Friday, November 10, 2017

Georgia: Desperately Seeking the EU but Enjoying its Independence

When I landed in Tbilisi, Georgia, I expected cows, green pastures, and funny-looking hats. 
*Not* what Georgians actually wear.

Instead, I saw a modern airport with far too many Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot and widespread use of RFID-enabled payment systems. Interestingly, Tbilisi is closer to a cashless society than America, and one reason PayPal is valued more than AMEX is because the future doesn't involve credit cards per se, but the technology that allows payments to occur. 

In any case, in Tbilisi, many people speak three languages (Russian, Georgian, and English); are wary of Russia; can't say no to Russian money; and desperate to join the EU. Such conflicting characteristics create unique experiences. The most interesting Georgian citizen I met was an ethnic German raised by a Jewish grandmother in Russia who speaks better Russian than Georgian. The day before, I had met a Muslim Georgian-Ukrainian software tester working for a Danish company who attended Turkish primary school. She speaks four languages fluently. 

After a tour of the local Supreme Court, which includes a museum housing a Soviet-era courtroom, I told my translator the United States had surrounded Russia with military bases, implying America was becoming the new and overextended Soviet Union. Her response? "You [America] should conquer them!" 
Despite its history of conflict with the Soviet Union, or perhaps because of it, Tbilisi has become a hybrid of Russian and American influences. Freedom Square is next to Pushkin Square, named after a Russian poet. The beautiful parks I saw were designed by Russians, not Europeans or Americans. The long, foreboding escalators to underground metro stations were also made by the Soviet Union and still in use. 
Afraid of heights? Too bad.

Unfortunately, not all of Georgia's Soviet influence can be praised. Witness the utilitarian block-shaped housing structures and, believe it or not, coin-operated elevators. 
The one Georgian lari is inserted in the contraption on the right.

If I have unduly focused on Russia in a piece about Georgia, it's because the country was under Soviet occupation from 1921 to 1991, with the Soviet army entering as recently as 1989 to quell inter-ethnic conflict in the bloody Sukhumi riots between Abkhazians and Georgians

History does not forget, and in 1992-1993, similar tensions flared up, leading to war in the Abkhazia region. The failure of diplomats to create an effective post-war framework presumably led to the 2008's Russo-Georgian crisis, which, depending on whom you ask, centered on Russia's desire to expand its territory, Georgia's failure to abide by the terms of its Gazprom contract, and/or the Abkhazians' desire for independence and their alleged claims of mistreatment by Georgians. 

Not until 2012, when billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili's "Georgian Dream" team swept elections, did Georgia finally look to be on its way to prosperity. (Note: many billionaires have Russian ties--Ivanishvili went to Moscow to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and made his fateful business connections there.) 

Before we discuss the fun stuff, let us have a quick Georgian history lesson. Around 1800, having been invaded by the Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, Georgia asked the Russian Empire to enter and protect it from outsiders: "At the end of the 18th century, Georgia... united herself to Russia of her own accord, on condition that Russia should defend her against her external foes." (Act of Independence of Georgia in Georgian National Museum, Soviet Occupation exhibit.) (I just realized I should have titled this article, "Let the Right One In.") 

The post-WWI climate, especially from 1918 to 1920, must have created issues because in May 1920, the Soviet Union's Red Army invaded Georgia and took Tbilisi by force. 
Lenin approved the invasion on the condition that it be a guaranteed victory, and the Red Army delivered. The results of the ensuing occupation were disastrous, with the Bolsheviks purging elites, church leaders, and intellectuals. 
The Bolsheviks didn't stop at murder--they also violated the cardinal rules of peaceful governance: 1) leave religion alone; and 2) don't raise taxes excessively. 
Consequently, as far back as 1936(!), Georgians were asking Americans to assist them. Had Germany not presented more problems than the Soviet Union in 1938, Georgian history might have been different. In 1941, however, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and though the Soviets defeated the Nazis, they lost 26 to 27 million Soviet lives in the process. Considering the Soviet Union's sacrifices, as well as its status as WWII victor alongside the United States, it must have been difficult for any country to openly interfere with the Soviet Union post-1945. 

Why does Georgia in particular have such a turbulent history? Although it lacks substantial natural resources outside the disputed area inhabited by Abkhazians, it's an important trade route and now delivers substantial natural gas to the EU. (The contract establishing Georgian payment and obligations for transit of Russian natural gas to the EU is fascinating, even if you're not a lawyer.) Aside from Georgia's competitive "New Silk Road" location, it has excellent wine, beer, and tea, none of which are exported widely for some strange reason.

How does all this affect you, an aspiring world traveler looking for interesting destinations? For its level of infrastructure, Georgia is inexpensive. Hipsters have taken over, gentrification is on its way, and soon Georgia may get its wish and become just like any other boring Western European city. As of today, however, I was stunned by how much beautiful artwork is displayed everywhere and casually so. Take a look at a few pieces I saw while strolling around Tbilisi. 

