Monthly Archives: July 2011

An Introduction to Early Georgia

Svetitsikhoveli Church and Jvari Monastery (on the hill)

True story: The Georgians were the second people to convert as a nation to Christianity.  The Armenians narrowly beat them out for first place, but Georgians figured it out before the Romans or any of their Mediterranean neighbors, in 337 (and joined by the Ethopians shortly thereafter).

However, the story of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity begins with the life of Christ himself. The earliest sources about Georgia in the Christian age (The Georgian Chronicle, or the Life of Kartli) attest to Jews living in Mtskheta, the capital of what was then the kingdom of Western Georgia.  In 0 A.D. the Georgian Jews had quite a scare when they heard that Jerusalem was under siege by kings from Iran.  However, two years later, they found out the news had been a false alarm: the foreign kings who had left for Judea were not in fact invaders, but the Magi, bringing gifts to a Jewish child born of a virgin. Thirty years later, another messenger told this same Jewish community that this child of whom they had heard was in fact the “son of God” and that those who were “wise and faithful” should come to Jerusalem to see him. So two men from Mtskheta decided to embark on the arduous journey and arrived in Jerusalem on what is now known as Good Friday. Recognizing the crucified convict as the prophesied Messiah, they procured his robes (the ones for which the soldiers cast lots, if you know your NT) and brought them back to the town of Mtskheta in Georgia. [Interestingly, a few decades later, when the temple in Jerusalem was captured by the Romans, the Chronicle tells of a diaspora community of Jews settling in Mtskheta, including, according to legend, offspring of the infamous Barabbas. This is that last we hear about Christianity in Georgia until over two hundred years pass.]

According to historical records and the Chronicle, Georgia’s conversion to Christianity—spurred on by the conversion of King Mirian III in 334—took place in 337. While it may have been Mirian who officially decreed Christianity the state religion, the conversion of Georgia is attributed to Nino, a Cappodocian missionary woman who arrived in Kartli (part of modern Georgia) in 303.

Nino may have come from a prominent Christian family (some lineages link her to the Patriach of Jerusalem), or she may have been a much poorer orphan from some outpost of the Roman Empire (accounts different). In all accounts, she exhibited great piety from childhood and at an early age moved to Rome to live in a community of celibate women. While in Rome, some of these women decided to travel to Armenia to evangelize, having heard that Iberia (the greater area of ancient Armenia and Georgia) was the home to the tunic of Christ. Immediately after plans were made for the trip, Nino experienced a vision from the Virgin Mary, imploring her to travel to the Caucasus. (This motif of the Virgin and Nino as co-intercessors for Georgia has endured into the present day.)

However, upon arriving in Armenia, all but one of the thirty seven women were massacred by an Armenian king, who was enraged at not being able to take one of the virgins as his wife. During the massacre, Nino hid behind a barren shrub, and watched as the souls of her sisters rose into heaven. She asked God why she was being spared, and was answered that she would not be united with her fallen companions until she had cultivated the “great harvest” that awaited her in unchristianized lands. While she conversed with the Divine, the shrub she hid under burst into bloom, and Nino set out to find the Georgians.

Sources place Nino’s arrival in Georgia in 320, but it wasn’t for another seven years that Christianity would take root in the eastern Georgian kingdom. Once Nino had officially crossed out of the treacherous lands of Armenia and into Georgia, she sought out the Jewish community of whom she had heard. The Life of St. Nino relates that she was able to learn about the Georgian people and culture through the Jews, because she could speak Hebrew, but could not yet speak Georgian. It was through them that she witnessed the pagan festivals sponsored by the king, and it was with them that she sided when in her public rejection of the polytheism and sacrificial practices of the natives. While Nino would quickly begin manifesting miraculous powers (her prayers brought on storms, destroyed idols, she could raise huge wooden beams without touching them), she was primarily recognized for her healing powers. Most significantly, after repeatedly refusing to hold court with any royalty, she gave in and healed the Queen of Iberia, Nana, of a variety of ailments. Nana was astounded and impressed by Nino (they love reduplication) and converted to Christianity.

While Nino was rather quickly embraced by Nana, the king, Mirian, rejected Christianity and even persecuted the growing (but largely culturally isolated) community of Christians in his territory. Just for the sake of full historical disclosure, some say that King Mirian himself was not actually an ethnic Georgian (or Iberian), but an Iranian prince, who married into the Georgian elite in part of the Iranian struggle against the Roman empire (at this time Georgia was doing a very delicate balancing act between advancing kingdoms from the east and west).

Mirian’s conversion is reminiscent of the Pauline conversion: he went out hunting and was struck blind, and found himself suddenly alone and abandoned in the forest. In some accounts, he is not blind, but the sun itself is covered and the forest is pitch black. In a panic, Mirian prayed to all of his pagan kings, but to no avail. Finally, he prayed to “Nino’s God” of whom he had heard, and his sight was restored. After holding council with Nino and getting her advice on how proceed, Mirian sent a delegation to Constantine for permission to establish a church in Georgia.

But where to build the first church of the kingdom?  Here we return to the tunic that came as the first relic to Georgia…

Well, when the two travelers to Jerusalem returned to Georgia with the robes of Jesus, the sister of one of the travelers, Sidonia, came out and grabbed the robe.  She was so overwhelmed by the sacredness of the piece, that she died clutching it, and no one could wrest it from her arms.  And so, Sidonia was buried in Mtskheta with the robes pressed against her.  Above her grave grew an enormous cedar tree.  When Nino learned this, she decided they should fell this tree to use as the pillars of the first Georgian church.  However, after the tree was felled and six of the seven pillars hewn were stood upright for the foundation, no one could move the seventh pillar of wood.  It is said that Nino herself placed the pillar in the foundation, simply through prayer.  Hence, the name for this church is Svetitskhoveli, which means “Life-giving Pillar” (miraculous healing is also attributed to those who touch the pillar).

