Tbilisi – my new home city.
I learned coming back here that Tbilisi is actually somewhat vast – it’s much, much bigger than I thought. When our group first arrived in Georgia, our training director Nino was very protective of us and tried to keep us from wandering around alone too much. I somehow formed the impression that Tbilisi was very small – because our hotel was so close to Old Tbilisi, the Presidential Palace, and the downtown area, I began to imagine that all of Tbilisi would fit within the very small radius from where I was staying to where we went when we explored the city. This impression was aided by the fact that there were no maps available, and the center of Tbilisi – unlike the center of Manhattan, for instance – has relatively small, picturesque buildings.
So it turns out that Tbilisi is actually quite a bit larger than that. There are considerable outskirts in the city that are fairly densely populated. There are huge apartment complexes comparable to the projects in New York City, but with one notable exception. In New York, there is often considerable focus on the outside of a building, while the inside of the building is neglected. My prime example is brownstones. Although I think brownstones are about the ugliest buildings ever made by anyone anywhere, I seem to be in the minority. But the point is, people look at the outside of brownstones and they ooh and ah and then when you go inside a brownstone, none of the floors are level, the walls are cracked, the doors don’t sit right on the hinges, there are almost always pest infestations, and there are various other signs of decay that make me never want to live in a brownstone. Sure, that’s what happens with old buildings – they settle and whatnot – but no one seems to want to gut-renovate these places, which is about the only way one could make their insides look modern, ie, level the floors, square the walls, and get rid of the roaches.
In Tbilisi, on the other hand, the focus seems to be more on the inside of the house – in other words, on the comfort level of the people who actually have to live in the house or apartment. If you look at the average house or apartment in Tbilisi from the outside, it tends to look like those pictures you see of war zones or earthquake disaster areas – exposed concrete and rebar, lots of open or exposed areas, etc. However, once inside – at least, this is true of the host family I’m staying with at the moment – everything is new and fresh and comfortable. In fact I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any place in Tbilisi where the inside didn’t have a much nicer look and feel than the outside. Tbilisi is a city of hidden gems.
And I think that speaks to a cultural difference between Georgia and the US, which is that in the US people are very concerned with status whereas in Georgia people are more concerned with comfort. It’s an extension of the idea that people in Georgia just want to relax and have a good time. I feel like in the US, people throw away so much of their lives just trying to keep up with their neighbors or coworkers. It’s a culture of conspicuous consumption. Here in Georgia, there’s less of a focus on showing off your wealth and more of a focus on showing off your values – hospitality, modesty, respect for tradition, etc. Or maybe the people in the US show off their values, too, but people in the US value wealth and flashiness.
In any case, Tbilisi is huge. It holds over a million people, and is generally less population-dense than NYC. Apparently it’s the biggest city in Georgia by a factor of ten. It’s also linked to a number of suburbs and other local towns that may have once been entirely separate but are now close enough to the urban sprawl to be linked by Metro and marshutka. Tbilisi has many restaurants and cafes, including a good variety of international restaurants. If I suddenly have a craving for Italian or Japanese food – something that has never happened before, but there’s a first time for everything – I can get it in downtown Tbilisi. I found a pretty decent information page – Info-Tbilisi – that’s in English and has a listing of restaurants, shops, and other resources including addresses and phone numbers. It also has a map of the Metro system.
Now, regarding addresses. Early on in this process – before I even left the States – I noticed that Google Maps is pretty useless for Georgia. Go check it out yourself if you want – they have some of the cities and provinces labeled, but overall there is no street-level detail or even highway detail of the entire country. I have no idea why this is, but it’s frustrating because I have been highly reliant on maps for my whole life. I searched for quite some time before I found an online map of Tbilisi. There’s a site called OpenStreetMap that is basically a crowdsourced street map resource and alternative to Google Maps. It’s not quite as complete for Tbilisi as Google Maps is for New York, but it has the advantage of at least having most of Tbilisi mapped and labeled, and of course it will be an interesting adventure for me to venture to the places that are not well-documented and add them to the site for posterity.
Openstreetmap has the names of streets – sometimes in English, sometimes in Georgian, sometimes both, and sadly sometimes neither – and the location of Metro stops, so at the very least, when I need to go downtown because I’m craving Mexican food, I’ll know how to get there and back. I found out that the place where I work is about three blocks away from a Metro station – Akhmeteli (or Akhmetelis Teatri – Theatre of Akhmeteli) – and I’ve been promised that I’ll be living within walking distance of work, so ipso facto I should be within walking distance of the Metro. That will be nice because in New York I lived over a mile from the nearest subway stations, and the Tbilisi Metro is smaller, faster, more reliable, and cleaner than the NYC subway. And, from my stop, it’s only nine stops to downtown. The disadvantage is that it is closed overnight, but the other fun thing about Tbilisi is that a cab will take you just about anywhere within the city limits for around five lari – that’s under $3 US. A ride on the Metro iteslf costs about a quarter.
So, between info-tbilisi and openstreetmap, I basically have everything I need to explore the city and find whatever I need quickly and efficiently. Hopefully that information will be useful for anyone visiting the city for any reason – a move which I highly encourage. And if anyone reading this has any other resources that might be helpful, feel free to post them in the comments.