Author Archives: saraweaves

About saraweaves

I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who decided to stay on here in Georgia. After 2 years in Gori, working for CHCA, I've set up shop as a consultant in the capital city of Tbilisi, doing grant writing, proofing, editing and teaching. It's an entirely new way of life, in every way, and I hope you'll tune in as I track the victories and vicissitudes of my next adventure!

Playing catch-up, in Spanish

First, I will start by saying – I think maybe the adventure is finally drawing to an end. I’ve moved to North Carolina, I have a regular job now, and living in the U.S. is a far cry financially from living in Tbilisi, thereby restricting travel opportunities even further. In a lot of other ways, too, but that’s a different post. Suffice it to say it’s not an adventure – at least not in the sense that I meant when I named the blog.

That’s not to say I’ll never take another vacation, but spending a month away from home like I did in September – yeah, that’s not going to happen anymore. So this post should be read in that context. If you feel some sadness in the subtext, you are right. But that’s the decision I made, and now I will reap both the benefits and the losses. Such is life.

So – I am going to try and do the same thing I did for Vietnam, which is to tell one story per day for our trip. I will do the same for Portugal in another post. This is always hard, because a lot can happen in a day! But I always swore this blog would not be a boring travelogue, first we went here, then we went there, etc., and I intend to stick with that one to the bitter end.

So we’ll start with September 5th, day #1. I’m going to write about reuniting with my son, Eli, on that day. He’ll probably kill me if he reads this. But that is my overwhelming memory of the day. It was a long travel day, because of having to get to the Tbilisi airport at 3:00 am, as usual, and the Madrid airport is very, very big. Lots of walking, but found my way to the car rental place. I knew Eli was landing at another terminal (which I found out when I returned a month later and flew out of there – Terminal 4 – is nearly in Barcelona, it’s so far away). I sent WhatsApp messages and waited for him in the glass-walled rental office. And waited, and waited. Finally, just when I was starting to get a little concerned, I saw him walking up to the door. An inexplicable feeling came over me. I was just so glad to see him. It hadn’t been a terribly long time (9 months) – not like Vietnam, where we hadn’t seen each other for nearly two years. But for some reason, I felt a deeper happiness than ever before. He looked good, he was happy to see me, we hugged and kissed (about the only time we ever do that!) and I have a vivid memory of the bristles on his cheek. It’s a strange feeling I guess every parent of a certain age can identify with. Memories of your child as a soft-skinned baby are very strong, and at times can cause you to become overwhelmed at the sheet adult-ness of your offspring. This was one of those times.

 

 

 

 

 

Day #2, Sept. 6th, was spent in Madrid. We did a lot of things, but I think the thing that made the biggest impression was the Reina Sofia museum of Modern Art, for three reasons: 1. Richard Serra; 2. Guernica; 3. the building’s architecture. The art was just sublime. The Serra installation was particularly intense because of the setting, which was simple, even minimalist. The stark white walls and the strong sunlight made the metal pieces glow, somehow, not literally but … somehow. Guernica, a painting which of course I have been aware of, but never had particularly strong feelings about, made me weep. I literally cried as I stood there in the crowd, just looking from image to image. It’s not as huge as I had imagined, but much more powerful. The last thing, the architecture, mainly refers to the incredible ceiling that pulls together the museum, its library, and its outside courtyard. I especially loved the juxtaposition of old and new, which was presented without artifice. It cannot be adequately described in words, but I do have some photos. It’s extraordinarily good.

Day #3, September 7th – Toledo. This was our first foray out onto Spanish roads, and it was a bit intimidating, but we made it and spent time there, ending the day at a lovely Airbnb right by the river. My story for the day – I finally, at age 64, got stung by a bee. It may have been a wasp. But either way, that sucker hurt! We did a LOT of walking that day, and at one point, laboring up a long hill to a highly-recommended restaurant, I inadvertently lowered my arm on the beast, which promptly stung me. I was so shocked, I avoided it all these years, and now … ? Where is the justice? I can tell you for sure I am not allergic. It hurt for a while, then it itched, then it burned- but it didn’t stop me from walking through the old Jewish quarter, exploring ancient synagogues and cathedrals, and even trying venison for dinner. I mean, if I can survive a bee/wasp sting, hey, I can do anything!

Day #4, September 8th  – Cordoba. We spent a few days in Cordoba and saw/did quite a bit. It was an incredibly beautiful city. For this first day, though, the best thing was seeing my friend Lorenzo for dinner. I worked with Lorenzo on two grants while I was in Tbilisi, both for CHCA. I also saw him socially every time he and his colleagues came to town, usually with several other CHCA friends in tow. We got pretty drunk once at one of my favorite places, Ezo, and I also remember quite a raucous dinner with Dato at some obscure  Mengrilian restaurant where I was the only woman in the whole place. Out on the balcony, Dato quizzed me on my Georgian language skills related to numbers, and I acquitted myself fairly well, though 146,363 (or something like that) finally beat me down.

Anyway! We met Lorenzo for dinner at one of the open markets that seem to be a staple in most Spanish cities (we went to one in Madrid, too). Lots of little booths under a big tent give you a wide variety of foods to pick from, and of course there is a wine bar. We wandered about, picked an eclectic mix of stuff, and settled down at a long table for a night of good conversation, recommendations on where to go/what to do, reminiscences, etc. Overall a lovely evening. It’s always good to see a friend, and I hope Lorenzo and I meet again one of these days.

 

 

 

 

 

The next day (#5, September 9th) we explored the old Jewish quarter (there appears to be one of these in every Spanish city, we all know why), and a lot of historical sites. We had a hellacious experience trying to find parking – drove in a few places I know for sure we should not have been driving – but finally found a spot quite far away, but secure and safe, left the car there and took a taxi (who also got a bit confused if I remember correctly). We walked so much but there’s only one thing I can write about on this day, and that’s – flamenco!

Of course I always knew what flamenco was, had seen a few videos, read a few articles, but nothing prepared me for this. On Lorenzo’s recommendation, we bought tickets for a small place in the Jewish quarter. I was really quite worried that it was going to be a tourist extravaganza of some sort, not genuine, but to the contrary. The room was very small – there were only about 20 of us crowded in there. We sat at low tables on straw-backed chairs, the room like a cave around us. It wasn’t built to look old, but actually was ancient, always an experience for us Americans. The flamenco performance had four performers – two dancers, male and female, a singer, and a guitarist. It started slowly, with just music, the dancers clapping their hands and gradually ratcheting up their verbal calls, nodding their heads and getting more and more enthused. Eventually, they started dancing. The singer, in particular, was like nothing I’d heard before, with a high, undulating voice, sometimes approaching a shriek. The louder he got, the more excited the dancers got, stamping their feet so hard that the seats shook. It was pretty electrifying, and surprising to me. I had always thought flamenco was a dance, but it’s so much more than that. The singing, the accompaniment, the participation of the dancers when sitting through clapping, calling out words, pounding their feet and sometimes even slamming their chairs down … well, I had no idea, so it was an epiphany for me.

And saving the best for last, a very short video:

A small explanatory coda. We really wondered, was this what flamenco really was, or were the performers vamping it up for us tourists? So, when we were in Seville, we attended a performance at the Museo del Baile Flamenco, Seville’s premier performance venue. Suffice it to say that, if anything, those dancers were even more dramatic and wild than the ones we saw in Cordoba. I now see that authentic flamenco is one of the most uninhibited dance styles in the world. I really loved it, and bought a photo that I think exemplifies the spirit of flamenco to bring home and frame. It will always remind me of this surprisingly intense experience.

 

 

 

 

 

We also spent day #6, September 10th) in Cordoba, and there’s only one thing to say – COOKING CLASS! This was a such a fun experience. We met up with two young people, a girl named Marta and a guy named Jose, very  friendly and outgoing people. With Jose, I encountered my first (but not my last) anti-French sentiments. I don’t remember how it came up, but I do remember him making a dismissive sniff and saying, in a sneering tone, “the French, yes, they are so special!” It was pretty funny.

So, first we shopped at a market similar to the restaurant mercados we had been to, but this one was more of a farmers/fish market. We bought all the ingredients, fresh, Eli with Jose and I with Marta, and then we walked over to one of the most charming hotels I have ever seen, with a plant-filled courtyard, a lovely fountain, and a large, welcoming kitchen. There, our cooking tools and aprons were all laid out, and our lesson commenced. We learned to make salmorejo, a tomato/bread combination covered with minced ham and hardboiled egg, incredibly delicious and easy to make; Spanish tortilla, which is nothing at all like what I think of as a tortilla, but is instead an egg/onion/potato pancake sort of thing, also delicious; and, of course, paella, which was a lot easier than I had imagined it would be. We ate the fruits of our labors outside in a small garden, and discussed politics, world affairs, cultural differences and a lot of other topics. We had just a great time and for anyone who goes to Cordoba, I cannot recommend it too highly. https://www.instagram.com/foodieandtourscordoba/?hl=en, or at https://www.foodieandtours.com/cordoba. And to whet your appetite, here a few photos of our creations:

Day #7, September 11th, was mostly a travel day, driving to Sevilla, but in the morning we went to the Cordoba Botanical Garden and walked the whole thing. It was mostly green, given the time of year, but there were still some beautiful photos to be taken. Shockingly – and I’m not being sarcastic, it’s really shocking – I forgot my camera on this trip. In one way I was kind of relieved not to be carting around a big camera around my neck. It allowed me to be more present in the moment and not stand out as a tourist so much. But, of course, my photos are not at all as great as they could have been, since I used my phone for every single one. Given that, they turned out better than they deserved to:

In walking around the garden (and also the botanical garden in Madrid), I found myself getting interested not only in the close-ups I love to take, but also in patterns made by the plants. Below are a few photos, from both places, along those lines:

This is a new direction for me, and kind of interesting.

I love walking through these places with Eli, it’s an education – he knows so much about plants. I just appreciate the beauty, but he understands a lot more. There was one image, though, that we both could appreciate on purely aesthetic grounds:

 

 

 

 

 

I know I said one story per day, but I cannot resist mentioning our dinner that night at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host (a criminally good-looking Cuban guy), outside of the tourist area, called Restaurante Perro Viejo. If you are ever in Sevilla, I highly recommend it. Not necessarily pure Spanish cuisine, but every dish was just so delicious. Culminating in a near food-coma for Eli:

 

 

 

 

Well, just kidding … sort of.  And along the same lines, one of my favorite, unexpected surprises in Spain – Cafe Bombon! It reminded me of the Vietnamese coffees I loved so much in Hanoi, and I drank them everywhere we went.

 

 

 

 

Day #8, September 12th, was pottery day. We took a class on Spanish tile-making. It was held in a small studio, and there were folks from all over the world participating. Painting tile doesn’t seem like it would be so difficult, and as we watched the teacher show us how, I foresaw a beautiful result for my efforts. It was not to be, haha. Suffice it to say that it’s a lot harder than it looks! Nonetheless it was very interesting and a lot of fun.

Day #9, September 13th, was a thrilling one. We left Sevilla, and Spain, enjoying one last delicious breakfast,

 

 

 

 

And headed to Portugal.

Portugal was, in many ways, the revelation of the whole trip. I expected Spain to be fantastic, and it was. The people were friendly, the weather hot but beautiful, the food unbelievable, the history deep. I had a lot of preconceptions, most of which were pretty accurate, but for Portugal, not as much. I just hadn’t thought that much about it, perhaps. Yet it turned out to be even more amazing, in some ways, than Spain. I will start another post for Portugal, but for now, I will bid a fond adios to Spain, and take advantage of Black Friday (tomorrow) to purchase a really good blender so I can make myself some of that salmorejo for breakfast next week. 🙂

So Much to Say; So Little Time

The last two months or so have seen seismic changes in my life. You’d think at a certain point, things would settle down … but no. Unfortunately, time constraints just will not allow for longer blog posts right now. I will get back to it, absolutely, but not until November or even December, as I make some huge moves and adjustments.

By which I mean, as announced on Facebook a while ago, I am returning to the U.S.A. Chapel Hill, NC, to be specific, where I have accepted a job with Ipas, an organization dedicated to expanding access to safe abortion and contraceptive care on an international scale. I will be their  contract and grant manager, a newly-created position that will give me the opportunity to put my compulsive need to organize things to good use. Here’s the website if anyone would like to check it out:  https://www.ipas.org/. At the same time, I am literally heartbroken to be leaving Georgia. I knew it would come, someday, but I did not expect it this soon. I will miss Tbilisi, Gori, Georgia, and all my Georgian and ex-pat friends and family intensely. Especially:

I also really want to do a few blog posts the way I did for Vietnam – one story/day – for my very recent trip to Spain and Portugal, which was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Given that I have to pack up my entire life and move in less than 2 weeks though, it’s not going to happen now. For the time being, I’m putting up some photos, in no particular order, which will have to suffice until I have time to stroll down memory lane. I’ll just say it was a truly epic, great trip, filled with good food, beautiful scenery, historical sites and beaches, friendly people, and time spent with my son and one of my oldest friends. What more could be asked? More to come later.

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.