On Social Life in Georgia

    On Social Life in Georgia

Now, I am no Tara Palmer Tomkinson, nor do I have any desire to become an ‘it’ girl, or social flower, but there is a certain loveliness about being a guest in Georgia, particularly as a foreigner. I realised yesterday, whilst having coffee with my school principal and a few of my teacher friends, that I have really become quite adept at turning down invitations to social events, and there is quite an art and balance to protecting one’s ‘I vant to be alone’ time (that is a deliberate spelling mistake by the way, it’s a line from a Viscount in a chocolate add or film, but I forget which).

I have adapted to life in Georgia pretty well I think, but at heart I am still a westerner, and I like to nurture and protect any chance of alone time when it happens, a concept that is sometimes quite alien to Georgians who worry that one will be lonely. Most Georgians do not like to be alone, and if you are having a coffee alone, they will come and sit with you just to keep you company, even if they are busy.

I realised this week that I have had barely any time to myself for a number of weeks, and even with no plans, time suddenly disappears and you find that you have spent all of your time attending spontaneous social events, sometimes with complete strangers. I am not complaining about this, in fact I love it, and it makes every day unique and interesting, but it has occurred to me just how much of an art it is to try and protect one’s time, whilst also not causing offence. Its is something that many new volunteers really struggle with, especially when they first arrive in Georgia, from homes where they have their own room and may not see another person for hours, but in Georgia suddenly have their every move reported back to their family. In my first school, I felt like the pied piper, being followed by curious children everywhere I went, even going to the toilet was impossible, because there were no toilet doors and the kids wanted to know what foreigners do. And if I went to the shop and bought a bar of chocolate, news would travel back to my host family and they would ask why I bought chocolate when they would have bought it for me! It’s a stark contrast between my life in the village and now in the Capital, but you get the picture.

I have spent the entire week, politely turning down offers for this weekend, because I wanted to have no plans for once. I have turned down invites to travel around Georgia, to see churches, to visit the sea, to attend an art gallery, a new club, to go for coffee, supra, and so on. My life has been pretty surreal since arriving in Georgia, and as a foreigner, its like everyone wants to invite you to their home, or for you to meet their family, and everyone wants to show you how beautiful their homeland of Georgia is. As a kid, I couldn’t even get my parents to take me to school, but now I am being taken everywhere, and have an amazing social life, with no worries about transport, or money, because I know that Georgians love hosting guests and love to take care of everything. Even on the metro, people come up to me and invite me to their homes and to meet their family, and it seems that the more people you know, the more invites you get. In London, I never once met any of my neighbours, and I never gave eye contact or smiled at anyone on the street or on the metro, and I certainly always avoided any kind of social interaction with colleagues from the hospital, and people hated the annual ‘Christmas do’ where we would have to make polite conversation (or ‘small talk’) and sit with our bosses and try not to get drunk or lose our job.

But, its not just about being invited out or having a big social network. Its more to do with the lifestyle and the normal structure of daily Georgian life and expectations. For example, I am a night bird, and I am terrible in the mornings. My best time for being productive and for being sociable is between midnight and three in the morning. It doesn’t matter what routine I have or what time I go to bed, I am always the same, and have been the same way since the day I was born. My grandmother’s natural body clock is the total opposite to mine. She is most productive in the morning and likes to be in bed by midnight at the latest, as with many Brits. This has always caused me some conflict, and is the thing that we fought most about when I went to stay with her for my Christmas break from Georgia. You should also take into consideration that on my visit, I was still 4 hours ahead of her with the time difference between the UK and Georgia. I wanted to stay up past midnight, and I did not want to be getting up at 6am every day, plus it was my holiday, I was recovering from an illness, and I had nothing planned for the day, and had no money to go anywhere or to do anything. If I stayed up past eleven, we would fight because it was a waste of electricity and lighting, and why didn’t I just get up earlier, instead of 8am, then I wouldn’t need to stay up so late!!!!

I have spent my life at odds with my family over this difference in time and body clock, and as an adult, I loved to work night shifts in the hospital, because suddenly I found a time where I performed at my best, and when others around me were struggling against their own body clocks. I also loved working on film productions and starting work at 3am, because it was a natural time for me to get up and to be at work. I hate days when you come home from a long day at work and don’t have chance to speak to your friends or family, and where life is constrained by time and your watch. I would always fight with my grandmother over mealtimes, especially when I worked night shifts, because I would be getting up and eating my breakfast at a time that she considered to be lunchtime, and whilst she wanted dinner at 6pm or 7pm, the normal time for me was 7pm or 8pm, otherwise I would be starving come 10pm. What is wrong with eating when you are hungry? Since when did the clock become the boss of me?

But in Georgia, I feel that my lifestyle is more similar to Georgians, and it is funny now to hear from other volunteers how they are struggling with this same thing that has been the bane of my life in the UK. In my three host families, no one has ever gone to bed before 2am, and no one is good in the mornings. My kids are often late for school or tired in the mornings, and it suits me well, because I am never fully awake for the first lesson, nor are the kids. In England, the shops open at 9am and close at 5pm in general, and are always closed on Sunday because it is a ‘day of rest’ because that is the day that people traditionally go to church, and you cannot buy alcohol until a set time in the day on Sundays.

In Georgia, its sometimes hard to find a shop that opens before 10am, and most shops open late, as do cafes and restaurants, often until 7pm. It would be unheard of for someone in the UK to invite you out for a coffee on a Sunday after 4pm, because for one, most places would be closed, and for two, Sunday evening is traditionally bath night and homework night and getting yourself prepared for the week ahead. We don’t like to do things in the week ‘on a school night’ because we have work the next day, and could lose our job if we have alcohol in our system or we are not on form, and it is generally not socially acceptable to attend such things in the week. Not so in Georgia! Here, I am no longer surprised when I get a call at 7 or 8pm on a Sunday with an invite for a coffee, which invariably leads to a supra at someone’s house afterwards, or to go out for dinner, or to a party or something.

In Britain, the last order for drinks in a pub is 11pm, sometimes midnight, but in Georgia, people are still in full swing socially, and are catching up on the day’s news with family and friends. Sunday is the busiest day socially in Georgia, and whilst weekends are the only time of the week when the metro is ‘quiet’ in the UK, Saturdays and especially Sundays are the busiest days on the metro in Georgia, far busier than in the week. It’s the one day that you will see people out and about, especially so early in the day.

I love that the flower shops on my street are open past midnight, as are most corner shops or ‘Populis’, because people need to pick up biscuits, chocolates, or flowers, or whatever on the way to visiting their friends’ homes. This is not the case in the UK, when everyone is safely tucked up in bed, and preparing themselves for another day at work!

    Food is a Constant Source of Pleasure and Pain in my life in Georgia.

Food is a constant source of both pleasure and pain in my life in Georgia. If its something I like, then its like being in heaven, but if its something I don’t like, its more akin to being in hell. Recently, and now I know more Georgian people, and am attending more supras and the likes, this has become a little more of an issue, but I have also become better at saying no and standing firm.

Its not unusual these days, for me to find that I have had three dinners, one after the other. I will eat dinner, and then unexpectedly be invited out for dinner, I will go, and during dinner, be invited to someone’s house, where you are again given dinner. As a Brit, its hard for me at times because I feel that I am being so rude, and really abrupt when I am saying no (Brits are brought up to be diplomatic, and no is not in our vocabulary), but equally it is about self preservation, and I no longer feel so guilty for refusing food or cha cha or whatever. The thing is, that the people who invite you to such events, often do not eat anything, or have not had the two meals that you have had before arriving, so they do not understand why you might refuse their food. Yet they will not eat anything either, but they want you to feel at home, and will tell you that they are worried because you are not eating. At first, this was socially a challenge to me as a Brit, because the last thing I want is for a complete stranger to be worried about me, or to have ‘slaved over a hot stove’ for me to be so ungrateful and not eat something. It’s a strange thing to hear, because in Britain we do not talk about or share our emotions, and we would rarely tell someone we were worried about them, so it’s a highly charged sentiment when one hears it in Georgia, even though it is not meant in this way. Its akin to someone telling you they think you are anorexic because you will not eat their food, when actually you feel like your belly is about to pop because you have eaten three meals of food which is alien to your stomach, which you have eaten out of politeness, even if you disliked the food!!!

Its more of a quirk of the British than of the Georgians, but its something that many volunteers have to quickly get to grips with. Fortunately, most of my friends understand that I am not a massive fan of Georgian food now, and I no longer feel bad having to justify or ward off requests to ‘chame, chame’ (eat, eat). My family in the UK don’t understand my predicament with this, and they think that Georgian people are selfish in forcing their guests to eat, especially when they don’t like something. But, its difficult to explain to them, that their reasoning is British and as Brits we never tell someone to eat, and we never draw attention to eating or food during a meal, because it is considered to be rude. Instead, we will just complain about them once they have left, that they were a ‘pig’ and ate too much or ‘ate us out of house and home’ or that they had second helpings. Or that they were a fussy eater and didn’t even touch our trifle, so we are not inviting them over again. Maybe that they ate the food and gave no intellectual conversation throughout the meal, or that they were too arrogant and brash and opinionated. Or that we didn’t like the way in which they ate, that they had no control over their knife and fork, or used the wrong knife, or didn’t put their glass on the coaster provided, that they said they didn’t like our food. Maybe they said they liked our wine, but we thought it was awful, or that they like dour wine a little too much. The British love to complain, and its impossible to please them, no matter what you do. To your face they will always give an air of contentment, but behind closed doors they will rip you to shreds! We say that Americans are loud and rude, but its because they will tell you what they are thinking, not just hide it….I wonder where Georgians are on this scale??

There was an interesting article in the BBC this week about the cultural differences between the British and the Germans, take a look if you get a chance…..

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13545386

    Turtle Lake and a New Café

Now the weather is nicer, I have taken a leaf out of the Georgian people’s book, and am enjoying my evening walks around Turtle Lake. Its not my favourite place in the world, and is a little too busy for my liking, but its pleasant all the same, and a great place to relax and chat with friends of an evening. The views of Tbilisi (Tiflis) from here are amazing, and the lights of the night are beautiful. In the summer you can swim in the lake, and because its on the top of a mountain, its much cooler than the heat of the city below, and the cool breeze is really welcomed. The walk around the lake is marked at intervals, and so it’s a popular place for joggers and dog walkers, with the route around the lake being exactly 1000m. It’s a place full of couples walking arm in arm, for small children, and especially, it seems, for pregnant ladies who look ready to pop. It’s a well known tradition according to the Georgian ladies, for them to walk around the lake whilst pregnant, because they believe that the exercise and air is good for both baby and mum. In fact, I probably saw more pregnant ladies here, than in my whole time in the maternity unit! Its also a great place to sit and drink coffee, sit on a bench eating popcorn, and sharing your spills with any stray dog, and also for people watching and spotting the socialites of the city. In just one evening by the lake, I saw a top fashion designer, an actor from America, a Minister, and a film director! And the nice thing, was that no one bothered them or gave them a second glance. A stark contrast to Britain where anyone remotely famous gets hassled by paparazzi who want to see how they look without their make up on, or whatever.

It’s a noisy place by night, full of frogs croaking and people chattering and laughing, and if you walk to the viewpoint, you will find half of the teenage population of the city making out. But it’s a great place, and I am looking forward to coming here and sitting with friends, with my dog relaxing by my side.

This week, as well as my usual coffee shop haunts and eateries, I also discovered several new places this week, but I want to tell you about two of them. I have probably been to more coffee shops and eateries in the past five months since I arrived in Tbilisi than I have ever been to in my whole life, but I love this kind of research!

The first coffee shop, was complete escapism, but sadly I forgot to take the name of the place, but I highly recommend it. The cafe is in Sabartalo district, close to Polyteknikuri metro station, and across the road from restaurant Nikola. It’s akin to a quaint English teashop, mainly selling coffee and cakes, but looking more like something from an Ikea catalogue or feature in the American magazine ‘Architectural Digest’. Its painted in neutral colours, with hufhaus or artdeco style furniture and bright rugs and pictures, and is split into two floors, one of which is a mezzanine. The walls are packed from floor to ceiling with shiny new books, and large coffee tble books with beautiful pictures, and there are ladders to reach the higher shelves. The bottom floor is selling books, and the second floor is a library, but on the bottom floor you can eat and drink and look through the books (many of them in English), just as if you were sitting in a friend’s home. Its not as clinical or cold as Prosperos on Rustaveli, and is much more snugly, and perfect for a rainy day or lazy Sunday afternoon.

It reminded me very much, of my days in London, hanging out with Investment Bankers in the local Starbucks or local coffee place. On a Sunday, with people free from their black suits and stress, and wearing loose and colourful clothing, relaxing with a coffee and reading a novel all day, from their cosy and soft furnished chair.

It would be hard to say whether this was more of a library, or a café, or a book store, or a friend’s house, but the atmosphere was very laid back, and you would be forgiven for thinking that their were no staff serving here and no tills to make payments. In fact, the owners were themselves sitting in a corner and chatting with friends, and the till was hidden under a pile of books. The cakes looked wonderful, large and colourful, with traditional English Victoria sponge cakes with cream and jam fillings, and a good selection of coffee, which actually tasted good by western standards, not just by Georgian standards, and were not too expensive. A coffee was about 3GEL, was hot and freshly made, and well presented, with quirky little cups and saucers. The place was very clean, but not sterile, and the glass frontage gave a nice light to the place. The cakes were kept under individual glass domes, and its definitely a place I would pop into again if I were passing, although I am still a fan of my favourite haunt close to school coffee.ge because this is my ‘local’. In fact, I should probably write a credit in my ‘Batumi’ book to coffee.ge for all the coffee’s I have drunk since I have been working on my projects there, and using their wireless internet!!

My second featured café this week is called ‘Canape’ and is close to my school. It has more of a Parisian feel to it, and very much reminded me of my time in Paris. It had a really good menu, with some traditional Georgian dishes, but also a good selection of steaks, crepes, vegetables, and fruit dishes like pears in sauce. The décor was very nice, and there is a terrace out the front where you can eat if a place becomes available. The food was very good, but it still felt a little Georgian, in that what you ordered what not necessarily what you had imagined it would be! For example, I ordered a sausage baguette. To me this would consist of something like a French bread stick, filled with round meat or sausages. But this was not what I received, instead it was more like a meat wrap. It was still very delicious, but sometimes eating out in Georgia is always a bit of an adventure, because the bridge between what you think you have ordered and what you actually receive is two entirely different things!!!

I will give you a couple of examples. Prior to moving to Tbilisi, I was visiting and went out for Indian food with a group of friends and volunteers. I was delighted to see that there was chicken korma on the menu, and since I didn’t fancy too much spice, I thought a korma would be good, and was dreaming about eating it. What arrived, was as far from a korma as you could imagine! No coconut milk in the ingredients, no chicken, and it was ridiculously spicy. When I told them that they had sent me the wrong dish, they were annoyed, and sent it back to the kitchen, bringing back exactly the same plate and dish that I had just sent back. Customer service is generally very lacking in Georgia, and can be really frustrating at times. My food had already been the last to arrive, as there is no concept f dishes arriving together or of people wanting to eat at the same time (this would drive a group of Brits nuts, because we never start to eat until everyone has their dish, and we hate to eat food that has gone cold), and everyone had almost finished by the time it arrived the first time. Ordinarily I would not have complained, because it is not the British way, but this was too hot for me, and was almost 20 or 30GEL, and was simply not what I had ordered. In any other country, this would be covered under the ‘Trades Description Act’, and I could have sued the restaurant for false advertising. They tried to tell me that I did not know what a korma was, and when I refused to pay since I had not eaten it and it was not what I wanted, it was extremely awkward. When I met the Georgian chef, I explained to him that I had lived in India and eaten in Bradford in the UK and knew how to cook Indian food, and that the main ingredient in this dish was coconut milk, he seemed to realise that I actually did know what I was talking about, particularly when I used my phone to do a google search for ‘korma’. We settled amicably, but it was an awkward situation, in which I was surrounded by mostly Americans who said that I should complain. I will be visiting this restaurant again on Monday evening for the first time since then, so we will see what happens!!! The food was pretty tasty there on the whole, but it is always disappointing in Georgia to not receive what you expect, and then to be fobbed off and treated like an idiot, because they want to hide their mistake. There is no concept here of ‘the customer is always right’!

On another occasion, I went to a café and ordered a cappuccino as did my colleague who was Georgian, and we were both taken aback by what we received, and which neither of us finished. To me a cappuccino, is hot, is coffee, has milk in it, and chocolate sprinkles on the top. What we received, came in a tall glass, was cold black coffee on the bottom, and inches thick cream on the top, with a straw, and no chocolate in sight! Apart from which, the coffee tasted burnt. I am no barrista when it comes to coffee, but one would think that even an idiot could not go wrong with cappuccino!!!! It was amusing though, and was a good talking point during our meeting (an interview!). But I am happy that I learnt long ago, to ALWAYS expect the unexpected in Georgia, because whatever your concept, Georgians will still surprise you, and it makes every occasion a mini adventure, not knowing what you will receive when you place your order, even in McDonalds!

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About Sarah Rows Solo

British YouTuber and Founder of Environmental and STEM education charity Oceans Project, preparing for a solo row around the coast of Great Britain.
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