Archives for posts with tag: ex-pat life

Fifty Russian Winters by Margaret Wettlin (image from GoodReads)

Wettlin, Margaret. Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union. New York: Wiley, 1994. Print.

Maybe I’m a little bit nosy, but I’ve always liked books that give me insight into other people’s personal lives. When I was a kid, I read my way through the biography section of the library and preferred novels that were written in diary form. I read more broadly now and will accept non-realistic elements in my books, but I still love a good memoir.

Margaret Wettlin’s story of planning to visit the Soviet Union on a one-month tour and ultimately staying 42 years certainly resonated with me now that I’ve been in Georgia longer than expected. (But I have no intention of staying THAT long!)

I think the most valuable part of this book is her recounting of her experiences during the war. Though I’ve read a decent amount of material about Russia and the Great Patriotic War (/World War Two), I haven’t before come across any first-hand accounts of the civilian experience outside the major cities or of being evacuated. Her short time in Tbilisi during the war was particularly interesting to me. I found it funny that they found a cheap “peasant’s house” in Bagebi “five miles of climb from Tbilisi”(196). Bagebi BARELY counts as a suburb these days, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cheap anything there. It was a good reminder of the huge changes Georgia underwent as part of the Soviet Union, and the further and faster development I’ve seen even in my few years here.

The greatest weakness of the book was also the most interesting part: Wettlin’s underdeveloped and unsupported political views. She never joined the Communist Party, but she certainly supported the proclaimed Soviet ideals of equality and reform. She even became an informant for the secret police in support of this dream, but when she became disillusioned that her work didn’t seem to be making things better, she quit. She is critical of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev because they made people’s lives worse, not better. She never would have gotten a good grade on a political science term paper, as she offers no evidence to support her beliefs…but who does, really? How many Americans could give real, evidence-based reasons to explain why they are a Democrat or a Republican? Of course there are many people who can, but I would wager that for the majority of people, it just feels right, as the Soviet dream initially did to Wettlin. Her opinions in this field really shed a lot of light, for me at least, on why so many people continued to support the Soviet Union for so long, despite the hardships they faced.

The book is far from perfect, but that’s a large part of why it’s so interesting. Definitely recommended reading for those interested in Soviet history.


(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.

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.

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!

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.

hey gogo

One of my favorite marshrutka entertainments is the Public Radio International podcast The World in Words.  I particularly like it while I’m on my way to teach, because it puts me in a language-y (or “linguistic”, if you’re against word coinage) frame of mind.   The October 1 edition about the Hobson-Jobson dictionary, a compendium of linguistic borrowings in the British holdings in India, made me think about word borrowings–not across languages as a whole, but among specific groups, such as ex-pats.  Around the same time, I stumbled across an old article from Mental Floss on words English doesn’t have but should (ZEG) which made me think of the strange linguistic borrowings and conglomerations that my friends and I (both foreigners in Georgia and English-speaking Georgians) start to invent and use.  Living in another place changes the way you speak, even in your mother tongue, so I’ve compiled a short list of Georgia Ex-pat-isms.  Please feel free to contribute anything that I’ve forgotten (or am perhaps not cool enough to be a party to) in the comments. Some of these poke fun at life in Georgia, and the difficulty of explaining our lives to those back home, while others fill a gap in the English language due to different cultural circumstances.

to get dajeki-ed: to be told by a very well-meaning Georgian to sit down, or “დაჯექი”.  This is not impolite in Georgian, but many foreigners find it quite annoying.
khachapuri hips: weight gain caused by eating too much Georgian food, in particular khachapuri
marsh: a shortened form of marsh(r)utka that I’ve only heard used by foreigners
to marsh(r)utka it: a casual verb form–to travel by marshrutka
modi man: the man in a florescent yellow vest assisting cars in parking and leaving their parking spots by telling the driver “Modi! Modi! Modi!” (მოდი! მოდი! მოდი!) (Come! Come! Come!)
Tbilisi tummy: the Georgian version of Montezuma’s revenge or Delhi belly. Happens to the best of us…

It’s not a new fusion vocabulary word, but I’ve noticed some foreigners using the vocative cases of bidjo ბიჭო (boy/guy/dude) and gogo გოგო (girl) to refer to their friends, or adding ra რა (what) to the end of things.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to stop myself from calling a friend from home “gogo” because she’ll have no idea what I mean.

Some place names change across languages.  An example that immediately comes to mind is the area of Vake known to foreigners as “UN Circle”  which is called “Round Garden” მრგვალი ბაღი mrgvali baghi in Georgian.

Another common cross-language word exchange is referring to the Georgian language as kartuli ქართული while speaking English (this is the Georgian name).  This actually really annoys me.  I briefly did this while speaking in Russian (rather than using the unpopular Russian form грузинский gruzinskij), and was called out for it.  As it was explained to me “We don’t like that that’s the Russian word, but it IS the Russian word, so go ahead and use it, otherwise you sound silly.”  I feel the same way about people who say kartuli in English, especially since “Georgian” doesn’t have the negative connotations that “gruzinskij” does.  My annoyance at this particular usage is compounded by the fact that it is primarily used by people who don’t actually speak “kartuli” very well, so it strikes me (and not just me) as pretentious.

