Georgia


It’s about time to get this old thing back up and running. Guess what? I kept a journal in Georgia and never got around to typing it up. So here we are, wildly out of order, and with few pictures for now because my camera is hiding somewhere.

First impressions of Georgia:

  • absolute apathy in matters of traffic safety. People walk down the middle of the street even when a sidewalk is available. Sometimes the wall of a building abuts the street, and you’re forced to walk in the road towards oncoming traffic, and if a driver doesn’t see you, you’re just dead–nowhere to jump out of the way. There are paintings on the ground that look like crosswalks, but I have seen no evidence of them being used as such. You just wait for a break in the cars and then dash across.
  • When I first arrived, it felt like being back in Spain. By the end of the (hour-long) bus ride to the center from the airport, I had realized that this was easily explained by the fact that the weather is milder than in Russia, and people organize their lives accordingly. You dry your clothes outside on a line, and men (who have dark beards, black jackets, and jeans 100% of the time) gather on the sparse grass of the yards to chat. And play backgammon. Because stereotypes.
  • Georgia is way poorer than I was expecting. I’ve got this bad habit of thinking of former Eastern Bloc states as miniature Russias, and I forget that Russia has really lucked out in terms of natural resources (however mismanaged they may be): ALL the natural gas, ALL the diamonds, ALL the trees. What does Georgia have? Some wine, which doesn’t get exported, and a feeble tourist industry that only attracts citizens from bordering countries, which suffer from the same economic hardship (oh, and also a war). So off of the main tourist drag, Rustaveli Avenue, the place is literally crumbling. Gaping holes in the sidewalk, steps that have fallen off of their staircases, holes in walls and floors of homes. This seems to be the attitude: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and if it is broke, so are you, so just learn to live with it.

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  • Although there is an air of hopelessness here, the city doesn’t seem to languish in despair the way it does in Russia. Russians seem to enjoy the thought of having been  dealt an unfair lot in life; Georgians, less so. That doesn’t stop them from trying to marry you if you have a Western passport, though. I got asked on more dates in 2 weeks in Georgia than in my entire life combined. And I did not enjoy it.
  • Given Russia’s frustrating habit of not respecting Georgia’s sovereignty, I had expected that people would be reluctant to speak Russian. That’s been a huge problem in the Baltic states, where the large Russian-speaking minority is systematically disenfranchised for nationalistic reasons. But in Georgia, people take a more pragmatic view: they acknowledge that their language is (a) unique, and (b) really really hard, so they’re happy to use Russian as a lingua franca. If you express surprise at this, they will patiently explain to you that Georgia used to be in the Soviet Union, the capital of which was in Russia. Apparently they think Americans are idiots.
  • On a similar note, white people are automatically assumed to be Russians. I had this exchange at least three times a day in Tbilisi:
    • GeorgianDevushka! Russkaya krasavitsa! [Young lady! Russian beauty!]
    • Me: Good day! Do you have any *ware*/Do you know where *place* is?
    • Georgian: *helpful answer* Would you like any *wares*?
    • Me: Perhaps. Let me look.
    • Georgian: Where are you from?
    • Me: America.
    • Georgian: America? You mean Russia?
    • Me: No, I mean America.
    • Georgian: But your parents are Russian?
    • Me: No, no one’s Russian. Except the Russians, that is.
    • Georgian: Where are you from in America?
    • Me: The state of Georgia.
    • Georgian: Ha-ha, you are in Georgia now!
    • Me: Ha-ha! Yes, I traveled all this way and didn’t go anywhere at all, ha-ha!
    • Georgian: You are from Georgia, and I am from Georgia! We are brothers!
    • Me: Sure, whatever!
    • Georgian: Why do you speak Russian?
    • Me: I’ve spent time there.
    • Georgian: But why?
    • Me: Because it’s a beautiful country!
    • Georgian: And what about our country?
    • Me: Your country is also very beautiful!

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      It’s true.

  1. There is no currency exchange at Domodedovo International Airport.

  2. Since Domodedovo mostly serves Russia and former Soviet republics, if you have citizenship from another country, there is no line to stand in at customs. Walk right up to the counter.

  3. An older Kyrgyz man and I made friends on the metro to the airport. He was flying home to visit family. He wanted to hang out at the airport. I thoguht that sounded like not the most fun, so I didn’t take his calls, but I was glad for the encounter.

  4. At the airport cafe, I ordered a large Americano. It was four ounces (standard for a cappuccino is 6, so an Americano should be at least that). A small came in an espresso cup. Not sure I managed not to laugh in the barista’s face, but I did try.

