You really have no idea, do you?

One of my colleagues asked what the worst thing about living in Georgia was.  Now, I’ve learned by lesson about being negative and I rarely offer Georgians unsolicited criticism of their country in normal social interactions (contrary to what you might expect from reading this blog).  But I strive to be honest and she seemed to actually want to know what I thought, and I had just been talking about some of the many reasons I like living here, so I decided to venture a response.

One of the first things to come to mind was the streets and sidewalks.  Walking in Tbilisi varies from inconvenient to hazardous in most residential neighborhoods – I’ve sprained my ankle once or twice because of uneven pavement in the dark; a friend of mine busted up her knee because of an unmarked open hole in the sidewalk related to some construction; and that’s more on the inconvenient side given that many of us are forced to walk with our children in the street with cars because Georgian drivers have no qualms about parking on the sidewalks – and that’s when there are sidewalks.  Georgia has a lot of pedestrians die in road accidents.

So I tried to politely express this thought without rambling too much – I said something to the effect of “the streets – you know, walking around, the potholes and uneven pavement and cars parking on the sidewalk.”  As I recall I didn’t get to finish the thought, because my colleague interrupted me to ask for my honest opinion.  “No, come on, be serious,” she said.  “That is not the *worst* thing about living in Georgia.”

Well, actually, it’s up there.  I guess it depends partially on how you weigh problems – for instance, I think of the homophobia here as a huge problem, but it doesn’t personally affect me on a day-to-day basis.  On the other hand, I have to trek through mud and gravel and across uneven streets and risk my life dodging traffic practically every day of my life here, and it has resulted in injury to myself and my friends.  She was asking what the worst thing about *living* here was, and in my day-to-day life, that’s a contender.

The other contender is the smoking.  And I know that people smoke all over, but at least in New York the public is well into the process of chasing smokers out of the shared public spaces that ought to be smoke-free: restaurants, bathrooms, elevators, and other enclosed spaces; and also parks and recreational areas where families bring their children to play in a safe environment.  New York has whole smoke-free apartment buildings.  Many other cities and countries are similar – some even ban adults from smoking in cars with children, which I think ought to be the law everywhere.  Someday perhaps it will be.

Anyhow, today I was on my way to take out the garbage, which had accumulated to an almost embarrassing quantity, and I planned to take the elevator rather than walk it down the eight flights of stairs, but when the elevator came to my floor there was a very large dude in it, smoking a cigarette.  I looked up at his face, then down at his cigarette, and then I dropped my garbage on the landing and went back into my apartment to wait for the air to clear.

Now obviously from his perspective this is, at the very least, extremely odd behavior.  He’ll probably chalk it up to my being a foreigner.  He probably has *no idea* that by smoking in the elevator he was inconveniencing me, and he certainly has no idea how many times I’ve had to wait for an elevator to air out before getting on, especially when my kids are with me.  He has no idea how many buses and marshutkas I’ve had to get off because the driver lit up a cigarette, in violation of Georgian law.  He has no idea about the time I had to leave Vake park because after trying three playgrounds I finally found a smoke-free one for my son to play on and not five minutes after he started playing an old man came and started smoking on it, and wouldn’t put out the cigarette when I asked him, and it escalated into a shouting match, and the police came.

He has no idea that I spent several minutes waiting for that elevator to air out, cursing him and his family and wishing I could see him punished and basically projecting all the accumulated stress and anger from dealing with inconsiderate smokers for five years onto his filthy tobacco-stained head.  And I don’t think he’d even be able to comprehend such sentiments even if I could somehow communicate them to him.

I think these things are connected – the smoking, the streets in disrepair, the litter, the driving, the walking.  I think that in some sense it’s the tragedy of the commons being played out across every aspect of Georgian public life.  Georgians are very warm, helpful, social people – in face-to-face interactions.  And yet, they act as if they are *completely blind* to the effects that their actions have on others if those effects are even the slightest bit attenuated or cumulative.  They seem completely unaware that social obligations might extend to people who you aren’t in direct contact with at the moment.

