Signing Off

As this is the last post about my life in Georgia, let me summarize as best I can:

Georgia is a simple but complicated country. They are mostly a self-described Western culture leaning country, but they have deep rooted traditions and habits of Asian sensibilities. They are a developing country mostly due to the double gut punch of the collapse of the Soviet Union followed by the war with Russia over the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Their infrastructure is in severe disrepair and the social systems, i.e., Education, Health Care Systems, are underfunded and lack creative progressive direction. The political direction is still rooted in nepotism and the ‘old boy’ network. The two parties that wield power seem to be more concerned with punishing the other party or dismantling everything they did for the country (even of good and prosperous) than with the welfare and improvement of the everyday Georgian. Added to that they have the ever-present threat of Russia to their immediate north.

The majority of Georgia is agriculture based and there seems to be a subconscious, self-fulfilling prophesy to stay that way, even though it currently means a life of poverty. And even though EVERY young person I spoke to HATES the outlook of their future conditions should things not change, I think that, again, the culture of tradition supersede any push to change things.

With all that said, Georgia is a country steeped in history. It’s all around you everywhere you look. So many different cultures over the ages have left a footprint on this land. For Georgia to be so small, it has a very diverse landscape. A breathtakingly, beautiful landscape.

Georgia’s culture poses a double-edged sword for them. It holds them back in making progress in such areas like gender equality and gay rights. The unequal privilege that men enjoy in Georgia is staggering to witness. It’s so ingrained in the culture it has become institutionalized. And very recently the Georgian Orthodox Church itself endorsed physically violent methods to suppress the gay community from voicing itself in a public forum.

On the other hand, Georgian traditions regarding guests and their overall outlook on community and family is endearing and demands respect. To be conquered again and again by foreign powers, but still cling to their traditions of language, food, dance, wine making, etc., is nothing short of inspiring.

I have lived in this country for a short amount of time considering. But I have come to be an advocate for its wellbeing and growth. They are a warm and generous people. A people with a difficult and harsh past but are still quick to laugh. And with the right focus and a few breaks, they can be the envy of the world community.

There are no words to fully express the excellent opportunity I have had to experience this great country. I highly recommend that everyone come to Georgia anyway they can.

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Until next time, Georgia….

Kargad.

***

It was really nice to meet you, goodbye
It’s high time I quit wondering why
‘Cause I have lost all that I can from my side
And when you think of me again, no
I tried, I tried, goodbye

Goodbye, Greg Laswell

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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

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

Tbilisi Public School #62

So I final was able to go to school!

I got a call one morning saying, “Be ready in 15-20 minutes! Nelly, another TLG representative is coming to take you to your school!!!” …okay.

So I got my stuff together. And went downstairs and waited. Because I have been sick and wasn’t here this past weekend, I haven’t really been seen outside the apartment building a lot. This time, I had to stand on the corner at the ready. Of course she didn’t come in 15-20 minutes, so I stood there for a long while.

Enough to notice things: We had a gatekeeper. And he mingles and hangs out with the gatekeeper of the building next to ours. I don’t know their names yet. There are also some other dudes that congregate with them. One the near side of the intersection, there is a kiosk that serves as a mini bodega. She sells eggs and milk and such. Good to know. Then on the corner across the street to the right is the bus stop. Conveniently beside the bus stop, but smack beside the road, is an ATM from my bank. When I say ‘smack beside’, I mean you have to stand in the 4-lane highway to access it. Behind the bus stop is another kiosk. This one sells coffee, cigarettes and such.  (I’ll put a photo here later on.)

Anyway, I wait and wait. And finally she comes in the TLG van with driver. Off we go. Straight into traffic. It took an hour to get to school. I don’t even know the way they took. She kept saying, ‘Its close.’ But I couldn’t figure it out.

When she jumped out of the van, I assumed we were there.

First we met the school director. Her name is Tamuna. Great smile and extremely friendly. We chatted for a bit. She’s from Guria, too and knows decent English. She called the other English teachers in. There is Tina, an older teacher. She’s spunky and is excited to have a native speaker. There is Nino, who is a little younger than Tina. Then Irma, who has only been teaching a couple of years. All of them seemed really excited about me being there.

We exchanged numbers, and then they showed me around the school.

This school is a lot bigger than my school in Oz. Oz was three levels, where this one is four. Most of the rooms are in descent condition until you get to the top floors. Then things start to deteriorate rapidly. Since my school is in the city, its hard to get a great picture of it. Plus, its fronted by thick trees. I’m still looking for a good angle, but until then here is a view out one of the windows.

DSCN6355 DSCN6357 I was able to pop my head into most of the classrooms, and they were jazzed to see me. Not the same level as Oz so far, but maybe its still early.

The school has no library or computer labs that I saw. And the gym seemed smaller than the one in Oz.

I had to get to a doctor’s appointment, so I told them farewell.

As said before, I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to get home. Irma repeated again, “Oh, it’s close.” And pointed to the back of the school…okay.

So, when I walked out of the school, I circled to the back and walked up that block. At the end of the block, lo and behold, I was at the top of my avenue. I decided to walk it to get a feel for the distance and the stores along the way. It was a 40 minute walk… I won’t be doing that too often.

***

Yea, Back in the days when I was young I’m not a kid anymore
But some days I sit and wish I was a kid again.
Yea, I sit and wish I was a kid again,
Yea I sit and wish, man.

School Daze, J. Cole

First Night

Slept in the new host home last night. Their rooms are on the back side of the apartment facing the courtyard. Mine is on the street side.

