Book Review: “Three Poems” by Vazha-Pshavela

Three poems by Vazha-Pshavela translated by Donald Rayfield. The three poems are Host and Guest, Aluda and Snake Eater.

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Vazha-Pshavela is one of the giants of Georgian literature. I often ask my Georgian students who their favourite writer is and Vazha Pshavela comes up in more responses than any other writer. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so I was happy to find this English translation of his poems at Dry Bridge Market. This was published in Soviet times in 1981. Unfortunately, the translation didn’t inspire me, I don’t know why. It may be that Georgian is so difficult to translate meaninglfully into English, particularly when it comes to poetry. Donald Rayfield has translated many Georgian writers and written books on Georgian Literature, he is an expert on the subject.

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My wife and friends in Khevsureti

Maybe, I will just have to learn Georgian, so I can appreciate the original words. The three poems are about the Khevsurs and their conflict with the Chechens set against a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains . It is about heroes and shows the problems raised by the interaction of the individual with a mountain society. In the Snake Eater , Mindia, a captive attempts to kill himself by eating a snake: “Mindia thought, if he ate the snake he would be free of his troubled life.” but instead of dying he gains occult powers: “from that day on he understood what birds sang, plants and animals spoke when they were glad or suffering.” Vazha-Pshavela is also writes idiosyncratic and evocative depictions of Nature – for which he felt a deep love. In Host and Guest , Joqola, a Muslim and Zviadauri, a Christian meet by accident as they are hunting in a damp forest. Joqola invites his new companion to his home to celebrate their kill but this hospitality flouts the tradition of enmity between the two tribes and Musa, the rabble rouser, turns on Joqola:

You headstrong fool, we’ll tie you too, if you defy the common voice. How dare you mutiny against that which we decree is right?

A Decade of Living in Georgia: the Good and the Bad…

I moved to Georgia in September 2009, the year after their short war with Russia. Ten years on, I reflect on living in Georgia, the country not the US state (it needs qualifying every time). I am often asked do I like Georgia? Well, my answer is “Yes and no”. Everywhere I have lived (England, Wales, Australia, France and Georgia) has had positive and negative aspects.   Some things I like, and some I don’t (as with any country, there will be the inevitable few, who will say the tired “if you don’t like it go back to where you came from!“). On balance I’d say I’m very happy here and have no plans to move. This is my own very personal viewpoint, I realise others will have different likes and dislikes, particularly with regards to the Khachapuri (cheese-bread)! I have also lived exclusively in the capital, Tbilisi, which I appreciate is very different to living in a Georgian village.

So let me look at those likes and dislikes in more detail:

Light

I love the fantastic light. Lots of clear sunny days make for good photos. Coming from England, where sunny days are rarer, this is a great blessing.

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light in a stairwell in Varketili

Mountains

The mountains are spectacular, some are higher than any in the Alps (Mont Blanc is 4810m, Mount Shkhara in Svaneti is 5193m). As a draw-card, I think this is what would  really attract tourists to Georgia.

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Khevsureti, one of many scenic mountainous regions in Georgia

Women

I might get into trouble for the next observation; but I find Georgian women are very pleasing on the eye, strangely many Georgian men seem to fantasize about Ukrainian women. I have been married to a wonderful Georgian woman for many years now.

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Georgian model in Old Tbilisi

Georgian Cuisine

Georgians rave about their cuisine, one list places Georgian Cuisine as 4th out of 48 European Cuisines ranked behind only Italy, France and Spain. This may be sacrilegious to state but I am not so impressed and miss English roast dinners and puddings (UK cuisine was ranked 13th) . I don’t really like khachapuri, their signature dish, a cheese filled pastry, I find it too salty. I do like khinkali and churchkhela. Georgian meals are important events and most birthdays and holidays are marked with a feast or “supra”. Georgians are also proud of their wine and claim to have been the nation which invented wine back in the mists of time, some  8000 years ago, a claim for which there is substantial archaeological support in the region. Georgian Wine

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Mtsvadi (მწვადი), Georgian Barbecue, a popular dish at supras (Georgian feasts)

The Georgian Language (დედა ენა)

The language is a real nightmare for me, using a different and unique alphabet and having long words with tricky consonant clusters. I lived in France for six years and can get by reasonably well in French, but Georgian is a different story. I explore this in a separate blog :  The Georgian Language is one of the most Difficult to Learn detailing my travails with the language. Maybe it is just my brain isn’t as malleable as it once was.

