A Tale of Two Business Trips

Those of you who know me from my former life as VP for Programs of the California State Parks Foundation may remember how much I traveled for work. A normal month would always include between 3 and 5 flights to either San Francisco, Sacramento or occasionally elsewhere – New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago were three great places I got to travel to for conferences. And then there were the many, many long drives – to San Diego, Anza Borrego and San Clemente, probably a thousand times, to Yosemite, to Santa Barbara, and to literally hundreds of State Parks all over California, often in a rented car picked up at the airport. A few really stand out in my memory – Candlestick, where I managed a major renovation, Jack London, with its burnt-down buildings surrounded by intense greenery, an unforgettable historical reenactment at La Purísima, and Fort Ross in Sonoma, where I fired off a cannon.

It was a lot of fun, generally, and I traveled in style – if not first-class, very comfortably. I always had nice hotel rooms, nice rental cars, and so many great meals in good restaurants (ok, a few bad ones, too – but I’ve forgotten those!). I had an assistant who set up all my flights and rentals and reservations, and gave me a sheet of paper with all the needed information before I left, along with filling in my calendar as a back-up. I belonged to the special, elite clubs for parking and flying – bypassed lines, shuttles, waits, due to my insane travel schedule. I was set. I never missed a flight or a meeting, with one memorable exception where through pure habit, I went to the Burbank Airport instead of LAX.

So, those were the days. Here in Georgia, as a PCV, I did trek to various conferences and meetings, and these were facilitated by the Peace Corps with buses, hotels, etc. Sometimes very nice ones (thank you, Rixos in Borjomi). But since I finished my service, business trips have not really been part of my life. I travel all over Tbilisi for meetings, and sometimes to Gori (where I go all the time anyway), but that’s it. Until last week, when I undertook my first out-of-town business meeting. Working on an EU grant project for CENN, I traveled to Batumi for a one-day meeting with all the parties involved to do some planning. Here’s what happened.

I had the rail tickets in an email. Here’s a screen shot:

 

 

 

So, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? The first one is the return ticket, because it’s dated July 30th, right? And it says right on the face of it, Batumi to Tbilisi – not the other way around. But, gee, somehow all that escaped me. I showed up at the train station at 5:45 for a 5:55 train that had already left at 5:35, because I was looking at the wrong ticket. After sitting on the platform for just a little too long, reality started to intrude, and I went upstairs to the ticket window, where I discovered my mistake only after the laughing (and not in a very nice way) ticket agent pointed out my mistake.

I was stunned. What to do? I called my ever-patient CENN partner in Batumi and she suggested that I take the bus, which she saw on her computer left at 8 pm. OK, I’m saved. I’ve bought bus tickets for this run before, I knew how to do it, so I purchased a ticket on my phone and picked up a taxi outside the train station to go to Ortachala bus station, at the other end of town. I successfully arrived, found the office, got my ticket printed out, and was pitiful enough that the woman working there let me wait in the air-conditioned office, because it was over 100 F. outside.

The bus … filled with Russian and Ukrainian tourists, tall, slim, genuinely beautiful blond girls wearing shorts so short that they might as well be wearing their underpants, in every case with kind of squat, dark, ugly men. It’s a mystery to me. Comfortable enough, but not to sleep. Oh, no. Seats did not recline and the driver was very heavy on the brakes. We stopped in Zestaponi for bathrooms and some ice cream, and arrived in Batumi to a deserted bus station, far out of town, at 3:30 am. I called the hotel, which refused to send a taxi. Thankfully a Georgian girl had called a taxi using one of the Uber-ish applications they have here (I use Taxify,  but it does not work in Batumi) and offered to share. Not sure what I would have done otherwise!

At the hotel, I was assaulted by an aggressive moth in the room, and had to waste a good 20 minutes trying to kill that sucker. Finally got to sleep around 5 am, woke up at 8 am for the meeting. OMG. I am too old for this. On a happier note, hey, the hotel had a good shower. Could have been worse.

At the meeting, which took place in an unnamed government office, we got water. Not even coffee! When I think of all those meetings with bagels and cream cheese, fresh fruit, pastries, and coffee with cream … those were the days. You could get a lot done on that fuel. Here, well, one meeting participant just didn’t show up, two more were over an hour late, no one spoke English and though I had begged and pleaded for a translator, none was provided. My stalwart CENN pal tried her best, but since she was running the meeting, there was a limit to what she could do. For me, the meeting was largely a bust, mainly because no matter how many times specific questions were asked, wildly differing answers were given – often answers that were completely unrelated to the question were offered, at length. Sigh … ok, I made up a list of questions afterwards and sent it to everyone.

Back to the train station in a taxi with a young driver who was smoking and playing Russian rock music at vehicle-shaking levels (to be fair, when I asked him to turn it down, he did – then laughed and asked if I had a headache, to which I responded, “I do now”), which was filled with more foreigners than I’ve ever seen in one place outside of a Peace Corps gathering. Batumi is a popular spot in the summer season, especially with Russians and Israelis, and there were plenty of them. The girls were once again wearing extremely short shorts, which when they curled up on their seats to sleep offered some very, um, interesting views. Seriously – girls, you shouldn’t do that. Many children running up and down the aisles screaming. Sleep was not possible. My only stroke of luck was that as the only person on my car traveling alone, I kept the seat next to me empty the whole time, which allowed for a bit of stretching out.

Arrived in Tbilisi and proceeded out to the lined-up taxis, several of whom refused to take me on a 5 or 6 gel fare for less than 10 gel. I won’t do it! It’s not that I don’t have 10 gel, but it just offends me. I finally negotiated one guy down to 8 gel and gave up – ok. I need to get home, I really do. Arrived at about 12:30 am and fell directly into bed.

The next day I slept until 11 and staggered up to make a lunch with my friend Sara and her dad, who was visiting from Indiana. We ate Korean food and a good time was had by all, but I didn’t fully recover for another few days.

 

 

 

 

 

So, that’s a business trip in Georgia. Buses, naked butts (and worse), no sleep, no taxis, noisy trains, unintelligible meetings, belligerent moths, uncooperative hotel clerks, and a sense that once, in a distant past, it was … different.

“What’s Going to Happen” follow-up

So, I’ve posted a few articles since my original post. Here is a BBC special that is the most thorough examination of the whole “rave revolution” that I have seen. I personally know a number of people – including my friend who was referenced in my original post on this topic – who are not ravers and don’t frequent these clubs at all. They just care about freedom in their country.

Take a look: bbc.in/2OsKwDb

New, non-political blog coming soon, when I can eke out just a bit of time!

Tbilisi Being Destroyed

Lately, noise pollution has moved from being a general problem that everyone complains about to a serious issue on a personal level. Having taken my beloved flat in an old, quiet area of town, I’ve watched askance as during just the past 2 years the area has gentrified and become hip. Very hip, indeed. Lots of cool restaurants and bars, shops, hotels, etc. Meanwhile, I’m also seeing some, though not all, small shops and vegetable stands close. A block from me, out of 3 little vegetable stores (each situated on a corner of the same intersection), 2 have closed in the last 6 months or so, though thankfully not the one I frequent. Yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the new establishments are great; I frequent them (shout-out to Zala, a nice restaurant with good food and even more significant, good service) and I know neighborhoods change. That’s just how it is, generally. However, in Tbilisi, the change is completely, utterly unregulated, in every way. There’s no urban planning, no zoning, no noise control, no labor protections (at not least that are enforced) – nothing.

A case in point. I live on the second floor. My living room and office face the street, my bedroom window opens onto the balcony and below, the communal courtyard, and my kitchen windows, to the courtyard and balcony of the next-door-neighbor’s house, which is 3 stories high. Until about 6 months ago, a few families lived there. Then, the family living on the ground floor moved out, and the space was sold to someone who is building a restaurant there, cleverly named Mama Mia (yes I am being sarcastic).

Fixing up the courtyard – taken from my kitchen window.

In the past 6 months, therefore, I have lived in a maelstrom of noise. Drilling. Sawing. Sanding. Hammering. Shouting. Loud Russian pop music (the most egregious, which is saying a lot). This noise starts at about 10:00 am, and goes until after dark, often past 11:00 pm. As I watch out my kitchen window, I see they are creating a backyard space where people will sit, which means that I will have, at the very least, people drinking, smoking and shouting directly below me every single night of the week. My extensive experience in Georgian restaurants has taught me this: Georgians are loud. Very, very loud, and as the evening gets later, it can reach ear-splitting levels. Especially young Georgian women, who have a strong tendency to scream with laughter at almost unbelievable decibel levels, and young Georgian men, who have a strong tendency to get drunk and sing. Far be it from me to deny anyone their fun, but the fact that this can take place in a courtyard directly below where multiple families (some with children) live is just … I don’t know. I don’t really have words for it. People mostly own their flats in this area, and their property values are being severely decreased with no recourse whatsoever.

This whole situation may be exacerbated if the owner installs speakers to play music outside. There is absolutely no prohibition preventing this. Anyone who has been in a Georgian restaurant where music is played will know why I am so afraid. The volume is always turned so loud that conversation is literally impossible.

Lest you think it’s only me, a whining American, a few weeks ago my neighbor ran out on her balcony and started yelling at the workmen. “Shut up!” “Stop it!” “Let us sleep!” “I can’t live here anymore!” Etc. Unfortunately I missed the show, as I was in the shower, but Salome gave me a run-down when I came out. Had I been in the kitchen, I absolutely would have stuck my head out and screamed მეც!!!! Meaning, me too!!!!