The two worst aspects of my daily life in Georgia – poorly maintained public walkways, and cigarette smoking in enclosed and/or family spaces – don’t even seem to be recognized as problems by Georgians.  There’s no sense that these are things that can be addressed.  There’s no sense that Georgians’ lives would be better if they could make a small set of important and quite feasible changes to their environment.  There’s no awareness, no social consciousness beyond one’s immediate circles of friends and family.

And of course, by bringing it up, I’m casting myself as the enemy, the perennially complaining foreigner who should just go back to where he came from if he doesn’t like it here.  That’s the flip side of having zero awareness of your own shortcomings – when someone points them out you tend to respond with bewilderment or aggression.On the other hand, I think the younger people are a little better about this – for example, there’s a Georgian organization dedicated to improving Georgia’s walkways and shaming drivers who park on sidewalks, and there are some burgeoning environmental groups.  So far, from what I’ve seen, they haven’t really made a dent in any of these problems, but at least some people are starting to be aware of them.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Myths about the Georgian Alphabet appears to be a mildly nationalistic, pro-regime English-language news site in Georgia. They often write feel-good pieces promoting Georgia to English readers, and there’s really nothing wrong with that, and so even though the faint whiff of propaganda rises off every article I read, I have had no actual cause for complaint with their news coverage up until now.

This week, they published an article which espouses a few myths about the Georgian alphabet. The first of these is the 14 alphabets myth, which goes something like this: “Georgians are among 14 lucky nations in the world who can be proud of their unique writing system.”

TLG said this too – that there exist exactly 14 alphabets in the world which are currently used to write currently existing languages. As far as I can tell, there is no reasonable counting method under which this claim is true. I would like to know where it came from, but oddly enough no one ever cites a source. lists 16 alphabets as “currently in use”, and this is under the most restrictive possible understandings of the terms “alphabet” and “currently in use”. It excludes alphabets like Coptic and Old Church Slavonic which are currently in use but only in a limited context, for example for religious writings and ceremonies. It also excludes alphabets that do not mark vowels with their own letters (instead they use diacritics, or nothing – called abugidas and abjads, respectively) such as Hebrew and Arabic. It also counts all the different Latin alphabets as one alphabet, even though, for example, the English, German, Spanish, French, Polish, Slovenian, and Turkish alphabets (among many, many others) all use the “Latin” alphabet but all with their own distinctive variations, including differing pronunciations, diacritics, and added characters.

So okay, if you don’t count the Hebrew alephbet as an alphabet and you don’t count Old Church Slavonic as “currently in use” and you don’t count the Spanish alphabet as different from the English one, then you can get down to a number that is at least close to 14. If you understand “alphabet” and “currently in use” as a member of the general public ordinarily would, the claim that there are only 14 alphabets currently in use in the world is inarguably both false and misleading – it’s not even close to accurately conveying reality to a reader.

Georgians were apparently taught this 14 alphabet thing during Soviet times and never thought to actually check to verify this claim, so it gets repeated and repeated in nonserious contexts, like on a pro-Georgia-puff-piece-mill like or in a hastily implemented and underfunded language exchange program like TLG. I occasionally ask Georgians I meet if they’ve heard of the 14 alphabet thing and most of them have. I wonder what it would take to dislodge this meme from the Georgian collective mind.

The next alphabet myth is that Georgian “is the only alphabet in the world that is pronounced exactly the same way it is written.” This is not even close to true for a number of reasons. It contains a few grains of truth – just enough to be annoying to someone who actually cares about getting language facts right – but not enough to withstand even a moment’s thought.

Consider Georgia’s four neighboring countries: Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia. Consider what you know about their alphabets. Turkish pronunciation is 100% predictable based on the Turkish alphabet leaving basically no room for error, and it is also particularly straightforward (for instance, there aren’t letters that change pronunciation depending on their place in a word). Correct me if I’m wrong. Azerbaijani is a bit more problematic because of its “k”, which has some range of pronunciation, but as we will see Georgian also has at least one consonant with a range of pronunciation. Armenian has letters pronounced differently in its different dialects but I believe consistently within dialects. And finally, Russian, which has some entirely predictable variation in pronunciation of some letters based on their place in words and sentences – meaning that spelling absolutely determines pronunciation in Russian, just perhaps not entirely straightforwardly. Contrast that to Georgian, in which variations from spelling-sound correspondence rules are often unpredictable and idiosyncratic. (Again, I am not an expert in any of these languages, so it is possible I myself have consumed some bad information – you can consider my claims about Georgian somewhat authoritative but my claims about the neighboring languages are based only on a superficial understanding and some basic research).

