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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

(Original Post published January 24, 2015)
I write this post as a follow-on to my previous post How To: Get Here.

There’s another airline that’s becoming one of the options to fly between the US and Georgia: Qatar Airways. On paper, it seems like a great option (5 Stars!), and their prices are competitive compared to the other airlines flying into Tbilisi. Seemed like a good idea? Oh, how wrong I was!

When my ticket was booked including a 14-hour layover in Doha, the travel agent confirmed with Qatar Airways that a hotel would be provided as part of the itinerary (this information is consistent with their website). Tickets on other carriers were available, and the fact that a hotel was provided was a key component of the decision to fly on Qatar rather than on Turkish Airlines, which offered more convenient travel times and a shorter layover, and is my favorite so far. The layover scheduled between flights was about 14 hours, and we landed a little early. However, upon my arrival in Doha, I was informed by the staff at the transfer desk that there were no rooms available, although I was eligible to receive one. They provided me with a meal voucher and told me to come back later to check. I then attempted to re-book or re-route my reservation so as to avoid the long waiting period, but there were no other options available. I returned to the transfer desk later, as I had been instructed, and was told there was still nothing available, so I should go through security into the terminal, where a Customer Service agent would be able to assist me.

In the terminal, when I requested help or advice from agents I was treated rudely and repeatedly insulted and berated. Really, really, rude things were said to me, and as I was already pretty tired from the previous 20ish hours of travel, I didn’t deal with the insults very well and spent a lot of time in tears.  I ultimately went to the Oryx Lounge, as had been suggested by a staff member. I intended to spend my own money in order to receive a service that should have been provided (a place to relax and rest between flights). Since I had been told that it was only possible to stay in the lounge for 6 hours, I went to the lounge 6.5 hours before the boarding time for my next flight, so I would have time to relax before I departed. However, I was not allowed to enter the lounge. At this point, I was quite upset and demanded to be allowed to return to the transfers desk, where a very kind and helpful agent, Sonia (the nicest person in Qatar) was able to get me a hotel room with no problem whatsoever. However, more than half of my layover had passed. With the delays going through immigration and awaiting transportation, and the limitations of return transport to the airport, I was only able to use the hotel for 2 hours out of the more than 14 I was in Doha. Though I ultimately did get a hotel room, it was of little utility for such a short time.

Then, to add injury to the insult I had already suffered, I got food poisoning from the meal served on the Doha to Baku flight. I was very ill, and had to take a day off of work to stay in bed and recover.

I’ve submitted a detailed account of my problems to the airline’s customer service, and after a few days I have received absolutely no response. I give you all this warning.

UPDATE: FEBRUARY 27, 2015:
I have received replies from Customer Service, but they have been entirely unsatisfactory. The gist is that my travel agent messed up, and the airline was blameless. The issues of rudeness and food poisoning have been ignored completely. My employer, travel agent, and I are continuing to pursue the issue.

The perfect Tbilisi dinner has to include the two most iconic Georgian dishes: adjaruli khachapuri and khinkali. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a restaurant that excels in both of those categories, but luckily most reputable restaurants will do one well, and one adequately. You’ll need something else to eat or the (delicious) dough + grease combo of those dishes will put you right to sleep. When you look at the menu, though, you might find some alarming options listed: “coup of vodka” “mind with fungus” and “boiled language”.

Party food in a Tbilisi restaurant--before the dessert!

Party food in a Tbilisi restaurant–before the dessert!

Allow me to translate: “glass of vodka” “brains with mushrooms” and “boiled tongue”…still maybe not the biggest crowd-pleasers, but far more food-like. It’s a bit of a sport in Tbilisi to spot the mistakes on menus. In one khachapuri restaurant, the tri-lingual menu I was given featured editing marks in red pen throughout the Russian version–and I was itching for a red pen of my own to take to the English version. My best guess is that lots of the menus were translated by a schoolkid with an outdated dictionary. Getting someone with a language background and a modern dictionary–or, better still, internet access–would make a world of difference. The bigger, more profitable restaurants catering to tourists may want to use translation software and get something that actually helps visitors choose their meal..

