I thought I’d just sort of free-write a list of things about Georgia that I have observed that one who doesn’t live here might not know.
First and foremost, people in Georgia often want to relax and have a good time. Breakfast is served around 9 or 10 am; lunch at 3ish, and dinner as late as 8 or 9. Bedtime is midnight or later. Lunches are heavier and dinners are lighter as a consequence of the somewhat later meal schedule.
People are not necessarily punctual. It is common to be late. When business persons meet for the first time, they usually do not do business, but simply get to know each other a little to pave the way for later business.
There is a saying in Georgia: Don’t do it today if you can do it tomorrow. Because anything can change and you might not have to do it tomorrow.
Our program director, Nino, told us that Georgia is on GMT – Georgia Maybe Time. This means that if something is scheduled to happen, maybe it will happen, and maybe it will even happen on time.
Most importantly, though, is not to worry. There are no problems in Georgia.
Personally, I love this attitude. It is so different from New York that it’s like living on another planet sometimes, but it’s a very laid-back, relaxing and awesome planet.
Second, Georgia is both a modernized country and a developing nation. The two worlds exist side by side, integrated in a way that makes description difficult. In Tbilisi I stopped at two stores about a block away from each other. One had amazing imported Polish ice cream bars and various Turkish and Russian snacks, and of course Georgian Coca-Cola. The other had a tiny window through which you could buy khatchapuri and look at the highly meagre facilities in which the bread was baked. A modern convenience store and a bakery that could have sat there, unchanged, for two hundred years.
In Kutaisi I am staying in an old school building that has just been completely gut-renovated. There are two bathrooms on my hall; one has squat toilets and the other Western toilets. I use the squat toilets, by free choice, because after a very short learning curve they are actually superior in every way. From the back window is what looks like a Soviet-style housing block, with no glass windows, only wooden shutters.
Anything you want is sold in the stores here. At the Goodwill (think Walmart) they sold Jamis bikes and various computers and every kind of alcohol you could ever want and candy imported from all over Europe and Asia. However, in most stores choices are limited and in many towns stores are not very close by. There are cafes and internet cafes and 24 hour gas station stores and houses where water comes from wells and electricity comes intermittently.
In short, if you’re totally addicted to something like chocolate or soda or a particular kind of cocktail or cereal, odds are there’s something here to satisfy you. In Georgia you’ll have some kind of access to every modern, Western convenience you are used to. However, these things are not as ubiquitous as they are in more developed nations and you’ll have to get used to the idea that for Georgians these are not what is important in life and thus they could be seen as luxuries rather than day-do-day conveniences, and they might thus be a little inconvenient to get to.
Third is the weather and landscape. The weather is about what I’m used to – hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and with rain and snow when appropriate. Tbilisi is almost exactly like NYC, climate-wise. Kutaisi is a little wetter. The landscape is also similar to where I’m from. NYC is not in the mountains, but it’s possible to travel for an hour or two north or west and get to mountains. Kutaisi is also not in mountains, but Tbilisi is. The landscape is beautiful but the human development tends to be on the ugly side – there’s a lot of blight and decay left over from the Soviet era, and progress on fixing that has stalled due to the 2008 war. Overall, there’s nothing I’ve seen in Georgia in terms of the general appearance and environment of the place that traveling in NY, PA, and FL haven’t prepared me for.
On the other hand, Georgians have a somewhat lax approach to air conditioning. If you’re going to be here in the summer, you are going to feel the heat, and you are going to sweat. Not sure what winter cold is like yet, but ask me again in a couple of months.
Georgian driving often looks like a clusterfuck, but it flows a lot more smoothly than New York City traffic. It’s almost closer to Florida drivers, but Florida driving has a lot more spite and road rage. There are also accidents – often there are minor fender-benders, but there are apparently a lot of people in Georgia who have been permanently maimed by a traffic accident. No one wears seatbelts. It can be a bit frightening, especially at speed.
Georgian food is delicious, but as I said before, nothing too exotic. Khatchapuri may be unlike anything you’ve had before, but on the other hand, it is also much like a very high-quality, homecooked Pizza Hut cheese stick would be, if you could imagine such a thing. The meat is well-spiced. They use a lot of herbs and spices that I really like but some might find not great – dill, for instance. I had a pasta dish that was truly excellent – better than any Italian pasta I’ve ever had. There’s nothing I’ve tasted here that I haven’t liked. On the other hand, few things so far have blown me away. It seems that many people are having some trouble adjusting to the food, the Georgian flavor profile, and the nutrient balance in the meals, but surprisingly I am not one of them. I say surprisingly because I have gone in ten years from someone who would only eat American food to someone who is apparently uncommonly good at adapting to new cuisine. I don’t think anybody expected that to happen, but the point is, don’t rely on me for a food opinion, because I am weird. Then again, if you are just a little bit adventurous, and like lots of delicious meat, bread, and cheese, you’ll love it here.
Georgian people are friendly and helpful. When someone who does not speak the language comes to their stores, they are as helpful as can be, and have no trace of the hostility to non-Georgian speakers that so many Americans have to non-English speakers. On the other hand, very few people speak English so far, so if you come here you will have to learn at least some words and phrases in Georgian (or at least Russian, which many people here also speak).
There are some issues with gender, to say the least. Very traditional, patriarchal, marriage-based, Christian gender roles prevail. Women are to do laundry, cook, make babies. Men are to work, fool around with women, and get drunk at bars. Western women are seen by Georgian men as potentially very loose and unconservative and thus have to be careful about what kind of attention they allow themselves to attract. Western men have to be careful about talking to Georgian women lest the woman’s protector/s get the wrong idea. It is not expected for men to socialize with women without expecting sex, nor for women to socialize with men without expecting marriage. I haven’t directly experienced a lot of this stuff yet – just been warned by everyone I’ve spoken to, inside of Georgia and out – but I’m certain that I’ll have plenty to talk about when I meet my host family and they try to find me a wife. I was also told that I’d have to wean my host family onto the idea of me cooking, although I’m sure once they taste my Rogan Josh they’ll need no more convincing.
There’s a lot of Russian and Turkish stuff here. Just like everything in America is made in China, it seems everything in Georgia is made in Turkey. There are tons of Turkish delivery trucks on the road. There are also a few German businesses here, with German names and words written on the trucks. Knowing the Latin, Georgian, and Cyrillic alphabets would all be helpful. On the highway, signs are in Georgian and English.
So far, Georgian wine has been just okay, but I’m sure I haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet. The beers tend toward the Pilsener style – in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen an ale yet. The Georgian Coca Cola is okay, but drinking too much of it gives me an odd nauseous feeling. The mineral water is excellent although I’m told many Westerners don’t much care for it.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Anyone on the outside, feel free to drop a comment and ask me about anything you’d like to know, and I’ll try to give you a good and true answer.