Svetitskhoveli Church (lifted from the internet so you can see it without scaffoldings!)

And it is in this church, dear readers, that I found myself just a few days ago.  It’s an incredible building, enormous even by modern standards, but really quite impressive when you consider that it was built in the 11th century (the 4th century church built by Nino was expanded on). I went there on a Sunday, and the place was teeming with young brides, decked out in classy white gowns, and their grooms were rocking the traditional Georgian costume of yore (though some, as you’ll see, did opt for the more contemporary option of suit and tie).

While Mtskheta is no longer the capital of Georgia (Tbilisi was deemed a more militarily advantageous location), its very much the capital of Georgian religion and remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  The churches are thus a collage of the past 1500 hundred years, with early medieval exteriors, and incredible interiors that reflect more than a few periods of artistic flourishing and centuries of disrepair.  The churches are all stone, with with a few surviving icons painted on the walls (most of the frescos are more recent, from the 18th-19th century) and then newer (post-Soviet) icons on wood hung on the walls.

Here is a really beautiful example of the fresco painting you’ll find inside:

Frescoes on Stone inside Svetitskhoveli Church

The church is also quite enormous, so there’s lots of room to just wander around and see beautiful things.  There were at least a couple hundred plus people in Svetitskhoveli while I was there–three or four wedding parties (some couples pacing in the wings for their big moment), families come to light candles, opportunists looking for tourists to give tours too, beggars, children, old people, you name it. Except not actually that many tourists, as I heard almost entirely only Georgian around me (let me rephrase, no international tourists).

Stone Relief in Svetitskhoveli, Note the Old Georgian!

What I was very surprised by is how diverse the age/gender presence is in churches.  Okay, I’ve only been to a few services, but Georgia doesn’t not seem to be your grandmothers’ Catholicos.  There are almost as many men as women, there are older men, younger men, there are trendy 20-something women, there are many, many babies (the Patriarch of Georgia is, like all Patriarchs, I think, very in favor of going forth and multiplying).  Hence, there were weddings, baptisms, blessings and regular old services happening while I was there.  There’s almost a sense of controlled chaos inside this church, as it seems like half a dozen sacraments are happening at once while a choreographed crowd of visitors weave between candle stands and icons amidst the singing and preaching and blessing.

Baptism, I presume?

Mtskheta actually has a couple of significant sights for the visitor interested in Orthodoxy, history, architecture or just plain sight seeing.  In addition to Svetitskhoveli Church, there is another smaller church called Samtavro and the Jvari Monastery, located on a hill above the city, which is also a major holy site for Georgians and provides a pretty stunning vista. Moreover, you can get to Mtskheta fairly easily from Tbilisi–just go to the Didube metro stop, a major hub for marshrutkas, the preferred form of public transport (basically minibuses with cheap fares and local routes), and wander around clueless until you see a minibus with “Mtskheta” handwritten on a poster in the window.

I found the bus after wandering through the bazaar surrounding the subway, but the bus was just pulling out and I hopped in at the last minute.  The driver said something to me and I had no idea what it was, so I confusedly told the driver that I spoke Georgian poorly and wanted to go to Mtsketa.  After pondering the onslaught of sound he’d unleashed on me, I realized that what he’d said was that there were no more seats in the bus, and that I would have to stand.  Of course, by now the marshrutka was already rumbling onto the road. So stand I did.  I awkwardly balanced in the aisle for a twenty five minute ride (wimpy pilgrim style!), until the driver stopped the bus to address me.

“chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv Mtskheta chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv  go chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv yes?”

“Um, I don’t understand.  I want Nino’s church.  Me, will go, no, went, no, be going, Nino’s church.  Yes, I want Nino’s church!”

“Are you going to the Jvari Monastery?”

“Yes!  I will going Jvari.  You go? I be on bus?” (I can never remember the word for stay/remain)

“No, of course I don’t go to the monastery. chtkhtchgrightzkhtqv.”

“Um, Russian?”

And in Russian we resolved that I should get out of the bus (at this point everyone was staring) and just walk to the churches. I had done remarkably little research before hitting up Mtskheta, so I wasn’t sure where everything was.  I saw a church though, and headed towards it.  As I was walking through the parking lot to the church grounds, a car stopped and a couple got out.  Then the guy reopened his door and grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the dashboard.  His lady companion lit into him–“Cigarettes?! Cigarettes?  For what do you need cigarettes on the grounds of a monastery?  Tell me!  Tell me!  What are you going to do with those cigarettes?  This is a church!  This is a monastery!”  And so I ascertained that I must be at Samtavro, a women’s monastary, and not Svetitskhoveli…

Samtavro is a large, beautiful church with a women’s monastery attached, which nevertheless seems a bit quaint when compared with the proportions of Svetitskhoveli around the corner.


St. Nino prayed on this site, so it’s also a popular pilgrimage destination, although I didn’t spot any wedding folks here and there were very few people inside the church itself.  There’s surely some traditional route for the wedding processions and I don’t know if little Samtavro made it.  Those who were visiting were generally most toned down too (no formal wear or photography) and seemed there to pray and light a candle in the tiny chapel where Nino once was.

