"I first arrived here in 1999" - what do foreigners living in Georgia think about it?
They are not tourists, Georgia is already their home – what do foreigners think about Georgia? They have been living here for more than ten years, have started a family and this country has become their second homeland.
Spoiler: It turns out that not everyone is crazy about Georgian food.
Vojtěch Kubec: I don’t miss the “Wild East Georgia” romance
Georgia caught my attention when I was in high school in Czech Republic. I was attending classes about Caucasus, listening to stories of its culture and history and thinking: what an interesting little country that almost nobody knows about. When I was 17, I took my first trip to Georgia. That was back in 1999 and then I kept coming each one or two years.
When I came for the first time, there was no need to be afraid of anything. We were poor students, so we were not a target for bribers or abductors, who wanted ransom. But there were police patrols everywhere.
There was constantly someone armed walking around, trying to play the role of a Caucasian knight and we were drinking all the time for the victims of Abkhazia. Soldiers were walking on the streets of Tbilisi with Kalashnikovs, begging for cigars, as at that time, their salary equalled almost nothing. It was normal for them to serve in their regions, so mothers could come and bring them food to barracks.
In this way, Georgia was a strange place, but for those, who were coming to Georgia to experience the wild Eastern romance and the exotic post soviet space, it was appealing. When I came back ten years later, after the end of 90s, those people were usually disappointed – nobody waylaid them on the street with different kinds of hospitality, nobody was dragging them by their feet home to drink alcohol with them until the morning.
In the 90s, there was always someone hosting us. For foreigners, it was impossible to pay for anything in Georgia at that time. Everyone wanted to be our friend, starting from actors, followed by writers and workers. It´s not like that anymore. Of course, it´s shallow minded, but in many ways, Georgia became more “normal”, more professional and more effective.
The more man can value his friends, as they value you for your personality and not just because you are a foreigner.
When I came to Georgia again, after the Rose revolution in 2004, it was winter and there was not much to do, so I decided to help with the course of Czech language at Tbilisi State University of Economic Relations, in few years united with the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.
That is where I met my future wife, who was one of the Czech language teachers there, even though she could not speak the language properly, but she was eager to learn. Later, she was accepted for the post graduate program in Prague and soon, we started a family so I was once again searching for a job in Tbilisi.
That´s how I came up with the idea to establish Lectorate of Czech language at Tbilisi State University of Economic Relations, which happened in 2007, and since then, there are around 20-25 students each semester. The reason for Georgians to learn Czech is mainly pragmatic.
Rather than Czech culture, they are interested in working or studying in Czech Republic. But they really are making progresses, which makes me feel that me and Matěj Března, who followed me as a lector, are doing it well.
I’ve learned Georgian with a dictionary. Since I was studying history, I was interested to read about its culture and I also started to translate some literature from Georgian to Czech, for example the Martyrdom of Saint Abo of Tbilisi – a story from the 8th century, or the Conversion of Kartli, relating the story of St. Nino. Most of my workload nowadays comes from commercial translation, translating contracts or doing some researches in the archives.
I am also working as coordinator of projects at the Czech Development Agency in Pshav-Khevsureti region. One of the main pillars of the projects of Czech Development Agency is to bring young people back to the regions by creating work and leisure time opportunities for them. Georgians were always the most urban nation in South Caucasus.
Compared to other countries, where at least one child from the family always stayed in village to care for the land, in Georgia, as soon as the children got education, they would move the city and only came back to visit grandparents. And this is slowly changing, which I find to be good for Georgia, as Tbilisi can´t absorb more people anymore.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge which surprisingly has some positive results as well. As there is less work in the city, more and more people are coming back to the villages or are at least thinking about it. Nowadays, anywhere you go in Georgia, you can see the fields ploughed, sown, planted…it was not at all like that before Covid, two or three years ago.
Last year, Svans planted potatoes for the first time after several years of harvesting tourists only. All around Georgia, you can see new almond, peach, plums or olive orchards, not to forget new vineyards as well. It won’´t be visible in statistics, not yet, because even higher number of old people will die as there will come, but the trend is obvious.
On the other hand, what is not seen that much anymore is the family cohesion and big neighbours’ gatherings. Not that it would be gone completely – I live in the housing estate and there, all the time, somebody is singing under my windows, grandfathers are gathering in the garage to play “Nards” (backdamon), but it was much more common in the past.
What is important is that Georgia is not a country that would be in favour of depressed people. If a vague man goes to a nonstop bar in Prague, drinking his one and only beer all night and look at the fly on the wall, he still can survive but he won’t in Georgia. That is why the people are gathering here and never stay alone.
Even people who are real outsiders for major society, they always have friends and help each other – one brings alcohol, another food, and that is how they survive.
The result is that people are much closer to each other and maybe even happier that those, that are at the edge of Czech society. But poverty is of course present, especially after Сovid. I can see more and more retired people are coming to the garbage containers which I could see through my window, to take the rubbish that could be reuse or sold. The situation is harsh on them.
But I myself don´ t miss the old eastern romance of Georgia. I have many projects that I’ve promised to somebody or myself to finish and I want to spend time in villages without being pushed to drink and celebrate all the time. I’ve established the Bohemica association, which promotes Czech culture in Georgia.
Part of it is also following the fates of Czech compatriots, who were settling down in Georgia in bigger numbers from 70s in 19th century until 10s of 20th century. Our recent project is about filming a documentary about Czechs who were among the creators of the Art Nouveau in Tbilisi, as there were many Czech artists working on the Art Nouveau buildings.
Another project that I work on with the Czech Development Agency is the toponymical corrections, as the names are often taken from some old Russian maps and there are many mistakes.
We made a database of names in Tusheti and Pshav-Khevsureti regions, so it would be searchable with GPS and we also added some descriptions and stories connected to the particular places. I think it is an important thing to do, if Georgia wants to be such a tourist paradise, it is important to have good maps and guides that catch tourists attention, so they won´’t just tag the country with the “checked” mark, and never come again, as it often happens nowadays.
Katarina Cieslak: Georgia confused me at the beginning, but I found my place here
When I came to Georgia for the first time almost ten years ago, I could not really understand the country. It was not Europe, it was not Asia either and the mentality was so different from what I knew from Poland – especially in regions.
In Poland, people were pushing me to go there. They were telling me the country is beautiful and people are so hospitable there and that I would love it. Only one person told me the truth. It was a woman who went through Georgia on her motorbike. She said – yes, they are nice and hospitable, they are warm, but they are also tired of poverty. Deep inside, they are actually very sad.
After few months, I understood what she meant. Being hospitable was a norm for Georgians, but not all of them could afford it. People were smiling to me, they would invite me to their houses and tell me how much they love me and respect me, but after some time, I would hear from neighbours they were actually hosting me just out of duty, but in real, they were very tired and they did not like to have guests.
That made me sad and also confused. At the beginning, I’ve tried to be like them, always nice not to offend anyone. But I don’t like that hypocrisy and soon I´ve learned I get more respect from people when I am myself – always saying the truth, even if it could hurt someone. I think I am more aware of the Georgian mentality now and I finally found my place here.
When I first came here, back in 2012, I was working in Lagodekhi as a tourist guide. The work was very diverse. We helped marking the tourist trails in the National Park, we checked their quality but we also cooperated with Charitas, collecting clothes, shoes and giving them to people in Lagodkhi.
I came just for half a year and I did not expect to stay longer, but then I fell in love with my future husband in Tbilisi. It was not easy for me to decide whether to leave Poland to live in Georgia, but my father told me: you will never know until you try, and so I came and it was a good decision.
Now, we have two daughters and I have succeeded as a tourist guide, mostly for Polish tourists, but also people from other nationalities. Unfortunately, I’ve never learned Georgian. At the beginning, I thought I won´t stay longer than six months and Russian seemed more useful for me at that time.
My husband is also Russian speaking, so I never needed Georgian that much. But now I am learning it with my children. We watch cartoons together, I understand half of it, but when I am in a place where no one speaks any other language than Georgian, I can communicate already.
Most things I like more and more in Georgia. I like rising my children in Georgia, because of the fresh food, fresh air and the nature. You can go both to the seaside and the mountains.
Also, for tourism, things are getting better and better: the roads, toilets, restaurants and hotels have developed during the years.
For example ten years ago, it was difficult to find a clean toilet even on the most frequented tourist roads. We would rather stop in the nature then to go to one of these old Turkish toilets at the petrol stations. Nowadays, you can still bump in to those, but it´ is much easier to find a normal one.
Regarding the tourism development – just imagine Batumi nine years ago – the highest building was the justice house. Today, you don´’t even see it among all the hotels.
On the other hand, Georgia is less interesting for people, who search for adventure. With such tourists, I have to be creative and take them to untypical places, such as Tusheti, Khevsureti, Truso Valley, Usghuli and others.
What I personally like less in Georgia is the food. Khinkali and Khachapuri are fun for two weeks, but then I get tired of them.
Olaf Malver: Georgians did a great job at securing nature for future generations
When I first came to Georgia in 2001, to the old, communist-build airport, an old Volga picked me up and drove me to the hotel. The owner brought me two candles, saying that I need to hold on to them because there might be no electricity. I fell in love with the country, as you always do, when you are a romantic person. I was admiring the beauty of the nature and I saw the potential in saving it.
That was the reason for me to come to Georgia. After the collapse of Soviet Union, the poverty caused that there put a big pressure on the resources in post-soviet countries’ national parks. The Global Environmental Facility went to many of them – including Georgia – to help saving the national parks and turn them into 100% protected areas.
I was part of the team that established several national parks after a modern system. In 2004, we were in Lagodekhi together with the park rangers and the stuff from the World Bank. We were on an expedition to look for the possibilities of making touristic routes there. On the World Bank projects, you always have a local partner and on that expedition, it was my future wife.
If you are a romantic man and you meet a beautiful woman in an exotic place, the rest is history. I’ve heard her voice for the first time in Lagodekhi, when a couple of rangers could not control a wild horse and she gave this high commanding scream and controlled the huge horse by jumping bare saddle up on him. We married half a year later and now we have two kids.
Opening national parks was a very challenging proposition, but I think Georgians were very successful in securing areas for the future generations. There are many national parks now and most of them are being developed right now. We might also end up with 20““““% of Geogia being a national park, just like in Costa Rica. And that is a very rich resource for tourism and environmental protection.
People that are criticizing Georgia have to look at the lightning speed at which Georgia has developed from being a down trotting, ex-communist country, to the country that is on the way to achieving great things.
Georgians need to change their attitude towards strangers
I lived in many places of the World and I have also lived in America for many years and the only thing that I sometimes wish would happen in Georgia is that when I meet a stranger in my grocery shop, when I pass somebody in the street that there would be some kind of connection, friendliness towards the unknown stranger.
Georgians are in general not too kind to each other. They are very kind to each other as family and friends but people can’t even say hello to you in a supermarket. The way in which they approach stranger is very unfriendly on the surface. So I always try to say – gamarjobat, how are you, smile, and then, suddenly, I manage to break through the ice and they open up.
This is one of the biggest problem I see in the tourism development here. Tourists don´’t want to see a sour face behind the desk. They want to see somebody who says: hello, good morning, even if it´ is a bit artificial. Not being immediately friendly is not good for the people that come from outside and it i´s not good for Georgians either. In America, people always say: “How are you doing”, even if they don´’t mean it, but it feels good and it is a healing thing.
But I understand the reason for that because in the old, Soviet days, Georgians were protecting themselves, they had to have a facade and protect themselves from all the outside pressure of the communist rulers and institutions. It is a protective mechanism and people still have it. That is the negative thing for me and I feel sorry for Georgians that they don’t have this immediate kindness in a response to strangers on the streets.
The only hope is that the young generation will learn to be less protective and more open, because it will benefit them, as well as the others. What is there to lose? Don´’t be angry on the streets while driving, think about the other people. Now, when we have modern society, why be sour on the streets, why look unhappy?
Anna Samwel: being a foreigner brings advantages as well as prejudice
When I talk about how Georgia has changed in the past years, I always start with an anecdote: In early 20s, I’ve been travelling with my friend across Georgia on a train. We were both asleep, taking two seets each to lie down.
Then somebody came, wanting to sit down and somebody said: don’t wake them up, they are foreigners! I think that if it would happen nowadays, they would probably just treat us as any other person, which is completely valid and right. We should not be treated as some kind of elite. But back then, people were indeed more surprised and foreigners were more of an attraction.
Nowadays, I live in Poti, and still, everyone in the town knows who I am, which is still a bit creepy. I settled in Georgia, because I love the country but I also met my husband here, with whom I have two daughters. First, we lived together with his parents, but then I told him I don’t want to have a child before I have my own bathroom and so we moved into our own apartment.
Being a foreigner brings advantages as well as prejudice. I know my husband was warned many times not to marry me, as European girls don’t know the value of family and I would surely cheat on him and then leave him one day.
The advantages come in everyday life – as I come from Netherlands, which is the country of cycling, I love to ride a bike. But in Poti, not a long time ago, it was still inappropriate for a girl to ride a bicycle. As I am a foreigner, nobody cares, thinking I am crazy anyway, but I’ve heard from many of my Georgian female friends they have been judged for cycling.
Of course a lot has changed in Georgia for the better. When I came for the first time, it was only few months after the Rose revolution in 2003 and there were power cuts and real poverty.
The roads were in a very bad condition – Georgia was very gray at that time. But I still liked it, because of the people and the beauty of nature. I loved to travel around and I loved it even more, when I started to work here. The civil society was really motivated to change something and so I also had the feeling I can help to change something.
At that time, I was already working for the Women Engage for a Common Future NGO, which I am still working for. We are one of the first organizations that connects topics as gender and climate change, trying to help local women to live in a decent conditions and to become part of the decision making process.
We see a lot of development, especially in Tbilisi, women and girls have a lot more freedom and are much more independent. They can be more themselves than in the early 20s.
But if I should not be only positive, I think this new, liberalistic and capitalistic approach in Georgia is harmful for the country. The government sells everything – the water resources, electricity resources, they also used to sell a lot of land, but luckily not anymore.
All the businesses are in the hands of foreign companies, which is not good for the development of Georgian economy. It would be nice if the government didn’t focus only on the profit but made a priority out of the quality of human well being.