Kakheti Wine Tour

Kakheti is Georgia’s most famous wine region, and as such, it has an extensive variety of wine-related tourist destinations. On Thursday I took my family on a tour of three.

1. The Alexandre Chavchavadze House Museum in Tsinandali

http://www.tsinandali.com/index_en.html

For 20 lari, you can have a tour of the museum in English, Russian, or Georgian, and a tasting of five locally-produced wines. Our tasting included five wines from Kakhuri, a Telavi-based company: Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Saperavi, Mukuzani, and Kindzmarauli. The wines were all quite good, and the range provides a good introduction to some of the more popular Georgian grapes. Bottles are available for sale from Kakhuri and several other companies in Kakheti.

The museum has extensive garden grounds, where you can stroll around and see a variety of greenery, including a large bamboo thicket. The weather is cooler than Tbilisi and we felt comfortable outside even though it was one of the hottest days of the summer. The Chavchavadze House was a tiny bit disappointing, partially because the tour guide rushed through the tour a bit, but it was definitely an interesting look at how the nobility lived in the 19th century. Still, the highlights were definitely the wine and the garden.

Non-drinkers can do the house tour for 5 lari or just have park access for 2 lari.

2. Wine House Gurjaani

http://winehousegurjaani.ge/

Let me tell you, this place was fantastic. For only ten lari, we had a tasting menu that included Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Chacha, bread, cheese, fresh fruits, adjika, churchkhela, and a bonus of some very delicious Georgian brandy aged 27 years. You can buy bottles of the wines and spirits (20 lari for wine, 50 for the brandy), as well as fresh local churchkhela, gozinaki, adjika, and honey. There are also options for a full tour (which includes demonstrations of making bread, wine, and churchkhela) and a full meal, and the house doubles as a guesthouse with five rooms.

The wines and food were fantastic, and the hospitality was excellent. The people were friendly and welcoming. I give Wine House Gurjaani my highest recommendation.

3. Pheasant’s Tears

http://www.pheasantstears.com/

Pheasant’s Tears gets a lot of local and international press, and justifiably so. We opted for the 25 lari “Pheasant’s Journey” – a tasting of seven wines plus chacha, along with delicious local bread and cheese. Our hosted introduced the grapes and the winemaking process and doled out generous pours of Chinuri, Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Tavkveri Rose, Tavkveri, Saperavi, and Shavkapito. I preferred the whites to the reds, but all were enjoyable and the tasting as a whole did a good job of showcasing the great variety and potential in Georgian dry wines.

After the tasting we decided to stay for dinner, which was very good. There is no fixed menu because dishes are available based on seasonal local produce. We ate khatchapuri, slow-cooked pork, fried potatoes, eggplant with tomato sauce, tomato-cucumber salad, bread, and sour-plum sauce. Wine bottles at Pheasant’s Tears are notably more expensive than other local wines – in the 35 to 60 lari range – but we couldn’t resist buying a few anyway.

Pheasant’s Tears also offers tours of Sighnaghi and some local attractions, tours of their vineyard, and horseback riding. The staff is friendly and multilingual. I highly recommend visiting.

*****

Given another day, I’d like to visit the Alaverdi Monastery and the Kvareli Wine Tunnel. I’ve already visited the Ikalto Academy’s vineyards several times, picked and mashed grapes, and tried wine in various stages of the creation process – so if you’re in Georgia around the harvest time I’d recommend doing that. Kakheti is rich in wine culture.

Of course Kakheti offers much more than wine. The route we took (Tbilisi – Tsinandali – Gurjaani – Sighnaghi – Tbilisi) gave us a taste of the scenery, most notably the view from Sighnaghi. We passed dozens of sites – churches, monasteries, fortresses and museums – that offer unique views of nature, landscape, and historic art and architecture. We didn’t even stop in Telavi, let alone detour off the main roads. You could spend a week touring Kakheti and not see it all.

Please share your own experiences and recommendations in the comments section!

Posted in Georgian Food, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wait Your Turn

I am going to offer the rare piece of blunt, prescriptive advice: I think Georgians should learn to wait their turn.

Normally I shy away from direct criticism of Georgian culture, at least on this blog, and opt for describing and trying to understand the culture. I know people don’t want to be told how to live their lives. In this case, however, it’s such a small and innocuous thing that bears such an impact on everyday life. I think it is safe to say that everyone in this country would be happier, healthier, and smarter if they would just learn to wait their turn.

