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Last week I attended a regional conference for Fulbright research students of central and eastern Europe, located in Prague (given America’s reaction to recent events, it may have been safer to hold it in Tbilisi). The conference topic, “Citizens in Public Spaces” was broad enough to encompass a diverse cross-section of arts and research: photography, urban planning, tourism, sociology, heritage management, public health, musicology, environmental advocacy, law, theater, history, and architecture.

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

Our group of about thirty students was kept busy with lectures on local urban issues, presentations from the conference participants, walking tours, and other activities intended to get us engaged with the city (a critical mass bike ride, visit to a farmer’s market, dinner in a recently-restored historic train station, blindfolded “sound walk,” etc.) While the Prague nonprofit activists went out of their way to tell us how difficult it was to promote civic engagement in the Czech Republic, I was still impressed by how much more active and organized local residents were when compared to my experiences in Tbilisi (my favorite idea was the CorruptTour, a guided tour that takes participants to visit sites of municipal corruption, while discussing their impact on the city). I also noticed substantially more environmental awareness–use of glass bottles instead of plastic, efforts at recycling, the woman at the market who didn’t wrap my chocolate bar and my juice in separate plastic bags and then put them both in another plastic bag, etc.

if you're visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

if you’re visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

The conference came at a good time for me, as we are nearing the end of our grant periods and beginning to reflect on what (if anything) we’ve managed to accomplish over the past several months. It was validating to hear other people facing the same issues I have (most notably the lack of transparency and civil engagement that characterizes post-Soviet space), as well as interesting to hear the creative ways some students found to get things done.  I am still not sure how I feel about federally funding certain arts-related projects, however. Call me a rube, but I’m not really sold on circus-dramatic training, video installations, soundscapes, or anything that uses the word “whimsy” without air quotes. Some projects just came off a bit like Buster working on his cartography/18th century agrarianism/archaeology degree.

Anyway, several students and I decided to stay behind after the conference to experience Prague at a slower pace, an approach I fully recommend given the grueling three-day conference schedule. Below are some recommendations of things to do, see, and eat if you have a few free days in the city:

Things to do:

  • Take a tour of the Tower Museum, halls, and dungeons, all of which have been carefully restored and consolidated since the structure sustained serious damage in the final days of WWII. If you’re into photography, it is definitely worth it for the views of Old Town. If you’re into being infantile, there are plenty to historic interiors in which to pose when the tour guide is not looking.
  • On a nice day, walk around Prague Castle. We took the tram up the (rather steep) hill to the castle complex, which dropped us off at the back entrance by the Royal Gardens–these were not only beautiful, but quiet and free of the throngs of tourists occupying every other historical/cultural site in the city. Entrance is somewhat expensive, so we decided to walk around the castle and cathedral exterior before proceeding back down the hill (lined with shops and cafes overlooking the city, as well as the impressive Lobkowicz fine arts museum).
  • Visit the KGB Museum, which is basically an overenthusiastic Russian local’s personal collection of Soviet military memorabilia (not specific to the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia). While it is somewhat expensive, I thought it was worth it for the scope of the collection along with the owner’s knowledge and enthusiasm.
  • Take a walk around Kampa Island (right off the Charles Bridge on the castle side), populated by uppity swans, contemporary art installations, and locals walking their dogs. It is much more relaxed than the public spaces in Old Town, which tend to become overcrowded in the middle of the day.
  • See the Mucha Museum. Most people are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha through his art nouveau posters for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, when Mucha actually created a staggeringly diverse body of work for decades (before arrest by invading Nazis destroyed his health). The museum basically tells the story of how one great artist was given free rein to design almost everything for his beloved, newly-liberated home country, from municipal buildings to postage stamps.
  • Apparently, stare at the astronomical clock for hours. Seriously. Huge crowds of people stand around this thing, blocking the whole Old Town Square, at all hours of the day and night for a chance to photograph the little statues that come out and twirl around every hour, on the hour. It does, admittedly, have a fascinating history–but come on people.

