In the summer of 1999 I decided to visit Zaza Tsitsishvili, the Georgian knight of Tbilisi. We haven’t met for 7 years. Zaza was one of several reasons for me to go and as good as any. Zaza is life: generous, absent-minded, cheeky, dilapidated, babbler, architect, connoisseur, art lover, poor real estate owner – and old rarity of nobleman.
On the way I wanted to look for the crazy honey of the Kachkar. Arianus Xenophon wrote about the honey telling the story of the 10,000 Greeks (“Anabasis”) that walked back from the heart of the Persian Empire to Greece and got drunk from this crazy honey. But beside that, it is where the borders of now days Turkey and Georgia meet and Zaza said he shall spend the summer in his Dacha in Gunyo, on the black sea and I never swam in the black sea.
I meant to fly to Istanbul and from there to Trabzon ad through Batumi border crossing , to meet Zaza in Koka’s Ignatov’s Dacha. Koka is a famous painter and the father of Iktarina Ignatova, Zaza’s beautiful and spoiled wife for whom I carried perfume in my backpack. Zaza spends the summers in this house on the black sea. The same sea that Jason and his Argonauts sailed on to steal Golden Fleece and Venetians and Genovese build trade posts on its shores on their way to central Asia and china along Silk roads. I was more then once in Trabzon Rize and Sarp but I never swam in the Black Sea, nor did I cross through this border.
The plan hovered onto the runway. Black sea under. Trabzon close to the mountains. I went out of the small airport which is east of Trabzon and stuck between sea and the main road. I waved my hand and a Dolmush stopped driving me the hundred Kilometers or so to Rize. The mountains leaked water, green and dark. The telephone rang the minute we stopped in Rize
“Where did we say?”
“In the junction of the coastal road and the road to Chemli Hamshin. Where are you?”
“I’m in Rize.”
I set in a little restaurant. It was hot and I ordered cheese toast and Iren – the cold salty Yogurt drink which is, with Pide and Givetch the taste of Turkey. The phone rang again.
“Where are you? I crossed Rize three times.”
“After the bridge on the left.”
“Which bridge? ah – I see.”
“I am standing in the middle of the road.
“I see you” Sigal said and I returned to the small shade, fading out of the hot humid sun.
She parked the little black jeep that was covered with stickers of all those who financed her drive around the Black sea.
She wanted to circumnavigate the Black sea and I told her I shall meet her in East Turkey and bring her to Zaza after the big sun eclipse.
Zaza is a knight. His great great great grand father was also called Zaza Tsitsishvili. He was Knighted because in the end of a day’s battle he cut the Seljuk lines, cut the head of the Sultan, held the hair of the severed head in his teeth so he can cut his way back through those who were not impressed by his deed.
Zaza is a wonderful reason. at least like the Black sea, The crazy honey or the Argonauts.
“What are you eating? is it good? I am famished.” She bite into the toast ordered and drank the Iren. Sigal phoned me few month before she went, she didn’t want to cross the border on her own. Immediately I thought on Zaza. How to stay cool and lose your head at the same time. Nobles oblige.
I through the backpack to the rare of the little jeep and set beside her. We drove into the mountains, driving along the river, up towards the Turkish-Georgian border. I hate driving, she loves it. Excellent set. By noon it was raining heavy. The dirt road ended in high and muddy nowhere. Two Turks waved us under a skeleton of a house. One of them wanted a ride down to the road. He squeezed himself beside me and we started down along the muddy meanders of the steep road, water racing faster then us from the sky to trees, to earth, to river. We stopped by a hut of wood cutters, Georgians who came to turkey to make a living. They gave us hot tea and we went on, living the fat Turk on the main road, turning into a side road and headed towards the empty Georgian Churches that stand here since the times this area was part of the Georgian kingdom of queen Tamar. We were driving into Magrelya where Zaza’s Tsitsishvili’s Fathers had estates (each of them is his own Zaza Tsitsishvili).
We put a tent in the middle of a green meadow the ridges around us and a fast white river gurgling rocks to our side. Wild apples and plums stood heavy with fruits as I walked to the willows to collect woods for the fire.
sometimes we complain about cars and aero planes, on the swiftness they transfer us from culture to culture. From place to place. But most of the times I am happy that I can live almost every miserable city on earth and travel fast to places I like.
It was raining during the night. Summer rain. The drops slide on the tent’s fly, enhancing the feeling of private secure warm world under the sleeping bags.
In the morning I brought water from the river and boiled tea. We packed and drove along the river, looking for Georgian churches in the small Turkish villages among the ridges, the Suzuki Samorai climbs up and down the mighty forests of the Kachkar, passing lone villages that only rocky roads connect. Waterfalls dropped of the slopes.
We looked for crazy honey, stopping by bee hives, asking the honey people for Dali Bal. They answered that the bees don’t make the honey every year, that it depends on the bloom of the Rhododendron. We went back to the main road, crossed the Churu Nahari and entered Artvin, climbing the steep toad leading to the city. We tasted medical honeys in a shop of honey in the narrow center. The proprietor said he has crazy honey from last year.
“Does it have an immediate effect?”
“It depends how much you eat,” he replied.
Xenophon said the same. It is probably a known answer in this part of the world.
I bought a tin and raped it when we hit the road to Sarp. Bee hives to the left on a small grass ramp between round mountain that rise 1500 meters above Black sea. Xenophon writes that the soldiers of the 10,000 ate toxic honey in the mountains and the valleys that led to the Black sea near Trabzon. Here. Same place. Same mountains, same sea, the bees, the Bee growers and the Rhododendron looked ancient enough.
We climbed down to the bee hives. My poor Turkish their no English. The bee people sliced fresh bread and took dark honey out of the bee hives. Ay – the impossible life of the traveler. Crazy life, with or without honey. We set in the sweet sun on the wooden stools, listened to the bee buzz and I searched Xenophon, the ancient Greek who led the 10,000 and wrote about the fit. Xenophon was a Greek nobleman who also helped in editing and publishing Thucydides. Intoxicated bees swarmed around us but the Bee hive people did not have the crazy honey. They knew what I am talking about. But this is of course an old story, Herodotus wrote about it.
The journey of the 10,000 is famous in these valleys. Here, in the valley between Rize and Eider, near the Black sea, that was a Greek sea in the time of Xenophon (5th century BC) the Greek soldiers knew that once they arrive to its shores they are saved from the Persian army trailing them and from the marauding mountain tribes going after the people that it was good to go and get.
They Greeks stopped in the valley and ate huge quantities of honey. Some got drunk. some got crazy, some died, some survived with aching bellies. The narcotic honey has different influences.
It took the Greeks three days to regain their powers and to go on.
We packed more honey and drove in torrent rain to the border. The sea and the forested mountains were black opaque curtain.
We crossed the Turkish border. The Georgian side was easy to my surprise. At ten PM we were on our way to look for Zaza. we asked people where is Gunyo. I didn’t look for Zaza, i looked for Koka’s Ignatov house. The Georgians loves art and culture. Knights you can fin in herds, writers, musicians and painters are the privileged ones. in Georgia they belong to the Novelty. Ignatov is one of the famous. I searched in a mix of English and Russian. The language of the past empire and the current one. at ten thirty, five kilometers from the border, we arrived at the back of a big house. In the front, 30 meters away, thundered heavy waves with white bridles. An old women looked out of the window when I asked for Zaza. she didn’t know what I am talking about and shut the window. I asked the neighbors. They said its the house. We waited in the yard.
At eleven thirty slide a drunk Niva Jeep, loaded with people, skidded from side to side and stopped abruptly in the yard.
“Zaza.” I smiled in the dark.
Tsurrrrrrr!!!!” roared Zaza’s Base, hitting the wall and merging with the waves. “how good that you came! I went out to have some fun with the kids in Batumi you know, to eat something, to drink, you found it easy? ah- it’s Kate mom, she probably was scared of you, I didn’t know when you’ll come so I didn’t tell her. You ate? you drank? I am so happy to see you, you don’t know how much!”
He matured in the seven years we haven’t met. He had some gray hair, the wrinkles were deeper but it was the same Zaza. We hugged.
“it is really you. You came. Come in, this is your room.” He opened a door to a huge room – ten meters from side to end with a ceiling six meters high. The north wall was a window that the sea smashed almost on its glass. “The toilets are in the corridor but you have a sink inside. This is Koka’s room when he is here. He paints here. Its a mess because I didn’t have the time to put it in order-”
“How long are you here?”
“A month. I think. Lado is here. And Lea. Remember Lea?”
Wonderful Lea, the dear eyed tall princess, sister to king Lado Bagratiyoni. Lado Zaza and I crossed the Central Asian Silk roads in 1991, I to discover the old road, the king and his knight to bring back Cannabis India seeds to the royal botanical gardens in Dusehti.
We shall go tomorrow to visit them. But in few days I have to go back to Tbilisi, i have a stable with 32 English racing horses and I am out of money. I need to transfer money, to speak to some friends.”
He went on talking as we climbed the wooden stairs to the balcony over looking the very black sea with the white bridles. i took out the Whisky, the cigarettes and the perfume.
“Wonderful” cried Zaza in his deep voice “We shall drink to out renewed meeting. Children! the cigarettes arrived.” He called two boys. “Friends of the girls. And these are friends of friends. It’s funny, they are all children of my friends, but my friends are now old and now I am a friend of their children. Children are the only ones who never grow old.”
“Zaza,” said Natasha, The eldest daughter from Zaza’s first marriage that study architecture in Tbilisi, “maybe they are hungry?”
“Are you hungry? tell grandma to cook something. and take the perfume Tsur brought to Kate. Try it and check if Kate will like it.”
“She will like it, sure she will like it” smiled Natasha, sniffing the perfume, poring drops on her armpits and on the other girls waiting hands.
“Gomarjos!” pored Zaza Whiskey to glasses in quantity you pore water to people you want to save in the desert. And again, like every time I meet, write or speak about Zaza, I felt there is still hope.
Before I drank the morning coffee I went out to the pebbly shore. Black long and round waves came close to the beach and then crushed into the shelf and broke in a roar. I dived in, crossed the breakers and swam into the Black sea. The water was sweet and soft. Very different from the heavy salty water of the Mediterranean, the Red sea or any other sea i swam. So this is the taste of the Black sea, the sea of the Argonauts, the Amazons, the Scythians, the Saramites, the Byzantines, the Golden Fleece.
Zaza woke and came out of the room where he slept with the children of his friends in a pile on the big bed. He was wearing shorts and did not bother to brush his teeth or wash his face. He lit a cigarette and looked at me with his moist blue eyes above his eagle nose. His face covered with sun spots up to his graying hair. I know very few people as not beautiful as Zaza. I know very few people so worthy.
We drove to Batumi to look for Lado and Lea. Lea’s hair became gray in the eight years we haven’t met. Lado was still asleep. Lado is a king. He sleep during the day and then wake up, smoke a cigarette full of Hashish and then go on smoking, eating drinking painting and talking with friends till dawn. Then he goes to sleep. We came back to the house after we bought fish from the women in the small market near the port of Batumi, Zaza walks in the middle of the road, ignoring the cars (“Kate calls me the Tractor” he laughed when I pushed him off a course of a charging car.), shaking the hands of the local mafia in perfect amenity , neutralizing them of any violence, they smiled forgivingly to the wrinkled , unperturbed Knight.
“Ah, ” said Zaza, “this is the reason why there is no flight from here to Tbilisi, there was till two years ago, but the local boss, Aslan Achvera, wants more power, so he cut the air link. The people her are Ajarians, Muslims, they control the border, the goods.”
We were planning to go to Tbilisi the next day.
“How long does it take?”
“Six hours” said Zaza “lousy road, but we shall stop to see the churches in Kutaisi. These are the most important in Georgia.” I already was with Zaza at least to three places where there were the most important churches in Georgia – not counting the most important on the Turkish side of the border.
“We’ll go in the morning?”
“First thing in the morning.”
Therefore I was not surprised when he came back from Batumi only at noon. we started and stopped after a few kilometers at the petrol station on the outskirts of Batumi. He came sheepishly to our Jeep and said in a low voice: “Tsur, do you have some money? I am out, all is gone, I need money for the fuel.”
I gave him 100 dollars. Zaza always gives me much more then I can ever repay him. And besides -Nobles oblige.
We stopped in the huge cathedral of Kutaisi in the last light. dozens of pilgrims filled the space of the roof less cathedral that was full with holiness and belief. Zaza, grand ma and the girls crossed themselves and strode forward to get the priest’s blessing. The priests wore purple tunics, their beards black under the arches and the conical domes that the Armenians designed in their grand period and later were taken by Georgians and Seljuk Turks that build in the same style as west as Konya and east as Chasma Ayub in Buxara.
It was full night as we went down from Kutaisi to the main road. We stopped in a small garden restaurant with a sweet smell of forest and meadow, Zaza ordering skewers of Kebab, soups, Vodkas, bread, lamb chops, Caviar, smoked fish, salads and pots of tea. Hundred dollars is not little money on this road. At eleven o’clock when we came out from the restaurant by the river where we had the wonderful feast, started an evil rain on the lousy road. The headlights could not penetrate the curtains of rain that blocked the dark slippery winding road.
“I can’t” said Sigal suddenly.
“We did not come to enjoy” I smiled to myself.
she stopped abruptly and I looked at her. She was crying. I thought she was making a joke.
“I can’t drive any more. I am tired, the road is bad and it’s raining.”
“But exactly from these materials journeys are made. If it was light and sunny it would not be interesting.”
“Stop it! it’s not fun! you can drive if you want.”