Mziuri Park
Hey, if a Dunkin' Donuts sign in magical-looking Georgian script isn't art, what is?
Tbilisi's most attractive feature isn't its low prices but its understated cosmopolitanism. While the current American president talks about building walls, Georgians probably love Americans because they told the Soviet Union to tear one down

My favorite bookstore, Prospero's Books and Caliban's Coffeehouse--English majors, commence mental orgasms--is owned by a Russian woman who sells pocket booklets of the U.S. Constitution. I am sitting there now, next to two attractive brunettes who have glossy Russian language magazines on their table. (Do I dare disturb them in a minute?) 

I would tell you much more about Tbilisi, but I can't add anything you can't easily discover yourself once you arrive. An airport ride to the city center should cost no more than 35 lari. There's no Uber, but there is Maxim. Stay near Rustaveli Avenue or Freedom Square--every major museum and tourist attraction is nearby, including the very touristy Meidan Bazaar. Don't miss the G. Leonidze Museum of Georgian Literature, which doesn't have books but does have interesting exhibitions (after seeing one about snipers on the Armenian-Azeri border, I've decided I'll never live near a border) and a cool cafe outside. The Museum's staff-only viewable artwork on the walls are more beautiful than ones in the MOMA. 
Incredible painting. "Pushkin in Tbilisi" by  Lado Gudiashvili.

If you are rich, stay at the Biltmore Hotel (there are two locations--the MoMa design is the new building, but I like the old one on Rustaveli Ave.); otherwise, check out Airbnb or Radisson Blu (also near Rustaveli Avenue) or perhaps the trendy Fabrika Hostel.

See the churches--the most beautiful ones are the Holy Trinity Church (aka Sameba) and Sioni Cathedral. 

Georgian wedding--a common occurrence on weekends.
Find a priest who chants Biblical verses in the ceremony for the full experience.
Mkskheta is a small city close to Tbilisi and easy to visit. Signagi and Svaneti (don't miss tasting/smelling Svanuri marili aka Svan salt!) are popular destinations as well. Batumi is a beach town apparently fun to visit in the summer. 10% of Georgians are Muslims and many reside in Akhaltsikhe (New Castle). If you go to New Castle, Vardzia is nearby. 

When in Tbilisi, walk into the "basement bakeries." Occasionally, you'll see steps leading underground to brick-walled restaurants or stores. I've never been disappointed by any of the commercial basement dwellings I've found. 
Eat khinkhali, khachapuri, and churchkhela with flavored soda (most popular flavor is cream, and it's usually only one lari). At times, it seems Georgian cuisine requires at least two sticks of butter in each dish--I couldn't finish my portions--but at least you won't go hungry. 
Adjarian khachapuri
So what is Georgia, other than eager to forge its place in the world? Imagine a place built by the Soviet Union, infused with hipsterism, yearning to be free like Americans, having a language derived from the Greeks, and being flooded by foreign capital. In short, Georgia's future is not set in stone, and its magical realism won't last much longer. If you want to visit, do it soon so you can see Tbilisi as what Europe ought to be--young, naive enough to believe in America's stated ideals, and doing its best to combine the old with the new.
Update: I just got a sulfur bath, and I feel great. I've had the Turkish hammam experience, but it didn't do much for me. The Georgian sulfur bath is different--your body absorbs some of the sulfur, which, depending on your skin type, will generate some noticeable effect. (My skin felt nice in a way I can't exactly describe.) 

You pay between 35 to 100 lari for a private room, depending on the number of people and the size of the room and bath. If it's just you and a friend, you may pay 35 lari. You can check out the bath before you decide which room you want. Towels and soap costs extra, about 2 lari each. If the water in the bath is too hot, try to adjust it by turning on the cold water tap that goes into the small pool. 
100 lari, high-end sulfur bath. Room next to it had several comfy chairs.
Not the one I used.

You will get your towel, enter the room, lock the door, strip, put on the slippers provided for you, and submerge yourself into the small sulfur pool. You have up to one hour, but half an hour was enough for me. A massage costs extra. (The Georgians claim to have their own massage technique, but they've just tried to copy the Thais.) After you finish sitting and relaxing in the small pool, you will take a shower (if you want soap, remember to buy it beforehand), dress, and leave. You'll probably be quite thirsty. I liked the experience, and I felt more relaxed afterwards.

What should you not do in Tbilisi? Strip clubs. There are two nearby the Rustaveli metro stop, one called Venus and another called Matine(?). I paid 30 lari to enter, and only four women were inside. One of the women sat next to me, and after I confirmed the drink she wanted was only 30 lari, she ordered. I received a bill for 1200 lari, and I had to waste 20 minutes of my time playing dumb until they let me go. (They only let me go when I texted my location to a local Georgian friend. Thank you, WhatsApp.) My Turkish-Arab friend living in Georgia told me some of these places even scam visiting Georgians, and he'd heard of one club threatening a tourist until he paid 400 USD.

Bonus: in April 2018, I ran into the Georgian national wrestling team in Iowa City. Madloba for the photo! 
In Iowa City, Iowa (USA).


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