Even the places with better menu information will often not really translate the full menu. What, pray tell, is “Madame Bovary” or “chikhirtma”? (Answer: They’re both pretty good. Madame Bovary is a stroganoff-y thing topped with fried potatoes, and chikhirtma is a chicken and egg soup). Though it’s usually just the name of a dish that’s translated; there’s often an ingredients list in Georgian. That’s where a little bit of work can pay off in getting food you actually want to eat! While there are lots of difficulties in having non-experts translate between English and Georgian due to the weirdness “charm” of Georgian verbs, it’s pretty easy to translate nouns, which is what a  savvy eater will do here–pick your favorite way to translate (friend/dictionary/internet/app) and look up the list of things in a dish; you should at least know if you’re expecting meat or veg. Depending on the neighborhood and likelihood of foreigners, the server might be able to describe a few of the ingredients in the dish, as well. Make sure you order some Georgian wine, too–the house wine is generally cheap and drinkable. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, explore particular vineyards and varieties to find your favorite.

Once you’ve figured out what to eat, there comes the question of eating it. Some Georgian foods–in particular khachapuri and khinkali, have a specific technique for eating them. Of course you can go your own way, but that will leave quite a mess. Most Georgians will be happy to offer you instruction; but be careful how you ask. A woman approaching a man in a restaurant or accepting his offer of food or drink is often seen as agreement to more than the meal.

Lots of the restaurants with the tastiest food in Tbilisi seem to also have the loudest music–sometimes this is fun: when they’ve got a great live band or you’re in the mood to dance like a fool. And while that can be fun, I also sometimes like to be able to talk to my dinner companions. Luckily, many restaurants have small private dining rooms called “coupes”, which can cut the noise a bit. Likewise, many restaurants do have more than one dining room, so you can distance yourself a bit further from the music.

After a night out like this, you’ll practically be an honorary Tbiliseli.

 

 

P.S. If you’re interested in travelling to Tbilisi, send me a message or leave a comment (or any other topics you’d like to hear about), and I’ll give it a think and try to write a post on the topic

I had managed to avoid the Tbilisi real estate market for a good long time by starting off living with host families, and then moving in with S, who had already found an apartment. When S moved back to America, though, I decided to reduce the length of my commute and had my first foray into House Hunters: Tbilisi. And then my landlord turned out to be a stupidhead, so I had to find another apartment and move again. And then she also turned out to be terrible, so I moved again. I sincerely hope I’m done. (This is a partial explanation for my recent stretches of minimal posts; I’ve been busy packing and unpacking). But now that I have some practice in this field, I feel qualified to give a little advice on the topic. Firstly, though, I recommend trying to circumvent a traditional apartment search if it’s at all possible–ask friends if they know anyone with an empty apartment. A referral will generally result in a better, more respectful living situation.

Step 1: Make a good Georgian friend.
Unless your Georgian is nearly perfect you’ll need help. Many landlords are initially apprehensive about renting to a foreigner*, though most come around quickly once you meet in person. Some will also try to take advantage of a “rich” foreigner and increase their asking price. Having a Georgian make initial phone contact will smooth over many of those problems, and they are generally better aware of which questions to ask and what might be a red flag. (Shout-out to my amazing boss, who was fantastic in this role)

*This being said, there are a minority of landlords who have had positive experiences with foreigners in the past, and generally prefer to rent to us since, as a rule, we pay our rent on time.

Step 2: Brush up on your apartment vocabulary.
Angela has written a fantastic House Hunting post, complete with a vocabulary list, so I’m not going to duplicate her efforts (her post is rather centered on the central neighborhoods, though, and I live out in the suburbs, so some things are a little different). One note, though, she translates “ბუნებრივი აირი” as fireplace, and while it might mean that, too, in my experience it’s usually used to mean “natural gas” (its direct translation). In an apartment listing, this usually means that the apartment has a gas-powered hot water heater. Things like heat, hot water, refrigerator and washing machine access aren’t givens, so make sure you consider which “basics” are important to you, and check on them in any apartments you visit. You can look for either a furnished or unfurnished apartment–both are widely available.