So right now I’m living in fear. I’ve already adjusted to the nightly supra (party/feast) down in the courtyard, where pretty much every night my surrounding neighbors gather and, well, party and feast, with the same results described above. Every night, unless it’s raining, until 2:00 am. I’m not really invited, though if I went down there I am pretty sure they would welcome me. But I don’t want to go – I want to sleep! My downstairs neighbor plays extremely loud music for the occasion, often until the wee hours. Thank god he has great taste and plays jazz, or I’d kill myself. I’ve found an app that plays rain falling, with thunder in the background, and it drowns out a fair amount of the noise. Amusingly, a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know there was a huge rainstorm – a real one – the fake rainstorm drowned out the real one.

Scene of many a drunken party – my courtyard.

This is a summer phenomenon, and not even all summer – in August, many of my neighbors depart for family villages in the mountains, where the air is cool and the wine plentiful. Would that I had the same option. I have learned to deal with it, but if my kitchen (where I also eat, btw) becomes a place I dread being and cannot relax and read a book or listen to music, I will have to consider moving, something I do not want to do. Right now I’m in wait-and-see mode, but I have a bad feeling.

My bad feeling extends beyond just my personal space. The construction all around me is extreme, and beautiful, old, historic buildings are being replaced with mundane, brick/concrete structures that in many cases are butt-ugly and completely out of synch with the (formerly) lovely nature of the area. Here’s an example that is less than a block from me. On the left, a typical old Vera building. On the right, a new building that is going up directly across the street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s far from an isolated case. A block away, a 7-story structure, very similar in design to the photo above, is replacing two old buildings that were torn down. The top floors will tower over our little courtyard, completely blocking out the sun. I don’t think I’ll be here when it finally happens, and thank god for that, because it would break my heart.

In the even older, ancient district of Sololaki, an area that is supposed to be a protected, historic neighborhood, a long walk a few months ago revealed that in the midst of this historic district of mansions built back in the 1800’s, which are currently being refurbished (though whether up to modern standards is very much open to question) also includes several extremely modern structures, some on sites where an old house used to be. Now, this area was allowed to decay beyond all reasonable standards in the last few decades, and some of these houses could not be saved. But do they have to be replaced with quasi-Geary-style buildings? It’s just so infuriating, and so, so sad. I am watching the city I have grown to love destroyed, all the charm and beauty demolished without any thought to what is being lost.

This is going on all through the city, on both a giant (Panorama project – see, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/irakli-zhvania/tbilisi-panorama-project-urban-boosterism-at-its-worst) and a local level. It’s happening with roads through pristine high mountain areas (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1993230107565983/ – mostly in Georgian, but you can get the idea), through the unrestricted construction of hydroelectric power plants, through labor standards that are so lax that over 500 miners have died in the Chiatura mines alone in the last 85 years (https://www.georgianjournal.ge/society/34355-chiatura-mine-claims-yet-another-life-georgian-worker-dies-during-excavation-works.html) and workers on Tbilisi high-rises regularly die (270 workers died and 776 were injured in 2011–2016 as a result of occupational accidents – http://oc-media.org/worker-dies-on-tbilisi-university-construction-site/).

People here do organize, do protest, do demonstrate, and a few times, it has worked. But it always creeps back, and in recent years, has accelerated. It’s so sad to see, and it’s been getting me down lately. I’m starting to think about coming home, not that it’s any better there these days, but at least I can be in a better position to do something about it. Not planning anything immediately, but …. stay tuned!

What’s going to happen? Growing populism in Georgia

So, this is a post I could never have made while a Peace Corps Volunteer, as we were not allowed to comment on local political/controversial social issues. I agreed with that prohibition – as a PCV, I represented more than myself and my own opinions. However, my PC days are long-gone, and now I am free to express myself. But … it’s complicated. How to reconcile my love for this country, where I have thoughtfully, deliberately chosen to make my home, with the hateful, aggressive political forces on the ascendancy here. I think all I can do is say what’s happening, how it affects (or may affect) me, and let people make their own judgments.

I think the rising tide of populism in Georgia can really be traced back to a number of sources. I’m not going to dive into an in-depth analysis of the why of it – minds far greater than mine have grappled with this issue, not only for Georgia, but for the whole (Western) world, where nationalism and authoritarianism are clearly on the rise, and have failed to come up with definitive answers as to why it’s happening. In many countries, immigration has been pinned with the blame, clash of cultures, strain of financial resources, etc. But here in Georgia, it’s the opposite problem – this country has lost about a third of its population to migration. Most are uneducated people who work illegally abroad in low-skilled jobs and send remittances home. According to the World Bank, over 10% of Georgia’s GDP is derived from remittances. That’s far from the highest in the world (for instance, Nepal gets over 30% of its GDP from remittances), but it has a substantial impact. In-flow of refugees from the Middle East is minuscule – from 2012-2016, only about 5,000 people from that geographic area applied for asylum, over the entire 5-year period (see, http://migration.commission.ge/files/migration_profile_2017_eng__final_.pdf, loads of information, for anyone who is interested). So, if it’s not immigration, what is it? Again, without diving deep, I can name a few things that without doubt contribute to the problem:

