Two (Relatively) Recent Mainstream Novels about the Armenian Genocide: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

I’ve recently read two novels about the Armenian genocide and its rippling effects on the Turkish and Armenian families who witnessed it. One of these novels was written by a Turk, the other by an Armenian (though both the writers have global biographies). The writing styles and literary genres of the books were different, as were (obviously) the plots, but nonetheless there were undeniable similarities between the two books. Both were powerful and compelling reads. While The Bastard of Istanbul had a dreamy feel to it, Orhan’s Inheritance was more of a page-turner. Both are recommended, though the different styles are likely to appeal to different readers.

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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (image from GoodReads)

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul: A Novel. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and e-book editions; English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops.

The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of the many generations of the Kazanci family, particularly the women including their youngest member, Asya (most of the men have mysteriously or tragically died). Entwined with this family’s saga is Armanoush and her family’s own tale. Armanoush is an Armenian-American who decides to secretly visit her grandmother’s home city of Istanbul as a way to better understand her Armenian heritage. She contacts her stepfather Mustafa’s family, the Kazancis, and she and Asya become friends despite Armanoush’s (and her online community’s) skepticism of Turks. Asya’s mystical Auntie Banu becomes curious about the truth of the Armenian genocide and consults her djinn to show her the truth of Armanoush’s family…and later to reveal her own family’s secrets. A family emergency in America leads Armanoush’s mother and step-father to come to Istanbul, the stepfather’s first visit in 20 years, where Auntie Banu’s knowledge brings old events to a head, leading to shocking events that permanently change both families.

I particularly liked the structure of this book–with each chapter titled with the name of an ingredient that is used in Mustafa’s favorite food, ashure. The titular ingredient of each chapter also make an appearance within the chapter, and a recipe for ashure is provided in the latter part of the book. This dish even plays an important role in the plot. Other foods are also described in mouth-watering detail. This is very much a novel for foodies.

The author Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” because of this book. If you like reading as a way of fighting the power, this novel is a great choice.

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Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (image from GoodReads)

Ohanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2015. Kindle e-book.

Availability: Available in the US (physical and e-book) and UK (physical book); English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops

Orhan’s Inheritance made many lists of the best books of 2015, which is where I first heard of it. Like The Bastard of Istanbul, the novel features a multi-generational Turkish family, though unlike the Kazanci family, the Turkoglu family is oddly lacking in women. When the family’s patriarch, the title character Orhan’s grandfather, passes away, his will leaves the family home in the village to an Armenian woman no one has ever heard of. Orhan travels to an Armenian retirement home in California, where he meets his grandfather’s surprise heir, Seda Melkonian, and ultimately learns her story which gives him the explanation as to why his grandfather has left the house to her.

Much more of the action of this novel is set in the past as Seda’s story is told. Her story is, unsurprisingly, quite upsetting, but Ohanesian’s writing is compelling, and I wanted to get through the tragedies to find out how Seda lived and learn the mystery of why she inherited the house and how she came to be living in California.

One thing I particularly liked in this book was the interactions between the characters from different ethnic groups, both in the past and in the present. All the characters had flaws, and many were prejudiced against other ethnicities, but in the end the main characters were all people and recognized the human core in others, even when they disagreed. In this way, Ohanesian makes an argument for tolerance, even when the past cannot be forgotten.

I went to Tao-Klarjeti a few weeks ago. If you chose to take a break and look for that on a map, you may be very confused at this point. Tao-Klarjeti isn’t the name of anywhere anymore. It was the region where the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgian monarchs were from, and now it’s part of Turkey; the places we visited were mostly in Artvin province. It’s a pretty popular destination for Georgians to go on tours, but not somewhere many Americans visit, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join, I said “Why not?”. We went on an organized, but not guided, tour. We had two mini vans full of people, including a professional driver for each, and the organizer. The drivers were very good and did not suffer from lead foot or road rage, and the organizer had a route worked out and pre-arranged cheap hotels. We paid 270 GEL/person for a 3-day trip, which included everything except food–we didn’t stop at restaurants or stores (though one evening we went to a teahouse and bought some olives and baklava); we brought pretty much everything with us from Tbilisi, and ate in the car en route.

