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Archive for October, 2012

Do you love Georgia? Do you love its historic architecture? Do you harbor masochistic tendencies? Here’s some light reading to keep you busy!

“View from Tbilisi: Georgia’s Painful Transition from Soviet Republic to Independent State is Chronicled in Its Architecture” (Nick Shavishvili, 1 May 2003)

“Old Tbilisi Inhabitants Demand Action” (Arman Suleymanyan, 25 April 2005)

“Dynamic Tbilisi, Surviving and Then Some” (Lionel Beehner, 7 May 2009)

‘The Art Nouveau Dacha” (Ismene Brown, 27 March 2010)

“Construction Project ‘New Life-Old Tbilisi’ Launched” (Gvantsa Gabekhadze, 11 August 2010?)

Lermontov House (Gudiashvili Square, Sololaki) before and after “restoration” efforts

“The Glass Age Comes to Tbilisi” (Giorgi Lomsadze, 11 August 2010)

“The AR Launches a Campaign to Save Historic Tbilisi” (Nick Shavishvili, 22 September 2010)

“A New Look for Old Tbilisi” (The Economist, 6 October 2010)

“Tbilisi: Tearing Down the Past” (Giorgi Nonidze, 23 November 2010)

“Georgia Wipes Away Red Past” (Tamar Babuadze, 29 November 2010)

“Creative Destruction on Rustaveli Avenue” (Tabula Magazine, 8 February 2011)

“Property in Mestia: Selective Recognition of Traditional Property” (Transparency International Georgia, 16 August 2011)

“The Dilemma Over Georgian Architecture” (Peter Nasmyth, 20 August 2011)

“View from Tbilisi” (Peter Nasmyth, 31 October 2011)

Gutting the former Institute of Marxism and Leninism to make way for Kempinski Hotel Group’s [tentative] plans

“Soaking Up the Dying Tradition of Massage in the Tbilisi Baths”(Paul Rimple, 27 January 2012)

“The New Face of Batumi, Georgia” (Jennifer Cox, 20 April 2012)

“On Black Sea Swamp, Big Plans for Instant City” (Ellen Barry, 21 April 2012)

“Is Georgian ‘Modernization’ Leading the Country to Serfdom?” (Vakhtang Komakhidze, 15 May 2012)

Historic Chais Sakhli (Tea House) in Batumi gets the ol’ slap-on-plaster-and-two-floors treatment

“Alarm-Bells at ‘Renovation’ of Historic Tbilisi Square” (Teo Bichikashvili, 2 July 2012)

“Tbilisi–Where ‘Restoration’ Means Redevelopment” (Salome Jashi, 4 July 2012)

“Tbilisi” (Peter Nasmyth, 5 September 2012)

“Tbilisi Reclaimed: a City and its Rich Art Nouveau Heritage in Danger of Extinction” (Jennifer Walker, 7 September 2012)

“Letter from Tbilisi: Georgia Embraces Democracy But Destroys Its Past” (Luke Harding, 14 October 2012)

Find the historic house! (photo credit V. Shioshvili)

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Although a much lengthier post on my thoughts about gender issues in Georgia is pending, here is a list of things that I personally have experienced and noticed as an expat woman (21-year-old American) living in Tbilisi. Some of these have been experienced by other female American and/or female expat friends here, but the nature of the Internet means I need to qualify that these have been my personal experiences. I should also emphasize that Tbilisi is a very safe city–taking obvious precautions, I feel safer walking around here than I do in most American cities. So these problems are certainly not dangerous so much as irritating at times.