In fact, there was a cemetery on the grounds, and I witnessed something I hadn’t seen before: there was the grave of a holy man, and people crowded around it to press their hands into the soil.  They took off their crosses and immersed them in the soil and people crowded around, waiting for a chance to dig their hands into the dirt that encased the body of a holy man.  When in Rome…I also placed my hands in and had a moment of silence, although I wasn’t quite sure what the protocol was, and felt slightly uncomfortable shoving my way towards a burial plot.  It also takes me much longer to decipher signs written in Georgian, especially when handwritten, so I couldn’t quite read anything that might have informed the moment.  But whatever, being awkward but present is basically what I’ve signed up for.

Venerating a grave in Samtavro

After wandering out of Samtavro, I went up to Jvari Monastery, which is a beautiful ancient building atop the hill outside Mtskheta and affords excellent views of the valley below and the scenic convergence of two rivers Aragvi and Mtkvari. Jvari was chosen by St. Nino as the sight for the church as there had been a pagan temple there, but in its place Nino planted a cross (the first cross in Georgia is said to have been woven out of vines by her hands).  The church itself is quite famous for its architectural design, it has what they call a tentraconch, and it became a model for the distinct style of Georgian churches even in the present day.

Scene from Jvari onto the town of Mtskheta

At Jvari, many more wedding couples were gathered, and a number of Russian (-speaking) tourists as well.  As you may have gathered above, I felt totally comfortably taking photos, what with the paparazzi style photography happening due to the weddings.

Young Love in Jvari

In fact, the chaotic feeling in the church made me feel incredible comfortable.  There was a sense that each had come to do his own thing, some alone, some in groups, and that to just wander around, or sit for a bit, or photograph, or look at icons was fine.  There were no scary babushkas regulating behavior, and even the monks seemed extra friendly (in my experience, monks normally are, but I don’t know enough to really make generalizations).  I was given a strange-ish tract that linked the Georgians to the Israelites, but as I haven’t yet gotten around to reading it all the way through, I’ll save that introduction for another time…

Jvari Monastery Grounds

On a practical travel note, the whole trip, from my front door and back again, took only about 4-4.5 hours, so I would highly recommend you check if out if you ever find yourself fortunate enough to be in Tbilisi.  Its an experience of Georgian culture and piety that you can savor without speaking of lick of the crazy language.  Chilly stone chapels, frescos, newlyweds shuffling about with monks, teenagers and dogs chilling under cypress trees overlooking ancient citadels.  Yes, well worth an afternoon.

* * * * *

Dorky Addendum to those interested:

While the Life of Kartli is presumed to have been written in the eighth century in Georgian, the earliest extant manuscripts are all Armenian translations. In general, the lack of surviving historical documentation about Georgia in Georgian leads to very patchy accounts of Georgian in the 4th-8th centuries.

Amidst the discussion of “Georgia’s” conversion, it is also important to note that the account related here is that of Eastern Georgia, and the Western Kingdom of Egresi was converted later (ca. 523). Moreover, despite linguistic and cultural similarities, these two kingdoms were not united politically until the eleventh century. Some karvelologists (is that what a scholar of Georgia is called?!) are confident that at no previous point in written history was there such unity between the East and the West, and that their autonomy from each other can be traced back to the “proto-Caucasian Bronze Age” The term “Sak’art’velo”–the name for the Republic of Georgia in Georgian–was coined as a term for the united state of these two kingdoms



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A Day in the Country

Two weeks ago I ventured on a community service trip to a small town a couple hours outside of Tbilisi.  I had heard about the trip through my roommate, who told me that he was going with a friend of his, and that they would be doing a clean-up with orphans.  He invited me along, only to then find out there was no room left in the trip.  But then he decided not to go, and there was an extra spot…so I went.  I didn’t really know anything about the trip, other than there would be  cleaning-up and orphans, and I only exchanged two text messages with the organizer before our 7:45am pick up downtown on Saturday.  I knew that I should wear work clothes and that we would be done around 10pm.  10pm?!  How much cleaning were these orphans going to be forced to do?  I slightly balked–especially since I knew no one on this trip, and wasn’t sure if this was the best way to spend my first jet-lag free Saturday in Tbilisi.  But then I thought about the orphans, and all the cleaning they were being forced to do, and I felt bad just bailing. So marched myself over early in the morn for a day of unknown adventures.

Now, the first lesson of living abroad is just going with the flow.  (Well, the very first lesson is to ascertain whether or not the water is potable…but still.)  I mean, there’s not much point in going abroad only to be like, “Well, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable getting into a minibus with a bunch of strangers and spending a day in the mountains.”  This will get you no where. Or will just lead to spending too much time online at home, which is already a weak point of mine.  So this whole day was born of the resolve to be the brave international traveler I wish I was.

I arrive at 7:45 and see two white minibuses, full of Georgians.  They seem a bit too old to really be categorized as orphans. I don’t even know what the coordinator looks like, so I call him and we walk around till we see each on our phones.  Nice guy, studied abroad in Massachusetts, explains that we’re driving about two hours to this town where the orphans live, and are only going to be cleaning up for a few hours.  Then in the afternoon, the men will play soccer.  Its unclear how us womenfolk will entertain ourselves.  Soccer was part of the plan because we can’t drive back until it’s dark, as otherwise it will be too hot in the minibus….oh…..right, not something I think about…

About forty five minutes later, everyone has actually shown up and we set off.  On the ride there, I chat with the fellow next to me, who works for some government ministry, and learn that this clean up project is co-hosted by a Georgian Green Coalition and the US State Department.  Zany.  When he learns that I currently study at the President’s Alma Mater (his president, Saakashvili, that is), he announces it enthusiastically to the bus.  Like four times.  Later, when asked where I study by the other Georgians, it took my like a minute to realize they were just messing with me, but I must say, I’m very glad they all had a sense of humor and were willing to bust out dry humor on the weird foreigner. All of them seemed pretty on the ball, students or young professionals working in the civic sector.

