(A Space-time Study in Three Movements~space, time, language~)

 

Annonce ce que tu vois.[1]
Odette Keun in Au pays de la Toison d’or

Georgia. Georgia on my mind. Instinctive words that run together. Georgia on my body. Georgia, piece of land, stuck between Russia’s great empire and the Orient’s fragrances. The road doesn’t lead back to you; it’s our first time here — M and I –, between West and East.

The road that leads us is not quite that of a song, but of tunes and trails: we are in search for voices and landscapes, as if music were really shaping the earth around us. I walked with the reminiscences of words, mythologies in mind. She walked with memories of sounds, melodies in mind.

Travelers know this. The images formed in our imagination, even those ones based in reality (and human productions like music and literature are reality’s fragments: they are, like the mountain or the river we see every morning, shaping our identity), can never come close to what it is to be in contact with land and people. This is part of the process; this is what any traveler wants to experience and live, swept up for a while — for a little while at least — in unknown sceneries, immersed in exoticism. But soon, you search for familiarity, the same comfort that the tourist looks for right away. Sometimes you will get it, get over the glass, the new becoming slowly known. Sometimes you will just get the feeling, a reflection punched back by the glass, discovery’s natural border.

About the glass, I don’t know; I drunk its contents, sweating, sticking even at night, in the cooling fan of a bar. From Georgia, what lingers in my mind, on my body, is the heat. Heat that smoothens our outlines, heat that makes you walk slower. From bars in the capital to mountain passes 3400m high up, a warm breeze sweeping everything away, desiccating any thoughts.

 

I

Its wheeze makes dresses billow up at every stop and departure. Wide and clean, there’s no place to hide in this underground space, Tbilisi’s metro. We breathe in the remains of the USSR. On walls, advertisements for a German beer seem out of place, addressing the rich foreigner, addressing dreams: buy this beer and you’ll look like the sophisticated fop on his horse, rich, gazing straight into the future. The numbers on the clock screen unthread time in a foreign order.

Then, the wind. Doors open. The same haste as everywhere else. Bodies are suddenly close in the afternoon’s warm air. Doors close. The train leaves again with its human freight. Sweat beads on her open skin. Arms tangled up, hanging from the metal bar, like the handle of a fake beer mug. Feet fastened to the ground, monotonous rhythm: it is a peculiar dance where gaps between bodies are compulsory.

There is a thickness between her and his body. He has just gotten on and stands next to the sliding door, an arm resting on the metal bar. They are not together, like this couple behind, like characters out of a Lado Gudiashvili’ painting, with their long and straight noses, the line of their eyebrows giving them a seriousness we cannot fathom.

Her look crosses his, briefly, she looks away, again. She breathes her own sweat, a perfume banished from human society, a perfume that, she thinks shamefully, fills the air around her. His eyes fall naturally on her hair, growing darker against her light brown skin. The train stops, doors open. She raises her head. Her eyes echo his face, this time longer, long enough to notice the darkness of his look overtaking a Greek nose, long and straight too. Nothing is said, nothing can be said. Only the air is moved and thickened by this relationship of stolen eyes, where one skin calls another. Another stop. She leaves, rousing herself from the touch of his eyes, approaching anew a blinding sun. He leaves, blown away by the arousing breeze that makes the dresses all aflutter. Only a vague perfume lingers, that of two separated skins.

Out, looking for dying shades, vibrant profiles slide between the noises of klaxons and yelling. She passes construction workers seated in the dust of the street, seated on unfinished concrete architectures. Their gazes follow her steps. Above, on a balcony, a man’s shadow taking a drag. She disappears.