  5. At immigration, they give you a complimentary bottle of wine.

  6. Georgians prefer walking in the street to walking on sidewalks, even when sidewalks are available. You can cross at crosswalks, but you can also cross anywhere else, and the cars stop for you at about the same 2% rate regardless.

  7. When I first arrived, I felt like I was back in Spain or Malta. With time, I realized that actually I was just confused by the fact that the weather is mild here, and people organize their lives accordingly. You dry your clothes outside. People (especially men) gather on random street corners to chat. There’s dead, brown grass everywhere.

  8. Georgia is poorer than I’d expected. Lots of homeless people. Lots of “massage parlors.” Most of the residential buildings are actively crumbling. Heating and insulation are not a thing. Holes in floors, holes in sidewalks, holes in walls. I guess I never thought about the fact that they have very little in the way of natural resources, and this area of the country is probably not as blessed by the tourist industry as the ski resorts in the north and the beach resorts in the west.

Contrary to my expectations, it is very easy to get around in Russian here. I had thought that given the troubles of recent years, Georgia would have tried to phase out Russian as quickly as possible and bring in English. And according to the news, that’s what happened. But in practice, I’ve only met one person who preferred English. Also, people automatically assume that I’m Russian (it’s this lily-white, sun-starved skin I’m wearing), so I get to talk a lot of Russian. It’s great. I always feel sort of guilty speaking English, even though I know it’s the most practical option, because it’s so unfair that I can travel anywhere and speak my native language and expect to be understood, because everyone’s been forced to learn it. I very much prefer having a lingua franca that is non-native to everyone, and it makes me much more willing to start conversations.

One time, I popped into a souvenir shop and greeted the owner. We got to talking, and I told him I was from the US but had been studying in Russia. He said, “I did courses in Louisiana once.” What kind of courses? Military courses. Near New Orleans. He was there for 7 days.

Georgian men have this endearing habit of gathering in each other’s shops and restaurants or, failing that, on street corners to smoke and talk. And smoke some more. So while we were chatting, a couple of his friends wandered in. One of them said, “America?”

“Yes, America!” I replied.

“I sell carpets,” he told me, lighting a cigarette. I pretended that this was relevant.

“You know Teft? He is a good friend of mine. I sell him carpets.” I assumed he meant President Taft, and that he was off his rocker.

Turns out he meant John Tefft, current US Ambassador to Russia. He showed me pictures of them together on his phone. He was on his rocker, after all.

I asked the first guy how he had liked Louisiana, and he told me a story. Turns out he was stuck on base all the time, didn’t even have windows in the van they rode from the airport. So the only thing he saw in his time there…was Mardi Gras.

He told us (well, mostly his buddies) about how he bought some beads, because everyone was buying beads, and he didn’t want to be left out. And he threw them out into the streets. And when he did that — women flashed him! So he bought as many beads as he could carry, and that was how he spent his day.

“Is America really like that?” his friends demanded of me. I didn’t know how to answer.

“I guess that festival is…”

They nodded, impressed.

Then one of them gave me a magnet “for friendship and luck.” Aw crap, now I have to buy something here.

So I did buy a thing, and I won’t tell you what just yet, because it’s for one of you. They promised me Special Price for Amerikan Girl and invited me to come back anytime.

In Russian, when you use transit without a ticket, it’s called “riding like a little bunny” (ехать зайчиком). I, of course, have never ridden little bunny, and I would never do such a thing– it is illegal and wrong to avail yourself of public services for which you have not paid. But if I had ever gotten in a pinch, and if I had decided, in that pinch, to try the little bunny, and if I had had the bad luck to get caught this time, here’s how it would have happened.

First of all, a little about the Tbilisi metro transit system. A ride on the metro or bus costs 50 tetri (about 25 cents), which, on the metro, you pay to an actual human, and on the bus, you feed into a little machine, which then prints out a ticket. You can also buy a card for 2 lari, which the actual humans will refill for you upon request. There is nowhere to refill your card outside of metro stations, and Tbilisi does not have many stations.

When I first arrived here and caught the bus from the airport into town, I attempted to pay my 50 tetri with a 1 lari coin and discovered that no, the coin machine on the bus doesn’t accept 1 lari coins. A stranger paid my fare. Thanks, stranger!

OK. Back to hypothetical yesterday. I surmise that I would have been riding to the ethnographic museum, which is a sprawling area (52 hectares, if that means anything to you) dotted with real houses that were shipped here from around the country in order to show how people used to live. Also, the museum is on top of a mountain at the back of a park. It’s pretty far away from the center.

Probably I would have hopped on the bus and then discovered that my metro card was empty. No worries–I have a 50 tetri coin in my pocket. At this point, it would be too early to worry about the trip home. Cross that bridge when we come to it.

Well, let’s assume that I did, within a few hours’ time, come to that bridge. I would have gotten on the bus and scanned my card again, just to be sure. Then I would have fed in my 1 lari piece in the hopes that maybe it would work. It wouldn’t. Finally, I would have pulled out an old ticket (so as to not be obviously bunnying) and sat down. After all, I would not have seen any controllers up to this point–what are the odds that the one time I don’t have a ticket, I get caught?

Not zero. That’s what the odds are.

Word on the street is that this is how controllers work in Tbilisi: they don’t get on the buses. They stand at the exits (most buses here are of the minibus variety, and have only two doors, so they’re easily blocked) and ask to see each person’s ticket. If you happened to get caught without a ticket, the first thing you would probably do is make it clear that you have no idea what’s going on. This is easily done in a city where the word for “ticket” looks like this: ბილეთის (biletis). The controller would say something in Georgian, and you would respond, “Ich verstehe nicht,” picking the language that they are least likely to speak. You would show them an old ticket and act confused when they didn’t accept it. Somehow, you would both switch to Russian, but you would be careful to guard your accent so as not to sound too Russian.

Probably at this point they would ask to see your passport, so they could write you a ticket on the tablet they would be holding. You would hand it to them, and the expressions on their faces would be so bewildered that you’d think that they’d asked for your passport and received a sandwich.

“Georgian citizen?”

What could they be talking about? There is a little eagle with the words “United States of America” on the front of that passport.

“American citizen. America. USA.”

“But you live here? You study?”

“No, I’m a tourist.”

They would leaf through your passport, carefully inspecting the (completely irrelevant, by the way) four Russian visas. Finally they would come to that elusive front page, which is somehow always so hard for citizens of other countries to find (I think because they expect it to be printed directly inside the front cover, not one page back).

One of them points at the line under Surname/Nom/Appellidos. “Khaaaarrrrr…. din? Khardin?”

“Yes, yes, last name Khardin.”  Russian pronunciation. It seems the thing to do.

Over time it would become clear that these controllers had never been confronted by the possibility of one human having four names. They would be very unsure as to how to proceed. You, aware that quite recently the police force was among the most dangerous groups of people you could run into in Georgia (not anymore, though), would be happy to cooperate. “Last name Khardin, First name Ketrin. And this is my middle name,” you would explain, pointing to each field as you read it. Do you need to explain that Americans don’t have patronymics? Do Georgians? You would probably decide that no, it may only confuse the little dears further.

“First name Katherine?”

“Yes.”

They would exchange rapid Georgian for a moment. You may have noticed that the cover on the tablet had flopped closed. Is it possible that your very name, the most basic unit of your identity, is so bewildering that you’ll get off? It can’t be.

One of the cops would shake her head in frustration. “How is your name written in your passport?” The standard way to ask for someone’s full name in Russian.

“…That is my passport.” You would fight to maintain a deferential tone, free of sarcasm. Perhaps you would even succeed. Perhaps.

More Georgian. You want to help, but at this point their bewilderment is as bewildering to you as whatever caused the bewilderment is to them.

You become aware of a grumblegrumblegrumble FWUMP accompanied by the unmistakable stench of second-world transport.  The next bus has pulled up.

Their heads snap up. You feel your passport being shoved into your chest as they rush to their positions before the next generation of little bunnies gets away.

If this had ever happened, you would have walked away feeling very lucky, indeed.

First week in a new country, y’know. Lots to see. And since all of my technology has decided to fail me at once, I’m spending a lot of time writing with an actual pen on actual paper, usually sitting in cafes, drinking exotic drinks. It’s all very Hemingway. I’m coming to the conclusion that hanging around and writing is an underrated travel activity.

Anyway, I was alone at this hostel, and it was rather lonely until yesterday, when these Poles showed up. I love Poles. They’re on their way home after 3 months in India and Nepal, and the one who’s staying in my room is super nice. We have had good chats. When they were in Mumbai, they got picked up to be in a Bollywood film. How cool is that? Then today, a new guy came who looked exactly like Jesus. He’s from Ukraine.

I chatted with Tatiana, the owner of the hostel, as she made up Ukrainian Jesus’ bed. She’s really friendly. Ukrainian Jesus didn’t say a word. I asked him where he was from. He named a city that I had heard of but don’t remember. Tatiana told him a little about me and told me about how he had been at her hostel before, and they keep in touch now. Ukrainian Jesus was silent.

Then, this morning, I came upstairs to do computer things, and Ukrainian Jesus was already here. After being in the same room awkwardly for a few seconds, I said “Hi!” which he eventually returned begrudgingly.

He continues to be taciturn and not very fun.

I really expected more from the Messiah.