  • Thanks to disturbingly unrealistic depictions of American women’s sexuality in the media, certain men (around the world, not just in Georgia) have the impression that simply by following you around, you will eventually offer them attention and/or sexual favors. Actually, I’m not even sure what they want, because I’m not sure in which country one can expect to pick up a girl by sullenly following her around a marketplace while she looks for deals on secondhand kitchenware. I should also clarify that this class of men is in no way representative of the vast majority of Georgian men–they are simply a tiny yet annoyingly persistent minority. Note that this generally only happens when you are alone; even one friend is apparently enough of a deterrent. 
  • Thankfully, groping is not so common here. I have been on three separate trips to Georgia, and have only been groped once (in Freedom Square; I emptied my water bottle on the guy and he ran off to the amusement of several nearby news stand vendors). While blatant stares, rude gestures/noises, stalking, unwanted photos, and verbal harassment happen from time to time, Mediterranean-style public transport/bar groping has not been my experience and does not seem to be altogether common in Tbilisi.
  • Your relationship status, specifically your marital status, is of interest to everybody. I hear it’s more pronounced in the villages, but it’s still common here in Tbilisi. It’s one of the first things most older people ask you, before they even ask where you’re from or what you do for a living. For example, a recent conversation [in Georgian] between myself and an elderly female shopkeeper: “Hello, how much is this?” “5 lari. Oh, do you know Georgian?” “A little, I am studying.” “Are you married?” “No.” Then she nods thoughtfully and gives me my new teapot. Marital status also comes into play when the sort of man I mentioned above targets you–it does not matter if you have a boyfriend, or sometimes even a fiance. They do not relent unless you’ve got a ring and/or a child and/or your husband shows up.
  • Many expat workers, male and female, have remarked that when you work in Georgia, there is no difference between your personal life and your professional life, which is often sharply divided in the US. When I was in school, dubious after-hours activities had no impact on one’s standing as a good student, EMT, secretary, lab tech, etc. Unless it directly interfered with job performance, one’s extracurricular reputation did not carry over into the workplace. Many expat workers, in this case women (especially those living in villages), have found that if you get a reputation as a ცუდი გოგო (“tsudi gogo”–bad girl) by dressing inappropriately, going out drinking with men, having guys over, etc. then your reputation at work and in the community as a whole will suffer. Parents will not want you teaching their children. Bosses will not trust you to be responsible. Your neighbors might not want you over for tea anymore. It can feel like a lot of pressure at times to be judged holistically on everything you do.
  • Female Georgian friends accuse me of overreacting and of being too critical of Georgian men, and often defend their menfolk with one of these statements: “he wasn’t really Georgian, he was probably Armenian or something,” or my personal favorite, “he was only joking.” Really? Because being stalked for two hours and then proposed to in order to get a green card is hilarious. In my opinion, there are three reasons Georgian women defend misbehaving men: 1.) Georgian men are more likely to treat foreign women this way, so Georgian women are usually insulated from these problems, 2.) Georgians are known for their deep-seated national pride that sometimes drives them to gloss over social issues, and 3.) as in many paternalistic societies, social norms surrounding gender relations encourage women to be complicit in supporting misogyny (which is certainly not unique to Georgia). In short, don’t expect much sympathy.
  • There is also a frustrating double standard about modest dress as well. God forbid you complain about unwanted male attention, and the old “you were asking for it” based on your wardrobe comeback rears its ugly head. This blame-the-victim argument is obscene to begin with–not only is it blatantly false (sexual harassment is just as common in regions where women are fully covered), but it completely misses the point. The mere fact that a woman is more likely to be assaulted if she wears certain types of clothing does not make it right. In any case, as an American, my street clothes are not even up to what the average Georgian woman my age would consider bumming-around-the-house attire. Dressing “a certain way” supposedly sends a message of sexual availability, but in Tbilisi (unlike in the villages, where things are a little more black and white), it can be difficult to determine what that “certain way” is, when locals wear ripped jeggings, cutoff jackets, and stilettos to pick up the groceries.
  • Don’t rule out your fellow foreigners, also largely here on temporary grants or contracts conducive to flings.

