Travels With My Cello

  • From Sana'a to Stalin: Moving to Georgia


    There was no doubt about, Yemen was falling apart.  In the days and weeks after Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze in Tunis, Yemen would succumb to the rage that dominated the Arab world throughout 2010 and 2011.  Leaving just seemed like a good idea.

    Christopher and I had applied for and received a transfer to another school, in the Republic of Georgia.  We began the long, tedious and very painful process of packing our traveling circus of belongings and saying goodbye to all of our friends and students.   Tanya tried to put a bright face on the fact that nearly everyone at the school was leaving, while she alone would be staying in Yemen.  She was sure we would find good music teachers, and in fact, the music teacher at our new school in Georgia assured me this was the case.  The only issue was, it would be far better for me if I spoke Russian.  Once upon a time, back when there was a Soviet Union, I did actually study Russian and could carry on a basic conversation.  However, as my old mom likes to say, I have slept a little since then.  Whatever memory cells I have of the 1980’s died out with the stupid haircuts and Duran Duran.   In her flowing Russian cursive, Tanya  wrote  a two page letter to my unknown teacher, explaining who I was, who she was, how long I had played and some other stuff I couldn't read very well.  She put it in an envelope and passed it me, saying in her no-nonsense way, “Marianne, study hard.  They have very good musicians in Georgia.”  Feeling a little like Ilsa Lund with the precious letters of transit, I hugged Tanya tightly and said goodbye.

    If you've never been, The Republic of Georgia is a fascinating place; sandwiched between the Caucuses mountains and both the Black and Caspian seas, Georgia has enough ecological diversity to keep nature freaks happy for an eternity   However, Georgia’s spectacular geography has definitely been a double-edged sword:  the land bridge between the two seas was incredibly valuable to the Silk Road traders and hence every other marauding empire hell bent on plunder and pillage.  Spending the last two hundred years on the border of an increasingly expansionist Russian empire, Georgia has been invaded, re-invaded, and conquered seemingly without interruption-  rather like Poland, only with better food.   In the mother load of cruel historical ironies, Joseph Stalin, himself a native Georgian, should have provided some relief to the endless cycle of invasion and destruction, but alas no.  Stalin didn't spare his Georgian comrades any comfort at all; in fact, Stalinism was especially brutal in Georgia.    Tbilisi, the capitol, has been invaded more times than probably anyone can count, most recently in 2008, when Russian tanks came rolling down the coastal highway and got within 15km of the city.  

    Tbilisi, Georgia

    So it probably isn't really surprising that I found Georgians to be a little suspicious of outsiders at first.  It was almost as if they were thinking, Good God, who the hell are you and what are you going to burn down this time?  However, once I got to know them, Georgians reminded me a  lot of Scots:  hard drinking, brawling, tough as nails, clannish, and with a terrifically dark sense of humor.  Without a doubt, my favorite part of living in Georgia (aside from their delicious and nearly unpronounceable cuisine) was the music.  Georgian music was unlike anything I had ever heard before; vocal polyphony with sharply dissonant harmonies.  And yes, I had to look that up on Wikipedia, because sadly, my vocabulary is woefully inadequate to describe Georgian folk music; usually sung a capella, frequently sung a capella by slightly drunken men in Georgian restaurants.  (Although I will say in all the time I spent in Georgian restaurants and watched whole bottles of vodka disappear, the music never suffered.)  Our apartment was situated on a hill behind Mama-Daviti Orthodox church, and on Saturday mornings, we could hear the male choir practicing.  In late fall, when the leaves would change, and a pronounced chill hung in the air I would listen to the wild vocals coming from the Church, and couldn't help thinking Bram Stoker really missed the boat:  he should have set Dracula in Georgia, where the fierce music and people would have made a far more exotic background than Transylvania. 

    Best of all, we lived just a short walk down the hill to the Tbilisi State Conservatory, the beating heart of the classical music scene in Tbilisi.  Since I haven’t spent all that much time hanging around music schools or even performance halls for that matter, visiting the Conservatory was like landing on Mars.  I grew up in Los Angeles and never set foot in the Hollywood Bowl.  I spent 6 years in Manhattan, and not once did I attend a performance at Lincoln Center.  I am not even sure where Julliard is.  And now, suddenly, I live 6 blocks from the most important music school in the Caucuses.  The building itself was spectacular, but the goings on inside even more so.  Many of the practice rooms faced Griboedov Street, and on warm summer evenings, the musicians would leave the windows open.  Music poured out of the windows and into the streets in the most amazing cacophony.  If I walked the length of the street, I could hear everything from the thunder of piano cords, sopranos rising through the scales, violins, cellos, horns of all sort: an entire discordant  street symphony.   I loved to walk down Griboedov Street;  in fact, loitering around the music school was how I finally, finally found someone to teach me how to play my cello.


    Marianne Ide is an international schoolteacher and amateur cellist currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  When not playing her Artist cello, she teaches government and economics.  You can reach her at
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