Georgian Lessons #10: Georgia Without Blinders
An older woman waiting for a few lari.
As you can tell I like Georgia. I find nourishment in my interactions with the country and its people. Having got to know them better that only increases that strange sense of connection I feel to them. So much so that when I was offered a chance to work and live there I jumped at the chance. (See this story.) But I don’t want to be confused with a tourist who sees the country through a romantic haze of brave mountain men and fairytale women. No I see the reality quite well. I see the damage done to the country by the years of Soviet occupation. I feel the sense of frustration of a people perennially caught between forces much greater than they can possibly be. I feel the layers of impossibility and sense the deals made under tables. I am not blind. Like falling in love, one does not merely take the first impression. As seductive as it might seem from the outside. I have seen the poverty. I have felt the impassivity when confronted by seemingly endless trials. An impassivity bequeathed to all of the victims and collaborators of the Soviet Union. I have felt the same thing in Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. And no doubt it exists in Russia as well. And so this little essay will be a look at some of the features of the country that are certainly problematic. I will try to avoid politcial topics, because I know better than to speak about things I don’t really understand yet. But if I wander into sensitive zones I do ask my Georgian friends to forgive me. I am only thinking out loud about the country I will be living in. And I promise the next essay will be just the opposite.
The two men responsible for destroying public pride behind the Iron Curtain.
The first and most obvious problem in Georgia is poverty. I think anyone landing in Georgia from North America, Western and Central Europe, Australia, New Zealand, certain Asian countries, plus other places that enjoy a fairly high standard of living are going to be smacked in the face when they come across their first older woman begging with a little plastic bucket on the street. In America you only rarely ever will see such a site. Or when you see people standing on a street corner trying to sell a dozen eggs that they brought in from their house that morning. That dozen eggs would hardly bring in a dollar in US currency. This is serious poverty, not fat American poverty, but it is also not starvation poverty. Now there are things you don’t see in this picture. The effects of the failure of the old Soviet system is one of them. But also the fact that Georgian families most often live together – children, parents, grandparents. And so what you are seeing might Just be someone adding a tiny portion to the family income. Also a dollar of American money in Georgia will go a lot farther than it does in the West. I once figured that if my money ran too low I could eat for two dollars a day and still feel fairly full. Nevertheless the poverty is real. And quite sad at times.
Plastic bags in field while Soviet Era apartments rise from Nutsubize Plateau like dark castles.
The next thing to hit you if you start traveling anywhere are the plastic bags floating around. It’s truly sad to see trees and fences catching the blowing debris. And then comes the following question: Why does no one do anything about it? And here we come to the effects of seventy years of communism. The Soviet system ended up by creating two main spheres: the public and the private. Georgians tend to live in the private space. Pre-Soviet Georgia had a rich public space. You can see in the beauty of the older buildings built before the Soviet takeover in 1921. But because of the nature of egalitarian communism the public space was everyone’s responsibility, which meant practically that everything was done by bureaucratic fiat. And if the proper committees and departments did nothing then nothing happened. And if you complained then you got noticed. And getting noticed was NOT something you wanted to happen unless it was for awards. Therefore no one showed initiative in the public space. And while this is beginning to change, there are a few no smoking laws now for instance, the bags are still floating around. But ironically the bags are not an old Soviet problem they are actually a result of modernization. Whenever you shop, everything gets bagged over and over. In other words they are making the transitions from old stern bad service communism to new customer satisfaction capitalism. Now WE, in the West, are doing badly with our plastic bags. But at least there is more of a consensus that you don’t need everything bagged or that you can bring your bags. (Though none of this seems to effect our huge supermarket chains.) But the Georgians are still at the point where they almost insist you take another bag. And thus the nightmare grows.
This is what the Soviets left behind.
And along with this is everything related to recycling. Glass, plastic bottles, paper, it all gets throw into the same garbage dumpsters. I’m told there is a tiny bit of recycling in Tbilisi. But the waste? Staggering. And people genuinely don’t know what to do about it. There are some grassroots efforts but they are a long way off still. Which then brings us to the most obvious and dangerous two problems in Tbilisi.
A few cars late at night in Tbilisi.
Pollution and traffic, which are inextricably linked. While the pollution is not near Beijing levels, it isn’t good. One friend with a child told me she worried what the effect would be on her daughter. Part of the problem goes back to the poverty issue. Georgians can’t afford expensive new cars. So most of the cars are shipped in from other countries like Germany and Japan, countries who don’t like to drive old used cars, or even have laws against doing so. I’ve never seen so many Mercedes in one place outside of Germany. And these are all used diesel chugging beasts, often dark exhaust streaming out of the tailpipes. And then there are the Japanese cars. And did you realize that, like the British, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. Which means you have Georgians driving in the right lanes in left hand vehicles, misjudging the distances. I saw one car turn a corner hit a trash dumpster hard and keep on driving. Of course his steering wheel was on the wrong side. And traffic is another serious problem. I am not looking forward to driving in Georgia. I probably will someday. Fortunately I do understand the metro and bus systems. While the marshrutkas remain completely confusing to me. I will eventually graduate to taxis. (I rode in one that was a Japanese car. Unnerving.) Fortunately there does seem to be some political will to deal with some of the pollution and the Japanese cars are supposed to stop coming in… though there are still too many of them.
Which buildings don’t fit with traditional cityscape?
Another more truly modern problem is the new architecture. And that is connected with the desire to catch up with with the times. Always a bad idea. I’m told that had certain powers had their way that much of charming Old Tbilisi would have been torn down and replaced by bad postmodern architecture. You can see some of this on display already. People complained loudly. And much was saved. Or at least granted a stay of execution. And yet if one looks at monstrosities like the Biltmore Hotel (the large ugly spike in the middle of the city), which at least was talked into saving their Rustaveli Avenue facade, or the new Tbilisi Galleria Mall, one can imagine the pseudo Singapore or Dubai that was envisioned. The Georgians, who are quite proud of their country, need to realize that they should restore the unique glory of their country, their traditional modes of architecture are quite stunning, worthy of emulation. And worthy of updating. They don’t need another postmodern building shaped like a dog bone. They need to work on eliminating the worst aspects of their Soviet heritage and live with pride in a cleaner country. With work and effort I could see Georgia looking more like Switzerland a few decades down the road. (Not as clean obviously but who can be as clean as the Swiss?)
The temptations of hyper-modernity.
I’m told that one man in another city was so tired of the litter that ended up in his yard that, after cleaning his yard over and over and yet always finding more trash, he finally put a Georgian cross up in his lawn, effectively saying this is holy ground. Georgians still respect Christian things even when they aren’t Christians. The litter stopped over night. A creative solution.
As far as the architectural pollution goes that’s a much more elaborate problem. Georgians don’t need to copy other cultures bad taste. Postmodern architecture has done very little for anyone. Georgians are a vastly creative people. They can find unique answers to their own problems.
And when visitors come then they will feel even more of what I feel when I come to this special and unusual place.
And what makes it such a meaningful place to me? It’s the people I meet and conversations I have with them. But I’ll have to discuss that next time. Come back.