Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Georgia On My Mind

There always seems to be a point in our transition to a new country where I turn to Steph (or he turns to me) and we say “[Insert name of new country/city], did you ever think we would be living in [Repeat name of country/city]?”   And the answer is always, “Nope--wasn’t even on my radar screen.”  Of course, several of our moves made some sequential sense…going from Mexico, to Peru, to Costa Rica had a certain logical progression and, of course, a common language thread. 
Only a few people looked askance at us when we announced those moves. However, the next round of relocations gave folks some pause…our Egypt/Afghanistan leap of faith had people questioning our sanity and the move to Papua New Guinea confounded many more, if only because they had to admit that they had no idea where it was and, once they Googled it, had only scary information to go on.   The bottom line in the world of international development work is that you go where the jobs are -- that can make sense or not, but you really cannot plot a career path in the same way that other professions are able to achieve.  Not a complaint, mind you, but an observation that if I had been asked 30 years ago when we got married where I thought we would be living at this point in our lives, the Republic of Georgia could not have been further from my mind.
Yet, here we are and I have to say that on many levels, I feel like we won the lottery.  This is particularly true when you look at the countries/locations available for international development jobs and Peace Corps in particular.  We are never going to be located in London, Paris, or Rome, but Tbilisi is getting closer (certainly within striking distance), and it has a history and cultural identity that parallels and intersects that of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  So, I am thrilled with living in Georgia, and in no particular order, here are three initial reasons why:

Georgia is Beautiful
  We arrived in Tbilisi mid-November and, while we were told this was not the best time of year to come, there must have been an unusual stretch of great weather---sunny, relatively warm—perfect for walking around the neighborhood and beyond.    Many of the streets of Tbilisi are wide and tree-lined with outdoor produce and flower vendors galore.  

There are old churches, parks and monuments throughout the city, as well as museums and the newly renovated opera house, which just reopened last week.  Outside of Tbilisi, the farms and open spaces right now are a bit brown and dull looking, but will undoubtedly turn green and lush in the spring.  And the mountains---they are something spectacular in winter—and only a couple of hours away from our apartment.  There is still much for us to explore, including the coast along the Black Sea, but what we have seen so far is stunning.

  Georgia is Inexpensive
It is entirely possible that my perspective on this issue is forever skewed by my having lived in Port Moresby, which was absurdly expensive, but the cost of almost everything here is extremely low by almost any standard.  The Georgian lari (or GEL as it is abbreviated and often called by some expats) currently is floating around 2.47 GEL to 1 USD, which in itself is pretty good.  You and two friends can go out to eat at a great restaurant, have appetizers and entrees with Georgian wine and beer, throw in a dessert if you still have room and pay less than $50…total…and tips are not expected.  Our most recent “big” grocery shopping trip netted a total bill of $74.30.  For me, however, the real kicker was going skiing in Guduari, a resort two hours north of Tbilisi.  All-day lift tickets and full rental equipment for four adult cost about $100—yes, that’s $25 apiece—for skiing in the Caucasus Mountains.  Did I mention that there were almost no lift lines? 
Georgia Has Great Food and Wine
 Just before we came to Tbilisi, we attended a party with a number of Peace Corps staff members who had traveled and/or lived in Georgia.  They were excited for us about our posting and one of them said to me “You’re going to gain 10 pounds living there.”  Truer words were never spoken…well, I’m not quite there yet, but the risk of my developing Type 2 diabetes is certainly on the horizon.  The Georgian cuisine is magnificent, but loaded with bread, cheese, butter, and the ubiquitous Georgian wine.  I will not go into full detail now, as Georgian food and hospitality deserves a blog entry or two on its own, but suffice it to say that I have become addicted to the meat filled dumplings (khinkali) and the cheesiest bread on earth (khachapuri).  And the fact that I can bring my own empty plastic liter bottle to a shop two blocks down the street to have it filled with a decent, drinkable Saparavi wine for 8 lari (about $3.50) is nothing short of dangerous. I have finally conceded that my waistline and chin have expanded beyond reasonable expectations given age, height, gender and genetic predisposition, and have started a more concerted exercise regime.  But I fear this is going to be a battle I will have to wage with constant vigilance as I don’t think the novelty of this delicious food will wear off any time soon. 

 So, if you are looking for a land of hospitality, history, beauty and adventure to visit where your hard earned cash will go far, look no further.   A plate of khinkali and bottle of Saparavi await you --if I don’t get to them first!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Blog Awakens

Cluttered desk=cluttered mind?
I have to admit, I’m feeling a little bit like George R.R. Martin …you start writing, you publish a few stories, people like them and start anticipating the next installment and then…nothing…for years.  Ok, so I am sure that my blog is nowhere near as entertaining, racy or profitable as the Game of Thrones franchise, but I have had a few of my close friends and family tell me that they enjoyed reading about my expat adventures and encouraged me to get back to it.  As I have found, however, it is not quite that simple.  To write well, I think, you need both time and a good story…and I sort of lost both of those a few years ago.  Free time escaped when I returned to working full time and the story….well, I have always followed the conventional wisdom that “if you don’t have anything good to say, keep your gob shut.”  That is not to say that there weren’t good things happening in Papua New Guinea, it is just that much of my daily work life was less than note-worthy.  In addition, some of the negative stuff was starting to overpower the positive and I had no desire to add any bad juju to my somewhat fragile chi. 

 Now, however, I find myself once again with days to fill, a new part of the world to explore, and a renewed energy to put thoughts into words.   So without further adieu, let me say “gamarjoba” from our new home in Georgia!  When explaining where we were heading, especially to folks in the US, I would usually add “Tbilisi, you know…in the Republic of Georgia…you know, former Soviet Republic.”   It’s surprising to me how long it took some to realize that we would not be anywhere near Atlanta. 
 For those of you without a map in front of you, Georgia sits snuggly along the Caucasus mountain range just south of Russia, with its western border on the Black Sea and shared borders with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.   Historically, Georgians can trace their roots back to the 4th century BCE and the country has been influenced by Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Russians, many of whom at one time or another claimed the region, and the capital city Tbilisi as their own.  The current city reflects both the ancient influences as well as more recent Soviet era, particularly in the architecture, the juxtaposition of which makes for extremely interesting sightseeing.  However, there is no doubt that Georgia is not Russia, nor any other nation, once you start to dig in to the history, the culture and the people. 

Wine seems to grow on trees!

And dig in we have…already we have gotten a taste not only of many of the Georgian sites (more on each later) but also the amazing food and wine.  Georgians are inordinately proud of both their cuisine and their wines, boasting of being the “cradle of winemaking” with evidence of the world’s oldest viniculture.  They have every right to brag…the food is marvelous (particularly khinkhali and khachapuri) and the wines are varied and plentiful.  This is a spot where I will clearly need to make an extra effort to stay in my current clothing size.  Luckily, there appears to be no end to the walk-able spots of interest, so hopefully I can keep the scales from tipping further in the wrong direction.

Can you gain weight simply by inhaling khinkali and khachapuri?

I am looking forward to learning more about this historically rich, culturally fascinating country and to share in this blog what I find.  I can already see that I have ample material to devote separate blog entries to food and wine, and to better describe “taking the waters” at Borjomi, tackling the ski slopes in Gudauri, the crazy tour guide in Mtskheta, riding on marshrutkas, the Stalin museum (yes, “Uncle Joe” was born in Gori, Georgia)….and we have only been here since mid-November!  So unlike George RR Martin, whose Wall-like writer’s block is keeping readers on tenterhooks for publication of The Winds of Winter, I promise not to keep you waiting so long for the next installment.