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Temper your expectations. Your project will change, and it is highly unlikely that you will accomplish everything you set out to do in your grant proposal, or accomplish it at the pace or in the exact way you originally intended (for better or worse). While the Fulbright program is looking for self-motivated researchers, there are no points off if your project doesn’t turn out quite the way you thought it would. It is more important to be a good “cultural ambassador” at your host institution and among the local community in general. Although it took several months for me to get it, I finally realized that this year is more about learning and sharing than it is about doing, and that really helped me to better enjoy my work. Hopefully, the unstructured expectations and lack of guidance will also make you a stronger person, because anything you do accomplish will be the result of your own self-motivation. The sense of isolation that comes with working on much of your project by yourself, for yourself will force you to become your own support system, a process that can lead to a heightened self-awareness and, dare I say, self-discovery.

Travel domestically. You’re technically only allowed 14 days out of country as a Fulbright grantee, but domestic travel in Georgia makes sense in several other ways. Transport, food, and lodging are all very affordable here. The Georgian landscape is highly diverse, with every climate from subtropical beaches to alpine mountains–all within a very small area. See the Georgia Bucket List for must-see sites.

Keep a journal. You don’t need to be consistent, organized, or literary–just make bulletpoints and elaborate when you feel compelled. So many interesting and/or funny things will happen in your grant period that you will forget them if you don’t write them down. Like the time you saw a man in a three-piece suit carrying a turtle at arm’s length down a residential street. Or the time your coworker asked you what “S&M” means in front of your supervisor. Or the time a dashing villager swung you up onto his horse and you rode through a snowy mountain pass. Or the time your friend’s little brother told you that he’s pretty sure Australia is made up.

Budget. I’ll be the first to admit it, I suck at this–my budgeting skills usually consist of checking my bank account after a major purchase to make sure I haven’t overdrawn. It’s good to at least set general goals so you don’t get any surprises: know (roughly) when and how much your grant payments will be, keep track of substantial purchases, figure out how much of your grant money you’ll need to have left when you leave the country to make sure you’re not on the streets when you get home, and then figure out about how much you ought to spend per month between now and your departure to make that happen. Over time, you will learn how much your average day’s food should cost, and try to stick to it aside from special occasions. The favorable exchange rate and relatively low cost of living means your concept of money will undoubtedly alter–you’ll understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. Paying more than 5 lari for anything food-related will cause you to pause and question your purchase, even as you contemplate a weekend ski trip or a souvenir kilim. You will barter even on cheaper things and still consistently feel cheated. Prepare to be enraged by the prices of everything from public transport ($.30/ride Tbilisi, $2.25/ride NYC) to birth control ($1/month Tbilisi, $3-20/month U.S. with insurance) upon returning to the States.

Be assertive. If something is bothering you, speak up about it right away. Between the language barrier and different cultural norms, some people might not understand why or even if their behavior is bothering you–whether it’s your supervisor giving you important projects at the very last minute, your cab driver asking overly personal questions, or your landlady thinking its okay to use her spare key and come into your apartment without telling you first. If you don’t clear the air, these problems can snowball and make you feel resentful of your host country, leading to an outburst or to constant feelings of frustration that will detract from your experiences.

Exercise. I initially questioned whether the gym membership almost every month would be worth it, but in the end it definitely was. Being able to exercise helped me in a lot of ways–I slept more soundly, was in a better mood, was better able to focus at work, and I didn’t have to worry about indulging in as much delicious Georgian food as I wanted.

Have both local and expat social circles. There is nobody lonelier than a lonely expat. I was very fortunate to arrive here in September and already have a group of Georgian friends I have known since high school to hang out with. I realize this is not the norm, but making Georgian friends is not very difficult, particularly if you work regularly at some kind of office and interact with Georgian colleagues. Tbilisi is known for its art and film festivals, and villages are known for their hospitality, so it’s likely that you’ll end up with a large group of Georgians at some point. But it is also extremely helpful to get connected with the expat community–they can help on everything from archival research to grocery shopping, in addition to all the fun expat events like weekend ski trips, banya, Work-in-Progress talks, Happy Hour/Pub Quiz at Betsy’s, etc.

Go to Fulbright conferences. Fulbright hosts multiple regional conferences per year, inviting students from across a region to present their projects. The conferences usually have a broad topic (public spaces, language learning, etc.), so you will meet students researching in a wide variety of disciplines. In most cases, your embassy contact will forward an invitation to you if they know your research interests are relevant to an upcoming conference. Another benefit is that participants are almost always reimbursed for their travel and are provided with accommodations in the host city–who would turn down that opportunity?

Balance your online and in-person social lives. It is easy to get caught up in new friendships at the expense of old ones, or cling to friends from home as a way of avoiding making new ones. Both have their place, both are necessary and both should be appreciated, but one should not totally dominate the other.

Find a good language teacher and stick with it. Georgian is a difficult language to learn, made even more difficult by the fact that so few people learn it, there are not a whole lot of resources. You will also notice that because it is not commonly taught, no tried-and-true method for teaching Georgian as a foreign language has yet been developed–so it seems like every teacher has a different approach, system, and way of classifying verbs/conjugations. Find a good teacher as soon as possible and stick with that person to minimize confusion. I worked with two unhelpful private tutors and ended up at Language School Georgia, a company established by a longtime Georgian teacher for foreign diplomats. While the quality of instruction is very good and more structured than regular private tutoring, classes are also much more expensive.

Keep reading material on you at all times. Even if you think you won’t need it. I’ve spent a lot of time this year dealing with unexpected waiting. Sometimes your marshutka inexplicably stops for twenty minutes. Sometimes your appointment is an hour late. Sometimes the people at the cafe forget to fill your order and your soup doesn’t come for what feels like forever. These things happen frequently. Seriously, sometimes I wish I had a gameboy on me or something. But reading is better for your brain, so keep your kindle/paperbacks/magazines on hand. On that note, only bring books that are absolutely necessary; consider scanning or copying only the relevant pages if you’re dealing with an obscure academic text unavailable in digital format. E-readers are your friend!

Don’t spend too much on housing, but don’t scrimp either. Unless you’re bringing family with you, there is absolutely no reason for a grantee to pay any more than $500 (800-ish GEL) rent for an apartment in Tbilisi. A really nice apartment in a downtown historic neighborhood with proximity to public transportation can be costly, but the expat community is such that a roommate to split the rent shouldn’t be hard to come by. That said, you’ll still be living here for almost a year, and the money you save getting a really crappy place will not be worth feeling miserable for months on end. Pass over any place that lacks basic insulation, has sketchy heating, weird smells, or no internet (if you need internet on a daily basis, find an apartment where you’re sure it will be as consistent as possible–trying to get work done in cafes here will just make you hate Georgians).

Oh and this is a small but helpful one–bring a student ID, even if it’s expired. You can get student rates at most museums, but they usually want to see a card and Fulbright doesn’t give out IDs. You can show them your grantee ID number, but this will cause more confusion than it’s worth.

Here is an open letter a Georgian friend of mine posted on facebook following the May 17 homophobia riot in Tbilisi, expressing his desire to finally “break up” with the unrepentant Orthodox Church:

“dear georgian orthodox church,

this is a long overdue break-up notice. i know it’s a cliche, but it is really me, not you. from the early days, i’ve been unfaithful to you. I ventured into science and started learning things that you just recently started to accept as possible and permissible.

i have been socializing with people of other creeds – people of different religion, ethnicity, color, people of different social status, and even people of different sexual orientation, and you are right, they have effect on a person. they influence you, they change you. they dull your ability to see the wrong in them, you start to accept them. i know you disapprove of that, but unfortunately i have been turned.

it is me, and not you because i am unable to follow your guidelines. i am unable to chase a bus with a few women-folk in it to lynch them in the name of christ almighty. things are so bad, that i am even having hard times remembering a verse where christ asked for that.

part of the problem is the timing, had this been 1000 or even 500 years ago, i am sure this relationship would work, but we missed our chance.

i know that i am privileged to have been born into religion that’s truest of the thousand or so religions out there. i know that of 7 billion or so people living these days, 4 million of us are the only ones who know what god likes and what he hates, but i have disappointed you.

i am sure my departure (we never were very familiar anyway) from your ranks will be painful, but i am sure it will go unnoticed. from what i see, you have enough dedicated young men and old women armed with nettle to defend you against twenty-odd rebellious sinners. you can certainly defeat anyone armed with nettle. why didn’t we think of that when persians, arabs, mongols, ottomans, russians, germans were invading!

