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CONTINUUM in Azerbaijan and Georgia

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After a detour to a local carpet shop where some of Continuum bought handsome rugs, we were taken to a historic caravanserai. Dating from the 14th century, these were "motels" for camels and their riders making treks along the Silk Road; a large central courtyard for the animals was surrounded by alcoves in which the riders could eat and rest. This restored building was now home to shops and a restaurant. Our breaths were taken away when we saw a banquet set for us in one of the alcoves, served by brightly costumed waiters. Most of us made the mistake of filling up on the offerings on the table, not realizing that they were merely prelude, with more to come.

In the early evening we gathered at the train station for our overnight journey to Tbilisi, Georgia. The Open Society Institute had arranged accommodations on "The Silk Road Express", a new private train operated by American Express (lucky for us because the public train is prey to robbers and bribery at the border). The comfortable refurbished ex-Soviet cars each had a security attendant in each, and there was a simple but adequate dining car with a VCR showing "Meet The Parents". We made our way along the coast along miles of incredibly depressing industrial wasteland testifying to the immense job ahead for the country, but eventually the scenery turned to a procession of magnificent desert formations reminding one of Utah. Each compartment provided sleeping arrangements for two, but I cannot announce that we slept soundly. Ariel asked, "Why is this called the 'Silk Road Express' when it's so bumpy?" As the train sat in the border village in the early morning, we had our first glimpse of Georgia -- no longer the desert but now farmland, evergreens, and forested mountains. The villagers at the train station were in old-world attire; an elderly woman, probably bound for market, carried primitive brooms she had no doubt just assembled.

Arriving in Tbilisi station, we met our Georgian hosts and headed for the house rented for us, a welcome alternative to the exorbitantly-priced hotels. Georgia's devastated economy and civil war only a few years before had left the intrinsically beautiful city extremely shabby, and as we approached our destination, there were some apprehensive looks among us. Once there, however, we knew we would be quite comfortable in the old multi-story house with its warm wood trim, huge rooms, and a patio around a cherry tree. A solicitous young woman and her mother looked after our needs and also prepared simple meals for us. The house was only a few minutes walk from Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's Fifth Avenue, where the whole city likes to promenade. Seeing the strolling multitudes, it was hard to imagine that only a few years before, this very place had been the scene of artillery and mortar fire. A former deluxe Russian high-rise hotel, draped with drying laundry, was now home to refugees from the northwestern province of Abkhazia, and at Rustaveli Square, a historic building now housed McDonald's. Giant book displays dominated the avenue, most books in Russian and Georgian, but a surprising number in English, including children's books and English language self-tutorials. An ultra-modern internet cafe was a popular stop for Continuum to keep in touch with home.

We were taken for a "Press Conference" at the Composers' Union, which was also bustling as a local music school, and where we could do a bit of much-needed practicing. Rehearsing in their small auditorium, I was outraged to see the residue of dripping candle wax on the music racks of the pianos, but quickly realized this was an expedient for the frequent unpredictable power outages plaguing the country (indeed, we experienced them on two successive days), the cause apparently unpaid, exorbitant gas bills owed Russia. After rehearsals we headed across the street to a Baskin and Robbins!

On the way home we stopped at the handsome Metekhi Church, rebuilt on one of the oldest church sites in the country. Along with Armenia, Georgia is the world's oldest center of Christianity, and beautiful old churches and monasteries abound. Tbilisi, population 1.5 million, is a breathtaking city, built on hills on both sides of the Mtkvari River with a skyline dominated by churches and the ancient Narikala Fortress. Many of the old houses and buildings have elaborate latticed wooden balconies. The country is very poor, but with great potential, especially for tourism. The current government led by Eduard Shervardnadze is apparently trying to stem rampant corruption, build the tax base, and attract foreign investment. Since independence from Russia in 1991, the dominant urban Russian language is yielding to Georgian, and street signs and shop signage are mostly in the Georgian alphabet, which some of us valiantly tried to learn.

Sunday morning several of us went to the Sioni Cathedral, accompanying David Gresham, who has become Russian Orthodox and wanted to attend the Pentecost service. We were all eager to hear the renowned Georgian liturgical music. David warned us that we would be standing for the service -- no seats -- and the service would last at least two hours. We didn't know if we were going to get inside but elbowed our way in just like everyone else. The crowd was reminiscent of the New York subway at rush hour, and people elbowed in and out periodically to chat and get some fresh air outside. Everyone carried a nosegay of flowers around a lit candle. We kept glancing around nervously -- indeed, a lady's scarf near me caught on fire, but was quickly extinguished. Most of us couldn't hear much of the service (no lapel mikes here), which was mostly in Georgian anyway, but the music was absolutely glorious. Georgia has a strong tradition of unaccompanied choral singing, both liturgical and secular. This tradition is not just left to the professionals, but is part of the ordinary Georgian's upbringing. Male and female choirs, singing separately for the most part but occasionally antiphonally, answered each other across the church. A feature of both sacred and secular singing is the presence of a drone (a very long tone) in the low bass, over which the melody evolves. The music is often robust and clangorously dissonant. After a couple of hours in the overcrowded conditions, we went down the block to see Tbilisi's synagogue, which was beautiful and well-maintained. According to the caretaker, the synagogue attracts a large crowd for sabbath, although many Jews left for Israel and the U.S. during the civil war. Georgia is proud of its history of religious tolerance: within a couple of blocks there is the Georgian Orthodox Cathedral, the synagogue, and an Armenian cathedral. continued...

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