I started thinking about this topic after reading this fascinating article on “Assimilation Food”.  In it, the author Soleil Ho writes, “When immigrants adapt to their new surroundings, the most immediate way this happens is through the food they make: They look around at what’s available and try to make it into something they can recognize”. Of course there are issues of privilege that vary drastically between my experience as an American ex-pat in Georgia and that of a refugee in the US (to start with the low-hanging fruit: I can USA2Georgia any food that I desperately miss…with a few exceptions…the article talks about power and privilege very eloquently), but the idea really resonated with me and made me think about how I cook in Georgia versus how I cooked in the US. Some of my cooking remains definitely American, but lots of things wouldn’t taste the same if I tried again back in the US. And some don’t taste exactly like I want them too, but it’s good enough for weeknight cooking. It has also given me food for thought about another challenge faced by immigrants.

Since teaching can be exhausting, I don’t do a lot of complicated cooking. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all cookies all the time here at Chez Cookies and the Caucasus. Despite that, most of my meals are majority home-made. Many of my go-tos in America have required some adapting to the availability of different products (or different prices…miss you avocados!). I love to read recipe blogs and look at recipes on Pinterest, but sometimes the ingredients are just not regularly obtainable in Tbilisi on a non-oligarch budget. I like to try new recipes, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time. Here are a few easy meals that I make frequently that incorporate Georgian and American elements. Like Ho writes, these are foods that “close the gap between homes”.

Baked Sweet Potato with (Red) Adjika

Frozen Pelmeni and Steamed Broccoli

Chilli with Mchadi

Tuna Melts with Sulguni

“Super Salsa” with lavash and sulguni “quesadillas”

Chicken/Quail and Rice with Tkemali

Hard Boiled Eggs with Tkemali or Svanetian Salt

Scrambled Eggs with Green Adjika, Sulguni, and sauteed onion

Grant’s “puriko” (Georgian-flavored panzanella)

Also, we make a lot of lobio and mchadi in the traditional Georgian way, and so many roasted vegetables (which are fairly universal).

Smitten Kitchen’s Quick Pasta and Chickpeas, Woks of Life’s soy scallion Shanghai Noodles (Carrefour has lots of different Asian noodles) and various sourdough recipes to use Breaderick (my sourdough starter/pet) have entered my everyday repertoire without Georgianization.

What’s your assimilation food?

…no photos, because I really need to work on my plating!

If you’ve wondered why I haven’t posted much in a while, it’s because I’ve been busy with other things…I got married! I imagine you’re either reading this post because you know me personally (or vicariously through the internet) and are interested in the gossip, or you’re considering getting married in Georgia (they’re trying to market the country as a wedding destination) and wanted the inside scoop. I’ll try to satisfy both parties.

For a variety of reasons, we decided to split the legal ceremony and the party to different days/months, which meant the planning was spread out over a longer period than it would have been had we done everything at once.  We had been in a relationship for a while, but decided last year that in order to be sure we’d be able to continue to live in the same country legally, we should make things official. From there, we examined what we wanted, and what our communities wanted…and it looked like we should organize a big official party. Then we started thinking of what we needed to do to get my international friends and family to Georgia and what they would expect, and how to make that work with what the Georgians would expect. Once we had set the date, we realized that a wedding website was going to be necessary to coordinate the logistics for those abroad (even though he’s a programmer, I did the site on Zola–it was easy), and although paper invitations are becoming less mandatory than in the past, I still wanted them. I do love stationery! So the first step was to get engagement photos to have something to put on said website and invitations. Luckily, a friend/student/coworker reminded me of our former student/coworker/friend Maia, who was now a freelance wedding photographer. In a funny coincidence, right after that, Maia saw me out a marshrutka window and messaged me. Clearly it was meant to be, so we met with Maia and started that side of things. She took great photos, and we used them on our site and worked with Allprint to print our invitations. They were great about helping us get things to look exactly the way we wanted.

IMG_6025

The photo used in our invitations. Credit: Maia Tochilashvili

The Legal Wedding:

For a marriage to be legally binding in Georgia, you have to register it at a House of Justice (a church wedding doesn’t do anything legally, like it does in some countries). The process is hailed as being easy and fast. I can’t say it was hard, but it was still plagued by Georgian bureaucracy. Before our vacation to the US last winter, we stopped by the Wedding Hall to ask if I needed to bring any documents from the US, and they said that all I would need was my Georgian residence card, and that when we were ready to get married, just call in advance and schedule. (This is also what one of my good Georgian friends who got married a few months before told me). I didn’t totally believe them that my ID card would be enough, so I preemptively went and got a notarized translation of my passport. When we had gotten the rings together (that took a while since G’s hands required a custom ring) and consulted with a lawyer about a pre-nup (unnecessary in our case, but better safe than sorry), we called to schedule the wedding that weekend. Then they said that we couldn’t schedule over the phone and we needed to come in person to do it…and they were closed the next two (working) days, so better do it fast. (The wedding books suggest that having to go in person a few days in advance is nothing unusual in other places). Fortunately it was a day when we could drop everything and run to the House of Justice. When we got there, they did, indeed, ask for my translated passport and said my residence card was insufficient. Then they said that we needed to give them our witnesses’ IDs that day. Yeah, we don’t walk around carrying our friends’ IDs. If they’d mentioned that, we probably could have gotten them. They agreed to accept photos that day (luckily both of our witnesses happened to have the ability to send them to our phones immediately), as long as we brought the originals on the wedding day.  My witness is also American, so she had to go through the usual drama of finding a notary who is open and has a working translator on any given day, but she managed it in time after running all over the city (hero!).  Allegedly, there are multiple different versions of the ceremony you can choose, but we didn’t get any choice. We were given the most expensive one. The House of Justice had warned us a million times not to be late, so we got there early. You are apparently also not allowed to be early, because they were mean and rude and made me cry, and wouldn’t let me sit in the lobby even though it was freezing outside because there was another wedding (which we never saw any evidence of). I understand not letting me go into the chapel, but the lobby? Totally ridiculous. They made me sit in the closed House of Justice, and when my husband arrived (also early) I couldn’t get out to go sit in the car as the door was locked (That’s safe…). When the time for the ceremony arrived, though, everything went fine. Apparently if you pay the big bucks you get champagne (actually a pretty tasty one), a “first dance,” and a copy of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. After we were married, we went across the street to Sirajkhana and had a lovely dinner with the small group of family and friends who had come to the legal wedding.

