Eat Fresh

Before I came to Georgia, I used to eat ‘second-lunch’ after school religiously at one of three places; Wendy’s, Cook-out or Bojangles. Delicious.

In Ozurgeti, they didn’t have fast food restaurants. The closest thing was a Shaurma Stand. And those are actually more like food trucks. There was one Shaurma place that had indoor seating, but it closed pretty fast. If I wanted fast food there was nothing in-between home cooked meals or American McDonalds in Batumi or Kutaisi (both cities at least an hour away).

Tbilisi has several McDonald’s, a super Wendy’s and what I now realize is a huge Subway chain. I just found out there was one right at my metro stop on the way home. And the food, to my surprise, is EXACTLY like in the States; meatball subs, veggie subs, teriyaki chicken subs, and my personal favorite, Turkey and bacon sub. They even have guacamole. Oh, and the foot-long combo!

This is going to be very dangerous.

***

“Five
Five dollar
Five dollar footlong
Five
Five dollar
Five dollar footlong”

Subway Jingle

Hold The Wall!!!!!!!

This weekend I was able to check off one of my last major points of interest in Georgia. The town of Sighnaghi, “City of Love” is in the Kakheti region in eastern Georgia. It is hailed as one of the prettiest towns in Georgia. It was one of the few towns targeted for tourism through a thorough upgrade of all its buildings by government subsidies.

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We stayed at the cutest guesthouse. It still had the ‘old’ feel to it, but it, too, was obviously renovated.

Nana's Guesthouse

Nana’s Guesthouse

Sighnaghi is in the heart of wine country, but since we missed the harvest, we didn’t get to enjoy the wine tasting. We thought we planned the visit to coincide with a festival, but that proved to be false. So with those options off the table, there were only a few other things I wanted to see in the town.

1. St Nino, the apostle who is noted for bringing Christianity to Georgia is buried within walking distance of the town. The church and monastery complex with her namesake was included in the massive upgrade and overhaul. The new and improved version left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to linger and look around as everything seemed sanitized and commercialized.

Walking to St. Nino’s facilities, we came upon an old lady who was also walking to the Church complex. She seemed nice enough, but then she started showing signs of crazy. Most Georgians, when they realize we don’t speak Georgian (or Russian) well, they will either stop talking as much, start talking louder for a while… then stop talking as much, or start using a lot of mime motions… then stop talking as much. Well this lady was either crazy or oblivious to the fact that we didn’t understand 90 percent of what she was saying. She kept talking without missing a beat… in Russian…for the next 2 km. We sort of realized in the end that she was concerned with getting us to the right area in the complex which she thought was the Holy Spring. Once we got to the complex, she seemed to be ‘in the know’ or at least the crazy lady everyone recognizes. She pointed down a steep stairway, and deemed her mission complete, then left us.

After hearing about St. Nino all this time, I really wanted to see her gravesite. The maps were no help as they all had 3 “you are here” markers. I saw a mini gravestone in front of one of the churches on the site and figured that was St. Nino. As I was going to take a picture of the little sad thing, I figured I would go into the church for a look first. As soon as you go into the church and look left, there is a frenzied line trying to get into a little alcove on the side. Hmm… THAT must be it! So I waited in line with my friend, who was able to get into the church without a headscarf. We both thought she was going to be ejected at any moment although there were others doing the same thing. But still…she was a foreigner.   As we got closer, it was obvious that this was indeed St. Nino. We all could see what people were doing once they were in the alcove. Most were praying and kneeling and doing a lot of kissing (of the tomb). All those actions made me nervous once it was our turn to go in. I asked my friend what she was going to do, and she said she didn’t know. When we got to the door and the previous viewers left the room, my friend looked and then turned and left. I went into the alcove, stood and looked around. I bent to see the actual tomb. It was tiny. It had a painting of her on the tomb with a medallion. The alcove was filled with painted murals above. All this happened within 6 seconds, and I was out of there. I turned to see a sea of Georgian faces staring back at me.

Awkward.

2. Sighnaghi is one of the few Georgian towns with an intact Fortress wall. Guidebooks say its because the town was pretty insignificant to start with and not worth the trouble for invading armies to climb the mountain to attack it.