We left Tbilisi early in the morning and made for the Vale-Türkgözü border crossing. There was a long line of trucks, but very few passenger cars, so they let us skip ahead and we crossed quite quickly. It was interesting to see the change as we crossed the border. The geography in the region was the same on the Georgian and Turkish sides, but nonetheless it was obvious that we were in a different country–the cemeteries were different, the houses were a different style, and there were tractors and mechanized agriculture all around us. As we drove further into Turkey we got into higher and higher mountains. There was still quite a bit of snow, and we were even caught in a blizzard in the mountains between Ardahan and Savsat. There was some sort of nature reserve or natural park in the mountains, and it reminded me of the American West–pine forests, rugged mountains, and well-maintained picnic areas. As we drove through a village on the Savsat side, one whole village was outside (despite the poor weather) having some sort of festival.

Late in the afternoon, we made our first stop: Tbeti Monastery, the first of many old, abandoned Georgian churches in various states of ruin. Apparently this church survived fairly well for a long time, but was “exploded” in the mid-20th century…sounds like there’s a story there, but I didn’t get any more information than that. One of the villagers speaks some Georgian and runs a little souvenir shop (and paid toilet) next to the site. Next, we stopped at Savsat Kalesi, the former citadel of the town of Savsat (in Georgian, შავშეთი/Shavsheti) which was kind of a big deal back in the Georgian era. There are archeological excavations ongoing sponsored by the Turkish government. The fortress has some typically Georgian features–there’s a tone (traditional Georgian bread kiln) and kvevri (Georgian amphorae), and a “pharmacy” very similar to the one at Vardzia. Then we took a break from historical sites and clambered around “Hell’s Canyon” (Cehennem Deresi Kanyonu). It was a nice enough canyon, I suppose, but as I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West, a canyon in and of itself is nothing so impressive. This was the place where it became abundantly clear that our organizer’s footwear recommendations were way off the mark. She had recommended galoshes or rain boots, which I don’t have, so I wore what was closest: snow boots. Even though my snow boots are made by an outdoors/hiking brand, they are absolute clodhoppers, and I had real difficulty maneuvering through the canyon and leaping from stone to stone. I also picked up a good few kilos of mud in the treads, making me kind of miserable. But I made it through. Our next stop was the fortress Artanuji / Gevhernik. We approached from behind, and it was perched atop a sheer rock face. When my friend told me we were climbing up there, I joked about not having brought any rock climbing gear. We walked around to the other side, and though there was a path (of a sort) it was still tough climbing in the aforementioned clodhoppers. It was worth the climb, as the fortress was filled with wildflowers, and was really, really beautiful.

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Artanuji Fortress

After one more stop at Dolishane Church, which is supposed to have lovely frescoes, but I couldn’t tell you as it was pitch black by the time we got there, we returned to the town of Savsat and stayed in a pension run by a guy called Jemal, who is the widower of a Georgian woman and loves all things Georgia. The place was basic, but clean (until we tramped mud through), and the beds were comfy and showers were warm.

The next day, I ignored any further fashion advice and switched to my trail runners, so I had no further climbing issues. First, we drove up a narrow, windy, frightening/beautiful mountain road to Porta monastery.  We saved some time getting there by scrambling up a stream bed rather than following the path. This was once a massive complex; now much of it is buried, but bits are still accessible. The ground we stood on was once one of the upper roofs. Apparently a large piece of the dome (which is still above ground) had fallen just a few days before our visit, so I was rather wary of exploring very much. It was also interesting that the village is still inhabited, and though it’s tiny and remote, electric lines do reach up there.

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You can understand why bits of Porta are falling down, right?

We also visited the village spring to refill our water bottles with cool fresh water. The Georgians said it had some special health/religious properties, but I was mostly happy to get a cool drink.

Our next stop was Artvin Castle, which is now part of a Turkish military base (so no photos). At first they told us we couldn’t enter, but then a nice young soldier who spoke very good English came to escort us. On the road to our next destination, there was a distinct change in the landscape. The area around Savsat was one of the lushest, greenest places I’ve visited (we drove past a hotel called Green Valley: they were not lying), and as we went further on, the landscape become much more arid (and brown). We visited many churches this afternoon: Ishan Monastery, which was closed for restoration–the Georgian government has protested the way the Turks were renovating, allegedly frescoes were destroyed, but they seem to be back at work; Haho/Hahuli which is now used as a mosque; there are supposed to be good frescoes, but it was locked so we couldn’t see; and the Oshki Monastery, which was relatively intact except for the lack of roof, and also had an academy. Our last stop of the evening was  Tortum Waterfall, the highest in Turkey, which had rather nice tourism infrastructure and cafes. We were due to spend the night in the town of Yusufeli, so we wandered around a bit, bought some edible souvenirs, and met and chatted with a Georgian Turk in a teahouse. We then proceeded on to our accommodation at Hotel Agara, which was lovely, and a sakalmakhe (საკალმახე, trout restaurant) as well as a hotel. This day was particularly poignant as much of the area surrounding these places, apparently including the town of Yusufeli, will soon be flooded with the completion of planned dam projects. I’m not sure about the status of the historical sites themselves, though the ones on mountaintops are likely to be fine.