IMG_1238

Signing the marriage contract at the House of Justice Credit: Maia Tochilashvili

Logistical Prep:

After we were officially married, the logistical arrangements for the reception and related events became our focus. It wasn’t too hard to decide on our venue: Egri. Their decor was the least over-the-top of places we visited, their food was delicious, and the location made sense for guests (it was also a bit cheaper than other places). We realized later on that it was a huge bonus that it was near G’s office; he could run over on his lunch break and figure out some details, which turned out to be very helpful. I really wanted my guests from abroad to get to see Georgian dancing, and Egri had their own dancers to perform, so we didn’t have to worry about arranging that. . Our photographer Maia recommended a “designer” (florist and more), Edemi, who we agreed to put in charge of making things pretty and otherwise leave it to him (of course he turned out to be from the next village over from G’s relatives…small country). I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the cake to be from Mada, because they are the only bakery I have found in Georgia (so far) whose cakes I consistently like (seriously, try their dark chocolate frosting). They were very easy to work with and design a cake.  Our friend Merab is a professional singer, so he helped us find all the musicians. (The music turned out to be one of the highlights–he got literally some of the best people in the country for us). The videography was arranged by the restaurant because it wasn’t a top priority for us, but they wanted some footage to use as advertising. For other little extra details, we had wanted to flavor some of G’s homemade chacha and put it in mini bottles as favors for the guests, but the only guy at Lilo who had mini bottles only had 26 “until spring”, so we had to reevaluate our plans. We wound up ordering customized bottle openers from the US and having them shipped here. That worked out fine. We also put together some things to keep the kids entertained and bathroom amenity baskets to make our guests more comfortable. G had a contact at a company that rents photo booths, and that sounded like it would be fun, so we organized that as well.

gifme edited

Photo booth photo; we got some really funny ones!

Beyond just the reception, we arranged a discounted block of rooms at Betsy’s Hotel for guests from abroad. Many people chose to go the AirBnB route and found really nice places, but we did have people stay at Betsy’s. We also arranged a post-wedding brunch there, and they were great to work with–everything was easy and nice without a lot of work on my part.  We made welcome bags for our guests from abroad. The bags were designed and printed by Allprint, and we filled them with information about Georgia, snacks, and wine. We had quite the time running around the city trying to find enough boxes of Gurieli black tea bags, which were somehow in short supply! We also found a tour guide to do a walking tour of the city so that guests could get their bearings and get to know one another. We had a “support marshrutka” for the long portions, and where we could keep snacks and heavy bags. That hybrid model worked out well. The guide told some stories and took us to some places that were even new to me. After the tour, we had a welcome dinner at Kakhelebi, which worked out very nicely–they have a separate room for mid-size events, and delicious food. We didn’t even have to arrange things too far in advance for it to work out, and the staff were helpful and accommodating. Because we already had the marshrutka, we didn’t need to worry about the slightly inconvenient location because transportation was already taken care of for the non-locals.

The Day-of:

We had to wake up fairly early in order to get my hair and make-up done in time to get to the Ethnographic Museum by 2 for pictures. So we did. Our Best Man had hired a limo, so we drove there in style. Unfortunately, it was quite cold, so not many of our friends and family came to join us for the pictures, and my Maid of Honor and I were freezing (the guys got lucky with their suits and chokhas!).

IMG_3124

Ethnographic Museum Crew Credit: Maia Tochilashvili

It was a long time with no food and no bathroom, so we eventually wound up just going to the wedding early! While we were there and the guests started arriving, I kept telling myself “This is Georgia; nothing is going to go the way you plan it, so don’t get too attached to the small details. Things will still be fine anyway. As long as you give the guests food and wine, they’ll be happy.” And there were things I could have had a meltdown over–the cake was too dark, the flowers were too light (and I have no idea where baby pink entered the equation), some guests didn’t pay attention to the seating chart…but like I had been telling myself, it was all fine. My husband’s brother and cousins did an amazing job of dealing with the most urgent problems so that they didn’t snowball (I hope they got to have fun, too). Despite the small things, the cake tasted delicious (which was more important); the centerpieces didn’t block conversations (my main worry), and people seemed to have fun. We didn’t get to spend as much time with our guests or eat as much food as we’d planned (I’ve read this is basically how weddings go), but we had a good time. Our friend’s teenage daughter described it as “lit”, so I guess we pulled it off!

IMG_4077

The kids DEFINITELY had fun Credit: Maia Tochilashvili

Analysis:

Our expenses were in line with those mentioned in Meydan TV’s article on wedding costs in the region, which is still shocking to me, honestly, as our combined salaries are (considerably) above average for Georgia. We had 145 guests and the event felt really lavish to me (more lavish than I had dreamed of), and we did a lot of extras (welcome bags, favors, kids’ entertainment…). I’m not sure what people are doing to get up to some of those numbers! We did keep costs lower by 1) having the reception during Lent (church weddings aren’t allowed during Lent): this meant more vegetarian food on the menu, which is cheaper, and less competition for vendors, so they were willing to work for less rather than not work at all and 2) going with a fairly new restaurant, which hadn’t yet established a “stylish” reputation, but was trying really hard to do so. This made them try very hard and be very accommodating (they did a great job), but their prices weren’t inflated by the cool factor.

Advice:

You HAVE TO be “bridechilla”, or Georgia will drive you nuts. You also really need a Georgian speaker involved in this. My Georgian is pretty good, and I rarely have trouble communicating day-to-day, but this was a whole other level. (Mostly phone calls, which are absolutely my linguistic Achilles’ heel). If any of you have stumbled across this post because you’re planning a Tbilisi wedding, feel free to reach out–I have gained some knowledge, and have wedding planning books looking for a new home!