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We were able to walk the wall and look off into the beautiful valley vista. Walking the walls and climbing the turrets reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, when they were fighting at Helm’s Deep.

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***

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The Lord of the Rings. Battle for Helm’s Deep

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Last summer, I visited Kazbegi with a friend. It was one of the most beautiful sites I had seen in Georgia. However, I was not able to get “The Shot” that I wanted. By “The Shot”I mean, if you Google, Kazbegi, you will see a very picturesque scene of a church on the hill with a mountain in the background. The day we went last summer, it was rainy which skewed the view. But I vowed to return.

The town of Kazbegi, (or Stepantsminda), is in the shadow of Mount Kazbegi. Mt. Kazbegi is the mountain that Prometheus is said to have been chained to by the gods for stealing their fire. This time I brought my tent and sleeping bag from the States to camp at the top near the church- Tsminda Sabeba.

Town of Kazbegi and Mount Kazbegi in background.

Town of Kazbegi and Mount Kazbegi in background.

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We got to the town about mid afternoon. Marshut’kas run from Tbilisi to Kazbegi pretty regularly during the morning and early afternoon hours. Cost is between 8-10 Lari. The drive up the north is along a stunning, scenic route known as the Georgian Military Highway.

Once in Kazbegi, it was obvious that the view from the top was going to be stunning. We got some supplies and started hiking up. I don’t know if it’s due to sitting on my ass all summer, the pack on my back or what, but before we even got out of the town, I was sucking wind. We went a little further and I thought I was going to die. There was no way in hell I was going to make it up the rest of the two-hour hike.

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Credit: Ashley Walczak

As I was contemplating a way to tell my friends this horrible news, a jeep stopped on the road beside us. A tan blonde dude sticks his head out the window and says, “Want a ride?”

Kazbegi is one of the tourist destinations for visitors to Georgia. As soon as you get off the bus, various people with varying degrees of English greet you. Most of them are asking if you need a hostel to stay. Others are asking if you want a ride in a jeep to the top where the church is located. (They are catering to out of shape blowhards like me.) The jeep drivers charge an insane amount of money though. So I never listen to their spill. So I thought this guy who stopped was one of those industrious drivers.

When he said ‘no cost’, we all yelled and thanked him profusely for our salvation. Only then did I tell my hiking buddies that there was no way I could have made it up on my own. This guy was a literal angel.

He was from South Dakota and his companion was from Ukraine. They had met working at the ski resort, Gudauri several years back and had returned this fall to get married!

He asked if we were camping up at the church and when we said we were, he said, “Watch out for the bears. There are an insane amount of bears… and wolves. They are all over the place at night.” Bears… and wolves…

Needless to say, I was seriously rethinking our plan.

Everyone kept talking and chatting, while I was trying to visualize what “a lot” of bears and “a lot” of wolves looked like. I asked, “Did you ever camp up here?” His reply of “All the time.” relaxed me a little, but still. As we neared the top his wife chimed in, “Tell him about the birds.” He replied, “Oh yeah, the eagles are crazy. They sometimes swoop down and pick up people’s tents.” Finally I understood that they were joking with me. But one shouldn’t joke about bears and wolves.

We got to the top and it was as pretty as I imagined. Here is my version of ‘The Shot”:

Tsminda Sabeba

Tsminda Sabeba

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We set up camp and started working on the fire. After my last camping debacle of not being able to start the fire because the ground was too wet, I bought a gadget (magnesium block from REI) so as to not EVER have that happen again. After several attempts, it was obviously happening again. Frustration began to set in. But we had a great team assembled. We fed the fire tissue paper, Kleenex, cigarette box, weeds, wheat shoots, and bark shavings. Finally after an overdose of dry wheat, it caught. We still had to fight it for the rest of the night though.

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Credit: Ashley Walczak

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Credit: Ashley Walczak

 

We brought up a jug of wine and just had the best time.

No wolves.

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Mount Kazbegi

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***

Dorothy: Do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?

Tin Woodsman: Mm, we might.

Scarecrow: Animals that eat… s-traw?