In short, not only is Georgian not pronounced exactly the same way as it is written – it is actually worse at this than literally any of its neighbors. Many Georgians at least know Russian, if not Armenian or Turkish, and so it is hard to imagine how Georgians can make this claim with a straight face. It’s like a Radio Yerevan joke: “Is Georgian the only alphabet in the world that is pronounced exactly as it is written?” “In principle yes, but there are many alphabets in the world that are pronounced as they are written, and Georgian is not one of them.”

I suppose you’ll want examples.

Let’s start with ბავშვი – bavshvi. This word has a range of pronunciations (like many Georgian words) but the most common seem to be “bow-shwee” (rhymes with “cow-shwee”) and “bow-shwi” (rhymes with “show-shwee”). (Incidentally, it is interesting that the word “bow” in English has two pronunciations corresponding to the two alternate pronunciations of this Georgian word.) I think the “show” pronunciation is more typical of West Georgia, but I’m no expert.

The reason I bring up this example is that the letter “ვ” is supposed to be pronounced like English “v” and the letter “ა” is supposed to be “ah” (or like the o in not). So in IPA the word would be [bavʃvi] if the Georgian alphabet were phonetic, but it is in fact [baʊʃwi] in its most common realization. In five years I have never heard a Georgian pronounce this word as it is spelled, and it is an extremely common word (especially in schools – I basically hear it every day).

I cannot think of another context in Georgian in which the “ავ” is shortened to an “aʊ” sound, and it is a very common cluster (it is one of several standard verb-forming suffixes, for example). There do appear to be other examples of the “ვ” disappearing itself while turning the preceding vowel into a different sound entirely – like “კიდევ”, which should be “kidev” (key-dev), but is often pronounced “kido” (key-dough). I also theorize that the slang “baro” for hello is actually a reduction of Armenian “barev” (also meaning hello) following the same phonetic pattern, but this is unconfirmed and I can’t think of any other Georgian words ending in “-ევ” to test the theory.

In addition to that, the letter “ვ” in Georgian is problematic in a whole host of other situations. It normally varies between /v/ and /w/, and I have not been able to find a way to predict this. When I compare notes with other students of Georgian their observations are different from mine – for instance, I’ve never heard “Vake” pronounced with a /w/ but several friends say they have. Or maybe I just didn’t notice. Variations appear to differ both by word and by speaker. Sometimes, like with “bavshvi”, it seems to always be a /w/. Other times it seems to always be a /v/. This would be a good area for a research paper, because my personal experience has not led me to be able to determine what, if any, rules or patterns are at work here.

Moving on, we have the word “marshutka.” This is a loan word from Russian. Georgians decided to drop the second “r” out of the original word – “marshrutka” – in spoken language. I have met one or two Georgians who pronounce this second r, but the vast majority do not. However, the spelling of the word varies much more freely – on Google the one-r version gets 109,000 hits while the two-r version gets 22,500 (or 35,500 depending on which “t” you use). I have met many Georgians who spell the word “marshrutka” but pronounce it “marshutka”, which would not be possible if Georgian were spoken exactly as it is spelled.

The vowels are actually much more complicated than the consonants. The “ე” (e) and “ო” (o) vowels are the most unstable and are often strongly colored by their surrounding letters. The “ო” changes before an “რ” (r) in much the same way it does in English (contrast “so” and “sore”). The “ე” goes from what we would call a “long e” (c.f. “way”) to a “short e” (c.f. “wet”) based on whether it has a vowel or consonant after it – and perhaps also changes with the voicing of the consonant as well. This also has some variation from speaker to speaker. For examples, compare the “ე” in “თეკლა” (“Tekla” – [tɛkla]) with the “ე” in “მეორე” (“meore” – [meɪɔreɪ]), or the “ო” in “ბატონო” (“batono” – [batono]) with the “ო” in “ორი” (“ori” – [ɔri]).