Vendors:

Photographer: Maia Tochilashvili
Reception Venue: Egri
Reception Flowers and Decor: Edemi Gvarmiani
Reception Music: Merab and friends from Rustavi Ensemble, DJ Giga Papaskiri and his assistant(?), Saba
Reception Dance: Restaurant Egri’s Dance Troupe
Photo Booth/GIFFER: GIFme
Wedding Cake: Madart (“Mada”) Conditery
Make-up: Buta at Ici Paris Beauty Center
Hair: Eka at Beauty Salon Zuka
Printing: Allprint

I know I’ve been gone awhile; a full proper post is coming soon to fill you in on why. In the meantime, I’ve decided to make a Twitter for the blog, where I can post quick observations and photos of ex-pat life in Tbilisi, travel, food, and culture. Follow me at @cookiesandthe
My personal Twitter remains active, for those who already follow me there.

IMG_20180826_174436_1-COLLAGE

Clockwise from top left: Museum rooftop selfie, Mount Ushba from the museum rooftop, Svan tower, millet tchvishtari

Mariamoba was on a Tuesday this year, and since my Monday classes took a summer vacation, that gave me a 4-day weekend; actually enough time to go a little further afield. G had never been to Svaneti, and my previous trip was far from enough, so we decided to make a weekend of it. We planned to leave mid-day Saturday, but work intervened, so we didn’t leave until late afternoon. Our plan was to drive to Zugdidi to spend the night there, break up the drive, and spend some time with G’s relatives. The thing that had come loose on the car on our trip to Poka was making noise again, and there was heavy traffic, so it took longer than planned and we didn’t get in to Zugdidi until quite late. We got to hang out with the family a bit in the morning, though. One of the little ones is book-obsessed and loved the board books I had brought her, so we got along swimmingly.

We left Zugdidi around noon and drove into Svaneti. We’d stopped at the Enguri dam and taken photos before, so we skipped that stop, but did pull off for the odd scenic pitstop. It took about three and a half hours to get to Mestia. Just outside Mestia, we picked up a group of hitchhikers, who were a great boon to us. They were all Tbilisi Svan English teachers spending their summer vacation in their ancestral home. They called a friend of theirs who ran a guesthouse and hooked us up with a cheap, clean guesthouse with a private bathroom. They also gave us some restaurant and sightseeing advice, and were just generally very nice and helpful. Unfortunately I didn’t catch any of their names, but one of them works with one of my co-workers (small country), so hopefully I can meet her again and say thank you.

After dropping our stuff off in the room we went for a wander in the town and relaxed a bit in the park at Seti Square, and then went to make sure we made it to the Svaneti museum before they closed. I’m really glad we made it to the museum; it’s small but well-presented and really worth visiting. I found the display of coins left at the churches really interesting in their age and geographic range. After seeing the exhibits, we climbed to the museum roof to see the panoramic view of Mestia and take some photos. We finished the day at Koshki Bar (also recommended by our hitchhikers for kubdari). I was surprised that a place next to the bus station would be so good…it’s usually better to walk further afield. The menu was extensive, and despite all my years in Georgia, I wasn’t familiar with all the dishes. We were discussing what to order in our usual mish-mash of Georgian and English, and the waitress kept right up, speaking to us in both languages.  We wound up ordering the kubdari (the Svanetian version of khachapuri, filled with spiced meat), the house salad (which the waitress made sure we knew was made with beef tongue) and a tchvishtari (Svanetian cheesy cornbread, a favorite of mine) made with millet. Everything was delicious, though I thought the tchvishtari was a little on the salty side. When I went to the restroom, I noticed in the refrigerator a legit-looking chocolate cake, so I splurged and had dessert and did not regret it in the least. It was one of the best cakes I’ve had in Georgia. Walking around Mestia I was struck by how different it was than four years ago. Then there were lots of empty new buildings and not many people around. This time, Mestia was vibrant! Tourists and locals alike were playing in the park, strolling along the streets, and eating in cafes. There were far fewer empty storefronts, but there were still cows walking down the main street and old men in traditional hats minding their own business. Right now, they’ve hit the balance between tradition and development right on the head for me…I desperately hope they manage to hold onto that balance, as the place is only going to keep getting more and more popular.

After sleeping in the next morning, I started the day with my first-ever flat white at Erti Kava which brews my beloved Coffee Lab beans and has a really extensive drink menu including the lovely flower fairy tea from the baths (…must find the name of that brand!). We had a breakfast that was really more of a lunch at Cafe Panorama  where I sampled their version of millet tchvistari (I preferred Koshki’s version, but this was also very good) and G had a massive plate of ojakhuri (pork and potatoes cooked together…this version included some wine, too). We walked down to the riverside and relaxed and listened to the rushing water for a while. Then we walked to the Hatsvali Ski Lift. The idea was to take the ski lift up, and go for a short hike/long walk once we were at the top. However, the ski lift was closed for repairs. Given what happened at Gudauri last winter, this is probably for the best, but it was annoying that the sign said the lift would reopen on August 10, and we were well past that with no information on when it would actually reopen. Our plans were foiled, so we wandered around the town for a while and returned to Seti Square, where G to a little nap to digest his ojakhuri. After another little wander through the other part of the town, we had dinner at Buba, which was recomended by our hostess for kubdari. G was still pretty full, so we didn’t order it, though. We got “Svan fries” (french fries with Svanetian salt), millet khachapuri (which was amazing! I think the millet was mixed in with the cheese rather than the used for the dough, though, so I think it still contained wheat) and chicken soup (which may also have contained millet). All the food was really good.

Tuesday was Mariamoba, which is apparently a particularly big deal in Svaneti, but we had to drive back to Tbilisi. Only Laila was open for breakfast but their breakfast menu was limited and kind of disappointing, so G decided to wait and I grabbed a packaged croissant and a banana from the market and returned to Erti Kava for a latte. They also had a little bit of quiche left (they don’t sell much food, but apparently have some), so I got a piece and was quite satisfied with my breakfast. We set off, and stopped along the road for G to have his last taste of kubdari in Khaishi. Despite the holiday, traffic wasn’t too bad on the highway, so we made it back to Tbilisi in decent time.

Inspired by my friend Chloe’s monthly food favorites, I’m going to start profiling my favorite new things in Georgia each season. See all my past favorites here. I’ll try to focus on things, people, places, and organizations that are brand new, but it’s possible that I’ll be late to the party on something, or there’s something that’s just new-to-me and so amazing that I’ll still choose to include it. I don’t mean to be solely food-focused, but that seems to happen sometimes…

IMG_20180317_203952-COLLAGE

Clockwise from top left: Cinnamon rolls made with Breaderick; cherry juice; room in Crowne Plaza Borjomi; Panthenol gel; quesadilla from El Maridaje (half-eaten, sorry); quail and rice

S is back: Those who’ve been with this blog since the early days might remember my old travel buddy/roommate/partner in crime “S:. Well, she’s been gone a while working on her PhD, but this summer her research brought her back to Georgia, and we got to hang out! Of course she’s on her way back to the US to finish up her degree right as this post goes live, but it made spring and summer fun to have her around!

El MaridajeTbilisi finally has a Mexican restaurant! The chef is from Sonora, so the cuisine isn’t TexMex or Baja, but as someone with family in Tucson, this hits the spot! My favorite so far is Nachos El Maridaje, but they have expanded the menu since last time I visited.

Cherry juice: Good for my joints, delicious, and one of the few sugar-free options readily available, cherry and cherry-pomegranate juices make me happy.

Upscale Borjomi: This summer I attended a conference in Borjomi, which led to seeing a different side of the town. This side was also great! The conference was held in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was a real 5 star hotel. The swimming pool was beautiful, the buffet was good, and my room was fit for a princess. We also had a wine tasting at The Drinking Spot, and it was some of the best wine I’ve had anywhere; varieties I had never heard of served with delicious cheese and honey.

Frozen quail: Lately, the supply of normal chicken to the grocery store around the corner has been disrupted, so while I was searching in vain one day I noticed a package of frozen quail, and I turned my chicken and rice into quail and rice. Delicious, fancy, and possibly even easier than with chicken!

Mama Terra: Unfortunately, Begemot closed (Woland’s remains), but as consolation it was replaced with Mama Terra which is another great place. Mexican, Asian, and Georgian vegetarian options. Everything I’ve had has been delicious, and it’s nice to be able to go out to eat for fun and convenience, without sacrificing healthy tasty food like what I make at home. The drink menu is also awesome–free tap water, lots of fresh juices, smoothies, a tasty masala chai latte, and delicious ginger kombucha.

Lisi Lake walking path: I hadn’t been to Lisi Lake in a while, and boy does it look different now! They’ve made a path around the lake (and also added a lot of “attractions” and cafes to the city side). It’s a 3-kilometer loop, and a very pleasant walk. Clearly it’s popular, as the place is packed with walkers, joggers, and kids on bikes and scooters every day at almost all hours.

Georgian pharmacies: I posted years ago about my first time using my Georgian health insurance, and I remain really pleased with my insurance coverage and my family doctor. This summer I had a series of minor maladies (Tbilisi tummy, ear infection, a series of burns, bumps, and scrapes), and while I did see my doctor a few times to patch me up, it was the pharmacists who really got me through the summer. While there are of course some pharmacists who aren’t particularly interested in helping, on average I’ve gotten great advice and assistance from them–looking up the equivalent of the American thing I have in Georgia, comparing prices, recommending different products, etc. My greatest find this summer was something called Panthenol, recommended by a pharmacist for my tide-battered, scraped, rashy and sunburned legs (Why yes, I was a total mess). I had asked for something to use like Neosporin, which I had left at home, and she said “No, no, you don’t need an antibiotic yet. You just need something to toughen it up. Try this.” I tried it, and that’s exactly what it did–it made the scab form quickly, and the skin heal faster in general (and I don’t see any scars).

Breaderick, my sourdough starter: When I visited my parents at Christmas, Mom told me about her new adventures in sourdough, and I got to try their sourdough pancakes. It seemed like a brilliant idea to start my own, so now I have my own gluten pet named Breaderick. It’s a fun but not too time-consuming hobby, and I make yummy pancakes, flatbread and regular bread somewhat regularly now. I’ve also experimented with banana bread and cinnamon rolls, with fairly good results. (If anyone in Tbilisi needs a piece, just let me know!)

Dishonorable Mention: Lari depreciation…and I had meant to convert my savings to USD right before, and didn’t get around to it. Poor me. (Literally).

If you have any suggestions for something new and great in Georgia, let me know–I’ll try to check it out, and perhaps it will make a future favorites list.

A friend and I had tried to go on a trip to Tusheti a few years ago, but it was too expensive for just two people, so we passed up that opportunity. This summer another friend suggested going and put together a group of four, so it was more financially possible (I also have a better salary now). Tusheti is one of the most gushed-over regions of Georgia, so I was really excited about the trip.