by the way, how’s god? he seems to be ignoring me, do you think it’s because i started ignoring him? i think he has his number blocked, so maybe it was all those anonymous calls i’ve been rejecting. I’ve been hearing about his doings from the press, you know earthquake here, tsunami there. is he acting out again?

unfaithfully (formerly) yours…”

one of these on every corner

one of these on every corner

1 lari lunch

1 lari lunch

brickwork badassery

brickwork badassery

dumpster thrift shops

dumpster thrift shops

grapevine decor

grapevine decor

Kurcha, my ubani's mascot

Kurcha, my ubani’s mascot

paying all my bills on one of these bad boys

paying all my bills on one of these bad boys

these matches. safety my ass.

these matches. safety my ass.

doors like this

doors like this

the discount menu at Cafe Gallery (and accompanying illiterate disco/house/pop)

the discount menu at Cafe Gallery (and accompanying illiterate disco/house/pop)

family-style restaurant ordering. how am I going to go back to picking just one thing off a menu in the US?

family-style restaurant ordering. how am I going to go back to picking just one thing off a menu in the US?

bebias who got my back when I'm being creeped on in the market. I put your coffin in the ground, bicho!

bebias who got my back when I’m being creeped on in the market. I put your coffin in the ground, bicho!

navigating by this

navigating by this

not needing a car

not needing a car

the Georgian internet

the Georgian internet

creative ways to avoid the cardinal sin of throwing stale bread in the trash

creative ways to avoid the cardinal sin of throwing stale bread in the trash

welcome

welcome

these dance posters applied to almost every surface downtown

these dance posters applied to almost every surface downtown

Last week I attended a regional conference for Fulbright research students of central and eastern Europe, located in Prague (given America’s reaction to recent events, it may have been safer to hold it in Tbilisi). The conference topic, “Citizens in Public Spaces” was broad enough to encompass a diverse cross-section of arts and research: photography, urban planning, tourism, sociology, heritage management, public health, musicology, environmental advocacy, law, theater, history, and architecture.

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

Our group of about thirty students was kept busy with lectures on local urban issues, presentations from the conference participants, walking tours, and other activities intended to get us engaged with the city (a critical mass bike ride, visit to a farmer’s market, dinner in a recently-restored historic train station, blindfolded “sound walk,” etc.) While the Prague nonprofit activists went out of their way to tell us how difficult it was to promote civic engagement in the Czech Republic, I was still impressed by how much more active and organized local residents were when compared to my experiences in Tbilisi (my favorite idea was the CorruptTour, a guided tour that takes participants to visit sites of municipal corruption, while discussing their impact on the city). I also noticed substantially more environmental awareness–use of glass bottles instead of plastic, efforts at recycling, the woman at the market who didn’t wrap my chocolate bar and my juice in separate plastic bags and then put them both in another plastic bag, etc.

if you're visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

if you’re visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

The conference came at a good time for me, as we are nearing the end of our grant periods and beginning to reflect on what (if anything) we’ve managed to accomplish over the past several months. It was validating to hear other people facing the same issues I have (most notably the lack of transparency and civil engagement that characterizes post-Soviet space), as well as interesting to hear the creative ways some students found to get things done.  I am still not sure how I feel about federally funding certain arts-related projects, however. Call me a rube, but I’m not really sold on circus-dramatic training, video installations, soundscapes, or anything that uses the word “whimsy” without air quotes. Some projects just came off a bit like Buster working on his cartography/18th century agrarianism/archaeology degree.

Anyway, several students and I decided to stay behind after the conference to experience Prague at a slower pace, an approach I fully recommend given the grueling three-day conference schedule. Below are some recommendations of things to do, see, and eat if you have a few free days in the city:

Things to do:

  • Take a tour of the Tower Museum, halls, and dungeons, all of which have been carefully restored and consolidated since the structure sustained serious damage in the final days of WWII. If you’re into photography, it is definitely worth it for the views of Old Town. If you’re into being infantile, there are plenty to historic interiors in which to pose when the tour guide is not looking.
  • On a nice day, walk around Prague Castle. We took the tram up the (rather steep) hill to the castle complex, which dropped us off at the back entrance by the Royal Gardens–these were not only beautiful, but quiet and free of the throngs of tourists occupying every other historical/cultural site in the city. Entrance is somewhat expensive, so we decided to walk around the castle and cathedral exterior before proceeding back down the hill (lined with shops and cafes overlooking the city, as well as the impressive Lobkowicz fine arts museum).
  • Visit the KGB Museum, which is basically an overenthusiastic Russian local’s personal collection of Soviet military memorabilia (not specific to the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia). While it is somewhat expensive, I thought it was worth it for the scope of the collection along with the owner’s knowledge and enthusiasm.
  • Take a walk around Kampa Island (right off the Charles Bridge on the castle side), populated by uppity swans, contemporary art installations, and locals walking their dogs. It is much more relaxed than the public spaces in Old Town, which tend to become overcrowded in the middle of the day.
  • See the Mucha Museum. Most people are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha through his art nouveau posters for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, when Mucha actually created a staggeringly diverse body of work for decades (before arrest by invading Nazis destroyed his health). The museum basically tells the story of how one great artist was given free rein to design almost everything for his beloved, newly-liberated home country, from municipal buildings to postage stamps.
  • Apparently, stare at the astronomical clock for hours. Seriously. Huge crowds of people stand around this thing, blocking the whole Old Town Square, at all hours of the day and night for a chance to photograph the little statues that come out and twirl around every hour, on the hour. It does, admittedly, have a fascinating history–but come on people.

Tourists_at_the_Astronomical_Clock_in_Prague_2008-08-06

Places to eat:

  • Beas, Tynska 19/Na Porici 1046-24/Vladislavova 24. Great for all of us in the Caucasus without any good Indian cuisine. The branch we went to, not far from the old town square, featured a buffet that goes half off starting at 7pm (as they close at 8.30 and want to get rid of any extra food). It’s also vegetarian, for all you herbivores out there.
  • U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi (The Three Roses), Husova 10. Definitely the best food I ate in Prague, and what I’m guessing is a great selection of house and imported beers. We ordered the bacon Emental burger and the house specialty, beer-roasted pork knuckle (entrees are generally large enough for two people), as well as the gratinated Camembert appetizer, which comes with a side salad so we could feel healthy. Beer is available in small mugs, so you can sample several throughout the meal instead of just sticking to one or two. I couldn’t get enough of anything. Try to go at off-peak hours though, as it is increasingly popular with large groups of tourists and families.

  • A farmer’s market. Prague has several farmer’s markets all over the city open on different days of the week (not just weekends). I found it a good way to sample a variety of Czech food without overspending or resorting to the Times Square-esque hot dog carts colonizing Wenceslas Square. One tip: the trdelnik (grilled spiral pastries) look way more appetizing than they actually are, so unless you’re really into trying everything new or its nutty-sugary coating wears down your resistance, try something else for dessert.
and remember kids, never make eye contact while eating a Czech hot dog

and remember kids, never make eye contact while eating a Czech hot dog

Confused about certain ethnic, historical, and/or geographic terms in the Caucasus? Here’s a handy guide to help you navigate terminology in a country you have usually have to introduce as “The Other Georgia”:

albania1

Albania

1. a modern state in the Balkans

2. Caucasian Albania: a state that existed from the 3rd century BCE to the 7th century CE on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan and southern Daghestan.

Explanation: Caucasian Albania refers the historical region of the eastern Caucasus that existed on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan and partially southern Dagestan. The Parthian name for the region was Ardhan, the Arabic was ar-Rān. The name of the country in the language of the native population, the Caucasian Albanians, is unknown. Albania is the Medieval Latin name of the country which is called Shqipëri by its people (presumably because Albania is easier to pronounce). The name may be derived from the Illyrian tribe of the Albani recorded by Ptolemy, or exist as a continuation in the name of a medieval settlement called Albanon and Arbanon.

Caucasian

Caucasian

1. an adjective denoting “from the Caucasus.”

2.  an anthropological term denoting a person of a major physical type characterized by white skin pigmentation.