On the third and final day of our trip, we began at the Tekkale/Otkhta Monastery (the “Monastery of Four”), then visited Esbek, which was interesting as it was the ruins of a village, rather than a religious site. Apparently snakes like it there, though, so we had to be careful. There was also quite a view down into the valley. Then we visited Bana, my favorite of the old churches. It was really, really, ruined, but in a very picturesque way. Apparently its current gravity-defying structure is the result of being used as a military installation in the Crimean and Russo-Turkish wars. It’s also located on a small rise in the middle of a broad valley surrounded on all sides by colorful mountains, giving you stunning views in all directions.

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Ruins at Bana

One of the mini-vans got a flat tire at Bana, so we had to stop for repairs before we went on our way home. Along the road we saw the source of the Mtkvari, the river through Tbilisi. Our last stop was Seytan Castle (allegedly the setting of Georgia’s most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin).

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You remember “Where’s Waldo?”, right? This is “Where’s Em?” at Seytan Castle

We crossed back to Georgia at the Çıldır-Aktaş-Kartsakhi crossing point, which the internet says is closed, but seemed to work mostly fine for us (one of our drivers had a little trouble and was taken for interrogation because he had the same name as someone on the deportation list…it got sorted out, though). We returned to Tbilisi late at night, tired from a jam-packed three days of sightseeing.

I can’t write a post about traveling in Turkey and ignore the security/terrorism question. I thought long and hard before I chose to take this trip, and asked a lot of questions. I’m lucky that I have friends who are experts on security in the region, and family who support me in making these kinds of decisions. Just before I went to Tao-Klarjeti, the US State Department updated its Turkey travel warning, and it is kind of grim, so I debated this trip a lot. On the one hand, I really don’t want to get hurt, and on the other hand, I believe that staying at home, not going anywhere or doing anything out of fear is playing into the hands of terrorists. In summary: this particular area neither has much of a Kurdish population, nor is it near Syria, so in those ways it’s not a likely target. This is also a very sparsely populated area: the most populous town we spent any time in was Artvin, with a population of 25,771. I could count the number of other tourists we came across on my fingers. However, as this area was the Soviet-NATO border, there are a large number of military installations, and there is also a good amount of strategic infrastructure, particularly dams and reservoirs, which I was unaware of before I traveled. To be honest, there’s much more immediate danger from road accidents than there is from terrorism–the mountain roads were very steep and windy, though much better maintained than their Georgian equivalents. Overall, I didn’t feel that I was in any particular danger while I was there. My conclusion was (and is) that this is probably the safest area of Turkey to visit right now, but it’s not without risks (but even home is never 100% safe).

Original Post, March 9, 2012:
My friend came to visit me here in Kakheti last weekend, and we decided to go on a daytrip to the tourist town of Sighnaghi.  We tried to go on Saturday, but had a false start on the marshrutka and got tired of waiting so we returned to my house (since then I have found this fabulous online marshrutka timetable for Kakheti (unfortunately now defunct)–would have saved us SO much time).  We almost couldn’t believe it when the marshrutka came, and were giddy to be on our way off to Sighnaghi!

It’s still rather early for tourist season, so the tourist areas were not at all crowded.  The main attraction of Sighnagi is the old wall.  Climbing it you can see for miles, and the view is stunning!  We played on the wall, admired the view, and took photos for quite a while.

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Em on the wall at Sighnaghi (photo from Marieka)

We then wandered around the old city–the architecture there really is beautiful!  Unfortunately, we then had a somewhat unpleasant visit to one of the old churches.  It is my understanding (and has been my experience) that in Georgia, as a rule, you do not have to pay to visit a church, though there are often  donation jars, and they often request that you leave a donation for the upkeep of the building, or buy the candle you will light in the church.  However, the man in the church (not a priest) seemed to disagree with this, and, as we were leaving, rather unpleasantly insisted we give him two lari because we had visited the church.

We decided not to visit the Sighnaghi museum, though I have heard it is good, and instead had Mexican food at the restaurant in Sighnaghi (there aren’t very many places to get Mexican food in Georgia, but this place is highly recommended).  We had a happily uneventful marshrutka ride home, and went back to our regular lives.