  • Russian influence, particularly on the issue of homosexuality and “Western values.” These tendencies are not only a hold-over from the old days when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. They are currently being actively encouraged and fomented by Russia through many of the same mechanism as they are using in the U.S.
  • Religion, specifically, the Orthodox Church, which is extremely conservative and very, very influential in Georgia. The Church, aided and abetted by Russian religious authorities, is extraordinarily homophobic and highly opposed to “Western values” in every way.
  • Bad education, by which I mean, in every sense of the word, substandard, from kindergarten through university. Heavily influenced by outdated Soviet methodologies, which stress obedience to teachers, extreme levels of memorization, and suppression of any sign of critical thinking, many people here do not question authority and follow the church unquestioningly. Even those who are interested and want to take a different intellectual path have no real way to do it. As a direct result, the academic  and professional intelligentsia has left the country, en masse. They can earn so much more money and progress so much further in their careers abroad than at home. It’s understandable, but it leaves a huge gap. I have personally witnessed all of this, in many different contexts. It’s really alarming.
  • Poverty, particularly rural poverty, and a growing gap between the affluent class in Tbilisi and everyone else. A dangerous elite is developing here – it’s not unique to Georgia, but perhaps it’s more obvious here than elsewhere, in such a small country where the mean monthly income per household in rural areas is 21% less compared to urban areas (Georgia’s Rural Strategy, 2016-2020, p.18).

Obviously, many of these factors overlap and exacerbate each other, and all of them have root causes, but I am not qualified to really delve into it, so suffice it to say – it’s complicated. Isn’t it always?

Having set out some context, and not even mentioning the pull of the West via an Association Agreement with the EU, here’s what’s been happening in Georgia that scares me, and a lot of other people. There will be some videos with disturbing content below.

I think it all started in 2013. May 17th, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, which that year was marked by a small demonstration of anti-homophobic activists. They were attacked by a mob of over 20,000 Georgians, urged on by the Church, which the day before the rally published a call to violence, calling homosexuality  an “anomaly and disease.” Their call was answered – up to 30 people were injured, and demonstrators had to be evacuated in marshutkas, which also were violently attacked.

After this incident, the Church established a “Day of Family Purity,” on, surprise, May 17th. Over the next few years, there were a lot of tensions, but no violence. I personally was out and about on May 17, 2017, in the center of Tbilisi, and while I saw plenty of demonstrations, they were separate and not violent, other than verbal assault.

But that doesn’t mean that things weren’t happening. In the four years I’ve been here, anti-foreigner sentiments have been rising. Truthfully they are mainly directed at foreigners from Africa, the Mideast and India/Pakistan. Most of these people are here as students, bringing significant revenue to Georgia in the form of very high tuition and consumer spending. They are here legally, under temporary residency permits. Yet, I began to read more and more stories about residency permit renewal denials, deportations at the airport, and other exclusionary government actions. At the same time, political movements began to grow. The Alliance of Patriots, an extreme right-wing party, gained 5 seats in Parliament in the last election. Georgian March, an even crazier manifestation of nationalist/populist sentiment, held a march in Tbilisi last year that drew somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 supporters. http://oc-media.org/who-was-in-and-who-was-out-in-tbilisis-far-right-march-of-georgians-analysis/. Their leader, Sandro Bregadze, is not some nutty outlier – he’s a former deputy prime minister in the current government. The march was overtly racist and advanced a theory of “foreigner invasion” and “Georgia for Georgians.” Sound familiar? After the march, when Georgia’s young, female UN youth delegate spoke out against xenophobia, March followers threatened her with gang rape, among other things. https://www.rferl.org/a/opposition-xenophobic-march-earns-georgian-activist-threats-support/28629125.html.

After this demonstration, which at least was not physically violent, numerous incidents followed. A news-reporter roughed up because he made a joke on-air about Christ. Transsexuals demonstrating for acceptance were attacked. People who looked different were followed in the street and screamed at or assaulted; obviously foreign women were harassed at an alarming rate. A bunch of African soccer players were threatened with pipes by local Georgian guys kicking them off their turf. https://www.facebook.com/PrimeTimeMagazine/videos/2148506338499557/. Fights between political parties – like, fist-fights. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3eJfEUmUk0. Lots of postings on expat websites and Facebook pages advocating for foreigners to “just leave if you don’t like it.” Rumors (still unresolved) about changing residency and citizenship requirements, making it much tougher for foreigners to live here.

