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Archive for November, 2012

As you may have noticed, I do not exactly approve of the approaches Georgian policymakers have adopted towards their country’s cultural heritage since the rise of Saakashvili and the pro-West elite in 2003. I’m not the only one, and many Georgians and expats are becoming increasingly concerned about the changes in Old Tbilisi.

Of course, sometimes these are just old people and hipsters who can’t deal with change, but in many cases their concern is warranted–Tbilisi Historic District remained on the World Monument Fund’s list of the top 100 Most Endangered Sites from 1997-2002. In 2001, Tbilisi Historic District was deferred from inclusion on the UNESCO world heritage list, “subject to the establishment of adequate legal framework, management structures and guidelines for the rehabilitation and restoration and control of change in the proposed nominated area.”

Today, Tbilisi is not even under consideration for inclusion, due to rampant demolition and modification in the proposed historic district. Local historians and NGOs estimate that about 1/3 of the city’s pre-existing historic fabric has been destroyed over the last decade, and yet the resulting development did not bring about a corresponding increase in quality of life for longtime Old Tbilisi residents. A similar phenomenon occurred in the historic districts of Georgia’s regional capitals, including Mestia, Sighnaghi, and Mtskheta, because policymakers seemed to think that what tourists really wanted to see were sterile, mock-Bavarian villages vacated of original residents.

Heritage Philosophy

Altogether, Old Tbilisi’s architectural heritage is an extremely complex and contentious issue, and in order to discuss problems and solutions productively, it is important to clarify the meaning of “heritage” as it informs preservation philosophy. The word itself shares the same root as “inheritance,” or something that is in your custody only temporarily, received from elders with the intention of passing it on to future generations. This is the same concept that governs environmental preservation, or natural heritage—we are here now, but future generations will have to live with the ecological consequences of our actions.

Cultural heritage, on the other hand, is linked to the cultural values of the society that produced it. ICCROM defines cultural heritage as “the creative expression of a people’s existence in the past, near past, and present; [it] provides information about their traditions, achievements, and beliefs.” Types of cultural heritage can be further divided into tangible heritage, which may be movable (museum collections) or immovable (buildings and monuments).

Intangible heritage encompasses everything from literature to music, dance, recipes, craft techniques, traditional skills, or religious ceremonies. All of the following may be considered part of American cultural heritage: a historic building from the colonial period, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, traditional rodeo sports, New Orleans jazz, the USS Constitution, a 1968 Dodge Charger, Lakota burial grounds, the Statue of Liberty, Rice Krispie Treats, and the production of Pueblo pottery.

For the purposes of this post, I will elaborate specifically on architectural heritage: it is cultural, tangible (although they may represent intangible elements, like craft processes or the lives of historic residents), generally immovable, and is often categorized as either monumental or vernacular. Architectural heritage has evolved over recent decades–it originally referred only to masterpieces of artistic and historical value (monumental), but now it is used more broadly and covers anything that is of value to a certain people (vernacular).

monumental (Rustaveli Theatre) and vernacular (Sololaki-area house) in Tbilisi

Of course, both professionals and the public have been slow to recognize the value of barns, factories, schools, cottages, and even tenements, in the same way that they understand the preservation of buildings, sites, and places that relate in some way to what we might call “the grand forces of history”–or often, more appropriately, the history of a tiny elite. This same kind of movement happened in the discipline of historical studies, leading to the development of the subfield of “public history.”

In most countries, architectural heritage preservation began with the most elite structures–in the US, the first major historic preservation case was George Washington’s plantation estate, Mount Vernon. This established a trend leading up to the present in which preservation efforts tend to gravitate towards famous and/or monumental structures, as opposed to “the everyday.” Perhaps the most interesting opportunity presented by preservation in Georgia is that (churches aside), the most famous cases have centered around more vernacular structures or spaces, like Puri Square and Gudiashvili Square.

Benefits of Conservation

Well-managed heritage buildings and sites:

  • Represent the identity and achievements of a social group, and —convey diverse messages and values (historical, social, political, scientific, religious, etc) that contribute meaning to people’s lives. The architectural environment in particular reminds us that every people has both given something to and taken something from another culture–“Tbilisi vernacular” combines Islamic ornament with Russian classicism, and may feature elements such as musharabi (latticework stained glass from Azerbaijan), Art Nouveau, or Baroque revival plasterwork. As such, historic buildings are vehicles for understanding the diversity of people and for developing mutual peace and comprehension.
  • —Are an excellent local educational resource for people of all ages.  Learning about the history of a place is a good way of bringing communities together through a shared understanding of the unique cultural identity that heritage places give to an area.
  • Attract tourists. Heritage tourists spend substantially more money throughout their visit to a given city than do any other kind of visitor (Rypkema, 2001). Well-managed heritage areas with appropriate tourist infrastructure are informative, help visitors appreciate the history and culture of the area, and provide for their needs without crowding local residents.
  • —Lead to economic development. Heritage is not just about tourism. Probably only about 5% of rehabilitated buildings end up as profitable tourist attractions.  Tourism is an inherently volatile industry, but heritage-based tourism means that local assets are preserved for local citizens even in economic downturns, unlike a theme park, resort, or upscale shopping complex. I do not know of a single sustained success in downtown revitalization in the US in which historic preservation was not a key component of the effort.  Heritage-led regeneration includes the concept of constructive conservation. It is constructive in two ways: firstly, that it deals with buildings, and secondly, that it involves a more positive approach to reusing them, by accepting that the best way of celebrating heritage is to try and keep it in everyday use rather than turn it into a piece of standing history that can only tell one story. There is no better way to maintain, understand, and appreciate a local culture than the ongoing, evolving use of that community’s historic resources. For example, heritage structures are very well-suited for small business incubation. Many small businesses cannot afford the rent nor do they need as much space as that of a newly-built office building. Restored industrial or retail structures subdivided into offices are perfectly-sized and allow direct access to local clients.
  • Create local jobs. The labor-intensive process of rehabilitating older buildings requires a good amount of labor, and this labor can’t be shipped overseas. The wages stay in the community, supporting local businesses and significantly increasing household incomes. While new construction costs are half labor-related and half materials-related, rehabilitation costs are sixty to seventy percent labor-related and the balance is in materials. So while you might buy the air conditioning unit from Japan and the new pipes from Turkey, you buy the services of the carpenter, the painter, the electrician, etc from the neighborhood, and they in turn spend that money largely in the neighborhood. Thus the secondary local effects of labor are much greater than that of materials. So a million dollars in restoration funds will create more jobs and add more to local household income than will a million dollars in new construction. Some point out that construction is only a temporary job, but not if you factor in maintenance (and oh, so few factor that in). If you rehabilitate 2-3% of a neighborhood’s housing stock each year (which is usually all there’s money for), then there is a consistent demand for work.
  • —Support sustainability through adaptive re-use. It really irks me that preservationists in the US have recently become so apologetic about preservation in terms of its sustainability. Sustainability as a term is bandied about and people using it often have a narrow focus on very specific aspects of environmental issues, rather than a full and complete concern about sustainability in every dimension–including land use, embodied energy, urban systems, etc. From that standpoint, you can’t beat preservation and historic preservationists have nothing to be apologetic about.
  • Save land and help check sprawl. No new land is consumed when a historic building is renovated. The conservation of a historic downtown warehouse and conversion into residential/office units saves space, and means that residents are not forced to commute from new construction on the outskirts. Additionally, renovation does not produce as much waste as demolition and reconstruction, and important consideration given that construction debris consumes about one quarter of landfill space worldwide, much of it from demolition.
  • —Are unique and irreplaceable. Like much of the natural environment, they represent non-renewable resources. Once a historic structure or site is destroyed, it cannot be resurrected.

