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Archive for March, 2013

Life in Tbilisi FAQs

tbilisi foot routes mao

Here is a list of things that people who are about to travel or move to Tbilisi often ask:

Q: Is it safe to drink the water?

A: Sort of…? It’s really your call. Some people do and some don’t. The Tbilisi water source itself is pure, it’s just that the pipes are older, and often have mineral or bacterial buildup (but it isn’t nearly as bad as in St. Petersburg, where you will almost surely become violently ill from drinking any water not thoroughly boiled). It’s totally fine to shower and brush your teeth with, although the mineral content might make your hair more brittle than usual.

Q: How easy is it to travel around the country or the region from Tbilisi?

A: Fairly easy. Depending on where you’re going, international air travel can be a pain (only a few flights a day depart Tbilisi, and most arriving flights get in at inconvenient times, often between 1 and 4am). For regional travel, small carriers like Pegasus often have cheap direct flights. For longer flights, expect layovers in Baku, Istanbul, Munich, or Doha (London if you’re lucky). It is cheap and fairly easy to take a marshutka (minibus) or an overnight train for travel to Baku or Yerevan. It is very cheap and very easy to get around Georgia via marshutka (there are several marshutka hubs around Tbilisi, like Didube and Station Square), and there are overnight trains to other cities like Batumi or Zugdidi. For daytrips to more isolated locations (Davit Gareja monastery), you can also split a taxi with a group of friends.

Q: Where is the nightlife?

A: Errr…best to keep those expectations low. As of now, Tbilisi is not the sort of city that has go-to bars and clubs. A place that is packed out with a great crowd one night can be dead the next. Some places are more reliable than others, but you generally have to just stay in the loop before deciding to go out. Part of this may just be the Georgian drinking culture–in my experience, most Georgians view going out and getting drunk as going to a dinner party at a restaurant/friend’s house as opposed to going clubbing or dancing. So the demand for clubs as I know them seems fairly low, and the establishments come and go quickly. See my reviews page for information on bars, cafes, and clubs I visited in 2012-2013.

Q: Is it easy to get around without knowing any Georgian? How useful is Russian?

A: Easy enough. Under Saakashvili, many services (the metro, street signs, medical clinics, banks, shops, restaurants) in Georgia switched from bilingual Georgian-Russian to bilingual Georgian-English. Most signage, particularly downtown, either has an English translation or enough pictures to get the meaning across. The only real issue is that while the electronic signs at bus stops have English transliterations of the bus route (ex. 6 = Baratashvili St), the signs actually on the bus with more detailed descriptions of the route are only in Georgian. Russian is widely spoken by the over-40 generations, so it can be helpful with shopkeepers and cab drivers. It is particularly common in the bazrobas (outdoor markets), because even Georgians admit that Russian has a much more sane base-10 counting system as opposed to Georgian’s base-20 (in Russian, thirty-five translates to thirty-five, while in Georgian, thirty-five translates to twenty-and-fifteen). I would recommend at least learning the cyrillic alphabet to read some food/product labels and signs.

Q: How easy is it to get medicine/medications?

A: Fairly easy–but expect generics. If you bring in an empty packet of whatever medicine you’re looking for/state the main ingredient, the pharmacists will usually find a generic. It’s also very easy to get a variety of medicines over-the-counter here that require a prescription in the US (certain antibiotics, birth control, painkillers, etc.)

Q: Are locals welcoming towards foreigners?

A: Absolutely. Georgia has a legendary reputation for hospitality that stands to this day, and many Georgians take significant pride in being good hosts to foreign “guests.” It is not uncommon for total strangers to take an interest in your life/how you got to Georgia. The Saakashvili regime (2003-2012) was extremely pro-West and pro-America, and as a result of their policies, most people under 30 speak at least basic English and are happy to practice with foreigners. Minorities, however, might have a more difficult time–my Chinese-American friend was subjected to constant staring and pointing, along with periodic shouts of “China!”/”Japan!”/”Bruce Lee!”, laughing, kung fu noises, and people speaking “Chinese” at him.

Q: What can I expect of living in an average Tbilisi apartment? 

A: Apartments vary wildly, but at this point almost everyone has at bare minimum an electric/gas tank to heat water and some kind of space heater. Wifi is easy enough to install if your landlord doesn’t have it set up already. Just about every apartment has its own washer, but dryers are extremely rare, so you will probably have laundry lines on your balcony/courtyard. Unless you have central heat, the winters can be difficult (many buildings are poorly insulated and people usually rely on weak space heaters and radiators).

Q: Do I need to be worried about all the stray animals running around?

A: Not really. In Tbilisi the dogs are very accustomed to people, and will totally ignore anyone who is not feeding them/jogging (because who here does THAT? I’d bark too). Note that this is different from in the countryside, where a loose dog may very well be guarding livestock and should not be bothered (for this reason it is also best not to approach livestock). Cats everywhere are generally skittish and tend to take off if you get too close. If you have your own cat or dog, I would suggest keeping it safely inside the house unless you have it on a leash or in a cage, as it could easily contract a disease/parasite from a stray (or even someone else’s pet, as Georgians aren’t too big on vaccinations and deworming yet).

Q: How common is petty theft (mugging, pickpocketing, break-ins)?

A: Not very. I personally have never experienced a mugging or been pickpocketed, but some of my expat friends have. Basic precautions should be enough (money belts and things like that in Tbilisi are definitely overkill). The only real concern is for people who are obviously foreign, as you are an immediate target for the handful of gypsy children who stake out along the major tourist routes of Rustaveli Ave and Leselidze Street–but they are easily avoided by simply powerwalking (not worth the effort for them) and by not making eye contact.

Q: Is it safe to live/walk around alone as a single foreign woman?

A: Yes (with the usual precautions). Georgia is very much a patriarchal society with “traditional” gender norms (this article examining gender issues on AMC’s “Mad Men” rings eerily true), but I have never felt any more in danger here than I would feel walking around most American cities at night. You may or may not experience periodic sexual harassment, the likelihood of which increases the further into the countryside you travel, and the more obviously foreign you appear (particularly if you are a blonde/redhead). Staring, rude gestures, and catcalls/kissy noises are common, with unsolicited marriage proposals, photographing, stalking, and groping being on the more extreme (but not unheard of) end of the spectrum. That said, I found Turkish and Azerbaijani men to be far sketchier–and I have also never felt unsafe walking home to my Tbilisi apartment by myself in the middle of the night.

Q: How reliable is public transportation?

A: Very. Taking a bus or the metro around Tbilisi will set you back less than .50 USD, and (at least downtown) most routes run every ten minutes or so. A marshutka (minibus) is a slightly more expensive, but usually runs faster and more regularly to distant suburbs. There are periodic strikes–during my year here there was one marshutka driver strike and one bus driver strike, both lasting only a few days each.

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Capitalism 1, Progress 0

You may have noticed that the streets of Tbilisi have recently become inundated with Malibu Barbie taxis. I was initially excited by the pop of color, but alas my joy was deflated when I discovered their true purpose: a cab service “only for ladies”–i.e. ladies who fear the sexual harassment or assault that can occur in one of Tbilisi’s many unregistered “gypsy cabs” (a personal car with a removable taxi light, often driven by a local man as a secondary or even tertiary source of income).

Georgia is not the first country in which this service was deemed necessary–for example, women of Beirut, Delhi, and even London have adopted “pink cabs,” seeking exemption from discriminatory business laws in the interest of protecting vulnerable women. A statement from Maggie Hennessy of London Lady Chauffeurs alludes to the fear-based appeal of such a service: “A lot of our business comes from husbands who want to make sure their wives are OK, especially in the evenings.”

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Two major issues here:

1.) In the other countries mentioned above, pink cabs are designed “by women, for women.” Delhi’s No. 1 Women’s cab firm, in particular, made it a major part of their business model to empower local women by employing only female drivers, a job usually off-limits to women. As you can see in the photo above, this is not the case in Tbilisi. Every pink cab I’ve seen has been driven by a middle-aged man–the same demographic driving the gypsy cabs. So what exactly do Tbilisi’s pink cabs have to offer if they are charging a premium for clients’ safety? What, have these particular drivers just “given their word” that they won’t harass passengers?

I also think that Tbilisi’s pink cab business is ignoring the opportunity to truly help women by offering jobs in a male-dominated field and in a country with high unemployment. Some Tbilisi women desperately in need of income have already taken this risk on their own, and it’s sad to see a local business failing to recognize a need (perhaps because this need isn’t as profitable as exploiting rape fear).

2.) While pink cabs are a great example of how capitalism can rise to meet a niche market, I find them a massive failure on the part of human rights. Privately-organized pink cabs are essentially a band-aid for rape culture, much like privately-organized schools are essentially a band-aid for America’s failing public education system: they do not fix the actual problem, they only make life easier for those who can afford the services.

In my opinion, pink cabs are just another expression of how rape culture is condoned by society. Few people (if any) would ever actually voice the opinion that sexual violence is acceptable. But when victim-blaming is pervasive, police are apathetic towards the issue (I was instructed to take any assault cases to the embassy, as local law enforcement does not generally enforce sexual abuse laws), and when men are taught (however subtly) that female bodies are for their pleasure, it isn’t much of a stretch to see how some men would find sexual harassment acceptable.

As University of Oregon professor Elaine Replogle reasons, “When you then consider how few men ever are convicted of rape, you realize that there’s a subtle message: It’s not that bad. If it were, wouldn’t we try harder to prosecute the perpetrators? The psychology of gang rape is aided by numbers, by underlying aggression, anger, and misogyny, by what Gloria Steinem terms a ‘cult of masculinity‘ and by a culture that does too little to hold perpetrators accountable.”

Barbie-pink cars are not the solution to sexual assault by cab drivers, and in fact I find that they trivialize the issue by making it cute and feminine (because, as usual, it’s entirely the woman’s responsibility to ensure her own safety). Framing sexual violence as a “women’s issue” makes it problematic for men (and even women) to recognize their role in propagating it. It’s “our problem”–so what investment is there for men, who are both the concerned protective husbands and the aggressive cab drivers? Frankly, a lot. Men are the friends, relatives, and partners of these victims—the nearly 1 in 5 women who have been raped in their lifetime.

In an overtly patriarchal society like Georgia, these men have an indispensable role in ensuring that the women they care about are safe and empowered, which means they have an investment in all women. Sexual violence should not just be a “women’s issue” wrapped up in a Disney Princess color scheme–it is an issue of shared humanity. As such it cannot be solved by capitalism, but only by an educated, active public and a responsive government willing to actually enforce the social equality codified in its laws, and regulate an industry that endangers 50% of the population.

Sources

Chemaly, Soraya. “Five Ways That ‘Staying Safe’ Costs Women.” Salon.com, 12 August 2013.

Replogle, Elaine. “The Psychology of Gang Rape,” Role/Reboot, 15 January 2013.

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It appears that the internet suffers a lack of Georgian phrases beyond the basic “how are you?” or “my name is…” chitchat.

Here are some slightly higher-level phrases to help you in everyday life:

Transportation / Travel

გამიჩერეთ (gamicheret) stop for me (what you can say when you want to get off a marshutka)

ის ხვალ ჩამოვა (is xval chamova) He/she will arrive tomorrow.

იცი როდის გადის ავტობუსი? (itsi rodis gadis avtobusi?) Do you know when the bus leaves?

როდის ჩავალთ (rodis chavalt?) When will we be there?

რამდენ ხანში? (ramden xanshi?) How long will it take?

გინდათ ცოტა დავისვენოთ? (gindat tsot’a davisvenot?) Would you like to rest for a bit?

ეს რომელი სადგურია? (es romeli sadguria?) Which station is this?

რა მიდის ცენტრში (ra midis tsentrshi?) What [bus/marshutka] goes downtown?

ბილეთი რა ღირს? (bileti ra ghirs?) How much is a ticket?

დამელოდეთ (damelodet) Wait for me

Shopping

ეს/ის რა ღირს? (es/is ra ghirs?) How much does this/that cost?

იცი სად შეიძლება ვიყიდო…? (itsi sad sheidzleba viq’ido…?) Do you know where I can buy…?

იცი სად არის აქ მაღაზია? (itsi sad aris ak maghazia?) Do you know where there’s a store around here?

რამდენს ყიდულობ? (ramdens q’idulob?) How much are you buying?

ეს მინდა ვიყიდო (es minda viq’ido) I want to buy this

კიდევ რა გვჭირდება (kidev ra gvch’irdeba?) What else do we need?

რა გინდა იყიდო? (ra ginda iq’ido?) What do you want to buy?

Going out/making plans

ხვალ რას გავაკეთებთ? (xval ras gavaketebt?) What are we doing tomorrow?

მოდიხართ (modixart?) Are you coming?

წავიდეთ (ts’avidet) Let’s go

თავისუფალი ვარ (tavisupali var) I’m free

როდის ჩამოდის…? (rodis chamodis…?) When is (so-and-so) coming?

მშია (mshia) I’m hungry

საღამოს მე სტუმრები მყავს (saghamos me st’umrebi mq’avs) Tonight I have guests over

უნდა წავიდე (unda ts’avide) I should go

უკვე ვჭამე (ukve vch’ame) I already ate

ძალიან მინდა შენი ნახვა (dzalian minda sheni naxva) I really want to see you

სადილი გავაკეთებ (sadili gavak’eteb) I will make dinner

სად იყავით (sad iq’avit?) Where were you?

მალე მოვალ (male moval) I’ll be back soon

მადლობა, მეტი აღარ მინდა (madloba, met’i aghar minda) Thank you, I don’t want any more

რაც იქნება, იქნება (rats ikneba, ikneba) Whatever will be, will be

ცოტა ღვინო დავლიოთ (tsot’a ghvino davliot) Let’s have a little wine

დღეს დრო (არა) მაქვს (dghes dro (ara) makvs) Today I do (not) have time.

უკვე გვიან არის (ukve gvian aris) It’s already late

Feelings / States

(for these, put “var” on the end for “I am,” “xar” on the end for “you are,” etc.)

დაღლილი (daghlili) tired

ბედნიერი (bednieri) happy, fortunate

მაგარი (magari) lit. “solid”; in everyday speech means awesome or cool

დაკავებული (dak’avebuli) busy

Miscellaneous 

რას აკეთებ? (ras aketeb?) What are you doing? (can be rhetorical, as in shouted at terrible drivers or incompetent football players)

უკაცრავად (ukatsravad) Excuse me

არა უშავს (ara ushavs) I’m good / no worries (can be a response to “how are you doing?” or as a response to an apology)

გაიგე? (gaige?) Do you understand?

რა ვიცი? (ra vitsi?) What do I know? (curiously, this is a common response to “how are you?”)

ჩემი აზრით… (chemi azrit…) in my opinion…

წადი! (ts’adi!) Go away!

დროზე / ჩქარა! (droze / chkara!) Hurry up! (droze lit. “on time”)

გიჟი ხარ? (gizhi xar?) Are you crazy? (may be said to a cab driver who is ripping you off)

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