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!

 

 

A welcome visit

After 3-1/2 years, my grown son finally visited me in Georgia. We had really good visits before that, in Vietnam and back home in the U.S., but he had never come here. I looked forward to it all summer long, and when he got here, the 2 weeks flew by so quickly it was unbelievable. Mainly I was looking forward to sharing the culture I have become so immersed in, and the people I have become close to. I think I succeeded more on the latter than the former, just because of time constraints, but it was very satisfying.

Almost everywhere we went I had been before, and posted about on this blog, so I will resist the temptation to write a travelogue here. Instead, I will write about only one place, the place I’d never been, which is Svaneti. And I will remember some highlights and interesting things about the trip that will stay with me.

So, first, Svaneti. This was our last big trip – after that, we were in Tbilisi for a few days, and then off he went back home. We flew, reducing a minimum 10-hour drive to 55 minutes. Happily the weather was great, which is definitely not always the case. Flights are often cancelled at the last minute due to clouds or wind, but we had a carefree few days weather-wise. Unlike right now, with the rain pouring down outside, but that’s another topic. Tickets from Vanilla Sky were ridiculously difficult to get – their website is so dysfunctional as to be useless; I had to go to their offices, and even then, their Facebook map locates it at the complete other end of the avenue, resulting in a set of circular taxi rides, but at the end of the day, I got it done, and off we went.

Flying over green and gold mountains, striped with ice, I was surprised to see so many villages below – much more populated than I had imagined. We landed in Mestia, the main town in the region, and easily found a friendly cab driver to take us to our homestay, which had been highly recommended to me by a Georgian friend. Indeed, it was very nice, with friendly owners and good food. The first day we explored the town and had dinner with a Peace Corps friend, Ryan, who has extended for a fourth year – the only time that’s happened in the history of Peace Corps Georgia. We walked around a graveyard, explored an old church, had lunch at a small local cafe on a balcony overlooking a gorgeous gorge – I could have sat there all day. Here’s a few shots:

Our evening meal with Ryan was a great – we ate kubdari, which is the Svaneti-style khachapuri – meat pie with cheese. What more could you ask. A colleague of his was singing that evening, and we were regaled with Russian and Georgian traditional and pop songs – he had a very nice voice. When we were ready to go home, though, we ran into a bit of a problem – no taxis, at all. Ryan found out that we had to just ask people if they were willing to take us – our homestay said absolutely no more than 5 lari, but we ended up spending 8, because … that was the only guy who would take us. I was a little mad, but as I recently learned to say, ra azri akvs, which I cannot translate exactly, but am told roughly means – whatever, or, what is the point. Exactly.

The next day, the owner of the homestay took us on the long drive (only about 45 km, but oy, what a road – 2-1/2 hours to drive) to Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the highest continuously inhabited village in all of Europe – if you count Georgia as Europe, a subject which excites a lot of argument but I’m not going to bother here. Ushguli is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and consists of 4 separate villages spread out below a gigantic glacier, Shkhara, that looms above everything. We explored the lowest village, where sadly the museum was closed, but then up to a fantastic viewing point for the glacier, and then a beautiful old monastery, called Lamaria. Women are barred from entering the ancient church, but since it was locked and no one could get in anyway, I couldn’t get too worked up about it. Then, on to lunch, which was an extraordinary experience. I would say it was one of the best meals I have ever had, seriously. We ate at a family’s home, in the yard, at a picnic table. We had kubdari, we had chvistari (cornbread with cheese), matsoni (yogurt), khacho (farmer’s cheese), sulguni (a common type of cheese), fresh-picked tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce – by which I mean, picked in front of our eyes – and homemade amber wine. And a few other things. Everything was absolutely fresh, homemade and so delicious I almost cried. We sat there, overlooking the valley, enjoying each other’s company, the food and the view, and I felt very, very lucky.

Other things I will always remember about this trip, mostly things I found out about Eli and how he interacted with my adopted home, its food and customs:

  • He loved Georgian food, especially lobio – beans in a clay pot.
  • He kept up with the toasting admirably at my family supra in Gori, drinking down glass after glass of white homemade wine and delighting Beso no end.
  • He made a very touching toast at the next day’s picnic in Ateni, saying  that now he knows his mom is with people who love her and it brings him happiness. That was really sweet.
  • He was very patient with my physical, post-operative limitations.
  • We should never, ever share a room again, because he is a very light sleeper, and I apparently snore. It caused some friction.
  • Interestingly, he said his favorite spot was Tbilisi. That was unexpected.
  • He really knows how to use a camera and taught me a lot.
  • He learned quite a few Georgian words, and used them.
  • As with Vietnam, we found we had a lot of similar interests. I think had he been alone, he would have hiked and camped a lot more, though.
  • He likes naming and examining plants to a degree I’ve never seen before. He brought a special tool he hung around his neck to magnify plants, and examined them endlessly. He delivered lectures. He was really excited about the flora. He’s an alien to me in this regard.