Even though I came here knowing that I would have to tone down my habits and customs, it can be frustrating when these limitations infringe on how I socialize or express myself. When any prompt to certain men, even one as diminutive as a head nod or wave of the hand, is seen as eliciting their latent sexual desires…well, to have my friendliness constantly misconstrued as a come-on is an exasperating and unwelcome intrusion into my day. Here are the methods I use to deal with unwanted attention:

  • Ignore. Creepers are stalking you in order to feel you out by gauging your reaction to their presence. If you don’t react, they have nothing to go off of and tend to leave you alone. Do not make eye contact or answer any of their questions, even with “I don’t understand.” However, this method is only really effective in places where you feel safe–shops, markets, parks, bus stops, etc. during the day and/or where there are a lot of other people who can back you up if the guy doesn’t leave. This is also your best bet for Facebook “friends” who bombard you with unwanted messages.

    or you can just throw ’em the face

  • When ignoring doesn’t work in the face of persistence, call them out on it firmly in whatever language necessary. Being playful does not work. You must be completely unequivocal so as to not leave any room for the “no means maybe” interpretation. If you are in a public place with other people nearby, make sure you say it firmly enough so that other people will overhear. Make the honor culture work for you – even the sleaziest stalker has a strong incentive to avoid public shaming. Once again, this method is also only really safe if you are in public or have someone nearby to back you up. You are walking a line between calling someone out and totally pissing them off.
  • As a general rule, assert your strength and capability. It is difficult for me to feel like a competent adult with only a toddler’s command of the language, but it is important to appear independent–especially in a society where chivalry is alive and well, and any show of fragility can be interpreted as a cry for male attention.
  • Some expats recommend that women buy a fake wedding ring and wear it to deflect attention and nosy questions, but this is one cultural concession I will not make. It represents a way of thinking that makes me livid, because it advocates caving into the belief that a woman here cannot be independent, and if you aren’t  attached to a male “protector,” you’re fair game. I like to think that I don’t need the protection of a fictitious husband to go about my daily life and have my privacy respected.
  • That said, pushing the boundaries or trying to make a point about how wrong it is that women are held responsible for the urges and actions of men should be left to the women who come from within this society–not attempted by foreigners. Paternalistic cultural attitudes have persisted for centuries, and need to evolve from within. Sometimes these limitations can be frustrating, but they need to be minimally respected. For example, I do not host male Couchsurfers at my courtyard-facing apartment. If I did so, it would not be some progressive statement of independent womanhood–it would only offend my neighbors, propagate negative stereotypes about American women, and unnecessarily undermine my reputation.

Part of what has made me feel better about dealing with gender issues here is that I’ve realized I can’t hope to fully integrate, and that I don’t necessarily want to. Total assimilation is not the goal of living abroad, because it means you never adapted–you just adopted a facade of local customs and bypassed an actual learning experience. The periodic confrontations I have with gender issues in Georgia can be annoying, but I still love this country, and dealing with complex social norms that really hit home is also an opportunity to work on drawing my own ethical, personal, and cultural boundaries.

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So after a few weeks of being ignored by the Georgian National Museum (which is admittedly busy with massive internal reforms and as a result isn’t exactly capable of diverting attention to local historic preservation efforts), I was finally introduced to ICOMOS Georgia through an expat friend. ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), is one of three professional associations/NGOs that serve as formal advisory bodies to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee–the other two being the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).

view of the ICOMOS office during the Betlemi Quarter annual festival

The ICOMOS Georgia office is located on Betlemi Street (named for Upper and Lower Betlemi–Bethlehem–Cathedrals) in the historic district of Kldisubani (cliff-neighborhood). This means that I have a lovely but vigorous climb to work every day, past Gudiashvili Square and up the restored “street-stairs” to the upper Betlemi terraces.

According to the website, ICOMOS Georgia initiates and/or participates in the following activities:

  • Collection and dissemination of information on international conservation principles, techniques and policies
  • Preparation and implementation of pilot projects in the heritage conservation field
  • Co-operation with international missions and experts in the evaluation of sites and assessment of projects (local expertise)
  • Participation in and organisation of training programmes, seminars, conferences, etc. on national and international levels
  • Collaboration with ICOMOS other National and International Scientific Committees, such as CIAV (Comite International sur l’Architecture Vernaculaire), CIVVIH (Comite International sur les Villes et Villages Historiques), CIARSPA (Comite International sur l’Analyse et Restauration des Structures du Patrimoine Architectural), and ISCOCT (International Scientific Committee on Cultural Tourism)
  • Collaboration with other national bodies in the field of cultural heritage preservation, such as the Cultural Heritage Protection Department of Georgia, Architectural Heritage Conservation Centre, Fund for Protection of Cultural Heritage of Georgia, etc.
  • Activities to raise public awareness on national and international levels

    stained-glass windows and latticework on a house beautifully restored by an ICOMOS team with Norwegian backing

