One of my colleagues asked what the worst thing about living in Georgia was. Now, I’ve learned my 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.