Tin Woodsman: Some, but mostly lions, and tigers, and bears.

Dorothy: Lions?

Scarecrow: And tigers?

Tin Woodsman: And bears.

Editorial

* I mentioned  in earlier posts about the new visa regulations that kept me in the States for longer than expected this summer and also caused me to only be allowed to stay in Georgia for 90 days. This is an editorial that I read on the issue. It’s from The ISET Economist by Florian Biermann and Eric Livny.

***

Georgia’s New Immigration Law: Many Losers and No Winners

This year, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University (ISET) admitted nine Armenian students and one from Azerbaijan. They came to Tbilisi for a preparation course in August and all of them applied for residency permits before the first of September. All applications were exactly identical. Out of ten students, seven got their permits, two were denied, and one is still in process. The reasons for rejection were stated in most general terms, relating to Article 18 of the new immigration law. That article reads:

“An alien may be denied a residence permit in Georgia if there is a decision of an authorized body on the advisability of his/her residence in Georgia with regard to safeguarding state security and/or public safety interests.”

It seems logical that, if the two Armenian students who were denied residency permits are a threat to “state security” or “public safety”, they should not have been allowed into Georgia in the first place. But they did enter the country and can even stay here for three months, ample time to wreak havoc on Georgia. Denying residency out of security concerns – without denying entry to the country – is pointless.

As things currently stand, the students in question will have to leave the country and discontinue their studies at ISET. The only option given to them is to appeal this decision in court, and this process will take months. The career plans of these two students, who had prevailed in a long and difficult selection process, are now irreversibly damaged. This is a tragedy for those students, for ISET, but also the country of Georgia.

A LAW FULL OF FLAWS

The new immigration law (and the manner in which it is being implemented) is already causing huge waves in the Georgian expat community. It is a subject of heated discussions on Facebook, at business meetings and parties. For one thing, the law poses unnecessary cost on those seeking residency. The most serious issue is that foreigners cannot apply for residency if they entered Georgia without a special visa which can only be obtained abroad. This rule was not communicated well, and it is not a good rule. Israel, for example, allows everybody to apply for residency inside the country within the three month stay that every visitor is granted. In Georgia, we know of employees of international organizations who now have to return to their home countries just for applying for a visa at the local Georgian embassies. And it remains to be seen whether Georgian embassies are capable of efficiently dealing with these visa requests.

ISET is not the only university feeling the heat of new immigration regulations. In particular, it undermines the business model of Georgia’s medical universities which “sell” their educational services to foreigners. International students are typically not aware of the intricacies of Georgian visa regulations. Some had just returned for the start of the new semester only to find out that they have to go back to their home countries for a month in order to apply for special student visas, which means that this semester is lost for them. Who knows whether they will return at all?

Another heavy flaw in the new law is the way in which it treats people who do not have regular employment. These may be freelancers with highly demanded expertise (such as architects and engineers) but also artists, persons engaged in culture, and “bohemians”.

Thanks to many of these irregularly employed foreigners, Georgia was about to become a “cool” place, something that can be easily confirmed by reading their declarations of love for Georgia on the internet. To a considerable extent, this development came about because Georgia was so successful in attracting artists, bloggers, travelers and generally interesting people (who are considered to belong to the “cultural capital” of a country in economics).

Being a “cool” place is not about having a lot of people who work from 9 to 5 every day, as Georgian lawmakers may have thought. Rather it is about artists and cultural entrepreneurs who may indulge in a precarious and unpredictable life. These people have a positive impact on the atmosphere in a city, helping transform a boring, provincial place into a cosmopolitan hotspot. And this has economic implications, because it is much easier to attract economically relevant people to places which have a culturally attractive international atmosphere, like Amsterdam and London. Georgia may now be squandering the advantage it had over much richer places like Almaty, Baku, and Tashkent.

GOOD RULES DON’T TRAVEL WELL

It is a widespread misconception that the changes in immigration policy were forced upon Georgia by the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. The AA text, however, includes only very general statements concerning immigration policy. None of its provisions would force Georgia to (immediately) copy – lock, stock and barrel – European immigration laws.