Tourists_at_the_Astronomical_Clock_in_Prague_2008-08-06

Places to eat:

  • Beas, Tynska 19/Na Porici 1046-24/Vladislavova 24. Great for all of us in the Caucasus without any good Indian cuisine. The branch we went to, not far from the old town square, featured a buffet that goes half off starting at 7pm (as they close at 8.30 and want to get rid of any extra food). It’s also vegetarian, for all you herbivores out there.
  • U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi (The Three Roses), Husova 10. Definitely the best food I ate in Prague, and what I’m guessing is a great selection of house and imported beers. We ordered the bacon Emental burger and the house specialty, beer-roasted pork knuckle (entrees are generally large enough for two people), as well as the gratinated Camembert appetizer, which comes with a side salad so we could feel healthy. Beer is available in small mugs, so you can sample several throughout the meal instead of just sticking to one or two. I couldn’t get enough of anything. Try to go at off-peak hours though, as it is increasingly popular with large groups of tourists and families.

  • A farmer’s market. Prague has several farmer’s markets all over the city open on different days of the week (not just weekends). I found it a good way to sample a variety of Czech food without overspending or resorting to the Times Square-esque hot dog carts colonizing Wenceslas Square. One tip: the trdelnik (grilled spiral pastries) look way more appetizing than they actually are, so unless you’re really into trying everything new or its nutty-sugary coating wears down your resistance, try something else for dessert.
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Confused about certain ethnic, historical, and/or geographic terms in the Caucasus? Here’s a handy guide to help you navigate terminology in a country you have usually have to introduce as “The Other Georgia”:

albania1

Albania

1. a modern state in the Balkans

2. Caucasian Albania: a state that existed from the 3rd century BCE to the 7th century CE on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan and southern Daghestan.

Explanation: Caucasian Albania refers the historical region of the eastern Caucasus that existed on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan and partially southern Dagestan. The Parthian name for the region was Ardhan, the Arabic was ar-Rān. The name of the country in the language of the native population, the Caucasian Albanians, is unknown. Albania is the Medieval Latin name of the country which is called Shqipëri by its people (presumably because Albania is easier to pronounce). The name may be derived from the Illyrian tribe of the Albani recorded by Ptolemy, or exist as a continuation in the name of a medieval settlement called Albanon and Arbanon.

Caucasian

Caucasian

1. an adjective denoting “from the Caucasus.”

2.  an anthropological term denoting a person of a major physical type characterized by white skin pigmentation.

Explanation: the ethno-racial classification was coined around 1800 by the German anthropologist Johann Freidrich Blumenbach, who considered the people of the Caucasus to be archetypal of the “white race” (based primarily on craniology), and he named the first class of humans after the country’s home in the Caucasus Mountains. Blumenbach’s class of Caucasians included most Europeans, Northern Africans, and Asians as far east as the Ganges Delta in modern India. As more scientists (air quotes may or may not be appropriate) pursued racial classification in the 1800s, they relied on Blumenbach’s nomenclature, cementing the region’s legacy in anthropology. The persistence of this label could explain why stormfront.org (slogan “White Pride World Wide”–a white nationalist/supremacist website known as the Internet’s “first major hate site”) has some of the most extensive collections of Caucasus-related photos online.

georgia1

Georgia

1.  an independent country in the South Caucasus

2.  a state on the southeastern coast of the United States

Explanation: endonyms and exonyms are the names of ethnic groups and where they live given respectively by the group itself and by outsiders. An endonym (or autonym) is the name given by an ethnic group to its own geographical area, or the name an ethnic group calls itself. An exonym (or xenonym) is the name given to an ethnic group or to a geographical entity by another ethnic group (for example, “España” vs. “Spain”). There is still some controversy about how “Georgia” became the exonym for a country whose self-designation is “Sakartvelo” (საქართველო)–which simply means “place of the Karts [central Georgian ethnic group].” The Georgia exonym has been variously explained as being derived from the Greek γεωργός (“tiller of the land”), the name of the country’s patron St. George, and from ancient Persian-Arabic designations (Gurg, Gurgan), which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia. You decide.

iberia1

Iberia

1. an ancient region in the South Caucasus on the territory of modern-day Georgia

2. a European peninsula which includes Spain and Portugal

Explanation: Iberia (or Iveria, in Georgian) was a name given by ancient Greeks travelers to the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kartli (4th century BCE–5th century CE), corresponding roughly to the eastern and southern parts of the present day Georgia. One theory on the etymology of the name was that it was derived from the contemporary Armenian designation for Georgia, which itself was connected to the word that the Kartlians used as an ethnic self-designation. The Iberian Peninsula in Europe was associated since ancient times with the Ebro river (Ibēros in ancient Greek and Ibērus or Hibērus in Latin). The association was so well known among early explorers that it was hardly necessary to state–for example, Ibēria was the country “this side of the Ibērus” in Strabo.