The ride was a little over two hours, and the majority of it was on roads that could–at best and only very generously–be described as “unpaved.”  At one point, the minibus did a full stop in the middle of our mountain road so that everyone could get out and smoke.  Afterall, it had been like an hour since we left, and not everyone was seated by a window.

We arrived a little after 10am in a small small town, which starts at the road level, and winds up a hill, centered around two roads.  There are no stores, gas stations, or any sort of commercial or business establishments.  We park near what apparently used to be a shop of sorts, but its completely abandoned (we’re talking no windowpanes; livestock in the buildings), as are all the other buildings around it.  In front of one dilapidated building, a playground rises from the weeds, and a handful of boys are playing on it.  When we unload, the boys ecstatically run to some of our members, who they know and whose arrival they’ve been waiting for.  The young men on the trip quickly hunker down to talk to their tiny friends and the rest of us just sort of lull about.

Former shop in Bediani now colonized by cows

Someone comes up to me and asks if I need to use the restroom.  I politely defer, but then am told this might be a pretty key opportunity, so I decide–another rule of international travel–to take the opportunity while it presents itself.  Surprisingly, we load back into the minibus and the driver takes us five minutes up the hill, to a house with a bathroom.  After we (a few ladies) have availed ourselves, we’re invited to drink tea on the porch and are served fresh cake to boot.  Wow. We hang out there for like twenty minutes.  The driver makes himself a sandwich.  It’s unclear if we might be holding things up, but Georgian’s rarely seem in a hurry so I roll with it.  Plus, it was stunning.

View from the porch of the bebathroomed home

We eventually return to the rest of the gang, and find that t-shirts (its not a community service trip if there’s not a free t-shirt!), garbage bags and gloves are being handed out.  We’re split into teams and start walking in various directions (mostly upwards), picking up trash as we go.  Main culprits: cigarette boxes, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic bags and too many diapers. We also found a partially disintegrated copy of something about Marx (in Russian) that was anti-Kant and a full set of men’s clothing (in no condition to save).  Despite my fears and a bit of false advertising, the orphans weren’t so much made to clean (they were all between 6-10), as they accompanied us as we cleaned.  When one of the more mischievous boys was introduced to me, and one of the older Georgians told him he could practice English with me.

“What is your name?” he said very seriously, with no intonation of a question, but pretty good pronunciation.  I answered.

“What is your name.” He repeated.  I repeated my answer, in my best most evenly paced English.

“What is your name.”  Now a couple Georgians chuckled and tried to explain to him that I had answered his question.  I told him in Georgian what my name was.  He looked at me very skeptically and then, thrusting the stick he was holding out to the side as a pointer, he said, “This is a dog.” Dramatic pause, the pointer stick swerves to the other side.”This is a cat.”

Then he tried to poke a hole in my garbage bag and run away.  But every twenty minutes or so he’d show up again, poking at my bag of cigarette butts and really dirty diapers, insisting, “What is your name!”

By 12:30 or 1 it was getting really hot, the ladies (and some men) were fading.  Which, seriously, was great.  After college, I’m (not entirely, but generally) afraid of young people community service, where intensity and self-righteousness drive you to do bigger, better, more ecologically just and physically exhausting things.  Not that good things shouldn’t done, but I’m down on the scenarios driven entirely by guilt or smugness…So I was kinda happy that after two hours of picking chocolate wrappers and socks out of underbrush, we were taking a break.

Lunch was assembled–about six different kinds of bread (hard bread! soft bread! bread with cheese in it! bread with pureed beans in it! sweet bread!) and some chicken and salami. There was lots of soda too, and I had one called “cream soda lemonade” (most non-cola soda here is actually, sneakily, dubbed “lemonade”).  Yeah, it tasted neither like cream soda nor lemonade, but I could actually feel my toes tingle as the sugar hit my system.  Dang!  People sat in clusters, the kids clammering to be by their favorite adults, especially the director of the orphanage.  I only just shook hands with him, but he exuded kindness and seriousness, and it was obvious that the kids were wild about him and really trusted him.  I think he is very very used to having a tiny person wrapped around his leg, looking for a little confirmation that everything is going to be okay. (Speaking of, if you are interested in learning more about this orphanage and their work, click here or here (the latter opens a pdf).  They’re doing pretty incredible work here and I’ve only heard good things about them.)

As lunch was finishing up, they announced that one car would be going back early to Tbilisi.  Oooooh…..I tried to suppress the instinct to bounce, but then I thought about the long afternoon of watching people play soccer and a hot minibus ride back in the dark.  I’d done my cleaning, it was 2pm, I could be in Tbilisi by 4pm and spend some time with new friends in town.  I’m not yet my ideal international good-sport.  Hence, I graciously offered to take one of the spots, and climbed into a silver Land Rover with four Georgian guys.  Three of these guys had not been in the minibus, they were all Green Party guys who had driven themselves here.  We loaded into the car, then waited for like twenty minutes for cigarettes to be smoked and goodbyes to be said.  It was a bit before they totally realized that I was some random American, but someone passed along the message.

Little did I know, the day was, in a way, just starting to take off.