Step 3: Hustle.
Use your new vocabulary when scouring the classifieds for apartment listings. In my experience, saqme.ge had the most extensive listings, but that site is exclusively in Georgian. Some friends have found good places using gancxadebebi.ge and I’ve also heard recommendations for myhome.ge (which has an English version, but is rumored to be pricier), but I didn’t find any listings on those sites that met my criteria. There’s also an English-language Facebook group for apartment hunting (Flatshare in Tbilisi), that may be fruitful, particularly for short-term stays, or apartments in the city center. Once you find a potential place listed, it’s important to call (or get your Georgian to call) ASAP. Good places go lightning fast. Schedule a time to see the place as soon as you can. If you have any questions about the listing, you can ask them now. When looking at the place, take into account all sorts of things–condition of the apartment, what furniture is provided if it’s “furnished”, the situation with bills and internet, etc.

Step 4: Make an Agreement
If you’ve found a place you like, you also have to make sure that the owner likes you, and that they are willing to rent to you. Then, you can try to bargain on some specifics–you might be able to get a discount if you pay multiple months up-front, maybe you can negotiate which currency you’ll pay in, or you can ask for more furniture or appliances to be provided, or you might be able to buy them for a discount in the rent. In theory, everything’s negotiable, though that doesn’t mean your landlord will want to negotiate. This is all personal preference. Then you need to decide if you need/want a lease, or another type of legal agreement. Many landlords will be unwilling to give you one (if there’s a legal document, they’ll have to pay income tax on the rent). To be honest, it isn’t the norm to have a lease, and they’re fairly unenforceable, so this is a matter of personal preference and risk tolerance. Keep in mind, though, that depending on your situation, a formal lease may be required for immigration or employment purposes. My longest-term apartment, with a lovely landlady, had no written agreement. The place where I had a written agreement, I was tossed out after a month and a half. If you choose to have a formal agreement, it can be done quickly and relatively cheaply at a notary’s office.

Step 5: Move in.
Congratulations!

Turkish Airlines Aircraft
 By Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons

It’s an unfortunate fact of geography that Georgia and America are quite far away from one another.  This necessitates the frequent use of airplanes in order to see my family and then get back to work.   Due to some negative experiences and very good reasons, I’m not the biggest fan of planes in the first place, but I view them as a necessary evil that I have to deal with in order to make things work.  As such, I’ve figured out a few strategies to make my life a little less miserable.  Between Tbilisi and home, I usually need three separate flights and roughly 36 hours–this trip is not for the faint of heart.  Before I get into specifics, allow me to share with you some of my advice (which has been hard-won) on flying in general:

  1. Bring snacks.  Seriously, did you not notice the bit where I said this takes about 36 hours?  I know they technically provide food on the plane, but who knows if it’ll be something you like.  Also, they serve the food at weird times and you’re likely to have some very long layovers, where food is not provided.  My favorite thing to bring when I’m departing Georgia is churchkhela, while my favorite leaving the US is hummus.  I recommend something with a little bit of nutritional value, and maybe even some protein.
  2. Moisturize!  Bring lotions, chap stick, conditioner, all that sort of stuff.  It’s dry on a plane, and I always feel less zombified when I land when I haven’t accidentally dessicated myself on the way there.
  3. Hydrate.  Drink water–see above.
  4. Bring clean clothes–it can really perk you up to clean off and change clothes during a layover.

