Tara Isabella Burton

Lermontov’s house is gone now. The foundations have crumbled in upon themselves; the mock-ups of the reconstruction are now covered in graffiti. There will never be any reconstruction. The restaurant called Pur Pur, with its Victorian lampshades and Friday night chanteuse, has closed down without warning. We trade black-market rumors about the reopening.  Of course, we don’t know anything. In Tbilisi, nobody knows anything.

Construction stops, sometimes; sometimes it starts again. A neon casino called the Shangri-La cascades light into the gardens of the patriarchate; we speculate that the patriarch himself is getting a cut. A funicular now links what remains of the Narikala Fortress to the new Rike Park, astringently manicured, home to a statue of Ronald Reagan and the foundations of a new Philharmonic, which resembles nothing so much as a severed pair of legs. The slums by the bathhouses have been restored: they are smooth, pastel, and uninhabited.

Hugo used to tell me that I was destined to be a chronicler of Tbilisi. I would start my own brand of Georgian Romanticism, he said, or perhaps its Renaissance – I’d translate poets like Vazha-Pshavela and Alexander Kazbegi, run barefoot across the Greater Caucasus, ride horses into snowdrifts, host foreign academics and literary salons over vanilla tea in the basement of Pur Pur. He left incomprehensible voicemails; he sent me impassioned text messages at three in the morning, demanding that I read his latest poem. He sent me twelve-page emails, detailing how and why my newest article fell short of his aspirations for me, and hinted that my prose style would improve if I became a Catholic.


Hugo was seventy and inexplicable, like everything else in Tbilisi. He taught English in a small and flea-bitten village outside the capital, and frequently frustrated his superiors by spending his lessons lecturing to seven-year-olds about Hieronymus Bosch. He composed etudes on the tuneless piano in the village’s only restaurant (he was, he said, a classical composer by trade); he wrote sonnets in praise of the idea of ultima thule: the dragon-swept badlands beyond the borders of cartographers, where the Romans feared to go.

He wore the same suit every time I met him – oversized tweed with an appallingly turquoise tie and a scarlet scarf that bundled him up to the chin, stained prodigiously with grease.

He offered little of his past. He spoke, vaguely and variously, of studying Ancient Iranian at Cambridge; of an affair with the wife of an Oxford don; of a hushed-up controversy, involving Parisian monks. In his youth, he said, he’d been promising. He’d taught English for a few years in Japan; he’d slept on every sofa and in each spare room in England.

Hugo was adept at trading charm for sustenance. “You fairy creature,” he said to me the first time we met. “I’m positively skint.  You don’t mind buying these coffees, do you?” He ordered ten meat dumplings and an enormous cheese pie and made a few stuttering fumbles for his wallet before leaving me with the bill.

Georgia had welcomed him, as Japan had not, as England had not. In Georgia he could write poems and interfere with the routines of monks; in Georgia he could bathe in holy springs. “This is a mythological place,” he explained to me, as we finished our coffee, overlooking the traffic junction at Meidan. “I feel that Fate has brought you to me – yes, the magic of Georgia. You understand, don’t you? You don’t go in for all that postmodernism rubbish. The mind here has had no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Enlightenment…no Modernism: just a touch of Romanticism….it is powerful, ambivalent, fecund, troubling, often destructive; always lucent. ” He pounded the table with his fists. “You understand – spiritually.”

Hugo had decided that I was the perfect vessel for his plan. I would – according to his fervently incomprehensible instructions – single-handedly transform Tbilisi into Gertrude Stein’s Paris, or Hemingway’s Madrid – a city of exiles and accordionistes, of half-starved writers and unsold paintings. I was to serve as bait – luring in various English academics whom Hugo had engaged in lengthy and, I imagined, one-sided correspondences. I would change the subject of my doctoral dissertation to something more obviously Kartvelian – a stretch; my field was nineteenth-century France. Of course, I would have to become a Catholic.

Georgia was a mythical place, Hugo said, and so within it I was mythic, too.

I could not believe in him; I wanted to believe in him. His madness was infectious. The Georgia he believed in – all Khevsur swords and stolen icons and the declamations of Lermontov – was infectious. I bought him beer and cheese pies and ignored the insults he so often lobbed at my writing (“Here alas Homer nodded!” he commented on my blog), because he laced them with such extravagant flattery (“I’m only harsh on you, you see, because you need help birthing your genius!”). Even his eccentricities endeared me to him, because they belonged to that Tbilisi of which we both dreamed, that anachronistic and labyrinthine Tbilisi of our imaginations in which poets lived off chacha liquor and the kindness of strangers. Together, at Pur Pur, we fell in love with the Tbilisi we had created for ourselves – all back-alleys and stray cats and persimmon trees leafless in the springtime, all art nouveau angels and acute angles and basement wine – because it meant, at last, that we’d found a city where we belonged.

I didn’t belong there, of course. I made a show of belonging – developed artful routines (Saturdays at the flea market, buying Russian silver; Sundays in the bathhouse, with a pot of tea and a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor), but it was always half-hearted. I lived there part-time, spending five months in twelve ghostwriting romance novels in order to fund a master’s degree back in England without running afoul of student-visa work laws. I spent my English days missing Georgia; secretly, I spent my Georgian days missing England. I spent too much time in the expat cafes. I raged when the electricity went out, or when my Azeri neighbor hired a prostitute at four in the morning, and pounded against the wall until mornings. (“It won’t happen again,” he said by way of apology, “My wife gets home next week.”)

