It has to be said, that the little country of Georgia is probably not the number one spot on your average traveller’s hit list of must see destinations. In fact, most people, when questioned, have never even heard of Georgia. If they have, then they usually think it is in either America, or Russia, or they associate it with war and civil unrest and corruption thanks to a lot of bad press. The latter was true in earlier years, but now Georgia is a little hidden gem, still a way off the traveller’s beaten track….but I wonder how long this secret will be kept hidden?
I had no idea where Georgia was, or what to expect of it when I first came here. I was bored of my medical career, was mid 30s, and in need of a change in my life. I had done a little teaching before I entered a medical career of some 17 years, and wondered whether there might still be a teacher hidden inside me somewhere, after all, I came from a long line of teachers (and funeral directors, so the medical career was also very appropriate!). There is a bit of a joke in my home country of Britain, all the fault of the government and some crafty advertising campaign that coined the slogan ‘those who can, teach’ which is generally laughed at as any one who gets a degree and can’t find a job, then goes on to do a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) in order to get their ‘Golden Hello’, a financial incentive of some £5000 from the government after one year as a teacher, before getting a ‘better’ job. As kids we generally hate teachers and to become a teacher is not very cool, despite the good salary (more than I would ever have earnt as a Junior Doctor, and for far less hours and student debt!) and government subsidised housing and relatively good pensions, and of course… the long holidays and weekends.
Ironically, I actually spent all of my childhood wanting to be a teacher, and tirelessly gained as much teaching experience as I could, helping in my local school, bossing all my friends around, and volunteering as a Cub, Scout, and Venture Scout Leader. I even went to Hungary and taught English in a summer school, and began a course in Environmental Science and Outdoor Studies with Primary School Education, before the course failed its OFSTED government inspection, and I ended up getting a job in an outdoor education centre (my dream job), where I taught disabled and disadvantaged young people how to overcome the challenges in their lives, built them up, promoted team work, problem solving, and got them out of doors (I’m definitely one of those people who suffers from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder if kept indoors too long!). We took people in wheelchairs climbing, caving, abseiling, canoeing, and mountaineering, and it was probably the most amazing job that I have ever had, working with the coolest people I have ever met. It set the precedent for the rest of my life, and I don’t think I have ever found another environment or job that quite matches that daily sense of satisfaction. I stayed there for quite a few years, but I knew that one day I would get old and would no longer be able to spend my days in freezing cold water and being so active, and I still wanted more from my career as I needed something to work towards, and this couldn’t be the top of my profession already.
It was at this time that I started my degree in Psychology with the Open University and was also training with a mountain rescue team. I met lots of people with acquired brain injuries, and it just fascinated me on so many levels. I wondered why some children are born with full cognitive ability, and why some are not, and I loved coming up with ways of helping children to overcome the issues or difficulties they were facing. Most of all, I was intrigued by how a person could become another person, just from having a knock to the head. And so, my career as a Neuropsychologist began, taking me to London and India, and into the realms of developmental neuropsychology.
It was like all the great things about being a teacher, but with some neuroscience and medicine involved, as well as some detective work. I got into forensic developmental neuropsychology, trying to work out whether a person committed a crime because of some damage to their neurons due to being born premature, and it was a very strange position to be in. We were defending murderers based on some tiny brain anomaly, which may or may not, actually be present in half of the world’s ‘normal’, non murdering population. A very tricky area ethically and very fascinating. I did a lot of work in forensic neuropsychology and working on psychiatric wards, and I came to realise that the loveliest people in the world were generally murderers and the ones who were horrid and complicated were generally the staff I worked with. But, then a murderer was never going to lure someone to their death if they were not personable and sweet! I undertook some work experience as a Journalist when I was at school, every young person has to spend a certain number of weeks on work experience, to get them ready for leaving school…character building I think they call it! More like a little holiday for the poor teachers if you ask me! Anyway, as part of my Journalism experience, I got to spend every day in court and writing up brief articles which got published in the local paper. So I was ready for the fact that, in life, the nice people are generally the ones to look out for! We saw little old ladies in the dock, sweet things, and we saw horrible looking yobs too, but the ones who had committed the worst crimes were always the sweet little old ladies. A far cry from the children’s stories we all grow up with, where Red Riding Hood is good, Grandma is good, and the wolf is the baddy and where good inevitably overcomes evil.
That is probably why I admired Film Director Guillermo del Toro so much, the first time I met him at the NFT in London, at a preview of his film (one of my favourites) ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. I spent ages chatting to him after the preview and could have spoken to him non stop for several months. A really fascinating guy, who grew up in a strict catholic community in Mexico and whose father was kidnapped. We spent a long time talking about monsters and storytelling, and it was refreshing to meet another person who had the same sense that the people that we often think of to be the monsters, are usually not the monsters at all, and that often appearances can be deceiving. What we are afraid of is usually innocent, it is not fantasy that is frightening, but reality. And I love how this theme really comes across in the film so well. If you haven’t seen it, then I would highly recommend it, though its not one of your feel good, happy ending type films, so get rid of any notion of that straight away! I also love this film because everyone told Guillermo not to make the film in his native language and that he should make it in English, but he decided to stick to his guns and make it in Spanish, and then it went on to do really well as a film, winning lots of awards. That has to be a tough call as an up and coming film maker, when you have to go to others for funding and finance and the outcome could depend on whether or not the film you made works and has an audience or not, especially when you are not targeting a main stream audience! The third reason why I have so much respect for Guillermo, is that he started making films at the age of 8 years old, and now runs film festivals for new and younger film makers. He had a passion for it, and he followed his dreams. I only have one wish in relation to Guillermo, and that is that I would have loved to see at least one of the Harry Potter films with him as the Director. I can imagine how dark the last film in particular would have been, a great film, but likely not for all ages of audience, but a great film all the same! So, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Emma Watson in his next film, and I’m curious to see Emma take on a new role away from that of all out good girl Hermione Granger.
I miss working in the film industry, something else I was doing prior to coming to Georgia, and something that I was worried about losing connections with when I first arrived here. So, you can imagine how happy I was when I came across a Georgian Film Director who happened to be filming in both LA and Georgia, and I was even more excited when I got a reply from him and the chance to work with him quite a lot since coming here. He is another up and coming movie maker. He knew from an early age that he wanted to make movies, but Georgia being what it was at that time, he had little opportunity, until, at the age of 30 he had the chance to go to LA to study film making. His first film was a great success, and he has worked on numerous productions since then, taking his last oneto Cannes Film Festival, always pushing his boundaries and experience and learning everything he can. There is little film industry in Georgia, or rather, there is a film industry, but not one with such high standards as in the UK or USA. With the exception that is, of Nikoloz Khomasuridze, who, like me, has high aspirations for his career and for the future of young Georgians and Georgia as a country. I have yet to meet a Georgian who does not love their country, and understandably so, despite the lack of infrastructure and bad habits which are slowly changing and creating a more up to date and vibrant Georgia.
So, in May 2011, I had a little idea, which grew and grew, and has now become something quite crazy and also ridiculously fulfilling in terms of my own sense of making a difference and leaving just a little legacy for the world for after my demise. I was massively inspired by my film experience and meeting the cast of BBC Oceans and one of my heroes Paul Rose, and suddenly I was able to combine all of my interests in one neat package. Oceans Project Georgia was born. I live and breathe this project now, and I still can’t quite believe how I got to the place I am now, and really in such a short space of time. When I thought about coming to Georgia, I never ever imagined life would be as it is now, nor that I would have found myself to be fulfilled in so many unexpected ways or surrounded by some of the kindest and most hospitable people on the planet.
I love working with Nikoloz, and was incredibly happy when he agreed to come and work on Oceans Project Georgia, teaching the young people on my project how to make movies. And more than that, giving them the courage and permission to go ahead and believe in themselves and follow their dreams, and being a fantastic role model for them. Its not easy of for either of us. We are both busy with our projects, he on his big budget ‘A list’ celebrity movie ‘Jeans Generation’ which has been more than 18months in the planning so far, with funds still to raise, and me with my Oceans Project, desperately trying to get the funds that we need to grow and to become a fully fledged charity. And the two of us also trying to raise some $10,000 so that the Project kids can make their short movie called ‘You’re a Human’. Based on a true story about an Earthquake that took place in Armenia and set to put Tbilisi in a new light which will make others see why I think Georgia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But it doesn’t matter to either of us, how tough life is or how much work we have to put in, as working with these kids and seeing them blossom and bloom is just the biggest buzz ever, and its a great feeling to think that somewhere amongst them, a new Nikoloz or Guillermo, or Spielberg is emerging, and one day, we will be able to say that we had a part to play in their destiny and success. And that is what teaching is all about too. About finding a little spark in there somewhere, and igniting it, and using the bellows to make it burn brightly, and to go on to achieve great things for others. That is a nice legacy and mark to leave on the world, and that is the essence of teaching. It is not about the money or the free weekends and holidays, it is about knowing that you have made a difference, no matter what that difference might be. Or whether that difference is big or small.
Georgia is not the USA or UK, and yes it has been culturally hard at times, and is a country very different to any other country I have ever visited. You either love it or you hate it. It is a clashing of all things old and all things new, everything is at the extreme, and there is no middle ground as yet. There are the super rich and the super poor, the lada drivers and the BMW drivers, but even in the short time I have been here, I have seen so many changes, and my prediction, is that in 20 years from now, Georgia is probably going to be one of the most expensive and sought after destinations in Europe. It’s architecture, whilst currently hidden under layers of dust and years of neglect, is more than a match for the beauty of Venice, it has the romance and nostalgia of Paris, the biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle, and more old churches than you can shake a stick at. And what’s more, many people are seemingly unaware that they go around calling themselves ‘Caucasian’ without actually realising that ancestrally they come from this part of the world, and that it was due to Noah’s floods (a tsunami) back in 5600BC that early man was driven from here and up into the rest of Europe. We are all connected to Georgia, in some special way, even though most of us have never even heard of the country, or know anything about it.
And so, the moral of this blog is that, if you ever find yourself stuck in a rut, facing the doldrums, looking for an alternative holiday destination, or wanting a little time out from the hustle and bustle of your everyday life. Then why not give Georgia a try. It is easy enough to get here for a long weekend in Tbilisi, visiting coffee shops, museums, and strolling the grand streets of Rustaveli, and seeing some fantastic opera or ballet for probably the lowest prices in the world. If you want to come for a little longer, then why not come and teach in a public (state) school for the Ministry of Education and Science. You don’t even need to be a qualified teacher, you just need a clean criminal record and health check and a good level of English communication and love for young people. The Ministry will even pay your return flight and put you up with a host family. What better way than to get yourself a base from which you can explore Georgia, and the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbijan! Maybe you want to learn a new language like Russian, or one of the oldest languages in the world – Georgian. People will be only too happy to teach you, and to teach you about Georgian traditions and food and music. And not forgetting, that Georgia has one of the oldest wine making traditions in the world and most families make their own wine….as well as the more potent Georgian staple known as ‘cha cha’ (Georgian Vodka – to be avoided at all costs, unless you have a very strong constitution!).
But heed my advice. Georgia is a bit of a witch, and once it has cast its spell on you, its almost impossible to leave. I came for 6 months, and now, some 16months on, I’ve moved here permanently, relocated my pets, started Oceans Project Georgia and am in the process of adopting an orphan that I fell in love with from my school, the first day I met her. Life for me is very different, and I cannot imagine living anywhere else in the world now. You might think it is because I haven’t travelled before. But you would be very wrong. I have been to many places with far more material beauty than Georgia, but never have I been so homesick on leaving them. I’ve been to Dubai, Jordan, Thailand, Amazon, Canada, USA, Maldives, India, West Indies, and hundreds more places, but never have I been so captivated by a people or culture like the one I discovered in Georgia. Life in Georgia changes you, and once you are hooked on its drug, there is no escape. You’ll hate Georgia, but you will also love it, and the moment you leave, you will be counting down the days until you can return. So, go ahead, take a trip to Georgia, and experience the magic for yourself, but you have been warned.
Photos by Artur Zarafyan, age 12: Oceans Project Georgia
To find out more about teaching in Georgia, and to apply, follow this link: http://www.tlg.gov.ge/
To find out more about Oceans Project Georgia, follow any of these links: