On second thought, the Tbilisi Metro isn’t quite as bad as the New York City subway.
People here in Georgia have been very subtly telling me that I need to be more positive about their country. It seems that this, in itself, is a cultural phenomenon.
See, in America, most people have the following attitude towards negativity in America: hey, jack, if you don’t like it, gtfo, don’t come back, and don’t let the door hit you on your way out. Americans don’t really like other people coming to our country – we generally look at tourists with annoyance and contempt, and immigrants are even worse. This is because Americans think that America is the best country in the whole world – some think the only country in the whole world – and that because they had the good fortune of being born in the best country in the whole world, they’re the best people in the whole world. After all, if they weren’t the best people in the world, then God wouldn’t have made them be born in America – he would have had them born in France or Afghanistan or, god forbid, Mexico, or one of the other countries that Americans are constantly looking down their nose at – in other words, all of them.
My father’s father’s parents came to America from Slovenia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Yugoslavia, and now is finally its own country. Slovenia was recently in the World Cup, in the same group as the US, and I was rooting for Slovenia to advance out of group play, and for this to happen, it would have been helpful for the US to score as few points as possible. Thus I was rooting for the two underdogs – Slovenia and Algeria – and against the favorites, the US and England. Someone on my facebook literally asked me why I hated America so much. Because I was rooting against the US world cup team, someone assumed that I hated America – and I’m sure, if given the opportunity, he would gladly have dropped me off at the Canadian border and told me not to darken the US of A’s doorstep anymore with my America-hating, pro-Slovenian attitude. This, over a sports game that nobody in America even cared about two years ago.
Needless to say, I found this attitude one of the many annoying things about living in America, and it’s been getting worse rather than better for most of my adult life. 9/11 ushered in this sort of neo-McCarthyist, us-versus-them attitude, in which any criticism of anything about America was seen as a victory for the terrorists and met with an invitation to leave. It didn’t help that people kept threatening to leave America if a politician from an opposing party got elected.
Getting back to my point, in Georgia, things are different. Sure, I’ve received some comments to the effect of “well nobody forced you to come here” but for the most part, Georgians seem surprised and/or perplexed by any criticism of their country at all. Many Georgians think that my detailing negative as well as positive experiences on this blog is indicative of some kind of psychological problem. Many Georgians suggest that I simply do not understand Georgia well enough, and when I achieve this enlightenment – which will come after a year or so – I will realize that actually there are absolutely no problems in Georgia whatsoever, and I will look back upon the bad experiences that I had and laugh at myself for having been so naive.
See, Georgians also think that Georgia is the best country in the world, but Georgians love their country in a much more sincere way than Americans do. In America, it seems that people cling to the idea that America is the best country on earth to console themselves for living such shitty lives. Life in America is incredibly difficult and stressful for the majority of people – people are losing their jobs and houses, people are getting cut off from medical insurance when they need it most, and on top of that real wages have been steadily decreasing for over a generation as the cost of living has gone up, and Americans get less vacation than citizens of almost any other Western country. Americans are, on average, in loads of debt that they have no real way of getting out of within a reasonable amount of time. The American dream involves paying off a student loan and a mortgage and car payments and all this other stuff that no one can afford anymore. American life is full of hopelessness and struggle, and Americans seem to reflexively hate anyone who might take away what little we have left.
On the other hand, in Georgia, there are real problems but there’s also a sense of well-being that I’ve rarely ever felt in America. People are happy if they have a good family and a decent job. Obviously that’s starting to change – divorce rates are skyrocketing and I imagine soon Georgian family values will go the same way American ones did in the last generation or two – but as for now, Georgians seem happy to be alive and in Georgia. They seem to honestly think that Georgian food is the best food in the world, that the Georgian landscape is the most beautiful landscape in the world, etc.
So I’d say that in America, people are pretty used to negativity, whereas in Georgia, it’s somewhat shocking, especially when aired publicly. I think it’s not considered normal to be publicly unhappy, which is why when I post something mildly negative about some minor aspect of my day, people react in a way that to me seems disproportionate.