So, to sum up, it was a really great visit. I was concerned about my back, but though it did impose some limitations, we were able to do pretty much everything. After 2 weeks of 24/7, we got on each other’s nerves a little bit at the very end, but overall we traveled well together and learned a lot about what would make it even better next time. I don’t actually know if there will be a next time, but I hope so! Here are a few more random photos to give a feel for the whole trip.

And last but not least, as always – flowers.

 

Long Past-Due Update

Wow, I just looked at the date of my last post … good god. Back in March. Well, there are a few reasons for this.

First, I had surgery, pretty major surgery, on my back. Fused at three levels, thanks so much. That was in April. I had the surgery here in Georgia, and they did a good job. However, the post-operative rehabilitation left a lot to be desired, as in, everything. No meaningful directions on how to take care of myself when I got home. No nursing service or referrals offered, though the doctor knew I lived by myself. No pain medication – seriously, none. One follow-up appointment, where due to severe nerve pain I literally begged for help, received none, went to another doctor, who tried but could not prescribe the drugs I needed (because they are not available in Georgia, which has draconian drug laws), prescribed other drugs that caused a reaction (body temp at below 95 degrees, nausea, chills, massive bleeding, oh yeah it was fun). Left Georgia to go to Israel and seek help and found it. But it was a long road back, actually I’m still on it, though doing much better.

So a few words about Israel. I was there about 2 weeks. My sister came to take care of me, for which I will forever be profoundly grateful. Though I really was not in shape to tour around, toward the end I did get to go out to eat at a few places, and walk around just a little. We visited Yad Vashem, me in a wheelchair, which was an interesting lesson in how to be invisible, went to Tel Aviv, ate out some more, bought some hats in Jaffa, and generally had a good time. I spent a shitload of money on doctors and drugs, none of it covered by my Georgian insurance. When I returned, I corresponded with my “personal manager” at the insurance company, who at first misunderstood me when I told her I had been in Israel, thinking I meant I had had the operation there. When I clarified, she wrote back, “oh, thanks god!” And she meant it, because the insurance covered nearly the whole surgery and all related treatment, excluding Israel. How ironic, that I have better healthcare insurance in a post-Soviet developing country than I can get in the U.S. under the Republicans.

Here’s a few pics of the trip. My sister took a photo of the incision with the stitches in it, but I will be merciful and not share that one. Some of these were taken by my sister on a few tours she took, and some of them when we were together here or there. Lots of pictures of food were taken, because 1, it was so, so delicious, and 2, that’s really all I was able to manage for most of the trip – a meal out every day or two.

So, after all that, I returned home and started the road to recovery. I’m seeing a physical therapist, and I’m taking steps forward in getting better all the time – literally. A week ago or so, I walked all the way down a very steep hill on a street nearby called Zandukeli – that was a big victory! I was able to spend a whole day exploring an old Soviet Space Factory and Tbilisi State University with my Georgian sister Salome. I can shop without being in agony. I’m off all my medication, and only taking Extra Strength Tylenol once in a while. It’s taking time, but it’s going in the right direction.

When I returned to Tbilisi, I went right back to work. Gotta get back up in the saddle. But it took a lot out of me, and at night I was so exhausted that blogging was really out of the question. I also became increasingly exhausted by the spectacle of what is happening in the U.S. What little energy I had after working I spent calling legislators and feverishly reading article after article on politics, healthcare legislation, immigration, and attending activist meetings here in Tbilisi. Given my physical and, frankly, emotional state, I couldn’t keep it up. But nor could I give it up, of course. I am so appalled at … well, everything. Right now is not the time to pontificate at length, and I’m not going to. Suffice it to say that I have developed a new slogan, expressed by the hashtag #cannotgohome. For those of you on Twitter, you can find my various expressions of outrage and links to good articles if you follow me there – sara_in_georgia. For those of you who are not, I post on Facebook fairly frequently too, though I have been pretty good at sticking to a vow I made to intersperse political posts with some other stuff.

So, as for now, well, it’s very, very hot here. I hide in my air-conditioned flat as much as possible, it’s a good thing, I love it here and it’s really very nice to just relax and hibernate out of the hellish heat outside. I’ve been keeping busy with work, very busy, writing grant after grant for good NGOs here. I had a new partnership a while ago with the City of Gori and wrote a concept note for a new street lighting system. For anyone who is interested, you can see what I do here: sfconsulting.info.

I do try to get out from time to time. For my very first foray out after returning to Israel, while still using a cane, I went to a supra at my former boss’s house (who is married to my current boss), to celebrate the birth of her new daughter – quite a surprise, given that she has two sons age 10 and 11. Elizabeti is her name, and it was great to enjoy the company of my colleagues and friends and eat great food. I couldn’t drink- still on medication at that time – well I might have had a few sips of wine, I mean, come on. I actually made a short and very pathetic toast at this supra, in Georgian, but it seemed to please everyone very much. Here’s the scene:

Marta and I, and her daughter Salli, spent a great weekend here in in Tbilisi, cane and all. First we got all dressed up and went to see the 110th anniversary of the Sukhishvili National Ballet Company, which performs traditional Georgian dances, but sometimes with a slightly modern twist. I’ve seen them before and love their performances. We went to the Philharmonic, which I had not been inside before – it was quite nice, not as fancy as the renovated Opera House, which is spectacular, but modern and with great sightlines. We loved the dance, and afterwards went to Burger Bar in Vake, which Salli told me in breathless tones was better than McDonalds. But her friends in Gori would never believe it. The next day we went to a carpet store and I bought two rugs, which I adore. We bargained hard, but not too hard, because the owner’s son went to ISET, and I know people there, naturally, and … etc. At the end of this explanation, Marta said I had become Georgian.

I went to the swearing-in of the G17 Peace Corps group, mainly to say hi to the Peace Corps staff. I walked over there, after a big rain, but I didn’t really have a good sense of how far it was and overdid it. Took some Tylenol that night. I saw my host mother from Khashuri, didn’t know she would be there and we had a very happy reunion. Chemi gogo, my girl, she said to me. So funny when you consider she’s 20 years younger than I am – more – but that’s how it is. There was really outstanding dancing, some good speeches, and a strong sense of relief that I will never have to be standing there, scared out of my mind, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten into, again. Well at least not as a PCV, anyway. Here’s a few photos.

As I mentioned above, Salome and I took a little jaunt to an art exhibit in Saguramo, a village about half an hour outside Tbilisi. Once we arrived in the village, we started asking where to get off the marshutka and two guys were laughing at us and telling us, this is the village, we don’t have taxis here! You will have to walk, it’s 5 kilometers, you Tbilisi-dwellers! HAHAHAH! While they were amusing themselves, a taxi drove by, and we ran in front of a giant truck to flag it down, got in and drove off to the Soviet Space Factory, which was indeed a good 5 km away. Unfortunately, though both the website for the exhibit and the printed material we had said it ran through that day, in fact they had packed up most of the art and left the week before. Nonetheless, some interesting stuff was still there, the buildings were amazing, and we explored the whole site thoroughly, then drove back to Tbilisi with the driver for an exorbitant price which I was happy to pay, walked all around the University where Salome will be going in the fall, and then went to dinner at a nice restaurant with a bright young colleague and another PC volunteer, who is Ukrainian by birth, U.S. citizen by choice, and a very interesting person. Here’s a few photos of our little adventure:

Last but not least, I experienced my 4th birthday in Georgia – unbelievable. I had my 60th birthday during training in Khashuri, my 61st and 62nd in Gori, and now my 63rd here in Tbilisi. A group of friends and I went out to dinner at a restaurant that has a great reputation for authentic Georgian food. I will say that while the atmosphere and service were great, and the company could not have been better, the food was only so-so. I think I have been spoiled by attending too many supras.

It’s getting really late here, and I’m tired, so I’ll end on that note – I feel that my legion of followers are all caught up! I will try to post more often – got some fun trips and things planned, and of course, there’s always Trump, McConnell and Ryan.

Khinkali and politics

I got so many “likes” on my Facebook post about this day that I thought I’d elaborate a bit on my khikali adventures last weekend. It was an interesting day, for more than one reason.

The first reason was that the group of people I was with were highly engaged, political folks, all of them. One, an American former PCV from Azerbajian, now works with a production company here in Tbilisi owned by an expatriate Azeri guy who covers news and stories that are banned in Baku these days. His girlfriend was here visiting from Jerusalem, where she works with refugees. A German guy who is here researching his Ph.D. on Georgian migrants in Siberia, a woman who has worked all over the world in all sorts of interesting jobs … and rounding out the group, our teacher, Nana Chkareuli, the Executive Director of For A Better Future, an NGO and social enterprise working at the IDP settlement Tserovani. I’ve known Nana for about 3 years now, in fact she’s one of the first people I met while in training; it’s always a pleasure to spend time with her.

Our conversation covered a lot of territory. It wasn’t all about politics, but it kind of circled over our heads most of the time. I felt like we were all … worried. Worried about the future and what it holds, not just for ourselves, to varying degrees, but for the constituencies we all serve in one way or another. In spite of this hovering cloud, we had a really good time, proving once again how humans can compartmentalize things!

We met up at Didube, the hub for all routes to the west, and hopped on a marshutka to head to Tserovani. Here I am with one of my fellow khinkali chefs. Right before we took this photo, a Georgian guy approached us and asked, in Georgian, where the Metro entrance was. Well, I understood him, and I knew where it was, and I gave him directions, which impressed my friend no end. But … why did he approach us in the first place? It’s quite obvious we’re not Georgians. I don’t know, but that was interesting. Especially in view of the fact that we were aggressively solicited by at least 8 taxi drivers trying to take us to far-away tourist destinations like Batumi (where, btw, people were rioting that day, supposedly over someone being given a parking ticket – only in Georgia!) or Kazbegi. I never get approached by those guys when I am in Didube alone, which when I was a PCV was a lot, at least every week or two. Never. I think it must be because Michele has blond hair and blue eyes, and I am of Eastern European extraction … but still, a foreigner. Everyone can tell. So, it’s a mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we arrived, we headed to the Hello Cafe, a social enterprise created by Nana and a former PCV. When we arrived, Nana was surprised to see me and greeted me effusively, which was nice. I was glad to see her, too. The ingredients for our culinary adventure were all set out – flour, water and salt, for the dough, and ground beef, spinach, onions, garlic, cheese and cilantro for two different fillings. That’s it – couldn’t be more simple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We started by making the water a bit salty, adding flour, and then kneading until the dough was quite stiff. This was harder than it looked, but we all finally succeeded!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, while letting our balls of dough rest a little while, we all chopped up all the other ingredients and mixed them together – no recipe, just however we wanted, to taste. The spinach balls had been bought in that form, frozen, and defrosted – no need for fresh spinach, which is not in season right now. It’s all gonna be boiled up at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, we rolled out the dough and, using a small wooden cup with smooth edges, cut out small disks. For some reason, I don’t have a photo of this process, but I definitely have photos of the end result. I was amused to see how the German guy lined all his disks up in a neat line, whereas Nana and I threw ours all over the place. Guess I know where my national inclinations lie, haha.

Georgian style

German style

 

 

 

 

 

Next, we pressed two disks together to make a plump little circle, and then rolled it out to be very thin at the edges and just a bit thicker in the middle. Then, we dropped our filling in the middle.

 

 

 

 

 

Now, for the really challenging part. The crimping. I’d say my skills were about even with my Georgian language abilities – better than some, worse than others! I was able to make the khinkali pretty well, but they were a little … wrinkled, I think I have to say. Here are two samples, guess which one is mine, and which one is Nana’s, haha.

They all tasted good going down, that’s the truth. We made what felt like a hundred khinkali. Spinach (above), the little knob at the top is pushed in; meat, it sticks out. Here’s me giving it my best effort:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, into a huge pot of boiling water. You have to gently shake it while its cooking – no stirring, as that may break the thin dough. The khinkali first puff up, then deflate – and then they’re done, maybe 5 or 6 minutes cooking.

What a feast. Not only did we have our dumplings, which were, honestly, so delicious – nothing like fresh khinkali. And the spinach ones were the BEST EVER. We also had salad, and bread, and wine, and cha-cha from Nana’s mother. Cha-cha is like grappa, made from the skins of grapes after they’ve been crushed for wine. It is wicked strong. I had to take a little nap when I got home.

So, a good time had by all. We made our back to Tbilisi, all full of delicious food and a little quiet on the marshutka. The cloud was hovering a bit lower, for me at least. I was thinking of all the IDPs in the settlement, and how, for all the problems they brought with them, they were welcomed, housed and taken care of by Georgia, one of the poorer developing countries in the world. Some of these refugees weren’t even Georgian – they were, for examples, Ossettians married to Georgians. They were welcome, too. Well … it’s the times. I always feel a bit on the melancholy side, and I know I’m not the only one. Yet, we still have the ability to appreciate something as simple as cooking some khinkali in good company.

Moving Forward

Some of my legion of followers may have noticed that I have changed my tagline. I have read this quote of Elie Wiesel many times, and at no time have I ever agreed with it more than now. My blog posts have become infrequent the last few months, for a few different reasons, and I’ve been thinking about how to revitalize things now that I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, but still living overseas. I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on national/international matters a bit more, because right now that is really what I care about the most. I will link to articles that I find particularly insightful or helpful, and cover news and reactions to what’s going on back home from a different perspective, that of an expatriate who still cares and is deeply worried about the direction her country is taking.

I’ll still fill people in on how I’m doing, and I will from time to time return to my original storytelling approach – I mean, there are always good stories to tell! But you can expect less of that, and more of this, as it were. I hope it interests you!