ICOMOS Georgia also became a part of the Regional Co-operation for Cultural Heritage Development (RCCHD), an initiative of the European Commission’s Eastern Partnership Culture Programme. The RCCHD forms a union of heritage professionals in Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Members develop workshops and conferences to share knowledge of conservation techniques and heritage policies, which may be underdeveloped or lacking in some regions.

the ICOMOS office during renovations

I learned that ICOMOS was responsible for the revitalization of the Betlemi Quarter between 2004-2010, a massive effort that involved the establishment of homeowners’ unions, a development union, and craftsmen’s union, and tourist routes and literature. Several houses, as well as the Betlemi Church platform (overlooking downtown Tbilisi) and the street stairs, were preserved and repaired. Since then, the Betlemi unions host an annual neighborhood festival and the areas participating in the project look much better–although there is still more work to be done in terms of economic development and fending off demolitions.

My current role is to edit articles in English for the RCCHD e-magazine (inevitable gruntwork for a native English speaker in Georgia), collaborate with Tiflis Hamkari (a local union of Old Tbilisi history and architecture enthusiasts) on further development/translation of their publications, help organize conservation skills workshops or roundtables, contribute to a new website on all things Old Tbilisi, and potentially develop an architectural survey database modeled after the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), as well as a bilingual manual of architectural and conservation terms (depending on available funding). Glad to see that my undergrad degree in a seemingly obscure subject could find me rewarding work after all!

Oct. 26 roundtable on heritage management at the office (find me hiding on the left, trying to keep up with the Georgian discussion)

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Couchsurfing: Tbilisi

Couchsurfing describes itself as “a global network of travelers, adventure-seekers, and lifelong learners,” and also as a “hospitality exchange.” It has also been described as “every mother’s worst nightmare.” Site members create a profile and can either offer their “couch” (or futon, or spare bedroom, or floor) for visitors, or search for couches in places they plan to travel. Free lodgings in another country with local hosts? No wonder membership has taken off, with millions of users–mostly 20-something and hailing from Western countries.

I joined during my sophomore year of college and “surfed” on three couches: twice in Spain (with a friend), and once in London. All were good experiences, particularly my stay in Valencia for the Las Fallas festivals. Our host was extremely generous, taking us to parties, helping us find places around the city to visit, and letting us use her public transport cards. My London experience was fine (although my male host did seem to come onto me a bit and I was very glad for the presence of his two female roommates).

I personally have several qualms with Couchsurfing as a business and as a community: their “identity verification system” is based on an online credit card payment–which does nothing to verify your actual identity but does provide the company with a nice income,  that the company listed itself as a charity when in fact all it does is enable people to practice charity on their own, and that many users stubbornly refuse to admit that Couchsurfing is about free accommodation, insisting that the real “Couchsurfing spirit” is only about cultural exchange. Even if they are homeless hippie college grads who certainly couldn’t afford their their around-the-world backpacking gap-year without that “free housing” component.

“We only freeload off strangers because we WANT to, not because our parents cut us off last year.”

The “Couchsurfing spirit” is what has plagued me most since I switched my profile from “surfer” to “host.” This is because I have decided only to host females, which apparently means I am closed-minded, have no faith in humanity, and nurture a sexist grudge against men. That I am a 21 year old girl does not matter. That I have a highly visible courtyard-facing apartment does not matter. That I only have one bedroom to share does not matter. That I am trying to be respectful of my neighbors’ socio-cultural norms and sensibilities does not matter. I continue to be flooded with requests from male surfers who either don’t read my profile (stating the females-only policy), or feel the need to lecture me about my backward ways, or think that enough winky emoticons will somehow win me over.

I finally got a reasonable request from a female surfer, an Iranian tourism development student making a tour of the Caucasus. In this case, I think the free couch/cultural exchange worked quite well–she corrected many of my misconceptions about daily life in Iran, and I shared my experiences growing up and going to school in the US. The know-it-all in me enjoyed showing her around historic Tbilisi and leading her off the Lonely Planet track (note: the Lonely Planet guidebook, at least for Tbilisi, is extremely bland and inadequate–you’re honestly better off winging it).

Talking to a 3-day visitor made me realize how truly lacking Tbilisi’s tourism infrastructure is. Aside from the museums, a ride on the new cablecars, and a walk down Leselidze Street to Gorgasali Square, there aren’t many places of interest obvious to tourists, which is a shame because there are so many things to see and do here. Stay tuned for the upcoming 3 Days in Tbilisi: a short-term visitor’s guide produced by the A. Wheeler Tbilisi Tourism Agency.

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This weekend, Tiflis Hamqari offered its final walking tour of downtown Tbilisi’s historic architecture. The tour was led by Hamqari co-founder and city historian Tsira Elisashvili. Hopefully in the next few years there will be tours like this offered in English, but for now I was very lucky to have a local art student come with me to translate! The whole thing took a whopping 5 hours (food and pee breaks? pshhhh, we’re preservation nerds) but even so it drew 20+ adults from teenage students to pensioners–and a puppy! We followed a tour developed by Hamqari, which you can pick up in the form of an amazing annotated map (we have them for free at the ICOMOS office on Betlemi ascent), also available as a pdf through Hamqari’s Scribd account.

Some things I learned on the trip:

  • When most people think of downtown Tbilisi, they think of the stretch between Freedom Square and Rustaveli. Actually, Tbilisi’s historic downtown is closer to Abanotubani, known as Seidabad in the 17th century.  This is why our tour (covering parts of Vera, Mtatsminda, and upper Sololaki) is referred to as “garetubani”–the “outer neighborhoods” that were developed later, under imperial Russian rule. I guess this somewhat analogous to how many people think of Back Bay as “historic Boston,” when in fact it was built from scratch on landfill in the late 19th century.
  • The first bust of Lenin in Georgia was installed in front of what is now Cafe Gallery. Cafe Gallery itself was actually once an Orthodox Russian church.
  • Georgian bricks are formed in a “Byzantine” way–larger but flatter, like a book. European and Russian bricks are more like blocks, which provides more insulation. Many older houses (or houses built by Georgian craftsmen as opposed to foreign or foreign-trained workers) can be identified by their use of old-style Georgian bricks.
  • Eastern-style balconies face the street, while Western-style balconies face the courtyard.
  • As a young man, Stalin once worked in the factory of a Georgian tobacco magnate, who was also the first man in the Caucasus wealthy enough to import a car.

My favorite structures on the route:

 

  • Rustaveli 54 (not on Rustaveli, but in the courtyard behind the big building with the steps where people sell crafts). This is an absolutely gorgeous house, built for the noble Gabashvili family in 1897 (it was also recently professionally renovated at the expense of the owners, descendants of the Gabashvilis). An interesting anecdote is that the family patriarch detested his non-noble son-in-law–until the son wrote to Stalin himself in order to save the house from destruction. It has a magnificent two-story balcony with elaborate latticework. The interior has a beautiful entrance hall and plaster details.
  • Tbilisi has many lovely examples of external staircases connecting balconies, but I particularly like the wooden spiral staircase in the courtyard of 2 Barnovi St. It was made famous by the movie დღე უკანასკნელი, დღე პირველი (The Last Day, The First Day), which includes a plot about a postal worker who must run up the stairs every day to deliver letters. Unfortunately these beautiful carved stairs are now severely deteriorated and may even be dangerous if it is left for a few more years, or if there is another earthquake. 
  • 4 Chonkadzi Street, known as the “hidden house,” definitely wins in terms of architectural creativity–its elaborate plan was commissioned because the owners of No. 4 got into a bit of competition with No. 12 over who had the coolest house on the street. Chonkadzi Street is right up against a steep hill (being in hilly Mtatsminda), and the architect  set the facade and entrance hall into the hillside, with the actual house and gardens located above. As a result, the facade looks like it has trees growing out of its roof, when actually this is just a garden terraced into the hill behind it. So cool!

 

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In the wake of the secular Tbilisoba celebration, the Georgian Orthodox Church observes Mtskhetoba-Svetitskhovloba (October 14), a celebration of Georgia’s ancient capital city, and its legendary cathedral. Some students and fellow mentors from the International Spark Program this afternoon decided to take a marshutka out to Mtskheta to see the festivities.

Tsvetitskhoveli, Georgia’s largest cathedral until the recent construction of Sameba in Tbilisi

At the center of the celebration (much like Tbilisoba, with concerts and crafts fairs) is Svetitskhoveli, a massive cathedral built in the 4th century during the reign of King Mirian III, the first Christian ruler of Georgia. He was converted through the ministry of St. Nino, a woman from Cappadocia. For the site of the first Georgian church, Nino is said to have chosen Mtskheta, as it was located at the confluence of the Mtkvari (Kura) and Aragvi rivers. Georgian hagiography (Christian legends considered canonical by Orthodox believers), however, states that the site has even greater significance in Christian history.

Glory of Iveria

According to these legends, in the 1st century AD a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elias bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha, and brought it back with him to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia–who died immediately upon touching the sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it, and from her grave grew an enormous cedar tree. Centuries later, Nino ordering the cedar to be made into seven pillars for the construction of Georgia’s first church. After much struggling to move the final column, Nino prayed and it magically floated into place–the column then produced a kind of sap that was said to cure all illnesses. It is from these events that the church derives its name: in Georgian, sveti means “pillar” and tskhoveli means “life-giving” or “living.” A famous icon known as the “Glory of Iveria” was painted in 1880, depicting the legend of Svetitskhoveli. Reproduced widely throughout Georgia, it shows Sidonia at the base of the cedar, and and angel lifting the column. Saint Nino is in the foreground, with King Mirian and his wife, Queen Nana, to the right and left. Georgia’s patriarchs are depicted on the left side, and Christian rulers shown on the right.

By the 11th century, the cathedral had suffered from several foreign invasions, and was rebuilt between 1010 to 1029 under King Giorgi I, in the Byzantine cross-dome style (which emerged in the Middle Ages and became the principle style after the political unification of Georgia by Bagrat III). Construction was supervised by the architect Arsukidze, at the invitation of the Georgian patriarch Melkisedek.

On the exterior north wall, a relief of a right arm and hand holding a chisel (the symbol of a stonemason) can still be seen today with an inscription reads:

The Hand of Arsukidze,
slave of God,
may forgiveness be his.

An inscription on the east wall (completed one decade later) suggests that Arsukidze did not live to see his masterpiece finished:

This holy church was built by the hand of Thy wretched servant, Arsukidze.
May your soul rest in peace, O Master.

Georgian writer Constantine Gamsakhurdia wrote a novel, “The Hand of the Great Master” (full PDF in English here) based on the legend of Arsukidze. According to this story, King Giorgi (jealous of Arsukidze’s beautiful lover, Shorena) and Arsukidze’s former teacher (jealous of Arsukidze’s skill as a craftsman) conspired to cut off his right hand and later kill him.

Since the 11th century reconstruction, Svetitskhoveli continued to weather invasions and earthquakes–the dome has been reconstructed numerous times as a result, and was most recently re-stabilized in 2011. The interior walls are painted with frescoes, most of which have not survived in their original state. In the 1830s, when Czar Nicholas I was scheduled to visit Mtskheta, the frescoes were all whitewashed–although in the end, the Czar canceled his visit. Today, after much careful restoration, a few remnants can be seen, some featuring unusual subjects like Beast of the Apocalypse and figures of the Zodiac. Most of the walls are decorated with icons, most of which are not original (these are located in the treasury of the Georgian National Museum). Some are copies of older icons and frescoes from other churches in Georgia.

Exterior stonework features many folk elements: carved grapes (reflecting the country’s ancient wine-making traditions), stylized birds, and two bulls’ heads on the east façade (survivors from a 5th century church).

On the south side of the cathedral is a small stone church, a symbolic copy of the Chapel of holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Built between the 13th and 14th centuries, it was designed to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second-most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem), as the resting place of Christ’s robe. Columns mark Sidonia’s grave. Remains of the original life-giving pillar are also said to be there, based on archaeological findings that align with the 4th century foundations. During the 1970-71 restorations, an archaeological team also discovered the base of a basilica built in the late 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali (founder of Tbilisi).

Our group visited Jvari monastery, a 5th century structure overlooking Mtskheta. The mountain was packed with Mtsketoba celebrants, picnickers, and wedding parties. The monastery was also recently renovated, although a side effect of this is that they slapped an awkward wooden annex onto one side, but I guess it’s technically removable so the preservationist in me can’t really object.

 

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Dear Dog Owners of Tbilisi,

I am so excited that dog ownership is the cool thing to do now in Tbilisi. When I first visited Tbilisi in 2010, very few people owned what Americans/West Europeans would consider “pet” dogs. There were (and still are) a great many stray dogs, in addition to semi-feral dogs kept chained and/or fenced in yards to serve as cheap security systems. The vast majority of people were justifiably afraid of dogs, as both strays and watchdogs were loud, aggressive, and often diseased. Many Georgians still react with comically exaggerated terror even to small dogs, but I think this will probably wind down as more and more people grow up with or at least around them.

No.

I’m also glad to see that dog-owner enthusiasm here has stopped short of “pet parenting” in America–where dogs (and pets in general) are treated a little too much like actual blood members of one’s family. I don’t ever want to come to Tbilisi and see a chain of doggie day-spas. Or go in someone’s house and see this, or any dog bed that looks like anything other than a blanket or foam cushion. And if ever hear the words “furkid” or “furbaby,” I would just stop coming to Georgia altogether, because this is the mark of Satan. Don’t go down that road, Tbilisi pet owners.

That said, some aspects of this spike in dog ownership disturb me a bit, and I think they merit discussion. There are many responsible dog owners in Tbilisi, but it also seems like there are many people who (most likely because they are the first in their families to own a dog) seemed to have taken on more than they bargained for. Dog ownership has clearly just risen faster than awareness of how to actually take care of a dog in terms of socialization, training, exercise, nutrition, and medical care. And then of course some people are just colossal douchebags, which as we all know is a global phenomenon not limited to Georgia. As Adam Tod Brown of Cracked notes, “Some people display their insanity and inner-dickishness in more subtle ways, and the poor pets are always the innocent victims.”

One of the biggest issues I’ve noted in Tbilisi is that of choosing an appropriate dog for one’s lifestyle, climate, and housing. This is partly the fault of the breeders here, who often sell puppies with no inquiries as to whether or not the prospective owners are actually a good match for their breed’s unique qualities–the polar opposite of America’s Nazi AKC breeders, who want to personally visit your house and receive three character references on your “puppy application” before they’ll put you on a waiting list.

bred to pull sleds for hundreds of miles across Siberian tundra, not go for daily walks in hundred degree heat

Tbilisi is classified as having a “moderately humid subtropical climate,” comparable to Richmond in the U.S., with hot summers and mild winters. Most people live in apartments or houses with very small (often shared) yards. Some dogs can be very happy in these conditions, and have become popular in Tbilisi–I see a lot of cocker spaniels, dachshunds, and yorkies. The problem is that it many of Tbilisi’s nouveau riche have decided to make a fashion statement with Siberian huskies, Caucasian shepherds, and other high-energy working dogs like pointers. Not only do dogs bred for strenuous cold-weather work have no business living in subtropical apartments, but the demand for such dogs in Tbilisi has been wreaking havoc on endangered breeds–most notably one of the country’s beloved national symbols, the Caucasian shepherd. When bored, hot, and untrained, these breeds can become aggressive–and they are large enough to do serious damage to other people and animals. (It certainly doesn’t help either that dogfighting is still common practice among Caucasian shepherd owners, who use it both for entertainment and to select “superior” specimens for breeding).