Our drive was Zaza, an incredibly affable middle aged Georgian, who owned said Land Rover (remember what I said about Georgians and nice cars?!), smoked Pall Mall Ultraslims and struck me as someone who enjoyed life. He had a couple of CDs on hand, Spice Girls, Frank Sinatra, The Best of Smokie, and we/he decided to listen to Smokie, as it reminded Zaza of when he was young.  Zaza actually had pretty good English (people always say Georgians over 30 won’t speak English, but they don’t know Zaza), partially because he was an avid sportsman and watched English language hunting videos.  He knew the term “fly-fishing” as well as all kinds of birds and animals.  He recommends Babe Winkelmans’ Guide to Turkey Hunting, which, not that I didn’t believe him, does actually exist.  Apparently Babe and his wife are serious marksmen.

Driving at breakneck speeds, ducking potholes and barreling over branches (what else is a Land Rover for?), we chat in Georgian, English, and Russian against the backdrop of Smokie.  We also make a couple of stops, first for a photo shoot at a lookout, where some other Green Party folks are, and then later, closer to Tbilisi, where there’s a spring and we fill up our bottles with fresh water.  When we’re about 10-12 miles from Tbilisi, one of the guys asks me, in English, if I’m in a hurry.  No, not really, I reply.  Perfect, because we have to stop by Zaza’s country house before we get into the city.  There is talk in Georgian. Sure.  Whatever.  See second paragraph of this post.

We get to Zaza’s place and post up in his backyard.  He is putzing about.  Then the guys seems to be busying themselves with something.  I’m told to just chill, so I sit there, and occasionally eat mulberries with one of the other guys (yes, mulberry tree in the yard).  I notice that the fellows are now building a fire.  Hmmmm.  And heating up the shashlik sticks (three foot long metal kebab spears) in the fire.  And another car of (Green) people shows up.  Hmmm.

In the batch of new arrivals is a Georgian girl who yells out to me, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?!” And when I reply in the affirmative, we sit down and chat in German for quite a while.  She lived in Germany for a bit, loves German, loves speaking it.  In the secrecy of our Gothic tongue, I asked, so, what exactly is going on?  She told me that people had already left to buy food, we’d eat, hang out, and then drive into the city.  No, I reminded myself, I’m not in a hurry.  In fact, it was absolutely delightful just sitting in the shade, chatting, eating mulberries and watching men revisit their primal roots of fire-building.

How to describe the evening that ensued? Sheer loveliness.  Someone bought a giant bag of pork and we roasted it (ahem, the men roasted it, women aren’t even allowed close to the fire pit), ate a salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers that hadn’t even heard of genetic modification.  There were at least 15 liters of beer, but between the ten or twelve people, no one seems more than tipsy, although quite clearly a good time was had by all.  Hell, I didn’t even know exactly what anyone was saying half the time, and I still had fun.  Jokes were translated into Russian or German, and then I got to laugh a minute after everyone else, and generally people were a bit confused as to why I was there (i.e. with the Green party in the hills.  Or at Zaza’s place. Or why I was even in Georgia. Or studying Georgian).  But they showed nothing but great hospitality.  And the food was so delicious–I will confess, I’m one of those American white girls that tends to eat white meat, I cut the fat off my steak, etc etc.  But eating giant fists of pork seasoned in their own burnt fat–sheer happiness for the taste buds. It may be hard to go back.

The party wrapped up around 8 or so, and as we were loading into the cars to head back to the city, another car of vaguely affiliated Green people (the party had grown) stopped and insisted I hop in their car and go out for Georgian wine.  I pretty much never say no to wine, and especially Georgian wine.  So off we went, in a little car with the steering wheel on the right side (yes, they import right and left sided driver cars here!).  We zipped around the city and settled at a very classy wine bar on a main drag of the city, where we drank red wine, ate fruit and chilled.  Ancient Roman style, I imagine.  When we finally left around 10:30 or 11, I walked back home in the cool Tbilisi air and was very very very glad I decided to just run with things.  A Saturday well spent.

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Filed under Sakartvelo! (aka Republic of Georgia), Uncategorized

A Spotty Introduction to Tbilisi

Tbilisi from one side of the river

I actually knew remarkably little about Tbilisi before I got here.  (If this is the case for you, click here. Or for more on tourism, less on history, here) What I did know what pretty basic.  Crossroads of East meets West, mountainous, inexpensive, somewhat lacking infrastructure, full of delicious food and cheap produce, friendly and gorgeous people, Orthodox. Yeah, that’s probably about it.  I didn’t picture it in my mind’s eye, and I wasn’t sure if I was really going to fall in love with it the way that people warned I would (“there’s no going back!” they say).

Well, Tbilisi is all those general things I came here expecting.  And, of course, quite a bit more. I could actually see myself living here for a bit.  A year, maybe more. It’s better and more livable than I anticipated.  There are also a few things that I expected to see when I got here, that I hadn’t even realized I was expecting, until this city proved me wrong.

Disclaimer: Its mildly ridiculous to give sweeping observations after only two weeks somewhere.  That has, obviously, never stopped me.  Just take everything with a grain of salt.

What I subconsciously thought I’d see but actually haven’t see:

Drunks. Let’s be honest,  any major city has drunk people.  A city with high unemployment, rapidly rising costs of living and easily accessible, cheap alcohol seems like alcoholism could pose some threat.  Maybe it does, but not on the streets.  I’m told there is definitely alcohol abuse within the down-and-out sector of society (and apparently there are guys curled up with bottles somewhere down by the river) but I have never seen them. Moreover, even on a weekend night, you don’t see regular old employed drunks.  People are just behaved.  I mentioned this to one of my teachers and she said, “Its shameful for a man to drink on the street.  We drink in our homes.  Or at a restaurant.  With our family and friends.  But you don’t get drunk, and you don’t drink on the street.  Such a thing would be shameful.” There you have it.

Wild dogs.  Some parts of the world just have lots of stray or feral dogs.  There were parts of the Moscow State University campus that literally felt 28 Days Later-esque because there were so many feral dogs everywhere. They were not friendly. They were feral.  I only once saw stray dogs here, early early in the morning, in one of the city plazas, but otherwise they must all hide from the commotion or go up the hills to find nice cool shady places to undomesticate themselves.

And, well Tbilisi won me over with it’s lack of a certain post-Soviet edge but there are, of course, still things I hadn’t really expected that are very common here:

Gypsies. Dang, there are a lot of gypsies here.  And what’s most striking is that there are a lot of gypsy kids out and about.  The saddest evidence of this are the tiny gypsy children that are set out (or sets themselves out?) on a mat on the sidewalk and just lay there all day with a little tin bowl for change.  Sometimes you see two or three years olds napping on the ground, holding a little card with an icon on it.  Tiny bodies curled up with dirt-black feet and palms, apparently oblivious to all the people walking by.  Sometimes if they’re awake they play with their hair or unravel corners of their mats. Otherwise they just tend to be sleeping.  The other day I saw a big crowd around a carpet mat and thought it would be my first sight of a gypsy kid doing sad spectacle for money.  But no, it was just a little kid laying in fetal position, surrounded by Japanese tourists taking pictures.

CRAZY Driving.  The drivers here are insane.  We’re talking breakneck speeds, no turn signals, mild regard for traffic lights.  The other day there was a power outage so none of the traffic lights were working.  For lack of an alternative I suppose, cars were whizzing into the speeding traffic to make life-threatening left hand turns and even a few U-turns.  It’s some combination of Manhattan speed, Connecticut idiocy (most driving impaired state in the Union) and the Caucasian tossing-of-caution-to-the-wind.  Not to be trifled with!

Nonexistent dating culture. So I knew that Georgia was “patriachial” “old fashioned” “religious”.  I half thought that this was just in comparison to their trashy neighbor to the north (ahem, Mother Russia), where dating is done in bulk and with an eye for the best short term returns.  I way underestimated the “traditionalism” of dating. In fact, the dating doesn’t seem to exist at all.  People seem to meet when they’re very young and quickly get married, often moving from one set of parents in with another.  There’s not really a word for dating in Georgian, and the only way you can even say boyfriend or girlfriend is to use English or Russian.  When my teacher asked me who I would be traveling with in August, I said, “My friend” but then attempted to explain in Georgian that is was my “male friend, um, like, MY friend, my special friend.”  She stared at me so I said, “moi paren (russian: my boyfriend), chemi boiprendi (Georgian version of BF, as they don’t have the “f” sound).”  My teacher just shook her head and said, “No, we don’t have those.”  “Right, but I do have that.” “No, you don’t.  It isn’t possible here.”  Before I could explain that my existentially impossible boyfriend wasn’t Georgian, and hence existed in my mother tongue, she explained–like so many others have in the past few weeks–that there is no such thing is boyfriend in Georgia(n), only friends or husbands.  In fact, the leap from one to the next is very fast too, anecdotally I’ve been told a handful of dates is enough to get that ring on your finger.  But then, surprisingly, this middle aged, fairly religious woman looked at me and said, “You know, in your country people can live together before they are married.  I think this is a very good institution.  We have no such thing in Georgia. This is why people get divorced.”  I never thought of co-habitation as an institution, but I guess in a culture where all intersex relationships are highly socially regulated, its a fair assessment from her point of view.  I won’t even touch the divorce/cohabitation/marriage question, but I’m glad that I didn’t end up marrying whoever I had a crush on when I was 17. Dang.

Prices: pretty sweet, but only for me. I knew Georgia would be cheap.  And it is.  But its not that cheap, when you think about the actual cost of living for Georgians.  A liter of milk is around 2 dollars.  That’s more than in the states.  A kilo of cherries is also only 2 dollars (in season), and two mile cab ride could cost you from 1.50 to 3 bucks (yes!  you get to name the price to your driver before you set out).  But for a people who make (according to various estimates) under 5,000/year, nothing is really that cheap.  Cigarettes range from 1-2 dollars a pack, a cheap bottle of wine puts you back 5 bucks.  But it you actually make 2-3 dollars an hour, then that’s really really expensive.

Which leads me to the next strange observation: Fancy cars.  Dang, there are some fancy cars here!  How is a city with an average per capita income of $4,800 rocking so many Benz and Mercedes?  There’s a Jag convertible parked near my house most days.  I’ve seen Lexus SUVs.  Many an ex-pat has marveled at this, and apparently Georgians keep a tight lip about how these cars are acquired.  Top theories: they’re the product of the car theft industry that starts in Russia and gets hussled through Ossetia (now less of an option).  Or, they’re bought with the profits from arms dealing, supplied by the US and siphoned off to the eastern lands of conflict.  Classy.

(LATER ADDITION) Gambling.  Apparently the chances of not getting completely hosed by the house are minutely better in Georgia, so it’s a gambling hub of sorts.  Veh, veh, veh. I truly abhor casino gambling.  I don’t know why it provokes an actual visceral reaction in me, but it does.  Alas, Tbilisi also offers 24 pawn shops of sorts where you can not only trade in your watch or wedding band, but the deed to your house or your car.  At any hour. Instantly.  I’ll be totally honest here, I’m hoping that if there’s any advantage to having a strong arm, culture-controlling government, maybe that will include cracking down on making it incredible easy to lose everything you own on a middle of the night whim.

On a happier note (bygone hobbies are better than contemporary gambling, no?), a Sunday walk about town lead to discovering an abandoned bike racing track across the river.  So I’ll leave you with this image of forgone pasttime…

Entrance to the Racetrack

Bike Track Hidden Behind Houses on a Quiet Tbilisi Street

Bike Track Continued

Seats of Yore


Filed under Uncategorized

On Trying to Learn Georgian: Part I

I have decided to grant myself a break from Georgian to write about Georgian. Don’t worry, there will be minimal grammar in this post, but as the overarching point of this extended (working) vacation is the Georgian language, it seems only appropriate that I try to get down some of my impressions of my first days of formal instruction.

I arrived two weeks ago yesterday, and as anticipated, enrolling in the semi-existent language program at Tbilisi State University was both easier and harder than expected. I had applied twice already, dutifully filling out the online application and writing to the various language coordinators who were listed as contacts on the website. Perhaps not surprising, I received no answer, so I actually arrived here with a rather vague sense of how my coursework would actually materialize.

On my second day in this great mountainous nation, I walked myself over to the department offices, which seem to be a scattered collection of rooms throughout Building Number Five of Ilia Javakhishvili State University, inhabited (exclusively?) by women between the age of twenty five and fifty. I presented myself in the main office and made clear my desire to become a committed student of the Georgian language.  In an feeble attempt to display my intended on-the-balledness, I told the woman there that I had written to a certain Rusiko D—-but did not yet have a contract with the university. “I am Rusiko D—-,” was the reply, and then she let me know that she was busy, and sent me upstairs to another room of younger Georgian women who were flipping through notebooks and languorously snacking on wafer cookies.

I think I plead my case well: I have four weeks in Tbilisi (my last four weeks will be otherwise engaged) and I want to take as many hours as possible, starting as soon as possible. I am willing to pay more since it’s the summer. I have experience. I can meet anywhere. I just want to start learning Georgian intensively. This garnered a series of mmm‘s and hmmmm‘s and then I was instructed to write down my email and phone number on a post-it. Two woman shook their heads and said, “We’re just too tired from the semester to teach right now” (fair enough, the aggressive lack of desire to teach anymore is something I can truly emphasize with). A third handed me her card and noncommittally sighed, “We’ll be in touch.” I walked out feeling like I may have just bombed a first date.

After a few days of no word, I wrote my business card contact and debated just contacting one of the many teachers that I knew were actually available. Many of the few expats I’d already met had an instructor, and I figured that no response from my official program was legitimate grounds for abandoning my fellowship stipulation of only enrolling at an accredited university. Afterall, I’m about the spirit, not the letter, of the law.

To my surprise, I got a response on Monday, and a slow chain of phone calls and emails led to setting me up with two instructors—one in the mornings, another in the evening. I had been outsourced by TSU to another language group that apparently had a bit more manpower.

After countless offers to just start soon, or next week, or “keep in touch” I managed to get a confirmed first class last week. And so it began.

Oh wait, so I actually have to speak Georgian?

For two hours we only spoke, and my morning teacher evaluated where I stood. For example, she asked me if I knew the numbers, and when I replied yes, said, “Okay, start.”

“One, two, three…” I gazed at her to see if she was convinced. She beckoned for me to continue. “Four, five, six….”

This went on till one hundred. Yeah, for about four minutes there was just the sounds of me counting, drawing in a deep breath at each multiple of ten. I paused around 55 and 80 to see if I was in the clear, but no such luck. When I stopped at one hundred, she looked at me and with the serene gaze of boredom, said, “Next?”

I could see that counting one by one to thousand probably lay in my future, so I just smiled and with the slightest intonation of guilt offered, “um, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, so on, one thousand.”

This garnered a very long hmm and then a brief silence before we moved on.

To be honest though, its great practice because Georgian numbers are obnoxious and sort of like French, so to say 77, you have to say three times twenty plus seventeen. Then, under the watchful gaze of a certain pedagogue named T’ea, three time twenty plus eighteen. And three times twenty plus nineteen. I’ll assume you’re seeing the pattern.

Despite having insisted that I had a background in the language, I was thoroughly vetted and, to be honest, found lacking at a few moments. Words that apparently made it into her list for beginning Georgian were totally unfamiliar to me or completely forgotten.  ‘Waterfall’, ‘radish’, all three forms of ‘cousin’ (options: deidashvili ‘child of the sister of my mother’ or mamidashvili ‘child of the sister of my father’ or bidzashvili ‘child of my uncle’) Okay, I should have remembered all the cousin words…but next:


“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know how is backgammon?”

Expression of shock and disapproval.




“Yes, nardi, please, memorize this,  you must learn to speak Georgian.”

Isn’t that the truth.

And yet, nardi is a pretty innocent word, with the letters and length of any well-respecting English word.  This is not the case for what seems like at least half of the words in Georgian. Georgian is famous for its verbal system (more on that later) but the cognitive labyrinth of the verbs are twice removed from me by being dressed in sounds that actually make my tongue tired (and tied!). This is a language that love, love, loves it consonant clusters.




The moment you manage to spit out one cluster of tzkv‘s, you can barely draw enough air (oh the sweet oxygen of a vowel!) to tackle the next two in the world. Not to mention, there are a few different k-esque sounds that I recognize in writing (roughly transliterated to k, kh, q’ and x), but really can’t consistently produce with my own mouth. To this I am not accustomed.

Sure, I have an accent whenever I speak a foreign language, but I’m not talking about an accent here.  I’m talking about a real physical effort to figure out how to get my mouth to make Georgian sounds.  Especially when I need to, oh, let’s say, speak with more than one word at a time. (Can you tell I’m the ambitious type?)