There is more, but you get the idea. As a non-Georgian living here, I begin to feel … unwelcome. In 4 years, I’ve never felt that way before, and it’s really alarming. I begin to wonder about my future here. To be clear – I have never encountered anti-foreigner feeling directed at me, personally. But I’ve heard it directed at others, and my empathy is with them, causing me to feel similarly threatened.

Then a major event happened, just in the last few weeks. It’s a very long, complicated and byzantine story, still unwinding and developing, but in a nutshell: Georgian police raided two clubs where electronic music is played and raves happen. I know one of these clubs, and so I know this to be true – they are also havens for homosexuals. It’s also true that there are a lot of drugs consumed and sold at these clubs, and that was the ostensible reason for the raids. As far as I can tell, the police were rough but not abusive. However, there were really, really a lot of them, and they were heavily armed, and young people who see the rave scene as a safe place for freedom of expression felt highly threatened by the state.

Huge demonstrations ensued. You can get an idea here: blob:https://www.rferl.org/65174233-f1af-47fb-b6b2-0fecf0248da0, and here: https://www.georgianjournal.ge/society/34483-the-first-protest-expressed-through-massive-rave-to-electronic-music-in-tbilisi.html. Lots of colored smoke, dancing, speeches, etc. https://djmag.com/content/tbilisi-clubbing-community-hold-protest-rave-outside-parliament-response-raids.

The Georgian nationalist community responded. On May 12th, thousands of men (and it was mostly men) poured into the streets on the second day of the demonstrations. They were violent thugs, determined to break through police lines and assault the peaceful demonstrators. I want to stress that this is a statement of fact – not my opinion. They said that’s what they wanted to do, and as Salome and I watched the tv coverage, both of us sick with fear because we had friends there, that’s exactly what these guys tried to do.

They didn’t succeed, and in fact the Ministry of the Interior appeared before the demonstrators and apologized for the raid … the demonstrators were then bused out for their own safety, bringing back memories of the marshutkas from 2013. Further talks between various leaders were agreed upon. So far there’s been no definitive outcome.

The next days brought these images:

This post on the ex-pat FB page:

“Just a heads up. I work next to parliament. Was just returning to the office with a coffee in hand and some belligerent guy on the street said to me unprovoked “dedashevitsi pederasti xar” (roughly translated as “fuck your mother, you fag”, sorry but that’s what he said). Be careful out there if you are in the center, I guess these guys are still pretty angry.”

By May 17th, the scheduled gay rights demonstration was cancelled due to safety concerns. A few extraordinarily brave activists still showed up to exercise their freedom of speech. In spite of a heavy police presence, this happened:

In the meantime, many thousands of people marched for “Family Sanctity Day,” led by priests, the demonstration starting from a point two blocks from where I live. A priest was recorded on TV saying that all of Rustaveli Ave., the main street of Tbilisi, was only for “real Georgians” and no one else was allowed to be on the street that day.

OK. This is where things stand. I don’t know what will happen. I feel the tide turning, not in a good way, but it may turn yet again. There are many people with open hearts and minds in Georgia, with progressive values. But they don’t all seem to fully appreciate the danger. A few weeks ago I went out to dinner with a young Georgian friend. She’s very, very smart, very hard-working and accomplished, and very progressive. She laughed at these neo-Nazi groups, saying they could not be taken seriously. I warned her not to ignore what is happening. I referenced the early 1930s in Germany. I talked about Trump. I said that people like her had to take it seriously, because they are the hope for the future. I think she listened to me.

On May 12th, this friend was at the demonstration. We texted the whole night; I was quite worried about her. She answered me: “They will not scare us. We are a lot here. And we are not violent. March (the nationalists) is violent and they will not win. March is not the state we would like to build.” I pray for my adopted country that she is right.

Passover in Batumi

For the first time in quite a while, I took a little trip within Georgia. I was actually surprised when I counted up how long it’s been since I traveled here (not counting occasional trips to Gori, which are too mundane to categorize as “travel” – I mean, going to get your hair cut just doesn’t really rise to the required level of interest, I think) – since September, when my son visited. Time just kind of goes by, I’m so busy, loads of work and various things to do in Tblisi … so I jumped at this chance.

Usually I’m not so fond of Batumi, because in the summer the weather is unbearable there, incredibly hot and humid and heavy. However, it’s not that time of year quite yet, so I decided to take the train there, even though it meant getting up at 6:00 am. As I’ve become completely Georgian in the sense that anything before 10:00 am is considered by me to be the crack of dawn, this was a considerable sacrifice on my part, but to get to Batumi in a mere 5 hours I rose to the occasion, so to speak. I met two Peace Corps Volunteers at the station and we found our seats on the new, beautiful train that glided through canyons and villages on the way. Zero food available – no coffee, no snacks, no nothing. My companions generously shared with me, and we reflected that Georgian Railways is missing a really good opportunity to generate some revenue. They could have one of those carts that the English push through the aisles, offering tea and biscuits. 🙂 Or at least some vending machines for god’s sake!

Image result for georgian railways train to batumi

When we got to Batumi, it was raining, and I mean – waves of water, high wind, horizontal rain … by the time we got to lunch, I was soaked but it was kind of exciting. Some hot khatchapuri revived us, and off we went to what’s called a “hyper-Carrefour,” and indeed it was. I saw stuff there I haven’t seen in years. Even the big Carrefour in Tbilisi didn’t match this one. Suffice it to say there was an entire section of peanut butter. We bought a massive amount of food for the planned Seder and met up with others at the Airbnb we rented – on the 5th floor, no lift, shades of my time in Gori.

We had a taco night, I ate too much, and went to sleep shivering cold in a room overlooking the ocean (no heat, and for several hours, no electricity – when it came on, we all raised our arms simultaneously, shouting “ahhhhhh!!!”) – woke up warm and cozy to a bright, sunny day. For the next two days, I experienced my absolute favorite type of weather – cool, not cold, breezy, not windy, clear blue skies studded with white cotton clouds and a delicious smell of plants and ocean salt in the air. It was fantastic, and I almost forgave Batumi for its summers.

So this was Saturday, second night of Passover. I had offered to volunteer at Lets Play Together event. LPT is a program that was put together by the group of volunteers immediately before mine, and I was on the committee that took it over and really grew it. The second LPT event was held in Gori, and another volunteer and I worked pretty hard on putting together a pretty successful day – not without its frustrations, but Jeremy Gaskill, the Director of McClain Association for Children, which supports LPT, always says it was the best one (which I very much doubt, but it’s nice of him to say so). I took a lot of good photos and videos on that day, if anyone is interested you can see them here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/E5iHeOFKygk5Kc4g2.

This event was at a very posh school up in the hills, and it was a rousing success. The activities included music, dance, arts & crafts and sports, including the perennial favorite, tug-of-war. My group of kids had one quiet, smiling little girl named Lana, and 3 boys, one of whom was clearly hyperactive and required much chasing while shouting “Mischa, sad midixar?!” meaning, Mischa, where are you going?! They were all so cute, but my personal favorite was an extremely serious little boy named Luka. He looked severely worried when he arrived, and his mother made sure to tell me “he doesn’t speak very much,” but his face just lit up when dancing. It almost made me cry to see him having so much fun. After that he lightened up, spoke a little bit, and fully participated in the sports activities, even winning the relay race. I really loved being a volunteer again, if only for a few hours, and I resolve to try and do more volunteering here in Tbilisi if I can find the right opportunity. Here’s a few shots of the day:

At the end we all took a photo of the volunteers together, it was nice to be part of a Peace Corps group again.

That night, the Seder. Here, being part of a group of volunteers wasn’t quite as much fun. There were only three of us (meaning, Jewish) in a group of 11. We tried to condense the whole ceremony to under half an hour, just explaining a lot of it rather than actually doing it, e.g., dipping fingers in wine and reciting the plagues – I did a quick demonstration, that’s it. We sang one verse of Dayanyu. That sort of thing. Nonetheless, there was a fair amount of complaining about hunger and “where’s the food” kinda stuff (those guys should be at a real Seder sometime), and more disturbing, a fair amount of joking around. My siblings know how much I hate this, and I was even more perturbed that a lot of it came from older folks, who should know better. I always feel this kind of behavior is disrespectful, very much so. The Seder is a beautiful and meaningful ceremony, and I think we can refrain from joking around during it. Save it for dinner, guys. I swear I am going to have a my own Seder next year, and I’m actually going to issue a warning beforehand that it’s a religious ceremony that deserves attention. Once before I die, I’d like to have a real Seder, where people actually think about the meaning of the ceremony and have intelligent conversation. At this table, a lot of the discussion seemed to focus on dirty jokes, and on at least one occasion, a very unpleasant confrontation between two guests – I will say no more, but one person was clearly at fault and needs to learn better manners. A few people spent at least 75% of the time looking at their phones. I mean – there are actual, live people all around you, can you not look at photos or text with friends later, and focus on the moment? We have to blame ourselves a bit for this one, as we distributed the Hagadah service electronically, so everyone had their phone and I guess simply could not resist. If any of you read this, you know who you are. Maybe give it a little thought.

There was one genuinely hysterical moment. We couldn’t find horseradish in the hyper-store, in spite of all of its variety, so we bought wasabi. Little did we know it was positively nuclear in its strength. We all put it on our matzoh, then put charoset (apple/honey/walnut mix, mortar in the bricks of the pyramids etc.) and took hearty bites. Long moment of stunned silence, followed by coughing, tears, moans, choking and cries for water. I’d give a lot to have a video of this moment, my god, it was funny. I’ve eaten sashimi with wasabi for decades, and I’ve never tasted anything like this. It was epic.