Here are some other suggestions for long flights and layovers: How to Survive a Ten-Hour Flight Like a LadySleeping in Airports, Best Airports for a Long Layover

Now, for the Georgia-specifics.  If you’re planning on making the trip between Georgia and the US on one ticket, you have three major options–Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, or LOT Polish Airlines.  All three of these carriers are members of the Star Alliance (though getting mileage credit from LOT hasn’t been easy), and all three of their flights to and from Georgia arrive and depart at ungodly hours, though Turkish occasionally has an afternoon option.  (If you want to buy separate tickets to Europe and then to Georgia, you may also have the option to fly to Batumi or Kutaisi, and can fly regional carriers like Wizz, Pegasus, or AeroSvit.  This can save money, but it can add hassle depending on your final destination.)  Many Asian and Middle Eastern airlines also fly to Tbilisi, but they’re often impractical for flights from the West,(I’ve never flown them) and I’m trying to keep this post at a somewhat reasonable length.

Turkish Airlines–layover in Istanbul Ataturk Airport

In my opinion, Turkish is the way to go.  It’s more comfortable, the flight attendants and other staff are pleasant, and their  free baggage allowance is the most generous.  They offer the best selection of in-flight food and entertainment.  Ataturk Airport has lots of duty-free browsing opportunities and a decent food court.  The Greenport Cafe in the terminal has wireless.  If your layover is long enough, it’s easy to access the major tourist sites by public transportation.   If your long layover falls in lucky hours, Turkish Airlines offers free city tours.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to take advantage of this service.  NB: There’s a very good chance you need a visa to enter Turkey, and word on the street is that the procedure is changing, so make sure you look that up before you fly!

Lufthansa–layover in Munich Airport

Service on Lufthansa is normal–nothing special, but nothing missing.  They have more flights that are code-shared with American companies, so if that’s a consideration in your ticketing, you’re likely to wind up flying them.  Munich airport isn’t too bad–it’s fairly spacious, and you can pay for a shower or nap pod. Last I was there, there was supposedly free WiFi, but I couldn’t figure it out.  For a really comfortable layover, go through immigration and into the Kempinski hotel next door.  You can buy an hourly pass to the spa (last I was there 15 Euro/hour–same as for a nap pod or in-terminal shower).  They have comfy chaise longues to catch some sleep, showers with fancy products, and free fruit, tea. and water  In the airport but outside the terminal there’s a little grocery store, which is more budget-friendly than any of the restaurants or kiosks inside the terminal, though still not cheap.  Apparently it’s relatively easy to get into the city center, as well, though I haven’t tried.

LOT Polish Airlines–layover in Warsaw

Tickets on Polish are usually cheapest, so I’ve flown them with the highest frequency.  Unfortunately, they’re my least favorite.  The service has a strong surly streak, and despite the fact that they fly Dreamliners, the in-flight entertainment is pathetic.  The ladies in their Tbilisi office are fantastic though, and hold my personal award for Best Customer Service in Georgia.  I should also point out that they are actively trying to become “the best airline in Europe”, and every flight I’ve taken with them has been less unpleasant than it’s predecessor.  So, that’s something.  Though Warsaw Airport effectively killed any desire I once had to visit Poland, it does have some amenities.  The terminal is pretty small, so shopping and eating options are limited.  The “relaxation room” is relatively comfortable, and hasn’t been too crowded while I’ve been there.  There is also a free shower, but you have to supply all your own stuff.  Free WiFi is available for 30 minutes (tied to your boarding pass), so choose carefully.  There are public buses to the city center, though I haven’t used them.

Bon Voyage!

One of the challenges of moving to a new place is always finding new services: a doctor you like, a cheap dry cleaner, a place to get your haircut where you won’t leave looking like this, etc.  Living abroad you can sometimes avoid the first two: many people I know here keep their primary GPs back home, and dry cleaners can be avoided by judiciously choosing what to pack.  It’s a bit harder to avoid needing a haircut, though, particularly if you have a job that requires looking somewhat nice.  Getting a haircut with a new person, much less in a foreign language is always stressful–hair does grow back, but not necessarily immediately.  I was rather apprehensive about getting my hair cut here for the first time, so I reached out to some fellow foreigners for help.  I’ve been pleased with the results (and low prices!) so far, but I should note that my hair is more or less the same texture as most Georgians’, and the cut I’m going for is a popular one among Georgian women.  This may be far more difficult for people with more diverse hair-styling needs.  Here are some tips in case you find yourself in need of a trim in Tbilisi.