“Want” I mumbled to myself, “there is No way to describe how much I want to drive.” But the truth was I did not care. I hate driving in the city but the little unstable jeep that was driving into the mighty storm shaking from side to side on the bumpy road and the girl that feared that all the elements are against us and our safe arrival to Tbilisi-
I put the forward gear on and drove through the potholes. Sigal cheered up and took out the Whiskey and the Chocolate. the night looked a lot friendlier as much as you can hope from a dark night that offers you mud an rain and cold wind. Zaza’s Niva hiked and shivered. I went into the rain.
I don’t understand this car. Lousy petrol. Torrents of rain soaked us. I did not know where we are and where is Tbilisi.
We rolled on in the rain the mud and the darkness. Zaza’s Niva falter like a turtle struck wit tuberculosis. At two in the morning we sighted the lights of Tbilisi. Sigal was huddled on the seat beside me. Zaza’s Niva stopped a final stop just before a petrol station. I edged to its back and pushed it under the station’s roof. I know nothing about cars and even less about engines. at least it was not cold, or at least not colder then it is in the very late night at 1000 meters above sea level in the Caucasus the night somebody was trying the Great Flood again. Zaza lifted the hood. I asked him for a cloth and he produced a wet oily cloth. I dried the plagues one by one and out them back in their place. The jeep woke up with a Happy roar, coughed a little, the engine warm like it never gave any problems. Water can cause pneumonia. Even to iron lungs.
At two thirty in the morning we arrived at the little street above Rustavely Boulevard. We parked the car. The rain stopped as it could not harm us any more. We climbed wet and miserable and Zaza led us to his and Kate’s studio (“Kate went to London for shopping, she can not stand summer here. And beside they found Koka has cancer and he is in Germany so she will visit him there also and she got her own TV show.”) The studio was a huge room under a tiled roof and a door led to a balcony overlooking the center of Tbilisi and the mountains across the Kura River. Koka’s paintings covered the walls, small coffee tables to sip beside and a huge bad that offered every possibility. Wonderful like every surprise that is connected to Zaza.
“Tomorrow we shall make a dinner for you” said Zaza “A real Georgian dinner.”
“YES? and you want us to bring something?”
“The girl will take you to the market,” said Zaza and closed the door and I herd him swearing when he bumped into a chair in the darkness, dropping on the big sofa and lighting a cigarette.
And that’s how I found him in the morning when I came down to make tea.
Natasha took Sigal and me to the market. The market was covered and sleepy. We bought vegetables and meat and everything you need in a house empty of food. Then we stopped by a wine shop and bought some of the fine wines of Georgia.
Zaza went to pay a visit to his 32 Noble seeds and the friend who did round the world business at the shady time when the soviet empire ceased to exist and the new Georgia did not emerge yet, when the dollar was officially equal to the dollar but when brought to the black market was worth 40 Rubles. What a wonderful time it was to people who know what to do in black markets. Zaza designed his house. He went there to smoke Hash from a lady plant, that Zaza and Lado brought from our joined journey along silk roads.
He came back in the evening. I was at the kitchen cooking. It was a kitchen of people who don’t know what they have in it because other people cook for them.
Zaza was conducting the diner, poring wine to glasses, explaining Sigal what is “Tamada” – the head of the table according to the Georgian tradition that bless all the others. The room was full of “Gomarjos!” the Georgian salute. Wine from Kaxeti and Magrelia was streaming into the glasses, Zaza chatting all the time his base deepening with the wine.
“Oof” he said after he filled his plate for an unnumbered time “I ate like a pig, it was wonderful, are you going anywhere interesting soon?”
I asked him if he heard about the crazy honey.
“Never!” his eyes lit “it makes you drunk you say?”
“Xenophon and Herodotus say you can lose your mind eating it.”
“And I believe these people. The Greeks are great thinkers they invented Philosophy, Tragedy, Comedy and Democracy as you very well know. Where is the honey?”
I took out the tin and uncovered it from its protecting layers. Zaza deep ed large spoon into the amber fluid that smelled of the smoke the bee hive people poured to separate drunken bees from crazy honey.
“Isn’t it to big a spoon?”
“WE have to make experiments” said Zaza, his face tense with last that was cultivated for 100’s of years in the estates of Dusheti and Magrelya, noble seeds charging Seljuk armies, devoted Georgians praying in the caves of Wardzia that queen Tamar dug and painted.
He put the honey in his mouth, rolled it around his tongue, blinked, sniffed the honey again and put the spoon in the table.
I took the spoon, deep ed it and tasted it. It had a smoky bitter taste. We set a few minutes in a complete silence, waiting to see what shall be the effects.
Zaza pored himself the last remnants of the last bottle and said in English in deep Georgian accent: “You are crazy” it went with a rolling rrrrr around the crarrrzy. “this is honey, just honey. not crazy and not even that good.”
And he was right of course but I was happy all the same.