If griping were a sport, expats would be the undisputed victors. We complain about reckless driving, airlessly smoky bars, dental hygiene, demobilized civil society, airfare, bad attempts at ethnic cuisine, customer service, lechy men, the language barrier, people not covering their mouths when they sneeze on the bus, local work ethic, and each other. But whenever I hang out with expats working in Armenia or Azerbaijan, I remember to count my blessings when it comes to living in Georgia:
- Abundance of NGOs. Georgia is very NGO-friendly, which means there is a comparatively large market for “international” workers in a vast array of capacities. Although Saakashvili is generally credited with Georgia’s West-facing, pro-democracy stance, Georgia has welcomed foreign specialists and volunteers (and money) since the Shevardnadze days. While Armenia is open to NGOs, many of them are small-scale, supported by the diaspora and staffed by locals. Azerbaijan is not terribly enthusiastic about NGOs (my organization, ICOMOS, does not yet have a permanent branch office there), which makes finding jobs in social work, education, and economic development difficult.
- Food. When you consider how often you need to eat, it kind of makes sense to live somewhere with good, affordable food. Being an expat can be frustrating, but the simple joys of good food make life a lot easier. There’s not a whole lot of variety to Georgian cuisine, but I’m still not sick of well-made khachapuri yet, and am definitely not sick of the fact that I can go out to a big dinner with friends, eat several different dishes (eggplant, salad, khachapuri, kebab, soup, mushrooms), get drinks, and end up with a tab roughly equivalent to $7.
- Affordability/favorable exchange rate. As of today, one dollar equals 1.6 Georgian lari, 409 Armenian dram, and .78 Azerbaijani manat. The cost of living here is crazy low by capital-city standards–I pay less than $650 a month on [essential] living expenses, which covers my own downtown apartment/utilities, transport, and an overall healthy diet. Meanwhile, Baku has climbed to number 20 on Businessweek’s Most Expensive Cities list, up from number 109 only a year earlier, which means most local volunteers can’t afford to spend much time there. The only problem with this arrangement is that if you get paid a Georgian salary, you will be able to live quite comfortably here–but good luck affording anything else (making a dent on student loans, travel outside the region).
- Visa regime. Or rather, lack thereof. Foreign citizens (or even just permanent residents) of many countries can live in Georgia without a visa or residence permit for up to 360 days. So while you need to scramble for a letter of invitation and cough up $160 just for a weekend trip to Azerbaijan (and then sweat it out at the Armenian border when the guard sees your Azerbaijan visa page and may or may not decide to admit you), you can march right into Georgia any time you want. And they might even present you with a free mini bottle of wine at the airport.
- Domestic tourism. There are a lot of things to see and do in Georgia, one of the world’s most climatically diverse countries: forests, beach resorts, monuments covering hundreds of years of history and representing different ethnic groups, vineyards, desert cave complexes, and mountains with good hiking, climbing, and skiing. Almost everything is cheaply and easily accessible by marshutka from Tbilisi.
- Politics. In Georgia, politics aren’t really something to worry about. While relations with Russia are still tense, Georgia is known as a mediator in the region and has fairly warm relations with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and even Iran. Saakashvili’s pro-Western stance means that American and European visitors have been embraced for the last decade. And the recent victory of Georgian Dream proved that a peaceful, more or less democratic change of power is possible. It’s also hard to take politics too seriously when the prime minister is an eccentric, zoo-keeping oligarch with a James Bond mansion who captured the youth vote using his albino rapper son.
- Social and cultural life. Georgia, and Tbilisi in particular, remains the “cultural capital” of the Caucasus. There is a constant stream of art, music, and film festivals in Tbilisi, complemented by artsy cafes and galleries on almost every street downtown. While the nightlife here isn’t terribly exciting, the sheer amount of things going on between expat and local events dwarfs anything in Armenia or Azerbaijan.
- Gender norms. While I do often complain about Georgia’s Mad Men-esque gender norms, things are much better here than in the other two Caucasus countries. This is more noticeable in Azerbaijan, where it is not socially acceptable in most places for women to buy alcohol, be seen with unrelated men, or be out after dark without male escorts. While foreign women in Georgia are likely to get comparatively harmless leers, foreign women in Azerbaijan often face much more aggressive harassment on a regular basis.
- Diversity. Race is an uncomfortable topic throughout the Caucasus. Many Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis (particularly in rural areas) have never seen or spoken with people of certain ethnicities in real life. Perceptions of other ethnic groups are generally drawn from half-digested global pop culture, from gangsta rap to Gangnam Style (yes, teenagers here do often use the word “nigger” without the faintest idea of its context or connotations). But while Georgians are more than capable of unbelievably racist and xenophobic gems like this one, they are more likely to be awkwardly curious than mean-spirited. This is not so in Azerbaijan, where even in Baku minority visitors are can face harassment.
- Expat community. For all the reasons listed above, Georgia has become an expat magnet. While Armenia and Azerbaijan are dominated by diplomats, businessmen, and Peace Corps volunteers, Georgia has a wider range of expats working as English teachers, journalists, students, researchers, and at the many different NGOs. There are plenty of expat groups and activities (banya, Georgian choir lessons, language lessons, day or weekend trips), and I have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and hearing the stories of how they ended up here.
So there you have it. As much as I like to make cracks about various aspects of life in Georgia, there’s no denying that life here is much better than the stereotypical “post-Soviet chaos” most people enjoy exoticizing it as.