Explanation: the ethno-racial classification was coined around 1800 by the German anthropologist Johann Freidrich Blumenbach, who considered the people of the Caucasus to be archetypal of the “white race” (based primarily on craniology), and he named the first class of humans after the country’s home in the Caucasus Mountains. Blumenbach’s class of Caucasians included most Europeans, Northern Africans, and Asians as far east as the Ganges Delta in modern India. As more scientists (air quotes may or may not be appropriate) pursued racial classification in the 1800s, they relied on Blumenbach’s nomenclature, cementing the region’s legacy in anthropology. The persistence of this label could explain why stormfront.org (slogan “White Pride World Wide”–a white nationalist/supremacist website known as the Internet’s “first major hate site”) has some of the most extensive collections of Caucasus-related photos online.

georgia1

Georgia

1.  an independent country in the South Caucasus

2.  a state on the southeastern coast of the United States

Explanation: endonyms and exonyms are the names of ethnic groups and where they live given respectively by the group itself and by outsiders. An endonym (or autonym) is the name given by an ethnic group to its own geographical area, or the name an ethnic group calls itself. An exonym (or xenonym) is the name given to an ethnic group or to a geographical entity by another ethnic group (for example, “España” vs. “Spain”). There is still some controversy about how “Georgia” became the exonym for a country whose self-designation is “Sakartvelo” (საქართველო)–which simply means “place of the Karts [central Georgian ethnic group].” The Georgia exonym has been variously explained as being derived from the Greek γεωργός (“tiller of the land”), the name of the country’s patron St. George, and from ancient Persian-Arabic designations (Gurg, Gurgan), which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia. You decide.

iberia1

Iberia

1. an ancient region in the South Caucasus on the territory of modern-day Georgia

2. a European peninsula which includes Spain and Portugal

Explanation: Iberia (or Iveria, in Georgian) was a name given by ancient Greeks travelers to the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli (4th century BCE–5th century CE), corresponding roughly to the eastern and southern parts of the present day Georgia. One theory on the etymology of the name was that it was derived from the contemporary Armenian designation for Georgia, which itself was connected to the word that the Kartlians used as an ethnic self-designation. The Iberian Peninsula in Europe was associated since ancient times with the Ebro river (Ibēros in ancient Greek and Ibērus or Hibērus in Latin). The association was so well known among early explorers that it was hardly necessary to state–for example, Ibēria was the country “this side of the Ibērus” in Strabo.

Java

1. a city in South Ossetia

2. an island of Indonesia

3. a variety of coffee primarily grown in Java, Indonesia

4. an object-oriented computer programming language

Explanation: it rolls off the tongue nicely

tbilisi foot routes mao

Here is a list of things that people who are about to travel or move to Tbilisi often ask:

Q: Is it safe to drink the water?

A: Sort of…? It’s really your call. Some people do and some don’t. The Tbilisi water source itself is pure, it’s just that the pipes are older, and often have mineral or bacterial buildup (but it isn’t nearly as bad as in St. Petersburg, where you will almost surely become violently ill from drinking any water not thoroughly boiled). It’s totally fine to shower and brush your teeth with, although the mineral content might make your hair more brittle than usual.

Q: How easy is it to travel around the country or the region from Tbilisi?

A: Fairly easy. Depending on where you’re going, international air travel can be a pain (only a few flights a day depart Tbilisi, and most arriving flights get in at inconvenient times, often between 1 and 4am). For regional travel, small carriers like Pegasus often have cheap direct flights. For longer flights, expect layovers in Baku, Istanbul, Munich, or Doha (London if you’re lucky). It is cheap and fairly easy to take a marshutka (minibus) or an overnight train for travel to Baku or Yerevan. It is very cheap and very easy to get around Georgia via marshutka (there are several marshutka hubs around Tbilisi, like Didube and Station Square), and there are overnight trains to other cities like Batumi or Zugdidi. For daytrips to more isolated locations (Davit Gareja monastery), you can also split a taxi with a group of friends.

Q: Where is the nightlife?

A: Errr…best to keep those expectations low. As of now, Tbilisi is not the sort of city that has go-to bars and clubs. A place that is packed out with a great crowd one night can be dead the next. Some places are more reliable than others, but you generally have to just stay in the loop before deciding to go out. Part of this may just be the Georgian drinking culture–in my experience, most Georgians view going out and getting drunk as going to a dinner party at a restaurant/friend’s house as opposed to going clubbing or dancing. So the demand for clubs as I know them seems fairly low, and the establishments come and go quickly. See my reviews page for information on bars, cafes, and clubs I visited in 2012-2013.

Q: Is it easy to get around without knowing any Georgian? How useful is Russian?

