It seems to have been ages since I last wrote here, but finally I have a few spare minutes. Since I left, my days have been filled with teacher training, Georgian language and culture lessons, and by far the saltiest hotel meals I’ve ever had. There’s so much I want to tell everyone! I’ll go chronologically, since I suppose that makes the most sense.
My first few days in Tbilisi I recovered from my two-day airplane extravaganza. Though Turkish Air was amazing, neither free wine, apricots, nor earplugs could lull me to sleep. As soon as I was human again, orientation began.
With a full schedule from 9am to 6pm, we were left with little time to see the city, but I managed to fit in a few journeys into Tbilisi proper, and it quickly replaced Berlin as my favorite city. I’m still having trouble finding words to describe its beauty, even after 10 days. They say Georgia is Asia to Europe and Europe to Asia, and somewhere in this blend creates a unique and unforgettable place. The balconies and baths of the Old City are again in pristine condition, as are the shops of the cosmopolitain Rustaveli Avenue, but walk a few blocks in any direction and you’ll find another world. Russian villas flank Ottoman-era dwellings and Soviet block-houses. What’s not new is in some state of decay, and you don’t need to look far to see evidence of recent wars.
It quickly becomes clear that a western sense of order is far from anyone’s mind; street signs are confusingly absent, building codes forgotten, and laundry hung out to dry at every angle. This is a city where people live freely.
The center of Tbilisi is Freedom Square, a massive traffic circle around a golden statue of St. George, slaying the dragon atop a pillar taller than any nearby building. I use the term “traffic circle” quite generously, because any kind of right-of-way that might exist in Georgia is totally incomprehensible. Pedestrian patterns are perhaps even stranger, but I feel that I’m learning the local nonchalance in ambling across a highway between speeding cars.
West of the center is the New Town, full of international brand stores and swankier places to eat and drink, along with most of the city’s museums and theatres. I spent only a little time here, as I found myself so comfortable near the Old Town. Past the touristy bars and cafes near the baths, on the hillside under the fortress, I loved wandering through the winding and crumbling streets where people sell produce, tobacco, and nearly everything else from low tables on the sidewalk. Everywhere you go it smells like ripe grapes, well on their way to becoming wine.
Walking north toward the river walls are again freshly painted, and the european leanings of the city-dwellers shows itself again. Public art, eye-catching bridges and government buildings are placed inconveniently close to collapsed buildings now filled with garbage, unless the architects mean to make a statement. In the evening, on the outskirts of the city, the smell of burning plastic replaces the smells of delicious food. Our hotel is near the edge of Tbilisi, and as the sun goes down the kids playing in the nearby empty lot go home, leaving the skinny cows alone to finish grazing.
I realize this sounds quite bleak, but the amazing thing is that despite the very obvious problems, at any moment a traveller is surrounded by beauty. The people here are strikingly beautiful, the landscape is breathtaking, and on every block you find some fascinating church, statue, business or monument. I could write pages on the wooden porch-screens alone.
TLG took us on a few excursions as well. A few days into the training week, the Georgian national team played the French at a World Cup qualifying match, and almost everyone in our group attended. The game was unexciting, but the real spectacle was in the stands. Flags everywhere, fireworks and flares making certain sections look like they were on fire, bats swooping in from above, massive banners insisting of the Georgian-ness of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and an obscene amount of sunflower seeds. Unfortunately, we were all told to wear our bright red official TLG shirts, so we got even more stares than usual, which is saying something.
Later, we visited Mtskheta, the “spiritual center” of Georgia, the Tbilisi Sea (actually a reservoir), another beautiful church, and a nearly-finished monument to Georgian kings and writers. I have only a few pictures, because I am so fascinated by this country that I often forget I have a camera with me.
I’ll definitely go back to visit Tbilisi, but for now I am home in Telavi. It is much more lively than I expected here. There are many shops and several bazaars, a USAID center, and a surprising amount of hotels. I’ve heard there is a good American pizzeria somewhere, but I’m a bit skeptical.
My host family is my host-mother and her two daughters, who are close to my age. I already feel so at home here! The girls study winery (?) at the university here, and Cico is a teacher of Georgian language and literature. We live in a block apartment on the 4th floor, so I have an amazing view of the Caucasus just outside my window (I might be able to see Russia on a clear day). I am hoping to get a bike soon, so I can explore the countryside around Telavi. Finding a bike is not difficult apparently, but maps of the area are unavailable. Even at the tourist office, the have only one map of the city center, which isn’t even accurate according to the woman who runs the office. Intercultural training explained this kind of situation as an aspect of Georgia’s “High-Context” culture; if you don’t know where something is here, you ask someone for directions rather than relying on written information.
I need to study Georgian, because it’s tough not understanding what’s going on. I want to ask questions all the time, but don’t yet have the words. I know I’ll learn quickly, but in the meantime all this active listening is exhausting.
But there are so many stories to tell! Hopefully I’ll have time to write again soon. Tomorrow I meet my co-teachers, and school starts on Monday, so it’s looking like another busy few days. Until next time!
PS: I’ll upload photos as soon as I can find a solid internet connection!