Sighnaghi has been the target of an intense campaign for the improvement of tourist infrastructure in the last few years.  There are some very obvious and helpful successes–there are signposts pointing to the various tourist attractions and “You are Here” maps throughout town.  Everything looks quite clean and well-kept, and buildings have been renovated and restored.  There’s a central marshrutka station, and public restrooms.  But some things still need work–the fantastic marshrutka schedule should really be better advertised.  Marshrutka travel is a bit haphazard, and for a major tourist destination, perhaps something a little more formal is in order (I assume most foreign tourists are expected to go by private car or chartered tour…)  Likewise, entry fees for attractions should be posted somewhere, and if entry is free no one should be demanding that visitors pay.

Despite a few hiccups, I highly recommend Sighnaghi as a tourist destination for a day–particularly if you’re interested in sampling Georgian wine (which we didn’t actually do.  This time.)

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View of Sighnaghi from Bodbe (photo from Giga)

Update May 3, 2016:

I’ve been back to Sighnaghi a few times now, and have a few updates to offer. I STILL haven’t been to the museum. It has been closed many times that I’ve visited. We spent the weekend there for Orthodox Easter, and stayed at Leli’s Guest House, which was a pleasant and affordable option. We ate 3 of 4 meals at the Mexican restaurant–it had closed for a while, but is back in business and serving up really delicious food. Definitely worth a stop. Our 4th meal was at the famous Pheasant’s Tears winery. The wine was very good–delicious, and not at all the usual fare. The food was good, though the increase in quality did not match the increase in price, and it seems that something bothered my friend’s stomach. The staff were all lovely–I’d definitely stop in again for some wine, but would be more conservative with my food choices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that during the weekend days, there were huge groups of tourists rolling through town. It seemed that most did not spend the night, but rather returned to Tbilisi, leaving plenty of accommodation options, and quieter evenings.

My trip to Poti was a bit different from most of my other travels, because I was not there as a tourist, but on a business trip. As such, I didn’t have a lot of time to putter around and see the sights, but I did stay in a hotel and eat in some local restaurants. In the center of the city is a quite large and pretty-looking park, though I didn’t have time to visit and stroll around. In the park is the city’s cathedral, which was modeled after the Hagia Sophia–I’d be curious to see which iteration of the Hagia Sophia it was inspired by, so if you visit, let me know! We also drove past some buildings that were clearly once stunning, but are far past their prime. If you’re into “derelicte” photography, you might find some interesting fodder in Poti. Over all, the city was much nicer than I expected from the fact that it’s a major working port, and that everyone scoffs upon hearing that you’re visiting Poti. We had bad luck with the weather, and I’ve heard that gray days are not exactly uncommon there.

One of my co-workers arranged accommodation for us at the Hotel Prime Poti, and I was pleasantly surprised. The rooms were clean and comfortable, with good heat and hot water. I’d heard horror stories about hotels with bedbugs in Poti, so I inspected the room quite carefully and didn’t find anything suspicious. The breakfast wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was included. Rooms were 70 GEL/night.

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My only photo from Poti: The Hotel Prime…it’s better than it looks.

 

The food in Poti was not such a pleasant surprise, though. Knowing that Poti is in the Samegrelo region, famed for its cuisine, I had high hopes. I was sadly disappointed. Our first evening, we ate in the restaurant our local colleagues (and the Lonely Planet guide) recommended: Restaurant Aragvi. Lonely Planet describes it as “About 100m past Hotel Anchor, Aragvi serves up decent Georgian dishes amid decor of antlers and swords”[1] …I didn’t see any swords, but otherwise, I concur. One of my co-workers insisted on sampling a different restaurant the next day, so we went across the street to Restaurant Kalakuri. Our local co-workers mentioned it when pressed for suggestions beyond Aragvi, and said the khinkali there were OK. The khinkali were OK primarily because they seemed to be frozen khinkali, not homemade. The khachapuri was quite good (better than at the other place). The rest of the food was not good at all. Some of it was suffering from WAY too many greens being thrown in, and other dishes were victim of a Russian occupation–gobs of mayonnaise and handfuls of dill. We paid Tbilisi prices for this meal at 20 GEL/person; it cost twice what we paid at Aragvi (we did order more food, it’s true…but not double). I was very hungry and desperate for fruits and veggies when we returned to Tbilisi.

[1] Location 1961, Lonely Planet, John Noble, Danielle Systermans, and Michael Kohn. Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. 4th ed. London: Lonely Planet, 2012. Kindle eBook.

 

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The Chandelier at the Opera. Photo from agenda.ge. See the full gallery here.

The Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (Tbilisi Opera) has finally reopened to great fanfare. Most shows have been sold-out, and it seems like everyone is itching to get inside and see the renovations. I was one of those people. Friday night, my friends and I went to see Swan Lake. While Swan Lake was a great choice of performance to watch, we would have been happy to see anything we could get tickets for that fit into our schedule so we could get into the building and take a peek. I’m the furthest thing from qualified to give a critique of the ballet, so I will just leave it at “It was pretty.” The performance was accompanied by a live pit orchestra, which always adds a nice touch. You can check upcoming performances on the Opera’s website (NB: I can’t find an English version) or see the schedule and buy tickets on tkt.ge. Tickets can also be purchased at the box office. The upcoming schedule features a Georgian ballet and a Georgian opera, in addition to some international favorites. I know nothing about these performances, but it seems like it would be an interesting and unique experience.

The renovations of the building did not disappoint–everything is sumptuous. Every inch is painted with beautiful designs, there are oodles of chandeliers, and the chairs are all velvet-covered. Leg room isn’t generous, but the seats are comfortable enough. The restrooms seemed to be the only place where money was an object during the renovation–in contrast to every other nook of the building they were not luxurious, but they were clean and functional, so I have no complaints. Throughout the hallways and in some of the smaller spaces there are exhibits of memorabilia from the theatre’s history.

My only complaint is beyond the theatre’s–audience behavior was quite shocking. I haven’t gone to the theatre in any other country in years (even before I moved here, I wasn’t living in a place with lots of theatre-going opportunities), so maybe this is not a Georgian problem, but one that has grown worldwide, but I was shocked to see people who had paid 80 GEL for the most expensive seats in the house who were fiddling with their phones on throughout the performance (they didn’t appear to be filming, which would have been even worse)–the glow was distracting, even from three floors up. The doors to the hall were constantly opening and closing, and there was quite a lot of loud talking. (from the adults. The little girls nearby were quite well-behaved) Despite the annoyances which kept me from being fully swept up in the performance, it was still quite enchanting.

I took a few snapshots of the decor, but they pale in comparison to those the pros took for the grand opening…so look at these instead.

 

I am an admitted lover of Georgian food, and there are of course many excellent options for that everywhere in Georgia (sometime I’ll do a write-up). Tbilisi, though, is home to a variety of restaurants featuring other cuisines for the times when you need something different. Foreign restaurants tend to be more expensive here because of the novelty–for the sit-down restaurants here, expect to pay at least 20 GEL for a meal, more at the really fancy places (but less at cafes!)

Asian:

Baan Thai: Is one of my favorite places for something a bit different.  It’s not as addictive as the Thai restaurant in my college town, but I’ve liked everything I’ve tried.  They’ll even deliver, so it was ages before I went to the physical location, which has quite a nice ambiance.  There’s another Thai restaurant in Vake (called “Thai”), but I didn’t like it quite as much.

Lemon Grass Thai Food: Though the name suggests a Thai restaurant, Lemon Grass in fact offers a wide array of international fast food options, ranging from Pad Thai and sushi to pizza, burgers, and even falafel sandwiches. With the feel of an American burger joint, the atmosphere is nothing special, but the wide variety of reasonably-priced and hard-to-find dishes make it well worth a visit. The Pad Thai is the best deal for Thai food in Tbilisi (though the quality isn’t quite as delicious and authentic as at Baan Thai), and it comes served with chopsticks for increased authenticity.

New Asia (Chinese): Is located just up the hill from Rustaveli Avenue, across the road from the conservatory  If you’re walking from Liberty Square metro towards Rustaveli metro on that side of the road, take a left up the hill after you pass Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. It’s the last place on that block on the right hand side.  I’ve been here twice, and the food has always been fine, though it varies a lot.  The dumplings are quite good.

There’s also a Chinese restaurant on Gargarin square that I enjoyed, though I have also heard that the quality there varies drastically (and I can never get the name properly, since they use a nearly-illegible font in both English and Georgian).

Hangib Korean Restaurant I don’t have enough experience with Korean food to offer comments on the authenticity, but I can tell you that the food here is seriously tasty. Not cheap, but they’re not stingy with the portion sizes. Very nice selection of teas, too.

Asian Takeaway (next to Kiwi Cafe on Vertskhlis Kucha) has just a small menu and one table, but they offer cheap and tasty Indian, Thai and stir-fry dishes, and even are rumoured to deliver to lucky neighborhoods.

Also check out Strada‘s Korean menu (under American/European)

Indian

Little India/A Taste of India (there’s a name change causing some confusion.  The building is labeled “A Taste of India” but they haven’t re-branded all their media, the website is still “Little India”): One of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever been to.  The ambiance is lovely, with private tables secluded by curtains and delicious food.  Try the garlic or onion naan, and a curry of some sort (I got some version of peas and cream, and it was AMAZING).  On the pricier end of things, but oh-so delicious.

