A Lift from the Georgian Police

Published on The Guardian, 15/12/2012

Runner-up the The Guardian’s Travel writing competition


Chapel Women

Not a soul to be seen. The roads were empty: no babushkas at the windows, no children running in the fields, no men sipping chacha (brandy) on their steps. Although we knew Ushguli was remote, we hadn’t expected the streets to be completely empty. That was worrying. From Ushguli, we’d been told, we could catch a shared jeep back to the regional capital, Mestia.

There were no jeeps. We walked past stone houses, towards the tiny church, the white-tipped peaks of the Caucasus just visible behind. At last, the villagers appeared, streaming out of the tiny door, making for the cemetery below, where, in front of crooked gravestones, tables were laden with food. Tomatoes, roasted suckling pigs and bottles of chacha – the living and the departed feasted together.Mountain Towers

“Mestia?” we asked, wandering between tables, accepting fresh cheese pies and hunks of pork. “Tomorrow,” they replied. The penny dropped. It was Assumption day, one of the holiest of the year. I was petrified at the idea of spending the night banqueting with the dead. We’d have to hitchhike. Back on the main road cars sped past, covering us with dust. Then hours would pass with nothing. Our hopes were fading with the light. We prepared for a night under the stars, but the temperature was dropping fast. Suddenly, a police jeep pulled up. “Mestia? Come with us.”

I could not believe our luck. Three policemen, vests bulging with ammunition. “Move the guns,” one of them ordered, pointing to a pile of machine guns on the back seat.

We bobbed over bumpy roads, squeezed between guns and police muscle, shells digging into our chests, past the conical summit of Mount Shkhara and the twin saddle-shaped peaks of Mount Ushba, heading towards a mountain pass.

At the top, the jeep pulled to an abrupt halt. “Get out,” barked one policeman. We climbed out shaking, thinking they were going to test the guns on us. They looked at our frightened faces, then burst out laughing. “We not kill you! Just little rest.” In the twilight, we swapped stories between rhododendron bushes and Alpine wildflowers, joking about how lucky we had been. A reminder to check the calendar, next time we go on a trek.Village Mountain StreamChurch Ushba Mountain  Glacier Ridge


An Italian Birth

Square and WaterMy great-grandfather Manfred was born in Trieste in 1865. His father Papy was a young Austrian chemical engineer, who specialised in ship paints. When he wanted to start his own company, the logical move would have been to set it up in Venice, the main port of the Austrian Empire. But Papy didn’t like Venice. It was too musty and damp, he used to say. Mamy, his delicate wife, suggested moving to Trieste, a small, provincial port town, which was breezy and dry, a lot better for her nerves. What started out as a whim ended up being Papy’s fortune, for only one year after Manfred’s birth Venice was annexed to the newborn kingdom of Italy, Trieste became the Kaiser’s main port, and the paint business flourished.

The family lived in the borgo Teresiano, in a baroque-façaded, powder-pink building that still stands today. It was close enough to the port, so Papy could wake up every morning to see his paints covering the Imperial fleet, but not so close that Mamy had to walk through the thick, salt-laden air in the maze of streets around the bustling harbour. Mamy preferred sitting with her husband in one of the kaffeehauses in what was then the Piazza Grande, sipping real Viennese melange, a milky concoction of coffee and cream, the drink of choice of wealthy citizens of the Empire. Trieste was very cosmopolitan then: Austrians drank their coffees in the piazza along with Greek ship-builders, Armenian merchants and Jewish moneylenders, while Italians, Slavs and Albanians waited at their tables.Boat

Manfred used to sit on Mamy’s lap, stiff-backed in his pinafore. The square looked like a theatre, he said, closed by buildings on three sides, the sea as a stage. From Piazza Grande, Trieste watched the show unfold on the Adriatic in front; on idle summer days, ships crossed the golden expanse, travelling to and from the four corners of the Mediterranean. In winter, ships bobbed and listed, whipped by the bora, the katabatic wind of the Northern Adriatic. Trieste’s streets had handrails; when the bora blew, people had to hold onto them, or else they would be blown away, thrown into the choppy sea. Mamy never took Manfred out then.

Manfred didn’t remain in Trieste long, after his childhood. He was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Vienna, where he studied to become a diplomat. He returned to the town of his birth at the end of World War I when, at nearly fifty years old, he was appointed Head of the Garrison on the island of Lussinpiccolo. Manfred sailed to the island at the end of the days of Habsburg Trieste, on a ship painted with the memories of his childhood. The victorious Italian army marched in a few weeks later, on November 3rd, 1918, claiming the city as their own, renaming the square where his mother drank coffee Piazza Unità d’Italia. Trieste was made Italian; having been born in Trieste, ‘with the stroke of a notary’s pen’[1], Manfred became Italian too.trieste statue man

[1] Jan Morris, “Trieste and the meaning of Nowhere”