Tbilisi, Georgia

Saturday, June 22, 2013

In America, the strength of media and lack of American traveling public means that, for many, “Europe” comprises London, Paris, and Rome (along with their respective countries), and little else. Maybe Amsterdam, because, you know, weed is supposed to be, like, legal there. But scarcely more than that. Of course, there are the former Yugoslav and Eastern Bloc nations, which, in the minds of many Americans, are war-torn, strife-laden, utterly corrupt (and still quasi-Communist), mafia-run cesspools to be avoided. Last month, I had the pleasure to go from what is, by far, the wealthiest country in Europe (Norway), to what is arguably one of the poorest, Georgia. Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, in the best of ways, was a shocker, and highlighted the vast differences present on this fabulous, diverse continent.

Tbilisi, less explored and romanticized in media and literature, was mysterious. More or less still shrouded in a post-Soviet mystique, Tbilisi is well off the radars of most. Hell, even the major bank I use, when I called to deactivate anti-fraud alerts for Georgia, Norway, and Turkey, remarked that I was asking for restrictions to be removed from two countries and one (domestic) state. As a tall, foreign, black visitor, I was the subject of much curiosity. I was very humbled and taken aback by the generosity of strangers in Georgia. From the police officers inviting me eat lunch with them; to taxi drivers stopping to find English speakers to help me; to random people smiling, honking their horn, waving; to shopkeepers inviting me to try fruits and nuts; to the more strange and bizarre, such as compliments on my teeth, and people asking if I am from India. Sure enough, I know that I stick out like a sore thumb, but I didn't expect this kind of VIP treatment!

As a whole, Tbilisi is very traditional, with people actively observing local customs and ceremonies to a higher degree than in the other, diverse, big cities of Western Europe. Sweden comes to mind: a country where government officials seem resigned to marginalizing and/or altogether surrendering local traditions in order to appease (the often unskilled and uneducated) Middle Eastern and African immigrant masses. The complete lack of integration, high crime rates, and violent riots in suburban Stockholm (or Paris, or London), perpetuated almost entirely by “youth” of the said ethnic origins, highlights the downside of continued unlimited, no-questions-asked immigration of persons from cultures with dubious compatibility with Western society. Not long ago, a Swedish politician remarked that Sweden should become a “settler country.

It is hard to imagine that the fiercely nationalistic Georgians, Armenians, or Azeris would ever entertain such an idea. Weeks before I arrived, Orthodox priests took part in violent anti-gay protests, shoving crosses through the windows of passenger vans. Georgian protesters remarked that acceptance of gays was a “corrupt Western value” with no place in Georgian society. It goes without being said that there is less of the secular, political correctness found in Western Europe. People, though caring, are very blunt, and in your face, even if not particularly rude. They will tell you if something is on their mind. Fantastic hospitality, though. Georgians will not let you leave without trying their food or wine, both of which are thought of highly. On my last night, while waiting on a shawarma, local youth approached me, calling me “Bob Marley,” offering shots of vodka. After seeing the “chef” smoke while preparing the food (!), I took the kids up on their offer. These days, you really have to go off the grid to find such spontaneous acts of hospitality. In the former Soviet sphere, Georgia is thought of as the Italy of the region, due to its well-developed gastronomy. In fact, Russians still value Georgian wines to be among the best, a position held from Tsarist times, when Georgia provided the official wine for the Royal Court. It is actually said that Georgia was the first country to cultivate wine and engage in viticulture.

In a way, even amid sweeping democratic reforms, far-flung Tbilisi still manages to feel like a place that you are not supposed to be. As a city, it doesn’t particularly cater to visitors. Compared to other cities where tourism is the primary revenue generator – where tourists more or less run the show – Tbilisi feels like a place where tourists a more of a novelty, and you get the feeling as if you are peering in (but not prying, or intruding) on locals’ lives. In the sometimes arrogant jargon of experienced travelers, Tbilisi is a very “authentic” place. From Tbilisi’s charmingly decrepit old town, with its centuries-old buildings and their sagging balconies, often with barely-running Lada’s out front, to its maze of hidden alleyways and pedestrian passageways, and intriguing Orthodox churches, many with priests in all-black flowing robes. To the grand, Stalinist spectacle that is Rustaveli Avenue, with its monumental buildings and scale, many of which flaunt an air of exiled imperial grandiosity. Quality Georgian food, plentiful throughout the city, can be had for a few dollars.

Overall, Tbilisi felt far more “European” than expected. Long, grand boulevards, a Metro system, charming Art-Nouveau apartment blocks, lovely parks and national museums and the like. I suppose Moscow, Minsk, Kiev, or Tashkent – cities that were the subject of ambitious Soviet nation-building experiments– would feel more “Soviet” in appearance and aesthetic. Tbilisi, unscathed by war or natural disaster, and with an assertive national identity and culture, never appears to have been completely subjugated by Moscow. At least not like Minsk, where not only was the city ravaged by War World Two and subsequently rebuilt in a distinctly Soviet style, but where the local language has been duped in favor of Russian, and the government takes pride on having been a part of the USSR. The USSR, as well as modern-day Russia, is a dark, evil, and dirty word to many Georgians, especially in light of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war. On the ride from the airport to Tbilisi, my overly enthusiastic cab driver, while driving 160km/hr on "George W. Bush Blvd" proudly proclaimed in broken English "We [Georgians] hate Russia. F**k Russia!"