with Tom in Tbilisi


My friend Tom invited me to visit him in Tbilisi. He’s a fearless, openhearted man, an international aid worker who had put in hard time in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Now, he was the head of child protection for UNICEF in Georgia. “You can stay at my apartment, I’ve plenty of room. It’ll more than cancel out the price of the ticket to get here.” To entice me further he quoted a piece of graffito he had seen scrawled on the side of a building that afternoon: NO GOD, ONLY KINGS. “That’s the kind of place this is. Original. Enigmatic. Unexpected.” He reminded me that Joseph Stalin and George Balanchine were both Georgian—”a major murderer and a major modernist”—a fact that seemed to suggest a great deal about the country, while at the same time increasing its aura of mystery. “I’ll book a flight for next month,” I told him. Tom met me at the airport. He appeared to enjoy my startled reaction to the new, gleaming terminal, which seemed much grander than required for the small former Soviet republic. “It’s one of Georgia’s many attempts to make its fantasy about itself feel real,” he said. The fantasy sharpened when we drove into the city along George W. Bush Street, smoothly paved and with a billboard of Bush waving to his Georgian comrades, free marketers all.

more from Michael Greenberg at Bookforum here.