Half-day: we brush against walls. Three faces emerge from the steam of a plate filled with dozens of small pasta purses. Black indentation on milky porcelain, the remains of a Turkish coffee. And on the menu, unknown dishes, names that trigger an imagination only drawn by what we have eaten before. Backgammon players surround us, softening contrasts colliding with each other. We could make a photograph of it. We pass. We want to walk the path on the hill over the city, see and do things you know. It is a sacred path and our host insisted that we walk it in the right direction. But we sit. Before the start. Hanging to the elements, as heavy as grapes; heat is our new god, slowing us down. We observe. Three children are playing, splashing to a water hose hold by their father. He’s playing too. A little girl comes nearer, in her hand the grapes just picked by her father, hesitating. We trade looks, we don’t need words, this time.

Montesquieu said that societies are different according to their climates. It is true: there is something in the South’s regions that dilates and slows time down. People sit and talk. In Tbilisi’s streets, you often meet small groups — usually of men — sitting on their ankles, chatting and looking (at girls — another other kind of philosophical thought). In the south of France, offices and shops close about five pm, an appropriate time for your glass of Rosé. A counter-example: Chicago, one meter of powder snow on the ground, a guy looks at his bus already far away, the next one coming in thirty minutes. He doesn’t even try to run and starts talking to pass the time. But here, clearly, temperature has an influence upon the movement of the body. From her luminous and colorful but unsatisfied journey into The Land of the Golden Fleece in 1921, Odette Keun tells this same relationship between the land and its people (“climate and soil fertility generated such indolence that it often reaches a terrible laziness and takes any initiative and leadership spirit down: one doesn’t take any morrow seriously”)[2].

Georgians wake up as the heat wakes up, they start work with her, which gives them, maybe, a good excuse not to work. They watch minutes vibrating in an air too warm to move, like the philosophers who already understood that rushing only makes time go by more quickly. We don’t know how construction ends up getting done. Kittens lie on these old stones, dust like curtains of dreams. There are no dogs, only cats with half-closed eyes. Even fruits hang heavy, ripe and ready to be picked. Tbilisi, the country’s capital, is a blend of buildings that are falling over and buildings whose renovations are in progress. Nothing is done but the bridge, a glass carapace tying two sides of the city above a snake of water. Nothing is done except for the bars that flood the night with the same music you will find the world over. “Lounge” beats skip on old stones and architectures of different times: braided stairs, slumped stairs and the oriental mosaic of the ceilings defy the eyes with their mazed geometries. These old stones are a womb for what we call “western invasion”: buildings dedicated to luxury (“Where art meets beauty”), huge advertisements for technological devices or walls filled with nightclubs posters (“girls and drinks make your dream come true”) in a street where fruits seem to be pre-arranged for photographic compositions, and commercial centers in construction are the foundations for a process that most definitely isn’t novel, that we’ve already seen in another place.

 

II

Another place. Out of the city. To get there, we need to take a marshrutka. A small yellow bus where a cross bumpily dances against the windshield, to the accompaniment of Georgian and Russian pop music. While these tunes rasp our ears with the delicacy of a Japanese cook, our bodies follow the vehicle’s hectic rhythm, slowly softening. Even klaxon’s sounds start to rock us — they are a compulsory driving device anyway. Seat-belts however are optional. Whether to use a seat-belt or not depends in fact on the car’s speed. The speed of the car depends on the road; not the speed limit signs but the road itself which is embraced by many manifestations: from a pot-holed one-way trail to a three-ways paved road within only three hours, there is plenty to feel beneath the wheels. Surprisingly it is on the wide paved roads that we sometimes have to slow down, as there’s a shepherd, cow or horse crossing our path.   Not a problem: Jesus protects us, dancing on the windshield.