Also, there are diphthongs that traditional Georgian language pedagogy says don’t exist. These are most noticeable when an “ი” (“i”, pronounced “ee”) follows another vowel. The famous Georgian alphabet primer is called “აი ია” (ai ia, but pronounced more like “I, ee-ah”) and of those two vowel combinations, the latter is very clearly segmented into two syllables while the first is very clearly merged into a diphthong. “აი” doesn’t always form a diphthong – sometimes the syllables remain distinct, but it depends on the word and the situation. A word like “დაიბანე” (“da-ibane”, or “go wash yourself”) seems more likely to maintain separate syllables – perhaps because the “da” and the “i” are distinct morphemes (that is, units of meaning: the “da” is a fixed verb prefix used to mark what you might think of as tense, and the “i” indicates that it is an animate object being washed). Another example is the name “მაია”, or “Maia” – this is essentially always pronounced with two syllables, similar to the Slavic name “Maja” or its English respelling Maya. I think Georgians would agree that it would be extremely weird to hear this name pronounced with three distinct syllables, but I could be wrong.

Contrary to the example verb above, some verbs do seem to form diphthongs even across morphemes. Consider “მოიცა” (“moitsa” – meaning “wait”). In high-prestige Georgian, this word contains the diphthong /ɔɪ/ (the “oy” in “boy”). Occasionally this is cut short at one syllable but it is often lengthened at the end so it sounds like the diphthong plus the long i – I would render it [ɔɪi] or /ɔɪ:/. Imagine Flavor Flav saying “Yeah boy” – the “oy” in his “boy” is the “ოი” in “მოიცა”.

In some West Georgian dialects, “moitsa” is changed to “meitsa” (pronounced like “May-tsa”. In practice this means that Georgians are spelling a word “moitsa” but saying “meitsa”, except when they dare to actually spell the word in dialect (indeed, you can google “მეიცა” and see almost ten thousand of these brave souls). But furthermore, they aren’t saying “meh-eetsa”, they’re saying “may-tsa” – two syllables where Georgian spelling rules dictate there should be three. This also happens with a number of “ეი” combinations.

To summarize the diphthong issue, there does not appear to be a single consistent paradigm under which some vowel pairs become diphthongized and there is also considerable regional variation, and so if we want to know how native Georgian speakers produce any give vowel pair ending in “ი” we have to admit that we cannot find out through an examination of the spelling of the word. This fact alone – although minor – probably puts Georgian behind all four of its neighbors when it comes to the ability to predict pronunciation based on spelling. Add in the problems with “ვ” both alone and after a vowel and you have an alphabet which unambiguously does not unambiguously describe the pronunciation of the language.


In conclusion, this article reproduces two very common misconceptions that Georgians have about the Georgian alphabet. These misconceptions probably stem from two problems. One, lack of contact with the outside world – if Georgians studied their language in the context of other global languages they might have a more accurate idea of what actually makes their language unique rather than focusing on superficial and ultimately incorrect aspects of their alphabet. Two, nationalism – these language myths are nothing if not self-serving, and they are repeated ad nauseam to feed the paper tiger that is Georgians’ national pride.

I would like to see these myths eradicated. They are part of what makes it difficult for foreigners to learn Georgian – the dogmatic approach most Georgians take to their own language is incredibly frustrating when an outside observer can immediately and clearly see that the native-speaking teacher is constantly breaking the rules he or she is claiming to follow. Repeating these canards also reflects badly on Georgians, and I would like to see Georgians put their best face forward when dealing with the world. Also, I just dislike anything that smacks of nationalism, since nationalism is unseemly at best and genocidal at worst.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a say in the matter. Georgian journalists and philologists tend to be too insular and stubborn to listen when bloggers point out their mistakes.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

the heart of amusement world

Indeed, I have already obtained some measure of amusement from the new East Point shopping center.  It’s an innovative kind of bad Georgian English – almost Palinesque in its placement of imagery over grammar, evocative of a poorly translated Chinese menu read by Shalva Natelashvili (youtube).

