The DJ detects the shift in atmosphere. Time to raise the tempo. Tech music fades away leaving space for disco to rise in its place. The surrounding fashion-conscious Georgians erupt in cries of adoration and flailing limbs, smiles visible on those who aren’t hiding behind Guy Fawkes masks. We’re pulsing again. We’re moving again.
Tbilisi is cool to the bone. And it knows it, the myriad of bars and restaurants, the expensive boutiques and hotels, the towering statues, the cable car soaring over the old town, the pastel coloured buildings, the happily shabby latticed balconies overlooking the twisting, narrow cobblestoned streets and hidden courtyards have led to the city being referred to as ‘the Paris of Eurasia’. Pristine areas and rough edges, usually right on top of each other.
As you descend into the valley in which the city lives, the first thing you’ll notice is the Soviet history of churches and old world buildings slammed against the hyper-modernity of space-age architecture. It just shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does. During the day, the snow-covered peaks of distant Caucasus mountains frame the picture. Night falls, the contrasting buildings light up, and it’s spellbinding. It’s cosmopolitan, gentrifying and a whole host of other community related buzzwords. Going places. And that’s reflected in a cultural boom.
A recent social renaissance has seen this sudden swell in artisans, Millennials who aren’t held as tight by the Soviet hangover. A growing number of progressive-minded bars, cafes and co-working spaces have helped push through a new wave of creativity. They’re trying to launch a film community, too, the tax credits on offer the reason behind the strange combination of a Bollywood film involving stunts on dirt bikes being shot in the steep cobbled streets of the Georgian capital. That’s the kind of strange diversity you see here. And they tend to be pretty nonchalant about it. The Georgians, that is – the film crew all appeared to think they were impossibly important, which was the only consistent thing going on that day.
It’s led to labelling of the city’s people as ‘hipsters’, but if it has spilled over into that maybe it’s just evolution, a derivative of an accepting, tolerant society. Self-expression, regardless of whether it tilts towards pretension, transcends communism every time. No doubt ol’ Joe would’ve had them on the first train to Siberia back in the day, but a new dawn breaks. Let them thrive.
But a river splits this city. There are two sides. The memory of Georgia’s most famous son, Joseph Stalin, still lingers. It’s often overt. At the flea market, for instance, portraits of his moustachioed face stare back at your from behind the collections of jewellery, cameras, rugs, swords and knives at most of the stalls. It’s a collision that’s both interesting and ironic, as the flea market is irresistible for hipsters. The push and pull of the old and new.
Statues of the dictator that were torn down after his death and the Soviet collapse are cropping up again, an indication that it’s not all forward thinking between bearded bohemians over frothing cappuccinos in vegan cafes. In the old town, a restaurant named ‘KGB: Still Watching You’ underlines this point, some deification of a mass murderer remains, usually on the basis they think he put Georgia on the map even if some agree it’s for the wrong reasons. And much like Armenia, homophobia remains a huge issue. Below is a video showing primordial violence during clashes at an LBGT parade as recently as 2013.
As a rule, Georgians are such affectionate and generous people. As in Armenia, male friends will walk around with their arms linked and entwined. They have no problem hugging this tall, pale writer immediately after meeting either – ‘a guest is a gift from God’ as the old Georgian proverb goes, a proverb that generally leads to you imbibing a deluge of chacha shots and repeated wandering toasts. But there’s the homophobic seed, too, even in some of those who’d categorize themselves as the forward-thinking trailblazers.
Much like in people, contradictions make places feel alive. It’s real, dynamic and vibrant, so much more fascinating than places with just one or two dimensions. Simplicity is vanilla, complicated nuances and idiosyncrasies create an electricity. And when the contradictions start to inform one another, that chemistry really underlines what makes the place or person unique and enigmatic.
‘Eurasia’ is implicit in its name. The countries here are pulled in both directions by two cultures that they have an instinctive affection for, like a child after their parents’ messy divorce. Tbilisi wants to live with Europe but still maintain its relationship with Asia. And in addition to this inherent geographical duality, the modernity here continues to complement the history as much as it tries to steal an inch or two.
Luckily, the contemporary good here is winning. The change is sweeping. Prehistoric views are falling away or being challenged for the most part, which is hugely encouraging. They haven’t been completely dispelled, but the volume has been turned down. From its Soviet bunkers, the soul continues to emerge more and more. And said soul is substantial, especially when the DJ shifts to disco.
It means an already cool city is only going to enhance the pulse and verve as they further cultivate the art and nightlife scenes that best reveal the true character of this city and its people.
The only thing we can control in life is our attitude. Fixed roots, open futures. Tbilisi is looking west. And up.