Tusheti is one of the most remote regions of Georgia, located on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range; the only road is closed from October to May, and sometimes longer. That road is only accessible to 4 wheel drive vehicles, and it takes at least 4 hours to make it to the main village, Omalo.  Very few people stay in Tusheti over the winter (and most of those who stay remain in Omalo, not the other villages) though the government does provide weekly helicopter service for those who do. Pretty much the entire region is a protected area or national park, so the nature there is relatively unspoiled, especially compared to other parts of the country (there are big chunks of woods!). Administratively, Tusheti is part of the Kakheti region. Tushetians are quite well-integrated into the rest of Georgia, but they do have their own culture and history. One of the most obvious demonstrations of this is the prohibition on pork in Tusheti (whereas pork is synonymous with food in much of the rest of Georgia). Instead of pork, lamb is the primary meat source–this is great for me as I love lamb and it isn’t always easy to find in Tbilisi outside the Easter holidays. Accordingly, the people are mostly shepherds and semi-nomadic. The superstition is that if you bring pork into Tusheti, it will rain. I was pretty sure the pate we brought was beef (and it had a picture of a cow on it!) but some Tushetians scolded us for it anyway…

We left early on Monday morning, picked up the others, and made our way to Telavi where we had a khinkali brunch. We proceeded then to Zemo Alvani, where we met the friend-of-a-friend we were staying with. While he was preparing the last things, we went to the local grocery store and stocked up since the boys were afraid they would starve in Tusheti.  We packed up the Delica (300 GEL/car, shared between the number of passengers: “maximum” 6, so 50 GEL/person), stored our car in another friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s house in Kvemo Alvani (the main jumping-off point) and were on the road to Tusheti. This road had me a bit apprehensive; it was featured on the BBC’s Most Dangerous Roads, so that’s hardly an endorsement, is it? To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. The road is very narrow and windy, so it definitely requires a driver who knows how to control the car and pay attention, but the road itself was relatively well-maintained. The other big thing about the road is that many of the mountain streams run straight across it, so the driver and the car need to be able to ford some water. I’ve been on MANY worse roads in Georgia, though. The scenery out the window is certainly beautiful. We did get stuck in a traffic jam mid-way caused by a rockfall that needed to be cleared before cars could continue to pass. There are a number of memorials along the road to those who have died, which does undermine one’s confidence a bit, though I have heard rumors that not all of those are actually due to car accidents…

Our destination that night was the village of Parsma, about an hour and a half drive past Omalo, and the last village generally accessible by vehicle. It was dark when we arrived, and we were told that we needed to just climb that little mountain to get to our place. Before we had been told that the car could bring us to the door, so we hadn’t packed accordingly. I grew up with the Girl Scout advice that you should be able to carry your own supplies one mile, and I try to abide by that. HOWEVER, one kilometer straight up a slippery mountain after dark is not the same as a normal one mile, and somehow the shoulder strap for my duffel bag was nowhere to be found, so that was a struggle. We had been told it was a “normal house”, but we were in a remote region, so I wasn’t really expecting electricity (and I was right), but I was kind of expecting beds (and I was wrong). The sleeping arrangements were tables with padding on them (actually not bad), except they were both shorter and narrower than a regular twin bed, and lacking sheets and pillows. I’m not so high maintenance–I can sleep without a pillow on my back or on my stomach, just not on my side. But since the beds were so short, I was too tall to be able to stretch out to sleep on my back or front. Add to that a sunburn on one hip and an ear infection in the opposite ear making sleeping on either side uncomfortable, even if there were a pillow… We had managed to have too much stuff to haul up the mountain and yet not have the things we needed to sleep properly.

After no sleep and a fair amount of crankiness (not just on my part), the boys decided to let the girls “sleep in” and went off in search of a guest house. They returned heroes when they informed us that we could stay at Guesthouse Baso for two nights (2-person room 60 GEL/night; food available, but we had our own). With hot running water, electricity (thank you, solar technology!), WiFi and real beds with sheets and pillows, this place was paradise! (The hostess also, surprisingly, spoke very good Spanish–better than me, for sure!) The first day we were all tired, so we just hung out with the other guests (some French hikers who are starting a bakery when they return to Paris!) and enjoyed the view and the “fresh air”. Tusheti is famous for fresh air, but in my experience there was always someone smoking their cigarette nearby, so I had more breathing problems there than I usually do in Tbilisi. I did sleep like the dead that night, though.

IMG_20180808_134422

View from Guesthouse Baso

The next day was cooler and cloudier, so we mostly just hung out at the guest house. In the afternoon the boys decided to try their hands at fishing…I think we can say that no unknown talents were discovered, but it was nice to sit next to the river and be outside. We returned to the guest house to hang out, but the (new) other guests, European hikers, asked us to be quiet starting at 7, so we couldn’t do much. (What do you think of that? I’m an early-to-bed early-to-rise person myself, and I understand that they had to wake up early to leave and complete their hike in daylight hours, but given the fact that “quiet hours” in Georgia are more like midnight to 10 AM, it seemed like a big ask…even small children tend to stay up until 11 here, so 7 is really early). I climbed into bed and read my book, and the boys went off to drink with the friend-of-a-friend. And then the rain started. Oh, boy, it was a serious downpour, complete with thunder and everything. It was one of the scarier rain storms I’ve been in, and of course I started worrying about the guys who were who knows where, drinking, and unfamiliar with the terrain. And then the beeping started. Remember how this day was kind of cloudy? That meant that the solar power system hadn’t gotten enough sun to make it through the night, and it was beeping to let us know we were running out of power. We didn’t particularly want to turn out the porch light so the guys could find their way home, but the beeping was also REALLY annoying, and European hiker guy poked his head out to ask me to make it stop (I don’t work here!). We turned the system, and all the electricity, off to make the beeping stop, and eventually the guys found their way back, but between all that and the thunder and pounding rain, it wasn’t a great night’s sleep.

The next day was the village festival, but because of that Baso was out of rooms. They very nicely helped us arrange a room for the next two nights at another guesthouse in another village called Mirgvela. In the morning, we hung out at the parking lot of the village to find a driver who was planning on not drinking at the festival…that was actually easier than I thought it would be. We walked up the mountain to the village to attend the festival. The boys “had to” go to the shrine to be beaten with wooden swords, but the girls weren’t allowed to approach the shrine, so we went to the friend-of-a-friend’s house to hang out. His mother asked us why we hadn’t stayed in the nice room with proper beds! Had we known of the nice room with proper beds, I’m pretty sure we would have! The supra was also gender-divided, but this time that was kind of an advantage…no one was forcing the women’s table to eat or drink, but there was lots of delicious food and drink available. We finally got to eat some lamb, and the pickles were some of the tastiest I’ve had. At the supra, the men with wooden swords became the supra police. I was afraid that they might be forcing people to eat and drink, but actually they were stopping people from saying things that would cause fights, so they seemed to actually be a pretty good addition to the supra! Then the rain started again, which made the outdoor supra and festival significantly less fun (and kind of chilly). We went back to the porch of the house to watch the horse-race, which our friend-of-a-friend’s horse won! Since G had left his suitcase there since the first day (not wanting to schlep it up and down mountain again), we left in a break in the rainstorm to get down the mountain and meet our driver. Our driver’s cousins had asked him to drive them to Dartlo, so he said he’d be back in an hour. Then it started really pouring and didn’t let up. We hung out in one of the little cafes, drinking ქონდრის ჩაი (kondris chai, savory tea). Our driver was quite prompt, especially given the weather conditions (only 10 minutes late!), and we bumped our way over mushy roads to Mirgvela.

