So, I wanted to write a bit more about my thoughts on trains and on life in Georgia. On travelling to school by metro every morning I often wonder how my impressions of Georgia have changed over time, and what thoughts my friends will have when they visit from the UK in the summer. What first impressions will they have of Georgia, will they feel safe, or will they have this impression that Georgia is in the Middle East and a dangerous place?? What will they think of the people when they see them, and of life in general??
On my way to school, I see people who wear dark colours, generally black, and sometimes ‘unusual’ combinations of clothes, which seem to be perfectly acceptable and the norm in Georgia. People don’t smile, and it no longer bothers me that people stand and stare at me most of the time, totally oblivious to the fact that I can actually see them!! Sometimes, complete strangers come up to me and invite me to their house to meet their family and for supra, because they have heard me speaking in English. Sometimes, old ladies chatter away to me, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I have absolutely no idea what they are rambling on about. I love taking the metro, there is always something interesting to observe or some new experience. I wonder how times have changed, from Soviet times, through war times, especially when I see older people on the tube (ha, I just realised that I called the metro the ‘tube’, I am still attached to my British roots!!). I wonder where they are all from? Unlike London as a city, most people in the capital are from villages, and return to them during the holidays. Its rare to find someone who is actually FROM Tbilisi, and many people have summer homes or apartments elsewhere, in Moscow, Batumi, or in the Mountains for example.
Peace Corps Volunteers
Sometimes when I catch the metro, I will see a big group of people in combat gear and big black boots, and karki caps. One would be forgiven for thinking that these are soldiers on a mission for something negative like war. Throughout the city you will see one or two men in combat gear, looking military and formal. But, they are in fact Peace Corps Volunteers from America, and they have been in Georgia for a long time, even before the Ministry project began. They are doing great works, and all in good spirit, nothing to do with the military or with war. But, as a foreigner to Tbilisi, it would be easy to think the worst of the country based on this sight.
Tourists are Arriving!
Recently, I have even found myself staring at people on the metro. Tourists are starting to arrive, in ones or twos, not many, but they really do stick out like a sore thumb. Last week there was a couple, from America, and they were wearing bright yellow jackets and looked so different from the typical Georgian face or colours. In fact, it wouldn’t even surprise me if they were here to visit a son or daughter who was teaching here as part of the Ministry’s project!! Georgia is like that. Everyone knows everyone!! It really doesn’t feel like a city at all, but more of a big village really. Its hard not to stare, and I have been brought up with people of different colour skin, of different clothes, and so on, so I can’t even imagine how strange it must be for a Georgian person who has never met a native English speaker or person from a different ethnicity. I understand now, why people stare so much, and why people are so shy and nervous about speaking English in front of a native speaker, like meeting an alien from another planet! I no longer see people as being rude when they stare at me, but more that they are curious. Just because it is rude to stare in my culture, sometimes curiosity is hard to ignore…..hence the expression, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ I guess!
The Art of Chivalry
In general, people are not rude on the metro. There is no concept of order, of standing aside or walking on one side so that it is easier for traffic to flow. People just walk wherever the mood takes them! But, every day, I am still surprised how people will give up their seat for someone who is older than them, for females, for people with children, for guests. At first, I was embarrassed when young men gave up their seat for me, and it took me a long time to realise that arguing against this gesture was a very British thing to do, and that it was easier to just accept and say thank you. But, I don’t have the developed social skills for this, and slowly I am learning how to behave in this situation. In my culture, I might even be offended if someone gave up their seat for me, because it would mean that they saw me as weak or inferior to them, that I needed to sit down! But it seems to be something that all generations do on the metro, and is a nice trait that the men have.
Sometimes I have noticed that people treat each other like family, and take responsibility for each other. When I have been to the theatre, I have seen people telling off other people’s children, patting their heads, and I have seen old ladies on the metro tutting and shaking heads because a younger female is wearing clothes that they consider to be less than appropriate. In Britain, we might think these things, but we wouldn’t air them in public, and certainly not to the person’s face. But the young people seem to have a respect for the older generations still. Most days I see ladies, old, young, with children, or gypsies, begging on the metro. In Britain we don’t often give to these people, and we look down on them, but in Georgia people will give their change to them. People do not like the gypsies it seems, but other people they seem happy to help.
Stalin and Churchill
When I visited the Stalin Museum in Gori over the weekend, it was really interesting to visit the carriage of Stalin’s train. Unlike such things in the UK, nothing was fenced off and you could walk around and touch everything if you wanted, under supervision, but still pretty free, but well maintained. I have never studied history, and I admit to knowing very little about Stalin, but it was still fascinating to see the carriage and conference room, and tea earm on the train. I wondered how many cups of tea were made in this earn, how many times he had shaved his beard in the steel sink, how many times he had glanced at the clock in his room. What must it have felt like to travel across Georgia and beyond by train?? It was a real and physical link to history, to something that can often feel intangible and obscure. I can’t wait to bring tourists here in the summer, and to learn more about Georgia’s history and culture. It was strange to think that a town like Gori had created and was part of this man’s character and upbringing. And despite everything that he did, good or bad, the people of Gori are still proud that they are a part of Stalin’s life, and that they still have the utmost respect for him. Or at least, that is the impression that was given.
Driving around Georgia, I am always really interested in the rail network, and how it compares to rail around the world. There is something magical about railway journeys, how they were built across places that often seem impossible to pass, and how they can link countries and people together, like the past and the future. I can’t wait to see more of Georgia by train. To take my camera with me, and to meet different people on my journeys. Its the same on the metro, and I hope to one day, travel further around the city than just to and from school. I have a crazy dream to sit up front with the metro driver and to travel all over Tbilisi, and to learn more.
Another Close Shave!
Its the same in London, but in Georgia there is still the novelty factor, because its foreign to me, and because I know little about Soviet history and so forth. Many people just travel on the tube in London, and perhaps don’t realise the history and ties to world events. I guess part of my attachment is because of the London bombings, and how the mere fact of getting on or of a train at one particular moment in time can mean the difference between life and death, and can change your life forever. Whilst I was taking a GAMSAT preparation course at Imperial University in London, before I took my medical school entrance exams, I took the train from London Paddington to Henley On Thames, via Reading. I had a headache, so I decided to leave my course earlier that day, maybe half an hour or so earlier, that was all. That day there was a large rail crash, and it was another of my near misses!! If I hadn’t of had a headache that day I would have been involved in that train crash. That was the only day that I left my course early!!!
The London Underground or ‘Tube’
Many people perhaps do not realise that the London Underground is one of the oldest metro systems in the world. That there are some 40 stations which are closed and are not on the tube map now, but are like little time capsules, with posters on the walls from times when they were last used. These are called ghost stations, and many people do not notice that they travel through them when they are on the train. A few years ago, a body was found at one of these stations, and it had been there for over ten years, without anyone knowing anything about it! This body was then taken to the hospital for forensic analysis so that an identification could be made from dental records and a computer generated image of the face could be made to see if anyone recognised who this person was. During the war, people slept in the underground stations during the air raids, singing songs and supporting each other.
Many people died building the underground, and electricity was not used to light the tunnels when they were built in the 1920s. There are so many shafts and tunnels still. During the war, Winston Churchill held meetings in special rooms underground, and these remain there today, with maps and leather chairs still in tact. At the Stalin Museum, we saw photos of Churchill and Stalin together, and I wonder whether Stalin knew of these special rooms under the city?? Brompton Road station was also the anti aircraft attack centre, and many meetings took place here. I am sure that the Tbilisi metro has similar stories to tell, and I would love to know more.