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh (although I’m not exactly sure to whom), but go and read it.  Or if you’re reading this in some dystopian future where the East Point website has been competently edited, have a gander at this screenshot:

East Point English

I kept rereading that second sentence looking for a predicate until I realized there wasn’t one.  Georgian English is usually big on comma splices, but I’ve never noticed a sentence fragment before – certainly not one this big.

It’s sad, because this is actually decent writing.  The copywriter has made some bold choices – like capitalizing “Shop, Dine, and Have Fun” – which suggest more than a passing familiarity with idiomatic English, slogans, and ad copy.  Since Georgian doesn’t have capital letters, this is an unusual area of focus in Georgian English style.

If I were proofreading this it would be easy: swap around some articles and hyphens, perhaps fix some of the fragments and splices (this fragment might even be okay if it started with “An open-concept” – fragments certainly aren’t unheard of in ad copy), and maybe fix a few word choice problems further down the page.  Aside from figuring out how to rephrase “heart of amusement world”, I would barely be earning my fee if I were proofreading this.

And yet, I’m not proofreading this – and neither is any other native speaker of English – because apparently someone decided that the exclusively English-language landing page of their 85,000 square meter real estate and business development project did not need to actually be written in proper English.

It can’t be about money.  If you can afford a web designer to build you a Bootstrap page you can afford the eight bucks it would cost to pay an English major to proofread four paragraphs.

No, this is clearly a case of neglect, but the question is, whose, and for what reason?  Someone was responsible for producing English text for this website, and that person either thought that this was correct English or thought that having your English be correct didn’t matter.

How does this happen?  My current theory is that someone was hired to be an interpreter or customer service representative, or something, and got this task foisted on them through no fault of their own.  This person would have had to say either “I cannot write English at the native level” – something you wouldn’t want to admit if you’ve taken a job based on a claim to know English – or just go ahead and do their best.  Presumably this person did not think of consulting a native speaker themselves.  Perhaps this person even thought that he or she *could* write English at the native level.  In any case, I think we should have sympathy for this person.  The job market is tough in Georgia and the education system categorically fails to teach proper English, so what is a person to do if they want to feed their family and all they have is a degree in tourism or marketing and a B2 command of English?

So let’s not blame individuals.  Systemically, the institutions in this country generally fail to realize their employees’ inadequacy as English translators, copywriters, and proofreaders.

English teachers in Georgia are often asked to translate materials into English as (unpaid but mandatory) side work at their schools.  A teacher who is qualified to teach students at the A1 or A2 or B1 level (beginner through intermediate, say) is not necessarily qualified to translate academic or professional texts – a C-level task.  No one in Georgian schools speaks C-level English unless they’ve lived abroad or had some kind of extraordinary circumstance (like the ten-year-old girl I once taught who watched hours of English television a day and could speak flawlessly in not one but a variety of American accents), and even they might not be able to produce professional written texts.

Teaching skills are different from writing skills, and the basic communication taught in high school EFL is insufficient for either teaching or professional writing.  None of this is a dig on Georgian education.  I wouldn’t hire an American to write or proofread professional copy in a foreign language if they had only encountered that language in school.  If they hadn’t lived among native speakers of that language for at least a year I just wouldn’t trust them to have a native’s ear for the language, no matter what their diploma said.  And even then, I’d still prefer a native speaker for the job.

So really, what needs to happen is that firms (corporations and government agencies) have to decide, at the highest levels, to take accountability for the quality of English texts they produce, and hire qualified and competent proofreaders accordingly.  Until that becomes standard practice, the production of professional Georgian English will remain a laughingstock and an embarrassment.

And yes, I know Georgia has worse problems.  Still, if my business was trying to lure rich Tbilisians out to the airport highway to shop at stores most of which already exist all over the rest of the city, I’d make damned sure I spent eight of my marketing dollars to get the website copy proofed by a native speaker.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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