The signature dish in my first dinner in Tbilisi was succulent chicken soaked in a creamy walnut sauce. Probably not the healthiest dish in the world, but as the charming waitress informed me, twice in heavily accented English, “we use only the best ingredients”, and so I had the dish a happy, and by its end, full man. The dish was delicious; its flavours accentuated by the fresh salad, the grilled aubergine, and the wild mushroom stuffed with Georgian cheese. To my mind, the walnut chicken was reminiscent of “Sharkaseya”: the Egyptianised version of a similar Turkish recipe, that one hardly finds these days in any Cairene restaurant, but remains the product of many an Egyptian lady of a certain age and social background.
Heavy delicious meals punctuated my long weekend in Tbilisi. So did history. My companions, Russian and Dutch international relations professionals focused on the Caucasus, explained to me how Georgia has always been a crossroad between the Russian, Turkish, and Persian empires. Crossroads are rich places, though often full of grief. You see the richness in the architecture of Tbilisi’s old centre. Various traditions mix and blur; a sense of harmoniously coexisting East and West pervades the city. Georgian music showcases this meeting of cultures. Even after generous drinking, one still appreciates the oriental dancing beats mingling with sharp, graceful Western tones.
Tbilisi is not beautiful in the absolute, or even relatively when compared to many other European cities. But it’s a city, one feels, that was built, and rebuilt, with an appreciation for the aesthetics. Small touches, from statues to water fountains to street art, remind you that the place has a thriving art culture, and more importantly, that Georgians have an eye, and a place in their life, for beauty.
“Is Tbilisi a European city?” My Dutch companion asked me, the Egyptian man. I guess it depends on how you define “European’ness”. It certainly lacks Paris’s elegance, Amsterdam’s refinement, Vienna’s hauteur, Rome’s accumulation of the features of Western civilisation; it also doesn’t have the beauty and scars that many Eastern European cities display. But, in a way, Tbilisi reminded me of real Naples, away and beyond its cornice; Tbilisi also has touches of inner Athens; and for my eyes at least, it carries reminiscences of Alexandria. In a way, Tbilisi is European, when the notion was inspiring to many Mediterranean cities (and societies) that looked to Europe for cultural orientation and artistic inspiration.
If Tbilisi’s European identity is debatable, its Christian one isn’t. To be specific, it is a clear, and proud, Orthodox Christian city. Simple crosses adorn the city’s skyline, and women’s necks. Austere centuries-old churches sit at the corners of the old city, as if guarding and blessing the passers-by. The sad eyes that Orthodox Christian artists consistently give to Christ stare at you from almost all shops and most small restaurants. And of course, like almost all ancient communities, Georgians see their country as “God’s own place”, the small part of earth that He reserved for Himself.
The wine was certainly heavenly. And when bottles get emptied at a fast pace, and the small carefully prepared dishes keep coming, and beautiful women beguilingly sing and dance, one’s mind alternates between A Thousand and One Nights and Paris’ late night wine bars.