Although I haven’t heard any ex-pats actually use it in conversation, I think I’m going to take Mental Floss’ advice and try to make zeg (ზეგ=the day after tomorrow) happen. This is the only Georgian word that I give my students blanket permission to use in class. (And Regina replies “Shut up, Em.  Stop trying to make zeg happen. It’s not going to happen)

Thanksgiving festivities started Monday evening when my roommate S and I decided that we should actually mark the occasion somehow.  Like good 20-somethings, we created a Facebook event inviting our friends over for non-Thanksgiving.  We had no interest in trying to cook a full Thanksgiving spread in our kitchen, or even a turkey, so we invited people over for snacks.  As I see it, the best part of living abroad is being able to take the best parts of your culture and leave the rest, and combine different cultures.  So we had a celebration in honor of Thanksgiving rather than a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Tuesday I trekked to the main bazaar (bazroba ბაზრობა) for ingredients for my contributions: pumpkin spice chocolate chip cookies (with Barambo chile chocolate) and green tomato salsa (inspired by multiple recipes).  The bazroba was great fun–I got all my ingredients for about 5 lari, and was showered in compliments on my Georgian.  I don’t think they get many foreigners there…  That evening I hunkered down for the pumpkin slaughter, and transformed the whole pumpkins into puree, since that isn’t available in a can in Georgia.  Wednesday morning I made my cookies (slowly and in very small batches with our glorified Easy Bake Oven).  We made follow-up trips to the big supermarkets (Smart and Carrefour) to make sure we had all our ingredients and had purchased other necessary things like bread and drinks.  That evening we cooked up a storm–I assembled my salsa, and S made an amazing pumpkin pie.  Thursday we scrambled to make our apartment less dirty, roasted some garlic and mixed some sangria.  I had a full day of work that day, and I amused myself and my (adult) students by having an arts and crafts hour making hand turkeys.  They seemed to enjoy the break from work, and it got me into the spirit of thankfulness. I returned home from work and readied the apartment for guests–we didn’t invite too many American friends, because we were afraid they would be disappointed in our non-traditional Thanksgiving.  Instead we had a mixed crew from many parts of the world–the plurality were, I believe, Germans.  It was one of our guest’s birthday, so we marked the occasion by putting a tea light candle on top of the pumpkin pie (we improvise).  Amusingly, we realized that we didn’t have nearly enough drinking vessels for all the people we’d invited, so we scrounged around the apartment for various things in which to serve beverages–a yogurt cup might not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but it transports liquid to your mouth quite effectively.

Friday I had a more traditional American Thanksgiving with more established ex-pat friends–we had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, the whole nine yards (I made an apple-quince crisp and some bacon-wrapped dates).  This event couldn’t have been more different from the previous night, but both events captured the most important part of Thanksgiving–spending time with people you care about.  The rest of the weekend was one of my most “American” in Georgia–Saturday I went to a Super League basketball game and watched the Police defeat the Army, and that evening I hung out with Americans and watched Ohio State beat Michigan in American football (yay on both counts!).  Watching an American college football game abroad is a very strange phenomenon–I haven’t been in a room with only Americans in a long time, and I found it disconcerting.

In the best Thanksgiving tradition, I still have plenty of leftover turkey and some sides. But like a good ex-pat, I’ve been combining cultures while I eat them.  Mashed potatoes with Georgian cheese make an excellent potato pancake, and leftover turkey is really improved by dousing it in tkemali.

Growing up in a swing state can make a person either really love or really hate politics.  As for me, I’m in the first camp–I remember first really starting to care about who won elections in middle school and discussing Bush vs. Gore with my best friend on our walk to the bus stop before school in the mornings.  In high school I started to both learn more about politics academically, and become involved in campaigns and increasing political awareness among my peers.  Since turning 18, I’ve remained interested in politics (I was a PoliSci major in undergrad).  However, since I became an eligible voter I’ve been out of the country for many of the key political events (I’ve only voted at my local polling place once, and that wasn’t in a national election).  I cast my vote in the 2008 primaries through the London Caucus, I watched President Obama’s inauguration from a diner in Moscow, and I am familiar with all manner of absentee ballots and early voting laws.  This election season, I’ve been abroad in Georgia.  Being abroad during an election gives a strange perspective on events back home.  I was discussing the election with a (non-American) friend on Skype the other night, and he asked what I predicted as an American.  I realized that I had no better idea than he, since I was removed from the daily conversations and encounters regarding the election, and was dependent on what was covered by major media outlets or outraged my Facebook friends–even though I read multiple news sources and have friends from both sides of the political aisle, my view is still skewed by sampling bias.  Given my poor recent track record of predicting elections (case in point: Georgian Parliamentary Elections), I don’t feel my American citizenship and general interest in politics gives me any insight into what will happen today, but I’m looking forward to finding out.  If I can drag myself out of bed tomorrow morning (an advantage of the time difference), I’m planning on watching the returns with some other foreigners in Tbilisi–it’s always more fun as a social event to share the emotions.  This afternoon I’ll be talking about the elections with some of my students–I’m planning on explaining the quirks of the electoral college, showing them clips from The West Wing, and letting them hear from the candidates themselves via YouTube.

© Brian Petty Design

I sent my absentee ballot in, and with luck Georgian Post has gotten it back to America in time.  If you’re abroad and didn’t manage to vote this time, check out this post for some resources for American voters abroad.

For those of you reading this from back home, please remember to go and vote today!

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