I did what I’d done my whole life – first with my mother, then alone – outrunning disappointments, outstripping disillusionment, traveling from city to city and country to country in search of that final homecoming, my own bed carved into the trunk of the tree at the centre of the world.  I was too American for England, too English for Rome, too Italian for America, When I’d put down roots, however tenuous, in Tbilisi, I’d staked some small part of myself on the hope that this, this would be the place. I drank vanilla tea by the window of Pur Pur, and looked out across Gudiashvili Square to Lermontov’s old house, with its tilting balconies and blue facade, and lugged my Russian silver, thick with rust, across the back streets of Sololaki, and pretended that the fact of my being here made sense.

But for Hugo, everything made sense. Georgia was mythic, and myth had brought me to him, and so for Hugo we were two exiles building the new Paris, the new Madrid, the new Athens, all around us. The Tbilisi we loved was on the brink, always, of revealing itself to us. We held our breath, and the city held its breath, incipiently real.

“It is coming,” Hugo wrote to me. “A break-through from the post-modern impasse. Renaissance.” His Georgian colleagues were, regrettably, unaware of the potential for spiritual rapture that dwelt within their souls, as within the mountains of their ancestors. He was old; he could not convince them. But I – “fairy-haired” and twenty-two – could do it for him.

I failed him, of course. I was always going to fail him. I could not love as long or as fervently as he could – my restlessness went deeper than his. When the city began to change, at last, it was not we who changed it. There was no re-awakening of the Romantic soul. There was only a demolition, and then another, and then another – a Buddha Bar opened on the banks of the river, a cafe shuttered up without warning or explanation, bright lights in glass buildings, discolorations, renovations. There is a new canal by the bathhouses; they’ve excavated ruins on Pushkin Street. Men – nobody’s quite sure who – knocked Lermontov’s house down to make way for, according to one prospective design, a shopping plaza; halfway through they ran out of money, or interest, and left the site to the cats.

I began to think of new homecomings, and new exiles. I began to resent Hugo’s literary analyses of idle restaurant reviews I’d posted on my blog (“You mixed genres!” he wrote, appalled), his conviction that the novel I’d just finished was no good (“I don’t need to read it. It’s not set in Tbilisi. Your destiny is in Tbilisi.”), his senseless insistence that Tbilisi was my place, that it was my home, that the rest of my life should and ought and must be spent in thrall to the mountains and the Black Sea.

But it wasn’t the place – because nowhere would be that place – and this galvanized me. It was only a place, another place, a yet-another place, that I was getting ready to say goodbye to.

My emails to him grew shorter. I stopped answering the telephone, stopped reading his poems. A week later I asked if I could push back a lunch meeting he’d arranged for me – without my consent – with a curator exhibiting the works of the painter Merab Abramishvili, whom he deemed to be the founding member of our Georgian Renaissance. It was inconvenient, I said – I had a friend visiting, and a Russian lesson at four – couldn’t we make it later in the afternoon?

His response was twelve pages long. I had rebuffed him, he said, and with it I had sacrificed my own principles – I “lacked the conviction and the courage” to back up my first, idealistic love affair with Tbilisi. I could have been – if not one of the great Russian intellectuals – then at least a Lesley Blanch or a Richard Cobb. But I was a coward, a hedonist, a dilettante, collecting cities like flea market kitsch. He had given me a “wonderful” idea – a project destined to change the world – and I had turned him down. “Everything we have worked for,” he said, had been a mirage. He hoped that I’d reconsider my reluctance to go forward with our plan. He “prayed that the Holy Spirit” would guide me. He had seen angels on the ceiling of his bedroom, he said.

Furthermore, he added, he’d been looking forward to our lunch. He’d hoped it would cheer him up. His mother had died yesterday, and he had to make arrangements for the funeral. At least one of his siblings would not speak to him.

I wrote him back a long letter – at once furious and restrained – telling him what I was, and could not be. I could not carry out his plans for him. I could not bear his standard, nor I was looking for something – somewhere – and I was still foreign here, foreign everywhere. I didn’t want to be a dilettante; I didn’t want to be a fool. But I could not be his hope, either.

Two weeks later I received an answer. “Had no time to read your v. long email. Coffee? You can tell me what you wrote.”

I never did.

I go back to Tbilisi less often, now, and each time I wonder if I love it a little less. My doctoral stipend obviates the need to seek cheap accommodation for most of the year; I’ve quit the ghostwriting, and with it the hope of a job I can do from anywhere with a wireless connection. I have a life in England, now. A partner. Something like routine.

But this is not the reason for my absence. If I am absent, it is because there is nowhere to go back to. My dream-Tbilisi, the one I’d projected onto the walls of the opera house, onto the melancholy back streets of Sololaki, onto the misaligned balconies of courtyards, does not exist.

There are always two cities. The first is the city that swallows you up, closes in around you when you stumble off the train, or haggle furiously with the taxi-driver, the city printed neatly on our airplane tickets. But this is never the city you see. It presses up against you and it exposes itself to you and still you do not see it, because you are already in another. You have been in that other city since long before the nose of the plane has touched the ground. It is the city of writers you have read and of painters you have loved, of poets we know who have died there. It smells of spices you remember from first dates in back-alley restaurants; it looks like the pictures you have seen in old books. It is what you have come for; and why you have left everything else behind.

I have gone out from that second city, and like a child in the woods of a fairy-tale I do not know if I will find my way back again. If I do, I will find Hugo there. He will be sitting in Pur Pur, across from Lermontov’s house, feeding stray cats and raging against the stars. He will be staring down angels, and there, at last, will he belong.

Tara Isabella Burton‘s travel writing and essays have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, on the BBC, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She has recently completed a novel set in Georgia.