Tag Archives: Tbilisi

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.

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!

 

 

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.

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!

ქართული

That means, Georgian language, and this is planned to be a short blog post about my ongoing struggles and today’s final surrender to the absurdity of it all.

So, as I’ve written here before, my Georgian is not very good. My (former) office mate Nodar has characterized it as babytalk. I can’t really argue with that. Nonetheless, I manage. I actually manage pretty well in day-to-day activities, if I am speaking with someone personally. Telephone conversations are definitely more challenging. As are handwritten menus, taxi drivers speaking Russian, marshutka drivers with heavy regional accents, fancy script and other monkey wrenches thrown in my way.

Today was a pretty good example. I negotiated my way along a new marshutka route (winding through very beautiful areas of Tbilsi btw), talking with a woman waiting with me on the corner (jer ara, not yet, accompanied by a resigned shrug from both of us, and then, finally, modis! it’s coming!), the marshutka driver, whose gravelly voice rivaled Leonard Cohen’s, the one guy left at the printing place I went to get a business card made who was telling they closed 15 minutes ago, and to call on Monday (ok, there was a little English in that conversation), then a conversation at the excellent Turkish restaurant where I went to console myself (in Georgian, not Turkish!), and the cleaning woman in my building who I told, madame, I have your money! To which she replied, your Georgian is getting very good. To which I replied, nah, it isn’t, accompanied by a rueful shake of the head.

And then, the final surrender. Off I go to the vegetable stand on the corner. I saw a woman on the marshutka eating the tiny winter tangerines we call mandarini (მანდარინი – the letter “ი” in Georgian is written as “i” in English characters, but pronounced as “ee”) and I thought, yeah, that looks really good, I’m going to buy some of those. So, in I went, and I asked the friendly guy, in Georgian, do you have mandarinis? Are they sweet? He kind of wagged his hand and said, not really. I chuckled and said – again, in Georgian – not yet, I think! I said, I want a few, and I took four, and a few other things. He rang me up and then said IN ENGLISH, 2 lari. Holding up 2 fingers. Usually this behavior, which is incredibly common, drives me into a rage. I complain about it all the time. I mean – we just had a whole little conversation in Georgian. I used non-tourist words and the future tense. Come on! But I dunno … for some reason it didn’t trigger the usual reaction. Instead, I laughed, I said, in Georgian, yeah, 2 lari, I understand, yeah! He laughed too.

I think it’s finally happened – I’ve finally surrendered to the absurdity of it all. Either people are insisting on speaking Russian to me, or they want to speak English, even when they clearly don’t know how, or – and this totally happens – I’m imploring them to speak English and they refuse, even when they know how. This mainly happens at government offices. I’m not gonna get mad about it anymore. I’m just going to accept it. If this means my Georgian doesn’t improve very much because I don’t get to practice, so be it. I’m tired of getting mad about it.

მე მიყვარს საქართველო. Look it up.

 

 

 

 

 

My weekend

As is my habit, I want to go deeper into one specific topic or story. In this case, it will be my weekend, which was a study in contrasts.

Saturday was the dark side of the picture. A day arrived that I had been dreading for a week, ever since I found out that my CHCA colleague and friend, Nana Sharia, had died unexpectedly last Saturday morning. She was 44 years old. Nana had multiple, serious physical disabilities; I believe she had muscular dystrophy, as she exhibited all the symptoms, but that’s just my non-medical opinion. Whatever it was … she was a tiny dynamo on crutches. She spoke perfect English (and Russian, and of course Georgian), and always greeted me with huge enthusiasm and warmth whenever I was in the Tbilisi office. She had been a Muskie fellow and studied Public Administration at the University of Louisville, where she later worked in the Center for Environmental Policy and Management. When she returned to Georgia, she worked for several major international NGOs, focusing on homeowners and tenant associations, as she did at CHCA.  She was smart as a whip, and I was so looking forward to being her friend here in Tbilisi. We spoke often of meeting at Prospero’s, a local expat bookstore hangout, and I was planning to call her in mid-August when I got back from my visit home to set a weekend brunch date. She even sent me some Skype messages as recently as June 22nd … and then, on July 17th she passed away from a blood infection.

I went to the funeral with all of my former colleagues from CHCA. We stopped on the way to get flowers, and stood around chatting in the hot sun while waiting for others to arrive. When the Gori contingent pulled up, they were really pleased to see me -especially our driver, Tengo. I was really happy to see him, too, but sad it had to be on such a somber occasion. We walked a distance to the flat where Nana lay in her coffin. The Georgian custom is to enter the room, and circle the coffin. We did that, and it was hard for me. I am unaccustomed to open coffins, and in this case, Nana looked so very small that it was heartbreaking. Four elderly ladies sat along one side, weeping and calling out “sad midixar, Nana?” (where did you go, Nana?). About 5 of us stood in a corner afterwards, crying. Eventually I left the room and sat down on some nearby stairs, just to get a breath of air.

We were there about 2 hours. They eventually brought Nana down to the parking lot, where an elderly man – possibly her uncle – started speaking over the coffin, and then weeping. It’s unusual to see a Georgian man crying in public; in fact, I’ve never seen it. But then I haven’t been to a funeral before, either. The whole crowd, maybe about 150 people, followed the pall bearers as they brought her to the hearse. At this point, I had to leave, as the graveyard was very far out of the city, with no public transportation, and I would have no way to get home, since all of my colleagues lived in different directions or out of town. Eka assured me that the important thing was that I went to family home, but I still felt badly. In fact, I was sad all afternoon and just sort of lay around my flat taking short naps and staring out the window. It was a hard day.

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Sunday morning I got up and decided to spend the day shopping for gifts for my upcoming trip to the U.S. I had a leisurely breakfast and then made my way by marshutka to the Freedom Square area of Tbilisi. I wandered about, looking for a tea shop I knew was in the area (it was not, but it was nice walking around), and then met a PCV friend to look a jewelry from the IDP settlement of Tserovani. This was the very settlement where over 2 years ago I left training on my own for the very first time to job shadow a (I now can say it) highly unfriendly PCV, now back in the U.S., who made it clear that I was only there because the PC office had specifically requested it. She did not house me with or near her host family, whom I never met although I had brought chocolates for them; instead, I was put in the house of a friend of her Director. My host was very nice, but she left during the second night for Tbilisi without telling me, so when I woke up in the morning, I was alone in the house, and very confused! The PCV showed up 2 hours late, and then that evening told me I was on my own for dinner in a place where I knew no one, and where there were no restaurants. Hmmmmm … that was not such a good experience. Luckily my host’s neighbors were having a supra for a visiting friend, and invited me to join them. Given that my Georgian at the time was virtually non-existent, it was an awkward evening, but that was my first supra! You can see my judiciously edited blog entry from that visit here: https://saraweaves.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/idp-settlement-visit/.

Though I never did become friendly with that particular PCV, I did become quite friendly with her Director, the lovely Nana Chkareuili. I also become a big admirer of the gorgeous enamel jewelry created by her NGO’s social enterprise, called Ikorta. See here: http://www.ikorta.com.  Here are a few examples of their work:

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A new PCV, by the name of Melody – much friendlier! – came to Tserovani over a year ago, and it was her that I met on Sunday. I picked out some beautiful pieces, and when she proposed that we go see the new Star Trek” movie at the spanking new Eastpoint Mall right outside of town, I jumped at the opportunity. After a quick visit to a very nice shop selling tea, spices and delicious cheese (for anyone who is interested, https://www.reinisfischer.com/aristaeus-boutique-shop-georgian-spices-and-cheese), off we went, via subway and marshutka.

Well, the mall was as snazzy and upscale as any L.A. mall – and nicer than some! The movie was fun, and helped me put aside my sad mood. After the film, we wandered a bit; there was an interesting mix of shops, many extremely upscale and well beyond my price range, but others with a nice array of affordable stuff. Well, affordable now that I actually have a salary, anyway. I’ll go back there one of these days and do a bit of shopping.

So this was a really nice day. I enjoyed seeing Melody, I enjoyed shopping, I enjoyed the movie. I just wish I had the ability to do some of that stuff with Nana. But this is life – and death. It comes to us all, but for some, too soon.

Easter

 

I recently had a wonderful experience that I missed last year, due to being in Batumi exploring botanical gardens at Easter. This year I was here in Gori, and I spent Easter with my Georgian family.

The whole thing started off with a funny, and frankly, slightly embarrassing incident. I was at home, getting ready to go over to my family’s, when I heard kids singing in the stairwell. I could tell, it was like Halloween, they were going door-to-door and doing … something. But what? When the inevitable knock on the door came, I let curiosity get the better of me and recklessly opened it. Six little girls, grinning ear-to-ear and holding baskets filled with red eggs, frantically recited some doggerel and held out the baskets. I was COMPLETELY lost! Like … was I supposed to take an egg? Give them money? Give them an egg? It turns out it was the latter, but I didn’t know that at the time. I explained that I was an American and that I didn’t know what they wanted … they kind of just stared at me in shock and beat a hasty retreat to the neighbor’s door.

Sigh … I felt like an idiot. But ok, I went off to my family’s house, dressed in a skirt and bringing along a scarf to cover my head, as we were going to church. First, though, there was some serious egg-painting, which I enthusiastically joined in with. Here are some of the results – mine is the one with yellow swirls, nice, The thing in the middle is the traditional Easter cake, called paska. It’s pretty good, too. I brought one to my family, who promptly gave me about 20 eggs and another paska to take home. Heated up with a little butter … mmmmmm.

At midnight we piled into the car and drove over to the big church. Parking wasn’t that bad, but the crush of people was unbelievable. I think the whole town was there. It was so intense, and at a certain point, Tamriko (my host mom) pulled us out and said we would go to the smaller church a few blocks away. That was a wise choice!

We walked over, shivering a little in the early spring night air, and entered the courtyard of the church. There were also a lot of people there, but not the crazy scene we had just left. When we arrived, the priests were inside chanting, but after a few minutes, it was time to walk 3 times around the church holding long, thin candles. Holding hands with Nutsa, my younger sister, we started off. The priests and acolytes at the front were holding colorful banners, one of which had been embroidered by Tamriko. Another priest was ringing bells, and everyone was chanting a call and response that sounded ancient, and heartfelt. It really didn’t feel right to be using a flash or taking photos at all, really – but I did record the bells and chanting. So, these are not really videos – they’re really audio recordings. The chanting, in particular, was very beautiful. Although it’s a religion very far from mine, and traditions I am not familiar with, I felt accepted and part of the crowd. I saw people I knew, people greeted me, they let me stand among them without comment (for once) and so I was free to just be in the moment and appreciate the history and feeling.

The inside of the small church was very beautiful. There were whitewashed walls, murals of saints, and of course many icons. We all crowded in, listened for a while, and then Salome said it was time to go home – it was about 2:00 am. Her dad gave us all a ride home, and then he returned Tamriko to the church, where she stayed until morning, as is the custom for religious people here.

So, although I had not really anticipated being moved by the hoiday and its symbolism, I was. That was interesting. It made me want to know more. Wanting to know more – a big part of why I’m not ready to leave yet, and will be staying here, learning, and sharing, because this blog will definitely continue. As I like to say – stay tuned!