Waiting for an exit visa in Cringey Casablanca
Tbilisi is so-so
The below journal entries are a truthful retelling of Edward Slavsquat’s ongoing presence in the Caucasus.
Friday, June 17: you’re in Armenia now
The airline shipped my suitcase directly to Tbilisi from Moscow so when I arrived in Yerevan I bypassed baggage claim and walked directly into the Arrivals terminal, where I was immediately surrounded by a swarm of spasmodic taxi drivers.
After escaping their clutches I exchanged some rubles for dram and began to map the journey from Zvartnots International Airport to my hotel.
And then Fate intervened. As I made my way towards the exit I locked eyes with a large bald man with a perfectly round and gentle face. He waddled over to me.
“You need a taxi?” he says to me in Russian.
“How much to the city center?” I reply in my Americanized Russian.
“Ah, you speak English,” he says switching languages. “You have Armenian money? To city center 5,000 dram, only $10.”
“Okay. What’s your name?” I ask my newly hired driver.
“Harut. It’s special Armenian name.”
I could have ordered a Yandex taxi for 2,000 dram. But sometimes it’s worth the extra 3,000 dram. This would be one of those instances.
As we enter the parking garage Harut points to his automobile.
“You want to sit in front or back?”
Harut drives a big white windowless van. The rear windshield is missing; in its place is a duct-taped trash bag. It’s the kind of van commonly associated with kidnappings and drug deals.
I realized this van could be my undoing. But it was too late to turn back; we had an agreement.
My misgivings about getting into Harut’s party van were exacerbated by the fact that it was my first time in Armenia and I had no idea what I was doing. (This has been a common theme throughout my life.) What did I know about Armenia? Nothing. In college I was permanently friend-zoned by a beguiling Armenian girl blessed with immoderate curves; though come to think of it she was actually Romanian.
Harut quickly disabused me of my foul ignorance. As he drove he told me everything I will ever need to know about his country.
“You see mountain over there?”
“Biggest mountain in Armenia.”
A brief silence.
“You see these buildings made of stones?”
“Special Armenian stones. Very beautiful.”
After a few minutes we pull into a gas station.
“I get some water. You want water?”
“Oh no I’m okay. But thank you.”
“Bro, you’re in Armenia now. I get you water.”
Harut steps out of the van and returns a few minutes later with two bottles of water.
“Take, take,” he says handing me one of the bottles.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Drink. Armenian water. It’s very special.”
He continues with his Armenia 101 course.
“In Yerevan great nightlife. All cafes work until early in morning. At three in morning you think it three in afternoon, so many people walking. But very safe. Yerevan very safe. No one asks who you are, no one asks you nothing.”
Harut then turns to me and asks: “How old you think Yerevan is? You know?”
“Um. I don’t know—one thousand years old?”
“One thousand years! You think Yerevan is little baby?” He shakes his head in disbelief. “Yerevan 2,800 years old! When they build Rome, Yerevan already 30 years old. Rome is little baby when you look at Yerevan.”
“You see mountain over there?” Now Harut is pointing at a different mountain. “Was biggest mountain in Armenia but Turks stole it during genocide.”
The van pulls into another gas station.
“I buy cigarettes. You smoke?”
“No, no. Thank you.”
A few minutes later Harut returns with a pack of cigarettes and two plastic cups.
“Special Armenian iced coffee. Take, take.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Bro. Take. You’re in Armenia now.”
The discussion then turns to my travel plans—how long will I be staying in Yerevan and do I need a driver to shuttle me to all of the special places in Armenia? I confess to Harut that unfortunately I’m only spending the night in the capital and will fly to Tbilisi tomorrow.
“Georgia? Okay, I drive you to Tbilisi. Only four hours. Many special sights.”
We finally arrive at my hotel in downtown Yerevan. I shake Harut’s hand and ask him for his phone number—just in case. Then I give him two crisp 5,000 dram notes. A small price for the honor of riding in Harut’s van.
“Oh. Thank you,” he says.
Bro. Take. You’re in Armenia now.
Saturday, June 18: Gamarjoba
A friend meets me at the airport and we take a taxi to my temporary abode in Tbilisi.
We drive past the city’s tree-lined thoroughfare and turn onto a street with a 30 degree slope. We keep driving. We turn right and go up another hill. Then there’s a hill after that. A minute later we turn left onto yet another hill; the taxi stalls. This is as far as the taxi can go.
With the help of a smartphone we orient ourselves and walk the remaining 100 meters to my apartment. My landlady, a voluptuous woman of advanced years named Liana, is waiting for us outside.
She leads us into a small courtyard and opens the door to my quarters. A small kitchen with a dilapidated portable stovetop leads into the living area—two single beds, a remarkably comfortable sofa, and a desk. The bathroom is a closet in which the shower is installed directly next to the toilet without a separating barrier of any kind.
There’s also a loft with access to a wraparound terrace providing a bird’s-eye view of the 500 hills we just climbed. Most importantly, there is excellent internet.
“I live next door. If you need anything just ask,” Liana says in Russian as she hands me the keys.
I settle in, change my clothes and prepare to make the journey down The Hill with my friend. But before we can leave Liana appears again.
“You want wine? Homemade wine. Wait.”
She disappears into her house and returns a few moments later with a glass pitcher of red wine. I thank her profusely and place the homebrew in my refrigerator. Then we set off.
We wind our way through several narrow streets until we reach a bar popular with expats. And here I was given a crash course in all things Georgian.