Java

1. a city in South Ossetia

2. an island of Indonesia

3. a variety of coffee primarily grown in Java, Indonesia

4. an object-oriented computer programming language

Explanation: it rolls off the tongue nicely

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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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I have opened a new companion blog on this account–the Georgia Photo Philes.

While researching historic structures and landscapes for my work at ICOMOS here in Tbilisi, I was always frustrated by the lack of images online with accurate names, dates, and credits. There are tons of really interesting historic photos of Georgia/the Caucasus all over the internet–except that you can often only find a handful of them hidden away on abandoned academic webpages, a local NGO’s facebook account, or an old news story. On top of that, most of them are not captioned or cited, so you might not know where or when a certain photo was taken.

Portrait of a Cossack in Alexandropol by Dimitry Ermakov

Portrait of a Cossack in Alexandropol by Dimitry Ermakov

I hope this blog can address that in a small way, and allow those interested in regional history and culture to get an idea of what they’re looking at. Please send me a message if I make any mistakes attributing photos, so I can correct them.

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Gudauri Good Aura

georgia_map1

Today I joined a group of expats who go up to Gudauri, the Caucasus’ premier ski resort, every other Saturday throughout the season. You can get there by renting a private marshutka if you have a large enough group, or take a regular public marshutka from Didube station. Either way, the trip up the old military highway takes about 1.5 to 2 hours.

After the dormant post-Soviet period in the ’90s, Gudauri received significant investment towards the creation of a year-round mountain resort–controversially, a fair amount of funding and support came out of the Tbilisi City Hall budget “savings.” Based on what I saw, however, the investments have been successful in attracting plenty of domestic as well as international tourists (the place is crawling with новый русский 20-somethings, as well as dedicated skiers from across central and western Europe).

Gudauri

 

The slopes at Gudauri are very open and well-groomed, and there are a lot more trails of varying difficulties (there are currently seven lifts, mostly chairlifts and towlines along with a new gondola line) than at Bakuriani. Basically, it’s great skiing for a fraction of what you would pay in the US or EU (30 lari for all-day ski rental and another 30 for an all day lift pass–so, under $50). I am a total beginner, and recommend the first slope (essentially an extended bunny hill), and the fourth slope–which, although steeper and narrower in parts, is more open, straight, and free of tantrumming children than is the first.

While close enough for a day trip, Gudauri is worth spending the weekend or a few days. As far as lodgings go there is the “Austrian House” (at the top of the second chairlift, off to the right), which has an amazing panoramic view, in addition to a good restaurant/bar that even serves mulled wine. It’s hostel-style, but if you have a  group of 6 or 8, you could rent out a whole room for about $30 a head. A friend of mine also recommended Hostel Ski-Niki for beginners, as both lessons and meals are included in the cost.

 

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Georgian food is a fantastic, if unfortunately little known, cuisine–although that is changing, with restaurants beginning to branch out from enclaves in Moscow, London, and New York. While it varies from region to region, the Georgian diet is heavy on bread and cheese, along with many varieties of stew.

While the list below is by no means comprehensive, I have endeavored to put together a visual guide to traditional Georgian (or, arguably, regional) dishes that are most likely to come up at any supra, restaurant menu, or home-cooked meal.

Bread

Bread is a staple of the Georgian diet. As in the other Caucasus countries, bread is viewed as sacred and it is considered taboo to throw leftovers or stale pieces in the garbage (as a result, you may find scraps of bread left on the street for birds, or in a little bag neatly tied to the side of the neighborhood dumpster). Most neighborhoods have a tone (“toe-nay,” or oven, shown below) where you can buy fresh bread daily for 50 tetri-1 lari. Georgian bread is known as tonis puri (oven bread), dedas puri (mother’s bread), or shotis puri (?). I am not clear on the differences, although Georgian bread may be long and skinny, rounded-rectangular, or like the ones below. All are delicious!

tonis puri

tonis puri

Pies (Khachapuri and Lobiani)