References to “standard international practice” that are being made by government officials defending the new immigration laws are also completely misplaced. Yes, most EU countries do regulate migration, yet, Georgia is far from being a typical EU member state and faces completely different challenges.

While Europe is trying to prevent low-skill immigrants from other continents to “invade” the European habitat and destroy its “way of life”, Georgia’s labor market is in dire need of every European engineer, lawyer, expert farmer and teacher it can attract. Unfortunately for Georgia, there are only 250-300 Germans living permanently in Georgia (based on the German embassy’s database), as compared to 15,079 Georgians officially registered in Germany. Florian Biermann, writing this article, is one of these German citizens, teaching modern economics at Tbilisi’s International School of Economics along with professors from Italy and Israel, US and Canada, UK and France, Ukraine and Armenia. The purpose of Georgia’s immigration policy should be to make it easier for experts to enter and reside in Georgia, not to create artificial bureaucratic barriers on their way here.

While it is much more difficult for a Georgian to get residency in Germany due to its restrictive immigration policies, the economic opportunities available in Germany still attract many people from outside. Georgia, on the other hand, is not (yet) a primary target of international migration, and is therefore not (yet) in a position to be restrictive about its immigration. The fact that many more Georgians legally reside in Germany than the other way around clearly demonstrates this point.

If the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Levan Izoria states that the new law “significantly changes the extremely liberal migration policy conducted by the former leadership of the country”, he is absolutely right. Yet the “extremely liberal migration policy” was one of the extremely few advantages Georgia had when competing for businesses, investments, and human capital. From an economics perspective, an “extremely liberal” migration policy was the absolute right choice for Georgia! It produced a lot of economic benefits and carried no costs (except for the cost of small wine bottles presented to foreigners in Tbilisi airport in 2012).

As there are no social welfare payments for foreigners (a huge issue in “socialist” Europe), Georgia could afford to have open borders and liberal labor markets. It reaped all the benefits from this policy without having to deal with the disadvantages. In addition to consuming local products and services, the bohemian or the freelance journalist and blogger who chose to settle in Georgia created a lot of (absolutely free) publicity for Georgia and its wonderfully hospitable culture. Not having formal Georgian employment, many of these people are now being denied residency, which is equivalent to shooting the Georgian economy in the foot.

We wonder if anybody in the Georgian government is aware of what this new policy is doing to Georgia’s image, its economy, education, and tourism. It would be reassuring to know that someone is taking note and discussing a possible way out. For now, it looks like Georgia is going back, not forward.

***

And a response by the Government:

Irakli Gharibashvili– I want to apologize to all foreign citizens that had to face problems with regard to activation of the new visa policy, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said.
According to him, it is not a deliberate policy, it is a normal work process and all drawbacks will be timely eradicated in this process.
‘I want to explain that everything we do is aimed at better protecting our citizens and efficiently managing the migration process in Georgia. The Border Police force works very efficiently and Chikaidze has done more over the last year than was done in the last ten years. 11 new border sectors will be opened in the nearest period. Wages of border guards were raised; many efficient projects were carried out. All this will create a very good picture that will increase trust towards our country, will increase security and all of our citizens will be better protected’- the PM said.

***

“All the new’s thats fit to print”, Motto of the New York Times

Except Zura

I really, really hate making sweeping generalizations like the one I am about to make, but its proven true more often than not. I have a high distain for most Georgian men. They perpetuate an aura of abrasiveness and dominance towards their female population that is appalling. They tend to take drunkenness to an obnoxious level and carry it as a badge of honor. They seem to look for ways to demonstrate that they are the alpha dogs and rules are great… for everyone else but them. And these traits are systematically encouraged. Again this obviously doesn’t apply to ALL Georgian men, but I daresay most….

Except Zura.

Zura

Zura

Zura is so non-Georgian it makes one scratch their head. I want to record some of the things he has told me over the course of our conversations in this post.

Zura grew up in Tbilisi. He has one older brother. He grew up during the harshest times of Georgia’s recent history. He was a competitive boxer in his youth, but his doctor told him he risked long-term damage if he continued. So he stopped. He said he didn’t have the build to do well long-term anyway.

