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.