Another Georgian friend seemed more abashed, but confirmed the girl-stealing. And yet, two of the most celebrated Georgian figures are strong young women. In the fourth century Nino brought Christianity to Georgia, fashioning a cross out of grapevines and strands of her own hair. Eight hundred years later, Queen Tamara, known for her arts patronage, ruled over Georgia's golden age while most of Europe was mucking around in the Dark Ages.
Like many Georgians, Inga takes history personally. In the churches we visit, the frescoes are often missing, the walls simply blank. "The Soviets whitewashed them," Inga saysrepeatedly. "Here in Georgia, everything is 'if'—if the Persians hadn't burned our cities, if the Bolsheviks hadn't taken over, if we had money to fix things. Then what could our country be?"
If Joseph Stalin had never been born, the town of Gori would be an unremarkable outpost along Georgia's east west highway. Instead, the dictator's aptly named hometown holds the distinction of housing what many say is his last remaining giant-size statue.
The son of a cobbler, Stalin grew up in a working-class neighborhood razed long ago, save for the family hut, which is now dwarfed by a palatial Stalin museum where a single souvenir—a plastic Stalin key chain—is sold. Inside, we follow a burly woman who, devoid of irony, steers a school group toward the dictator's early report cards, cracked-leather armchair, and photos (some retouched to eliminate purge victims). Inga looks embarrassed. "In Tbilisi we know the truth," she whispers. "But people in Gori still love Stalin. Personally, I wouldn't let my children set foot in this place."
These days, the Georgian government has an ally in the United States. Hoping to cultivate a stable partner in the Caucasus, it is lobbying for Georgian pipelines to transport Caspian Sea oil, and is sending over Americans to advise on banking and law reform. In Tbilisi's parliament building, I spot a vaguely familiar face in the elevator. "Gary Hart?" I say tentatively, and he swings around with a practiced smile and handshake. Marriott International reportedly is taking part in the restoration of the war-damaged Hotel Tbilisi; the U.S. National Park Service is helping to create nature preserves.
But outside the capital, the mood is less optimistic. "Ten years ago the popular slogan was 'I can chew grass as long as I'm independent,'" recalls the editor of the English-language daily Georgian Times. "Now people are tired of chewing grass." Most Georgians oppose Communism, but many, especially struggling pensioners, can't help feeling nostalgic for the security it once offered. Meanwhile, every so often on the highway we pass military trucks with red, blue, and white flags. "Russians," Inga grumbles. A by-product of the separatist wars of the early 1990's, they're supposed to be pulling out but haven't quite gotten around to it.
Interestingly, it's not Stalin's hometown or the Russian soldiers that make Brian and me uneasy, but rather the popular Georgian summer enclave of Batumi on the Black Sea. "Oooh, it's too good!" Inga squeals, and Dato grins as the water comes into view.
Only 12 miles from the Turkish border, Batumi feels less Georgian than other cities. With its palm trees, tea plantations, and ornate 19th-century cafés, it looks something like a Nice or a Monaco of days gone by. Jade-colored water laps against moored paddleboats as pensioners do morning calisthenics on the pebbly beach. Dated Eurodisco blares at waterfront restaurants where Georgians with cell phones sit across from Pacific Island sailors.
But beneath the holiday atmosphere, a seediness pervades. Late-model BMW's and Hondas roar past casinos, reminding me of a rumor I heard about Western European stolen cars that end up in Georgia. Inga introduces us to her brother-in-law, a tall, brooding guy in his twenties who, she tells us, has recently decided upon a girl to steal. And Inga herself becomes uncharacteristically coy as she describes the local governor, who has butted heads with the central government over his mafioso tactics.
"Whatever people say about him, he's brought money to the city," she says defensively. "See how clean the buildings are?See all the nice cars?" But that evening, as we stroll through town, she's jumpy. "Don't walk too fast or too slow," she hisses as we pass a nondescript building guarded by black-clad men with Kalashnikovs. "This is the governor's house."
We stay at the Intourist, built in anticipation of the 1945 Stalin-Churchill-Roosevelt summit that ended up taking place in Yalta. The lobby and restaurant still have the theatrical, imposing aura of that era; the staff, too, seems determinedly Soviet. When I lurch out of our room at 3 a.m. to investigate a loud party, the culprits turn out to be Russian-speaking hall matrons on the night shift. They apologize profusely, genuinely surprised that their raucous coffee klatch might disturb a guest. But I am left unmoved by Batumi—a strange cocktail of aggressively Western ornaments masking the most obvious Communist clichés.