Waiting your turn is taught in the US and in many European countries from a very early age. It is a sign of respect for the people around you and the process or system that you are participating in. It is also a practical matter – in cases where not everyone can go at once, someone has to go first and someone else has to wait. You can’t all go at once.

Georgians have an ad hoc system for determining turn order. It has to do with social and cultural factors, such as age, gender, status/apparent status, and possibly other nuances that I am missing. It is also very closely related to who is willing and able to push themselves forward through the crowd to get to the point of service, or who is willing and able to yell the loudest. In America we are more likely to opt for a “first come, first served” system, because we fancy ourselves an egalitarian country and lining up in the order you came in is clearly more fair (by our standards) whereas making personal judgments about people before deciding who to prioritize is clearly unreliable, prone to abuse, and intrusive in a way that many people would find offensive.

Once I was crossing from Turkey into Georgia at the border station in Sarpi. There were small queues of Turks waiting their turn for passport control. They were surrounded by writhing masses of Georgians pushing each other and the Turks in order to jockey for position. I hope no one will call me insensitive if I just say that the contrast did not favor the Georgians.

Now it’s true that I am personally frustrated because I have just had yet another shopping experience in which the Georgian salesperson very deliberately and obviously skipped over me to serve someone else because reasons. (This was at Smart on Chavchavadze – do me and yourselves a favor and don’t shop there!) However, this has been an issue that I have noticed over and over again and that my foreign friends have also noticed and commented on. Georgians cut in line, shout out their orders ahead of people who were there before them, and otherwise behave in ways most Westerners consider very rude – and the salespeople reward this behavior by serving the rude people ahead of the polite people.

Go ahead, make excuses for them. I’ll wait.

*****

I’m going to make a huge theoretical leap and claim that the idea of fairness is somehow embedded in human nature. Not the specific definition of fairness, but just the idea that some things are just and fair, and other things are not, and that generally speaking we’d prefer things to be fair, especially if we’re on the receiving end of the unfairness. I think kids naturally feel it’s unfair that they can’t do all the things adults can do, for example, and I think this idea naturally causes them displeasure, regardless of culture. I could be wrong.

But I bring this up because I think that Georgians do feel that it is unfair that the loudest, pushiest people always get to go first. I think that many Georgians do get annoyed when someone cuts them in line. I think that part of the reason why that Gallup survey indicated that Georgians do not feel like they are treated with respect on a day-to-day basis is that they are constantly disrespecting each other in this and many other related and non-related ways that essentially amount to a lack of regard or consideration for the feelings and situations of the other people around.

Shopping at the store is actually perhaps the most harmless example of this lack of regard for turn-taking and other forms of consideration. Consider a highway. The insanity of Georgian driving habits – which scare nearly every visitor to this country – is mostly a result of a lack of regard for rules and an unwillingness to negotiate turn-taking (and right of way) in a fair and systematic way. This causes accidents, road rage, violence, and death. I need to get “you don’t actually need to be in front of that other car so badly that it’s worth risking your life” translated into Georgian for the next time I take a trip on the national highway.

Or how about education? Without citing any specific examples, I’ll just invite you to think about what a classroom is like when students do not wait their turn – i.e., wait to be called on – before shouting out a question or an answer or a comment. In public schools classes can have 40 kids. Students internalize the reward system as follows: “When I call out an answer, the teacher rewards me, moreso if I am the loudest. When I call out a question, the teacher answers me, and if she doesn’t the first time, she definitely will the second.” Sure, this someday becomes “When I cut in line, I leave the store first” – but that’s not really the problem. The problem is the missed opportunity for education, because the classroom is a shouted conversation between the teacher and the one or two loudest boys.

When I teach kids who come from that environment, they are unmanageable. It’s like they understand the concept of waiting their turn, just not how it applies to them personally. They are offended by the idea that a teacher might answer student questions in the order they were asked rather than in order of who asked the loudest or the most times. In many cases, they will not allow anyone else to learn until their own question has been fully addressed, and if there are two of them, there is simply no feasible resolution. That is one of the reasons why public school students very often get the bulk of their education from private lessons (not just the rich ones – teachers in the villages also give private lessons, often to their own students), and, as a result, most Georgians just never learn how to learn in a classroom environment. I pity them if they go to college outside Georgia.

