I say it was an ill-planned trip. That’s a bit of an understatement. It wasn’t actually planned at all. I had a vague idea that I would go to church for Mariamoba (Dormition), and that I would have to sleep somewhere at some point. I did not, however, have a map of Tbilisi, or much of an idea where anything or anyone was. I therefore showed up in a part of town with which I was entirely unfamiliar at noon after a 4 hour marshutka ride with a friendly young English-speaking man from Adigeni who works in agriculture (advising people on modern techniques, I think). He went off to meet his sister, and there I was, without the foggiest idea where I was; although I had spend a week there in July, there wasn’t a familiar hill or monument to be seen. I tried walking town the street to see whether I might happen upon anything recognizable. Nope, nothing — just a bit of gloomy drizzle. Next, I bought a piece of bread, and tried walking down another street. There was a park with a playground, and a lot of little shops with exchange rates posted in their windows. I walked back, and, confused, got on another marshutka for Mtskheta, which is about a half hour away, and known as an ancient religious center. I only stayed there for about half an hour; I pretty much got off the marshutka, walked into a cathedral, kissed some icons, looked about, and got back on another marshutka — but the 45 minute marshutka ride was enough time for me to read a few pages of a guidebook I was borrowing, which mentioned that there was a metro line near the station. Perfect. Upon getting back to Tbilisi, I wandered around asking people “sat aris metro?” for another fifteen minutes or so, until I finally found it, and after some glares by workers, doubtlessly muttering “ignorant tourist!” to themselves, managed to purchase a metro card and board a train.
I got off the metro at Rustaveli, because anything called that must be somewhat interesting and important. Upon ascending a very deep escalator, I was still lost, so I called a friend, and asked about a bookshop and hostel. He gave a couple of suggestions and didn’t say anything about my ignorance, so I started walking down the street, looking for Prospero’s, the best (perhaps only) English bookstore/coffee shop in town. It was on that same street, and had a neatly printed banner in English on the street, leading to an alley courtyard, so it wasn’t too hard to find. It really is quite a nice shop. It has a number of glossy new volumes in English, aimed at travelers and students; dictionaries, guide books, Georgian grammar books, accounts of journalists and historians of their encounters with the Caucasus, books of regional interest; classics, books of history, psychology, economics, etc, and a few bestsellers (currently their display is of Twilight novels). Next door is a rather overpriced coffee shop with children’s books, arranged rather like a small Scholastic book fair. I stayed in the bookstore for about an hour, but I ended up not buying the most interesting volumes, on account of weight, expense, and lack of faith in my ability to actually read them on my own initiative (especially the Georgian reading grammar), and only bought a small volume of twelve short stories by famous Georgian authors of the past century, and a translation of The Night in the Panther’s Skin, because I still intend to write an essay about it, and don’t like to read on the computer if I can help it.
By then it was nearly five, and I hadn’t yet found a place to stay. I had been advised to try Old Town, but didn’t know where it was, so I simply walked along the street, looking for a place to cross it. That turned out to be rather more difficult than I had anticipated, and I walked back a rather promising little art fair in a park simply because I don’t like to cross busy streets without a light. Eventually I came upon a Soviet-built concrete underpass, and figured that I’d better give it a try; instead of simply going under the street, after a little shop, it turned under another street in a grimy corridor that would have fit in ell in Gotham City, over the river, another underpass that smelled faintly of ran urine, and then out into the city again. A bit more road evasion than I was looking for, but I took what I could get, and started walking down the street again. There was some construction, and a park; a large park; a park with a bridge — a bright, shiny, new bridge that I recognized. I also shortly recognized that I was on the wrong side of the river; this was the park under the president’s mansion that we hadn’t been allowed in before because someone had been carrying a bottle of wine. I wasn’t entirely lost anymore!
Upon crossing this bridge, I went into a little alley of tourist shops and bars, where I stopped the first obvious tourists I could find, and asked after a hostel. They said: down the street, to the bank; turn right; it’s at the end of the street parallel this one. In English. So I went, and sure enough, there was a building with a sign hostel in front of it. Upon entering the building, I met a friendly youngish woman who told me (in good English) that there was one bed left; it cost 20 lari. I took it, put my books down, and, as it was now past five, went looking for a church.
Although the street with the hostel is a bit shady looking, there are a number of churches thereabouts, as well with a synagogue and mosque (perhaps the only ones in Tbilisi), so in about five minutes I had found a lovely old stone church inside a garden courtyard, with beautiful freshly restored icons covering every possible surface. Indeed, they are not quite finished yet; there are a few faces with only an underpainting, and over the doors, on one side there’s a Byzantine cross, but over the other is only the background and cross center. Most of the iconography was finished, however, including two large scenes, near where I was in the back, showing the people praying on one side, the church in flames in the middle, and what looked to be a Persian invasion coming toward the church with swords; repeated on both sides of the nave, behind the entrances. There was also a lovely icon of the Theotokos figured in the Burning Bush in the center, and of Doubting Thomas on a central column. When I came in vigil had already started, and it lasted about another hour and a half, including, I’m guessing, Vespers, the blessing of bread, wine, and oil, and perhaps Matins. It’s hard to tell, since I don’t understand Georgian, but I think that Georgians generally celebrate Vigil instead of Great Vespers, as do the Russians — and it’s slightly more epic. The chanting was beautiful, but I was still grateful when it was over. On the way out I came across another ancient cathedral with people crowding out the door — just as I walked by they began ringing the bells, so I stayed to watch the bishop as he left and went next door to his residence; the bells accompanied him to the door, and then people began to leave for the night.