Aside from choosing a breed appropriate to your overall living conditions, there are two other ways to reduce canine aggression: spaying/neutering, and socialization. There is no historical precedent for either of these practices in Georgia, where veterinary care has always been limited, and where dogs were deliberately raised without socialization so they could fulfill their role as guard dogs. There seems to be a lag, however, between the expectations of contemporary dog owners in Tbilisi (who want house pets) and the dog-training philosophies (or lack thereof) of previous generations.

testosterone and animal abuse going hand in hand at Lisi Lake, outside Tbilisi

To put it bluntly, if you cannot afford to spay/neuter a dog, and do not plan to (responsibly) breed it, then you can’t afford a dog. Altered dogs are less aggressive, particularly males, who otherwise feel the natural urge to attack whatever they can’t hump. They are also less likely to run away in the pursuit of getting laid, and as a result will not contribute to Tbilisi’s ongoing stray dog problem. But like men everywhere else in the world with macho social norms, many Georgian men are happy to ignore these truths in favor of having a “manly” dog. Seriously, don’t inflict your gender insecurities on your dog. It is not funny or cool to have a large, aggressive, out-of-control dog that lunges at passers-by. Dogs have no conception of gender norms to begin with, and when your squeamishness results in a dangerous animal, you’ve just put your family, neighbors, and other local animals at risk.

Likewise, if you want a house pet but do not have the time to socialize and housebreak a dog, then you do not have time for a dog period. I am absolutely baffled by my neighbors, who have a weimaraner puppy that lives exclusively on their balcony.  Not only is a balcony an unsafe and inappropriate place to keep a puppy (particularly a short-haired one) year round, but it is also very annoying for the neighbors, who have to listen to the poor thing whine because it is bored out of its mind and starved for attention. Why get a pet in the first place if you aren’t willing to spend any time with it? Owning a pet is a lifetime commitment, usually between 8 to 15 years of care. If you can’t make the commitment, don’t get the pet.

In the same vein, putting a collar on a dog and letting it roam the streets is not “having a dog.” It’s putting a collar on a street dog. While that collar might give Tbilisi’s notoriously vicious dogcatchers pause, it still does not protect the dog from cars, other dogs, disease, parasites, abusive people, rotten food/chemicals, and weather extremes. It is also a hazard to people walking their actual domestic dogs in your area, as a loose dog tends to establish a territory and attack any animal it views as intruding. I’m looking at you, whoever “owns” that brown boxer-looking mix who makes my every trip down Bakradze a living hell.

Finally, many Tbilisians simply need to learn how to behave appropriately around animals. This is especially true for small children, many of whom can be surprised to discover that real-life dogs do not act the way Balto and Beethoven do on TV. Children need to know that it is not funny at all to tease or torment a dog, an occurrence I see with alarming frequency, and with no adult intervention.

The best advice I have for adults is CALM DOWN. The teen/adult Tbilisians today grew up in a time when almost every dog was wild (or effectively so), and as a result have a justifiable fear of them. What needs to be made clear, however, is that screaming and running only tends to confuse animals, putting them on their guard and actually making them more likely to have an aggressive reaction. So please, if you have reason to suspect a certain dog might not like you, the safest thing to do is be quiet, don’t make eye contact, and go about about your business as if the dog is not there. Additionally, just because a dog isn’t “purebred” doesn’t mean it’s a rabid monster that wants to eat your children. Mutts are as good as any other dog when they are trained and cared for properly.

Kissy noises apparently make Georgians think of puppies. This is what it makes me think of.

And as a cultural side note, Georgians should be aware that in most other parts of the world, making obnoxious kiss noises is reserved for gross old men hitting on girls, not for calling a dog. This seems to be a widespread practice, so I don’t expect Georgians to give it up anytime soon. But nobody here seems to recognize the alternative connotations of this gesture, so I just want to throw this out there–that way you know why my first instinct is to give you a dirty look when you do this to any dog I’m out walking.

In just two years, I have seen Tbilisi make enormous strides in dog ownership responsibility. I hope those strides continue, and that more Tbilisians experience the joy of having happy, healthy, friendly dogs to share their homes.

Best wishes,

Angela

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