Mirgvela greeted us with a view of misty mountains beyond mountains and comfortable rooms and beds (but shared bathrooms) (2-person room 50 GEL/night; food 25 GEL/person/day). The staff there were very sweet and friendly, and spoke a little English and were eager to try to communicate. It kept raining the whole next day, so we didn’t do much other than eat, drink kondris chai, read, and hang out. The food at Mirgvela was really good! They made some mchadi that tasted halfway between normal mchadi and American corn bread and was served with real butter and honey–amazing! The food price included wine and chacha, and we always had loads of leftovers from the portions they served us. However, it was really really cold the whole time we were there, and the cloudiness and the fact that everyone was stuck inside meant the limited electricity was used up pretty fast. Unfortunately, G and L got sick one day, but I think it was because of the raw melon, so it’s not the guest house’s fault. The day we had planned to leave, we learned that the road had washed out, and they weren’t sure when it would re-open…and G and L weren’t feeling well, so we waited (and mostly slept).

IMG_20180810_105406

View from Mirgvela

The next day (the extra day) we were pleasantly surprised with the news that the road had opened, and our driver was probably on his way, since his neighbors said his car was gone and his phone was out of the coverage area, so we packed and waited.  Eventually the driver’s phone came back into the coverage area, and he said he was on his way! We were heading home! The road back was much bumpier after days of rain, but still only one spot was scary (the road was totally flooded, but apparently it wasn’t too deep if you knew where to drive on the road that you couldn’t see…).

All in all, I can say that Tusheti is pretty and I got a lot of reading done (finished Now I Rise and The Paris Spy, made progress in Let Our Fame be Great and War and Peace), but I don’t know if it was worth the long and expensive drive, particularly since the weather turned out to be bad. Prices are higher there than in other parts of the country because of the difficulty of getting products and the short growing season. We had more adventure and quite a bit less action than I had hoped. If you have plenty of time and money (if you get stuck, you have to pay the guesthouse for those extra days of course) and have already seen other parts of Georgia then maybe it’s worth a trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first-time visit to Georgia. There are lots of beautiful places in Georgia, many of which have significantly less hassle.

Since the semester is mostly over I currently have a little more free time. The heat in Tbilisi has been intense (and record-breaking!), so I was ready to get out of town. I had long-ago read an article about the Convent at Phoka, and I had tried their chocolate from an Old Town souvenir shop. Someone mentioned Paravani Lake in a conversation (the convent is on its shores), and an idea formed in my mind. It was an especially perfect plan, because one day isn’t enough time to go to the seaside, but I did want to be by the water. I woke up Sunday morning and said “Let’s go on an adventure!”. Famous last words.

Paravani Lake is located in the Southern part of Georgia in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Southern Georgia (Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions especially) is interesting for its ethnic diversity; there are great numbers of ethnic Armenians and Azeris, villages of Russian spiritual Christians, the odd historically German village, and a few others. There are two roads from Tbilisi to Tsalka, from where there is only one road to the village of Phoka, via Kojori and Manglisi or via Tetritskaro on the Marneuli road. We went via Tetritskaro, as the road is supposed to be in better condition. I had been on part of this road a few times before, including on my first trip to Georgia in 2010. What was amazing about this drive was that nothing looked different. Every time I travel westward on the main road to Gori and beyond, there’s something new and more developed: new marshrutka stops, freshly painted signs on shops, better roads…the road towards Marneuli was just the same as 8 years ago. This is the poorest area of Georgia, and you could see it. Once you leave the dry, brown plains, just after Tetritskaro, things turn green and you enter what is one of the most beautiful areas of Georgia I have seen. Green, with lots of streams and ponds, plentiful wildflowers in the meadows and evergreen forests atop small craggy peaks and rolling hills. It was a beautiful drive. There’s an organization, Elkana, which is working to develop rural tourism in this area, and now I get it. The Georgian government just released a video promoting tourism in the region, with many beautiful shots but ignoring the region’s ethnic diversity, which ruffled a few feathers.

Just before Tsalka, we decided to go explore a few of the villages, more or less at random, and see what there was to see. We turned down the road to the village of Kokhta (I was told this means tower, but I can’t find confirmation of that…) and drove on to the next village, Chrdilisubani (shadow neighborhood). There was no tower, but there was some shade. If anyone knows anything about these villages, please let me know! We spoke to someone in Chrdilisubani to clear up whether or not the road connected back to the highway (answer: it goes back to the highway, but it isn’t really a road. GoogleMaps Lie #1). He was clearly a native Georgian speaker. When we retraced our route back through Kokhta, I noticed that the church had a three-barred Russian cross on it rather than the Georgian cross of grapevines or the Armenian cross I would expect to see in an Armenian village. This piqued my interest since this region is known to be very diverse. Do the Russian spiritual Christians use the Russian Orthodox cross? Did we stumble across some Dukhobors? Maybe Georgians or Armenians just preferred that cross in this village? I couldn’t find an answer in a few quick Google searches, though I can say I’m pretty sure the village is not Azeri.