While not as iconic as khinkali, khachapuri (cheese pie) is probably the most ubiquitous traditional Georgian dish. It is made at home as well as sold in cafes, high-end restaurants, and on the street. It is so widely eaten that ISET (International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University) publishes a monthly “Khachapuri Index,” charting the country’s economic health by the fluctuating prices of ingredients for the three most common regional varieties: Imeruli, Megruli, and Adjaruli.

khach index

Khachapuri Index ingredient lists

Khachapuri Imeruli

Khachapuri Imeruli

Khachapuri Adjaruli: the perfect breakfast

Khachapuri Adjaruli: the perfect breakfast! Influenced by a similar dish from Turkey, which borders the Adjara region

Khachapuri megruli: like imeruli, but also topped with cheese (so...white pizza)

Khachapuri megruli: like imeruli, but also topped with cheese (so…white pizza)

Khachapuri Osuri (Khabizgina): like imeruli, but the filling contains both potato and cheese. Delicious with satsebeli.

Khachapuri Osuri (Khabizgina): like imeruli, but the filling contains both potato and cheese. Delicious with satsebeli.

kubdari

Kubdari: variety of khachapuri from Svaneti, filled with cheese and meat (often lamb or beef)

Lobiani: resembles khachapuri imeruli, but stuffed with spiced red bean paste

Lobiani: usually resembles khachapuri imeruli, but stuffed with spiced red bean paste

Penovani: variety of khachapuri often sold individual size to go. It has a croissant-type dough but the same cheese filling

Penovani: variety of khachapuri often sold individual size to go. It has a croissant-type dough but the same cheese filling

Vegetables

Pkhali: vegetable paste usually made from spinach, beets, or cabbage

Pkhali: vegetable paste usually made from spinach, beets, beans, or cabbage

Salati: Georgian salad is usually comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and parsley. It may also be "nigvzit" (with nuts), and have a bazhe-type walnut dressing

Salati: Georgian salad is usually comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and parsley. It may also be “nigvzit” (with nuts), and have a bazhe-type walnut dressing

Lobio: spiced red beans baked in a clay pot. Often served with mchadi, a dense cornbread

Lobio: spiced red beans baked in a clay pot. Often served with mchadi, a dense cornbread

Soko: stuffed mushrooms fried in a clay pot

Soko: stuffed mushrooms fried in a clay pot

Badrijani (nigvzit--with nuts): marinaded eggplant topped with walnut sauce

Badrijani (nigvzit–with nuts): marinaded eggplant topped with walnut sauce

Ajapsandali: stew made from eggplant, potato, bell pepper, tomato, and herbs.

Ajapsandali: stew made from eggplant, potato, bell pepper, tomato, and herbs.

Tolma (known as dolma in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey): peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of lamb, rice, onion, and herbs

Tolma (known as dolma in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey): peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of lamb, rice, onion, and herbs

Meats

Khinkali: the ubiquitous Georgian dumpling, usually filled with meat, onion, herbs, and broth (although mushroom and potato varieties are often available)

Khinkali: the ubiquitous Georgian dumpling, usually filled with meat, onion, herbs, and broth (although mushroom and potato varieties are often available)

Mtsvadi: Georgian shashlik or kebab (usually beef, pork, or lamb), grilled over a fire and served with onion

Mtsvadi: Georgian shashlik or kebab (usually beef, pork, or lamb), grilled over a fire and served with onion

Kababi: another variety of kebab; for this, ground meat is formed on a skewer for cooking, and is served on a lavash with onion (and usually some kind of pinkish-red vegetable-based sauce?)

Kababi: another variety of kebab; for this, ground meat is formed on a skewer for cooking, and is served on a lavash with onion and satsebeli sauce

Katleti ("cutlet"): may be Georgian-style (beef/pork with herbs and onions) or Kiev-style (chicken stuffed with butter and cheese). There are many variations using different herbs and other ingredients like bread crumbs or potatoes.

Katleti (“cutlet”): may be Georgian-style (beef/pork with herbs and onions) or Kiev-style (chicken stuffed with butter and cheese). There are many variations using different herbs and other ingredients like bread crumbs or potatoes.

Satsivi: chicken breast stewed in bazhe (walnut sauce)

Satsivi: poultry stewed in bazhe (walnut sauce)

Bozbashi: mildly spicy tomato and herb broth with meatballs made with lamb or beef, rice, and onion.

