Saturday, 24 January 2015

In the Departure Lounge


Waiting to board at Tbilisi airport I was struck by the irony of  signs everywhere that declared.

 

‘Tbilisi loves you’

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

What Happened Next?




37 left

36 stood up to applaud.

Oh Yeah… What she said.

 



Afterwards I was told by a Georgian journalist, who sat me down and said very firmly that,’ The whole event had been a disaster’.  I disagreed.   ‘As I was not Georgian I could never understand’ I was told. There was no mention of the astounding presentations by the artists, the strong voices of the other women, the incredible folk music, the clapping and cheering of the Georgian Funk presentation.  No, Natia had been too aggressive, too combative, contentious, too loud, too emotional, too intrusive.

 

Due to catch a very early morning flight the next day, after we had cleared up, bundled everything into the back of three taxis, got back to Eliso’s apartment and crashed out, left alone with my own emotions, I struggled to settle. I did not belong here and did not understand why I cared so much about a nation of bigots, homophobes, misogynists and sycophants. My cheeks burned. Who was I to even try to create a space for voices to be free?

 

How do you judge if an event has been a success? The attendance figures? The feedback  from people saying how much they enjoyed it? I would argue not. Indeed, if no one turns up then that’s a bit of an indicator that people aren’t interested. But people did turn up – a lot of them. Some left. That means they were engaged but either disagreed or were too scared to be seen there. (There are spies everywhere in Georgia)

 

The Tea Party engaged people in topics that are taboo in Georgia and they felt they had to leave. They left because they could and not because they could not, this is unlike many other events in Georgia where people have to be seen to stay for fear of reprisal. That means people thought about the content then and almost certainly thought about what they had heard afterwards. If what was said planted a seed in their minds which may grow or die, so be it. Only they can tell. At least they were exposed to an alternative view and it’s that which is important in the current Georgian society where the Orthodox Church constantly legitimises peoples prejudice and ignorance.

 

The fact that there were 36 people who stayed to  the end out of the original 100 who had come to speak not listen, eat free cake,  drink English tea out of china cups that were later stolen, showed me it was certainly not a failure.

 

If  one person now thinks about things differently then the tea party was a success.

 

Through the night texts and messages started coming through.  ‘Well done you– exactly right’, ‘More of it’ ‘Your bravery and vision is inspiring’, ‘Power to your elbow’.

 

When the alarm woke me up with a jolt just a few hours later, I could not wait to get on the plane and go home.  There had been no sign of him and I was exhausted.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Yeah... What she said.




 

As soon as Natia got up to speak this is what happened.

 

People left.

In disgust,

Apparently.

 

As soon as Natia had finished speaking this is what happened.

 

There was a mass exodus.

From 73 - 36

 

37 people felt tricked,

And were revolted,

Apparently.

 

37 people felt betrayed,

And utterly hoodwinked,

Apparently.

 

Now, apparently,

(And they mean this as the highest form of insult)

I am a lesbian,

Have always been a lesbian

And the whole event was designed

 

To humiliate them.

 

 

Natia said nothing that was controversial.  I wish she had.

She said nothing that would be out of place in a Citizenship lesson in any school in the UK.

What she said was thoughtful, informative, non-aggressive and honest.

 

What she said.

 

I was there May 17th 2012

When 10,000 priests tried to kill me and 49 of my friends.

 

She said,

 

I was there May 17th 2012

When the mini-bus I was bundled into by police officers

Who  had, before this point, stood by and watched until it was clear we would be trampled underfoot,

was rocked, side to side by a priest

With broken teeth

And wild eyes who beat at the glass until it shattered

And I thought,

I am only 24 years old.

 

She said,

 

Please look at me.

Please see me as a person.

See me for me, not for my sexuality.

 

She said,

 

See, my tears are real,

Hear, my sobs they chime to the same bells

That call you to church each day.

 

Here, take my hand,

Link arms with me,

I am warm, I am real,

I am me.

 

She said,

 

My mother loves me,

My father too, my brother loves me

My sister, my sister’s children, all love me.

 

I don’t want you to love me, or even like me

I just want you to stop beating me up

Slamming me down

Killing me.

 

What have I done to you?

 

Is it my mere existence you hate so much?

 

Is it because I am a lesbian?

Is it because I am a woman?

Is it because I am not you?

 

She said,

 

I am Georgian and I am proud.

Please see me.

Please hear me.

I am a proud to be a Georgian woman

I am

Proud.

 

37 left

36 stood up to applaud.

Oh Yeah… What she said.

 

I was proud of her, and of the choir members who stayed and sang, unifying all our remaining voices together in traditional folk song. To them I will always be truly grateful.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Let them eat cake


Eliso had been up all night making the most beautiful cakes. Moist sponge soaked in peach juice and topped with kiwi slices shaped like crescent moons filled her kitchen. Cherries suspended in jelly, whipped cream adorning heavenly chocolate-layered pieces  sat on top of refrigerators and cupboard tops and could rival any professional catering company. She had been collecting china teacups for weeks. Bric-a-brac market stalls had been raided, wedding sets donated, gifts from friends collected and family members had been scouring antique shops since I first suggested the event.  It is difficult to find English tea sets in Georgia but she had gathered, washed and stored 80 cups and saucers for the occasion.

 

I was nervous.  Not just because the Tea-Party was being covered by the Public TV station, and not because I felt he was watching me, but because the people I had invited to speak for 5 minutes over tea and cake were an eclectic mix and included some who were seen, by their own people, to be the enemy within. The idea was to mix up English and Georgian cultures and to celebrate a long and positive relationship.   The UK government had changed the visa laws earlier in the year so a five-year practice of bringing Georgian artists to the UK to share their music, food, song and crafts had come to an abrupt end. I wanted to host something in Tbilisi to acknowledge all the hard work so many people had put into the English- Georgian cultural relationship. Usually all the accolades go to business people.  I also wanted to give people an opportunity to have a voice, to be heard and to be acknowledged. By inviting Natia, a politically active and vociferous LGBT representative I was taking a real risk. I had decided to follow my conscience. How could I be selective and not invite a whole group of people so important to the positive changes Georgia was trying to make, just in case it was uncomfortable? I couldn’t.  I had to do what was right.

 

The people I invited were mostly artists, musicians, alternative types. There was  also the Archbishop of the Georgian Baptist Church, an English Georgian Baptist Bishop and several academics from the UK, all  of whom with a vested interest in encouraging Georgia to be a more open and tolerant society. There were representatives from both of the main Georgian political parties, two extremely well known traditional Georgian choirs, ex-pats, journalists, and quite possibly, a spy or two.  I had also invited a member of the Georgian Orthodox church who had declined, as had a representative from the British Embassy.

 

People arrived on time, and the men were wearing trousers. This may not seem noteworthy to anyone outside of Georgia but it was a small triumph for me. Georgians are notoriously late. For everything. In fact, in our choir, Samzeo, we joked about working to ‘Georgian time’. Musicians are often known to be cavalier with things like this but add Georgian time into the mix and you have got a whole new frustrating cultural challenge. Often, any protests about this are met with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘What can I do?’  Georgian men also always wear jeans a lot. Anniversary? Wear jeans.  Important meal out? Wear jeans. Trip to the theatre? Wear jeans. Meet the Mayor? Wear jeans. You get the picture. The invitation had specified (both in English and Georgian) that the dress code was smart casual. NO JEANS.

 

So far so good, no one had come in jeans. As usual, the women  had made a huge effort and looked beautiful. The central table was exquisitely decorated and laden with layers of cakes and teacups, ornate and colourful teapots and soft scented flowers. It was very English.  The audience sat in a circle around the table, the speakers strategically placed within the circular space. There was no front and no back. Everything was designed to be circular, to encourage movement and to break down barriers. This may have been a mistake. The audience were looking for barriers even and they needed to feel secure in their place. That was clear. People needed to know where the ‘front’ was.  It confused them that the tea table was in the centre. Where were they to look? At the cakes?  In the end, the practicality of some presentations needing a large screen and a laptop meant that a particular ‘space’ became the’ stage.’  That stage had become the ‘front’.

 

The programme had been planned down to the minute and things were going quite well. What became quickly apparent however was that some people were leaving immediately after they had given their own presentation. The first tea break came and went with lots of mingling and chatting. It felt as though stereotypes were being broken down and I was pleased. Once people sat down again it became clear that several more people had left. Perhaps they had only just read the programme and decided to leave so that they would not have to listen to one of the most marginalised and dis-empowered sections of their own society. Women and the LGBT community.

 

The Programme for the evening was sent out to everyone who was invited and was available in both English and Georgian, 4 weeks, 3 weeks, 2 weeks and 2 days before the event.

 

Death Knell

 

About 45 minutes in, behind

The pleasant clink

Chink of porcelain

Flowers, Rhubarb  and Cream

Tea, ‘Fall in love with me’

Chocolate squares, I heard

The chime of

The death knell.

 

Tilting slightly I watched as

My marionette life

Tumbled elegantly, pivoted was

Re-defined by plotted

Scandal.

 

I watched the sky

Fall.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Erekle St. Tbilisi




I remember when,

Next door

Threw beautiful things into

Our garden.

 

Things like,

Golden rings inscribed with script so

Delicate that swan shaped bracelets

Bowed reverent heads and

Turtles, with outstretched limbs and emeralds for eyes

Played hide and seek amongst our rioting passion fruit vines.