*****

It’s not a matter of patience. Most Georgians I know are as patient as a stone, highly flexible, and tolerant of setbacks and delays – at least, those that are inevitable or perceived as such. (That outlook, by the way, is one of my favorite things about Georgia.) Instead, it’s a matter of applying that patience to a specific set of circumstances.

It’s about choosing to wait your turn – about choosing to put the health of the system ahead of your own momentary personal inclinations. It’s about delayed gratification. It’s about being able to wait when you don’t have to as gracefully as you wait when you do have to. That skill is so super-important in life that I think its lack is one of the main deficiencies in the so-called “Georgian mentality” that Georgians are always blaming their problems on. And sure, you can say that this lack is a result of poverty, Sovietism, instability, or whatever – but let’s not dodge responsibility for solving the problem. Georgians should just learn to wait their turn. Start now. Practice. PSH is great because they make you take a number, and some of the bank branches are doing that now too. Bravo to them for setting an example. This is low-hanging fruit, but it’s basic and important. Get on it, Georgians.

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Why are Georgians homophobic?

There have been some interesting developments this year regarding today’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

For some background context, Georgian LGBT rights activists have been trying to hold demonstrations against homophobia in Georgia for several years now. On May 17th, 2012, there was some scattered violence against the demonstrators. On May 17th, 2013, there was much more organized violence against the demonstration, as the Georgian Orthodox Church led an angry mob numbering in the thousands to attack a group of about 25 young people, who had to be evacuated by the police. The famous-in-Georgia image of the priest holding a stool with which to bludgeon the gayness out of these people comes from this event. Last year – May 17th, 2014 – there were a few guerrilla demonstrations – including a staircase painted with rainbow colors, and a bunch of empty pairs of shoes placed in Tbilisi’s main square to symbolize the people who could not attend a demonstration because of the threat of violence from the peace-loving, Christ-like Georgian Orthodox Church. The Church, for its part, declared May 17th the Intranational Georgian Day of the Family, because if there’s anything in Georgia that does not get enough attention, it’s families.

This year, Identoba – Georgia’s LGBT rights organization – tried to get the government to agree to protect LGBT-rights advocates against the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Georgian police apparently said they would protect a demonstration only if it occurred somewhere that was of no particular importance to Georgian social or cultural life – such as the parking lot of a large hotel/casino in one of the city’s (relatively) newer districts. Identoba responded by calling Georgia a theocracy – which is not entirely fair, because a country in which the police cannot protect its citizens from a group of organized thugs (or, for that matter, secure its borders) is more properly called a failed state rather than a theocracy – but it is certainly true that the Church is a powerful and oppressive force in this country.

The result of all this is that Identoba is planning to hold a secret rally, somewhere in the city, the location of which will apparently be disclosed only to registered participants from recognized NGOs (correct me if I’m wrong). Demonstrators have been told to wear ordinary clothes and carry no signs, symbols, or other recognizable indications that they are affiliated with any LGBT rights groups, because in the past people have been targeted for random violence on the basis of suspected LGBT sympathies. In 2013 there were reports of violence against anyone who even looked gay, including a woman who was attacked in the street for having a short haircut, so these are actually quite sensible precautions.

*****

The debate about LGBT rights in Georgia is at the stage where it is a battle over public visibility. Most Georgians do not want to actively hunt down and murder gay people and there is comparatively little anti-gay violence, aside from the annual eruptions described above. Generally Georgians take a live-and-let-live attitude, as long as the so-called “sexual minorities” stay in the closet. I think part of this is an issue of the honor of Georgia – when I came here many Georgians would often say that there are no gays in Georgia, and now that they cannot credibly make that claim, they are angry. Georgians find it embarrassing that there are, in fact, gays in Georgia.

The other part is that Georgians are concerned about their children. Russia has banned “gay propaganda” with the justification that the government needs to protect children from being recruited into a homosexual lifestyle, and the overall sentiment in Georgia is similar. To me this sounds ridiculous, but I don’t think we can dismiss it. Often when I talk to Georgians about gay rights, they ask me what I would do if my own son were gay. Since this question keeps coming up, I have come to suspect that it lies at the heart of Georgians’ concern about letting LGBT groups have public visibility. It’s why the Church wants to claim May 17th for families, as opposed to some more particularly religious agenda.

Georgian family values are still heavily influenced by economic and social concerns that probably seem alien to people from wealthier, more developed countries. Georgians of my generation have strong connections to their villages, even if they’ve never actually lived there, and you’d be surprised how many people still consume produce (and wine) that comes from the villages where their ancestors lived. The family is not just a source of organic foods – it’s a source of educational success, of career paths (yes, there is still a lot of nepotism in Georgia), of social status. The family is the social safety net. The obligations surrounding family are so much stronger and more pervasive in Georgia than in New York City that it is hard for me to predict where and how and how much they’ll influence other Georgian cultural practices.

For example, Georgians are really afraid of having gay relatives. They’re afraid of the loss of social status. They’re afraid people will think they’re gay if they have a gay relative. This is salient because loss of status can mean loss of educational and job opportunities, given the amount of nepotism in Georgia. They’re afraid of having a gay son and therefore not having grandsons – Georgians are very concerned about male heirs, who are the property-inheritors and name-carriers. Georgians want their children to be “normal”, because children are a status symbol, and status in Georgia is tied into the social and economic system such that a threat to status can be a threat to livelihood.

I would love to offer arguments as to why Georgians shouldn’t fear LGBT visibility – but I’m not convinced those arguments would work here. Georgia does not have strong, reliable social institutions outside of the family. Georgia’s economy is precarious, its employment levels low, its educational system primitive, its social safety net new and untested and incomplete. Pensioners do not make enough to live without their relatives’ support. Students do not graduate with the skills to compete in the world market. If the social institution of the family is weakened, Georgians do not have anything to fall back on. As a result, Georgians respond to any perceived threat to the family out of fear – and fear responses are notoriously irrational. You can’t reason with a cornered animal.

I think that the only way Georgians will become comfortable with LGBT visibility is if Georgian society develops to the point where Georgians can feel secure in their existence regardless of the status of their family. This requires economic development, institution-building in government, education reform, and other forms of modernization. If I had to put forth a theory, I would say that the reason for the correlation between wealth and gay rights in a society comes down to the dependance on public social institutions versus dependance on family (and this theory explains outliers like Saudi Arabia, which are fabulously wealthy and awful for gay rights, because they are idiosyncratically family-dependent). This would explain why social democracies are great for gay rights. But who knows, I could be wrong.

I should point out that I don’t think Georgia’s poor socio-economic status justifies anti-gay sentiment. Bullying others out of fear is perhaps the most pathetic form of cowardice, and there are plenty of Georgians who recognize that intimidating your fellow humans into a life of fear, silence, and shame is morally repugnant regardless of the social and economic conditions you were born into. I just think that most people do not have the courage to face their fears unless it is unavoidable, which means that most Georgians will continue to be homophobic until the battle for LGBT visibility is won and Georgians have no choice but to get used to it – which is why this is such an important battle in the overall struggle for LGBT rights.

*****

I am against homophobia because homophobia has victims. Homophobia drives people to suicide. Homophobia drives families apart and forces young people out of their homes and onto the streets. Homophobia causes people to bully and beat and kill each other. Homophobia creates secrets and lies. Homophobia makes American men afraid to touch each other. Homophobia creates scapegoats and allows us to avoid confronting and solving the real problems we have. Homophobia is petty and cowardly and ugly. Homophobia defines us by our fear and hatred. I look forward to the day when it is eradicated.

And if I do someday have a son or daughter who is gay, I will love and support them and do everything I can to make sure they are happy and successful, because that is what family means to me, and because that is the kind of world I want to live in – a world of love, not of fear.

Posted in Culture Shock!, Sex and Gender | 17 Comments

I take it back: don’t respect your own traditions

In case you didn’t catch it, the title is referring to a post I wrote before called “Respect Your Own Traditions” – emphasis on “your own” – arguing that Georgians should not selectively demand respect for some traditions while ignoring others.

I meant that somewhat facetiously. I don’t think that anyone should just respect all of their traditions as a package deal, because I don’t think that just being traditional is any reason for a practice to deserve respect. Consideration, perhaps, but respect? No way.

Every generation ought to reevaluate their practices in light of new information and changes in circumstance. For example, if it turns out that smoking is really bad for people, the first people to figure that out for sure ought to make sure that smoking stops. So there’s an argument that people in the 1950’s who smoked didn’t know any better. There’s even an argument that people in the 1980’s should have known better, but that information that challenges ingrained habits just takes some extra time to diffuse through a population and encounters more skepticism or denialism than usual. Fine, whatever. In 2015, if you smoke you pretty much have to know that you are deliberately harming yourself and those around you with no justification, and you are doing it anyway. I know a lot of people who smoke who I like a great deal, but there is cognitive dissonance because I have to hold the contradictory thoughts “I like person X” and “people who smoke are morons and assholes” in my head at the same time. Orwell was right: doublethink does exist.

And this particular nugget relates to Georgia because any time I complain about how much people in Georgia smoke, everyone piles on to tell me that this is Georgia and if I live in Georgia I have to get used to the way Georgian people are and everyone smokes in Georgia and I can’t expect to go somewhere in Georgia without encountering cigarette smoke. Even expats ask me “well if you hate smoking that much, how can you live in this country?”

Sorry, but what? Georgians talk about traditions like Georgian language, religion, feasts, winemaking, hospitality – things that go back thousands of years or more – and in the same wheezing breath they talk about smoking as if this practice *which came from the Americas* is an inseparable and immutable aspect of the Georgian nation.

Actually, there’s nothing Georgian about smoking at all. It’s a shitty thing humans do everywhere, and it’s why I want to retire to a house in the mountains somewhere where I can’t even see my closest neighbor. Unfortunately for now I’m just people who need people, smokers and all, and I won’t be old enough to retire for several decades.

I see why people think that I am always picking on Georgia, but I am not. I just happen to live here. No matter where I lived I would still say that there are traditions that need to be reevaluated, changed, or discarded entirely. There are shitty traditions everywhere. It happens that in New York this is not an uncommon or controversial opinion – Americans know that many of our traditions are shit, which is why hipsters exist and why we put so much currency in appearing to dislike anything popular. Many Americans are so anti-traditional that we get upset if even one other person likes one of the things we like, which is why this exists:

bands I used to like

To sum up: in my culture it is not unusual to be anti-traditional or iconoclastic or just generally disagreeable, whereas in Georgia this seems to be taken as a sign of mental illness.

Speaking of my own culture, I like the progress the US has made even since I’ve been gone – since I came to Georgia, that US has legalized gay marriage in many places and marijuana in a few, and these both required the reevaluation of American tradition and I am proud that my culture does this (even as I wish progress would be faster – we still don’t have formal equality for women! WTF America?).

Gay marriage is another good example in support of my point. Gay marriage is not really an adaptation to new information – instead, it’s an adaptation to new circumstances. In particular, the widespread redefinition of “marriage” to a union entered into freely by two parties because of romantic love set the stage for gay marriage since it is clear that while gay people might not be able to genetically combine hereditary property or titles, they can certainly fall into romantic love with each other. There were certainly gay people throughout human history, and there was certainly homosexual behavior (the ancient Greeks serve as a particularly well-documented example) and romantic love between members of the same sex (see Shakespeare’s sonnets, probably), but since marriage was not primarily or fundamentally about the fulfillment of sexual or romantic feelings it wouldn’t have really made sense to advocate for gay marriage in one of those societies. However, in our society it follows logically from our understanding of marriage that it should extend to more than just straight monogamous couples.

In fact I think it’s unfortunate that conservatism and traditionalism delayed the recognition of gay marriage for so long. I know that there is a place for conservatism and traditionalism – society needs some stability and we shouldn’t simply adopt any new idea without giving it a thorough vetting through debate, because it is true that some new ideas are bad ideas just as it is true that some old ideas are bad ideas. However, I think that if liberals and conservatives respected each others roles’ more, these debates wouldn’t have the same life-or-death, us-against-them feel and people would be more likely to embrace (or reject) change as appropriate. Often when I realize that I am wrong, the behavior and attitude of the person who convinced me determines how willing (and how quick) I am to admit my mistake – and I seem to change my mind about major issues more often than most people.

So how about this: instead of respecting traditions, how about we try respecting ourselves, and each other? Your great-great-grandparents may have been awesome people, but they are dead now. We are the living and we owe it to each other to improve the world we have inherited. I wouldn’t want my descendants to try to behave like me – I am no role model even now, let alone in a hundred years – and as a parent and a teacher I sincerely hope and wish that the next generation will grow up smarter and happier and more moral than I did. I certainly don’t want them to repeat my mistakes.

There are probably a thousand ways in which I make the world a worse place – from my carbon footprint to my tendency to get angry in arguments to my meat-eating (I am convinced that it is wrong to eat meat, but like a smoker in the 1980’s, I am not quite convinced enough to give it up, yet) to things I’m not even aware of, and I like to think that if I do my job as a parent and a teacher, some day people who know me will say “well, yeah, he did XYZ wrong, but he was a product of his time”.

I think we have to imagine that our ancestors wanted the same thing for us – or would have, given enough information. I think we have to believe that we are never finished, that there is always something to learn, always a better way. I think we have to believe that the only way to go is up. I think we have to live in the future, and not in the past.

I think Louis Armstrong said it best: they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know. Why wouldn’t we want them to use that information?

[Video: Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World]

Posted in Culture Shock!, Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Hanmer Guest House

Let me take a post to shamelessly plug the Hanmer Guest House. It was certainly the highlight of our trip and made everything we endured worthwhile. The house is owned and operated by Tony Hanmer and his wife, Lali. They were helpful in organizing our trip and their hospitality was, simply put, awesome.

The road from Zugdidi to Mestia is gorgeous. I’d say the highlight of the drive was probably the Enguri Reservoir, which was a fascinating shade of turquoise. Just before you get to Mestia, the highway passes through a region called Etseri, and if you get to Etseri and take a left at the 112 mile marker, you’ll be in a small village called Iskari. The guesthouse is about halfway up the road from the highway to the big stone watchtower. The trip itself was uneventful, although we ran into some snow when we got up nice and high, and we were glad to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle – although snow chains would have been better. Bring snow chains if you go in winter! We ignored Tony’s advice on this matter, and came to regret it.

Dinner the first night was a Chinese-style stir fry (one veggies, one chicken and ginger) with rice and some of Tony’s home-made ajika (a Georgian spicy pepper sauce). This was great, and not at all what we were expecting. We also got to sample some home-made Cointreau – a Mandarin-infused vodka sweetened with sugar syrup. I’ll just stop saying home-made now, because everything we had was home-made – mostly from local products that Tony and Lali grew or bought from their neighbors. I have to say, I’ve always loved the *idea* of eating home-grown and local products, but now having done it for several days, I can say that it is also great in practice.

Our other meals included a chicken/rice/veggie stew, a beef soup, and of course kubdari, a Svan specialty of well-spiced beef baked into bread. We had fresh-baked bread daily, a variety of cakes for desert – and Tony even had a Western drip coffee machine! We also got to have some wine that Lali made with grapes from her family’s land in Kakheti. It was three days of awesome, organic, natural food and beverage.

When we weren’t exploring the region, Tony and Lali kept us entertained. Tony has a nice, brand-new TV which can read a USB drive and play digital videos. In the evenings, we watched some movies and music videos from Tony’s extensive library. Lali taught us a card game which was very hectic and exciting. We conversed about various topics and cultures and exchanged stories from our travels. Tony is a very knowledgeable guide to Svaneti and gave us great tips on where to go and how to get there.

Our rooms were newly renovated, with comfortable beds, new furniture, and heaters. The bathrooms were also newly renovated and had hot and cold running water (although the hot goes out if the power does). Everything was clean and we were very happy with the accommodations.

*****

Our first day in Svaneti, we went to Mestia. The road was snowy and a bit difficult, but we followed the local marshutka (it makes a trip from Iskari to Mestia twice a week) and made it without incident. Mestia has a couple restaurants and stores, a Liberty Bank branch, and a teeny tiny airport. Apparently there is also a hospital, although fortunately we had no occasion to visit it. There is a cultural museum which is supposed to be fantastic, although it was closed the day we went (sad!). The main drag was refaced as part of Misha’s tourism development program, and so looks very shiny and out of place.

From Mestia, it is not a long drive to various ski locations. We visited one and I was tempted to learn to ski, for the first time ever. Kids were doing it! The road up to the ski slopes offered great views, and I took a lot of pictures of snow-covered pine trees. Unfortunately the road was also unplowed and super bumpy.

On the trip back down from Mestia, we failed to make it up the hill to the guesthouse (seriously, bring snow chains!), and had to leave the car parked by the highway and hike up the hill on foot.

On our second day, we lost power because of snow. Power continued to be intermittent throughout the trip, but the guesthouse is well-equipped for dealing with a power outage. We hiked up to the Svan watchtower and took pictures, and then a bit further up to an old wrecked building which used to belong to the local bandit chief, until Misha sent ten helicopters to shoot up the house and burn it down. According to Tony, 600 people attended the funeral, but also life in the area has been much safer since the bandits were, er, disbanded. Such is the contradictory nature of law enforcement actions in Georgia.

It was sort of interesting to see bullet holes in the walls and warped and twisted metal. The whole place reminded me of Ozymandias.

We came back to the guesthouse and helped Tony shovel out some things – the snow had gotten quite ridiculous by that point, and people with insufficiently sloped roofs were on top of their houses and garages shoveling them off lest they collapse from the weight of it. Luckily the guesthouse roof takes care of itself, but there was a shed that needed liberation, as well as paths to the gate, the woodpile, and the shed.

Did I mention the guesthouse is also a functioning farm? Yeah, we ate cheese from one of Tony’s cows. It was good!

*****

By the time we left, Tony said he had never seen that much snow piling up against the house. That did not bode well for our journey home, but that’s a matter for another post.

Posted in Awesome, Travel | Leave a comment

Lunch in Zugdidi

There are two main routes to Mestia/Upper Svaneti. One goes through Lower Svaneti – if you were coming from Tbilisi, you’d hang a right at Kutaisi and head straight north, through Lentekhi. This was our initial plan because it looks like it makes more sense if you plot it on a map.

However, we were advised to take the second route, which goes through Zugdidi, because even though Zugdidi is over an hour in the wrong direction, the road up there is supposed to be better-maintained. That turned out to be a good call for several reasons, but the reason I’ll focus on in this post is that visiting Zugdidi was a great (if brief) experience.

Now, I should stipulate that we were only there long enough to locate a restaurant, have lunch, and leave, but that alone was enough to make me want to come back. As you may recall I lived with a Megrelian host family in Tbilisi, and perhaps that is why I’ve always loved Megrelian food (it’s certainly the only plausible explanation I can imagine for why I love ghomi so much). But also, Megrelian food has a spice profile that is much closer to my ideal than regular Georgian food.

In fact, I had suggested stopping in Zugdidi for lunch for this very reason. I traveled with one old friend and two new friends, and the new friends are from Korea and have only been in Georgia for about four months, and were missing the spicy and varied dishes of their homeland, much as I had done in my first few months in Georgia, before I really learned about how to navigate Georgian food. I thought perhaps a good Megruli kharcho would show them that there’s more to the cuisine here than the four things Georgians always brag about.

We decided to ask someone for a restaurant recommendation (not having done our research beforehand, foolishly) and so we parked in what looked like the city center and stopped some young people, two girls and a guy, to ask about restaurants. One thing that was notable is that we did the entire exchange in Georgian – they didn’t even try speaking English to us, as most people who know some English do when they hear our accents – and I wonder if that’s a thing about Samegrelo, or Zugdidi, or just these three people. They also didn’t try Russian. The guy recommended one restaurant – Diaroni – prompting one of the girls to laugh as if the idea of going to Diaroni was hilariously bad. Then he recommended Mendzeli, and when we asked them which was better if we wanted our food very spicy, the guy said Mendzeli, and told us we could ask for the food extra spicy (which turned out not to be true – the restaurant did not do extra spicy – but it turned out to be just fine anyway).

So off we went to Mendzeli (which was actually just called Mendzel – interesting that there is no nominative ending on it, wonder if that’s a Megrelian thing) where the waiter also did not attempt to speak to us in a language other than Georgian. The waiter did a good job of putting up with our odd requests and general air of n00bishnes and steering us towards the correct culinary decision, which in this case was Megruli kharcho with veal. One of our party attempted to order a chicken dish – first kharcho, but the waiter explained that chicken kharcho was not in season and anyway veal was better, and then some other chicken thing that would have had to have been made from scratch and taken forty minutes, and so he caved and got the veal kharcho. The waiter also suggested elarji, to which I enthusiastically agreed, and I asked for one, and he explained that you could only order elarji in portions of two, and no one else wanted it but I prevailed upon them to agree to try it and when it came it turned out that everyone loved it so much that actually we should have ordered four.

