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 community in general.
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. It needn’t be consistent, organized, or literary– bulletpoints will do, and you can always 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.
Budget. I’ll be the first to admit that 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 keep yourself off friends’ couches at 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 build into resentment of your host country, leading to an outburst or to constant feelings of frustration that will detract from the overall experience.
Cultivate 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. 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 local events like weekend ski trips, banya, Work-in-Progress talks, pub quiz, 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?
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 ages. These things happen frequently. 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.
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.