1) Haircuts in Georgia have names.  If you can figure out the name of the haircut you want, you’re golden.  Georgian friends may be able to help with this.  For example, long layers is called an “Italianka”.  This resulted in an amusing conversation in which I kept insisting that, no I’m American…please cut my hair in long layers!

2)Pictures are your friend–beauty magazines tell me this is good practice in America, as well.  A picture is worth a thousand words, and I certainly don’t know a thousand haircut-related words in Georgian.

3) I do know a few haircut-related words, though.  Here’s a mini-glossary to help you get things headed in the right direction:

  • თმა (tma) = hair
  • ვარცხნილობა (vartskhniloba) = hairstyle
  • ხაზები (khazebi)= layers (literally, lines)
  • ფერი (peri)= color
  • ბოლო (bolo)= end
  • ცოტა (tsota)= a little bit
  • გრძელი (grdzeli)= long
  • მოკლე (mokle)=short
  • შეჭრა (shedjra)=cut.  You may hear this root used in either verb or noun forms
  • დაბანა (dabana)= wash (likewise)
  • გამშრალება (gamshraleba)* = (blow) dry (likewise)

If you need a particular recommendation, my friends and I have had good experiences with the “Image Academy” (training center) of the Natali salons, who are the hairstylists for some Imedi TV shows.  Because your hair is cut by students, it takes a long time but the teacher ensures the quality, and it’s only 4 lari for a cut.  Usually one of the students speaks a little bit of English, too.  They’re located near the Philharmonic on Melikishvili Street.

Tbilisi City Marshrutka near Didube Station

I’ve posted before about marshrutkas—that lovely form of public transportation that will cheaply and efficiently (if a bit crudely) sweep you away to another city.  This post is about the Tbilisi City marshrutka system: a different beast entirely.  While I’m quite fond of the regional marshrutka system, I have a suspicion that city marshrutkas will forever haunt my dreams.  A large part of this problem is NOT inherent in the system: the new yellow marshrutkas themselves are quite nice (some even have TVs!), it’s the simple fact that demand for transportation by marshrutka far outstrips the number of marshrutkas on the road.  This leads to people crammed into marshrutkas like sardines, standing, bending and contorting themselves into every available bit of space.  This is not an ideal situation for lovers of personal space, and often results in sweaty, smelly, cramped conditions.  The stop-and-go nature of a marshrutka ride, combined with the enthusiasm for speed of marshrutka drivers often leads to a stomach-churning and unpleasant journey.

Despite these discomforts, demand for marshrutkas is high because their routes are very convenient.  The metro is limited to just two lines, and the city buses run primarily in a hub-and-spoke system, while marshrutkas criss-cross the city in all manner of patterns.  To get from one side of the city to the other by bus, you would probably have to transit through a central location and switch buses.  Though marshrutkas often go through these central depots as well, they will continue past them and into other neighborhoods.  Marshrutkas also reach far-flung neighborhoods that don’t have metro stations or many bus routes.

If you’ve read this far and still plan to take a marshrutka, this is how you do it.  Generally, it’s easiest if you know the number of the marshrutka in advance.  People who take marshrutkas frequently will have an impressively encyclopedic knowledge of which marshrutka will take you where—at least in their neighborhood.  I’m even starting to develop a mini-encyclopedia of routes myself.  UPDATE 11/12/12 There is now a website (currently in the test version) of marshrutka routes including a route finder here, but if you don’t know in advance your route number, you will have to try to read the sign on the marshrutka as it whizzes past.  A tip: metro stations where the marshrutka stops will have a red “M” symbol next to the name—not all metro stations on the route will be labeled, but concentrating on the words with an “M” next to them may help you get an idea of where the marshrutka will go.  Beware!  Often marshrutka drivers will forget to flip over their sign when they turn around and run the route in reverse, so these signs might not even offer you a shred of helpful information (this is how I accidentally found myself at the Tbilisi Mall last week.  I was not pleased).  You can always ask the marshrutka driver where they’re going, but they tend to get cranky about this (marshrutka drivers in general seem to be a crankier bunch than the general population).  Once you have found the correct marshrutka, you sit there and enjoy the ride (or stand there and try to keep the contents of your stomach under control).  If you have to stand, I recommend attempting to do so at the back of the marshrutka—it’s generally more stable there, and there is more air.  You need to signal the marshrutka driver when to stop (yell გამიჩერეთ!—gamicheret!).  This can be tricky if you’re standing, because you will not be able to see out the windows.  You may need to ask other passengers where you are, or contort yourself to glimpse out the window.

