Georgian Lessons #1: Expectation Vs. Reality
And so in late April I returned from Georgia, the country not the state. And if you’ve been following The Anadromous Life for a few years you know that I’ve been thinking about Georgia since 2012 as an unusual place culturally that might have a few helpful clues as to how to live in these media soaked, excessively technological times. The big question I had was this, Was Georgia the place I was imaging it to be from my perch up in Alaska half a world away? Music and dance everywhere? Everyone inviting you to supras (the big elaborate meal with toasting, music and too much wine). The answer proved to be ‘yes’ and of course ‘no’ and yet verily ‘yes’ and then some. The view from the internet, from Facebook, from YouTube proved helpful. Ultimately though reality is always different. Always. And yet…
So what did I see? What did I learn? What are the Georgians like? Do they have anything for us? Or are they caught in the same traps we are? (You can read my actual Georgian tour diaries over Gravity From Above, which I highly recommend if you feel like you are getting bit by the Caucasian bug.)
First of all, no, Georgians may sing a lot, but I wasn’t greeted by songs when I landed at the Tbilisi airport at 5am. No one was dancing at the baggage claim. My first few days in Tbilisi were quite frankly bewildering. The air in late March was already muggy. The traffic insanely unregulated. I estimate in a population of 1,100,000 people I only saw four traffic lights. Crossing the street required serious nimbleness. Maybe that’s why they breed such fine dancers. Georgians weren’t exactly what an American would describe as open and friendly. But then again I’ve been convinced for quite a while that American ideal of niceness is often a façade. And I was firmly apprised of the fact that the vaunted and legendary Georgian hospitality isn’t a happy mask. In fact Georgians seem to be very low-key, low-maintenance people on the whole. It isn’t until you actually begin to talk with them that you notice something different.
But in many ways they were like any other people with access to technology. I saw plenty of Georgians staring down into their hands in the now universal gesture of smartphone addiction. Georgians have no secret immunization against television, computers or video games. And yet they do have something that seems points them down a different path. As I began to survey the culture from the capital Tbilisi I began to put a few things together. I purposely didn’t go wandering into the Caucasus Mountains, which I felt I could best save for another trip. I’ve long been suspicious of tourists who have to see everything. Quantity does not matter to me as much as quality. And since I was here to understand the culture, especially its music, dance and puppetry, it was much more important to me to spend time in one place, a place I could begin to understand, Tbilisi, rather than spend a few days here and a few days there. Understanding comes through time. And my goal was to meet Georgians who were involved in their artistic endeavors. And so staying in one place was the way to do that. And since Tbilisi was where much of that happened why go into the mountains too soon? Besides when I showed a few photos of my Alaskan backyard to some Georgians one of them said “I can see why you don’t need to see the mountains.” Indeed I do have mountains to gaze at here in Haines, Alaska.
And then there is this question: What does a person get out of such a place who just spends a few days here? Now I’m a good traveler. I do my homework. I read an awful lot before arriving in Georgia. I bought every DVD I could find on the travel, the culture and history of Georgia. I downloaded every possible relevant documentary on Georgia. I listened to lectures by Donald Rayfield, the longtime expert in Georgians studies and by others. I bought books. I connected with a few Georgians through social media. I wasn’t arriving as casual tourist. And yet I would say this; my first few days their were truly baffling, trying to make sense of the Georgian alphabet, trying to figure out how to get around, attempting to make some sense of things. And I was largely doing basic tourism level events. And so I can’t imagine how a visitor who does little homework could get much at all, except a bit of exoticism, out of a quick experience here. Georgia requires study. There is a touristic zone. But even that isn’t nearly as tourist friendly as say the same much larger zone would be in Paris or Prague. In Tbilisi it’s just one street of about seven blocks and it’s local environs. Not very big at all. The rest of the city is much more about living and working in Tbilisi.
So ‘no’ Tbilisi didn’t extend a warm friendly vibe, at least not as Americans reckon ‘warm and friendly’, which usually means lots of convenient amenities laid out in such a manner that a child could make sense of them. And that was, I found, a good thing. In my entire three weeks in Georgia I overheard American and British English about ten times. But I did hear lots of Russian! And I did overhear a few words of English from what turned out to be Iranian women. Fascinating. I had an informative little conversation with them. I hope that when more Americans do discover Georgia, and given the insatiable needs of distraction in our world they/we eventually will, I hope it’s more like the Rick Steves crowd than the cruise ship industry. Unfortunately it’ll probably be the younger post-hippies, who’ll inevitably bring the spores of contemporary alienation along like fleas. Meanwhile the relative incomprehensibility of Georgia will keep the most obnoxious folks away for a while. Which means that right now it is perfect for the traveler more than the tourist.
Nevertheless when I did manage to find an information office I was met by some of the truly friendliest people I could meet. And here’s where things began to change in my experience in Tbilisi, and it’s the reason why a person should visit. It’s in actually meeting Georgians that you find the real gold in the country. It’s when you begin to cross the line into human connections that you start to find something radically different. The standard tourist experience will produce little except fond memories of the food, crazy moments to remember when you tried to bargain at the Dry Bridge for a soviet era relic, a few sights that might be tainted by the tourism industry. But once you connect to locals? All bets are off. Anything can happen. (Which also happens to be the name of a funny book by George Papashvily about a Georgian immigrant to America in the mid-20th Century.)
So to the adventurous and openhearted I say come. To the politically correct college students looking to reaffirm their rather calcified vision of the world and the tourists who need convenience before all else, I say there are many other places to travel; try Thailand, Amsterdam, Costa Rica. But for those looking for humanity Georgia is the place.
(Georgian Lesson #2 soon!)
You can read about my whole journey to Georgia at my Gravity From Above Site: