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Georgia on my mind

D brought a guide book with him to Tbilisi, but hardly looked at it. D’s local coworkers were eager to introduce him to Georgian culture, and his American officemate took him to all her favorite restaurants. Moreover, D’s TDY overlapped with the return to Georgia of a friend from our Nairobi days who has spent so much time in Tbilisi over the last decade that he has acquired Georgian residency. This fortuitous coincidence meant that D not only got to see much more of the country than he would have venturing out on his own, but also that he benefited from many insights into the Georgian way of life.

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What struck D immediately and most forcefully is the extent of the differences between Moldova and Georgia, both former Soviet republics. Although Moldova has an identity distinctly its own, for D living here evokes his childhood years in Moscow in many important ways, from the food to the use of Russian, which is still quite prevalent despite the primacy of the country’s official Romanian language. This was not the case in Georgia.

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Sure, the Tbilisi skyline may bear the same ugly scars of crumbling, Soviet-era apartment complexes, but that is where the similarities end. Despite nearly two centuries of Russian domination and the fact that it produced the Soviet Union’s most infamous son, Georgia never really assimilated into the USSR, culturally or linguistically.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian culture has blossomed while the generation that has grown up since independence has all but completely severed its linguistic ties with its northerly neighbor.

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This last came as the biggest surprise. In addition to a sizable ethnic Russian minority, most Moldovans — at least in the capital — can communicate fluently in Russian, even if they prefer not to. There are still many Russian-language schools, and even the post-independence generation has a fairly good grasp on the language. In Georgia, on the other hand, even the older generation, which was forced to learn Russian during Soviet times, speaks the language with a heavy accent and, frequently, a rather tenuous grasp on grammar. By and large, Russian is no longer taught in Georgian schools, with predictable results.

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What’s more, the Georgian language is entirely unlike any other foreign language to which D has been exposed. It uses its own unique script, and the only languages that bear any similarity to Georgian are a handful of other obscure tongues spoken by minority groups in the Caucasus. English is also not spoken widely, making Georgia the first country that D has visited in a long time where he was almost completely lost linguistically.

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Located partially in Europe and partially in Asia, Georgia bears the unmistakeable imprints of both. Despite Tbilisi’s cosmopolitan feel, Georgia still retains its traditional roots and conservative family values. It is a country that frowns on premarital relations to such an extent that the sale of pleasure-enhancing condoms was recently outlawed. It is a culture where the Orthodox Church holds such great sway that its edicts frequently have more force than government regulations. It is a place where hospitality reins supreme and food and wine are meant to be shared, rather than consumed. Without a doubt, it is a country worth visiting and experiencing.

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