A city marshrutka costs 80 tetri, payable by MetroMoney or cash (marshrutka drivers will make change).  Under the current pay scheme, a subsequent ride using MetroMoney is 65 tetri.  There are some marshrutka routes (usually short routes to specific residential areas) that cost 40 or 60 tetri.  If this is the case, there will be a sign over the payment area.  The price on these marshrutkas does not decrease on subsequent routes.

City marshrutkas are an advanced topic of life in Georgia.  If you’re just here for a short trip, I highly recommend that you take a taxi!

Tbilisi Bus Stop (photo: Chloe)

The metro is by-far the most foreigner-friendly method of public transport within Tbilisi, but with a little familiarity with the city’s geography, the city bus system can be a more efficient way to explore the city.  Buses go into neighborhoods that the metro doesn’t reach, and you can see the scenery on the way to your destination.  You can find a brief description of the bus routes online if you’re the type to research your transportation plans before you head out.  If, like me, you plan how to get somewhere and getting home is a bit of an afterthought, you can use the electronic bus boards to pick a likely bus to take.  The electronic boards are located at most bus stops, and display the final destination of the bus in both English and Georgian, as well as the ETA of the bus to you.  This is why I say a little familiarity with the city’s geography comes in handy.  The bus itself will have a description of the route posted if you can read Georgian that quickly, but the electronic board only says the destination. You can often extrapolate the general route of the bus by its destination–if where you’re going is between your location and the destination, there’s a decent chance that the bus will get you close.  This is far from an infallible strategy, though.  For example, last week I was trying to get from the South part of the Saburtalo neighborhood to the North part.  I cleverly jumped on a bus with the destination of Didi Dighomi, the neighborhood North of Saburtalo.  The bus proceeded South into Vake and to the Philharmonic, and then made to cross the river towards Marjanishvili!  I jumped off the bus, further from home than when I started.  Amusingly, it was at this time that some backpackers (assuming I was Georgian) asked me for directions and complimented me on my English.  Little did they know that I was myself a lost foreigner!  I don’t recommend winging it with bus routes if you’re in a hurry, but if you’re reasonably sure that the route will be helpful or you have some time to make mistakes, buses are a great option for getting around the city.  As a tourist, it’s useful to know that the Baratashvili (ბარათაშვილი) bus depot (a final destination of many buses) is just down the hill from Liberty Square, so if your destination is Old Town or Rustaveli, these buses are a good bet.

Unlike the city marshrutkas, buses ONLY stop at the designated bus stops, so you’ll need to wait at one of those if you intend to take a bus.  You can board the bus at any set of doors.  I recommend that you do so quickly, because drivers don’t always close the doors before they start pulling away.  Once you’re on the bus, you need to get a ticket at one of the little boxes in the aisles and near the doors.  A ride costs 50 tetri, and you can pay either with your MetroMoney card or with change. (Personally, I am an advocate for MetroMoney because of the adaptive pricing system–your second bus ride will only cost 30 tetri if you pay using MetroMoney, whereas if you use change it’s 50 tetri every time.  I’ve saved more than enough money to pay for the 2 GEL MetroMoney deposit.)  After you’ve paid, a small receipt/ticket will come out of the bottom of the box.  You need to grab this and hold onto it.  If someone in a yellow shirt starts asking you questions in Georgian while you’re on the bus, they’re likely the ticket enforcers, and you just need to show them the printed ticket.  How frequently the enforcers are on the buses varies–there have been times when I’ve needed to show my ticket more than once on a single trip, and times when I’ve travelled the whole day without encountering a single one.  Sometimes they also wait at the bus stops and ask to see your ticket as you depart the bus.  Since the buses use stops, you’ll need to be on the lookout for a stop near your destination, but you don’t need to signal your intent to get off the bus as you do on a marshrutka.

These instructions are geared towards the Tbilisi bus system, since it’s the one I’m familiar with.  There are also city buses in Kutaisi and Batumi (and perhaps some of the other decent-sized cities).  I have no idea about the specifics on these buses, but I assume the system is at least similar to Tbilisi’s…

The only real trick to riding a marshrutka is finding it.  After that, the process is quite simple.  So, how do you go about finding the right marshrutka?  First, you need to know which station serves your destination.  This is sometimes harder than it sounds, because there isn’t always a centralized place to find this information, and even smaller cities may have more than one marshrutka station (Telavi, for example, has three–all very close to each other).  I’m halfway convinced that Georgians get this information through a system like the Voice of the Tribes in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall—they all just have a mind-meld every evening and exchange important information about public transportation and when events start.  If you aren’t able to break into this system, though, never fear.  Some marshrutka information is available online, and I predict that the amount of information available online will only increase in the near future.  Tour books tend to include this information in their “getting there” sections.  Another good, though sometimes intimidating, way to find it is just to ask someone.  Friends living in Georgia, hotel staff, and random passers-by are all likely to be able to help you find the right station.  Once you reach the marshrutka station, your next task is to find the right marshrutka.  For this part, it is very helpful to be able to read the Georgian alphabet, or at least be able to match two sets of unfamiliar symbols.  Major tourist destinations may have a sign in Russian or English, but the vast majority of marshrutka signs will only have the destination written in Georgian.  If you can’t read the sign, or are unsure if you have the right marshrutka, just ask!  Georgians are, in general, very hospitable towards visitors and happy to help you with things like getting on the right marshrutka.  I’ve also found that standing around a marshrutka station looking confused will usually result in plenty of offers of help in finding the right one.

My local marshrutka station–not much to look at, really.

Sometimes you have to buy a ticket from the station before the marshrutka departs—if this is the case, the driver will tell you (or mime to you), and will take you to the ticket office to make sure you have the right ticket.  Usually, though, you pay the fare when you exit.  There is usually, though not always, a table on the wall/ceiling between the driver and the front passenger seat which explains the prices to different destinations along the route.  Marshrutka drivers will make change for you.

On the marshrutka, I personally tend to find the seat behind the driver the most comfortable; the driver’s window is almost always open, and you can get a nice cooling breeze.  The other windows in the marshrutka may or may not function.  If you’re going close to the end of the line, it’s better to try and get a seat further from the door since there is lots of coming and going in a marshrutka trip, and it’s easier for everyone that way.  If you aren’t used to being in a car, or are terrified of Georgian driving, you might want to sit somewhere where you can’t see out the front windshield.  If you don’t know your destination well, it can be a good idea to chat with the driver and other passengers around you to make sure you don’t stay on the marshrutka for too long.  I recommend a window seat, as well, so you can see where you need to get off.  Make sure you sit engaging both your abs and your back, since most marshrutka seats don’t exactly provide good lumbar support, and you don’t want to reach your destination too sore to have fun.

In order to get off the marshrutka, just holler “Gamicheret!” (გამიჩერეთ)  or “Stop for me!”.  Don’t forget to pay the driver if you didn’t buy a ticket when you got on!

You can also hail a marshrutka as it passes along the road, but this is a topic too advanced for Marshrutkas 101.  If you have found these directions because you Googled “How to Ride a Marshrutka” take a taxi to the marshrutka station and proceed from there.  If you are an advanced-marshrutka rider, you know the drill.