In the past I have been put off somewhat by Georgian service, but upon this event I began to feel that I was finally not just used to it, but starting to appreciate it. I mean, it can be hard to explain to foreigners that a particular dish is the house/regional specialty, or has to be eaten a certain way, or is out of season, and having been a waiter I can say that is is often a little frustrating to try to explain things to customers who lack the proper context to understand the establishment that you work for. I think often Georgian waiters will simply freeze up or say nothing when they don’t really know how to approach an explanation. It would be cool if there were some kind of guide to getting the most out of a Georgian restaurant… I wonder who could write something like that? I wish I had the time. In any case, our waiter did a great job and we tipped well.

The other interesting thing is that we ordered beers, and the waiter asked us if we wanted the beers before the meal. I’d never been asked that before, and I realized that Georgians and Americans(/Canadians/Brits) are working on not only different service customs, but also different drinking customs, and therefore we were both making different sets of assumptions about when drinks should come. This waiter was the first person to explicitly address the issue, and it made me realize that not serving drinks right away is not some weird quirk of Georgian service – it’s actually perfectly attuned to the Georgian habit of not drinking without food. Of course Georgians don’t start drinking without some food on the table, and so of course the waiters don’t bring the beers until the food is out or almost out. The beers would just get warm.

On the other hand, we’re so used to drinking while we wait for our meals that it seems not just strange, but rude and/or incompetent, that waiters make us sit and wait with nothing on the table until our food is out. How many complaints about Georgian service could be avoided if expats knew that all they had to do is ask explicitly for their drinks to come out right away, and they would? In any case, again, it’s super cool that this waiter was hip to that cultural difference and knew to ask us if we’d like our beers before our meal.

Oh, and of course, the food: the kharcho was great – the veal was not too fatty and there were no bone shards; the spice was on the mild end of what we like but still noticeable, and the overall flavor was fantastic. My friends also shared a kuchmachi, and said it was very good as well. The prices were reasonable for everything, including the beer. And, the decor of the restaurant was beautiful – art and decorative plates were hung on the walls and there were cool stained-glass windows depicting Georgian cultural scenes, like dancing.

*****

Aside from the great restaurant experience, I also noticed that Zugdidi and the surrounding region was more colorful than the rest of the country. It seemed like many of the houses were decorated and care had been taken to make the outside look attractive and maintained – this is a sharp contrast to what I have come to expect, which is dilapidated exteriors that belie their beautifully-renovated insides. There were also a few houses that were colored in pastels! What!

Not just the houses, though – the clothes were so colorful that they were almost garish at times. One couple who came into the restaurant would not have looked out of place among the cast of Saved by the Bell. It’s an incorrect stereotype that all Tbilisians wear all black all the time, but Tbilisi does tend mostly towards darker and more muted colors (although bright red pants on women seem to be in now) and the difference in Zugdidi was notable.

Stray observation: Zugdidi had several stores named “boom” – there was a coffee boom and a techno boom, and another one, if I remember correctly. I don’t know why they like the word “boom” in Zugdidi, but that was interesting.

Finally, in Samegrelo we saw a sight none of us had ever before seen in Georgia: a person was rollerblading. Just rollerblading down the street, like you do, except in Georgia. Yeah, Zugdidi is awesome.

*****

In conclusion, if you’re in the neighborhood, I recommend getting lunch in Zugdidi.

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Off to Svaneti

Well I realize that I have not posted since I started my new job.  I am now teaching MYP Design (no more English!) at an IB school here in Tbilisi.  It is a lot more work than TLG, to say the least, and most of my free time is spent on things that have little to do with Georgia, which is why I don’t post about them.  So, there’s my excuse.

But now I’m taking a trip to Svaneti.  We plan to hit Etseri, Mestia, and Ushguli, and possibly swing by Oni on the way back if we have time for a detour through Racha.  I’m vaguely ashamed that I haven’t been up there before (also on my list of places I’m ashamed not to have made it to yet: Zugdidi, Sataplia, Mtatsminda!) but I am really bad at taking initiative with travel plans, and so I’ve really only been to places when someone else has said “hey, let’s go to such and such” and I’ve been free at that exact time.

What this means for you, reader, is that I might post about a new thing!  A new thing in Georgia!  Well, new for me, anyway.  At this point most of you have probably already been to Svaneti.  Let’s hope I get lots of insights and they still make sense when the altitude sickness wears off.

Ciao!

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