I fly back to New York in the wee hours of tomorrow, so today is in effect my last day in my beloved Sakartvelo. It’s been one of the best (the best?) summers of my life. I hope to keep posting on travels past—Yerevan, Batumi, the supra feast in Kakheti, the incredible art I’ve seen, icons, church culture, the list goes on. In the meantime though, I’m attempting the vain task of summarizing a summer of all things Caucasian.
I haven’t written nearly as much as I had hoped or planned, primarily because I’ve just been too busy with life. But busy seems like the wrong word. It’s been full, but never stressful. In fact, that’s probably the greatest difference between life here and life in New York. It’s not just that my life felt less stressful, all of Georgia is less stressful. Things happen at a different pace—much slower—and as far as I can tell, social bonds and time with friends and family is a much more valued facet of life here. Of course, with that comes much more time spent just sitting around, eating, drinking, toasting, talking. Everyone is late, but you’re never really in a hurry, you show up at the friend of a friends with new friends in tow, there seem to be very few exclusive engagements. Since most people don’t start work till 10am, nights linger late, and in the community of ex-pats, we seem to have even cushier schedules of sporadic research, meetings and language class. So days are full but happily, restoratively so.
My social scene here has been, for a variety of reasons, more foreign than Georgian, but I am still surprised at how easy it is to meet Georgians. Maybe because I’ve only gotten to know the slice of them that speak English or Russian or happily speak slow Georgian that I can say with all honesty, I haven’t yet met a Georgian I didn’t like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re out there, and a few of them could very well be the incessantly loud teenagers that talked and made out and scream-laughed the whole night train last week from Tbilisi to Batumi. But I don’t really know those guys, and no civilization should be judged on its teenagers left to their own devices. Seriously though, I have met nothing but friendliness, kindness and hospitality from all Georgians that cross my path. I never felt bamboozled or threatened, I don’t think I ever got completely ripped off, be it at a market, store, in a cab, etc. I even went carpet shopping (a notorious shady form of consumerism) and only found gracious, nonaggressive customer service.
In a way, it’s been almost difficult to accept so much hospitality here because I have no idea how to repay it. People invite you into their homes and then lavish you with food and wine and souvenirs. They pick you up on the side of the road and drive you where you need to go because it’s too hot to be out walking and they happen to have space in their car and time to go out of their way. They patiently listen to terrible grammar and then try to give you a gift for making an effort. This isn’t just the old country people, its Tbilisians as well. As a foreigner with weak Georgian, often traveling with other foreigners with no Georgian, people generously speak Russian or English with no moans or groans about making linguistic concessions in their own country. Don’t misunderstand, Georgians fiercely love their language, but they don’t lord it over you the way some lingua-centric western Europeans do (ahem, the frogs!). Of course, genuine hospitality is no form of Indian giving (excuse the racial legacy of that), but it is still humbling to accept so much and not know how to say thank you, to not have the chance to give back. A parting “didi madloba” (thanks a lot) just doesn’t seem to cut it. I hope I’ll have the chance to play host to some of the people I’ve met here back in the States, but knowing that’s unlikely makes me feel some blend of sadness and disappointment.
After the great people, tis the great food that will win over your heart. Georgian food is no joke. Pork, veal, lamb, beef, chicken, quail, there isn’t much they don’t know how to master (we’ll leave out sea critters….). Because of the Orthodox fasting (which is basically vegan), they have a delicious, deeply savory, nutritious canon of vegetarian and vegan food. Of course, everything is also just scrumptious because its often grown nearby, harvested fresh, and without exception prepared immediately with love and expertise. However, even though Georgia used to be the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, exporting fruits and vegetables across nearly half the globe, they now import the vast majority of their food. Behind the khachapuri stands and cheap spots with sizzling pork sausages piled on potatoes lies a vast, deteriorated agricultural system. Collectivization under the Soviets modernized Georgian farming, but the past twenty years of sometimes violently and almost always chaotically heading towards democracy has unmodernized it. Everywhere in Georgia, you see people harvesting hay with scythes, pitchforking it onto trucks, hand picking produce and rolling it out of the fields on wheelbarrows. The labor input in incredible to fathom, especially since people here used to have tractors, mechanized plows, trucks instead of horse-drawn carts. Food prices have also risen an estimated 15% over the past two years, but wages are fixed. I can feast on a lot more Georgian food than my neighbors because I see dirt-cheap prices that are actually dangerously rising for them. They import huge amounts of food from Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey, especially dairy (you almost never seen Georgian dairy in a supermarket) and so the country is in a decidedly serious import-export imbalance.
Even with a decade and a half to recover and reform, Georgia is still 40% less agriculturally productive as it was in 1990, before the mass reallocations of arable plots and the civil war. Vast sweeps of land are dedicated to grapes, but the wine has little western market and is ultimately an expensive and laborious crop for people to grow. The government launched a program to modernize Georgian agriculture by importing Boers from South Africa to farm huge tracts of land. But these Boers are given benefits and technology that normal Georgians have no access to, creating a bizarre new class system that will inevitably eventually make Georgian land more productive, but at no benefit to struggling Georgian farmers.
Things of course aren’t all bad here, and I didn’t mean to fall off on an agricultural tangent. But it’s been interesting and difficult to spend time in such a wonderful place and see the myriad dysfunctions that plague it. In many ways, Georgia is much better than it has been, with the President (quite wisely, if you ask me), replacing the entire police force early in his term to combat corruption, and jailing most of the cronies who acted as de facto crime chiefs throughout the country. As a tourist, most of the infrastructure problems aren’t that visible (except for the roads! But those are under construction). But real systematic change seems secondary to the great project of projecting a façade of wealth and westernism. The longer I spend here, the more crazy building projects I see, with enormous hello-mid-90’s glass buildings in every decently sized city, paid for by some combination of foreign aid and tax money. What is going on? What will happen to the blocks and blocks of crumbling Soviet era buildings, many of which are still housing lower income residents? Why are their glass palaces but no child services for the toddlers that beg on the street?
Like in America, farmers struggle, teachers are underpaid, food prices are rising, unemployment is always looming (about 17 percent here). There’s this sense of urgency being here, that things are changing and the country is transforming, unevenly, but inevitably. I think of the systematic problems in the States and how change is blocked at every turn by our destructive two party system, and I then think about what you could do in Georgia when you have a basically oppositionless government that can quickly enact new programs and reform. There’s a lot of potential. And I want to see Georgia bring citrus and wine and watermelons to the world, not just make a quick buck on the occasional European adventure traveler. I want to see Georgians able to intellectually compete and engage with the West without having to expatriate. I even hope they improve relations with Russia, so that they can have access to an enormous market for exporting (one isn’t supposed to say such things here, but let’s be honest, these days you can be friends with the West and with Russia. Maybe it’s complicated, but it’s better than picking just one side). Georgian wine on every table! Even the Russian ones!
Of course, what do I know? I’ve lived here a mere eight weeks, and nothing is ever what it seems like at first glance. Or at second. But Georgia has the raw materials to be a great nation that can stand on its own legs in the European, and global, society, it just has to take some baby steps and plot it’s course well. I’ve met a lot of good people working towards that and I just hope that the simultaneous stumbling towards democracy and bureaucracy here doesn’t get in the way.
Tomorrow I return to the land of highly organized chaos in the urban west and the looming tasks of figuring out my academic life and, most importantly, plotting how to return to this wonderful place.