See, it’s not as hard as it sounds.  I know that the idea of marshrutkas seems absolutely terrifying to many foreigners, but once you know the basics, they’re a very convenient and inexpensive method of transportation.  Personally I love marshrutka rides.  For some reason, I feel very free with the wind in my hair (I don’t know how Georgian women manage to keep beautiful hairstyles while riding marshrutkas…), some good marshrutka music on my iPod (I like Florence + The Machine, The Clash, and the obvious choice of the Georgian band მგზავრები (mgzavrebi=travellers), and looking out the window at the mountains.

I’ve noticed in my WordPress statistics (which are so much fun!) that many people seem to find the blog looking for advice on how to ride the Tbilisi metro.  Since my previous post on why I love the Tbilisi metro doesn’t exactly have that information clearly spelled out, I thought I’d offer clearer directions here.

Basic information:
The Tbilisi metro has two lines, the First Line and the Saburtalo line.  If you’re using the metro as a tourist, you’ll primarily be hanging out on the First Line.  The Saburtalo line takes you to a more residential community (you are of course still welcome to go visit, but it’s not where the museums and old churches are).  Some old maps may show another line going into Avlabari, but that was never completed, there are just the two, I promise.

How to pay:
You now have to use MetroMoney to pay for the metro, there are no tokens or paper tickets (I do sort of miss the cute little tokens of old).  You can also use MetroMoney on buses and marshrutkas.  The real advantage of MetroMoney is that the pricing is adaptive–there are free transfers on the metro and buses (50 tetri for an hour and a half), and although the first marshrutka ride is at the full, cash price of 80 tetri, subsequent rides are 65 tetri.  You also need to use the MetroMoney to pay for the cable car to  Narikala, or the funicular to Mtatsminda. To get a MetroMoney card you go to the desk in all the stations labeled მს / MS.  There is a 2 lari deposit for MetroMoney, which is refundable within a short time (two months, I think?) if you keep your receipt (if you aren’t living here and don’t want to keep the card as a souvenir).  I suggest that, as a visitor, you put 8 lari of credit on your MetroMoney–this way you can hand them a 10-lari note, pay the deposit and have enough credit on your MetroMoney to do whatever you need to do.  You can, of course, explain in detail exactly what you want, but just handing the cashier some money and saying MetroMoney will get the job done.  If you need to add more money to your MetroMoney card, you can do so at any of the  მს / MS kiosks, or at the orange Bank of Georgia payboxes throughout the city (hit the British flag icon at the top right for English and follow the instructions).

How to ride:
To enter the metro, you tap your metro money on the orange dot on the turnstile.  Your balance will display above, if you care to check on that.  Except Station Square (სადგურის მოედანი), the stations only have one line.  Your only challenge will be deciding which direction to take it.  There are lists on the walls, but only some of these are in English.  In the center of the platforms there are large red and white signs in English that point left of right at the names of different stations telling you which side you need to reach a certain station.  The announcements of stations are in both Georgian and English, though pay attention if you’re going to 300 Aragveli.  The English doesn’t say “three hundred Aragveli” but “samasi aragveli” (the Georgian).  Also pay attention if it’s a name that’s translated, like Station Square or Liberty Square.  Don’t worry if you make a mistake though.  On the Tbilisi metro you could just get off the train at the next station and backtrack–it won’t cost you extra in anything but time.

How to transfer:
Get off the train at Station Square (if you’re starting off on the Saburtalo Line, this is where it ends, so it will be very easy to tell).  Go up the small staircase–almost everyone else will be doing likewise.  Follow the signs to the other line (Saburtalo Line or First Line).  If you find yourself at an escalator, turn around–that’s an exit!  Go down the other small stairs, and wait for your train.  (To figure our where you need to go, read the red and white signs like you did before).

Really, the Tbilisi metro is easy as subways go–if you’ve ridden one before you’ll be a pro in no-time, and even if you’re a first-timer you’ll figure things out quite quickly.  Happy riding!  Any questions?

Originally published April 29, 2012. Most recent update: March 22, 2014

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