Basically, architectural heritage conservation should be integrated into economic development plans as a tool used to help communities succeed in the globalized economy, without succumbing to a globalized mono-culture. While there are many potential benefits of economic globalization, there aren’t many benefits to a globalized culture—people often refer to Westernization, Americanization, McDonaldization, or in the case of preservation, Disneyfication. Effectively preserved heritage sites are not a backwards-looking economic hindrance, but an asset that still reflects local values.

Treatment Types

There are four treatment approaches for historic architecture officially recognized by the Secretary of the Interior in the US, and these standards also generally hold true for other national and international organizations. These are listed in what is considered hierarchical order, because heritage philosophy places the highest value on buildings with the most original material intact.

  • The first treatment, preservation (known as conservation outside the US), places a high premium on the retention of all historic fabric through conservation, maintenance and repair. It reflects a building’s continuum over time, through successive occupancies, and the respectful changes and alterations that are made. It basically involves “freezing” a building as it is.
  • Rehabilitation, the second treatment, emphasizes the retention and repair of historic materials, but more latitude is provided for replacement because it is assumed the property is more deteriorated prior to work. Both preservation and rehabilitation standards focus attention on the preservation of those materials, features, finishes, spaces, and spatial relationships that, together, give a property its historic character. Rehabilitation is often more appropriate for structures that will serve as homes or businesses, as it is necessary to add modern conveniences.
  • Restoration, the third treatment, focuses on the retention of materials from what is interpreted as the most significant time in a property’s history, while permitting the removal of materials from other periods.
  • Reconstruction, the fourth treatment, establishes limited opportunities to re-create a non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object in all new materials. A reconstruction is not considered to have the same value as the original, although it must be as faithful to the original as possible–materials and features must be drawn from historical sources at all times, not imaginatively re-created.

Choosing the most appropriate treatment for a building requires careful decision-making about a building’s historical significance, as well taking into account a number of other considerations, such as the its relative importance in history, physical condition, and proposed use.

Practices and Guidelines for Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation is often the most appropriate treatment for vernacular structures in Tbilisi. Although functional, many buildings feature several elements deteriorated to the extent that more replacement is called for than would be acceptable with preservation. Rehabilitation also allows more freedom for adaptive re-use, as long as the new use respects the defining features of the building. Below are some some guidelines that must be taken into consideration throughout a successful rehabilitation:

  • Whenever possible, it is recommended to repair rather than replace deteriorated historic elements. When replacement is necessary, new materials should match the old as closely as possible in design, composition, and color.
  • Clean facades gently. Avoid sandblasting and high-pressure water guns, and always test physical and chemical treatments on the materials first.
  • Changes can be contemporary in design and sometimes challenging in their visual impact, as long as they respect the heritage assets. Compatible, contemporary alterations are acceptable if they do not destroy significant historic and architectural fabric, overwhelm, or obstruct the building. Build new additions and infill designs that can be removed without harming the underlying historic structure.

Historically respectful modern infill designs: getting it right (Apple Store, Boston) and getting it wrong

  • When rehabilitating a structure, document its condition before, throughout, and after treatment. Documentation is vitally important for heritage planning–it allows policymakers to determine which districts have the most architecturally and/or historically significant buildings, planners to keep track of their physical condition, and researchers (as well as the general public) to learn about a building’s features and history. Most importantly, documentation of a structure’s significance can make a compelling argument for its preservation, or it can be the only surviving record if that structure is ultimately demolished or modified.
  • Recognize that all buildings are physical products of their time. Avoid changes that may create a false sense of historic development–a respectful modern design is better than a falsely historical one. Respect and retain changes to the property that have occurred over time and have acquired significance in their own right.

the famous Citgo sign in Boston is not original to the historic building on which it sits, but has acquired significance as a local landmark over time and was not removed when the building was rehabilitated

  • When possible, make every effort to use a building for its original purpose-but if you can’t, make sure the new use requires minimal change to its historic features.
  • Historical elements are not just confined to the façade of a building—interior floor plans and details are often much more important than the façade, because these elements are what defined the building’s original use
  • A restored building is literally useless if it doesn’t address the community’s needs. Stakeholders must be involved. Many countries have regulations about community involvement, which build on the general rule that those who will be affected by a decision deserve the right to participate in it. Regulations often provide for the rights of citizens to obtain information on development plans, procedures and deadlines for submitting proposals (which after being broadcast on the mass media, are limited to a few months), citizen representative quotas at each level of decision-making concerning urban development, legal sanctions such as compensation for citizens whose rights were violated by the implementation of a certain project. From a logistical standpoint, rehabilitation always works better in the long-term when community members are aware of local heritage issues and take responsibility for maintenance.

Paramount Theater in Long Island, NY was no longer profitable as a theater, but was very helpful to the community as a sports venue. While different from the original use, the building’s defining features remained intact.

Preservation Problems in Tbilisi

  • Public apathy. After decades of “5 Year Plans” being foisted on their city, local residents aren’t too keen on collaborative efforts. —
  • Ongoing lack of transparency regarding municipal projects and policies, which stifles the development of civil society. Although a national law passed in 2005 mandated that “All interested individuals shall have the right to participate in public reviews of planning documents at all stages of their formulation, development, review and approval,” in June 2009, Tbilisi Sakrebulo (City Council) reviewed and adopted Tbilisi Land Use Plan without allowing any public participation.
  • Absence of clear, comprehensive objectives in urban planning. The Tbilisi Land Use Plan is currently the only plan in use at all–Tbilisi’s last Master Plan expired years ago, and political change has prevented a new one from being drafted–or, as some say, City Hall has deliberately refrained from developing a new Master Plan in order to pursue investment opportunities freely.
  • The nature of Tbilisi vernacular architecture itself–most dwellings in Tbilisi are interconnected, and many of them feature ambiguous shared spaces–courtyards, balconies, external stairways, storage sheds, etc.–most of which were haphazardly privatized in the 1990s and still subject to contested ownership. So in order for a project to take place, not only do all residents of one building have to agree, but it is often necessary to get all of their neighbors to agree as well.
  • Socioeconomic conditions in Tbilisi historic districts–many of the old houses are overcrowded, have outdated (and even shared) facilities, and are inhabited by those who are “socially vulnerable,” like pensioners, who can only afford the most necessary repairs. While historic districts are often associated with gentrification, even in the US, 32% of homeowners below the poverty line live in historic housing, as do 34% of renters (Rypkema, 2002). In one historic district, upwards of 90% of surveyed residents stated that they could not afford repairs, and about half stated that they would move to a “modern” apartment or have their current one torn down and replaced in order to improve their living conditions. This is completely understandable–a pretty old building doesn’t mean much if you’re worried about plaster falling on your head in your sleep.
  • Property abandonment is fairly common–historic property owners have been known to move to new apartments elsewhere in the city, and put their old house up on the market. In the meantime, the property essentially sits abandoned–unmaintained and frequently targeted for vandalism. Although there are municipal regulations penalizing property abandonment, they are generally not enforced.
  • There are no developers or construction companies in Tbilisi that specialize in historic architecture rehabilitation–even though dozens of students at Tbilisi Art Academy’s Conservation Institute are trained in varies types of materials conservation and repair every year. Even so, projects carried out in Tbilisi are done by regular construction workers with no training in regards to historic materials. The vast majority of “renovation” projects never even consult a preservation specialist at any point during planning or implementation.

Christ on a bike

  • Gutting and facadism (known in the US as “Halloween preservation”) is rampant in Tbilisi, as are imaginative “additions” that have nothing to do with local architectural traditions or with the individual building’s historic appearance. Facadism, when a building is basically demolished but for the outer shell, is not preservation by any sane definition, and in my opinion is the worst of both worlds: there’s no real historic preservation going on here, and yet the developer is still encumbered with the extraordinary cost of removing an entire building behind the skin and pasting it back on again. This is expensive and difficult, and is one of the reasons preservation has a bad reputation for being…expensive and difficult.
  • Developers also have little respect for scale, and the “slap two more floors on” attitude has predominated renovation projects in Tbilisi since the 1990s. Additional floors block views and sunlight (particularly in the many courtyard houses of Tbilisi), disrupt historic landscapes, and put strain on older structures that they were not intended to withstand–particularly dangerous in an earthquake zone.
  • —Heritage districts and listing do not offer protection, and don’t seem to mean very much in any regulatory sense. Also, because Georgians consider gutting an acceptable preservation treatment, the best a building can hope for is gutting, the worst demolition. There have also been cases in which historic buildings were completely demolished and rebuilt–but the rebuilt structure remains on heritage lists.
  • The Saakashvili administration has made attraction of foreign investment one of its top priorities. The means there is a lot of pressure to de-list buildings (like Imeli, the former Institute of Marxism and Leninism) and sell them off for new development. Many buildings are left to rot. As a result, it seems that City Hall’s primary property management goal is demolition by neglect.
  • There is —no standardized documentation program in Georgia (in the US we have HABS/HAER through the National Park Service and the American Library of Congress), although documentation is occasionally undertaken by individual historians or NGOs. As of 2012, there is no uniform or readily accessible source of architectural information.

scaled drawing of house on Gomi Street; part of ICOMOS-led documentation in Betlemi Quarter (Tbilisi)

  • —Weak enforcement of construction violation penalties. Penalties are inconsistently enforced, can be “worked around,” or may simply be ineffective in and of themselves. Many developers happily accept fines for adding extra floors–if City Hall fines (say) $200 for every square meter of illegal space, but the owner is going to make $400 for every square meter of that illegal space when they rent it, then that penalty isn’t exactly an effective deterrent.
  • —There is little to no collaboration between developers, preservation professionals, and urban planners. In New Life for Old Tbilisi, developers worked together with banks. In Betlemi Quarter Revitalisation Programme, local preservation professionals worked with international ones and with the community. I think there has yet to be any program or project in Georgia that involved productive collaboration between the three groups necessary to promote economic development while preserving architectural heritage. Even within the local preservation field, collaboration is hamstrung by territoriality and bickering over credit.
  • Tbilisi experiences regular earthquakes, which is particular threat to under-maintained historic structures.
  • Georgia did not experience the arts and crafts movement that profoundly informs Western views of authenticity today, which is a polite way of saying that by Western standards, Georgians are a bit gauche. As it is practiced in Western Europe and the US, historic preservation puts a premium on authenticity–one of the guiding principles is that the original historic fabric must be preserved whenever possible. This idea was popularized by English art critic John Ruskin* in the mid 19th century, with his work (now considered foundational in the field of heritage management) “The Seven Lamps of Architecture.”

New Life for Old Tbilisi

The program, implemented in 2009-2012, has probably been the single largest player in Old Tbilisi preservation issues since the 2002 earthquake. But most people don’t even know what it’s about, partly because the government made only a weak effort to communicate with the public, and partly because it’s quite complicated and actually has nothing to do with preservation.

As a result of the 2009 economic crisis, 80% of new construction projects in Tbilisi (primarily in the “suburbs,” or outer districts like Saburtalo) were suspended. There were 15,000 families awaiting their finished apartments, accompanied by massive layoffs in the construction sector, which comprises approximately 30% of the Georgian economy. But most of all, Georgian banks were in trouble–they had invested 1.75 billion dollars in real estate, or 35% of their overall portfolio, not including loans made to real estate-related businesses. A large number of loans, including mortgages and consumer and corporate loans, were secured by real estate. So the banks decided to stop issuing loans to developers, unless they were convinced there was a demand for the resulting properties.

The solution? Artificially create a demand for real estate, of course. The idea was to create a win-win situation: banks provide loans (which are guaranteed by City Hall) to developers so they can complete their unfinished suburban projects. Developers negotiate with Old Tbilisi homeowners, and “swap”: they move out of their old house (which is surrendered to the developer) and into the newly-finished projects that wouldn’t otherwise be profitable. The developer either guts or demolishes the old house, and in turn sells the lot back to City Hall ($400 per square meter), which will be used for “future investments and developments.” See the diagram below:

credit L. Asabashvili for research

The program was implemented by a task force (“100% state owned limited liability company”), which managed the program in collaboration with banks and the association of developers. If something doesn’t sound right to you, congratulations! Your brain is awake.

As is blatantly apparent, historic preservation is not even a component of this program, nor is urban planning, and nor is community participation. Here are some problems with New Life for Old Tbilisi:

  • According to developer and project proponent Gia Abuladze, “the project will offer real prospects for a well thought out and consistent rehabilitation of the old town.” This is not possible within the framework of the program, however, because competing developers do not necessarily collaborate on their individual proposals, making entire streets very inconsistent. And once again, none of the developers were specialists in historic architecture rehabilitation.

Aghmashenebeli 103 in late October; poster child for shoddy “restoration” work completed just a few months earlier by New Life for Old Tbilisi

  • In cases where developers were hired to “renovate” historic buildings instead of just demolishing them, they were pressured to increase the floor space of the original structure as much as possible, so as to get a larger return on their investment upon selling back to City Hall. This created a lot of extra floors and mansard additions. And when the original problem that started all this was that there wasn’t enough demand for housing, adding tons of extra floor space to each renovated building probably isn’t the best idea.
  • Developers also insisted that the project respected the community, because it consulted with homeowners first and kept communities intact (residents of a historic building would move together to a new apartment building, rather than being split up). The problem there is that one building does not constitute a community. Even if one building agrees to move out, that does not necessarily mean that their neighbors are ok with having the house next door demolished and used for City Hall’s undisclosed “investments and developments.” Another problem is that the homeowner is not always the resident–in some cases, homeowners negotiated with the developer, agreed to sell, and evicted the tenants without consulting them. This approach basically results in accelerated gentrification and a transferral of socioeconomic problems to the suburbs.
  • New Life for Old Tbilisi is not part of any unified or long-range plan. There is no coordinated economic plan for the almost 100,000 square meters of space acquired by City Hall, nor are there any plans for long-term maintenance.

Suggested Improvements

  • —Rehabilitation of registered historic buildings must be carried out, or at least supervised by, conservation specialists.
  • —Registered historic buildings must be fully documented (interior/exterior defining features) before and after rehabilitation/alteration. All documentation must be publicly accessible.
  • —Prerequisites to façade renovation should include roof repair and basement dehumidification. There is no point in repairing an exterior if structural problems will eventually make the building unusuable.
  • —Construction regulations must be clear, effective, and enforced.
  • —Policies must be transparent. City Hall’s approach to 21st century urban planning and heritage management is about as transparent as it was under Khrushchev, making the public even more likely to throw up its hands in frustration and not participate.
  • —Feasibility studies based on social surveys and stakeholder meetings must be carried out before a project is implemented to determine potential conflicts of interest.
  • District and neighborhood homeowners unions must be formed, through which the public can express its needs and concerns. These unions have veto power on projects–not just City Hall, selected developers, and the few who can afford.
  • Projects need to be implemented by district or neighborhood, not by the entire city. Each district has its own socioeconomic issues and development goals, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all preservation program. Nice try though, Misha.
  • Listed buildings must be provided with maintenance schedules based on documentation. Preservation is often too much reaction and not enough prevention. Huge structural problems are often caused by slow, preventable processes over time–water migration, pests, etc. Maintenance will not only protect Tbilisi’s historic structures, but it will provide regular work for construction workers, engineers, and other specialists.
  • —Most importantly, Tbilisi needs a new Master Plan–the product of multidisciplinary collaboration. The current Land Use Plan (2009) was approved with no public input, and is rarely even followed. Without any clear development goals, the city cannot prepare to effectively meet the needs of residents, foreign investors, and tourists. The new Master Plan must include heritage management as part of economic development, rather than as an opposing force.

*John Ruskin is also the subject of several theories much more fascinating, in my opinion, than any he ever personally coined.

Sources

“Betlemi Quarter Revitalisation: Programme Report, 2000-2010.” ICOMOS, 2011.

Rehabbing the Right Way: 10 Basic Principles to Keep in Mind When Rehabilitating a Historic Building.” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2012.

—Proceedings, International Conference on Community and Historic Environment. ICOMOS, 2011.

—Proceedings, Conference on Careful Renovation of the Old City [Tbilisi] and Civil Society. Goethe Institute Georgia, 2009.

Asabashvili, Levan. Working paper on New Life for Old Tbilisi Programme, 2011.

Rypkema, Donovan. “The Economic Power of Restoration.” 2001.

Rypkema, Donovan. “Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: the Missed Connection.” NPS, 2002.

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When I wrote a post a few weeks back about gender issues in Georgia, I caught a lot of flak from Georgians–“how would you like it if your country was criticized?” What most of them don’t realize is that I am more than happy to point out my homeland’s flaws, so in the spirit of critical thinking, this post is dedicated to all those Georgians who think I have it in for the Caucasus.

I realize that this may also come off as really pretentious to American readers, so let me quote another expat blogger, Mark Manson: “you know when you move out of your parents’ house and live on your own, how you start hanging out with your friends’ families and you realize that actually, your family was a little screwed up? Stuff you always assumed was normal your entire childhood, it turns out was pretty weird and may have actually fucked you up a little bit? …The point is, we don’t really get perspective on what’s close to us until we spend time away from it. Just like you didn’t realize the weird quirks and nuances of your family until you left and spent time with others, the same is true for country and culture. You often don’t see what’s messed up about your country and culture until you step outside of it.”

Every country has its uncomfortable “family quirks,” and here are some of America’s that I certainly do not miss:

Rules. Contrary to our national narrative, life in the US is not exactly an embodiment of freedom and liberty. Georgia is rife with activities a litigious American would find laughable. Riding a horse on the highway, having a barbecue next to a gas station, giving a kid you don’t know a piece of candy–things that are usually harmless, but would never fly in the US.

Cost of living. Pretty much every major service in the US is overpriced–higher education, medical care, healthy food, housing, childcare, etc. As a result, the quality of life in much of America could technically be said to be lower than in many other parts of the world, where you don’t have to be rich to afford such goods and services. I’m a typical American student, with an unfathomable amount of debt already from undergrad and looking at thousands more in order to go to grad school, just to land even a low-level job in my field. So I’m not really looking forward to going back to grocery stores and doctor’s appointments that will inevitably turn my meager paycheck into motherfucking monopoly money.

Food. So while I do miss certain American foods, I do not miss the American food industry as a whole. A lot of expats here are NGO volunteers and students, which makes for a lot of vegetarians. They tend to get upset when Georgians laugh off their concerns about animal rights. While being a vegetarian, or at least having a low-meat diet, is a truly honorable thing to do in the US, where the vast majority of the (often genetically-modified) animals we consume live out their lives on “factory farms,” in deplorable conditions. In Georgia, not so much. Factory farming is essentially non-existent–cows, pigs, and chickens generally live out their lives wandering around, having sex in public, pooing on walkways, and standing in the middle of the road. Not altogether a bad gig. So if you’re eating local meat, you aren’t complicit in making an animal live a miserable life for your consumption in the way that you are in the US. Similarly, Georgia is also home to tons of affordable native fruits and vegetables that actually have flavor.

Escalators. Every other country in the world has figured out how to use escalators except for Americans. In the rest of the world, when you get on an escalator, you go to the right if you’re planning on just standing and riding, and leave the left side open so people who are in a hurry can get by. In America, everybody just parks themselves/their bags/children square in the middle.

Isolation. Americans (including myself) are generally quite isolated people. This is largely the result of our desire for independence, to pursue our dreams at the cost of sometimes putting them off to help our families or spend time with friends. To me, Georgians are the opposite end of the spectrum–heavily dependent on their families and valuing time spent just hanging out. Many 20-something Georgians, even if they are married, live with their parents or in-laws, and often contribute part of their paycheck to struggling family members, something totally unimaginable to me. I used to often criticize the Georgian system of parenting (or lack thereof). Georgians often have children very young, and their parents are the ones who usually end up raising the kids. Then in twenty years, they will in turn raise their children’s children. In the States, grandparents go off to enjoy their retirement/mid-life crises before being packed away to a nursing home, and the parents are stuck paying bank for babysitting so they can work, or staying at home, both of which can be challenging, depressing, and guilt-inducing for various reasons.

Birth control bureaucracy. For a progressive country, you really do have to jump through a lot of hoops to get birth control in the US. What, has anyone ever been caught making meth out of it? Has anyone ever been busted for dealing microgestin on the corner? Georgia’s conservatives are literally led by a patriarch, and yet you can still walk into any pharmacy here and get birth control for $3 a month over-the-counter.

150-foot signs lining the highways. America has beautiful landscapes along its many highways. But you wouldn’t know it, because they’re blocked out by forests of giant light-up Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel, Holiday Inn, and Sonic signs. Other countries: learn from this. Don’t do it.

How most Americans suck at expressing gratitude and affection. Georgians are incredibly sincere. They hug. They get excited. They link arms and hold hands. They approach you directly and ask you out to dinner. They pepper their writing with exclamation points. In American culture, appreciation and affection are implied rather than spoken outright. Two guy friends call each other names to reinforce their friendship; men and women tease and make fun of each other to imply interest. Feelings are almost never shared openly and freely, which can put a lot of strain on family relationships and the dating scene. Additionally, consumer culture has cheapened our language of gratitude. Something like, “It’s so good to see you” sounds cheesy at best or insincere at worst.

Dependence on cars. Even the most remote villages in Georgia are accessible by a daily marshutka (minibus). You can live anywhere in Georgia, from a city to a hut in the mountains, and still get around ok. I live in a small town 45 minutes from a major metropolitan area, but if I can’t bum a ride from a friend, then I’m screwed. For a country covered in highways (or in many ways, because it is covered in highways), America has totally failed to provide adequate public ground transportation for its millions of non-urban citizens, and I am not looking forward to dealing with that when I get home.

Fat. I go back and forth on this, because while Americans are unhealthily fat (and usually ok with it), there is an obscene amount of pressure here in Georgia, particularly on women, to be thin. I’m not really sure what’s preferable. I guess a bit of anorexia and stunted self-esteem is ultimately worth the reduced risk of heart trouble and the ability to fit on a crowded bus.

Superiority. In spite of all the things mentioned above, most Americans are still relentlessly superior and assume that everything outside of our great nation is a disease-ridden slum full of pitiable, uneducated (yet crafty and devious) folk out to steal your Visa and give you cholera.

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Post-Soviet Tracks

Looking at the table of contents from 2012 Slavic Review issues, I realized that most academic papers in Slavic/East European area studies would also make great indie song titles. Who wouldn’t listen to this album?

time to get crazy, kids!

  1. We Have Never Been Modern
  2. Cold War in the Kitchen
  3. Words of Others
  4. Red Autobiographies
  5. Black Work, Green Money
  6. Lenin’s Laureate
  7. The Hour of Europe
  8. Face to the Village
  9. Constructing Grievance
  10. Revision Revisited
  11. Empire by Consent
  12. Captives of Revolution
  13. Unvarnishing Reality
  14. Sinners on Trial
  15. Reinstating the Ottomans
  16. BONUS TRACK! Contexts, Subtexts, and Pretexts

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Things I Miss About America

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are some all-American things I yearn for:

Food. Not only the overall availability of various cuisines in the US (even backwoods towns like where I grew up had easy access to at least [air quotes] Italian, Mexican, and Chinese), but also specific brands and dishes that are not generally available in Georgia: bagels, imported cheeses, and a bewildering variety of ice cream flavors.

Functional Postal Service. Granted, there is kind of a way around this by using package shipment services like USA2Georgia. But you don’t really notice just how good we have it in the US, where everyone has a clear street address, zip code, and/or PO box. As a result, everyone here is almost always muling something for someone else whether they’re coming or going.

Public libraries. Seems kind of weird that these aren’t really a thing, what with the whole Soviet legacy of communal learning. There are certainly National Archives here, and most schools have their own libraries, but there aren’t really regular neighborhood libraries where you can go and find new books and magazines for free.

The Holiday Season. I’m from New England. And if it’s not late October-January 1st, then you have no business being alive. I have to admit, it’s kind of hard to get into the holiday spirit without genetically-modified poultry, tacky light-up lawn ornaments, laughably bad jewelry store ads, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, and a general atmosphere of commercialism.

Critical Thinking. ‘Peer review’? That’s when your friends read it, right?

Paying by credit card. In the US, most stores (particularly chains) will let you use a credit card for even the most nominal purchases, or there will be a reasonable minimum. In Georgia, you pretty much have to be at a chain store and making a purchase of over 100 lari in order to break out the credit card without having the cashier throw a fit at you. This means I spend a lot of time running to the ATM, or carrying more cash than I would feel comfortable doing at home, or having to find someone to break the unusably large bills the ATM inevitably provides.

Quality TV. Entertainment television in Georgia consists of poorly-dubbed Latin American or Russian soap operas, or locally-produced knockoffs of international sitcoms like Ugly Betty. The latter are so colorful and sanitized that they bear about as much resemblance to daily life in Georgia as High School Musical bears resemblance to American public schools. Soviet-era cinema was actually quite good, and there is a surprising variety of historical documentaries dubbed fairly well into Georgian (I recently watched one on the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping). But nothing really challenging, entertaining, or insightful.

Arabic numerals. For whatever reason, Georgians learn to use Roman numerals when writing centuries (XVII century, VI century). This means whenever I am translating a history-related text (which is, oh, every other day) I have to get into a huge argument with a Georgian about how most people in the rest of the world are not familiar with the system, most people under 40 in the West were simply never taught Roman numerals at all, and how this is never used in academic papers intended for international audiences, so I need to change them to Arabic numerals.

Non-Smoking Sections. I am so tired of coming home from every restaurant, bar, club, cafe, and even office building smelling like an ashtray. This is particularly difficult when you have a limited wardrobe and then have to wash everything twice as often when airing out just won’t cut it.

Washers and dryers. As it gets colder, I really do miss having warm fluffy sweaters and blankets after one hour in the dryer, as opposed to the stiff, stretched-out jeans and socks that take two days to dry on my balcony–although in the warmer weather, I totally appreciate the energy-efficiency of line-drying.

Safe driving. I have heard it said that Georgians still drive cars like they rode horses–but they forget that unlike horses, cars do not exercise a sense of judgment or will to survive when you steer them off a cliff/into another car/person/edifice. This is all very true. Just because you’re on the crosswalk does not mean you’re safe. Or on the sidewalk. Or on a stoop.

Safe pedestrian-ing. I have never met so many lifelong urbanites who still have no idea how to navigate a city street. Moving through the sidewalk is like moving through a herd of loose, occasionally agitated livestock.

Customer service. While I don’t miss the irritating obsequiousness of American clothing/department stores, it is nice to be acknowledged (semi-pleasantly) when you walk into a store in which you plan to spend money. It is also nice to not have your reservation at the sauna given away on short notice with no explanation, and to get all the dishes you actually ordered, and to have those dishes get to your table in under 30 minutes.

Snow and ice clearing. Back home in Massachusetts, we have snow and ice clearing down to a science. Two feet of snow was not even a guaranteed school delay, let alone snow day. So it’s kind of amusing to me to be in a country that throws up its hands in confusion after a dusting.

Central heating. Yes, the US is notoriously wasteful when it comes to climate control. But when used responsibly, central air is a wonderful thing. For a country that gets snow every year, Georgia still relies heavily on cheap, generally ineffective space heaters that must be shut off whenever nobody’s at home to make sure they don’t blow a fuse or catch fire. This sucks if you live alone, because it means you always come home to a freezing house that takes hours to become bearable.

Cleaning up after your dog. Ever wondered what a city would look like if no one cleaned up after their dog? Wonder no more! Tbilisi is plagued with massive piles of crap all over every street and sidewalk, ready to be stepped in and smeared around and turned into massive poo-rivers when it rains. Owners will unapologetically let their dogs foul your doorstep or garden.

Germ theory. I am not insulting the intelligence of Georgians, nor do I agree with the OCD Purell-slathering American masses–I’m just saying that Georgia is a country with some really stubborn, pervasive (and often truly bizarre) myths about health, and schools here don’t seem to make much effort combating them. Perhaps the biggest one is that illness is caused by changes in temperature rather than contact with infected people. This means that it totally acceptable to haul your sick self/child about your day, hacking all over everyone and everything and if that starts an epidemic, well, it’s been a cold winter and people should bundle up more. Other fun facts: meningitis can be caused by not blow-drying your hair, it’s better to sneeze into your hand because doing it in your elbow makes your clothes dirty, exercising on your period will damage your reproductive health, and if you have acne past 17 it’s because you have bad health habits. Also, your fallopian tubes can get congested like your nasal passages do (often a result of sitting on cold things, like cement stoops), and in order to stay fertile your gyno should “flush them out.” Sometimes I am also really tempted to put up PSAs for regular bathing when I’m on public transport. And flossing.

…and stay tuned for the things I do NOT miss!

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Memory at War

Many people today are aware of the fact that history is not an exact science–either because they actually learned about positivism/postpositivism in historiography, or (more likely) because at some point they reasoned out that if one person generally can’t remember all the details of what they did yesterday, it’s unlikely that multiple, often-conflicting parties will be able to arrive at a consensus on something that happened decades or centuries ago. Or maybe I just think that to comfort myself, because I’m living in a country with a tradition of editing “historical truth” with each regime change. Not that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S., but as a general rule, Americans don’t have to worry about the government updating school curricula and then removing, renaming, erecting, dismantling, detonating, or relocating major historical monuments after each presidential election.

plinth in a Tbilisi park awaiting the latest installment (photo credit V. Shioshvili)

The Caucasus is a well-known battlefield of narratives and conflicting interpretations of past events and symbols–as a result, analyzing the politics of memory in contemporary Georgia is a little too ambitious for me, so I’ll stick to what I know: monuments and museums. Anyone who has taken a few taxi rides in Tbilisi will know that street names change constantly. Perceptions of the Soviet past are channeled through the Museum of Soviet Occupation and the accompanying website of the KGB archive administered by the Interior Ministry. It’s also important to note the school curricula reform and regional initiatives aimed at recognizing the “genocide” of the Circassian people in the 19th century. Historian Shota Khinchagashvili points out, “All these different aspects of politics of memory and commemoration have one thing in common: they are all constructed on an anti-Soviet, if not also anti-Russian narrative, where Georgia and Caucasus is constantly victimized vis-a-vis the grand oppressor (Russia).”

While some say this helps Georgians feel united in their suffering (a really non-intuitive way of increasing national pride) I doubt that removing Stalin’s statue in Gori, and blowing up Kutaisi’s WWII Memorial of Glory contributes much towards a rational and informed perspective on the Soviet past. Instead it suggests that “official policy is oriented towards externalizing the Soviet past, representing it as something totally alien to Georgian political thought and social life, endemic to and imported from the historical oppressor–Russia. Equally, one might suggest that to claim an ability and authority to possess the exclusively ‘correct’ version of recent history is not only an anti-intellectual step, but a continuation of ‘securitized’ policy on social memory” (Khinchagashvili).

Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this official policy is the Museum of Soviet Occupation, part of the Georgian National Museum, which stands across Rustaveli Avenue from the Tbilisi Parliament building. Opened in 2006, it was the pet project of Nikoloz Rurua, member of parliamentary defense committee and Minister of Culture and Monument Protection from 2008 up to the recent 2012 elections (his qualifications for this job include a commercial law degree and leadership of Vera district’s mkhedrioni gang, a paramilitary/organized crime group outlawed in 1995).  It was financed entirely out of the presidential fund, “an extra-budgetary source of revenue controlled by the presidential administration.” According to the presidential press service, over 1 million lari (about $548,700 at the 2006 exchange rate) was allocated to the museum.

Although Georgian politicians and museum workers insisted that the museum is simply meant to commemorate the estimated 880,000 Georgians killed or exiled under Soviet rule, many Russian politicians viewed the one-room exhibit as a jab at the Kremlin. Not long after the museum opened, then-President Vladimir Putin complained about it directly to Mikheil Saakashvili, the young and exuberantly pro-Western Georgian leader, protesting what he considered to be its anti-Russian tone. After all, he pointed out, some of the most ruthless figures in the Soviet hierarchy–including Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria–were themselves Georgian. Saakashvili responded sarcastically that Russia was free to open a museum to memorialize Georgian oppression of Russians, and that he would even donate the funds. In a more professional statement, Professor Levan Urushadze, a historian and the museum’s curator, curtly rejected any suggestion of political overtones, asserting that the museum represents years of research into the repression Georgia suffered as a Soviet republic. He stressed that the museum’s goal is simply to educate young Georgians about the past.

But what the politicians say and how the museum is actually presented are quite different, and the driving motive behind its activities might well be the very converse of that envisioned by UNESCO—rather than serve as an institution that contributes to the mutual understanding of peoples, some museums might deliberately seek to obscure historical details, or foster a profound misunderstanding by one people of another. What objects a museum chooses to collect and exhibit, and how it does so, invariably reflect a point of view. So while it claims to examine the Soviet past critically, the entire Soviet era is represented merely in terms of anti-Bolshevik resistance: the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, subsequent arrests and murders of the Georgian political and cultural leadership, and repressions of political protests leading up to Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1991. The daily lived experience of average Soviet Georgians (who were widely thought to have the highest quality of life in the USSR) is virtually ignored, which I see as the real tragedy because most foreign visitors to Georgia are deeply curious to learn about it.

totally non-manipulative dramatic lighting

The occupation museum is not just about documenting the past either–it also seeks to address the present. The attribute “Soviets,” according to the externalizing narrative informing the exhibit design, is equated with Russian. Since the 2008 conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a new section was installed in the exhibit, which includes a map marking the Russian-occupied areas and a video projector showing images of Vladimir Putin interspersed with footage of Russian airstrikes and tanks. If the museum was really about unbiased Soviet history instead of anti-Russian propaganda, wouldn’t this addition be irrelevant?

The exhibit also implies that the independent Georgian Republic of 1918 to 1921 is the immediate predecessor of the pro-Western Saakashvili regime. The following quote (from journalist Noe Zhordania, who led the Georgian government in exile until his death in 1953), “Soviet Russia offered us [a] military alliance, which we rejected. We have taken different paths, they are heading for the East and we, for the West,” is embossed prominently on the wall.  The museum itself opened on May 26, the day marking Georgia’s declaration of independence from the Russian Empire in 1918.

At the official opening ceremony, President Saakashvili referred to the museum as an example of the progress made by Georgia since the Red Army invaded: “[W]e have evaded lots of obstacles and we have become a state. This means that no one will ever force Georgia to kneel as in 1921,” he said. In what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to Moscow, he went on to warn Georgians to prepare for a new “Ordzhonikidze,” a reference to Sergo Ordzhonikidze, an ethnic Georgian Bolshevik who played a leading role in establishing Soviet rule in the Caucasus state.

This week, many Georgians seem to fear that Ordzhonikidze has arrived, in the form of billionaire and new prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, around whom many Russian-plant conspiracy theories already circulate. Ivanishvili, who opposes Saakashvili’s aggressive anti-Russian stance, recently announced that the Museum of Soviet Occupation may be shut down in an act of neighborly good will. In spite of the dreary weather, Tbilisians actually formed a long line (!) outside the Georgian National Museum to show their support and visit the exhibit.

In my opinion, I don’t think the museum should be shut down. It is indeed important for future generations of Georgians to commemorate their countrymen and confront tragic events in their nation’s history. But I think it is also the responsibility of a cultural institution to be a place of dialogue for its citizens, and for international visitors. The Occupation Museum will never accomplish this, however, if it continues to promote the culture of victimization and denial it currently does–unable to critically examine both the positive and negative elements of the past it claims the authority to represent. Unless improvements are made, the Museum of Soviet Occupation is ironically following in the footsteps of Soviet oppressors, doing its visitors a grave disservice by denying them enough information to draw their own conclusions, and thus actually learn from the past.

Sources

Corso, Molly. “Georgia Opens Museum of Soviet Oppression.” Eurasianet, 2006.

Khinchagashvili, Shota. “A Georgian Perspective on Memory Conflicts.” University of Cambridge Department of Slavonic Studies Blog, 2011.

Kirchick, James. “Letter from Tbilisi: Georgia Between Two Powers.” Foreign Affairs Online, 2010.

Shatirishvili, Zaza. “National Narratives, Realms of Memory and Tbilisi Culture.” City Culture and City Planning in Tbilisi: Where Europe and Asia Meet. Edwin Mellen Press, 2009.

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Every city has its flea market–St. Petersburg has Udelnaya, Paris has Les Puces, Pasadena has the Rose Bowl, and Tbilisi has მშრალი ხიდი, or the Dry Bridge. Here the material culture of antique (imperial Russian) and vintage (Soviet) Tbilisi is for sale, alongside an assortment of secondhand flotsam like extension cords, playing cards, medical instruments (don’t ask), and lamp shades.

portrait of a kinto, circa 1900

It is generally considered a must-visit for any tourist or expat resident, and attracts hundreds of local and international visitors each weekend. After all, the kinto (street-peddler) is a romanticized symbol of Tbilisi’s traditional role as a center of commerce.

Recently, however, Dry Bridge market has become a poster child for Georiga’s tourism and urban renovation issues. An informal bazaar, it is one of several amorphous urban structures that cropped up in public spaces across the former Soviet Union, the products of liberalization, privatization, and simple lack of commercial/urban planning regulation. This is exactly what draws tourists but repels many local residents and officials. It has the same qualities of roughness and lack of planning that have led Old Tbilisi neighborhoods to be celebrated as exemplars of urban picturesque by foreigners, but detested as signs of oriental backwardness, chaos, and disorder by westward-looking Georgians.

There is a general perception that “quaint” bazaars, street vendors, and kiosks should be replaced with the sterilized convenience of Western-style supermarkets (Carrefour, Smart, Populi). While part of the bazaar-snobbery has to do with the inferiority complex that comes from Orientalist tourists wandering into your backyard and taking Instagram photos of the “poetic” dilapidation, it also has to do with the antagonistic attitude of new Georgian elites towards petty traders–the modern-day kintos. Refugees and recent migrants from rural areas (“peasants”) are strongly associated with petty commercialism (Sumbadze and Tarkhan-Mouravi, 2003). They are generally looked down upon as “simple people,” who cannot afford, and do not appreciate, the progress embodied in supermarkets and other fetishized products of Western progress.

modern-day kintos

So as anthropologist Paul Manning points out, while the Shevardnadze period was, in effect, as thoroughly liberal in its economics as it was in its approach to civil society–allowing private petty commodity production and trade (even in state services) to proliferate, the ‘top-down’ Rose Revolution seems to take aesthetic offense at the marginal economic activities of the impoverished population. Hence, they began to wage a war on bazaars and petty commerce, as well as similar forms of ‘bottom-up’ market-based forms (such as the formerly private system of marshutka taxis, abolished and replaced by a regulated municipal marshutka system in mid-2011).

Soviet kitsch

The threat against Dry Bridge, which may or may not be mitigated by the demise of Saakashvili’s party, is the culmination of a campaign against street vendors that began at the same time as the closing of the Iveria hotel/refugee camp in 2004 (Bazhiashvili and Kavelashvili 2004), which was subsequently converted into the Radisson Blu luxury hotel. The forced evictions and privatizations in attempt to purify the urban landscape of non-Western elements are difficult to rationalize coherently in terms of any typically liberal ideology of ‘bottom-up market liberalism,’ indicating that the Rose Revolution’s allegedly westernizing reforms are more preoccupied with westernization of surface appearances rather than substantive economic goals.

This Western facadism, accompanied by the placement of serious socioeconomic issues on the back burner, has been obvious to international observers for almost a decade–as historic buildings received new facades but minimal structural repairs, as fountains were installed as a quick and easy way to beautify public spaces instead of addressing more complex urban planning problems (leading to Saakashvili’s nickname, “Misha of the Fountains”), and as hotels and luxury shops were commissioned en masse, even though the majority of visitors to Tbilisi are backpackers looking for guesthouses and hostels.

The problem I see (and that I hope Ivanishvili recognizes) is that Saakashvili has been aggressively trying to modernize–while the Western world he aspires to is post-post-modernizing. What Saakashvili and his westernizing elite see as backwards, forward-thinking Americans and West Europeans are celebrating: small businesses, historic vernacular architecture, green spaces, backpacking/eco-tourism, farmer’s markets, flea markets, public transportation, handcrafted products, etc.–as we try to undo the damage caused by the very things Georgia now aspires to gain: supermarkets, fast food, disposable plastic everything, big business department stores, and car ownership.

Plans for yet another unnecessary luxury hotel tower built atop the historic Imeli building on Rustaveli

The type of tourist who visits Tbilisi doesn’t want to shop at high-end groceries or outlets, or spend $250 for a night at the Holiday Inn (rumor has it that the government has repeatedly bailed out Tbilisi’s luxury hotels, which don’t attract enough guests to be commercially viable). Let’s face it, if that’s the type of tourist they are, they’re going to do it up right and go to London, Paris, or NYC for luxury experiences. And Dry Bridge is a perfect example–it’s minutes away from the newly-renovated Aghmashenebeli Street, intended as a showcase tourist draw full of fashion outlets and Easter egg colors, and yet you still see Turkish tour buses unloading at the very flea market Misha has been cracking down on.

Given the political and socioeconomic issues surrounding it (and the potential policy changes with the rise of Ivanishvili’s “Georgian Dream” over Saakashvili’s enthusiastically pro-Western UNM), I highly recommend showing your support for Dry Bridge and paying a visit. Below is a labeled map showing how to get to the market from Ruvtaveli Ave. The numbers indicate roughly which areas of the market sell what, although visitors should be aware that there is a lot of mixing. The best times to visit are on non-rainy weekends between noon and 4pm. Before noon, many vendors will not yet have arrived/set up (Georgia likes to sleep in), and after 4 most will begin packing up. The market is year-round and even runs on weekdays, although more vendors show up on the weekend and in warmer weather.

My favorite finds from Dry Bridge:

  • 1980 Moscow Olympics commemorative espresso mugs
  • earrings made from 19th century kopecks
  • a poster of young Stalin reading Rustaveli against a backdrop of the Caucasus mountains
  • Soviet-era ID tags and “medals” for police and security dogs
  • antique tea tins
  • weird early 20th century photos and postcards
  • a more or less complete tea set cobbled together from various vintage sets of the same color pattern

Have fun!

Sources

Bezhiashvili, Keti and Gela Kavelashvili. “On Prohibition of the Street Trade.” Internews Georgia, issue 277, 2004.

Humphrey, Caroline. “The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism.” Cornell University Press, 2002.

Manning, Paul. “The Hotel/Refugee Camp Iveria: Symptom, Monster, Fetish, Home.” 2008.

Sumbadze, Nana and Giorgi Tarkhan-Mouravi. Working paper on IDP vulnerability and economic self-reliance. Tbilisi UNHCR, 2003.

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One of the things I had difficulty with when applying for my Fulbright (and then jumping through all the requisite hoops, once accepted), was getting information on what I could really expect from my experience. This is difficult, because the nature of the student research program is that each grantee has a self-designed project–so everyone works in different fields and institutions, and has different goals and methodologies. I am working on architectural heritage management in Tbilisi, one other student is researching English language acquisition in Georgia as a whole, and the other student is researching climate change in a remote mountain village in Svaneti. Additionally, we are all different ages and points in our career: I just got my bachelor’s this past summer, one student already has her master’s, and the other one is halfway through his master’s dissertation. So understandably, it’s hard to know what to expect when everyone’s experience is completely different.

So with that disclaimer, here are some things to expect that I wish I had been told from the outset–some are specific to me and my experience, or specific to Georgia as a whole, or that could apply to any Fulbright US Student grantee:

  • You do not get your grant money until you buy your airfare first. This was kind of a pain, because I had very little money in my bank account over the summer, but my first grant payment would not be deposited until I submitted flight itineraries. Note, however, that your departure date is flexible. It’s difficult to book a flight so far out, and you may very well end up changing it, which isn’t a problem for the grant administrators.
  • You do not need a visa if you are an American citizen in Georgia for under one year (unless there are special conditions, as for businesses, etc.)–Georgia has very lax entry requirements right now, as evidenced by the fact that they’re giving away free wine to anyone who goes through passport control at the airport.
  • It is very possible that your project, and even your host institution, will change drastically after a few weeks here. The Fulbright midyear report asks you how your project is going, but a more appropriate question would be “how has your project changed since your arrival?” I was originally here to work on museum exhibit design at the Georgian National Museum, except they were too busy with internal reforms to be bothered with me. So now I work on heritage management at ICOMOS Georgia, which is quite different but even more interesting than I could have imagined.
  • On that note, once you get here, your project is only as important as you need it to be. While outlining a rigorous yet feasible project is a significant component of the grant application, and considering that the application process required an almost constant stream of paperwork for several months, you’re left to your own devices (for better or for worse) after the arrival briefing. Your embassy contacts are there if you need them, and they’re always interested to hear about any of your milestones, but they’re not there to check up on your progress–how can they? How is an embassy diplomat qualified to judge progress on an architectural survey project or an ecological survey? Their priority is just to make sure you are safe, relatively productive, and serve as a cultural ambassador.
  • Get to know the expat community. They know all the good restaurants, who is working where or researching what, and where to find the specific goods and services you may eventually need–dry cleaners, fitness clubs, repair services, etc. In Tbilisi there are a lot of expat events–Wednesday night Work-in-Progress talks, Friday night banya, etc.
  • Volunteer or intern. If you have time outside of your project, get involved with a local NGO. You will meet locals and other expats, and can learn about social, economic, or other issues in your host country/city that you might not have fully understood before. I currently volunteer at Dog Organization Georgia (a shelter near Lisi Lake), and the International Spark Program (a year-long program for Georgian college students to develop projects that address local issues).
  • The stipend Fulbright gives you is plenty to live off of in Georgia if you find an apartment with decent rent ($500 or less, which isn’t hard, particularly if you get a roommate) and aren’t making grand travel plans–you’re only allowed 14 days out of the host country, because you’re supposed to be here being a cultural ambassador, remember?
  • That said, DO travel while it’s warm! The roads in Georgia get quite bad in the winter, and many beautiful yet remote villages (Shatili, Ushguli) are inaccessible past November. You have all winter to work on your project, and fall is the most beautiful time of year in Georgia, so take advantage of the weather and the cheap trains/marshutkas while you can.
  • Don’t worry if your apartment isn’t that great. Define your non-negotiables (washing machine, well-maintained heating unit, commuter distance) and don’t worry too much about extras. If you’re spending all your time in your apartment, you’re doing something wrong.
  • If you are debating grad school, try auditing some classes at a local university in the topic(s) of your interest. I am taking an English-language course on collective memory at Tbilisi State University. It only meets once a week, so it fits in with my schedule well, and the readings (2-3 papers a week) are manageable. While it isn’t necessarily historic preservation, concepts about memory and how collective memory differs from individual memory can be very helpful when developing educational programs at historic sites.
  • Accept that you will occasionally be used as an editor–English usage is spreading throughout Georgia, but very few people are fluent. So gracefully accept the fact that you will be asked to correct letters, essays, brochures, press releases, academic paper translations, etc.

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