Caucasus Journey X: First Week in Tbilisi

April 22, 2009
So far, things are going pretty well here. As I mentioned in a recent post, I arrived in Tbilisi from Kutaisi last Tuesday night, then headed into the archive on Wednesday. On Thursday, I rented an apartment.
I like the apartment a lot. At $400/month (pro-rated by the week) it's the most I've ever spent on a place in the former USSR, but still a lot less expensive than any of the other apartments I'd heard about. Even though it's small (just one room), it's really comfortable, having recently undergone Evro-remont ("Euro-refurbishing") complete with all sorts of plastic fixtures which will doubtless be broken within a year or two. I've got a new Turkish washing machine, which is a real blessing, and a fancy TV that gets about 70 channels. I'm also able to pull in wireless internet from my neighbors, which is really surprising--every apartment I've ever lived in during my research stays in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan were complete dead-zones, wireless-wise. Best of all, the place is warm. There's a remote-controlled electric heater mounted on the wall above my bed, and since it's just a one-room place any time I cook something the whole place warms up. Indeed, boiling water in large pots is my usual method for warming up cold apartments before the radiators get turned on for the winter in Russia, so to be honest I viewed the prospect of living in an easily heated one-room place as an advantage over the other place I looked at here, which was enormous and chilly.

The new pad
Actually, the one thing about this apartment I could really live without would be the wireless internet connection. When I was in Ufa last summer, I crashed for free at the empty apartment of a friend of mine. Not only was there no wireless, there was no phone service so I couldn't even establish a dial-up connection. In fact, there were hardly even any internet "cafes" [usually meaning tiny fluorescent-lit rooms filled with guys playing violent video games] in town, except for a few monitors that were available at expensive hotels [whose business centers charged about $10/hour]. Indeed, the only places with reasonably priced internet service that I found in Ufa were a) the main post office, which had only two computers, and b) a night-club about ten minutes from my apartment which closed down about a week after I arrived in town.
Living without the web was really liberating--I worked like a madman. In the mornings I'd wake up and, before even getting out of bed I'd start working on an article I was readying for submission or else start jotting down notes and ideas I had about other things I wanted to work on. I would hit the post office internet room 3-4 times a week, usually on my way home from the archive, and almost always had a list of things I absolutely needed to do so spent very little time screwing around even when I was online.
Indeed, the whole experience reminded me a little bit of the good old days, Turkey in the 90s. Since my Dad is a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, I began using email and visiting "bulletin board" chatrooms long before most people--around 1984, but actually didn't start using the modern web until 1998, when I began collecting information about MA programs in Turkish studies. I remember on a couple of occasions, before there were many internet cafes in Istanbul, I'd written articles for journals in the US and the editors wanted me to make revisions, and the entire communication was mediated by a girlfriend of mine who used internet at work--needless to say, she got fed up and dumped me before too much longer, and that's when I started using the web (okay, I guess I'll stop calling it the "modern web" now) on my own.
The reason I'm talking about this is that, for me, the 90s remain the high-water point for sheer productivity. I had a TV (a gift from a student, who'd bought a new one and didn't know anyone else without one), but no remote, so watched very little. I worked crazy hours--often teaching lessons seven days a week, sometimes until ten or eleven at night, but often with open periods during the day for a couple hours or so. I spent an inordinate amount of time studying languages (mostly Russian, which became an obsession for me, but also Hungarian and Italian, not to mention Turkish--I even took private lessons in French for a few months in 1997 to get it back up to snuff prior to a trip to Paris). I also wrote a lot, and when I wasn't studying languages or writing, I was reading books and newspapers.
When I think of all of the time I fritter away reading garbage on the web, I want to chuck my laptop out the window. But the web, of course, is more addictive than heroin--a point proven yet again by the fact that you're still reading this post. Alas, the only time I'm ever able to largely free myself from the lure of the web is when I'm in places like Ufa, where a search for wireless connections usually yields nothing but a black hole. It's feels so great, so healthy, when there is no web, but logging on is practically irresistible when there is a signal to poach--especially if you're afraid that it's going to go away soon, which makes wasting still more time online even easier to justify. 

This is what frightens me about the possibility of a world in which it's almost impossible to escape wireless internet. I realize, of course, that everyone should have equal access to the web and that's it's the right thing for cities to provide it for free or for a nominal fee. But for me, the entry into my living quarters of someone else's wireless signal is already a major nuisance of sorts, if only because it provides too much temptation for procrastination. The idea of a completely wireless world doesn't appeal to me at all. Frankly, I wish we could all go back to cable plugs, and that one person's wireless signal wouldn't intrude upon another's personal space.
Getting back to the subject of my awesome apartment, I haven't mentioned yet that I'm just a fifteen minute walk from from Rustaveli Street and the city center. From Friday through Monday, there was a four-day holiday in Georgia (Orthodox Easter), which meant the archive and libraries weren't working. I went for long walks every day, heading through the modern downtown on an around Rustaveli, and then into the old town. I went up to the fortress (dating back to the 4th century, apparently) above the old town, and also visited the parts of the city on the other side of the river. Tbilisi's not a big city, and I feel like I've got my bearings pretty well set.
Work is going pretty well at the archive. It's a pretty serious place, with none of the chatting, snacking or joking around that's come with some of the more laid-back archives I've visited in the Caucasus. The atmosphere is much more like archives in Russia, which is fine with me--I just go in, do my work, and don't spend much time chit-chatting with anybody. Other than me there are just a few other people in the reading room, all of them local scholars. This is nice, because it means the coveted "window-seats" are still generally available when I arrive in the morning. Since the lights in the reading room are never turned on, sitting next to the window means more daylight to ready by. Even though the weather is pretty warm here--sunny and in the 60s during the day--I wear long underwear and a thermal undershirt to the archives, because after several hours of sitting motionless in an unheated room I get really cold even with my thermal accoutrements.

I'm still not quite sure how much longer I'll stay in Tbilisi. I've paid for the apartment through May 2, and I'm pretty sure I'll need at least another week after that. I'm still discovering the city--this Friday after the archives, I'm planning on hitting the sulphur baths--and I haven't even started working at the Oriental Studies Institute (I'm going there tomorrow), so it's still too early to say. The City of the Sultans awaits me, of course, but I can't get back to the grandiose imperial capital until I'm good and ready to do so.