The table, with charoset and Passover plate behind the flowers. Note the green paste on the plate – I’m surprised it didn’t burn through the glass.

The food was utterly fantastic. Kudos to Sara Pipe-Mazo, who out of virtually nothing made such a delicious dinner. The very best was matzoh ball soup. Made with vegetable bullion and carrots, it was about the best thing I’ve ever had. I didn’t realize I missed this food so much until I ate it once again. We had a roast chicken which she kept saying would be dry – it most decidedly was not – vegetarian chili, with left-over fixins’ from taco night, wild rice with mushrooms, salad, a lot of wine, and a bunch of other stuff – chocolate-covered matzoh for dessert – really, just so good. Once again, I ate too much. And slept very well that night.

And just for fun, here’s the view from the flat we rented, haha.

Lovely, isn’t it? But the gorgeous weather laid a patina of loveliness over everything, no complaints.

Sunday was spent traveling back to Tbilisi on a bus, where the attendant actually walked through the aisle offering coffee (take note, Georgian Railways). I always love the ride through the mountains between Kutaisi and Khashuri, this is the Rikoti Pass, and in early spring it is truly stunning, filled with rushing rivers, blooming cherry trees, and endless green. This photo isn’t mine, but it gives some idea:

Image result for rikoti pass

Well, now back to work – just in the last few days, I’ve been offered 3 new jobs, one of which I actually had to decline, very regretfully, but the time constraints were just too severe. This is part of why I moved from working part-time in the CHCA office to full-time consulting – to have more control over my time, so I’m trying hard to put that into effect. This month I have a large grant to write for a new client, and a lot of editing … so, no more blog writing for now! I’ll just end by saying that though it’s a bit far-away in time, I am keenly and excitedly anticipating my upcoming trip to Spain and Portugal – you can count on some good travel blog posts then (September). Until that time, I’ll try to put something interesting up here from time-to-time, along with my increasingly frustrated and angry political commentary. But that’s for another day.

Is life in Georgia better or worse for an older woman?

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the experience of getting older in Georgia. Partly this is a result of the long medical tunnel from which I’m only recently emerging, but an even bigger part is a result of the many young, female friends I have here and what they tell me about their experiences, which contrast strikingly with the experiences of my Georgian women friends, and mine. There’s also a Facebook page for expats (Georgian Wanderers) where occasionally a post about some unfortunate experience of a foreign woman in Georgia engenders a heated and sometimes very angry spate of comments, sometimes culminating in something to the effect of “if you don’t like it, you should leave” and/or “you are insulting the honor of my country.”*

So, in a nutshell –  foreign young women here are often treated very rudely, and sometimes even threateningly or violently, by Georgian men. Young Georgian women, generally, are not, because they all are “kargi gogo” – a good girl. And older women, whether foreign or native, are definitely exempt. Whether this is because we’ve lost all sexual allure, or because of respect for the elderly, I really don’t know. Probably both.

My expat friends have told many stories of groping, propositions, endless phone calls and texts, stalking, being driven somewhere other than their destination by taxi drivers, being dropped off in the middle of nowhere by marshutka drivers in retaliation for refusing an advance, and a myriad of other lesser indignities. Young women are constantly asked why they aren’t married, whether they want to marry someone’s neighbor, son, cousin, friend … anyone. And they are not kidding around. Young men without an education, without a job, and utterly without social skills, still consider themselves compatible and desirable mates for college-educated, well-traveled and accomplished foreign women. Some people find this funny, but others are just really sick of it. I have one friend who won’t even use regular taxis, only Taxify (a Uber-like taxi service in Tbilisi) so there will be a record of who picked her up and where he took her. Another refuses to ride the subway due to the constant groping and cat-calling.

This doesn’t seem to happen to Georgian women very much from what I can tell. Not one of my Georgian female friends has ever told me a story like this. My host sister Salome, either, a very pretty and vivacious 18-year old who travels fearlessly all over the city and between Tbilisi and Gori, and has never once reported an incident of any kind to me.

As for older women, well – never. I use Taxify constantly, and I find the drivers to be friendly, or at least polite, and no one ever asks me why I’m not married or if I want to wed their cousin. It simply never comes up, for fairly obvious reasons, I think. And the only thing that ever happens on the subway is that someone gets up to give me their seat.

I think this situation really affects my feeling for Georgia, and Georgian men. I’ve had a lot of nice conversations with drivers, who are often quite interested in where I’m from, what I do in Georgia, and of course what kind of Georgian food and wine I like – a favorite topic. Sometimes they do funny things, like the time a driver put an Eagles CD on and played “Hotel California.” I never worry when a neighbor offers to help me with something, which came in very handy when I was struggling to walk after my surgery and a number of male neighbors carried things up the stairs for me on different occasions. I walk home late at night after a dinner with friends completely without fear, which I certainly cannot say for the U.S.