 

Sometimes, when we

Played archaeologists

We unearthed golden shaped beans

Amongst the wildflowers that stomped

And tantrum’ed against the back sun-lit wall.

 

Uneven cobbled streets were our friends.

They rang out with

Childish laughter as we rolled our inside outside bicycle wheels through

Sunshine shade, through sunshine shade, towards the river

That called us to her with her song.

 

Then,

The Communists came in the discontented winter and

Took my Grandfather for being a good man.  They left

Only charred papers in a burnt out grate and

Four women whose cracked hands bled and beat

River washed wool to within an inch of its life.

 

Stones cracked, shutters rotted, balconies crumbled.

Mice made homes in window-sill holes

Where once there were silk spun drapes  but now

Wild yellow roses dwell.

 

My poor mother slaved to feed

 

Dulce et decorum est

(The old lie)

Non est Mortuus.

(He is not dead)

 

Every month she sent,

In a brown paper parcel

With ‘sorry’ written on the

Inside,

 

Bread from our oven,

Cheese from our goats,

Meat from the village,

Apples from our tree,

Socks knitted by guttering candle light,

Handkerchiefs made from curtains

To the punishing frozen North.

 

The first month

She sent,

Shoes, a book of

Poetry and

His reading glasses which, whilst cracked would

 Have to Suffice.

 

There was never any reply.

 

As I peer through the gap in the demolition boards

A rubble of childhood memories gaze back at me and

I see yellow roses wink and riot defiantly

Against the back wall in the

Lengthening shadow of a

Dying sun.


POSTSCRIPT
The family of women sent food parcels, every month, to Siberia for 4 years, encouraged by the Red Army and believed their Grandfather was alive.  In 1925 they were issued with papers that told a different story. Their Grandfather had been shot and his body buried in a mass grave the day he had been taken from the house back in 1921.





Friday, 28 November 2014

Fool's Gold (part 1)


It was one of those truly hot late July nights when the pavements quiver and a hint of thunder over the Tbilisi skyline promises relief. Leaving the theatre, my head still processing the tragic love story of Ramona that explores, through the beauty and precision of two (puppet) steam engines, the idea that the past can never be bought back and never be re-captured and that ultimately the real world tramples on romantic love, I felt sad. This trip to Georgia was coming to an end and the stark message in the play had invaded dark memories I had tried so hard to ignore.  I had not come to Georgia this time, heady with love and optimism, but rather to face some fears and to try to understand how it was I had fallen in love with a man who was the embodiment of a country that was, underneath, as treacherous and unfaithful as so many others.

Georgia, before her Soviet past and Stalin’s demonic ethnic cleansing and obsession with power, had been full of noble, creative, academic, intelligent people. She was at the forefront of cultural developments and was as progressive as other European courts with regards the arts, theatre,  literature and architecture.  Echoes of this past permeate the very air. I could hear it in the sacred songs that floated from the churches, and as we walked down Erekle Street  it was easy to flash back to the first time he had taken me walking in the night.  At the end of that first visit in 2009, after pursuing me all week he offered drive, then a walk on a warm September early morn to Sameba Cathedral, where, if you touch the golden stone, luminous and inviting, it’s easy to  connect with the spirit of the earth.  From there, we walked up to Kartlis Deda, the mother Georgia statue that commands the skyline and where  we had come across a group of men singing folk songs and toasting to the beauty of their first love, Georgia.

He had saved the very best until last. The walk up to Kartlis Deda had been accompanied by cicada song and the heady early morning eucalyptus smells that were so reminiscent of my Australian childhood. The path was steep and I clung to the intermittent railings until, at the top and out of breath I was able to slow my heart beat and look out across the city. It was stunning, and so quiet. The silence was thick with expectation. Then, from somewhere below us came the sound of men singing, long and low. Making our way down, slowly because of the hazardous pathway, we came across them. They had gathered at an elbow point of the precarious path, and they shared with us, their deep red wine, and he sang with them, and blended his voice with theirs and the sound swelled and filled the valley. All points of my compass turned. I teetered on the steep slope as we made our down and the silence between us filled with anticipation. I wondered out loud what would happen if I fell.   His reply sealed my fate. ‘I will catch you.’

Back in the present, I realised that the conversation between Nino and Eliso was charged with emotion. Eventually I understood what had happened. Irakli , Nino’s son had called, there had been an earthquake in the mountains whilst we had been in the theatre and its power had been felt for miles around. It was such an unusual event and every one was frightened.  I was oblivious.





Earthquake

The Caucasian mountains

Tantrum’d

Whilst we were

Emotionally distracted by

Metaphors and trains under

Crazy Click towers in the

Old Town.

 

Unexpectedly,

They grumbled to 4.5 and

Frightened

Tbilisi tower blocks

Already lacking in

Foundations squared up

Prepared to bluff.