Shree Restaurant (apparently there’s been a name and possibly management change, I’ll update when I make it back there to check it out) is one of the many cheap Indian restaurants allegedly near the Medical University  (It’s the only one I’ve found, though).  It’s on Nutsubidze Street near the corner of Asatiani.  The mixed veg and chicken samosas are both excellent, though the butter chicken wasn’t our favorite.  Everything is made right to order, so things don’t necessarily arrive at your table in any sort of order that you’d expect.  I recommend asking the staff what’s good, they’ve never led us astray.  They scared everyone by closing for summer, but re-opened in fall.

Phoenix Restaurant is also near the Medical University. It’s on Vazha-Pshavela, and pretty easy to find. Unfortunately,  the tandoor has been broken every time I’ve been, seriously limiting their menu. Despite that glitch, the food is good, and it’s pretty cheap. As of February, 2016, they appeared to be closed long-term, though it was unclear if they were out of business or doing renovations. I’ll update when I hear more.

See also Asian Takeaway, in the Asian section above

American/European:

Tartine (French): a cafe-restaurant with locations in Vake and Old Town with nice cocktails and salads. I’m not blown away by their lunch and dinner options, but brunch there is a fantastic deal–27 GEL for a hot drink, an alcoholic drink, soup, and a main (including service).  There’s also the option for brunch without soup for 22 GEL.  The huevos rancheros aren’t exactly authentic, but they’re tasty and satisfy the Mexican food craving..

Hangar Bar (Irish):  is the place to go and watch American sports. The nachos are good.

Café Gallery:  Renowned as Tbilisi’s most famous gay nightclub, Café Gallery, is actually open all day as a café which features a combination of Georgian and non-Georgian dishes. They make delicious sandwiches, salads, and soups at relatively reasonable prices. I’m a fan of the Cafe Gallery sandwich with a homemade lemonade.

Ronny’s Pizza: The best place in Tbilisi to get pizza umaionaiso (without mayonnaise).  The prices are shocking at first, but an XL pizza is gigantic, and it’s legitimately American-style pizza.  The pizza in Telavi is better, but this is the best I’ve had in Tbilisi.  The small pizzas (personal size) are a decent value.

Pizza di Roma: A local pizza chain that makes something I consider pizza. Some of their toppings are questionable (coughcoughsulguniandmayonnaisecoughcough), but they also have proper mozzarella and parmesan, and all the item descriptions have been accurate. I haven’t had any surprise mayonnaise turning up on something that was listed as clean. The crust and sauce are good, so they’re starting in a good place. The pasta carbonara (made with ham, not bacon) and sea buckthorn “tea” are also worth a try. A real selling point for me is that at my local branch there’s a non-smoking section that the staff strictly enforce.

Pita+/Pita Fresh: (name changed, seems to be the same menu and management, though): Discovering this place and their delicious falafel was one of the food-related highlights of Fall 2012.  Low prices and great food, but unfortunately far from my house.  I’ll be honest, I’ve only ever tried the falafel, but there are other sandwiches on the menu, too, like chicken and burgers.

Kiwi Cafe: a vegan cafe in the old town. Perfect location for when you’re being a tourist on a hot summer day and can’t bear the thought of heavy food like khachapuri and khinkali. Featuring an international, rotating menu. The raspberry smoothie was my favorite thing I tried. I love their food, because they make the type of things I make, but with some new twists. And I don’t have to cook it myself!

Factory 27: Cool atmosphere, and decent food. Offering some things that are hard to find in other places, like burgers, hummus, and nachos.

Pipes Burger Joint: The burger itself is good, but they’re still finding their way with some of the specialty toppings. I found the pepper sauce on mine TOO peppery (and I love black pepper) while the salad was a bit flavorless. However, they’ve got a great base (they’ve managed to get good meat and buns), so I hope they work out the kinks. Maybe stick to a simpler option for the time being. Nonetheless, it absolutely satisfies the craving for a burger.

Strada: Inconvenient location, but great menu. The American-style pancakes and waffles are a hit with me, and they have a fantastic variety of fresh fruit infusion “teas”. They also have a Korean menu that gets good reviews, though I haven’t moved beyond pancakes myself.

Localino: Locations in Vake and Saburtalo. Fantastic pasta dishes. I tried the pizza and it was good, but not memorable, whereas I have dreams about the baked cheesy pasta with spinach concoction I got there.