A: Easy enough. Under Saakashvili, many services (the metro, street signs, medical clinics, banks, shops, restaurants) in Georgia switched from bilingual Georgian-Russian to bilingual Georgian-English. Most signage, particularly downtown, either has an English translation or enough pictures to get the meaning across. The only real issue is that while the electronic signs at bus stops have English transliterations of the bus route (ex. 6 = Baratashvili St), the signs actually on the bus with more detailed descriptions of the route are only in Georgian. Russian is widely spoken by the over-40 generations, so it can be helpful with shopkeepers and cab drivers. It is particularly common in the bazrobas (outdoor markets), because even Georgians admit that Russian has a much more sane base-10 counting system as opposed to Georgian’s base-20 (in Russian, thirty-five translates to thirty-five, while in Georgian, thirty-five translates to twenty-and-fifteen). I would recommend at least learning the cyrillic alphabet to read some food/product labels and signs.

Q: How easy is it to get medicine/medications?

A: Fairly easy–but expect generics. If you bring in an empty packet of whatever medicine you’re looking for/state the main ingredient, the pharmacists will usually find a generic. It’s also very easy to get a variety of medicines over-the-counter here that require a prescription in the US (certain antibiotics, birth control, painkillers, etc.)

Q: Are locals welcoming towards foreigners?

A: Absolutely. Georgia has a legendary reputation for hospitality that stands to this day, and many Georgians take significant pride in being good hosts to foreign “guests.” It is not uncommon for total strangers to take an interest in your life/how you got to Georgia. The Saakashvili regime (2003-2012) was extremely pro-West and pro-America, and as a result of their policies, most people under 30 speak at least basic English and are happy to practice with foreigners. Minorities, however, might have a more difficult time–my Chinese-American friend was subjected to constant staring and pointing, along with periodic shouts of “China!”/”Japan!”/”Bruce Lee!”, laughing, kung fu noises, and people speaking “Chinese” at him.

Q: What can I expect of living in an average Tbilisi apartment? 

A: Apartments vary wildly, but at this point almost everyone has at bare minimum an electric/gas tank to heat water and some kind of space heater. Wifi is easy enough to install if your landlord doesn’t have it set up already. Just about every apartment has its own washer, but dryers are extremely rare, so you will probably have laundry lines on your balcony/courtyard. Unless you have central heat, the winters can be difficult (many buildings are poorly insulated and people usually rely on weak space heaters and radiators).

Q: Do I need to be worried about all the stray animals running around?

A: Not really. In Tbilisi the dogs are very accustomed to people, and will totally ignore anyone who is not feeding them/jogging (because who here does THAT? I’d bark too). Note that this is different from in the countryside, where a loose dog may very well be guarding livestock and should not be bothered (for this reason it is also best not to approach livestock). Cats everywhere are generally skittish and tend to take off if you get too close. If you have your own cat or dog, I would suggest keeping it safely inside the house unless you have it on a leash or in a cage, as it could easily contract a disease/parasite from a stray (or even someone else’s pet, as Georgians aren’t too big on vaccinations and deworming yet).

Q: How common is petty theft (mugging, pickpocketing, break-ins)?

A: Not very. I personally have never experienced a mugging or been pickpocketed, but some of my expat friends have. Basic precautions should be enough (money belts and things like that in Tbilisi are definitely overkill). The only real concern is for people who are obviously foreign, as you are an immediate target for the handful of gypsy children who stake out along the major tourist routes of Rustaveli Ave and Leselidze Street–but they are easily avoided by simply powerwalking (not worth the effort for them) and by not making eye contact.

Q: Is it safe to live/walk around alone as a single foreign woman?

A: Yes (with the usual precautions). Georgia is very much a patriarchal society with “traditional” gender norms (this article examining gender issues on AMC’s “Mad Men” rings eerily true), but I have never felt any more in danger here than I would feel walking around most American cities at night. You may or may not experience periodic sexual harassment, the likelihood of which increases the further into the countryside you travel, and the more obviously foreign you appear (particularly if you are a blonde/redhead). Staring, rude gestures, and catcalls/kissy noises are common, with unsolicited marriage proposals, photographing, stalking, and groping being on the more extreme (but not unheard of) end of the spectrum. That said, I found Turkish and Azerbaijani men to be far sketchier–and I have also never felt unsafe walking home to my Tbilisi apartment by myself in the middle of the night.

Q: How reliable is public transportation?

A: Very. Taking a bus or the metro around Tbilisi will set you back less than .50 USD, and (at least downtown) most routes run every ten minutes or so. A marshutka (minibus) is a slightly more expensive, but usually runs faster and more regularly to distant suburbs. There are periodic strikes–during my year here there was one marshutka driver strike and one bus driver strike, both lasting only a few days each.