 

As we wandered past the entrance to the Bridge of Peace and down Erekle II Street towards the bars in the Old Town there was a moment where pools of darkness reassigned themselves and became millponds in which memories dwell. The cobbled pavement was hemmed in either side by scuffed and rotting wooden barriers. To the left, the skeleton of yet another new building, its grey concrete form and jutting steel cables like cactus spikes, loomed over us. To the right, a derelict, tumbling ruin of what was once clearly a magnificent residence, slumped in on itself and played host to wild yellow roses that grew rampant from empty stone surrounded windows. There were gaps in the wooden boards and as I pressed my face to them I heard Nino sigh, ‘This was my childhood home’

Spinning round I saw her characteristically shrug her shoulders as I bombarded her with questions. ‘What had happened?’ ‘Who had lived here?’ When did you leave?’ Why is it still here?’ ‘Why did you leave?’

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Road-Kill and Destiny


Chance

Road-Kill

The chicken, squawked.

Discharged orange, yellow-blood-red soul-full feathers 

Cloud high, as the Moirai called her home.

 

Framed through the rear window, like some tourist board idyll,

Peasant farmers, all brown cloth caps and humble bent-backs

Scrape up the bird, broken body protesting,

Put it in a waiting black pot.

 

Already boiling.

 

 

I was shocked, not at the road-kill, but at the cavalier approach to this casual death and how we kept on driving. The taxi driver gave a shrug of his shoulders, and a ‘What can I do?’ gesture. I thought, as I settled into my seat-belt-less back seat journey to Khakheti, how chance had played her hand in my being here. When I scribbled the bare bones of the poem Road-Kill into my note-book, I realised that, much like the farmers by the side of the road had been waiting for an opportunity to cook a chicken, he too had been waiting for an opportunity to take without remorse, what he thought he was entitled to.  When he started to pursue me, I was so heady with his power and his passion for Georgia that I was blind to the waiting black pot he had boiling in the background.

 

The night before this trip to Khakehti,   we  had walked through the uneven streets of the Old Town and I had felt as if many eyes were on me. It could have been my hair I suppose. It’s vibrant, curly, red and untameable or, it could be that there was some vague recognition by fellow pedestrians of me from the TV appearances I had given over the years. Either way it was unsettling. I had texted my ‘god-father’ earlier in the day hoping for a conversation. If there was going to be any kind of contact with any of them then it was better if I took the initiative. I had been greeted with a wall of silence. Not surprising, but I felt disappointed and it only added to my belief that, like the chicken, I had once served a purpose, my usefulness had ended and I was, indeed, now worthless.

 

Coming back from Khaketi, where we had been well and truly supra-napped*, the very same taxi driver knocked the back leg of a puppy that had wandered onto the road. This time I was devastated. I made him stop the car. I got out and marched back to where the dog had dragged itself into a ditch by the side of the road. I scooped her up and cradled her. I pleaded with the old farmer leaning, bemused at all the fuss, on his stick, to let me take her home. I called her Murah and she was going to come back to the UK with me.

 

Destiny

 

Murah (Grey)

 

Eight weeks old.

Already nearly-blind.

Flea-Ridden.

Ticks colonise your ears,

Paws, nose and multiply in the heat

From my breast

As I hold you.

 

Your heart slows and

From warning fear filled pain howling

You stretch, yawn, sleep.

 

I wrap you in my scarf.

 

My body shaking sobs and fevered tears

Mingle with your hot relieved wee as it trickles

Down my arm, stains my skirt.

 

Eight minutes after being

Knocked senseless, your beaten, torn, discarded form

Not quite broken,

 

Had found sanctuary.

 

 

The taxi driver joked that the dog was lucky and if that  if this was what it took to get a visa into the UK he would consider throwing himself under the wheels of a car too.

 

The mercy dash to a British run dog shelter in Tbilisi meant that Murah survived her ordeal. Half German Shepherd half Huskie, she was seen  by the vet the next morning, cleaned up and soon adopted by a German couple living in Tbilisi. I had already  adopted a blonde Labrador cross from Georgia earlier that year and once I realised  my house was physically not big enough for the size Murah was going to grow into, I paid for her  vets bills and her upkeep until a forever home was found. Thankfully, it did not take too long. I see her now and again, thanks to the joy of social media and recognise, in her photographs, a happy, kind and beautiful dog who is adored and who adores in return.

 

#             Supra-napped is a phrase I have fashioned to explain what it is like to be faced with mountains and mountains of food at a Georgian supra-feast having hoped that, having attended many supra’s before, I would not have to spend three-quarters of my time in Georgia eating and drinking rather than visiting and learning. During my trip I was only supra-napped twice which was great and meant I did not need to start wearing a bigger pair of trousers.