If you’ve been following my Facebook page, you know that I’m spending the month of October traveling around Georgia, learning to cook regional specialties and traditional dishes from home cooks, and generally soaking up experiences that I can’t have at home in Washington, DC. I arrived in Tbilisi on October 2 with an AirBnB booked for three nights and the phone numbers of several contacts gathered from friends and colleagues. I didn’t plan farther ahead than that because I wanted to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that I trusted would arise out of conversations with others: someone would know someone with a walnut grove in Imereti, or a cheesemaker in the mountains, or a particularly talented home cook who was game to show me the ropes. Besides, I thought, even the best-laid plans in Georgia tend to go awry. This is a nation of people who live life by the seat of their pants, and when you’re here, it’s difficult to do differently.
Washington (the quintessential planned city) attracts super-planners, so when I told people there about my barebones outline for the trip, I felt like maybe my refusal to plan more carefully was really just a cop-out and a reflection of my own weakness in this area (one I never felt I had until I moved to DC). Yet after my first meeting in Tbilisi, over coffee with a contact a colleague had put me in touch with), I knew this had been the right decision. Oleg seemed to have well-placed friends just about everywhere, and after just a few calls made on the spot, he’d found families who were willing to host me in their homes and teach me to cook favorite local dishes in three different regions.
My second meeting, arranged through a member of the Georgian choir who sang at a Georgian dinner several friends and I hosted in late September, led to an opportunity to appear on the cooking segment of a popular national TV program called the Day Show (“Skhva Shuadghe”) the following week. Two points for serendipity.
I stepped out of the café after that second meeting in a heady daze, amazed that all of this had come together so well after only one day in Tbilisi. I wandered down cobbled Shavteli Street and over the architecturally incongruous yet strikingly beautiful Peace Bridge to Rike Park, with its human-scale chessboard and grand piano fit only for giants.
This isn’t the only part of the city that makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland. I sense it while walking among the crooked homes that still stand precariously amidst the maze of streets behind Shavteli. They sag at acute angles, their roofs about to slide off, vines about to reclaim them, and yet the sound of dice on a table echoes from an upstairs window, laundry hangs from wires strung between them, lace curtains flutter in a window. In another hangs an advertisement for a spa where I could have tiny fish nibble the dead skin from my feet. I worry for the people inside, lest a gust of wind blow the whole thing over.
I finished off the first night of my trip at Vino Underground, a little wine cave in the heart of the Old City. I stopped in for a taste or two but got caught up in conversation with the wine vendor, who’d come to Tbilisi from Abkhazia as a child refugee in the early 1990s, and with other visitors, many of whom were discovering Georgia for the first time. I left after closing time, well past midnight, with The Beegees “Stayin’ Alive” playing on the stereo. Wonderland, indeed.