We continued on to Phoka, through the segment of bad roads in the village of Sameba (the rest of the road from Tbilisi to Phoka was fine).  The beautiful scenery continued, especially as we drove along the shore of Lake Paravani, and the further we were from Tbilisi, the cooler the temperatures got. It was down to 61* (F) on the car thermostat by the time we were in Phoka. There was also a little bit of rain, but nothing major.  We found the convent shop by following the convenient signs. This is a very entrepreneurial convent, who have studied cheesemaking in France and take advantage of their location and solitude to make high-quality gourmet products. We splurged on cheese and chocolate and fancy jam.  The plan was to go to a little marketi, buy some bread and maybe tomatoes, and have a little picnic and return to Tbilisi. End of Day.

IMG_20180708_162037-COLLAGE

Treats from Phoka (that white chocolate with rose petals was so good!)

HAHAHAHAHA

G had the idea to make a loop, rather than going  back to Tbilisi the way we had come. Ninotsminda is the next major town down the road from Phoka, and he knew of a road from Tabatskuri Lake down to Ninotsminda, and had driven from Bakuriani to Tabatskuri Lake before and said the road was good enough. Our new plan was Phoka–>Ninotsminda–>Tbatskuri Lake–>Bakuriani–>Borjomi–>highway back to Tbilisi. It would be beautiful and nice and great.

HAHAHAHAHA

We went to Ninotsminda and bought some bread, and picked up a few (very lovely) Polish hitchhikers outside town. Their goal was to go to Vardzia the next day, so they wanted to find a bed in a place where it would be easy to get a tour to Vardzia. We suggested Borjomi, because it’s a nice town, there are organized tours there, and we could drive them all the way. Perfect! We consulted GoogleMaps which didn’t show a road straight to Tabatskuri, but said that the road to Bakuriani that went near there was a highway, the M20, and off we went. Now, I didn’t expect this highway to be a highway like the divided highway between Tbilisi and Gori, but since it was the same color on the map as all the roads we had been on earlier that day, I expected it to be, you know, passable. It was in yellow, and village roads are generally shown in white. Village roads are dicey, sure. But this was a yellow road; it would be fine.

HAHAHAHAHA

Clearly it was not fine. (GoogleMaps Lie #2) There was a bit of asphalt, and then good gravel, and then….After a short way of bumping and scary crashy-grindy noises and no indication of a better road ahead, we thought to reevaluate the plan. The black storm clouds behind us clinched the deal, and we turned around back to Akhalkalaki. Here we had two choices: go back the way we had come (leaving our hitchhikers further from their destination than they had started) or continue the loop on the road to Akhaltsikhe. We knew the road we had been on was fine, and we knew the road from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi was fine…but what about the road between Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki? GoogleMaps said it was yellow. And as we had learned, yellow can mean pretty much anything. We saw that Aspindza was along that route, and I remembered that that was the road to Vardzia, and that THAT road was OK, so it was only a little bit of mystery. We went for it.

Luckily, this part of the road was fine. Potholes, of course, but normal potholes. (This is ALSO a beautiful drive along a small river with mountains on either side). However, the poor little Prius had had a long day, and between Aspindza and Akhaltsikhe a rattling emerged. G climbed out and looked and saw “something” hanging, but couldn’t reach it. We arrived in Akhaltsikhe a little after 8 (on Sunday evening) and saw a lot of closed garages. We found a tire shop and carwash that was open. They let us use the bathroom, and the backpackers bought some coffee in the unfortunately named cafe “Coffee. Oil”. They couldn’t help us with the car, but they told us where the open mechanic’s shop was. Once we found the mechanic, the car got lifted up and we got the good news that it was only the protector that was dangling, so they put it back in place, and after just 10 lari we were good to go. Onwards!

The backpackers had cleverly gone online to book a guesthouse in Borjomi, so we dropped our new friends off and said goodbye (of course the guesthouse wasn’t where GoogleMaps said it was. Lie #3). Now we had been on the road for 10 hours, were hungry (never got that picnic!), and not as relaxed as we had hoped. Clearly we needed a khachapuri break in the village of Akhaldaba outside Borjomi, where they make amazing wood-oven khachapuri. It finally started raining seriously, so we waited it out while we ate. Refreshed and with the rain abating, we had an uneventful (but late) drive back to Tbilisi.

poka map

Long story short: visit this area of Georgia; it’s stunning; do not trust GoogleMaps there.

 

6598284

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (image from GoodReads)

Theroux, Paul. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar. First Mariner Books ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009. Print.

In this book, the author, Paul Theroux, travels across Eurasia mostly on land, primarily by train. He more or less retraces his journey 30 years earlier, which was recounted in his book “The Great Railway Bazaar”. The most pertinent difference between these two journeys, for my purposes, is that on his second journey, he was not able to get a visa to Iran, and so he rerouted through Georgia. This book stands out as the least glowing travel memoir of Georgia I’ve read, which is not to say it’s negative, though. It’s certainly an interesting tale and a snapshot of Georgia at a very particular time. Theroux crosses the land border from Turkey to Georgia at Sarpi on a dreary, muddy spring day not long after the Rose Revolution. This was before Saakashvili shined things up, and before the tourists came. He visits charity houses, watches the mediocre ballet in the faded Opera House, and sees subsistence farmers all along the rail line across the country. It’s a good reminder that the Rose Revolution was not very long ago, and that Saakashvili’s reforms still took time. The Opera House only recently reopened after years of renovations, and some of the people he met and spoke to are still relevant cultural figures, but the Georgia he describes is very different than the experience visitors will have in Tbilisi or Batumi these days, though the Georgia Theroux descrives is still prevalent in the regions and prone to be forgotten by Tbilisi elites and foreign tourists alike.

One quotation from one of Theroux’s conversations made me think, in particular, about this blog. They say, “You live in a place and you become blind to it” (p. 454). I think that has been happening to me, now that I’ve been in Georgia for more than six years (!?!?!). Things just seem normal now, and I don’t have the observations that I used to. That said, if anyone has any requests for posts…

One interesting part of Theroux’s journey was that he made a point of meeting with writers on his travels, including one of my favorites: Elif Shafak. Her book “The Bastard of Istanbul” remains one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking contemporary novels I have read.  It’s clear that Theroux holds her in similar esteem (and also that she’s really really pretty). She is great. Reading “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” has greatly expanded my to-read list, as so many of the books whose authors he meets sound great, and I am curious to read about his previous journey when he and the world were very different.