Middle Eastern:

There have long been a number of Turkish cafeterias on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. I’ve tried a few and they have been fine, though I don’t know which is which

Amira: though I usually try to stay away from the fashionable restaurants in Vake, Amira is a pretty delicious Lebanese restaurant. All the dishes I expect to see are on the menu, and they all taste like they should. Can get incredibly expensive quickly, though. You’re paying for the nice atmosphere and fashionable address.

 

Coffee

Caliban’s Coffee House: the coffee shop attached to Prospero’s Books.  I quite like their cold drinks, and other things are fine, though not the best or the cheapest in Tbilisi. This is a place to go for the ambiance, and to feel like you’re back in England or America (or Canada, I suppose)

Dom*: brews Starbucks coffee and does foam properly.  They also make a pretty good Eggs Benedict that isn’t too expensive.  Located on UN Circle in Vake.

Entree: Is a chain in Tbilisi with locations on Leselidze and Pekini, two locations in Vake, one or two in Vera, and one on Marjanishvili Square (perhaps there are more I haven’t found yet).  The coffee and pastries (both Georgian and French) are good, and the wifi is usually pretty fast.

Literaturuli: a cafe chain that’s also a bookstore, with locations throughout Tbilisi and in some of the other major cities. They do decaf coffee and have pretty cakes, but their lobiani is actually my favorite.

Wendy’s: The American fast-food chain Wendy’s now has a location on Rustaveli Avenue.  As one would expect, they sell burgers and fries and chili and frosties (all of which are pretty tasty), the real surprise here is the “Wendy’s Cafe” which has a wide-ranging menu of coffee drinks at some of the lowest prices in the city (only 4 GEL for a latte! Wow!) Dunkin’ Donuts has now also opened a number of locations and is expanding fast. Wendy’s and DD often share a building, as they’re owned by the same parent company. They’re known for their coffee in the US, and by Georgia standards their prices can’t be beat.

Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf: in the Tbilisi Mall and on Rustaveli seems to be the only place in Tbilisi with chai tea lattes. Yum. It’s not cheap, but I don’t even care.

(Originally Published March 25, 2012.  Most recent update: March 4, 2016).

Heretics and Colonizers (image from GoodReads)

Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus by Nicholas B. Breyfogle* 

Breyfogle, Nicholas B. Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK in physical editions; formerly available at Prospero’s, but currently out of stock. Check your local academic library.

Let me begin by saying that this book is a little different from most of the others I have reviewed here. This is a true academic work, not a non-fiction book for the general public, and it assumes a certain amount of background knowledge. Since I have a solid background in the history of the region, I had HEARD of Dukhobors, but I was coming into this book without much specific background information, and I found it fascinating. The writing is interesting and accessible–not the snooze-fest that sometimes plagues academic writing. The research explores the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks (sometimes referred to in English as Spirit-Wrestlers, Milk-Drinkers, and Sabbatarians respectively) in the South Caucasus. These religious sects were composed of ethnic Russians, but they were not Russian Orthodox, presenting a challenge to the traditional idea of Russian nationality. Some were exiled and others chose to move to the South Caucasus, where the regime thought they would be less likely to spread their “heretical” beliefs to other Russians, but they could be of use spreading Russianness to other areas of the empire. The tsarist regime’s treatment of the sectarians and their legal status was in near constant flux. In some ways and at some times, the sectarians achieved great successes in their new homes, while the (spoiler alert) Dukhobor Movement and weapons burning resulted in retaliation and exile/immigration for many of the Dukhobors.

This was one of those books that raised a lot of questions for me and encouraged me to look up some more information and learn more. I’d be interested in reading a biography of “Queen” Lukeria Kalmykova, for example, and I’m very interested to find out what’s going on with those who remained in Georgia at the end of the time frame covered in the book. (I asked a Georgian friend, and his reply was “Yeah, there are Dukhobors in Kakheti and Molokans on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. They’re still Russians. I don’t know about Subbotniks.”)

This book is perhaps not something with widespread popular appeal, but if you are curious about the topic I strongly recommend that you read it.

*I studied under Professor Breyfogle, so you may consider me biased. I don’t think knowing him changed my opinion of the book, but it did encourage me to read it, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

The Loneliest Planet (Image from Wikipedia)

The Loneliest Planet

Language: English, some Georgian (not meant to be understood), Spanish verb declensions (good practice for me!)