As it was still daylight, I walked up through the large park, through a little park overlooking the river with a large statue in it, I think of St David the Builder, and then back down toward the hostel. As I was just about to torn in for the night, rather early, I happened upon two other TLG-ers from my group, who I hadn’t spoken with for two months, and their Georgian friend who is in charge of information technology for seven schools near Tbilisi, and he took us to the Buffalo Bill Saloon, which had charming saloon-style doors and a four man band who began with Sweet Home Alabama, and proceeded with a number of popular American songs; the lead singer and keyboardist was very energetic and loved trying to get people involved, but they were rather louder than I would have liked. After some beer and a soup (I had the soup, not the beer), I was beginning to feel bad from smoke and overstimulation, and other people had to be going as well, so we found my hostel, and I turned in for the night fairly early.
I slept well, except for a brief disruption at four in the morning, when a group of young men came into the hostel, turned the lights on, talked and laughed with each other, spread their clothing over all the furniture, and then went to sleep. I woke up at eight, and couldn’t go back to sleep, nor hang out in the hostel, because the chairs were all covered in clothing and the balcony was locked, so I crept out 15 minutes later, met two other TLG volunteers who had been staying downstairs, and walked to the nearest cathedral — the one that I had seen the night before with the bishop, crowded out the door; the same cathedral I hadn’t gone in two months ago because others in our group weren’t allowed to wear shorts in. It was 8:30, they were having some service that may or may not have been Matins of the hours, and it was already quite crowded. I looked it up today, and Mariamoba is their dedication feast, which would explain its popularity; I probably missed a procession of some kind as well). After a couple of attempts to find a spot to stand; except for a few benches at the back for old ladies, there are no chairs and no isle except between the alter and the bishop’s throne, so you just kind of have to pick a spot and stay there despite the constant jostling; I had a small backpack to distract me as well, because I couldn’t really hold on to it, but when I put it down, people kept nearly stepping on it.. As I stood there looking about and not trying very hard to pray, the rest of the church filled in, until we were packed as closely as was possible without actually touching each other — though as people walked about, came, went, and lit candles, there was a fair amount of compression during the course of the Liturgy.
The bishop and some archpriests (I think; they had amazing hats) came out from behind the iconostasis to stand behind the bishop’s throne, where they intoned some opening prayers, and then the priests went back, while the bishop vested, with shaking hands and several alter boys as assistants; this took perhaps ten minutes, while a choir hidden somewhere overhead chanted in Georgian three part harmonies. They’re famous for their polyphonic singing, and I think that one of the national choirs was there; they were dressed in the same way as in the music videos on TV. I looked around at the iconography as the room heated up from so many bodies. The murals behind the iconostasis of Christ and the Theotokos had been restored and shone with gold, and a small square in the arch above the front half-dome had begun to be re-pointed, and stuck out for it’s brightness, squareness, and incompleteness. The rest of the church was adorned with unrestored icons, darkened from time and soot; Kartveli kings and queens, invasions, ascetics, and some scenes I couldn’t see clearly, nor recognize. My best view was of a pair of rulers who bent up the inside of the arch leading to the main dome, which was very high and invisible from where I stood. I was beginning to feel tired and queazy. They sang Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us, and all people lit candles, as is the practice here, to hold during the reading of scripture. It’s a lovely tradition, but the already hot, still room became yet warmer, as they intoned the Epistle and then the Gospel. The choir chanted the Cherubic Hymn, which was long, beautiful, and stately, and I stood there wondering whether I could continue to stand there, or if I would be sick. Eventually I gave up — I suspect at an inappropriate time, and pushed my way out to stand for the rest of the Liturgy on the rail overlooking the church square, as people bought candles in the square, held banners, came, went, but mostly came and stayed, standing in the square. I wanted a long time, until the end of Liturgy, I think, past the Consecration, when the boys in the tower rang bells for the descent of the Holy Spirit, and a while after a long stream of people pushed their way out of the Cathedral and into the square as is the habit during Communion here, and the people standing in the entrance way compressed into the nave; as the square filled until there was no room left there either. Then, being tired, needing to catch a marshutka back in three hours, and not knowing Georgian, I walked back across the river, found the metro line back, visited Sameba (Holy Trinity Cathedral), bought a candle and some fruit from the street market, and caught the metro back to the station.
I arrived at the marshutka station with two hours to spare, according to yesterday’s driver, but upon finding the section for my region, the driver told me that, no, there was no marshutka to Adigeni that afternoon as I had been told by four different people, including the driver; I had better go to Alxatsixae with him. I grumped at him a bit, and got in. A little boy go in and asked for money, so I gave him the orange I was eating, and he seemed alright with that. Vendors came by with their goods, as they do along the street crossing the border to Nogales. Eventually we started. I read the book of short stories I had bought and tried not to get motion sickness. In Adigeni the driver got someone to show me to the marshutka that went to Adigeni, which left immediately, and I wondered whether the driver had called and asked him to wait. I sat down next to an older woman who apparently knew me, though I don’t know her, and asked me about ც and gave me some of the bread I was eating. I arrived back in Adigeni at around 5:30, and slept for about 12 hours, before getting up to teach classes in the morning, still slightly dazed.