He did really well in school. He scores top of his class, which allowed him to study for free. He also scored well all through University, which should have awarded him the opportunity to study at master’s level for free. But the University did not allow this (due to lack of money). He was able to get his master’s later on in England.

He got a job at a major bank here in Georgia, and was a manger of people’s property that had defaulted. So that was how he was able to get into the real estate business. He does that for the most part now. He owns a lot of properties throughout Georgia. He also has investments in several businesses.

Zura is not flashy, but he wants his family to live well. This current house is the highest quality house I have seen in Georgia. Specifically, the furniture, the molding in the rooms, the appliances, the technology, etc.

Zura remembers when there used to be police officers in charge of the highways (pre- Saakashvili, most recent former President). These people were what we would call highway patrol officers. They were in essence highway trolls. They would stop people at random and extort money from them. They would beat them and plant drugs on them to extort more money from their families.

People during his youth would do the same to people walking on the street, ie, hold you up at knife point. He said a lot if his friends did the same thing, “So many of my classmates were killed”. Boys were discouraged from studying. His saving grace was he was a champion boxer, so no one really bothered him. Or if they did, he would handle his business.

He met Mari, his wife at a party for a mutual friend. Apparently her father was a successful businessman. He had originally owned the property in the swanky enclave of Saguramo. He bought two flats in the current building; one for Zura and Mari and the other for his wife, Lali and himself. Zura has so much respect for Mari’s father. He honors him with teaching him his business sense.

Mari is a hardcore feminist, progressive, anti-establishment Georgian woman. She doesn’t cook (her mom does that). She doesn’t even serve dishes for Zura or me out of the pot. She deliberately insists we serve our own plates. When they were living in England together for studies, he was frustrated she didn’t clean the house or cook. So they made a bargain, that she would cook and he would clean the house. He admitted that he was baffled by her stance early on, but decided to let it go. He realized she was NOT going to change and be a conventional Georgian wife.

I have noticed that a lot of Georgian customs that I have come to take for granted as the fabric of Georgian tradition, he distains:

For example, he hates the kissing culture. As the French and Turks kiss on both cheeks, the Georgians greet each other by kissing one cheek. I like kissing, and affection between friends, so I don’t mind. But he said Georgians used to not do that. He said it arose in the 90’s amongst the mafia of Georgia specifically in Kutaisi. And it spread throughout the culture. He said he is trying really hard not to do it.

He hates the toasting culture of the tamadas. He says that they are too long winded and, “Why should I wait 15-20 minutes to drink? If I want to drink, I should be able to drink.”

 

***

Picture of Georgian man and woman.

Picture of Georgian man and woman. 1905-1915

Introducing Anna

I have always wanted to have a girl. Chalk it up to an idealistic vision to raise a strong, world-changing juggernaut. A modern day Da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson.

My host sister, Anne is 7 years old. She is the only child of Zura and Mari. They have definite ideas as to how they want her to be raised and grow up.

Anna

Anna

First let me say she is not maladjusted at all (or not that I can see). Because they are well off, by Georgian standards, they can afford to provide her with things that I haven’t noticed other Georgian children having.

Anna was at first painfully shy around me. Which is par for the course. That seems to be the default mode of kids. But I am comfortable with it, knowing it will change 180 degrees in a short amount of time. It’s usually the parents who become awkward and overly apologetic that I have to reassure.

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But slowly she began to ask my whereabouts and spied on me whenever I was home. She would constantly interrupt her parents to ask what I had said or when our English lessons were going to begin. She wouldn’t speak to me directly or speak a word of English. But now, she plays video games with me and tries desperately to get me to understand her Georgian sentences. We are buds.

During my birthday salutations

During my birthday salutations

Zura told me that he did not want Anna to be culturally pigeonholed by Georgian customs. One of his ideas for preventing that is to allow her to make choices on her own and to develop a sense of independence in her. He allows her to carry her own pocket money to buy things as she wishes.

In addition, they are exposing her to a lot of different opportunities. That’s the primary reason I am here, to expose her to native English speaking. She takes horse-riding lessons, piano lessons and is in a robotics club.

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So we’ll see.

***

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. -Proverbs 22:6