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signs in Georgian

Rubbish

One thing that saddens me is despite the Georgians singing so much that they are proud of their country, so many of them litter with abandon.

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litter near the roadside

Cars

I’m crazy about cars, though strangely I don’t drive here (see traffic later in the post). I love seeing the old Soviet cars around.

GAZ Volga 24 with crates
GAZ Volga 24

Work

As a native English speaking teacher with many years experience teaching English, I can find plenty of students here, many people want to learn English and there are not a lot of native English speakers with whom I need to compete. I have taught English since 1994, first in France, then England and now Georgia. The cost of living is relatively cheap, particularly public transport and accommodation, which are much cheaper in Tbilisi than in London, but wages are also much lower.

Safety

Tbilisi feels a safe city, I have had no troubles, apparently it hasn’t always been like this, in the 1990s there was a lot of street crime. Walking around late at night in an English city on a Friday or Saturday night is more intimidating than walking around Tbilisi at night.

Public Transport

The public transport, though cheap can be very overcrowded. The newer buses are better with air conditioning and less pollution. There are just two metro lines.

on the bus blog

Traffic

The traffic is scary at times, the drivers have little respect for pedestrians and won’t necessarily stop just because you are on a pedestrian crossing. When asked by Georgians what I don’t like I usually say “the traffic !” and they nod in agreement, though apparently it is even worse in Iran.

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Traffic won’t necessarily stop if you are on a pedestrian crossing

Another gripe I have with the traffic, is seeing far too many drivers using their mobile phones with seeming impunity.

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driving and using the phone

Religion

Religion is important here, despite the Bolsheviks trying to stamp out religion in the past, there are many new churches and most Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. I have been baptised into the Orthodox church but I find their intolerance of other denominations rather un-Christian, I feel I maybe losing my religion. For example: Georgian Orthodox church takes aim at Armenian Church. My wife is quite devout and prays twice a day, every day.

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Svaneti Museum Crosses

Smoking

Smoking is very common here, it is cheap compared to Western Europe and many smokers seem oblivious to those around them, it pains me to see people smoking around children. Smoking has recently been banned in public buildings which is good, although it often means smokers congregating around the exit, puffing away.

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You can poison your own lungs, but do you really need to poison the children around you?

The 1966 Italian epic Spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone was entitled “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly“…. for ugly, we have in Tbilisi the Biltmore Hotel.

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The Biltmore Hotel

Zufa Jafaridze commented: “The ugliest building right in the center of Tbilisi, where it shouldn’t be, ruining the view and the beauty of the city, but wait, it gets even worse at night when the giant ad monitor flashes into your eyes when you go outside, it never should have been built there and I hope it will be removed.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

A Trip to Svaneti….been there got the fridge magnet!

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Scenic Svaneti

Beautiful, wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the Caucasus, so remote that it was never tamed by any ruler. We had been intending to visit for ages and finally we got to visit.  Svaneti’s emblem is the koshki (defensive stone tower), designed to house villagers at times of invasion and local unrest (until recently Svaneti was renowned for its murderous vendettas). Around 175 koshkebi, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive there today. Well, now I’ve been there and got the koshki fridge magnet to prove it!

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Svani Koshki between Batumi’s Ali and Nino Statue and some French tower

We set off from Tbilisi early on Thursday morning. There were seven of us in a Toyota Isis, an unfortunately named seven seater SUV.

Svani trip

First stop, apart from what George W Bush might have referred euphemistically to as “bathroom breaks”, was Zugdidi. Zugdidi is home to Dadiani Palace and a museum established by Akaki Chanturia.

