Unmasked on the Black Sea

by Nathan James Thomas

As Georgia finally lifts its nighttime curfew, a traveler attempts to make sense of the excesses and contradictions of its coastal bohemia, Batumi.

Batumi — Georgia’s second largest city — is not quite as it presents itself.

Images in posters and online booking websites show glistening skyscrapers illuminating the night sky. But when you show up, you find a construction site: Jackhammers attacking the driveway with primal fury, elevators still operating despite missing buttons and flickering lights. 

Return from a short stroll by the beach, and you may find your hotel room floor covered in a pile of rubble. When contacted, your host merely replies, “They didn’t warn us, either.”

While the Turkish border is just a short taxi ride away, Batumi mostly caters to tourists from the north: Russia. The Olympic city of Sochi is a mere six hours away by car. Unlike in the capital, Tbilisi, where young locals take great pride in speaking English, Russian is the lingua franca here, and is the language you will mostly hear among the neon madness of the waterfront.

When you remember that the the latest Russo-Georgian War only wrapped up in 2008, and that Russian forces continue to occupy about one fifth of internationally recognized Georgian territory, the beachside harmony here seems quite remarkable.

travel Batumi Georgia: skyscrapers
Hopefully the building is holding up the crane, and no the other way around

A few months ago, I attended a dinner party in a pleasant neighborhood in the hills above Tbilisi. A businessman introduced his 18-year-old daughter, already fluent in five languages. He passionately recalled sending her away, at the age of five, on an emergency flight to Istanbul as Russian military tanks encroached ever closer towards the capital.

It’s all so recent, so contemporary — 2008 was also the year Taylor Swift released her studio album “Fearless” — yet here in Batumi you could be forgiven for thinking these conflicts belong to distant history. It’s hard to conjure up images of amassing tanks, bombed out apartment buildings, and bedraggled refugees while you watch happy families frolic on the sand.

During my time in Batumi, I did witness the putative end of at least one grim historical chapter:

Georgia finally dropped its pandemic-imposed curfew on June 30th this year. 

The bars of the old city filled up with the young and restless, eager to retox from the mandated good behavior of the past year, and I soon found myself in a much-missed scenario: Sitting outside a small bar with a group of people from all over the world as the drinks flowed, the air filled with smoke, and stories were swapped.

At our table were people in their twenties from Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, and Georgia. 

The Ukranian, a bearded hipster, had found himself, like me, at a hotel that was more like a construction site. He’d had a conflict with a landlord and ended up in a small apartment somewhere in the old city, where he worked remotely as a programmer by day and sampled Georgian chacha (a grappa-like spirit) by night. 

The Hungarian woman, heavily tattooed, said something about being on a cycling trip, but kept spacing out and saying things like, “Man, I’m so high.” A Georgian man was pretending to be Italian — “My name is Fran-chessss-ko…” — as he hit on the Hungarian, occasionally crooning various Italian words apropos of nothing… “Solei! Da Vinci! I am Italian! We are all Europeans!”

At one point, a Georgian woman in our group — twenty-something, tattooed and trendy, a cigarette permanently attached to her lips — threw back another shot and glared at a table of merry Russian lads sitting and minding their own business nearby. “I hate them!” she said, perhaps with a few expletives thrown in, before returning, with a smile, to the conversation. The Russian party did not seem to notice. 

travel Batumi Georgia: An evening on the waterfront
Batumi skyline, facing away from the sea

The next day, sipping on borscht in a Ukranian restaurant by the sea, I looked up to see a scuffle breaking out in the wood-paneled dining room. 

The conflict involved a newer kind of tourist, recent arrivals from Saudi Arabia or the UAE. These visitors from the Gulf states — only part of the scene since last year — make a lot of sense when you look at a map. But until recently the flight connections and visa arrangements simply weren’t there. (And I suppose they are not natural targets for Georgian wine!).

Two burka-clad women were attempting to enjoy a meal in the company of their two rowdy 10-year-old boys, also dressed in all black, who were engaged in a vigorous wrestling match next to their table.

As things tend to in this part of the world, the spirited squabble soon escalated into a full-blown war. The children hurtled into nearby tables and shrieked louder than the jackhammers at our hotel. Soon, the entire restaurant was staring at the combatants, with the exception of their mothers, faces obscured and bodies impassive, eyes fixed on their dinner plates.

Finally, a matriarch at a neighboring table could take no more. Striding over to the two women, she let forth a tirade of Russian admonishments which, while mostly incomprehensible to me and probably the Saudi or Emirati mothers also, seemed to achieve their objective. A few strings of rapid Arabic followed, and the children slouched morosely over their table and leered at the Russian woman as she strode to rejoin her family. 

Peace, for now, was restored.

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