Tbilisi, Georgia: April 4, 2002: Tomaz had been quite proud of his recent purchase as he showed us how his new showerhead worked the night before. Georgian houses didn’t usually have hot running water, but his did! There was a white plastic pipe running up the wall along the back side of the bathtub. An electrical cord attached directly to the showerhead. With a pull on the nubbin in the center of the showerhead, electricity heated a little coil inside of it. At the top of the bathtub’s single faucet fixture was a hose that carried water from the spigot up to the plastic showerhead. As the water coursed over the electrical coil it was heated to a tepid temperature and released to sprinkle over my body.
I closed the door to the wash closet behind me and stood for a while looking at the plastic contraption. Was I really crazy enough to get inside that bathtub, put my feet down in two inches of water and have a Ruskie made gizmo pour water over my body when the water was directly connected to, not 110 volts like American electricity sources, but 220 volts of European electricity? I was aware of how you spelled “electrocute” but had no desire to get zapped or fried just to prove an electrical engineering theory.
But after a while, the desire to feel the warm sprinkling water over my travel-worn body won out, and I gingerly hunched myself into the tub and under the supercharged plastic showerhead.
For breakfast, Irina and Marina fixed us fresh Katchapuri and black tea, (in fact, I believe I had Katchapuri for each meal I ate while in Tbilisi). The Katchapuri was like a six-inch cheese pizza with a second thin crust cooked over the top of the cheese as well. They felt it their Georgian obligation to get us rested up from jet travel on Thursday so that we would be fit and ready to go for the next week of meetings.
While we recuperated, the women suggested that we pay a visit to the state museum of antiquities and treasures. I told them that I was eager to go but was surprised that Stalin had not stolen all of Georgia’s goodies while he was dictator.
“We have been trying to become capitalists since we became independent from the Russians,” Marina explained to me. “Archil and I now own a small market close to our apartment. It’s not much, or like you have in America, but we are trying.”
“Can we go to your market on our way home?” I asked, “I would very much like to see what you are doing.” The little store was situated on the main level of an old communist, bloc-house apartment building. Inside, they had built shelves and stocked the store with a wide variety of items ranging from stacks of unwrapped loaves of round bread, cheese, toys for kids, canned meat, kitchen utensils, and soda pop. The specialty seemed to be the back display counter filled with freshly baked pastries and a juice dispenser filled with vodka. I was surprised with how busy the little market was while we were there. “Marina, I am proud of you. This is the kind of thing that more Georgians will have to do in order for Georgia to successfully change from communist thinking to the free market. You are now a successful ‘entrepreneur’.” Both women beamed with delight.
At 2:30 p.m. we met up with Archil. He had finished teaching his classes at the university and would go with us to an appointment he had set with the customs people. “Sandros” would go with us to translate into English.
Dr. Manana Nasidze was married to Dr. Nicholas Nasidze. Manana was the younger sister of the twins, Marina and Irina. Sandros was the oldest son of Manana and Nicholas, and was finishing his university training at Georgia State University. Three years earlier he had been chosen to become a Rotary Club exchange student and had traveled to Arizona, where he studied for a year and graduated from Lake Havasu City High School. Like everyone else we had met on the trip, Sandros was a sharp and intelligent Georgian. I was confident that he would do just fine as a translator.
The controller and his deputy were very cordial toward us. They told us that they fully respected anything where Dr. Archil Samadashvili was a part. I explained what we wanted to get done in preparation for sending loads of donated medical goods into Georgia. I emphasized that we wanted to work with their department and that we would never engage in anything that would violate their wishes and policies. I explained that before a shipment would be sent Project C.U.R.E. would send an inventory list to them, to the finance minister and to the minister of health. They could review the proposed inventory and if they found anything which did not meet with their approval to be shipped into their country, they would have an opportunity to strike through the item listing, initial it, and then return the corrected inventory list to Project C.U.R.E. Only upon receiving the approved list would we load the shipment and send it to Georgia. But we would fully expect that when the shipment arrived at the border there would be no conflict or hassle since it had already been pre-approved.
“We wish everyone would work their business with us like you are doing. Most people and organizations just send things and then try to push them through us. We now know the face of Project C.U.R.E. and we assure you that there will be no problem with getting your medical goods into Georgia.”
“On our way to the next meeting," Archil told us as we got into his little HNBA (Neva in English) car manufactured in Russia, “I want to introduce you to another new Georgian entrepreneur. He too is trying very hard to become a capitalist.”
We drove through an old industrial complex that had been run by the communist state. All of the factories had been abandoned and the facilities were in bad disrepair from neglect of the previous 20 years of communist rule. Through the rusty gates of one complex we drove up to the open shipping entrance of the main building. Rusty, junked pieces of machinery sat around everywhere. The waste and inefficiency of the communist industrial complex could be seen everywhere.
We piled out of the little Neva and were met by a graying man in his 50s with nicotine stains on his fingers; he was smoking a foul-smelling Russian cigarette. He was a gregarious enough chap and obviously a very good friend of Archil.
Stacks of smelly, bloody cow and horse hides were piled on goop-soaked pallets. I turned away to catch a breath of fresh air. About 15 workers were scurrying around in the front part of the warehouse dragging the hides to different pieces of large, yellow equipment.
Within that area of the building they made the old bloody, hairy hides into beautifully, tanned, dyed, flexible swatches of leather. After snapping some pictures of the process I followed Archil into another section of the old building. There men and women were laying patterns onto the leather and cutting the swatches into little uniform shapes.
The factory was making shoes. They were performing the entire process from start to finish right there in the old abandoned buildings. We watched the rest of the operation as they sewed the pieces together, put them on foot molds of different sizes and stitched and glued the soles onto the shoes and strung the laces through the eyelets. I was pretty impressed.
At 6 p.m. we were scheduled to meet with the president of Tbilisi Rotary Club. There were lots of things to discuss and certain papers needed to be signed for the matching grants being partnered with the Colorado Rotary Clubs, if the medical goods shipments were to be commenced. Mr. Elavja Meladza, the president, was a short balding man of exaggerated intensity. Had he been 20 pounds heavier and with a birthmark on his forehead, I would have thought I was talking to Mikhail Gorbachev of yesterday’s Russia. Mr. Meladza promised to convene an executive committee meeting of the local Rotary Club Friday at 6 p.m.
The business day seemed to start in Tbilisi about 10 in the morning and ran until about 7 in the evening. Dinner was hardly ever planned until at least 8 p.m. Thursday night our hosts had prepared a dinner gathering at Dr. Archil’s flat. The entire clan – the three sisters, and their illustrious husbands, and all available children, plus the shoe-manufacturing entrepreneur, his wife and sons – gathered together to eat dinner. All those people were crowded into an old two-bedroom flat, previously made available to the professor for free by the communist party. It was very cramped.
But the food that was served and the friendship which flowed was something to behold. The three sisters just kept bringing additional dishes of traditional Georgian food from the kitchen. The only time they stopped eating was to give a toast to whatever they could think of to toast. No one seemed to mind that I continued to toast with club soda; it was just a happy, happy time.
About 11 p.m., Irina went to the piano and began to play. Her teenage daughter, Keti, who aspired to one day be an opera singer, began to favor us with Georgian folk songs. Soon everyone was joining in, either singing or playing.
Each of the twin sisters had graduated with honors from Georgia’s finest music conservatory before they had gone on in their professional education. The old Georgian aristocracy was well represented in culture by our newly discovered friends in Tbilisi. It was past midnight before the party broke up and we were informed that we had a full schedule of important meetings starting the next morning.
Next Week: Considering Compassionate Capitalism