I had a glorious and rare free day the day before Easter vacation this year, so I decided to get out of town, get some fresh air, and try to avoid the Easter traffic at the same time. Luckily, it was nearly perfect weather, so there were plenty of options. I convinced G to join me for a day trip to Surami, a town I had passed through hundreds of times, but had never visited. If the name rings a vague bell, it might be because of the film by Sergei Parajanov “The Legend of Suram Fortress”. I’ve never seen the film, but I did see the ballet Gorda (a must-see at the Tbilisi Opera!) which tells the same folktale, and so my sights were set on that fortress.

IMG_20180405_145051

The tree-lined lane from the road up to Surami Fortress

Turns out, the fortress is pretty easy to access; it’s just a short not-too-steep walk up a lane from the main road. We timed our visit just right, as the fruit trees lining the little lane were blooming, making it a lovely sight. We shared the fortress with a cow and, briefly, one other group of visitors. There were lots of places that would be an Instagrammer’s heaven, but posing for photos isn’t my thing. We still got some nice shots, though.

Ready to explore some more, we stopped at the town mineral water fountain, which was quite beautiful but not very delicious. I guess the water is supposed to be good for your health, or something, because it wasn’t particularly refreshing. We went on to try to visit the museum dedicated to Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrainka, but it was closed, seemingly in early celebration of Easter.

We couldn’t leave Surami without purchasing some of the town’s famous nazuki (ნაზუქი sweet bread). It’s quite the sight the first time you drive through Surami on the highway, and all along the highway are huts selling bread, often with ambitious salespeople flapping around their wares. Nazuki is rarely sold outside of Surami and neighboring Khashuri (they say that they have special matsoni (yogurt) there that makes the bread especially good). I really enjoy nazuki (but don’t tell too many Georgians that I like to spread cream cheese or mascarpone on top!), so it was an important part of the expedition.

IMG_20180405_180048

Nazuki huts along the highway

We had a surprisingly good dinner at a place in Khashuri, and then made our way back to Tbilisi to spend the holiday weekend in the unusually quiet city.

Inspired by my friend Chloe’s monthly food favorites, I’m going to start profiling my favorite new things in Georgia each season. See all my past favorites here. I’ll try to focus on things, people, places, and organizations that are brand new, but it’s possible that I’ll be late to the party on something, or there’s something that’s just new-to-me and so amazing that I’ll still choose to include it. I don’t mean to be solely food-focused, but that seems to happen sometimes…

IMG_20170908_122750-COLLAGE

Top: Falafel and hummus from Different Taste. Row 2 L to R: Nutella khachapuri from Sakhachapure No1, Cubano from Begemot, bread from Kakhelebi. Row 3: Chreli Abano, latte and Oreo cheesecake from Coffee LAB, Herbia spinach

Begemot/Woland’s  A cute little bookshop with tasty food and its sister speakeasy, which serves up delicious cocktails in a calm environment. Amazing bar snacks and free tap water!

Chreli Abano Renovations: If you’ve been to Tbilisi and visited Abanotubani, you’ve probably seen that gorgeous blue building that was blocked off and closed. Maybe you thought it as a mosque (lots of people do–the mosque is one street up the hill, FYI). This is Chreli Abano, or the Blue Bath or the Pushkin Bath. And it’s open again, and it is a wonderful simple luxury. They’ve done a great job with the renovations, and the place looks beautiful and feels clean. The staff speak English, and they have a menu of extras available–if you forgot your slippers or shampoo they’ll help you out, and they also brew some delicious herbal teas to help you feel warm and healthy during your bath.

CoffeeLab: Great coffee, and fresh affordable food in a lovely building nestled in a park. Their coffee is confirmed to have turned non-coffee drinkers into coffee snobs!

Different Taste Falafel: I first noticed this cheap little hole in the wall lunch place a few months ago, and thought I would stop by sometime when I was in the neighborhood and didn’t pack my lunch. Recently I walked past and spotted a little hand-written sign that read “New Falafel and Hummus from Israel”. The first time I stopped in I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I overheard the staff discussing a trip to Israel I became optimistic. The hummus and falafel were delicious, and a steal. A good-sized portion of hummus and falafel with a side of bread and a cup of tea is only 7.50 GEL. Unfortunately, they don’t have pita bread, but the garlicky toast that comes with the hummus and falafel is pretty good. It’s the only thing I’ve tried here, but their Facebook reviews suggest that the baked goods are tasty, too.

Herbia Spinach: I never knew I liked spinach so much until I learned how hard it was to find spinach regularly in Georgia. Herbia has changed that with greenhouse-grown packaged spinach regularly available at your local grocery store. Always fresh and clean and delicious, I have been happily eating spinach nearly once a week now. (Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for spinach and chickpeas is a favorite!)

Kakhelebi bread: This restaurant gets frequent reviews as one of the best places to try farm-fresh innovative Georgian food. Those reviews are well-deserved. What I don’t understand is why it took so long for anyone to tell me they also have a bakery! Multiple kinds of delicious, freshly baked artisan breads are available. Don’t get me wrong; I love Georgian tonis puri, but it usually isn’t a good shape for slicing for toast or sandwiches. Kakhelebi’s bread solves this problem! It’s also a good distance from my house for a morning walk. Beware, they close unusually early for a Tbilisi restaurant.

Nutella Khachapuri at Sakhachapure N1 : I can’t believe it took someone so long to invent this! It’s the perfect comfort dessert; an adjaruli bread boat made of puff pastry, filled with a load of nutella and topped with some fruit. The perfect indulgent dessert!

 

If you have any suggestions for something new and great in Georgia, let me know–I’ll try to check it out, and perhaps it will make a future favorites list.

%d bloggers like this: