A Short Stay in Old Town Tbilisi

At first it looked very much like home, 12 hours drive away in the South of Armenia. Our Old Town Tbilisi accommodation was on a dilapidated street, unevenly paved and steep. Cars blocked every entrance. Roofs were patched with rusting corrugated iron. Old women swept cracked concrete in front of battered doors.

“Odd neighborhood” said my brother

“But only steps from the action” I justified.

We took the dog leg past the Art Hostel and turned left at the synagogue, picking our way across cobbles to an attractive street lined with restaurants and bars. I’d had an excellent potato khachapuri atCafe Kala the night before– and an odd experience watching a young woman work at the wine bar opposite.

“Wine tasting. Wine tasting” the young woman said to each passing group of tourists.

She was pretty and animated so some of her targets acknowledged her and smiled as they said “No thanks” or Not right now”.

Between entreaties she smoked a cigarette in the company of a skinny man with long, lank hair sitting at an empty table in front of dark steps leading down to the wine bar. He wasn’t a customer. There weren’t any customers.

Across the way, Cafe Kala–all painted furniture, faded print fabric, bright flowerpots, and jazz–was roaring with trade.

I beckoned the girl to come over to the success-filled side of the street. This is what happens when I have no one to keep me in check.

” I can’t do it” she said “your place won’t like it”.

She gestured to a waiter behind me and apparently got the go ahead.

“Just for a minute” she said.

“Why don’t you ask them Are you ready for a glass of wine?” I suggested. “And maybe have a bottle or two and some glasses on the table?” I didn’t say to ditch the boyfriend.

“The owner wouldn’t like it” she said. “I like it. It’s a good idea, but I have to follow a script”

“But the script isn’t working– you aren’t getting people in”

“We get people” she said looking doubtful. She stepped back to her lonely station.

A group did come. Five people, perhaps German, accompanied by a tour guide. The gangly young man smoked his last cigarette, kissed the girl and left. Now she looked at her phone in between stillborn solicitations.

I finished my glass of wine and paid my bill. Cafe Kala needed my table. I walked over to the girl and asked her name


“Tell me what is so great about your wine– why should I come and taste it?” I asked

“It’s free, it’s natural, it’s Georgian” she said and shrugged with a smile.

“Maybe say that as part of your pitch?” I suggested.

She was a little annoyed by now.

“The guy inside talks to them about the wine” she said.

“But they aren’t going inside” I said

“Some of them do”. She turned away. I moved on.

I don’t expect Nina will be there when you have a drink or a snack at Cafe Kala.

We walked down to Sioni Cathedral. Zion. But Sioni is pronounced See-oh-knee which you will need to know when you ask a taxi to drop you off there. (By the way, use Taxify– or be sure to proffer only 2 or 3 lari as a fare. We did not do this and were consistently and irritatingly ripped off.) The church has been rather overshadowed by the more showy Holy Trinity high above the city, but it is a beautiful, peaceful place. The courtyard has park benches for the weary, and a row of taps dispensing holy water. Georgian churches have taller, slimmer spires than those in Armenia which made them all look strangely out of scale to me.

To the left of Sioni as you walk down towards the river there is a goods store run by the church, presumably to help the poor. The scent of beeswax mingles with the smell of dried peppers, wooden boxes of onions, and fermenting fruit. We sampled cream cheese topped with a trickle of chestnut syrup and then felt guilty about the plastic cup and spoon

It was time for coffee. I can highly recommend Entree, just beside the synagogue. They do a marvelous almond croissant too.

The Royal Bath House is the most ornate of the sulphur baths that are the main attraction of old town. We booked a bath and steam room for two– an hour for 40 GEL and a little extra for towels. A brisk splashdown and massage cost 20 GEL each. The bathrooms are covered with tiny tiles and ours was spotlessly clean. The salt in the water makes your legs float like barrage balloons and the water is very warm. We spent more time sitting on the stone bench by the shower than we did submerged. A woman gave me my personal massage–a bracing treatment during which she sloshed buckets of hot water at me and then scrubbed me sternly with a scouring pad. A quick wipe down with a wet cloth and an instruction to have both a hot and cold shower. A man provided Peter with the same. If they’d offered facials I would have had one. Exfoliated from shoulder bone to big toe, it feels odd to be left with a dirty face.

Tbilisi differs from Yerevan in that there are arty crafty things everywhere that you really might be tempted to buy. Modem cloisonné jewelry. Tablecloths with bold geometric traditional patterns and eccentric hats made from felt. The Old Caravanserai building seemed to be best for this sort of stuff.

There are also some shockingly bad things. No one wants those ugly felt slippers and all should ignore the miniature drinking horns. I bought nothing as I am now a bona fide minimalist world traveler more into the experience than the expense.

Dinner was at Culinarium Khasheria where we both toyed with warm salads featuring herbs we’d barely heard of. The restaurant was quiet and studiedly chic. We would have ordered the pudding featuring figs but no on quite got round to taking our order. Nice set up though, and very near the baths. We repaired to the Radio Bar where a young woman with a throaty gurgle in her voice sang 21st century classics and made them completely her own.

Posted in Advertising, Apostolic church, Architecture, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, eating out, fashion, Food, Georgia, Great weekends, Local delicacies, Old Town Tbilisi, shopping, Tbilisi, Things that gladden the heart, travel | Leave a comment

Between a rock and a charred place.

Nane and her mother Knarik are tiny and perfect. They remind me of dolls who  dance on the top of music boxes, except they wear jeans and leather jackets.  Not the type for tutus, they wouldn’t thank you for satin and tulle.

Here we are on the front deck of Nane’s house, last New Year, with Nane’s Grandfather.


This is what that same deck looks like now.


The Baghdasaryan’s house in  the village of Khatsakh on the border with Nagorno-Karabakh was one of four burned down last week. It was arson, and the police have someone in custody.

The house –built by Nane’s grandfather’s father–was completely gutted. The family are safe but everything–hairbrushes, underwear, clothes, shoes, birth certificates, tools and Nane’s school computer –has gone.  Insurance is not a thing in Armenia. They have lost everything.

The family is staying at the home of Nane’s other grandfather. He died last year, and the house has been lying empty since. They have the basics, but it is not what you’d call home–especially not if you are a 16-year-old girl.

Neighbors and friends have done their best to help by donating clothes and shoes but it is hard to be grateful for other people’s cast-offs, especially when they don’t really fit. The family needs cash–and that’s what their neighbors don’t have to spare.

As soon as I posted news of the fire, friends of mine from the US and UK immediately offered to send money. They don’t know the Baghdasaryans the way I do, but they could instantly imagine the horrors the family are facing. Unfortunately, it is not easy to send money to Armenia. Bank transfer fees would eat up most of the donation–and at this point I don’t know a swift code or iban number for Nane’s father’s bank account. These things can be hard to explain when the family’s teenager is the only one who speaks any English.

A friend in France has offered to send a laptop. A petite friend in Italy will parcel up some clothes. But would they ever arrive by mail? Could we get them through customs? Many less valuable parcels have failed to make it to me before…

“Ah,” you say, “but this is where Just Giving or Go Fund Me can be invaluable…”

Tragically, it is not that simple. Those crowdfunding sites don’t accept page requests from Armenia, and don’t transfer money to Armenian banks. It’s an unfortunate legacy of decades of corruption here.

A campaign has to be set up with a US or UK bank account and the person whose name is on the account then has to be responsible for transferring the money collected to the family. If you gave money to support Emilia Simonian–who, by the way, is off to Cambridge next week–thank-you–you’ll know that the Go Fund Me page was in her Grandmother’s name. Rosa lives in LA. The Baghdasaryans have no relatives anywhere but Armenia.

“I know,” I hear you cry. “YOU have a US bank account. Why don’t YOU set up a campaign and then use your ATM card to draw out the funds raised and pass them to the family?” It makes perfect sense–except that Peace Corps rules forbid me to accept money on behalf of anyone else. There are very good reasons for this: it could open impoverished volunteers to temptation; it could cause volunteers to be accused of fraud or skimming; and it moves the focus of Peace Corps service from capacity-building to fund-raising.  I am not allowed to do it.

Each offer of help that appears on my Facebook page breaks my heart. I so appreciate the generosity of friends who get that Nane’s dad –a teacher–needs a jacket to wear before he can go back to school. That Nane’s mum needs make-up to feel like herself again. That Nane needs trainers that aren’t in the shape of someone else’s feet. I hate that I don’t know how to match their willingness to help with the family’s desperate need.

Any ideas out there? For now, your ingenuity may be more valuable than your offer of cash.

Below: The House now–and in happier times, last Nor Tari.

Posted in Advice, Armenia, Arson, clothes, Corruption, Cross-cultural understanding, family, fashion, Go Fund Me, kindness, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, shopping, Things that make a difference, Village life | Leave a comment

When World’s Collide

I am back home in Goris and enjoying a perfect dinner of Irish Wheaten bread with Armenian butter, salad, and cheese.

The bread comes from Knott’s Bakery in Newtownards a no-nonsense town just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. The tomatoes probably grew under plastic in Ararat Marz, as did the cucumber, sweet and juicy. I bought the salad makings from the greengrocers–a brother and sister– not a hundred steps from where I live in the South of Armenia.

The milk for the cheese came from Nelli’s father’s cow, grazed on the grassy slopes above Verishen village. The cheese was made by Nelli’s mother here in Goris.

The bread, a taste of the first place I ever called home, was a gift hauled 3500 miles from Millisle, County Down. I hadn’t met Isobel before she handed over the wheaten. Isobel, who is married to an Armenian raised in Iraq, found me through this blog. In return for my updates on everyday life in Armenia, she sends me regular reports from the Ards Peninsula. It is very cheering to receive photos of the view from Isobel’s kitchen window– water stretching out towards Scotland —and to get a report on this year’s rose show at Lady Dixon Park. Then, oh joy, Isobel offered to run a few messages for me, bringing bread supplies all the way to Yerevan.

“Could you manage a bag or two of dulse as well?”

I couldn’t resist the additional request.

They sell this dark, dusty, dried seaweed at the newsagents in Millisle so Isobel was glad to comply. I had eaten both bags of the salty snack before I even got back to my Yerevan hotel on Sunday night. Armenians get their iodine rush from walnuts. I like walnuts but I am addicted to the chew and swallow of Celtic kelp.

Dulse devoured, I broke into the bread before the marshutni made it all the way back to Goris. Luckily Isobel bought two loaves.

Isobel is a find even when she is not on a wholemeal mercy dash. The visit to the rose show and the talk of grandchildren in her electronic dispatches let me know that we are around the same age but in fact we have more in common than our years. We each have daughters to be proud of. Sons to worry about. We shared some enjoyable eye-rolls on the topics of Brexit, relatives, and Armenian shipping. It was not only a huge relief to be speaking in English, but a real indulgence to use the verbs of my childhood. I dandered (walked slowly). I hirpled (lurched or limped). I was alternately scundered (embarrassed) and cowping (falling into a deep sleep). It was great, so it was.

Tomorrow’s breakfast will be a local-laid egg fried in a pan with a wee bit of potato bread. A great start to a new day in Armenia and a lovely way to bring my old home a little bit closer.

Isobel. I’m very glad to know you.

Posted in Armenia, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, Food, friendship, gratitude, identity, Ireland, Local delicacies, Millisle, Northern Ireland, Nostalgia, online friends, packing, shopping, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, Women | Leave a comment

Capsicums and the Spirit of competition in the Caucasus

Picture credit:Peter Barron

The Dezerter market in Tbilisi is so-called because soldiers in a Russian-Georgian war (1920s) went there to dump their guns when they tired of fighting. Deserting trends there still. The market stall holders were asked to vacate the hall a decade ago to allow a renovation of the building. Many of them never went back, preferring to set up shop on the pavements surrounding the massive warehouse. The sellers would have to pay rent in the market hall, but can squat in the alleyways for free.

Picture credit: Linda Jackman

Tina is one of the few traders inside, preferring the cool of the hall to the heat of the street, and proud of her city-approved hygiene certification. Tina makes a variety of pickles and relishes including a very good green pepper sauce. At first she handed us samples on small plastic paddles. When these ran out she poured her pepper preparations straight on to our palms inviting us to lick them off. The pepper must have anti bacterial properties for none of us suffered any ill effects. I still shudder when I think of the condition of the hand rails we’d clutched that day before we met Tina.

Picture credit: Linda Jackman

Encouraged by our enthusiasm for her condiments, Tina opened a bottle of what she calls Lady Cha Cha. This tasted like a fortified wine loaded with every soft fruit and berry imaginable. The base is cognac. One sip and it was Christmas. Many bags and knapsacks clinked by the time we moved on.

Delicious drinks and peppers in various forms were not confined to Tbilisi.

Back in Armenia we spent a night at the Hyelandz Eco Resort close to Garni and an Armenian Garden of Eden. Arthur has planted the place with fruit trees of every type. They keep goats and make their own cheese. There are aviaries. Caroline has designed the Lebanese-influenced menu and among the delights is Muhammara, a dip of homegrown red peppers and walnuts. Spread on the resort’s own bread or dried Lavash it makes the perfect lunch, washed down with a glass or two of Arthur’s home made red wine. We supplemented dinner with glasses of estate-produced cherry and walnut liqueurs. Could we fit a bottle of each in our baggage? It seemed we could.

Picture credits: Peter Barron

Caroline’s Muhammara was nearly matched by a simple dish we were served at Aland Resort in Yenokavan, high in the mountains above Ijevan. Green peppers this time, finely chopped and sautéed in olive oil with garlic and served with hunks of bread. It doesn’t sound like much, but it made a perfect outdoorsy lunch

We had a balcony in Gosh and it seemed like a good idea to order a bottle of wine to enjoy there before dinner. Bistro-owner Anahit took our order for a bottle of dry red wine without comment. We watched the sun go down as she brought glasses, giving them an elaborate polish before she set them down. A few minutes later we saw a five year old running across the square beneath us carrying a newly purchased bottle in front of him as though it were an outsize rolling pin. It was rose. It was warm But least it was dry. We drank it.

“Maybe we should take a bottle of our Georgian red with us to dinner?” I mused as I saw the shutters go up on the local store.

“You’ll need to ask if that’s ok”.

I broached the subject with Anahit who seemed most alarmed.

“What was wrong with the bottle I brought you earlier?” She wanted to know.

“Nothing at all” we reassured her “it’s just that we drank it”

“Ay Elizabeth jan” said Anahit and handed over the corkscrew.

Anahit produced a lentil soup we liked nearly as much as the Cornelian Cherry soup and the Rosehip, Cognac and Lemon soup we sampled at the Flying Ostrich in Dilijan. And we liked those quite a bit. Honestly though, Anahit’s tiny roast poussin, and cucumber, tomato and herb salad beat the Dolmama sister restaurant’s main courses by a Caucasian country mile. Across a week of very fine– and absolutely straightforward– dining, our favorite dinner was the fish barbecue, bbq potatoes and salad served by Hotel Lavash in Sevan. Fresh, simple and served by the lake. Go there whenever you possibly can.

Following a highly enjoyable wine-tasting at Vino Underground in Tbilisi I was eager to make sure the small wineries of Armenia weren’t ignored.

I booked us a session with Mariam at In Vino in Yerevan

Peter became uncharacteristically flushed and excited after the eighth half glass which this time was filled with a deep red Alluria Reserve, made in Etchmiadzin, just outside Yerevan.

“I enjoyed these much more than the Georgian wines” he said.

Mariam beamed and so did I. My smile was pretty slack by then.

The next day– heads beautifully clear– we visited GUM fruit and vegetable market close to where I stay in Yerevan. It doesn’t sprawl quite as much as Dezerter does and the market hall is full of traders selling everything from chicken feet to cheese and willow baskets to braided sorrel. A great deal of work goes into each display.

“Beautiful stuff” said Peter “and so orderly”.

Another score for Armenia.


Posted in Armenia, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Food, food safety, Georgia, Lake Sevan, Tbilisi, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Vacation spots, Village life, wine | Leave a comment

What to do in Tbilisi.

Aghmashenebeli Avenue. Make three attempts to save this name in your phone, and go there when you visit Tbilisi. This paved street in the new town has loads of alluring outdoor cafes serving Georgian wines and flaky khachapuri — pastry hankies filled with beans, cheese, potato and cheese or a baked egg. (Other foods are available. But you’d be a fool to miss out on the khachapuri). The day was hot so we decided a beer was called for. Beer is not a thing in Georgia– or hasn’t been until now. A craft beer bar has just opened off the Aghmashenebeli main drag. The owner, an Azeri raised in Siberia, urged us into the concrete cool of his matchbox taproom.

The brass beer pulls are all in place but the brewer hasn’t yet been able to order enamel discs to parade before the parched. These beers are so new they don’t yet have names. We ordered an IPA and a Double IPA. Flat, golden, hoppy and cold, they put the fizz back in our physiology. I wish I could direct you to the place– but there’s no name outside the door. — at least not yet. Just look for the chalkboard.

A visit to Fabrika was next on our list–one of those vast,old industrial buildings now reimagined as a hub for artisans and artists. I fear it is referred to as multi-functional space. Cafes line the yard. We sat outside on school furniture and waited for the hip wait staff to, well, wait. Peter stuck with IPA– a small, bottled one this time. I had a lime and mint lemonade. Later we took the industrial elevator to the second floor of the old factory expecting workshops filled with tortured felt, imaginative enamel work, and a hundred uses of unwanted Soviet memorabilia– crafting staples of Tbilisi. In fact, the upstairs at Fabrika is a hostel. Dorm rooms and private bedrooms with refurbished mid century furniture lined each side of a snot-green school corridor spine. I don’t know what they charge, or how rowdy the backpackers are at night, but it looked clean, cool and calm.

The walk from Aghmashenebeli (it gets easier each time you type it) took us past lots of second hand furniture– the kind of chairs I find hard to resist, in colors I love. You may want to travel to Georgia by van so you can bring some back.

By now it was legitimately time for a glass of red. I had Papari Valley. Read the link if you want all the Kekhati, qvevri, Saperavi, microclimate information but trust me when I say that this is a wine for the full-bodied. It is 16.6 % and I loved every jammy mouthful. Expect to have to brush your tongue harshly before you go to bed, and then again the next morning.

Tongues returned to a healthy pink, we met Tamar, our Guide from Culinary Backstreets Tours. The tour is an excellent way to get a sense of the city and learn its history and culture while sampling delicious food. We were joined by an Australian world traveler; an American entymologist and his German wife; Carol from the US Embassy; and an enterprising woman from California going to Kyoto the long way round. For me the fellow travelers were a bonus because, inevitably, some of the stops on the tour were much more familiar to me than to the others. There is a lot of overlap in the Georgian and Armenian ways of life. Seeing the others’ enjoyment greatly added to my own but nonetheless I felt strangely torn in my loyalties. Surely the Tonir is Armenian? Surely Yerevan’s fruit and vegetable market is superior to that of Tbilisi? Don’t get me started on who was the first to make wine… I knew I had really lost my heart to Armenia when we arrived at the Dry Bridge Flea Market. I am highly susceptible to other people’s junk but every time I spotted a must-have item I reminded myself that my money would be best spent supporting the Armenian economy.

I got over this scruple by the time we reached Vino Underground, a wine bar on Galaktioni Street, near Freedom Square. Dark and dangerous steps lead down into a cavern lined with Georgia’s finest wines. Once you’ve made the perilous descent it seems wise to stay all afternoon. Our wines were served by a knowledgeable young woman from Western Massachusetts who came to Georgia four years ago for a short visit. She fell in love with the language, the wine and for all I know a Georgian. She is fluent in Georgian and in the language of wine. We found our own language proficiency increased with lubrication. We were there for hours. We had dinner at Ezo, a family run restaurant but a stagger from the wine bar. I ate beans with thyme, and an aubergine dish. Both delicious. I dipped my Georgian bread in the fabulous walnut sauce that surrounded the chicken. The wine here was red, homemade, and served in large jugs. We had several. Our tour, which was meant to end at 6pm, wrapped up around 10:30pm with an exchange of hugs and social media handles.

Posted in Armenia, Cooking, craft activities, Craft beer, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Food, Georgia, Great weekends, Local delicacies, social media, Tbilisi, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Vacation spots, wine | 1 Comment

By Gosh! Great Breakfast!

Hasmik crossed the square and returned with a packet of sugar, bought from the first of three small stores, each of which sell a little bit of everything. We began to hope that our breakfast, first mentioned 30 minutes ago, might soon appear. Hasmik was not the only person to pass the single table set outside the Mkhitar Gosh Hotel Two priests drove up in a Nissan, their long dark robes, ornate cross pendants and bushy beards looking out of place in the front seats of the near-new station wagon. Around us, women in flowered dresses, sleeveless cardigans, bright socks and flat mules began to set up stalls selling tat for tourists–people visiting Goshavank Monastery, high on the hill above the square. Just as all three shops in the tiny village stock the same items– hair dye, church candles, cognac, school socks and gata–so all the stalls compete to sell pomegranate charms, bags of herb tea, and items hand-crafted from stiff polyester fabric printed in traditional Armenian designs.

“Just how many people need a wine cosy?” we wondered as Hasmik once more crossed the square, visiting the last shop in the row of three this time. “And wouldn’t those waistcoats be itchy?” Hasmik came back with a box of salt.

By now the two priests were walking round the monastery grounds, looking at ongoing renovations to the main church and tutting over weeds sprouting from the roof of St Hripsime’s chapel.

The church complex has USAID-sponsored signage in Braille in five languages. Blind visitors from England, France, Germany, Russia and of course Armenia, know all there is to know about Mr Gosh and the history of the church. Some probably have rueful tales to tell about the perils of broken paving and steep slopes for the site is hard for even the fully sighted to navigate. Stands for other noticeboards surround the multiple domes, but they are all empty. It’s not clear if the signs have gone away or have yet to arrive.

A man in a hi-vis vest busied himself with path-sweeping as the priests passed by. He had started work at 9am on the dot. Yesterday, we’d seen him finish at 6pm, just as the cows came home through the square. Now the herdsman walked his cattle the other direction. The herd nudged past men playing nardi in the shade, and edged down the hill in front the apple tree and a couple of storage shacks. In all the excitement I didn’t see Hasmik embark on her third shopping trip. As she returned with a bag of rice we asked for a second cup of coffee.

“I’ll bring it now” said Hasmik. “and then I’ll bring some Melissa tea.”

“No hurry” said my brother, perhaps a touch sardonic.

Two young men in a Soviet era jeep rattled a few times round the square and then hared off up the hill. A badly battered Lada stopped where it could be seen and the driver unpacked a scale, boxes of plums tomatoes and grapes, and a sack or two of peppers. The back seat of the car was stuffed to the ceiling with other produce. People collected to shop, but Hasmik it seemed had no need of fruit or veg.

About 10 o’clock, the bread van stopped outside the hotel. Anahit emerged from the kitchen and bought three flat loaves– tonir made– and many batches of bread. Anahit picked what she wanted, tucking the flat loaves under her arm while she instructed the bread man to fill a plastic crate with everything else she needed.

Anahit and Hasmik are by far the most glamorous creatures in Gosh (pronounced Gauche). Anahit is manicured and bejeweled and owns a selection of sparkly tops. He hair is pink and the front and gold at the back. She is slim, serene and stately. Anahit was widowed four years ago and surely has no shortage of suitors today. Hasmik has hair that Rapunzel would envy Both women sport hair clasps that look like the belt buckles of medieval kings. They are magnificent. That’s both the women and the hair grips.

Hasmik struck out for one of the tourist stalls and came back with a handful of Melissa– lemon thyme. Anahit brought to our table a basket of freshly-cut bread, a bowl of soft-boiled eggs, local cheese and butter, and home made blackberry jam. We could see the bramble hedge that spawned the jam. We could hear the chickens who laid the eggs. Hasmik followed up with a French press filled with lemony tea, and some slices of ice-cold watermelon. The haze lifted over the mountains. A van full of German tourists creaked round the corner and reversed into a parking space. The parking attendant raced towards the van but was too late to assist. He had been chatting to the man with the limp who tends the square’s khorovats barbecue. Even before visiting the church, the Germans bought traditional aprons made in stiff, new fabric It was going to be a good day for the women trading on the square. Perhaps most people who stay at Anahit’s hotel don’t get out of bed until they know the bread van’s been. Those people miss out on a lot.

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Armenia, breakfast, Christianity, Church, Cooking, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, eating out, Food, Great weekends, joy, Local delicacies, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Women | Leave a comment

Met—and missed— along the way

I look a bus from Tbilisi airport to Station Square and congratulated myself that I would be able to book our beds on the sleeper train back to Yerevan before I even dropped my bag at the place we’ll stay for the next three nights in Georgia’s capital. At first I thought the bus was one of those free airport shuttles but as it began to fill with commuters all using electronic prepaid passes, I realized my mistake. I stayed sanguine until a ticket collector with an officious array of badges and an old fashioned leather money pouch boarded the bus. No need to worry– she checked a few tickets but completely ignored me. Phew, I thought. It was all going terribly well. Then we arrived Station Square and I completely failed to find the station.

At first I wasn’t at all alarmed. After all, I am the person who managed to miss the Grand Canyon, driving 90 miles past the massive hole in the ground before I thought to stop and seek help. If you often fail to see the obvious you get used to wandering around bewildered. Confused becomes your natural state. I walked past hawkers selling fake Nike sportswear. (Trust me, if you feel the need to burn something with a whoosh just do it with one of these rip offs. They look highly flammable.) I circled a large gold market. I stumbled into the metro. I fought off two fake taxi drivers offering to take me to Batumi. All the while I looked for clues: a sign saying this way to the ticket office? Some railroad tracks? People purposefully wheeling suitcases? I promise you there were none of these.

Eventually I gave in and asked a fake taxi driver to direct me. He said the station was several floors up above the gold market. I could use an escalator to glide through a low rent mall. Who ever heard of such a thing? A station where a cinema or a bar ought to be? I still have no ideas where the tracks are. As it turns out, I may never find out…

I had consulted the international train experts seat61.com about how and where to buy sleeper tickets. Window 2 the man in seat 61 said. I am here to tell you that the Caucasus pages on this esteemed site needs updating. You can’t go straight to window 2. You have to take one of those tickets like the ones you get to wait in line at supermarket deli counters. I was called to window number 1.

Tamar tried to be helpful, she really did. But no, I couldn’t buy two tickets for Monday night unless I could produce two passports. I explained my brother would arrive here nearly 24 hours later than me, and that we had a packed schedule. Could she sell me the tickets? She could not. Furthermore, she advised me that all the first class, two-bed carriages were sold out. The two of us would have to travel in a four bed carriage. Could I buy all four beds? I asked. Only if I had four passports, Tamar replied.

I asked Tamar how many beds were still free on Monday night’s train. 9 she said, but all in different carriages. No two beds in the same small, swaying room. I guess we’ll take the bus.

Tamar asked me why I didn’t book online. It seemed pointlessly confusing to explain that the man in seat 61 had said this was not a possibility. I settled for asking her the name of the website where tickets can be booked. She didn’t know.

I got some cash and decided to take a taxi to our lodging, leaving the means of our Monday travel undecided. Many hairpin U-turns and much gesticulating later (Georgians don’t speak Armenian which is a pity because this morning it seemed to be my default setting) we arrived at a building clearly marked with a number 5 on the appointed street. Good job I thought and sat down to wait for someone to let me in. It did seem a little odd there was no one about.

My phone does not work in Georgia. This is a shame as it was almost fully charged thanks to some thoughtfully provided USB ports on the 37 bus from the airport. Eventually though a small boy rode by on his bike. I apprehended him, borrowed his phone and called the reservation number.

“Ah, “”explained Victor, “not that number 5” but another one two blocks away, not marked with a number 5 and on on a completely different street.

I followed Victor’s directions to go to another hotel and ask them to walk me to his place. They weren’t expecting me, but a very gracious young man became my guide. Once we got there, there were people who seemed to have heard of me, but the room wasn’t ready. No matter. I could leave my bag and come back later. At about this time a very old man who had been hovering on the outskirts of the conversation suddenly asked me for 180 of whatever it is they spend here.

“Why?”I asked, incredulously.

“I am Victor’s father”he replied and held out his hand.

“He is. He is.” said everyone else.

I of course could not phone Victor but his alleged father cheerfully offered to do this. But I couldn’t see the number he dialed. I began to tut and harrumph in unintelligible Armenian. The phone was passed to me and I asked Victor to repeat to me the previous conversation we’d had on the long-gone boy cyclist’s phone. He was able to do this and so I handed over the bank notes, left my belongings and set off to explore old town Tbilisi. I’m sure it will all be fine…

There was a small church on the way down the cobbled street. I stopped to study the legend detailing the history of the place at the same time as a presentable looking man about my age.

“Do you speak English?” he asked.

I affirmed this and he asked me where I was from — Armenia I told him. He said he was visiting from America’s Mid West.

“Decadent city, Tbilisi”he said.

“Oh good” I said, thinking that perhaps the trip was about to take an interesting turn.

“You think decadent is a good thing?” he asked, lips pursed, and told me how his taxi driver from the airport has offered to fix him up with a hooker.

“Oh you mean seedy, not decadent” I said. “I am pro decadent and anti seedy.”

“Have you talked to Apostolic priests?” My new friend asked. ” I hav spoken to quite a few but you can’t get close to them. Terrible body odour”.

I reeled back as though he too smelt bad.

“.Are you a Christian woman?” my new friend asked as we stood in the church grounds.

“I was raised in that tradition”I said. “But I can’t say I practice.”‘

“You would do well to go back to it”said Mr Mid West. More lip pursing. I began to notice he was clad top to toe in beige.

I decided it was time to make my excuses and leave.

“What do you do in Armenia?” he wanted to know.

“I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

“Imposing America’s world order…”

“That’s not how I see it”. By now I was itching to go.

“Where are you from in the States ?

“Washington DC”‘I called over my shoulder.

“Oh of course” he said. “Broken place. Broken government”

“It is at the moment” I said.

“Has been for a very long time” he replied

I waved and kept walking.

Later I took a taxi to a flea market.

“You married?”‘mimed the taxi driver sliding an imaginary ring up and down his wedding finger.

My facial expression said that I was not.

” You are finished with that” he said. “So am I. But we can make it work. I will stay with you always. I will come with you to America”.

I looked steadfastly straight ahead, my bag barricading my all vulnerable parts.

When he dropped me off he asked to be paid in dollars or Euros

“Don’t have them” I said, truthfully.

“20 lari” he said.

” No way. I came from the station for 10 and that was twice the distance. I’ll give you 10″.

He drove off without protest. The driver who brought me back charged me five. He saluted every time I pantomimed a direction. Now that’s my kind of man.


Posted in Armenia, marriage, marriagw proposals, scams, seat 61, Tbilisi, trains, travel | 4 Comments