is locked and appears to be in need of renovation.  I wonder if it is in use.   The little plaza has beautiful views over the city and some artists have taken up position to paint.

065Behind the Upper Betlemi Church is a cliff face and then a set of stairs that lead to a switch-back path that winds up the hill to the top of the ridge that overlooks Tbilisi with the Narikala fortress perched on top.   I walk up halfway so I can look back down at the church and get a great view of the city.

(The Upper Betlemi Church at right)

042It’s a wonderful panorama of the Old City and across the river to the Presidential Palace and the new Concert Hall (the modern tube-like looking structures).   The new concert hall is a source of controversy as people question whether it’s placement in the old part of the city is appropriate.  Ironically, the biggest critic is the Prime Minister who lives in an enormous,  ultra modern mansion that sits on the hillside and overhangs the Old City.


The Prime Minister’s abode.


I return down to the small plaza.  I can hear the singing of the women coming through the windows of the lower Betlemi Church as the service continues.   To the right, a narrow alleyway invites me to continue my walk.


Before long, there’s a bit of commotion as a class of school children come running past me and down the alleyway, their jackets flapping in the air.   As fast as they appeared, they’re gone, and I’m left in near complete quiet.  There’s only the occasional bark of a dog or the sound of a radio from inside a home.


Further down the alley,  I walk by this home with the blue doors and vines growing overhead.


The entrance to another home is adorned with flowers.  The vines are painted white near the ground to protect them from insects.


I encounter more balconies.  This one, with clothes pins arrayed,  is ready for laundry.


I loved the sweep of this balcony.


And then there is the blend of the old and the new across the Old City as some modern homes have been built alongside the older ones.   Or, in this case, an old home has received an avant garde roof addition to its upper terrace.


Further along, I pass a vendor with fruits and all sorts of Georgian delicacies hanging at the shop entrance.


And then there’s this man enjoying a potato chip kebab!


All of this food drives me to a café where I enjoy a cool Georgian beer and bite to eat.   When it comes to food in Georgia, it all begins with bread.   All across the city, there are small shops, often at basement level with just a window out to the street, where people make and sell bread.

baking breadThey use these large kiln-like ovens for baking.   I had seen the exteriors of several of these ovens and assumed that the bread sat on racks or shelves inside.  But when we went to a restaurant one evening (called the “Bread House,” appropriately), I was able to watch one of the bakers at work and saw how the dough is actually stuck to the sides of the oven.  Each long piece of bread that you buy here has a hole in it — which is from the prong used to pry it off the side of the oven.

The bread has a unique shape — flat, roundish  and wide in the middle, with long narrow “handles” on each end.  When you buy it from a shop, they wrap it in newspaper.   It’s a must to pull off pieces of hot bread to eat as soon as you get it.

206At a restaurant they serve bread in many forms, including this delicious cheese bread.

After bread, there is wine.  Georgia is purported to be the birthplace of wine.  We’ve sampled a number of vintages and have very much enjoyed them.

I’ve had to laugh a bit when we’ve gone to a local supermarket.  They have several aisles of wine and in each aisle are three women operating a tasting station.  You can never make it through the store (be it in the afternoon, evening or morning!) without several of the ladies approaching you and asking if you’d like to sample the wine.

203A staple on every Georgian menu is ‘beans in a clay pot.’  These come with the beans in a mouthwatering sauce which is boiling as the pot is placed on your table.  And of course, it’s perfect for dipping your bread!

Fish (mainly trout) is another feature on the menu, with grilled vegetables or a pomegranate sauce.   Janet ordered that one night.  The fish came served on a plate and was literally swimming in the pomegranate sauce.  At first glance, we thought, “Oh, that’s a dish ruined!”  Who wants THAT much sauce?  But it was absolutely delicious.

204Walnuts are perhaps the single most distinctive (as well as ubiquitous!) dietary element in Georgian cooking.  Walnuts are added to a broad range of dishes, including this cold eggplant appetizer with walnuts.

Meat figures prominently on menus — with grilled pork, chicken and beef — on kebabs or in a garlic or a (light)barbecue sauce (not like KC).   And the new potatoes, as the saying goes, are to die for.

But to describe a traditional Georgian meal by just talking about the food is to miss the essence of the experience.   Dining at a long table with Georgians is a free-flowing, warm, unhurried and completely delightful occasion.   Wine is placed on the table in decanters along with mineral water and juices, and then the food begins to arrive, and arrive, and arrive!    As dishes are passed around, the conversation easily meanders among matters of family, things local and international.     We have been included in a number of meals with Janet’s Georgian colleagues from the Free University of Tbilisi as well as aid organization partners, and they have been just wonderful gatherings.   The hospitality is unparalleled.

One adjustment when one dines in restaurants is the smoke.   Several people have commented to us that in some respects, Tbilisi resembles the United States in the 1950s when smoking was commonplace and seatbelts were unheard of.   Sometimes, it verges on the comical.   You can ride in a cab with a “no smoking” sign in the back seat, and then the driver lights up.   Or, I was walking down the street the other day and saw a man wearing one of those surgical masks that people sometimes wear to ward off pollution.  He stopped, pulled his mask down below his chin, and lit up a cigarette!

065We have enjoyed many kindnesses over the past couple weeks, from Janet’s colleagues as well as complete strangers.   My daughter Elyse, mother-in-law Doris and I were entering a church the other day.  To follow the local custom, Doris and Elyse began to fasten their head scarves before entering.   Since Elyse doesn’t usually do this, she was struggling a bit to secure the scarf.  A young girl who was standing nearby stepped forward to give her a hand.

On another day, we walked to a bus stop to try to catch a bus to a certain destination.   I didn’t have a bus map so I asked a man who was standing at the bus stop if he knew which bus we needed.   While many  Georgians  speak some degree of English (expertly in professional circles), in the general population English fluency is hit or miss.  (My Georgian vocabulary, needless to say, is exhausted in a few phrases.)   The man at the bus stop did not speak much English, but understood my question and showed me by pressing his cell phone buttons that we should take the 124 bus.   “Does the 124 bus stop HERE?” I asked.   He nodded ‘yes’ and then he hopped on his bus and was gone.   We waited.  5, 10, 15 minutes, but we didn’t see the 124 bus.   I began to wonder if the man had understood my question of whether the 124 bus serviced this bus stop.    Just as I was about to ask another person, the same man came up to us out of the crowd on the sidewalk and pointed to an approaching bus with the markings “124.”   “Your bus” he said, “your bus.”

I was so struck that this person had taken his bus, went about his business, and upon his return was still bearing us in mind.   Had he doubled back just to check on us?  Believe it or not, this exact scenario has happened to us twice.

201I finish my lunch and make my way back toward Freedom Square.   Along the way, I pass a sculpture of some lovers underneath an umbrella, which is actually a fountain.   There are wonderful sculptures all across Tbilisi.


Another favorite sculpture of mine depicts a Georgian tradition where people sing, dance and try to trick each other!   The sculpture leaves a space that seems to invite you to join in!


Back in Freedom Square, a bit exhausted from all the staircases and hiking, I climb onto the 140 bus and make my way back up Rustaveli and Chavchavadze Avenues to go back to our apartment.   As the bus lumbers along, taxis squirt ahead, veering left and right, and keep up their non-stop conversation of beeps and honks.