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



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4 responses to “A Spotty Introduction to Tbilisi

  1. Wow, beautiful pictures of the old track. I love stuff like that, and imagine being the adult who grew up in these parts and is revisiting the old haunts. Gypsies, eh? Do they speak Romanian? Romanian-Georgian? I’m guessing you didn’t interview any of them. Thanks for the blogs, Britt. A great pleasure to read, always!

  2. მდინარის შვილი

    Boyfriend/Girlfriend is in Georgian შეყვარებული (šeq’varebuli).
    Nice blog 🙂

  3. Joe Sunseri

    I performed in the bike stadium in 1979 with American bluesman Gatemouth Brown. Sad to see it hasn’t been kept up.

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