For the first couple days (ahem, first weeks…okay, still happening…) the sounds of the Georgian language quite simply made me feel like my whole mouth is some ill-fitted prosthetic. Mnishvnelovani zrda ‘important development’.  Gasp for air. Msxlis tsveni ‘pear juice’. Even the most basic everyday terms aroused frustration.  I often felt/feel something verging on spite for my tongue trained only for the robust chewy sounds of English.

But you know what, its getting a lot better, even after just a couple days of classes. Even if my mouth is still some faltering prosthetic, my brain is picking up on the rhythms of the words. Spoken Georgian feels like less of a barrage of sound and much more like a composition of recognizable morphemes encased in an elaboarate and archaic costume.  But I am starting to see the shapes under the costume.  Every now and then, stuff almost makes sense.  I’ve also found that there are words I love.  Some of them Ryan mentioned in his post, others keep cropping up:  a parrot is a tutiq’ushi.  That just seems fitting. A frog is baq’aq’i. To make a toast (as in at a party, or a supra, the lengthy and highly ritualized Georgian feast) is literally “to extend the day.”

And of course, part of the fun of learning a new language is realizing how your language works. For example, a ‘holiday’ is dghesastsauli.  Breakdown of part: day + miracle.  And I loved that, as it both reminded me that our holidays are/were holy-days, but that miracle-days are even more worthy of being dubbed holidays! The word for ‘different, varied’ is sxvadasxva. Breakdown: other+and+other.  Being different is like between doubly other, so now I can actually remember this word with no delay. I could go on, but I have a strategy.  I’m only going to keep talking about this crazy language so I’m saving your patience with language examples for when I write an poignant post on Georgian verbs…

(P.S. I’ll also get around to posting pictures soon, if you couldn’t give a rip about my person language acquisition (legit position) but want to see an ancient Transcaucasian capital (so much more legit))


Filed under Sakartvelo! (aka Republic of Georgia), Uncategorized

So why learn Georgian?

I am in the midst of attempting to construct my own thoughtful essay on the art and experience of learning Georgian, but as I actually have to go cram Georgian now (typical Sunday night scenario and I haven’t done my homework yet…), I’m going to simply let you read a much more eloquent and concise account by someone who knows Georgian far better than I.

This piece was written by a friend who lives and works in Tbilisi and who exemplifies how the knowledge of the local language opens you up to a culture, to friendships, to a different world than the one experienced in translation.  A world I hope to one day visit, but until then, I’m taking his word for it.

Dedaena – Mother Tongue

“Gamarjoba!” the Georgian equivalent of “hi,” is probably one of the first Georgian words any foreigner arriving in Georgia will learn; for many, it will also be one of the only Georgian words they will learn during their stay. Ask anyone who has attempted to learn Georgian beyond the phrases provided in the guidebook, and you’ll get a simple answer: It’s hard.

And for Westerners, it is – Georgian does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages, its complex grammar allows for the formation of words that seem to stretch half-way across the page yet which contain so few vowels that you start to wonder if one has to be born with a Georgian tongue to attempt such linguistic gymnastics, and it contains sounds that some might describe as “alien.” But difficult as it may be, mastering the Georgian language to some degree is more than worth the hours of trying to memorize the conjugations of one irregular verb (and yes, there are many) in all its tenses.

Whenever foreigners living in Georgia get together, the topic of discussion at some point inevitably turns to the Georgian language. “Are you studying Georgian?” “How long have you been studying?” “Isn’t it hard?” When discussing studying Georgian with other expats, I am often disappointed to hear that someone has given up trying, or has decided to study Russian instead. Faced with the choice of either studying Georgian— and perhaps spending months before being able to hold a basic conversation—or studying the relatively easier and more useful Russian language, it is not surprising that many choose the latter.

But Georgia is actively trying to distance itself from Russia, for better or worse, and this includes the Russian language. The President of Georgia has made it a priority to make English the primary secondary language taught in Georgian schools, most notably inaugurating in 2010 the “Teach and Learn with Georgia” program which seeks to bring 1,000 native English speakers to teach in Georgia. As a result of this program and the general dominance of English language education in the last decade, today, you are more likely to find young Georgians fluent in English than in Russian. And if this trend continues, it is obvious that it will only be a matter of time before the Russian language becomes all but obsolete. While learning Russian may be more practical as a language spoken in most of the former Soviet Union, in Georgia, English is gradually replacing Russian as the primary language with which to communicate with foreigners.

Why then bother to learn Georgian at all? While every visitor to Georgia can attest to Georgia’s amazing hospitality and fascinating culture, I would argue that being able to communicate in Georgian allows the speaker to experience Georgia from a more intimate perspective that is ultimately richer and more rewarding. True, you could say the same about the benefits of learning any language, but what makes learning Georgian different is both the very fact that it is a difficult language that claims only a few million native speakers—and therefore, anyone who succeeds in achieving some level of fluency immediately gains special favor in the eyes of Georgians—and the fact that the Georgian language is so deeply intertwined with the Georgian identity. Beyond allowing one to communicate with everyday Georgians, a command of the Georgian language is the key to unlocking the soul of Georgia.

It is difficult to explain what I mean using the English language. But I can attempt to give a few examples of how the Georgian language is a window on the Georgian identity. The word for “pregnant,” for example is “orsuli” which combines the words “two” and “soul” – literally, “two-souled”; the Georgian word for “loyal” is “ertguli” and literally means “one-hearted.” Even that Georgian word for “hi” that all visitors learn –“gamarjoba” – tells us something about the Georgian spirit: it comes from the Georgian word for “victory.”


Filed under Sakartvelo! (aka Republic of Georgia), Uncategorized