Batumi Blues Larry Massett
A tale of the disappearing train ticket offices.
by Larry Massett for Savvy Traveller
HOST: While some cities are burying their pasts under re-gentrified malls and other modern "conveniences," contributor Larry Massett shows us this isn't true for every place. Larry and his friend Alex visit Batumi, a port on the Black Sea by the Turkish border, where Alex was born and raised. Batumi has always been an outpost, the farthest reach of different empires from Roman times on. In the Soviet era, up until 1991, it prospered with booming oil refineries and tangerine groves, but now it's part of the independent Republic of Georgia – and Alex feels that his old hometown is decaying, like some provincial capital in the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome.
(ambience: city streets)
Larry: My friend Alex and I have been walking around Batumi the whole day looking for the train ticket office. Not the train station – that’s easy – but the little cubby-hole of an office that sells the tickets. It has to be here someplace, right? It was here a couple weeks ago when we first arrived:
Alex: We checked out three locations pointed by dfferent people, and each new location they told us ‘no, they moved from here,” so eventually we made it all the way across town, nearly dying in the process from the heat. After being pointed by different people in about five different directions we finally arrived at the place, to learn that we’ve arrived too early. If you want to get a railway ticket you get it two or three days in advance but not earlier than that.
Larry: Fine. But now it is two or three days before we need to leave and the ticket office has moved again. In fact it seems to have vanished altogether. A lot of things have vanished in Batumi over the years – the Roman Empire, the Bzyantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, most recently the Soviet Union. You find a wall here, a bridge there, an old fort: ruins wrapped in tropical vines. Just now we went by an opera house put up in the 1900’s. Isadora Duncan danced here, they say. Cows graze on the lawn...
.Alex: Going to places you grew up in is always a bit depressing. Every time I flew back here the city looked smaller – which I guess is okay, that’s part of growing up – but it was disctinctly seedier and shabby. Where are those luxurious royal palms we used to have in the main square? Gone and not replanted. Where is this, where is that? What happened to those fountains? Every time the city was more shabby, more 3rd worldish.
(ambi: more city street, but different)
Larry: We walk down narrow, half-paved streets. Grapevines choke the white-washed walls, laundry flaps from wooden balconies. People are hawking watermelons tomatoes, hand-made brooms. We both see what’s here, Alex and I, but he sees what’s gone :
Alex: First the Greeks left in the ‘70’s when it became possible to emigrate. The Jews left in bulk. Most Russians are gone, back to Russia. Armenians... they’re all gone.
N: And as for the Lithuanians – well, that was Alex’s family.
(sfx: old woman hawking brooms)
Alex: A person like my self, you were born here but you always were led to feel – and not just because you were paranoid – you were led to feel foreign here and a somewhat second rate citizen because you were not ethnically right.
(sfx: crowded Turkish market ambience with Alex talking Russian in background)
Larry: Now we’re in the Turkish market. We don’t imagine the train ticket office is here, but Alex hopes to find some eletrical transformer part for his sister. You can get anything here – car engines, nails, gold, underwear, cement, wristwatches. I know you can buy electric fans here. I’m about to acquire my third fan in two weeks. It’s odd about the fan – I’ll explain...
(sfx: new ambience music fade to...crickets?)
Larry: This is the back porch of the apartment where Alex’s mother lives. I’ve been sleeping out here and this – see this? – is an ordinary floor faLarry: five foot tall, white plastic with blue plastic blades. Costs ten bucks. Next to it stands an identical fan, next to that another one and another one. Why? Well....
That fan on the left – Fan Number One – was here when I got here. When it’s running it can bring the temperature down to a soothing 95 – in-the – shade. But as soon as I leave to get a glass of water, Alex’s mother sneaks out on the porch and turns it off. I come back out, turn it on. The minute I’m not looking, she turns it off again. I ask if she’s worried about the electric bill. “No, no, no, no” she says, “only if you keep using the fan it’ll break.”
Rrrrrrright. Let’s not use the fan. All the same, I flick it on just before going to sleep. The next morning it’s dead. Huh. Must be a lemon. Get a new fan from the market. Turn it on, go to sleep, and... what do you know? The thing expires during the night. It occurs to me the fans in Batumi are like the cars, the buses, the phones, the stoves, even the umbrellas: nothing works. The toilet in this appartment hasn’t flushed in ten years, I’m told. Noone even tries to fix it, we just haul water from the bathtub – when there is water.
So this new fan is an experiment in post-colonial decay: I want to see exactly how long it will operate in broad daylight while being observed. Okay ready? I’m going to kick it on. Here goes:
(sfx: fan sounds)
Starts right up. Maybe a whiff of ozone from the motor, and one of the blades kind of scrapes the cage, but it’s nice, nice, and I’m thinking “how ridiculous, it won’t break while I’m staring at it” And then...just at the five-minute mark....56..57...58..59-
(sfx: huge thunderclap, rainstorm)
Ka-boom, all hell breaks loose in the sky. Monsoon! Power-storm! The city’s going to flood for days. The fan quits in a puff of smoke, naturally. Alex’s mother walks up, surveys the wreckage. “So,” she yells, “Why don’t you buy one more fan? Maybe it’ll SNOW!”
(sfx: more thunder, then rain and garden ambience)
Rain or not, Alex wants to visit the Botanical Gardens on the edge of town. A favorite spot from his childhood. There is about zero chance the train ticket office will have moved out here. I ‘m afraid we’re starting to wander...
Alex: I remember there were flowers all over. Where are all the roses and the plants no one knew the names of? All of them gone for some reason, I don’t know....
Larry: The gardens run for miles along hills above the Black Sea. The Russian Tsars planted them in the l9th Century: bamboo from China and Redwoods from California, and Japanese goldfish which somebody has eaten.
Alex: The garden was actually of some world renown. It was one of a handful of landmark colonial imperial-style gardens. The townsfolk have taken whatever is portable – all the azalea bushes. They are carving out chunks – condeming chunks – of the garden. It’s prime land for growning tangerines, of course. So who cares, just plant some more tangerines
Larry: Batumi was the only place in the Soviet Union tangerines would grow. The crop came in January, at the height of winter in Moscow. Imagine the profit to be made smuggling tangerines to Russsia. This was a wealthy city.
Alex: The word on the street was that in a single growing season a local farmer could make up to 50 thousand rubles, which at that time was equivalent to five top-of-the line Soviet-made cars. You see all these huge three-story farmer’s houses, which are quite large even by American standards? That was all paid for with tangerines. So the tangerine was really keeping it all together. But it only could work in a closed socialist economy of course. Once Russia could get its tangerines anyplace in the Mediterranean – cheap Morrocon, Spanish stuff – the bottom entirely fell out of it.
(SFX: rain, ocean...)
Larry: The bottom is falling out of the sky too, and the umbrellas we bought in the Turkish market have quite working, so we climb down the hill to the ocean-might as well get totally soaked, eh?
Larry: The surf is cluttered with big rocks that make it impossible to stand, and I start complaining to Alex that – like everything else here – the ocean just doesn’t work very well. Then it occurs to me: he’s making see everything his way. The decline of this, the fall of that. Do the “local people” feel that way? Is life really so much worse than it use to be?
Larry: Certainly not, he says. The bad years were the nineties-the civil war, the years of chaos:
Alex: It was exactly at the height of that chaos that my father died. Life was becoming an impossibe daily struggle. Just getting your daily bread implied standing three or four hours in a line starting at 4 in the morning. My mother told me the line would be protected by armed gunmen so there would be no food riots. You spent half your life standing in queues just to get a loaf of bread, and that’s probably what cut him down. You know, when he died in the hospital here, there were no drugs in that hospital, they couldn’t give him pain relievers, they would give him IV with my sister holding a candle, by the flickering light of a candle, because there was no electricity in the hospital, there was no electricity period. Those were the years
Larry: So...times are better now. If we lived here, if we were “local folk,” wouldn’t we be pleased? Alex agrees:
Alex: Now we can be looking at some things we see around us – spotty water supplies, this and that. They see it as a paradisical advance compared to the dark years...
(ocean and music)
Larry: And as for the train ticket...well...look, he says, we could swim to the Turkish border. It’s only a ten mile swim to the south. People used to escape that way all the time. Or quite likely we could just get on the train without a ticket and bribe the conducter. Or....we could just stay here forever. Why not?
Alex: ...this is home.....