These days, the news from Georgia is all bombing campaigns and Russian occupation, but for an odd and magical week in the summer of 2006, I was part of Mikheil Saakashvili's great and tragic fantasy of an independent, America-loving Georgia.
My boyfriend at the time was a sometimes travel writer who had wangled a magazine assignment to write a shopping guide to Tblisi, and he brought me along. We were two Americans without credentials, connections, or, quite honestly, value. There was no reason for anyone to notice us, much less the president of a small nation.
We spent the first few days, Fodor's in hand, cooing at early Christian churches and Ottoman baths. And then one night, during the intermission of a puppet show about the Battle of Stalingrad, we got a panicked call. The president had heard the American media was in town—us. Although I hadn't known that Georgia was a country until the travel writer told me he'd gotten us a free trip there, I was suddenly at the Chancellery Building in Tblisi meeting President Saakashvilli—call him Misha, he implored.
The travel writer and I, having risen so precipitously and incongruously in status, were desperately trying to sound knowledgeable about Georgian history (courtesy of our Fodor's research). Misha, who possibly hoped that the travel writer could unleash hungry packs of tourists with his shopping guide, eagerly explained his dreams for Georgia's hip and sexy future. He had already painted the concrete Soviet-era housing blocks in bright colors, ordered a pagoda from Japan, and started building himself a White House—all of which had been good for public optimism and business. But what was he to do with the homely national stadium? He turned to me, and I suggested that he get artist Christo to wrap it up. An order was immediately given to find Christo.
Surely there was something charming and even democratic about a nation's political leader taking tips from an unemployed travel writer and his flighty girlfriend about how to make his democracy look cool (as well as pretty), but, alarmingly, it also suggested that Saakashvili thought American-style PR would make his nation safe and strong.
At dinner (suddenly all our meals were with him), Misha told us we must be his guests at the Black Sea resort of Batumi, the capital of Adjara.
The next day, Misha, accompanied by eight CIA-trained bodyguards, flew us in a vintage Soviet chopper to what looked like a Bond villain's compound on the beach. After I changed into my femme fatale bikini, an armed guard escorted me from the dacha to the beach, where Misha was riding a jet ski. I hesitated just a moment before I clung to the president for dear life (only briefly wondering whether the travel writer had traded me for access to high places).
But pretty girls were not this potentate's fatal flaw. Misha was much more desirous of … restaurants. He was obsessed with their meaning and importance. The more restaurants he could build, the better. He didn't believe the Russians would attack a place that looked like Chicago.
The travel writer and I watched Misha and the mayor of Batumi play tennis, and then the four of us—these new democrats and we accidental representatives of the Western media—went to a new restaurant on a boat. Adjara, Misha explained, was one of the secessionist provinces. It had been a black hole of corruption backed by Russia until 2004, when he ousted Adjara's despot, Aslan Abashidze, after various military face-offs. Misha said he knew how to protect his nation from Russia and undermine the Russian-backed secessionists—it was all about the Georgian people learning how to enjoy life and have fun.
After dinner, Misha took us to a state-run summer camp, where children put on a spontaneous talent show and begged for autographs (including mine)—then it was back to the dacha. We said our fond goodnights as Misha went into his heavily guarded room. Down the hall, I slipped between rough Soviet-grade sheets, making a mental note to tell Misha about how much more enjoyable life could be with a high thread count.
Back in Tblisi, we were shepherded to all the press-worthy occasions in town—a fashion show, a behind-the-scenes peek at the Georgian equivalent of Saturday Night Live, a meet-and-greet with the local oligarchs complete with a tour of their homes, and an interview with Georgian soccer star Kakha Kaladze. We even watched Misha deliver a speech about the judicial overhaul he was imposing.
We thought this was the last time we would see him, because he was heading off, with great hope and determination, to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he was back by dinner. Misha had waited for hours, but Putin had stood him up. Instead of fretting, Misha had headed to St. Petersburg's best restaurant and seduced its owner with the idea of starting one just like it in Georgia. The restaurateur, now shoeless and sitting next to me, said, "He told me I had to see Tbilisi—he hijacked me on his jet." Everyone found this funny. Misha was applauded for "laughing in a minefield." There was much joking about the Russians. Putin and Russia were so yesterday, Misha and Georgia so clearly of tomorrow.
Later that night, I helped the travel writer curse and kick a Siberian bear rug that he was struggling to pack. Putin had given the pelt to Misha as a symbol of the Kremlin's power not long after the Rose Revolution had transformed Saakashvili into his nation's great hope. Now Misha had regifted it to the travel writer. I still don't know how we managed to get that token of Misha's affection and of Georgia and Russia's hostility onto the plane.