I don’t know. There are so many nuances and contradictions, and I admit that this is something I haven’t quite figured out yet. I think it’s a combination of what I’ve mentioned so far, though – a sort of general social agreement in Georgia not to be negative coupled with a genuine belief on the part of Georgians that everything in Georgia is about as close to perfect as you’re going to get – that causes people to react with astonishment to complaints that I consider minor and commonplace. Even when I go out of my way to say that it is not Georgia that I have a problem with – like in my post on Sighnaghi when I said that I have had allergies in America too, or in my post on the Metro in which I clearly stated that I did not like riding the NYC subway either – Georgians still seem shocked that I would complain in public and rush to diagnose me with culture shock or depression or something else to explain my breach of social etiquette.
Now, I’m obviously not the average American, but I think that my general disposition and propensity to complain about things on the internet is pretty much on par with the cultural expectations in America. Most Americans who read my blog are reassured that Georgia is a normal place and don’t take statements like “the subway is crowded” or “some people here smoke cigarettes” as a sign of mental illness. So I think in this case, what is happening is that the little piece of American culture – or, more properly, American internet culture – that I am bringing to Georgia is giving the people here a bit of culture shock. They don’t really know how to negotiate the social situation of a very American person writing in English in a primarily Western milieu, and coming to my blog is like visiting a tiny piece of New York where I am the native and they are strangers.
Which brings me back around to the original point of this post, which is that I want to say some nice things about the Tbilisi Metro in comparison to the New York subway. Call it an exercise in the power of positive thinking.
At first, the Tbilisi Metro seems a lot like the NYC subway. As I said, you have this weird phenomenon of people treating you like furniture, and that always gets under my skin in a way that few other things can. But I’ve now taken the Metro several more times, and it’s really not as bad as the NYC subway. First of all, it’s fast. Tbilisi is a smaller city than NY, obviously, but there’s pretty much no such thing as a multi-transfer, hour-plus Metro ride in Tbilisi. There’s no L train that stops running every weekend to be replaced by a long, slow shuttle bus ride. There’s no unannounced service changes, no delays, no off-peak 30 minute waiting periods, basically no bullshit. There’s no yearly fare hike coupled with worsening service, no rerouting, no skip-stop service, no trains unexpectedly taking you to Brooklyn when you want to go downtown, no trains going express for no apparent reason, no trains going local for six miles causing it to take you two hours to get downtown from Washington Heights.
The thing about the NYC MTA is that if you stay in NY long enough, it almost feels like the MTA is out to get you. It makes people late, stressed, angry, and lost on a regular basis. The Tbilisi Metro doesn’t do any of these things.
But by far the best part about the Tbilisi Metro in comparison to the NYC subway is that while the NYC subway is always full of asshole New Yorkers who are rude, belligerent, and inhuman almost as a rule, in Tbilisi, there’s only one asshole New Yorker on the whole system at any given time, and let’s just say that he and I have a close personal relationship. The Tbilisi metro is fast, it’s rarely as crowded as the NYC subway, it runs more often, it has express escalators, the seats are more comfortable, and it feels much safer than the subway. I still don’t like taking subways or metros in general, but I can suck it up for 20 minutes if I need to get downtown.
Anyway. One last observation about the Metro: sometimes, there are lots of panhandlers, and sometimes, there are none. Panhandlers are often young children, which is sad and depressing. The other day I saw a little girl who wanted money – she couldn’t have been older than seven – go up to a group of young teenagers and wrap her arms around each of their legs, one by one, trying to get them to give her money. Apparently the leg-grabbing method is popular among young Georgian beggars and some Westerners have trouble dislodging the children once they’ve become attached.
Anyway, I’ve somehow managed to end on a down note, yet again. Sorry. Maybe I do have a psychological problem!
Video: Ani Difranco, Subdivision