It’s been a long time since I slept in a city. It’s totally different than Ozurgeti, of course. There I am jarred awake by roosters,  dogs in the middle of the night, or the occasional scamper of a rat in the crawl space. Here, its car speakers, squealing tires, or the loud laughing of pedestrians walking past.

But eventually even the city sleeps.

***

Friday evening, we’ve been drinking
2 AM, I swear I might propose
but we close the tab
split a cab
and call each other up when we get home
falling asleep to the sound
of sirens

City Love, John Mayer

City Love

TLG made a policy that we could not be hosted in the cities of Tbilisi or Batumi. The demand was too great and they wanted to spread us throughout the country.

Mtskheta

Mtskheta

Mtshketa

Mtshketa

But they decided to make an exception in my case. (My host family in Mtskheta bailed on me, for goodness sakes!) I still would rather teach and live in Mtskheta, but with that said… I went to look at the home in Tbilisi and it was a no brainer. 25 percent of the 4 million people in Georgia live in Tbilisi. Where the majority of Georgia is predominantly agricultural and rural, Tbilisi is sometimes called the Paris of the East. After two years of seeing poverty and rural life up close, there are aspects of Tbilisi to make all that seem literally, like a foreign country. I had to take a bus to meet the father, Zura. (The family consists of a husband and wife, Mari. Mari’s mother, Lali and their 7 year old daughter, Anna.) We met on the corner of a busy one way street, Kazbegi Ave. He’s a very young guy to my surprise. We started walking to his flat. The first thing I noticed was it was a gated community with a guardhouse and needed a swipe key to get into the building. They live on the 1st floor (technically 3rd as there is a two story store directly underneath.) The apartment was spacious and modern. The furniture was not the typical style of most Georgian homes I had seen. This furniture looked IKEA inspired. In sweeping the living room, my eye caught a flat screen television, surround sound speakers, and comfortable wrap around comfortable couches. I noticed a Mac on the coffee table and an IPad on the side table.

Living Room

Living Room

DSCN6316

Kitchen

The kitchen had a full sized refrigerator AND a dishwasher. Better yet, it was a full sized fully functioning kitchen. I had never even seen a dishwasher in Georgia! They had three indoor, enclosed bathrooms. One has a Jacuzzi bath, the other a glass enclosed shower door. Super fast Internet. (Videos came up immediately!!!) So basically, it was a done deal. Zura drove me back to the hostel to pick up the rest of my things from the hostel. They are a two-car family and although the apartment has an underground garage, he has the only private single car garage of the building. As we are driving back to the hostel, he is pointing out the major roads and intersections so I can get my bearings. Little by little, he clues me into what he does for a living. He owns a variety of businesses and properties. As we passed different streets and neighborhoods he would say nonchalantly, “I own a flat behind that building”, or “I own that store over there.” Both of them speak English very well. HE trips on his grammar structure occasionally, and she forgets a translation occasionally, but I don’t have to slow down at all for them. They want me to stay with them primarily to teach English to Anna. She is in the second grade in a supposedly good British/Georgian private school, but knows little to no English. Challenge Accepted. Oh, oh oh… I almost forgot- heat radiators in ALL the rooms.

Tbilisi

Tbilisi

***

Some have told me the city will ruin me Some said the city is an ugly place The city has marred better men than me I let the city have my heart.

I thought the city gave me hers. This love was not meant to last.

I Still Love The City, But The City Doesn’t Love Me, Alex Gomez

In Which Sanchezi Returns To Sakartvelo

Flights were fine and painless.

Waiting for my flight to Istanbul in JFK, I overheard people speaking Georgian. It was a funny feeling. I had not heard it spoken for 2 months.

I gorged myself on in-flight movies and Turkish wine.

To add insult to injury, up until the morning of my flight, I had no idea as to where I was going once landing in Georgia. I knew I had a new host family in Mtskheta, but I had no idea how to contact or get to them. My fall back plan was to just go to a hostel and wait for further instructions.

Fortunately, they told me the plan to get to my new family.

BUUUTTT once I landed, the new plan was to go to the hostel for the night and they would get me to my host family the next day. Fine.

I came out of the airport to the familiar dance of taxi drivers trying to financially rape me. 35 Lari taxi ride or .50 Tetri bus ride? Hmmm…. Thanks, but no thanks.

Although I packed light for the trip to the States, I returned to Georgia with all of my camping stuff. So I wasn’t as mobile as I would have liked, but it wasn’t that bad.

On the way to the hostel I met a girl from Israel, Britt. She was traveling alone to Georgia for 2 and a half weeks. She had planned on going to a hostel named Friends, but as mine, Old Town Hostel, was closer. So we walked to it together.

Then I showed her some of the highlights around Old Town, got some food and headed back.

The next day I waited for the text that they, TLG, were coming to get me. And I waited and I waited…

Later in the day, they said that they were having problems with the host family. Stay at the hostel another night and sit tight.   …Okay.

Then I got the phone call from my former regional representative that the family no longer wanted to host me. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Nothing was working out.

HOWEVER…

She talked to a friend who lives in Tbilisi that was willing to host someone. The bedroom that I would be staying was not prepared yet. (It was currently an office, and they had to acquire the bed, wardrobe, etc.) and I would have to sleep on the sofa for approx. 2 weeks. I could go to look at the place and decide.

***

So hurry up and wait 
but what’s worth waiting for? 
So join the queue me and you 
wait in line it takes our 
time to be satisfied,

Hurry Up And Wait, Stereophonics