I’m a big fan of riverside cities with low buildings. You could even say that it’s shaped my adult life! Washington-upon-Potomac, St. Petersburg-upon-Neva, and now Tbilisi-upon-Mtkvari. Four years ago I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia from January-May 2008. I lived with a host family (a Mom and two brothers) and studied at St. Petersburg State University where I met my most excellent friend Lauren and shared countless excellent adventures with the likes of Larissa, Allen, Krista, and Harrison.
Appropriately enough, as I began writing this post, “Don’t Rock the Boat” came on on shuffle. You know why such things happen? Because “Life is Life”! (Which has also now come on shuffle).
Anyway, in Russia, all my friends and I spoke a hybridized pidgin form of English and Russian. As spring sprang across the northern former capital of the Russian Empire, we contemplated going to revisit some of our favorite gardens and newly-greened spaces. “Why don’t we walk to the Admiralty?” someone suggested.
Harrison pooh-poohed the idea, complaining, “I don’t know. That’s pretty far, пешком.”
Пешком, of course, is Russian for “by foot” and is pronounced, “peshkom.” The great distance to the Admiralty was not a deterrent for us that lovely spring day in 2008 and it has never been a deterrent to me since.
That is a rather convoluted way of pointing out/reiterating that I love to walk. I recently reloaded my iPod with podcasts after a fatal trio of harddrive crashes–making my daily walks all the more pleasurable! My coworkers marveled as I continued walking to work throughout the winter, despite it being the coldest winter Tbilisi has seen in decades. “How do you not freeze?!” they gape. And truth be told, there are many hazards associated with walking in Georgia.
For starters, construction sites are not blocked off from the public in the least. Of course, Tbilisi is experiencing a great period of reinvention with construction and restoration projects popping up all over the city. From the new Marjanishvili Square, to the block of buildings just north of my apartment, to random back alleys in Old Tbilisi, scaffolds cover the faces of countless buildings. Part of the refurbishing project that many of these buildings undergo involves the scraping and chipping away of the old, decrepit facades. What happens when you chip away at them? Why, plaster, bricks, and cement chunks and dust fall onto the street below!
Sure, there are tarps strung across the scaffold to “prevent” this, but to be honest, if there wasn’t a man standing waving pedestrians past with outstretched arms, I could’ve easily gotten clobbered the other day!
Furthermore, at the ground level, construction sites are never inaccessible. While that is hazardous, it’s also convenient. The construction of two large shopping centers (?) about a block from the Ministry of Education and Science has blocked off access to the shops on the corner, making lunch that much more difficult to obtain. Luckily, the construction zones are completely open and we can simply dash through, dodging sparks, guarding our eyes and mouths against cement dust, and tiptoeing around the already-old-looking rebars that litter the ground.
That’s not the only construction site I walk through, either. My dad and Angela can attest that about a week or two ago I had to perform some gymnastics to get home. As I answered the phone, I found myself approaching an apparent dead-end. The street in question isn’t usually a dead-end, but it seems that a construction project had begun and it had only been fenced off from one side. Not being one to give up, I told my dad, “Hang on dad, I have to cross a balance beam above a construction site, I’ll need to concentrate.”
I swung around some sort of hose or pipe blocking my path and hopped off the beam, resuming conversation with my dad, “Yeah, I just needed to cross over some people who are welding a gas main or something. Hang on, I have to climb under a fence now.” Just a normal stroll in Tbilisi!
In winter, the snow and ice created additional hazards and challenges for the pedestrian. Black Ice lay everywhere and streets were not very well or regularly cleaned. In places without sidewalks, tiny drifts of slick, packed snow rose up against the curb. One wrong step and you could easily slide right into traffic!
But let me take this opportunity to put my poor heart-attack having mother at ease: I don’t always walk (and there isn’t any more snow!). Sometimes, when time is a concern I take the metro or a marshrutka! I had my first new-marshrutka experience a month or so ago. The vehicle even smelled new. It was glorious.
Plus, when I teach in Saburtelo, I often find myself riding the subway. This is basically the same old story as it’s always been. Except the time that I saw something very strange at about 11 pm…. A train pulled into the station, every car empty and dark, save one. The central car was lit up and had blue lights on the outside. There were thick curtains drawn over the windows and you could only barely catch a glimpse of people moving about within through tiny gaps between the curtains and the windoframe. After idling for a moment, the train backed into the tunnel and down a previously unlit and invisible side tunnel.
I have no idea what was in that train car. It was probably some sort of spy agency or secret police listening car. Heck, they might even be monitoring me to this very d– Hang on. Someone’s knocking on the door. I’d better go see who it is….