“Gamarjoba—hello. That’s an important one,” my friend tells me as we take another shot of chacha. He relays other useful expressions but I immediately forget them all. Gamarjoba would have to suffice in all situations. Hello—Gamarjoba. Thank you—Gamarjoba. Where is the bathroom?—Gamarjoba. My life is meaningless—Gamarjoba. Almost everyone speaks English or Russian, anyway.
We strike up a conversation with the bartender, an Iranian. She is saving money in hopes of leaving Georgia as soon as possible.
As I soon discover, nearly every foreigner in Tbilisi is in transit or is scraping money together to go home; to go somewhere that is not Tbilisi.
The War has greatly accentuated this phenomenon. The city is overflowing with Young Professionals from Russia—the double-crossing youth who chose SWIFT access over the Motherland. They all work in IT. But I’m sure many of them don’t work at all; apparently they don’t need to. They are the lowest lifeform—even lower than bloggers, who are miles below sea-level.
How long will these disaffected 20-somethings stay in Georgia’s capital? According to Wikipedia, they can remain in the country for up to one year without a visa. Then what?
The situation has a sort of Casablanca feel to it—without the unmatched class and mystique of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but with the same predatory rent hikes and scammy hookah lounges that plagued the despondent refugees in Warner Bros’ 1942 classic.
I can already imagine the title sequence to the film’s modern remake:
With the coming of the special operation in Ukraine, many IT professionals in SWIFT-embargoed Moscow turned hopefully, or desperately, towards the ATMs of the Americas.
London became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to London directly. And so a tortuous roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Moscow to Istanbul. Istanbul to Yerevan. From Yerevan, a white van to Tbilisi…
Here the fortunate ones, through money or influence or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to London. And from London, to somewhere with an IKEA.
But the others wait in Tbilisi. And wait. And wait. And wait…
Monday, June 20: The Hill
To go anywhere I must go down The Hill. Which is easy enough. But at some point I must go up The Hill while dodging mounds of dog-poo. And this is less easy because I am not a Sherpa.
The Hill is omnipresent and weighs heavily on my mind. But it also provides much-needed structure to my otherwise aimless daily routine. Go up The Hill, almost die, take a nap. Dependable. Reliable. Like clockwork.
It occurred to me last night that probably a huge number of foreigners have died on The Hill. I searched the internet for confirmation but there was nothing—just scattered reports of stabbings in seedier parts of town.
But there is no publicly available data about dumpling-shaped foreigners collapsing on The Hill. Which is very suspicious. Why doesn’t the Georgian government maintain a VAERS-like database of post-Hill complications? Smells like a coverup.
Tried Liana’s wine today. Vinegar. Drank it anyway. Almost died. Had to take a long recovery nap.
Wednesday, June 22: The Biltmore
Tbilisi’s great charm is in its human proportions. Most buildings are in urgent need of a fresh coat of paint but their modest size and dignified architecture creates a feeling of harmony and calmness. This is a wonderful change from Moscow, where stately 19th century residences—refurbished as (now abandoned?) IT offices—languish in the shadows of towering heaps of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete.
There is one major exception to this architectural contrast—The Biltmore.
Imagine an unassuming city center where a 10-story building sticks out like a sore thumb. Now imagine a giant 5-star dildo made of tinted glass protruding from its ancient cobblestone streets. You are imagining The Biltmore.
Who signed off on this monstrosity? How cucked is Tbilisi’s Zoning Board? Is nothing sacred anymore?
Saturday, June 25: how they murdered Frank
I witnessed a murder while walking through the flea market near Saarbrucken Bridge.
The extreme violence occurred around noon among the landline telephones, Soviet military decorations, antique coins, antique books, antique dolls, antique nail files, vintage pistol holsters, retro license plates, traditional hats, ceremonial daggers, traditional swords, toy swords, more swords, and other treasures that won’t fit in your suitcase and are definitely illegal to transport across state lines.
The victim: as usual, a tired and demoralized American led as a sheep to slaughter by his conniving, yoga pants-wearing wife.
Yoga Pants initiated the premeditated crime with the usual trickery.
“Oh-oh-oh, Frank. Frank! Wouldn’t your mother just love this chandelier?”
She points to a rusted bronze abomination. Tbilisi’s curse upon the earth. A dented, forsaken mess of twisted scrap metal wanted only by INTERPOL.
A semi-comatose vendor—activated by the scent of tourists—jumps off his wood stool and conducts an instantaneous audit of the priceless artifact.
Yoga Pants looks warmly at the vendor. The vendor bows graciously to Yoga Pants. Yoga Pants turns her precious gaze to Frank. Frank opens his mouth—to say Gamarjoba?—but nothing comes out.
Instead he silently retrieves his wallet and surrenders his lari. And should we judge him for it? Yes; of course.
I watched solemnly as Frank lugged the Georgian heirloom back to their hotel, a Tbilisi cocktail (50 ml of sweat mixed with 500 ml of tears) pouring down his sunburnt cheeks.
Tuesday, June 28: a birthday surprise
Today is my birthday. After two years of virus scams, I feel older than Yerevan.
And after more than a week of procrastinating it’s time to apply for my Russian visa. Luckily for me there is a Russian Visa Center that will do all the necessary filings on my behalf.
I arrive in the morning with a Manila folder stuffed with forms, documents, notarized certificates and insurance policies.
“Looks like your papers are in order. Just need your Georgian residency permit,” the visa worker says to me.
“Your Georgian residency.”
“They changed the rules. You need Georgian residency to apply for a Russian visa in Georgia.”
Without responding I stoically gather my documents and retreat.
I walked aimlessly as I pondered the mysteries of the universe and my boundless stupidity.