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)
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.
that there were 36 people who stayed tothe 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
shadow of a
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
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.
and trains under
towers in the
grumbled to 4.5 and
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?’
through the rear window, like some tourist board idyll,
farmers, all brown cloth caps and humble bent-backs
Scrape up the
bird, broken body protesting,
Put it in a waiting
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.
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.
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.
Eight weeks old.
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.