Is this a good thing? Well, for one, it’s quite unfair. All women deserve to be treated respectfully, regardless of their age or national origin. For another, it’s a little sad, though predictable and inevitable, to be reminded that I am a “woman of a certain age.” On the other hand – I really like all the interactions that being a woman of a certain age opens up to me – the conversations, the assistance freely given and accepted, the shared laughs. I don’t have to be cautious or worry about a record of where I am. It’s freeing.

* This one in particular really illustrates the different point of views that are commonly seen. I cannot post all the comments, which numbered in the hundreds, as it would be extremely long, but below is a good representative sample. Here’s the blog:

https://kyliestravel.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/should-you-date-a-georgian/

Selected comments from Georgian Wanderers Facebook page (names deleted):

I’m so sorry you had these experiences. I lived in Georgia and never experienced anything like this. I am an Australian now married to an attractive, gorgeous Georgian man who treats me like a queen everyday. I also have amazing Georgian male friends and family who show me as a female nothing but love and respect. (woman – but note, 1, she’s married, and 2, all the love and respect are coming from friends and family, not taxi drivers)

Yeap, course, don’t date with Georgian boys, you’d better to date with Arab guys, who will force you to adopt islam and then you will be his 21th wife, or even more, Nigerians,(for ex.) who will involve you in his drug business … sounds stereotypic ?! Really?! Your article is based on stereotypes, so don’t be angry please 😉 Agree, Not all Georgian boys are perfect, but such ones you can find everywhere ! (from a Georgian, who most often post along these lines. This guy got some pushback).

I want to point out something that I don’t think has been said. I have noticed a double standard with Georgia men and Georgian women. Men have encouraged and even expected to explore sexually. But women will see backlash from everyone for the same thing. Even to the point where a Georgian guy will not want her for marriage even though he has had multiple partners. As a whole, a woman from USA, Russia, Ukraine, France, oz.. etcetera.. will be more sexually liberal and not tied by the same cultural rules. This sets up an expectation with Georgian men that foreign women are easy. A Georgian friend of mine once told me “geogian girls are for marriage, foreign girls are for Fucking”

I’m not saying any of this is right. Many of the things we love about Georgia are the strong tradition and proud people. But as many have said before, views on a “woman’s place” are outdated. (American guy)

I think your experience is directly linked to your life style and personality. While traveling you mostly would meet people whos masculine instincts are better developed than intelect. that is why every “Hairy men” in the village wants you 🙂 This is an absolute logical outcome in your surrounding. However if you met georgian men from other social layers, educated, smart and handsome, I don’t think that they would act in the same manner. (Georgian guy, not joking)

“But instead it becomes a running joke about Georgian men amongst expats” – let me tell you one thing, people 🙂 majority of expats, are friends and hang out with people who, I would say, mostly resemble who used to be described as “white trash” back in the day. So blame it on yourselves.

To be more honest, I and my friends are always avoiding any kind of contact and especially friendship or hanging out with expats, mostly because, majority of them are ignorant, have a lot stereotypes, which are based on their experience which they mostly get in a bars and pubs. So… to be honest, this kind of blog-posts, or articles, call it whatever you want is just a simple bigotry, offensive and playing an socio-cultural expert which is driven by your shortsightedness is shameful. (This is a Georgian guy, really did not take it well.)

Georgian girls bring their girlfriends on dates, they expect you to pay for everything, you literary get bankrupt and you get nothing in return. So, find places with foreign tourists if you want dates in Tbilisi. This was the feelings of that guy 😀 I also have one Polish friend, he says whenever she wants to pick up Georgian girl he can easily mention visa and marriage signature and he gets what he wants. I guess it’s sometimes true, boys exaggerate though 😀 I always defend Georgian girls of course, though I had plenty of such experiences myself and not only with Georgians. Such people are everywhere, more or less. One Italian friend, female one told me that Italian guys are animals, you never party safe in club. So, are Italians animals? (an interesting perspective from a Georgian guy)

Being a proud child of my country, I know these things happen and that’s the part I am not proud of at all. Phenomenon of Georgian man has a huge, complex and yet vague background and probably would take ages and heaps of psychologists and sociologists to get to it.
One thing I can say. Spending half of my life traveling in the high mountain regions in Georgia, I have experienced that myself a couple of times and the opening speech to it was “C’mon you have a lot of foreign friends, of course you do ‘THAT’ “…. ikr??? I can only be thankful to be born and raised in a different kind of society. (Georgian woman)

There were literally hundreds of comments but I hope these give you a flavor of the heated exchanges that happen on this topic!