One complaint I hear often from my more progressive Georgian friends is that Tbilisi (and Georgia as a whole) “never changes,” that they are frustrated and feel hopelessly mired in a city and/or country that doesn’t care to address its many problems. While a substantial population of Georgia and its capital remain apathetic, I couldn’t disagree more with this view. Now that I’ve been here a few days, here are some things that have changed (as well as some things that have remained the same) since I first came to Tbilisi in summer 2010–some major, some minor. I have even noticed certain changes since just last summer, although I spent most of my time in the village of Patara Dmanisi rather than in Tbilisi.
These things changed:
- They added [bilingual!] electric signs at almost every bus stop downtown. For the non-Tbilisian with poor Georgian skills (especially when it comes to reading cramped font on a board propped up in the dusty windshield of a speeding bus), this is a godsend. In fact, I don’t think the post-electric-bus-sign people will ever appreciate how good they really have it. While we’re talking about transportation, I should also note that the city marshutkas have gotten much cleaner. As in, now they smell like you’re wedged into an old lady’s armpit instead of a railway worker’s armpit.
- Civil society. As recent protests about human rights indicate, I think Georgians are more likely to rally around a good cause and demand government action in a peaceful, semi-organized way than they were a while back. “Working together” is starting to sound less like communism and more like common sense.
- Learning Georgian is more difficult with more people studying English.
- There are significantly more chain supermarkets and fast food restaurants (Wendy’s on Rustaveli? Starbucks in Vake?)
- Tourism. Naturally, all the work Georgia has put into improving its infrastructure, maintaining its cultural heritage sites, and translating everything into English means that tourists have been flocking in ever-greater numbers. While it’s a far cry from Venice, there are now sometimes lines at the museum front desk!
- Old Tbilisi. As part of the aforementioned schemes to attract tourists and foreign investors, the government has poured millions of dollars into reconstructing (and I emphasize reconstructing, not preserving, conserving, or even restoring) the “charming” old quarter of the city. There are many pros and cons to these activities, but given my background in historic preservation I’m just going to spare you and save it for another post.
- The quality and quantity of ethnic cuisine in Tbilisi has been steadily increasing with each successive year I’ve visited. I’m sure I will appreciate this more once the novelty of Georgian cuisine wears off a bit as the year progresses.
- More Georgians use facebook rather than Russian social networking sites.
- Pet ownership. The only dogs I knew of in Tbilisi circa 2010 were strays, or served as the poor man’s security system. Both varieties were basically feral and widely feared as disease-ridden, sometimes-aggressive, wildly-proliferating noisemakers. Only a very small percent of the upper and upper-middle classes owned purebred dogs with any semblance of socialization, grooming, or veterinary care. Responsible people today seem to be enjoying their four-legged family members, but unfortunately I think the real spike in dog ownership was caused by style slaves of “Tbilisi street culture.” The breeds currently “in fashion” are Siberian huskies, Caucasian sheepdogs, German shepherds, and Dalmatians (i.e., dogs that really shouldn’t be living in apartments, and apartments in a city with brutally hot summers at that). Combined with the fact that Georgia has no tradition of altering pets, this has created a situation in which there now seems to be a concerning amount of people who wanted a fashion statement but ended up with an aggressive, uncontrollable, 70-140lb dog. Hopefully, this trend will die out without too many negative consequences for the animals, and the new acceptance of dogs will develop into a new acceptance of responsible pet ownership.
But these things haven’t changed much:
- It’s still hard to find out about things! For whatever reason, even some major events are shared only by word of mouth among limited circles of people, and maybe a few posters. So unless you know someone on the inside, you’ll have no way of knowing that, say, there’s a multi-day international conference on museums going on attended by international professionals in which a total restructuring of downtown Tbilisi is proposed. And you work at the museum hosting it.
- Neighborhoods that are not part of the “grand plan” to beautify Tbilisi remain in lamentable condition. Even beautiful structures that would be considered architectural gems elsewhere are left dilapidated if they are too far off the beaten track. More concerning is the fact that many people in these technically-valuable historic neighborhoods still live without hot water, heating, or indoor bathrooms they don’t have to share with multiple neighboring families.
- Sexism (often glossed as “traditional attitudes towards women”). There doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement, at least for foreign women, in terms of day-to-day interactions. I still get blatant stares, suggestive gestures, outright offers for sex, and have to field marriage proposals from male strangers (and female strangers with sons in my age bracket). Frustratingly, my marital status sometimes seems like my most defining feature–even if it’s “just a joke,” I’m not sure who’s supposed to find it funny. Of course I recognize that most Georgian men are not like this–I personally know several who are respectful to women as a matter of course. But the “vocal minority” can be really grating at times.
- The gypsy problem. This is something that is way over my head (even the Economist has referred to it as Europe’s thorniest societal problem), and is not even an issue unique to Georgia, so I am certainly not equipped to play Judge Frollo and propose any quick solutions to the problem of an impoverished, semi-nomadic people that has inhabited the margins of an entire continent for centuries. This is a very touchy issue, and government/social workers in Georgia and Europe as a whole are conflicted as to what the best options are. Although tourists, shopkeepers, and local residents complain, I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing that Tbilisi’s Roma are “visible”–at least that means the city’s most vulnerable members aren’t being rounded up and hidden from public sight in some kind of refugee camp somewhere. But when I see a filthy 2 year old with facial sores left on a mat with a cup to collect money for her absent parent(s), in a high-traffic downtown area, I can’t help but become a bit indignant that something hasn’t been done.