Despite our trip’s peacefulness, our eyes stayed open and we followed an arid landscape awake, first the seesawing contrast of gleaming hostel and decrepit flats, then shop window on tiger-striped watermelon ‘s stands interspersing the roadsides. Sometimes we stop, taking with us new passengers. Sometimes we pass them by. They have this look to them, at once hopeful and anxious, the look of one who waits. Travelling (or “life” would say the one who have a fondness for philosophic metaphors) is not “about the destination; it is about the journey”. A well-known sentence like the French Vanilla ice-cream that accompanies your savouring of a chocolate cake: à la mode with some taste of déjà-vu. But who can really seize this no-time’s space where waiting becomes the main activity because our body is not able to free itself from the thought of its destination? Most of us will fill this “time” with a productive activity: reading, listening to music, chatting, or working. We all wait, we spend our time waiting; but filling up these blank spaces allows us to forget this sensation – of optimism and fear at the same time, of hope. What’s hope if not optimistic anxiety? What’s hope if not a desire for something that will lose its interest once achieved? “Les pays que nous désirons tiennent à chaque moment beaucoup plus de place dans notre vie véritable, que le pays où nous nous trouvons véritablement,” says Marcel Proust[3]. Someone who truly “travels,” even for a short and known trip, is someone who learns to wait without expectations, without hope. The English and Georgian language seem to dissociate both – to wait and to hope – but not French. We let ourselves drown in the music of a new tongue whose inflexions don’t open any meaning to us, sweeping away all questions. Words without images. No understanding but an eventual seizing of a present time.

We walk. The sun doesn’t weaken as the day unfolds its hours. The smell of cattle shit — sheep, cows, horses — fills the air. The land is round, no sharp edges in these green giants that defy the sky’s blue. Behind a curve, shouting and yelling. Not a piercing sound but a bass, throaty voice: shepherds herding their animals. In my mind, the sound of a flute echoing against the white walls of that tiny and quiet museum in Tbilisi, where a big and pink woman, shaking the absence of wind with a Chinese fan unwrapped stories from objects and pictures. There is a sort of discrepancy now between the shepherd’s image, the pastoral scene we made up, and these other melodies as if from the carved rock of a cave. No matter reality. I can still see Tchaïkovsky judging the shepherd’s music in front of a waterfall, or hear Alexander of Macedon’s cries in front of his childhood emerging from a Georgian diplipito’s materials, his personal madeleine de Proust. Sheep climb up, above the many water sources that bring low the mountain’s summits, down to the valley in bigger rivers. The shepherd’s sounds fade into the nose of the water. We walk.

The border’s presence. We feel it not from the land and its uncrossable peaks but from people. Face to face with their visible hospitality, the thought that we are two young women, the fact that we can hardly communicate arises. Images of Greek gods raping under disguise, the pale reminiscence of mythic murders and escapes superimpose themselves: this is the land of Caucasus, murderer and murdered. Reality holds myth back — or the other way around. We are shunt about from natural generosity and mistrust, condemned to rely on looks. What’s behind is forbidden. Only words can get there. On a stone, further on, a rocket as a curiosity for tourists.

At night, we meet a bit of familiarity: French people doing an organized trek. Organized: the human being’s essential needs all taken into account for you, i.e. sleep, body temperature, food, and poop. In this case, they seem to have forgotten sanitary facilities. We don’t know what’s worse: the villagers’ toilets that flush straight into the river or improvised toilets for trekkers. Human waste, either from tourists and inhabitants – is everywhere littered in the mountain. We are happy to enter this bubble though: being able to communicate again is a relief. In the end we are meeting people we would never have met in another context; it is also a different culture that we face here. We accept. It is easy to walk in the blazing schist, let oneself be challenged by the land, sometimes just blasted away by wind or water gusts. And then, at 3404m high, contemplate both sides without questioning. Feeling at once powerful and nothing, welcomed by a sun, even warmer on our naked arms. What will remain on our skin from this journey is something we don’t want to question either.

End of a day. It is dark now — night sharpens our senses. A voice next to the bonfire drills the bubble: they — the Georgian guides — are singing. As with every night, the same songs onto which laughs and complicity bounce. In the fire’s crackling, flickering voices settle. We don’t understand lyrics. But in the night, appearances fall down. The three strings of the panduri are those of a guitar. A porosity settles down in which music penetrates without effort. The stars are invisible in the ringed light. Warmth.

