Archives for category: Georgian Culture
The Pear Field in English and Georgian editions

Ekvtimishvili, Nana. The Pear Field. Translated by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press Ltd, 2020.

The Pear Field has been a critical darling in both English and in Georgian, and it is the first Georgian novel I’ve read in Georgian (with help from the English translation). I’m a big fan of literature in translation and try not to be a snob about it, but I’ve got to say that here the original Georgian version was better. The English version felt quite abridged, and while some of the choices made perfect sense (what does the average English speaker know about the difference between a khrushchyovka and chekhuri proekti or the stereotypes of people from different regions of Georgia? In that context, it’s not informative), others I really missed in the English version. The Georgian descriptions were longer (not just because I read slowly), sly language jokes were missing (I understand that this is not easy to translate, but the ones I understood in Georgian were pretty great…I probably missed even more), and anecdotes and additional examples were cut. They didn’t move the plot forward, but they did contribute to the mood of the book. I think these excisions are what made the English version feel more bleak and depressing to me, while the Georgian version had a lightness and vibrancy to it. (Interestingly enough, this is very similar to my reaction to the author’s film “In Bloom”.)

Most reviews of this book mention that horrible things happen to children in it. Having read these reviews, I was prepared and didn’t find them as awful as I probably would have otherwise. I think reading in Georgian was also helpful here, because I couldn’t understand the awful details on the first read but I could get the gist, so I was more mentally prepared. I recommend this strategy if it applies to you.

So far all I have written about this book is criticism, but I do think it was very good. It’s just not a book that’s easy to explain why it’s good. Lela, the main character, isn’t exactly likable, but she is admirable in her way, and her refusal to give in keeps the story going. The same could be said of many of the characters: you don’t like them, but they’re interesting. Some, of course, you will detest. Ekvtimishvili’s writing is very visual and her descriptions are fantastic. I know Kerchi Street, where the story is set, well, so it was very easy for me to visualize, but I think others can do so as well. Her descriptions of people are full of life and a bit of humor. They keep the book from being bleak.

With the content warning mentioned above, I do recommend this book as a description of life in Tbilisi in the 1990s. It’s quite short (the English version is 163 pages, the Georgian 211), so it’s not a big time commitment like The Eighth Life is. If you’re a Georgian language learner looking to read in Georgian, this seems like a decent place to start. There is lots of dialogue using everyday speech, which is easy to understand. You probably won’t understand the vocabulary used in the violent scenes, but that was OK by me. I “warmed up” by reading two children’s books in English and their Georgian translations first, and while I was glad to have the English version, too, I was able to understand the Georgian well enough without the English to compare them.

One word of advice: pay attention to the boys in the school. I found myself thinking of them as a group rather than individuals (perhaps just like the system did!), and that left me confused about a major plot point later on.

English version: 3.5/5
Georgian version: 4.5/5

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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!

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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

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

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The Chandelier at the Opera. Photo from agenda.ge. See the full gallery here.

The Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (Tbilisi Opera) has finally reopened to great fanfare. Most shows have been sold-out, and it seems like everyone is itching to get inside and see the renovations. I was one of those people. Friday night, my friends and I went to see Swan Lake. While Swan Lake was a great choice of performance to watch, we would have been happy to see anything we could get tickets for that fit into our schedule so we could get into the building and take a peek. I’m the furthest thing from qualified to give a critique of the ballet, so I will just leave it at “It was pretty.” The performance was accompanied by a live pit orchestra, which always adds a nice touch. You can check upcoming performances on the Opera’s website (NB: I can’t find an English version) or see the schedule and buy tickets on tkt.ge. Tickets can also be purchased at the box office. The upcoming schedule features a Georgian ballet and a Georgian opera, in addition to some international favorites. I know nothing about these performances, but it seems like it would be an interesting and unique experience.

The renovations of the building did not disappoint–everything is sumptuous. Every inch is painted with beautiful designs, there are oodles of chandeliers, and the chairs are all velvet-covered. Leg room isn’t generous, but the seats are comfortable enough. The restrooms seemed to be the only place where money was an object during the renovation–in contrast to every other nook of the building they were not luxurious, but they were clean and functional, so I have no complaints. Throughout the hallways and in some of the smaller spaces there are exhibits of memorabilia from the theatre’s history.

My only complaint is beyond the theatre’s–audience behavior was quite shocking. I haven’t gone to the theatre in any other country in years (even before I moved here, I wasn’t living in a place with lots of theatre-going opportunities), so maybe this is not a Georgian problem, but one that has grown worldwide, but I was shocked to see people who had paid 80 GEL for the most expensive seats in the house who were fiddling with their phones on throughout the performance (they didn’t appear to be filming, which would have been even worse)–the glow was distracting, even from three floors up. The doors to the hall were constantly opening and closing, and there was quite a lot of loud talking. (from the adults. The little girls nearby were quite well-behaved) Despite the annoyances which kept me from being fully swept up in the performance, it was still quite enchanting.

I took a few snapshots of the decor, but they pale in comparison to those the pros took for the grand opening…so look at these instead.

 

My friend Maggie and I were interested in The Millihelen’s Ex-pat Mall Makeovers, so we decided to go and do one of our own. We were curious to see just what a make-up artist would do with our non-Georgian features. Dramatic eyeliner is the major trend I have noticed in make-up in Tbilisi, so I guess we were expecting some of that. We met on a rainy Saturday, so although we’d thought about getting our hair done, too, it seemed like that would be a waste. So we just went for make-up. We met at the Karvasla Mall behind the train station, because we thought there might be a beauty salon there, but we weren’t actually sure. Fortunately, in the back corner of an upper floor we found Melange Beauty Salon, and it was hopping! The receptionist spoke English, and she introduced us to the make-up artist, who we communicated with in a mix of Russian and Georgian. We told her that she was the expert and we wanted to look pretty and in style in Tbilisi. Other than that, we pretty much left her to her own devices. She had good-quality products (mostly MAC), and everything was clean. They even gave us tea to drink while we were waiting and watching each other get our makeup done.

Em Before & After

Em Before & After

I went first, and the make-up artist spent a fairly long time evening my skin tone, concealing blemishes, and doing some light contouring. She definitely didn’t go nuts with it–it was very subtle. She went nuts on my eyes, but in a good way. I have blue eyes, which are relatively uncommon in Georgia, so I think she took that as a cue to play them up. I got a very meticulous smoky eye with liquid eyeliner, and even false eyelashes! (Totally a first for me). She finished it off with a light, natural-looking peachy-pink lipstick. I felt like I had Taylor Swift eyes, and I loved it! I kept wanting to start looking at people and opening my eyes in dramatic, Blank Space fashion.

Maggie Before & After

Maggie Before & After

Maggie was next, and our make-up artist took a different approach with her–medium emphasis on both the eyes and the lips. Like with me, she began with contouring, and it was likewise flattering and subtle. She lined Maggie’s eyes in very dark blue, which was surprising and looked great, and gave her a dark, plummy lip. It wasn’t at all what I expected her to do, but I think it looked really good.

We paid 40 GEL (18 USD) each for our makeovers, which was more than we had expected–I usually only pay 4 lari to get my hair cut, so I wasn’t expecting such a dramatic price difference across salons and services.

My fake eyelashes stayed on for nearly a week (so  I got some extended pay-off from that investment). I initially thought that it was overboard, but I guess they actually looked quite natural, because only one person noticed (my colleagues usually comment if I so much as wear eyeliner, so I think they would have mentioned it had they noticed). To be honest, now that the fake eyelashes are gone, I’m kind of disappointed in my natural lashes by comparison. I probably won’t do it again, but wow, did I feel glamorous!

Mandatory post-makeover selfie

Mandatory post-makeover selfie

Maggie is making a video version of our adventure–I’ll link to it when it’s ready.

Tserovani is definitely not a tourist attraction; it’s one of the settlements built for people displaced by the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Going there just to have a gander would be in poor taste, at best. However, visitors who come to Georgia with a particular interest in the region’s politics and history are often very curious about what life is like in the IDP communities. If that’s the case, there are ways where you can visit in a way that is beneficial to the community. The local NGO “For a Better Future” is based and works in this community, doing a variety of community-building and livelihood-development projects, and they offer a great way to visit Tserovani, talk to the people, and have a fun time. They’re working to build marketable skills and create jobs in the community, and one of the ways they’re doing that is by teaching women to make traditional enamel jewelry (samples of their beautiful work here) through social enterprise. They’ve taken it a step further, though, and also offer workshops where the enamel artists will teach visitors how to make a piece of jewelry. I’ve been twice, and think it’s pretty awesome. The information for registering is on their website here. The director speaks English well, and many of the artists are studying English. The first time I attended, they had a Peace Corps volunteer as well, so language is really no problem. The provide you with a light lunch of specialties from South Ossetia, which has included things like Ossetian khachapuri (khabizgina) with potato, lobiani, fruit, and a special, delicious cake traditionally made only in Akhalgori. The artist-teachers are very sweet and helpful, and strike the right balance between making sure you get a good final product, and giving you creative license. Part of the idea is also to build relationships between the IDPs, other Georgians, and foreigners, so a little friendly chit-chat is part of the event. It’s a lovely way to learn more about the IDP community, and get a pretty amazing hand-made souvenir from Georgia. I highly recommend it!

Jewelry made by my friends and I at the enamel workshop

Jewelry made by my friends and I at the enamel workshop

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a holiday that is a big deal in Georgia although it’s little-known in the US.  Personally, I had never heard of it until I attended a women’s college.  It was kind of a big deal there, but in an entirely different way.  In grad school, we generally celebrated, but in a very Russianist way.  It was an East European Studies program, after all.  Usually the guys in seminar would provide some sort of baked goods or flowers–very nice (and generally made me feel rather guilty about having forgotten Defender Of the Fatherland Day entirely).  Turns out that was just a light warm-up for March 8 in Georgia.  Georgian Mother’s Day is March 3, so the beginning of March can start to go to one’s head (even non-mothers are congratulated on Mother’s Day, because, hey–we’ve got potential!).  Women’s Day is basically a big Leslie Knopean Galentine’s Day, except you go out for dinner rather than breakfast.  The two occasions when I have celebrated traditionally have involved going out to party with all the female colleagues.  When I lived in Kakheti, we had a supra at a co-worker’s house, and this year our department went to a restaurant to eat, drink, and dance together.  One of my colleagues made a point of insisting that we ignore men entirely, which is a bit hard when they are strutting about doing comedy versions of Georgian dances.  Last year some friends and I took Women’s Day a different direction and went to a feminist meeting, where they had some truly excellent cake.  Regardless of the celebration style Facebook was buzzing with images like those above and links to cool stories about women, and everyone was messaging, texting, or calling their favorite women to send them good thoughts.  I’m not a fan of all the attention, but I certainly appreciate the cash bonus and the opportunity to spend time with my colleagues in a different setting.

 

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

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)

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)

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.

I am not a spontaneous person by nature.  I like to plan.  I usually am armed with a Plan A and a Plan B.  Georgia has made me a bit more flexible–as a mental survival mechanism, I usually have Plans A, B, C, and D in my head, and I try not to get my heart set on Plan A too, too much.  Georgia, on the other hand, is a country that embraces spontaneity.  Ask any foreigner living here about the frustrations of planning an event, or even meeting up with a friend.  It can drive you crazy.  As my mother and my roommate often remind me, learning to let go of my plans builds character and flexibility.  And though it’s hard for me, I am learning (and I’m going to have SO MUCH character soon).  Last weekend, I had a major breakthrough in my spontaneity, and my totally spontaneous weekend was awesome.

I had been invited to visit a friend’s village that weekend for a village festival, but I honestly wasn’t very interested in going to what I thought would be a very large supra where I would be force-fed a lot of khachapuri and treated as a novelty, so when I woke up to horrible allergies in the city, I decided that a trip to the village (with all the possible allergens there) was just not my cup of tea that day.  Besides, I’m taking an online class, and I had homework.  Right after my friends departed to the village, I received an exciting instant message–Cat was being spontaneous, and would be passing through town that evening: was I around?
I was very glad I’d decided to stay home, and spent the day getting work done so I’d have some flexibility once Cat arrived.

Cat came to town, and we got some dinner and ice cream, and we went to the welcome party for a friend’s new flatmate, while trying to figure out what to do the next day.  Cat had planned to go skiing, but wasn’t sure which resort to go to.  In the meantime, roomie S, who was already in the village, sent me a text message about the festival–our friend’s brother was designing his mask for the festivities, and there were horses–this festival seemed a bit more exciting than a regular supra; did Cat and I want to come and join?  It looked like there would be rain in Gudauri, so we decided: why not?

Sunday morning we made our way to the marshrutka station, from whence we made our way to the village, not far from my old home in Kakheti (incidentally, my friend’s mom attended the school I used to teach at in a town nearby–small country!).  Our friends were standing alongside the road to flag us down, and not long after we alighted from the marshrutka we saw the spectacle of the village festival:  the young men of the village were wearing masks and had adorned their clothes in strips of brightly colored rags.  They were menacing passers-by with whips and extorting money out of passing cars.  We asked our friend to explain this odd phenomenon.  The explanation seemed a bit incomplete, but here it is:  The festival is called Kvelieri (ყველიერი) which comes from the Georgian word for cheese. But there is no cheese involved in the festival.  It might be related to cows.  The guys in masks are called berikos (ბერიკო), which I have since learned means “little friar”.  The festival happens in the village of Patara Chailuri every year in February or March.

So, there we were, being chased by guys with whips and possibly celebrating cheese.  We weren’t really sure, but it was fun!  After not too long, we were ushered to our friend’s house to meet his family and have some lunch.  His mother is a very good cook, and the menu included a special type of kada (ქადა, Georgian sweet bread) made just for this festival which interestingly incorporated both onions and vanilla (and was really good.)

After our mini-supra, we went to the village square where the main celebrations were taking place.  There was a song-and-dance show put on by the local kids, a wrestling competition, and a very cool (and probably not very safe) gigantic swing fashioned from a tree trunk.  (The swing is recommended pre-supra)

After sampling the festivities, we returned to the house for more food and some rest.  Before we began our journey back to Tbilisi, we learned from an inside source that the berikos had made themselves nearly 500 lari over the course of the day!  Kvelieri was unlike anything else I’ve seen in Georgia–this place still has some surprises up its sleeve!

(Apologies for the lack of pictures: I hope to remedy my camera situation in the near future. If you’re a real-life friend, you should be able to see some tagged by the others on Facebook)

The Independent has just posted a fantastic article about Georgian pop music and it’s political themes.  The list features some old favorites of mine (like Misha Magaria) and introduced me to some new songs as well.  It inspired me to spend a good part of yesterday afternoon watching Georgian music videos on YouTube.  The ones sponsored in part by the government (such as Chemo Tbilis Kalako, Me Mikvars Radja , and the Ministry of Internal Affairs videos) are particularly catchy and well-produced.  Unfortunately, most of these tracks are not available for legal download in the US–a quick search only found Bera’s album and “We’re not Gonna Put In” for sale–two of my least favorite tracks.  Enjoy via YouTube for now!

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