 

Inside the palace were many items connected to Napoleon Bonaparte and an old Larousse encyclopedia. After a brief interlude in Zugdidi, we proceeded to the Enguri Dam, a hydroelectric dam on the Enguri River in Georgia on the border with Abkhazia. Currently it is the world’s second highest concrete arch dam with a height of 271.5 metres.

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Enguri Dam

The highway winding its way up to Mestia is very scenic. Mestia itself is quite touristy like the towns of Capadoccia in Turkey. Mestia is the hub for exploring the region and where we had booked 4 nights accommodation. Whilst we were there, a Thai film crew were shooting a drama “Doubleman” about Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Siamese twins set during the American Civil War, which seemed an odd combination.

On the Friday we hired a 4 x 4 mini-van and went to Ushguli, a UNESCO world heritage site, it is at 2100m above sea level, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe. Ushguli has some stunning panoramas and an interesting ethnographic museum.

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Ushguli

On the Saturday, we took the ski lift to Zuruldi, (Mestia is a ski resort in the winter). The Georgian-Thai film crew were at the top filming their period drama. The Georgian government is actively encouraging overseas film crews to shoot in Georgia.

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two actresses in costume getting their instructions

Seeing Mestia from above…

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In the afternoon, we decided to do some trekking and sought to get to the Shdugra waterfall – the tallest waterfall of Georgia. A marked path starts from Mazeri village, the 8 or 9km to the waterfall may have been a little ambitious for an afternoon stroll. Our party was disorganised, the vanguard raced ahead, the rearguard was left with the bags and Ana and the middle section, confused, didn’t know whether to advance or retreat.

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We got within sight of the waterfall but didn’t get right up close.

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Waterfalls near Ushba Glacier

Our last day, the Sunday was spent closer to Mestia with less exertions. We visited a couple of museums: the Svaneti Museum and the Mikheil Khergiani House Museum, dedicated to a famous Georgian alpinist. Each had some interesting items.

Then a relaxing picnic in a meadow above Mestia.

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Most of the food you can find in Svaneti (and most of Georgia) are variations of potato, cheese and dough ingredients. We tried Kubdari, a local delicacy, a beef  filled bread loaf, usually seasoned with fresh white onions and Svaneti salt – a mixture of cumin, dry coriander, fennel, red pepper, garlic and salt. Personally, I prefer lobiani, the bread filled with beans.

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small supra in Mestia with Kubdari

We returned to Tbilisi on the Monday visiting Martvili Monastery en route. It is a long journey from Tbilisi to Mestia and back but the route is scenic. It is worth a visit, not just as an excuse to get another fridge magnet.

Nine years in Georgia: the good and the bad.

Every September, I reflect on moving to Georgia, the country not the US state (it needs qualifying every time). I am often asked do I like Georgia? Well, my answer is “Yes and no”. Some things I like, some I don’t (as with any country, there will be the inevitable few, who will say the tired “if you don’t like it go back to where you came from!“). I’ve been here 9 years now, on balance I’d say I’m happy here and have no plans to move. This inevitably will be a very personal viewpoint, I realise others will have different likes and dislikes.

So let’s look at those likes and dislikes in more detail:

I love the fantastic light. Lots of clear sunny days make for good photos. Coming from England, where sunny days are rarer, this is a great blessing.

Light

light in the stairwell
light in the stairwell of our old block in Varketili

Mountains

The mountains are spectacular, some are higher than any in the Alps (Mont Blanc is 4810m, Mount Shkhara in Svaneti is 5193m). As a drawcard, I think this is what can really attract tourists to Georgia.

Khevsureti
Khevsureti mountain scenery

Women

I might get into trouble for the next observation; but I find Georgian women are very pleasing on the eye, strangely many Georgian men seem to fantasize about Ukrainian women.

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Georgian model in Old Tbilisi

Georgian Cuisine

Georgians rave about their cuisine, one list places Georgian Cuisine as 4th out of 48 European Cuisines ranked behind only Italy, France and Spain. I am not so impressed and miss English roast dinners and puddings (UK cuisine was ranked 13th) . I don’t really like khachapuri, their signature dish, a cheese filled pastry, I find it too salty. Georgian meals are important events and most birthdays and holidays are marked with a feast or “supra”. Georgians are also proud of their wine and claim to have been the nation which invented wine back in the mists of time, some 8 000 years ago, a claim for which there is substantial archaeological support in the region. Georgian Wine

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churchkhela (walnuts in a grape jelly)

The Georgian Language

The language is a real nightmare for me, using a different alphabet and having long words with tricky consonant clusters. I lived in France for six years and can get by reasonably well in French, but Georgian is a different story. I explore this in a separate blog :  The Georgian Language is one of the most Difficult to Learn detailing my travails with the language.

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Georgian signs

Rubbish

One thing that saddens me is despite the Georgians singing so much that they are proud of their country, so many of them litter with abandon.

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Litter near the roadside

Cars

I’m crazy about cars, though strangely I don’t drive here (see traffic later in the post). I love seeing the old Soviet cars around.

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Can you see three Moskvitches in this Tbilisi street?

Work

I can work here quite easily as an English teacher, many people want to learn English and there are not a lot of native English speakers. I have taught English since 1994, first in France, then England and now Georgia. The cost of living is relatively cheap, particularly public transport and accommodation, which are much cheaper in Tbilisi than in London, but wages are also much lower.

Safety

Tbilisi feels a safe city, I have had no troubles, apparently it hasn’t always been like this, in the 1990s there was a lot of street crime. Walking around late at night in an English city on a Friday or Saturday night is more intimidating than walking around Tbilisi at night.

Public Transport

The public transport, though cheap can be very overcrowded.

on the bus blog
on the bus

Traffic

The traffic is scary at times, the drivers have little respect for pedestrians and won’t stop just because you are at a pedestrian crossing. When asked by Georgians what I don’t like I usually say “the traffic !” and they nod in agreement, though apparently it is even worse in Iran.

crossing by Drybridge Market
there is no guarantee cars will stop for pedestrians on a crossing

Religion

Religion is important here, despite the Bolsheviks trying to stamp out religion in the past, there are many new churches and most Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. I have been baptised into the Orthodox church but I find their intolerance of other denominations rather un-Christian. For example: Georgian Orthodox church takes aim at Armenian Church. My wife is quite devout and prays twice a day, every day.

metekhi church
Metekhi Church

Smoking

Smoking is very common here, it is cheap and many smokers seem oblivious to those around them, it pains me to see people smoking around children.

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Do they have to smoke around a young child?

Biltmore Hotel

The newly built Biltmore Hotel doesn’t fit in with the Tbilisi City Scape, there are many other examples of modern architecture at odds with the city skyline but the Biltmore really stands out like a sore thumb.

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Biltmore Hotel…

There are many other positives and negatives, maybe I will expand this post next September as I celebrate a decade in Georgia. Please add your thoughts in the comments.

A Canadian ex-pat who has been here even longer than me expresses his reasons: here

Remembering 9th April 1989

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9 April …remembering 9 April 1989…when Soviet troops attacked Georgian demonstrators with clubs and sharpened spades. The clashes left 20 people dead, mainly young women.

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9th April 1989. The Berlin Wall was still standing, the Ceausescus were still breathing and events in Tbilisi which included hunger strikes reached a climax. The events of 9 April 1989 were the culmination of weeks of demonstrations for Georgian independence and against separatism of Abkhazia. 

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The demonstrations were mostly peaceful. At their peak, about 10,000 people are estimated to have been present. 

Minutes before 4am on 9 April, General  Radionov told his troops, who had been requested by Jumber Pastiashvili, first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, to clear the square, in front of the Georgian government building, on Rustaveli Avenue, by all means available. The Soviet troops attacked the demonstrators with clubs and sharpened spades. The clashes left 20 people dead, mainly young women.

Images of the twenty dead. Images of the twenty dead.

An hour before the attack the Georgian Patriarch, Ilia II, begged the crowds to leave the Square.

P1100720 Mzia Jincharadze

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A year later…

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