 

Tbilissi_Horloge

 

III

 In the sticky sleep of a warm mid-day, we feel the car’s speed accelerating. Then suddenly loud noises ear-piercing bodies. Today, we are back in Tbilisi. The taxi driver — who only speaks Georgian and Russian — throws us in a huge roundabout curved by screaming horns. Dust, heat, noise.

It seems at one and the same time that a century has passed and that everything is as we left it eight days ago.

We take the metro, thinking of the young Georgian-Parisian we met on the first day who said that no one takes the metro as there are only two perpendicular lines, crossing the city.

The water from Tusheti’s mountains is warm now. Sacred water running from a shepherd’s memorial. Memory of other mythologies, Melusine or Narcissus. Deadly waters for our West-European intestines. You’re better off drinking wine in this country.

Sweat beads on the glass. It is still hot in the places of the night: stones keep the heat with them. Against the old stones of Zoé’s bar, a liquid’s skin vibrates. Circles on the red surface. They are five, sitting around the table filled with different kinds of victuals. The voices are thick, whole; they take any free space, speak to something else than the mind: only harmony matters. Different layers intertwined bring into being the melodic blanket of what is known under the name of Georgian polyphonies. They look like little girls, singing in a round dance – a song for newborn children — and yet the sing fills the air as if they were a chorus of big black women. “[…] [Et] la musique m’abîme dans une vaste indifférence mortelle[4]. Singing creates ties between guests, a society. Here come back myths again, the world’s walls built from sounds: Tolkien’s creation of the world, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the breathing out of the Old Testament. And this is at once new and not new: who doesn’t remember — maybe buried in their childhood — memory of songs played in the warmth of the night? It is called traditional dances and singing but it talks through the body, of life, love and death: nothing traditional here. We are now mere silhouettes in the dark.

Shadows, closed bodies and language borders.

From Georgia then, linger mysteries, this feeling of being on the threshold, like being on a train watching its landscapes through a window, passing by; the confirmed feeling of staying at the surface, in front of the museum glass, going over a piece of land no one walks through. Unfinished trails, polyphonies with a missing voice, words without images.

And yet, we felt. The same heat. The same rhythm.

And at the end, this feeling: the road does lead back to you.

 

References

Dumas, Alexandre. « La Géorgie et les Géorgiens », Le Caucase, impressions de voyage, 1859, Montréal : Le Joyeux Roger, 2006.

Keun, Odette. Au pays de la Toison d’Or: en Géorgie menchéviste indépendante, Paris : Flammarion, 1924.

Proust, Marcel. «Un amour de Swann», A la Recherche du temps perdu I, Paris : Folio Gallimard, 1987.

 

Notes

[1] “Announce what you see.”
Keun, O. Au pays de la Toison d’Or: en Géorgie menchéviste indépendante, Paris : Flammarion, 1924.

[2] Keun, Odette. Au pays de la Toison d’Or: en Géorgie menchéviste indépendante, Paris : Flammarion, 1924.

[3] The lands we desire take at any time a lot more space in our real life than the land where we actually are.
Proust, Marcel. “Un amour de Swann,” A la Recherche du temps perdu I, Paris : Folio Gallimard, 1987.

[4] “And the music plunges me in a wide and deadly indifference […].” Keun, Odette. Au pays de la Toison d’Or: en Géorgie menchéviste indépendante, Paris : Flammarion, 1924.

 

Agnes Andre

Agnes Andre

Agnes Andre holds a masters degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Stendhal Grenoble III (France) and currently teaches French as a second language in Czech Republic. She also collaborates regularly to nosenchanteurs.eu—the first French songs online magazine—and to different francophone newspapers such as Le Petit Journal de Berlin (Germany) or Le Dauphiné Libéré (France). She has recently won the 2nd Prize of the 2014 Literature contest “Femmes en Action” (Winnipeg).

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