You may have noticed that the streets of Tbilisi have recently become inundated with Malibu Barbie taxis. I was initially excited by the pop of color, but alas my joy was deflated when I discovered their true purpose: a cab service “only for ladies”–i.e. ladies who fear the sexual harassment or assault that can occur in one of Tbilisi’s many unregistered “gypsy cabs” (a personal car with a removable taxi light, often driven by a local man as a secondary or even tertiary source of income).

Georgia is not the first country in which this service was deemed necessary–for example, women of Beirut, Delhi, and even London have adopted “pink cabs,” seeking exemption from discriminatory business laws in the interest of protecting vulnerable women. A statement from Maggie Hennessy of London Lady Chauffeurs alludes to the fear-based appeal of such a service: “A lot of our business comes from husbands who want to make sure their wives are OK, especially in the evenings.”

IMG-20130502-00462

Two major issues here:

1.) In the other countries mentioned above, pink cabs are designed “by women, for women.” Delhi’s No. 1 Women’s cab firm, in particular, made it a major part of their business model to empower local women by employing only female drivers, a job usually off-limits to women. As you can see in the photo above, this is not the case in Tbilisi. Every pink cab I’ve seen has been driven by a middle-aged man–the same demographic driving the gypsy cabs. So what exactly do Tbilisi’s pink cabs have to offer if they are charging a premium for clients’ safety? What, have these particular drivers just “given their word” that they won’t harass passengers?

I also think that Tbilisi’s pink cab business is ignoring the opportunity to truly help women by offering jobs in a male-dominated field and in a country with high unemployment. Some Tbilisi women desperately in need of income have already taken this risk on their own, and it’s sad to see a local business failing to recognize a need (perhaps because this need isn’t as profitable as exploiting rape fear).

2.) While pink cabs are a great example of how capitalism can rise to meet a niche market, I find them a massive failure on the part of human rights. Privately-organized pink cabs are essentially a band-aid for rape culture, much like privately-organized schools are essentially a band-aid for America’s failing public education system: they do not fix the actual problem, they only make life easier for those who can afford the services.

In my opinion, pink cabs are just another expression of how rape culture is condoned by society. Few people (if any) would ever actually voice the opinion that sexual violence is acceptable. But when victim-blaming is pervasive, police are apathetic towards the issue (I was instructed to take any assault cases to the embassy, as local law enforcement does not generally enforce sexual abuse laws), and when men are taught (however subtly) that female bodies are for their pleasure, it isn’t much of a stretch to see how some men would find sexual harassment acceptable.

As University of Oregon professor Elaine Replogle reasons, “When you then consider how few men ever are convicted of rape, you realize that there’s a subtle message: It’s not that bad. If it were, wouldn’t we try harder to prosecute the perpetrators? The psychology of gang rape is aided by numbers, by underlying aggression, anger, and misogyny, by what Gloria Steinem terms a ‘cult of masculinity‘ and by a culture that does too little to hold perpetrators accountable.”

Barbie-pink cars are not the solution to sexual assault by cab drivers, and in fact I find that they trivialize the issue by making it cute and feminine (because, as usual, it’s entirely the woman’s responsibility to ensure her own safety). Framing sexual violence as a “women’s issue” makes it problematic for men (and even women) to recognize their role in propagating it. It’s “our problem”–so what investment is there for men, who are both the concerned protective husbands and the aggressive cab drivers? Frankly, a lot. Men are the friends, relatives, and partners of these victims—the nearly 1 in 5 women who have been raped in their lifetime.

In an overtly patriarchal society like Georgia, these men have an indispensable role in ensuring that the women they care about are safe and empowered, which means they have an investment in all women. Sexual violence should not just be a “women’s issue” wrapped up in a Disney Princess color scheme–it is an issue of shared humanity. As such it cannot be solved by capitalism, but only by an educated, active public and a responsive government willing to actually enforce the social equality codified in its laws, and regulate an industry that endangers 50% of the population.

Sources

Chemaly, Soraya. “Five Ways That ‘Staying Safe’ Costs Women.” Salon.com, 12 August 2013.

Replogle, Elaine. “The Psychology of Gang Rape,” Role/Reboot, 15 January 2013.

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