Availability: available on DVD in the US

I can’t really say if this film was good or bad. It isn’t really a movie, as much as it is a gorgeously-filmed hike. Basically, you watch Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg and Bidzina Gujabidze hike through the Caucasus Mountains and deal with interpersonal issues. It’s certainly an interesting and eventful hike, the scenery is beautiful, and the actors are good (some of it I couldn’t tell if it was scripted or ‘reality show’). I heard a rumor when the film was first released that Gujabidze was a professional mountain guide, not an actor, but I can’t find any corroborating information. Though this was his first film, he has also appeared in a 2015 Georgian film so he may have changed careers. This film will give you a good sense of Georgian “anecdotes” that just do not translate well. There was also a funny bit on swearing in Georgian and English, if you’re interested in picking up some colorful vocabulary. If you are looking for a fast-paced or plot-heavy movie, though, this isn’t for you. As for me, I did enjoy watching the film, but thought it was a bit long given the style and subject matter.

Flight from the USSR (Image from GoodReads)

Flight from the U.S.S.R. / ჯინსების თაობა (“Jeans Generation”) by Dato Turashvili  

Turashvili, Dato. Flight from the USSR. Trans. Maya Kiasashvili. Tbilisi: Sulakauri Publishing, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easily available in almost any book or souvenir shop in Georgia, in Georgian, English, or Russian. US/UK editions to be released February 2016.

The story of a group of young Soviet Georgians who just can’t take it anymore so they decide to hijack an airplane and defect to the West. This historical fiction novel is more on the historical side (per my quick Google research), and most of the fictionalization lies in giving personality and dialogue to the historical personages. The story was initially written as a play in 2001, while Shevardnadze (who makes an unflattering cameo in the novel version) was still in power. That was certainly a brave act of artistic resistance. The novel version of the story was published in 2008, though the play remains popular (but I haven’t seen it yet). US and UK versions of the novel are slated to be published in February 2016.

When I decided to start reading this, I didn’t realize how timely my choice of reading material was–I began just after the Paris attacks, and therefore the idea of terrorism was at the forefront of my mind while reading it. One of the main themes of the book is the oft-quoted idea that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is where you stand, and that the line between good and evil is not always clear-cut. The hijackers’ actions are not defended–everyone admits that engaging in terrorism is wrong, but they are all portrayed as sympathetic characters who are just trying to make the world better. As the novel tells it, the casualties of the hijacking were inflicted by the authorities, while the hijackers shared water with the passengers trapped aboard the aircraft. This brings into focus the harshness of life under the late-Soviet regime, and the upside-down reality that the terrorists took more care of citizens than did the officials whose duty was, theoretically, to protect them. The novel engages with the philosophical questions of violence, freedom, and the connection between the two. To me, Turashvili didn’t answer these questions; rather, he created an environment suitable for the reader to ponder them.

Though the book has a philosophical side, it remains a quick and enjoyable read. The action is fast-paced, and the prose is concise and readable. At under 200 pages, it’s also a quick read. Kiasashvili’s translation was quite good; it maintained a readable and colloquial style. The one real problem I found with this book was that the proofreading was terrible (/non-existent)! It was riddled with typos–some of them comically awkward (“shedding teats in the cemetery”) and some just bizarre (a Russian letter inserted in the middle of an English word). Note to Georgian publishing companies–I (and I’m sure plenty of other ex-pats) would be happy to check for typos in exchange for some lari. These errors prevented me from fully engaging with the book and immersing myself in it. I assume that the forthcoming US and UK editions of the book will fix these problems, making the book much more readable. I can’t speak to the quality of the Russian translation.

One last point to make is that the Georgian editions of the book (Georgian, English, and Russian) are published by Sulakauri Publishing, who have been in the news recently for an ad featuring a Hitler impersonator, which many feel is in poor taste. You may want to keep this in mind when deciding if you would like to purchase the book.

Some friends and I recently came across some very adorable puppies in the lobby of their building. We thought we should get them vaccinated and fixed, but weren’t sure how to do that or how to get enough money for it. We reached out to Dog Organization of Georgia for advice, and they offered to take care of these pups. The two girls are at the shelter getting vaccinated and fixed now, and they’ll keep an eye on the boy and the mother, and when he’s old enough and she’s calm enough they’ll take care of them, too. I’ve made a donation to help them cover expenses (though I don’t have enough to cover all the care for these dogs), and it would make me really happy if others could pitch in, as well.

One of the lobby puppies, who will get basic veterinary care thanks to DOG.

One of the lobby puppies, who will get basic veterinary care thanks to DOG.

USD Fundraising page: https://www.gofundme.com/3hr7pk

Georgian Bank Transfer Details:
Account Name: Dog Organization Georgia
Bank Code: TBCGBE22
Account No.: GE 17 TB08 5563 6080 1000 03

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