It was a few weeks ago now that Polly posted her challenge to other ex-pat bloggers to write their open advice letters to future ex-pats in their city. I’m a little (OK, a lot) slow on the update here, but I like the idea a lot, and was discussing it with a friend last weekend.
Old Tbilisi at Tbilisoba 2013
Have no expectations; make no assumptions. Just because the store says “Open”, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to go in and do your shopping. Just because chicken is on the menu, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to have chicken for dinner. Just because it’s a national holiday, it doesn’t mean you’ll have the day off work (or anyone will know whether or not you have the day off work in advance). Just because there’s a box that says “Post”, it doesn’t mean there’s a functioning postal system. Check your expectations at the door, and learn to go with the flow. I’m told it builds character. A little spontaneity can be great fun, and Georgia is designed for spontaneity. It’s part of adapting to the culture.
Learn a little Georgian. All it takes is a “Gamarjobat. Rogora khart?” to have Georgians impressed with your linguistic skills. Anything beyond that, and you’ll be told you speak fluently. No one really expects foreigners to speak Georgian, but they’re very proud of their language, and love it when you make an effort. It will also make your life infinitely easier if you at least learn the alphabet and can sound out signs. Besides, Georgian really is fascinating, and is worth it as an intellectual exercise alone.
Everyone knows everyone. This country is a gigantic village, and gossip is the national sport. (Yes, ex-pats, too!) Georgia’s population is in the 4 million range (counting can be tricky what with Abkhazia and South Ossetia), and family and friendship ties are strong, so the country is very closely tied together. This means news travels fast–faux pas and failed relationships are fodder for conversation, particularly when it relates to foreigners. And amongst ourselves, we foreigners are really no exception, and our community is also small. (I heard a story about Foreigner A who was telling Foreigner B about a friend’s neighbor’s new fling…who turned out to be Foreigner B!) There are no secrets. The interconnectedness also means that it’s hard to avoid a certain person if things have gone south. On the bright side, you’ll always know what’s going on, people will always be looking out for you and chances will be good you’ll run into a friend at pretty much any social occasion (or walking down the street).
Tbilisi TV Tower at Dusk (June 2010)
Everything happens on Facebook, and Facebook doesn’t work the way it does back home. While you’re working on adapting to a foreign culture, you don’t necessarily think about the differences in online culture–I sure didn’t. But Georgian Facebook culture is very different than American Facebook culture (or at least my cohort’s Facebook culture). In Georgia, it’s totally normal to become Facebook friends with someone after one meeting, and being Facebook friends with co-workers or teachers is absolutely the norm (it’s also normal to be real-life friends with these people). It’s generally OK to be on Facebook in the office, as long as you do some work, too. In fact, being on Facebook could well be part of your job–most businesses don’t have their own websites, but rather spread information through their Facebook pages. As a matter of fact, when I was writing my post about the elections I noticed that none of the candidates seemed to have official websites–everything was hosted on Facebook. Georgia’s general enthusiasm for life also carries over into Facebook enthusiasm–as I understand it, if you see something you vaguely like on Facebook, you should click the “Like” button (unlike what I’m used to, where that is saved for a higher level of interest and approval). So, don’t be surprised if a Georgian colleague adds you on Facebook, and then likes all your photos–that means you’ve made it!
Vake is not Tbilisi, and Tbilisi is not Georgia. Foreigners tend to congregate in a few neighborhoods of Tbilisi, and Vake, the upscale district, is one of the favorites. I’ve long been a Vake-hater, but I have to admit it’s now starting to grow on me. (So many places with good coffee!) But Vake is far from representative–it’s wealthier, more Westernized, and is the hub of consumer goods (coffee!), Most Georgians aren’t like the Vakelebi. Though the difference is stark between Vake and other neighborhoods of Tbilisi, there’s also a world of difference between almost anywhere in Tbilisi and most of the rest of the country. Personally, I prefer other neighborhoods of Tbilisi, and the rest of the country is full of charm. Get out of Vake and explore!
Once you’re in, you’re in–try not to abuse the lovely Georgians’ kindness. Georgians are wonderful and hospitable, and once you’re one of “their people”, most of them will drop everything to help you. Don’t let the power go to your head and abuse their kindness. You’ll never be able to reciprocate in kind (just TRY beating a Georgian man to paying in a restaurant. All of a sudden they become incredibly sneaky and develop lightning-fast reflexes). I really recommend, though, that you try to repay them by being as good and helpful a friend as you can. Help them practice their English if they’re interested, bake them cookies (no, wait, don’t–that’s my move!), share your foreign goods, or help them out in other ways. You’ll feel less guilty, and have better friendships for it.
Metekhi Church and Presidential Palace in foreground, Greater Caucasus in background (May 2013)
It takes a certain kind of person to be an ex-pat in Tbilisi, and generally people either hate Georgia and leave ASAP or have to tear themselves away (or don’t manage to tear themselves away and subsequently stay forever). Georgia is a pretty great place to live–as you can see, most of my advice is for dealing with Georgian’s kindness and enthusiasm. Not bad problems to have, really.