Bozbashi: mildly spicy tomato and herb broth with meatballs made of lamb or beef, rice, and onion.

Muzhuzhi: pork offal (feet, ears, and tail) marinaded in vinegar and garlic

Muzhuzhi: pork offal marinaded in vinegar and garlic

Ostri: mildly spicy beef stew with pepper, tomato, mushrooms, and herbs

Ostri: mildly spicy beef stew with pepper, tomato, mushrooms, and herbs

Chakapuli: slow-cooked stew made with onions, tarragon, tkemali (plum sauce), white wine, and braised meat (usually lamb)

Chakapuli: slow-cooked stew made with onions, tarragon, tkemali (plum sauce), white wine, and braised meat (usually lamb)

Kharcho: traditional meat (often beef) soup, including rice, walnut, plum sauce, and various spices. The thicker Mingrelian variety  is reminiscent of tikka masala

Kharcho: traditional meat (often beef) soup, including rice, walnut, plum sauce, and various spices. The thicker Mingrelian variety is reminiscent of tikka masala

Sauces, Desserts, Other

Adjika: a spicy sauce reminiscent of red pesto originating in Abkhazia, made from red peppers, garlic, and herbs. A drier version is known as "Svanetian salt"

Adjika: a spicy sauce reminiscent of red pesto originating in Abkhazia, made from red peppers, garlic, and herbs. A drier version is known as “Svanetian salt”

Bazha (Bazhe): heavy walnut sauce used to make satsivi, but also liberally used as a condiment at supras

Bazha (Bazhe): heavy walnut sauce used to make satsivi, but also liberally used as a condiment at supras

Tkemali: sauce made from stewed plums

Tkemali: sauce made from stewed plums

Satsebeli (lit. "sauce"): a lighter variety of adjika, with tomato, pepper, vinegar, and onion. Used liberally on meat.

Satsebeli (lit. “sauce”): a lighter variety of adjika, with tomato, pepper, vinegar, and onion. Used liberally on meat or like ketchup on fried potatoes.

churchkhela

Churchkhela (“nutcicle,” “Georgian Snickers”): nuts on a string dipped in boiled, flour-thickened grape paste. Often eaten at New Year’s.

Gozinaki: caramelized nuts (usually walnuts) fried in honey. Like churchkhela, very popular during the Georgian holiday season

Gozinaki: caramelized nuts (usually walnuts) fried in honey. Like churchkhela, very popular during the Georgian holiday season

Nushis Namtskhvari ("nut cake"): is a sweet biscuit made with almonds, and when fresh is the perfect balance of crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside

Nushis Namtskhvari (“nut cake”): is a sweet biscuit made with almonds, and when fresh is the perfect balance of crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside

Ghomi: a thick porridge (often with cheese) much like grits

Ghomi: a thick porridge (often with cheese) much like grits

Matsoni: traditional fermented milk product, like a heavier Greek yogurt

Matsoni: traditional fermented milk product, like a heavier Greek yogurt

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Me Miyvars Saqartvelo

If griping were a sport, expats would be the undisputed victors. We complain about reckless driving, airlessly smoky bars, dental hygiene, demobilized civil society, airfare, bad attempts at ethnic cuisine, customer service, lechy men, the language barrier, people not covering their mouths when they sneeze on the bus, local work ethic, and each other. But whenever I hang out with expats working in Armenia or Azerbaijan, I remember to count my blessings when it comes to living in Georgia:

