TBILISI, Georgia — Word that scorpions had been sighted on her street clinched it, as far as Nana Beniashvili was concerned.
In the asphalt-melting, earth-parching, brain-scrambling heat of midsummer, residents of Tbilisi need something to talk about.
The giant locusts had been bad enough, and the snakes, which are known in Georgian as “that which cannot be mentioned.” She actually hadn’t seen any scorpions herself, but she believed that one of her neighbours had, and in the asphalt-melting, earth-parching, brain-scrambling heat of midsummer, she was not in the mood to be fastidious about evidence.
“This means the apocalypse is coming,” said Ms Beniashvili, 72, who was leaning out of a window. “I cannot tell you exactly when, because I am not very knowledgeable about this. But it is clear that the apocalypse is coming. The world has gone crazy.
“Anyway, I hope we will survive,” she sighed, and went inside to look for lemonade.
There were theories being propagated in Ms Beniashvili’s neighbourhood: that the locusts were mutants caused by the meltdown at Chernobyl; that the snakes had been imported in train cars by some shadowy enemy; that all these natural phenomena were the result of certain explosions that happened 11 years ago on the surface of the sun.
But the most incisive commentary belonged to Tamar Khardziani, an entomologist at the Tbilisi zoo, who has spent much of this unusually hot summer attempting to soothe her excitable countrymen.
“It’s Georgia,” she said. “There has to be something to talk about.”
There is something biblical about Tbilisi under any circumstances.
It proved immune to the poured concrete that homogenised the great cities of the Soviet empire. Here, narrow cobblestone streets cut into the side of a mountain, and wooden balconies hang out over the sidewalks. In the heat, which last week was recorded at 106 degrees, fruit sellers stack watermelons into pyramids and then vanish into the high-ceilinged shadows. Real life begins after dark, when people gather under grape arbors smelling of roses, pour glasses of chilled wine, and talk.
Every summer there is something to talk about. Last year, it was people trying to kill themselves by jumping off bridges into the mud-coloured Mtkvari River. This summer, television news has reported on pestilence, starting with snakes, followed by a swarm of unusually large locusts that were migrating through the city. Guram Tsiklauri, a herpetologist who responds to calls from citizens, is exasperated by the topic, saying that in 30 years he has observed no variation in the prevalence of snakes, and that none of the local species are poisonous anyway.
“I’m just fed up with seeing this on television,” said Mr Tsiklauri, who heads the zoo’s reptile house. If there is one natural anomaly he has recorded, it is the extravagant emotions that serpents arouse in Georgians. Occasionally, he said, he will arrive at an address where there has been a complaint about snakes to discover that the house has been locked and the family is standing in the street, vowing to sell the property.
At a recent call he located a snake under the floorboards, and though he assured the family it was harmless, they were so distraught that he offered to pry up the floor to retrieve it. By the time he left, he said, “we had basically destroyed the whole house.” The family was so grateful, he said, that “they were almost carrying us around on their shoulders.”
Asked to explain this, Mr Tsiklauri looked thoughtful.
“Georgians are very emotional people,” he said. “They want to have this emotion of fear. They like the feeling of threat.” They are also capable of calming down very quickly, he added.
Passion seems built into the foundations of Georgia, one of the first countries to accept Christianity.
A cathedral outside Tbilisi commemorates Sidonia, a first-century Christian convert said to have died from the emotion that surged through her when she held the robe of Christ, gripping the fabric so fiercely that it had to be buried with her. The name of a church on Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare can be translated as “a stone was born,” after an unpleasant tale from the sixth century: when a Christian ascetic was accused by a nun of impregnating her, he became so incensed that he wished that, if she was lying, the baby would be born a stone.
By those standards, this summer’s plagues are nothing special. Small, harmless scorpions have always sheltered in the dark corners of Tbilisi’s old wooden houses, along with what Ms Khardziani described as “a lot of other very interesting invertebrates,” occasionally appearing in public and producing a brief panic. (A visit to a neighbourhood where an infestation had been reported found not a single resident who had seen one.)
By mid-August, when the summer heat breaks, all of the creatures will have drawn back from populated areas, where they often go seeking shade or food. But snakes will almost continue to trouble Georgians; in Georgian, the word can also mean Satan. When citizens call Mr Tsiklauri for help, they often try to avoid using the word, telling him only, “I saw that.”
Indeed, inside Ms Beniashvili’s house, a discussion of snakes so unnerved one elderly relative that she felt the need to interrupt.
“Don’t say that word!” the woman called out from the other side of the door. “It means that someone is saying something bad about you.”
Source: The New York Times, 2 August 2011