Discovering the scents and flavors of old-town Tbilisi

Each day I went back to the Sololaki district and wandered into the quiet chambers of the past. Day or night I returned to amble on the sidewalks of Ivane Machabeli, my favorite street in old-town Tbilisi, a long shaded alleyway where lines of tall elm trees seem to extend their arms to caress the flight of a passing breeze. Buildings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stand stoic, the overhanging wooden verandahs full of intricate carved details, an eternal smile from the Caucasus. Georgians, Greeks, Persians, Turks, Armenians, Azeris, Russians, all have lived in this city. The rooms in these buildings have heard the first words of crawling babies, smelled the vapors of spicy cooking, one generation after the other.

 

Tbilisi

 

One afternoon I walked past the intersection with Lermontov street and saw a woman sitting on a rickety chair, her skirt and blouse as dark as her eyebrows, which made her skin appear even whiter. In an instant my nose picked up what my eyes hadn’t seen: the world of spices lay on the stand before her. Cumin, thyme, cardamom, clove, blue basil, mustard seeds, and much more. She smiled and nodded at me, as if we both knew the pleasures that could be concocted with her goods. Later I would dive into the secrets of Georgian cuisine and dip bread into bowls of irresistible sauces.

I walked under high porticoes that led to expansive patios where men played board-games in the shade, a line of clothes hanging in the wind overhead. Water pipes crept along the walls like the tails of giant lizards.

On number 13 stands the Writers’ House, a 1905 jewel of Art Nouveau designed by German architect Karl Zaar. It was commissioned by business man and arts-patron, David Sarajishvili, who had studied philosophy and chemistry in Germany. All of this I learned from Davit Gabunia, award-winning Georgian playwright and author of the best-selling novel, Falling Apart, and someone who knows every detail of this house. “Sarajishvili went to France and studied everything there was to know about Cognac. He came back to Georgia and founded a factory that produced good quality brandy. It was sold all over the Russian Empire.”

 

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We met on a clear day and had a coffee on the terrace in the backyard and admired the garden. “The trees are nearly as old as the house,” Davit said. “We have pictures of how the house looked back then.”

Along with his wife, Ekaterina Ivanovna Porakishvili, the Sarajishvilis were true philanthropists and created a scholarship program which helped finance the education of many Georgian artists, musicians and scientists. The house was erected as a celebration of the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary. In 1911, Sarajishvili, weakened by cancer, died at 62. The couple was childless. “In his will he give all his money to spread literacy across the country,” said Davit. “He wanted to keep the Georgian language alive.”

 

Tbilisi

 

As we toured the premises Davit spoke of the dark times the house had witnessed. “1937 is known as the year of Soviet terror,” he said. “More than 150 writers and poets were killed, many of them tried here, in this house. It was a time when mutual denunciation ran rife. Something that the Soviet regime was very pleased with.” The great poet Paolo Iashvili committed suicide on the second floor while a Writer’s Union meeting was being held downstairs. He placed a shotgun on his forehead and fired. “It was his way of protesting against the wave of unfounded accusations. The absurd crimes.” We were silent for a moment. As I walked through the rooms of the house I tried to picture the lives that were eclipsed here, the words that existed but could never be written. The dozens of stories we’ve been deprived of.

***

A sip of Georgian wine travels through the map of your body, it murmurs something to the cells of your organs. Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, words that become liquid flavors. A rush of ruby-colored bliss between heartbeats. In Ezo, a restaurant located on Geronti Kikodze, a street parallel to Ivane Machabeli, I sat at a table in the courtyard and ordered wine, a large glass, and a bowl of tomato and cucumber salad – for the third day in a row. “It’s the olive oil,” one of the waiters told me. “It’s from Kakheti. That’s the secret.” They were pleased to see me come back every day. Even the cooks had begun to crane their necks and smile at me from the kitchen.

 

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And it was also in Ezo that I had the honor to meet Anna Kordzaia-Samadashvili, Georgian novelist and short story writer, who offered me a glimpse into her magical universe. “I’ve always liked stories very much, all kinds of stories, about men and women, and I fall in love with my characters. Perhaps that’s why my readers feel it as well.” Anna speaks in a soft and lilting voice, pausing to take a drag from her cigarette. I want to hear everything about her life, her career. “My mother wanted me to be a Georgian-European,” she says. “That’s why she had a governess teach me German when I was a child. I grew up speaking Georgian, Russian, German, and a little Armenian. That’s how it used to be in Tbilisi back then.”

In the 1870’s, many Germans settled in an area known as Neu-Tbilisi, a neighborhood where protestants were offered favorable conditions by the local authorities – they wanted to increase and diversify the number of trades in the city, to urbanize it in a European way. Many of those Germans never continued their journey onto to Palestine, which had been their original destination.

Anna teaches literature and creative writing at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, and she’s also an accomplished translator. For the translation of Elfride Jelinek’s ‘Women as Lovers’, she was awarded the best translation by the Goethe Institute in Tbilisi. “Translation is magic,” she says with a smile. “Thanks to translation I discovered García Márquez and many other wonderful authors. When I translate I feel like I’m offering a special gift to the readers.”

 

Tbilisi

 

The following day I rambled again through the streets of Sololaki and read the inscriptions on the plaques, one after the other: Sandro Inashvili, founder of the school of opera singing; Lamara Pashaeva, ethnographer and public figure; Evgeny Mikeladze, orchestra director; Michael Aramiants, philanthropist; Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, composer. So many minds had found inspiration in Tbilisi. Hands clasped behind my back I ventured into one of the buildings and admired the foyer leading to the spiraling staircase, stood on the landing and felt the coolness of the air in my body, a waterfall of light pouring down from above.

***

Picking a favorite Georgian dish is an impossible task -there are so many to choose from- but one that has stayed in my mind is the dish that I shared with writer Levan Berdzenishvili, at Alubali restaurant, not far from the memorial museum dedicated to the life of the painter Elene Akhvlediani. “Ajapsandal is originally from the West Coast,” says Levan. “The cuisine from the East Coast tends to have more grilled meats and barbecues.” Ajapsandal is a dish made with eggplant, onions, tomato, bell pepper, parsley and many other spices. The one we’re served at Alubali comes in a marmite brimming with sauce. Levan watches me as I dip bread in my portion. He seems to be holding back laughter. “I can see you like spicy food,” he says. “You should visit the Imereti region. You would love it there.”

 

 

Besides being a member of the Georgian Parliament, he teaches at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. In 1984 he was sent to the Gulag in Russia on charges of ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ and spent 3 years there. He has written about that experience in his book, Absolute Darkness. “I didn’t write about that period of my life for 30 years. I wanted to take some distance and do something different, describe those events from another perspective. And so the book that came out, I believe, has a lot of humor in it. Dark humor if you will.”

At 66, he’s had many lives. He grew up in the Soviet Union and knew of all its intricacies -his father was a judge in the Supreme Court- and later, when Georgia became independent, he spent a year in the US as a research fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He also traveled to Strasbourg for over ten years while working as a representative of the Georgian delegation to the Council of Europe. He speaks Georgian, Russian, English, French, and some Armenian. “Tbilisi has always been very multicultural. There used to be a large community of Armenians here. But also Jewish and Greek and Persian, and many more.”

As I prepare to take my leave we agree that we will meet another time. Maybe in France or the US or Belgium or Mexico. Though I insist that he grants my wish to meet again in Tbilisi.

 

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Meeting Anna, Levan and Davit would not have been possible without the support of the Georgian National Book Center.

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