  • Abundance of NGOs. Georgia is very NGO-friendly, which means there is a comparatively large market for “international” workers in a vast array of capacities. Although Saakashvili is generally credited with Georgia’s West-facing, pro-democracy stance, Georgia has welcomed foreign specialists and volunteers (and money) since the Shevardnadze days. While Armenia is open to NGOs, many of them are small-scale, supported by the diaspora and staffed by locals. Azerbaijan is not terribly enthusiastic about NGOs (my organization, ICOMOS, does not yet have a permanent branch office there), which makes finding jobs in social work, education, and economic development difficult.
  • Food. When you consider how often you need to eat, it kind of makes sense to live somewhere with good, affordable food. Being an expat can be frustrating, but the simple joys of good food make life a lot easier. There’s not a whole lot of variety to Georgian cuisine, but I’m still not sick of well-made khachapuri yet, and am definitely not sick of the fact that I can go out to a big dinner with friends, eat several different dishes (eggplant, salad, khachapuri, kebab, soup, mushrooms), get drinks, and end up with a tab roughly equivalent to $7.
  • Affordability/favorable exchange rate. As of today, one dollar equals 1.6 Georgian lari, 409 Armenian dram, and .78 Azerbaijani manat. The cost of living here is crazy low by capital-city standards–I pay less than $650 a month on [essential] living expenses, which covers my own downtown apartment/utilities, transport, and an overall healthy diet. Meanwhile, Baku has climbed to number 20 on Businessweek’s Most Expensive Cities list, up from number 109 only a year earlier, which means most local volunteers can’t afford to spend much time there. The only problem with this arrangement is that if you get paid a Georgian salary, you will be able to live quite comfortably here–but good luck affording anything else (making a dent on student loans, travel outside the region).
  • Visa regime. Or rather, lack thereof. Foreign citizens (or even just permanent residents) of many countries can live in Georgia without a visa or residence permit for up to 360 days. So while you need to scramble for a letter of invitation and cough up $160 just for a weekend trip to Azerbaijan (and then sweat it out at the Armenian border when the guard sees your Azerbaijan visa page and may or may not decide to admit you), you can march right into Georgia any time you want. And they might even present you with a free mini bottle of wine at the airport.
  • Domestic tourism. There are a lot of things to see and do in Georgia, one of the world’s most climatically diverse countries: forests, beach resorts, monuments covering hundreds of years of history and representing different ethnic groups, vineyards, desert cave complexes, and mountains with good hiking, climbing, and skiing. Almost everything is cheaply and easily accessible by marshutka from Tbilisi.
  • Politics. In Georgia, politics aren’t really something to worry about. While relations with Russia are still tense, Georgia is known as a mediator in the region and has fairly warm relations with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and even Iran. Saakashvili’s pro-Western stance means that American and European visitors have been embraced for the last decade. And the recent victory of Georgian Dream proved that a peaceful, more or less democratic change of power is possible. It’s also hard to take politics too seriously when the prime minister is an eccentric, zoo-keeping oligarch with a James Bond mansion who captured the youth vote using his albino rapper son.
  • Social and cultural life. Georgia, and Tbilisi in particular, remains the “cultural capital” of the Caucasus. There is a constant stream of art, music, and film festivals in Tbilisi, complemented by artsy cafes and galleries on almost every street downtown. While the nightlife here isn’t terribly exciting, the sheer amount of things going on between expat and local events dwarfs anything in Armenia or Azerbaijan.
  • Gender norms. While I do often complain about Georgia’s Mad Men-esque gender norms, things are much better here than in the other two Caucasus countries. This is more noticeable in Azerbaijan, where it is not socially acceptable in most places for women to buy alcohol, be seen with unrelated men, or be out after dark without male escorts. While foreign women in Georgia are likely to get comparatively harmless leers, foreign women in Azerbaijan often face much more aggressive harassment on a regular basis.
  • Diversity. Race is an uncomfortable topic throughout the Caucasus. Many Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis (particularly in rural areas) have never seen or spoken with people of certain ethnicities in real life. Perceptions of other ethnic groups are generally drawn from half-digested global pop culture, from gangsta rap to Gangnam Style (yes, teenagers here do often use the word “nigger” without the faintest idea of its context or connotations). But while Georgians are more than capable of unbelievably racist and xenophobic gems like this one, they are more likely to be awkwardly curious than mean-spirited. This is not so in Azerbaijan, where even in Baku minority visitors are can face harassment.
  • Expat community. For all the reasons listed above, Georgia has become an expat magnet. While Armenia and Azerbaijan are dominated by diplomats, businessmen, and Peace Corps volunteers, Georgia has a wider range of expats working as English teachers, journalists, students, researchers, and at the many different NGOs. There are plenty of expat groups and activities (banya, Georgian choir lessons, language lessons, day or weekend trips), and I have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and hearing the stories of how they ended up here.

So there you have it. As much as I like to make cracks about various aspects of life in Georgia, there’s no denying that life here is much better than the stereotypical “post-Soviet chaos” most people enjoy exoticizing it as.

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