Lines and objects curve and contort together, never straying far from the linear. Gold gleams out of the grey of the marble. They scribe out an effect upon a surface; the effect of words: but they are entirely unintelligible to me. The Roman and Cyrillic scripts are so burned in to my mind that I cannot fathom this beautiful flow as intending to communicate powerful ideas. “Strength is in unity.”
The architecture is far from unfamiliar, arising from strong European and Central Asian traditions. It has none of the unnecessary augmentation of the lands North of here, but every bit of the elegant classicism of Hausmann’s Paris. Commerce ebbs and flows, as with any civilised country, and the people are no different from the streets I am so used to. Why, then, do I feel so very far from home?
I have loved the idea of Canada because I have recently been watching so much TV where it features so prominently. I have loved the idea of Australia after several decades watching it grow, developing from the cartoon character of 1990s soap stardom to a global food megastar. Where else on this fair planet of ours has piqued my interest? What influence has the mean old television set had on it all?
Central Asia has always been caricatured in my mind: I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and we were all in the thrall of too much cold war propaganda. That which was part of the Soviet Union, no matter how former, was the enemy, and was dull, and was grey and was apocalyptic. They ate only boiled cabbage and potatoes, perhaps with some stringy meat. None of this would be true, in fact.
Decades have followed, and the sun has shone brightly on Tbilisi, and yet still I have never ventured so far. A map on my wall shows the places my mind wills me to visit: Baku, Almaty, Bishkek, Astana, Tashkent, Samarkand, but there at the start, bridging the East and the Middle, is a crux of land we know as Georgia. Yes, I want to delve deeply, but I want to start there. I want to start with Tbilisi.
And yet, as always, television is to blame. I have watched several TV shows in recent years where a series of travellers – usually educated white middle class cis-male bearded folk, much like myself – have dropped in to the vicinity and been astounded by what they have found: Comedians trying to spend as much money as they could, to scholars looking at rich Georgian literary traditions.
In my mind I lump a lot of the former Soviet Republics together in to one homogenous group. I have also done this with the countries which comprise the Balkans, the Baltics and the various facets of the Nordic and Scandinavian groups. This is my fault, and it has coloured my opinion of so much of the world that I want to get out and explore. Georgia is nothing like Azerbaijan, for instance.
A capital city is a capital city is a capital city, or so one would expect. Then again, I cannot imagine any other city on earth looking like Baku. With contorted surfaces and towers of fire glittering the skyline, no other country would dare to emulate it. Tbilisi is a different kettle of fish: its old town comprising so many ancient disciplines and styles, no other country could possibly compete with it.
I only know this from the screen. I have only ever experienced a virtual view of these places, and the taste which I have been offered has amended and affected my desire to engage. I know of some superb Georgian restaurants, but only via the tastes of a comedian, and never my own. I could not hope to find them on a map. What would I do if I ever found myself lucky enough to travel there?
I am a lover and very much a collector, if not exactly a student, of languages. I love to hear songs sung in languages far from my own vulgar tongue; I love to see buildings full of the script of a foreign hand; more so, I love to see something effortlessly familiar rendered utterly exotic by translation. Georgian ticks all of the boxes for me: a modern country with a magical script; beguiling and alien.
On the other hand, my heart sinks when I see the encroachment of the Roman script in to cultures where it has no rightful place. Yes, it makes it easier to navigate, but I would rather see all of Georgia filled with Mkhedruli and not understand than see translations, which allow me to navigate. And so we see adverts for Western products no longer rendered solely in Georgian, but in “brand”. So dull.
But the TV makes it look so easy: every conversation is subtitled; every signpost can be explained by a helpful commentary; every excursion is aided by a helpful guide and a bevy of local fixers. This is not the reality of holidays; at least that I have taken. Without picking up some degree of familiarity with the local tongue, lost can become bewilderingly caught in the blink of a twitching eye.
It can’t be just the language, its script, architecture and the influence of television which is drawing me to Georgia, can it? In part, the answer to that will always be a resounding “Yes!” In part, the fact that I know a lot less about the country than a lot of the lands in my vicinity is a draw. I understand it to be thriving, safe and enchanting: is that not enough of a reason to start investigating flights out?
Globalisation is the root of many ills, and technology is the means through which it is increasingly mediated. But what of the applications and the technologies which make life easier? I have no doubt that I could find a perfectly commodious flat in Georgia with Airbnb; that I could make my way from the airport easily with an Uber. These things have made so many holidays so much less stressful.
Television, too, has an awful lot to answer for. While the TV news of my youth made Georgia seem like an enemy state, behind some impenetrable barrier, beyond which I would be arrested on sight for my decadent, imperial, Western ways, TV today makes me want to get the first plane out there, my partner and children in tow. I love to travel the world; I feel the need to head further East now.