None of the parliament members paid attention to the view. They were busy chain-smoking and laughing. The protests had ended in their favor and now euphoria hung in the air around them.
I stood inside watching. The lights of Tbilisi at nighttime reflected wonderfully in the tall glass windows. They flickered like a fire. This was a great city, one of my favorites. The thought of leaving it left a pang in my chest like I were saying goodbye to a family member.
Ika, my host, tapped me on the arm.
“Tom. Do you want some wine?”
“Sorry, I was distracted.”
Ika was short and gentle and like most Georgian women had deep brown eyes. She had lived in various places across the globe and spoke perfect English.
“Yes, thank you.”
She poured me a glass.
“Only you and Giga don’t smoke,” I said.
“I suppose that true. But we used to, as you know.”
“Georgians love their cigarettes.”
“Let’s join them. We don’t have to smoke to enjoy the night air.”
Ika and I went outside where space was made for us in the circle. Everyone was speaking Georgian so I smiled and feigned interest.
Two of the parliament members were younger than I expected, just a few years older than myself. The third parliament member had the stern face of a Soviet intellectual. There were two journalists there too; one young and quiet, smoking cigarettes like a secret, and an older journalist who was talkative and seemed an infinite supply of energy.
Ika’s husband, Giga, stood across from me. He gazed at the table while he listened. The lights of the city reflected in his glasses.
I thought looking at him I could be the same things he was with enough time; generous, wealthy and democratic. He’d hosted Savannah and I without a second thought, built a beautiful home and was voraciously political.
But I doubted I could ever think like him. After the fall of the Soviet Union the US had brought him to America to study economics. He’d since worked as the economic advisor to the Georgian Prime Minister, served on multiple boards and taught economics at the best university in Georgia.
In talking with him it became more and more clear to me that he had some fundamental understanding of the world that I was lacking. I had been walking around the world for four years, experiencing humanity, but I wasn’t consciously influencing it in anyway.
I felt I had a lot to learn from Giga so during my stay I probed him with questions. I had hoped for a few revelatory answers, but was instead introduced to a methodical and a highly capitalistic way of thinking.
“And what do you think of all this, Tom?”
At the sound of English I noticed Giga smirking and became suddenly aware of everyone looking at me.
“I agree with everyone, completely,” I said knowing the general mood of things.
The group laughed.
“It’s just that we’re speaking of such details,” said the older journalist. “It would be too difficult in English.”
“It’s no trouble. I’m the foreigner here. I don’t mind at all.”
Gradually the group returned to speaking Georgian. I stood with them for a while but when my glass was empty I went inside to fill it.
Beside the wine bottles I paused to count how long it would take to cross Azerbaijan if I was only in shape enough to walk eighteen miles a day.
Google maps said it was four hundred kilometers from the Georgian border to the Azeri port. At twenty-four miles a day that was ten days of walking. At eighteen miles a day that was thirteen.
But Sav and I wouldn’t take the most direct route, we’d take the scenic roads and that would add three days, maybe more.
I just hoped I wasn’t too out of shape. It had been three months since I’d walked a significant amount. Most likely it would take a week until I could walk twenty-four miles and feel fresh in the morning.
The Soviet-looking Parliament Member reached across me for a bottle of wine.
“I hear you’re on a long walk,” he said.
“With that one over there.” I pointed to Savannah sniffing around outside.
“Zurab.” He held out his hand.
“Tom. Congratulations on your victory.”
He raised a glass.
“So what does it mean exactly? Giga explained it to me, but I’m not sure I grasp it. The constitution was written so the President appoints a third of the parliament, right?”
“But now those seats will be voted on by the people, rather than appointed.”
“Correct. Georgia is a Parliamentary Democratic Republic, so in theory power rest in parliament, but because a third of parliament was appointed by the president it in effect meant whichever party won the presidency won parliament as well. It also meant a large percentage of our population was having their representative selected for them. And how can democracy work if the peoples’ representatives aren’t accountable to the people?”
“No, of course.”
“So now we have a more representative democracy.”
“And the oligarch loses power.”
“Yes, well, the press did a wonderful job putting pressure on the government.”
Zurab unbuttoned his suit jacket.
“I was thinking earlier that you look very Russian,” I said.
“Do I? My politics would say otherwise.”
“Well I don’t really know what Russians look like, I’ve never been there. But anyway, you were saying…”
“Yes, I wrote an op-ed recently on the three things needed to topple a democracy.” Zurab held up his hand to count. “First, the courts must be corrupted. Second there will be political prisoners. And lastly,” he pointed to the journalists outside, “control of the media.”
“Courts, political prisoners and the press.”
“The first two happened.”
“There were political prisoners here?”
“Yes, of course.
“I mean, members of parliament were actually thrown in jail? How did that happen?”
“By replacing independent judges with party-line judges then creating some trumped up charges. It was almost enough to entrench Ivanishvili as Prime Minister. Putin would have loved him, but our press did fine work. They never let up. Or perhaps Ivanishvili underestimated them. Either way, it’s the only reason Ivanishvili wasn’t able to take full control. The press remained independent.”
“But he’s out of power now, isn’t he?”
“Technically, yes. He was Prime Minister until 2013, but he still has enormous sway in the ruling party. His net worth is a third of Georgia’s GDP.”
“I see his home every time I take Savannah and Milton for a walk. It looks like a museum.”
“I always thought it looked like a spaceship.”
“He chose a terrible location. All that money and he put his house behind those hills. Ika and Giga chose much better. This is the best view of any city I’ve ever seen.”
“They were thoughtful.” Zurab took a sip of his wine. He had a way about him that was very mild. From his appearance I would have guessed he would have been harsher. “And when are you starting your walk again, Tom?”
“Tomorrow. Honestly, I’m a bit distracted because of it.”
“Well that can be expected. What’s your route from here?”
“Last December Savannah and I walked to the border of Azerbaijan so tomorrow Giga will drive us to the border and we’ll pick up from there. We’ll walk across Azerbaijan, ferry to Kazakhstan, walk Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, back into Kazakhstan and across Mongolia. It should take seven or eight months in all.”
“And what did you study? Did you go to school?”
“Psychology and philosophy.”
The others began pouring in from outside.
“Shall we eat?” Giga asked rhetorically.
The long wooden table was overflowing with traditional Georgian dishes. A side table had to be set up to hold everything.
I hadn’t eaten for most of the day and it was late now so I was the first to dig in. Everyone was speaking Georgian so there wasn’t much else to do. After a while Ika started some conversation with me out of civility.
“How are you feeling about things? Are you ready to start walking again?”
“Oh yes.” I was speaking to Ika, Zurab and Zurab’s wife.
The other end of the table was occupied by a raucous debate so the four of us leaned in to hear one another.
“There’s nothing to do but go really. I’ve been doing this for so long that I know once I start things will fall into place. But it’s been so nice here, it’s difficult to leave. I love this country. The Georgians have a great sense of ambiance. I think that’s what I end up looking for most in a country. And not all countries have it. Colombia, Denmark, France, Algeria – the people have an understanding of what a place should feel like. The music, the style, the food, the conversation – it’s all in balance. Georgia is that way too.”
“You should have been here before they banned smoking in restaurants.”
I laughed. “Yes, well, I came at the right time then.”
“Tom’s a photographer as well. He’s working on a wonderful book of India.”
Ika went over to grab my book then handed it to Zurab. He withdrew his reading glasses and opened the book.
“These are lovely.”
Ika smiled to me. She was a great host.
I leaned back in my chair and looked out to the glimmering city. For a moment I saw Savannah’s tail bobbing around outside.
What interesting places a man could I find himself by simply walking.