It all began from a personals announcement: “We offer aid in finding both a life partner and happiness”.
Only for starting a family
One morning, Facebook memories reminded me about a photo I had taken one year ago: A small ad stuck to a cash machine: “We offer you the chance to find a life partner and discover happiness.
I took out my phone and dialed the number indicated on the ad.
– ‘Hello,’ a man’s voice answered.
– ‘This is a dating agency, isn’t it’?
– ‘I, uh, need your help. What should I do?’
– ‘What’s your name’?
– ‘I am turning 33 soon.’
– ‘No problem. To register you need to come to our office on David Bakradze street. Don’t forget to bring your ID and 1 photo.’
– ‘What kind of photo should it be?’
– “Whatever kind you’d like, but it’s preferable that you bring a big photo: 9X13 or 10X15.
– And what about the price?
– The price is 70 GEL to register for 12 months.
– And how can I be sure that you will select a candidate for me?
– We have a lot of people registered already. You will be shown profiles and photos of people, and you will select the one you like. Then we will contact that person, tell him about you and if he agrees to it, you will meet each other.
– Should I pay the 70 GEL straight away?
– When it comes to finding love and starting a family you shouldn’t discuss money. What you need to do is pay by a bank transfer within 10 days after completing your registration.
– I see.
– By the way, if you are either unemployed or have social difficulties, we can make a discount for you.
– No that doesn’t apply to me. Thanks. Goodbye.
I decided to go through with my experiment. The next day I already found myself walking down Bakradze street. I immediately caught sight of a Soviet-style building, constructed in the 1980’s which had air-conditioners in every nook and cranny. I stepped out of the elevator into a dim hallway and noticed a familiar advertisement on one of the doors. I carefully knocked on the door.
When I entered the room, there was a young lady there who smiled at me. While she got out the application form, I managed to survey the room.
The place was completely different from how I had imagined it would be. I expected it to be like in the Hollywood movies, but instead of red hearts and little pictures of cupids dotting the walls, there were flags and photos of the ex-Premier spread out over the walls. Covers of Crystal magazine were displayed on one side. One of the covers read: ‘Guidelines for women who’ve recently been left by a loved one.’
Then I turned my gaze to a section of the wall with many photos in a line. There were couples smiling at me from the photos.
“Did these people meet each other with the help of your centre? I asked the woman behind the desk – Salome. I tried to make my voice sound excited and hopeful.
“Yes, the whole wall was covered with photos and we removed some of them, since there was no more room for any more photos”, she answered proudly and then asked me the first question from the application form: ‘What’s your height and weight?’
Then came a series of standard questions about my horoscope sign; whether I had ever been married; whether I had any children, parents or siblings; what my profession is, my level of education and about my workplace; whether I own an apartment or a car; whether I consume alcoholic drinks or smoke cigarettes.
I was a little bit bored with all that and I started thinking, how much this place resembled a place from my childhood: namely the national statistics office Soviet-style building where my mother used to take me where she worked.
“What age range are you looking for?”, Salome’s question took me out of my daze.
“Hmm…I haven’t given any thought to it. Let’s say anyone younger than 40, I answered.
Then things began to become more interesting. I was supposed to list the qualities I wanted in my future spouse:
– ‘It’s essential that he’s received some form of higher education, right?’
– ‘And that he’s employed and has an apartment?’
I nodded my head. I wasn’t going to contradict her.
– ‘Is it ok if he’s divorced?’
– ‘What’s your attitude towards alcohol consumption?’ Salome continued to assail me with questions.
After drawing a picture of Mr. Right, Salome handed me a piece of paper with a bank account number on it. She said the dating centre would start searching for a fiancé for me as soon I paid 70 GEL. She assured me that happiness would knock at my door, or to be more precise, would give me a call first, within a period of one week to two months.
Marriage – a matter of national importance
A few days later, I found myself once again on Bakradze Street. No, ‘Mr. Right’ had not yet come to my door. This time I took off my bachelorette disguise and went there as a reporter.
The dating centre has been operating in Tbilisi for 16 years already. It is backed by the Demographic Development Fund. David Khizanishvili, the president of the fund, says that the fund is a matter of national importance and aims to increase the country’s population.
“It is beneficial for both people and the country as a whole. There are many single people in Georgia who really need assistance. The nation is dependent on reproduction, David Khizanishvili told me, emotionally.
His phone was ringing almost non-stop during the interview. I counted. Eight people called him in the span of 30 minutes. He said he received more than 50 such calls daily. It must be noted that there were certainly people who called out of mere curiosity. David Khizanishvili is highly skilled at identifying people’s intentions: a single sentence is enough for him to recognize whether a person really intends to create a family or he/she is driven solely by self-interest.
“Is it essential to create a family? Can’t I, let’s say, just find a partner or a ‘friend’? I wondered and got a flat ‘No’ in response.
“You should apply to the center only if you want to start a family. This is a matter of national importance”, Mr. Khizanishvili repeated.
“But what if someone doesn’t want to or can’t have children?”, I continued.
“That may very well be the case. We never ask for medical certificates here”, the Demography Fund’s president responded.
29,470 marriages were registered in Georgia in 2015, as compared to 30,044 marriages registered in 2014. The number of couples who got married with help from the dating center is unknown.
The center’s services are available for individuals who are already 20 years of age or older. Though, as David Khizanishvili noted, those who apply to the center are mostly men aged 30-40.
At present, applicants to the center are predominately male. They are typically looking for a nice-looking, decent, educated, warm, loving and serious woman, who will be a good housewife. These are the words that you will often find on a man’s application form.
The application forms filled out by women reveal that they mostly avoid drinkers or men without jobs.
This dating centre is the only one of its kind in Georgia. Even nowadays, in the era of the Internet, you will often come across newspaper headings such as: ‘Dating’, where people look for each other to start a family.
Social media has become a serious competitor of the centre in recent years. However, as David Khizanishvili warned me, social media is not so reliable yet on this front.
“Those who apply to us have already tried to find a future spouse through Facebook in vain. Or they have met someone who isn’t serious and who may have cheated on them.
Despite all this, David Khizanishvili’s future plans are connected to the Internet.
The dating centre is going to conduct an in-depth study of the Georgian Internet and create a single persons’ database.
“There shouldn’t be any single people in Georgia. We can’t afford that”, says David Khizanishvili.
I got into a taxi and immediately called my friends who ‘cheered’ for my experiment. When I finished telling my story and was ready to get out from the taxi, the driver suggested to me in a serious voice: Ma’am, ask your fiancé to produce a health certificate just to be on the safe side. You never know what will happen.