Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dinner in Tbilisi

What a fun place this can be.

Issues with the airport notwithstanding, my last day in Tbilisi was brilliant. Once again, it was punctuated with insight and conversation, ideas and debate; it is a really interesting place.

Of all places, I found myself at the Christmas party of AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Far from being the stuffy event that one might have imagined, it once again epitomised the go-ahead attitude of many of their ranks, and I loved it.

I stayed until almost the end, intoxicated (not with the admirable Georgian wine on offer,) but with one of the best ideas that I have come across in a long, long time. Needless to say, I won’t say anything now, but watch this space.

Dinner followed, and a discussion of Georgia, from, it has to be admitted, an expat perspective that was particularly voluble. It was agreed that it is a country of huge opportunity; this is a bit of a conversation deadener in a way because to agree inclines one to emigration (to Georgia) or excuses of why one would not, and disagreement is a touch impolite, and not actually true.

One participant, a fascinating woman involved with the financing of ecological advancements in commercial environments, yes, really, people do this for a living, put it succinctly. "We come to The East because of the intellectual challenge, and the opportunity to “do something”".

I completely understand. Given the appropriate opportunity and circumstance, I would head east myself. There are opportunities, pitfalls, difficulties and rewards in eventually equal or balanced measure. These are folks who are interested in more that eventual pension entitlements, driven by need perhaps, but nevertheless driven. Opportunities for small businesses, for large enterprises abound, and all the time a riding on the frisson of the underlying and motivating risk.

Like the wine industry.

Not my best segway, I will admit, but dinner conversation was lubricated by some interesting, but not overwhelming, wine; Georgian, of course.

The Georgian wine industry has a parallel in Canada. In the 1980s, the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States left the Canadian wine industry in a terrible state. Producing, as Canada used to, pretty toxic stuff by the tankerful, it was realised that in the Dreadful Wine Market (one not to be sneezed at apparently, by volume at least), one could not out-underperform the Americans. Competing with the oceans of Thunderbird, or wine of a similar appellation, was out of the reach of Canadian producers, so they ripped up the vines.

The new plants, now some twenty years on, produce some rather wonderful wines, and so to Georgia. Having lost their market for bulk, weapons-grade red when the Russians closed the border and thus the market of their plentiful and indiscriminate boozers, the Georgian wine industry had a stark choice.

Improve, or die on the vine.

And, I have to say, they improved. Interestingly, the wine that I can drink today, in fact the wine that is within seven inches of my left hand (a Mukuzani from Marani) is eminently drinkable. A child’s portion of the essence of Georgia would not go amiss in any company. Distribution is an issue, but one that will be sorted in due course, I hope. Truly, good Georgian wines are superb, and deserve their place among the wine lists of the world.

Their very fine wines, one of which I have one in my suitcase, are actually truly remarkable; hence my remarks. And once I drink it, I shall remark upon it further.

And so we go on; it is now midnight, the clock is set for 0300 the flight for 0455 and a long day of travel via Munich, Zurich and Montreal before I finally get home to Winnipeg.


Friday, December 3, 2010

A week in Tbilisi

This is Day 5 of a rather fascinating week in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

I am here principally for business, although sneaking in a few minutes of dinner and a child’s portion of the remarkably good Georgian wine has been quite possible. It is, of course, quite different from the summer both climatically and in the sense of the city.

Cities live and breathe, have seasons and moods just as their individual inhabitants. They have characters and idiosyncrasies and change with the relentless passage of the year.

Late autumn in Tbilisi is very pleasant. The weather has been good, the last leaves fluttering around, the traffic as disobedient and manic as ever and the local populous hurrying around in that special way of the underemployed. The metro, deep and mostly Soviet, is full all of the time; full of folks dressed in the apparent national colour of black. Now and again someone dressed in brilliant beige or olive green illuminates like a Christmas decoration. Otherwise there is a sombre tone of dress, possibly reflective of the mood or possibly because they like black.

I decided to go for a ride; having figured out how to buy my ticket (one buys a card at any station and then, in the nstyle of most city transit systems, loads it up with money), and head off. A single ride costs 40t (25 cents) for the first of the day, the second is 30t and the third and subsequent ones 20t.

I headed out to the end, remembering to note where I got on. It was at თავისუფლების მოედანი, and I made careful note so I would be able to find my way home. The end of a metro line is often odd; built originally at the distant end of a city, they now lie in suburbs of little consequence, the city having grown up and beyond them many years since. In this case, the line was built in 1967, and Tbilisi has expanded considerably. It is a 'hood of scruffy shops, sidewalks, apartments and many people wandering around; it is a place of bingo parlours, money changers (US$1 = 1.1752 or thereabouts), flower sellers and shops peddling a motley assortment of things. Worth an hour of anyone's time, but having exhusted avery opportunity for interest or humour, I headed back into the station at ახმეტელის თეატრი and headed back to თავისუფლების მოედანი for a restorative.

Georgia is an astonishing country. For all of its difficulties, it remains a nation with heart, drive and an infectiously positive outlook; barriers rarely exist, development is on track and those willing to join in are welcome. Everything is being reviewed and renewed; the road and transportation infrastructure, agriculture, energy, manufacturing and every sector of business that one can imagine.

I am here for a couple of reasons; we are looking at significantly developing our promotion of the region in the US and Canada, and secondly because we worked over the past couple of months to broker a six-month lease of a Canadian aircraft to come to Georgia.

The plane will be used principally on a route between Tbilisi and Mestia, the major centre of Svaneti. The project began in August, really, when I was visiting Svaneti with my family; having met the folks who had built a new ski resort and spent time discussing access, we were approached in October to help advise on a suitable aircraft.

The result was the delivery on Thursday of a Twin Otter from the Calgary-based Kenn Borek. It is a fine aircraft, and perfectly suited to the difficult mountain terrain; the pilots are resting today after the long ferry-flight, and tomorrow will start exploring the routes across the mountains into Mestia.

I am pretty excited by this whole development; a modest domestic aviation industry, and although a single Twin Otter won’t get the Star Alliance excited, it is a start. Routes between the capital Tbilisi and Batumi on the Black Sea, neighbouring Yerevan and some other regional towns will assist both tourism and local development.

And that, according to many folks here, is the sort of catalyst that they need.