Monday, January 22, 2018

I'm Not Sick of Tbilisi, But...Time for Changes

Regardless of what Kaladze says, this isn't the city full of life...this is the city of solemn faced women in fur coats on buses.

I'm not sick of Tbilisi, but I'm a little sick of living the way I thought I was supposed to live in Tbilisi.

I'm sick of only dressing nicely when I leave the house and always having my shoes clean. I'm sick of not smiling at strangers. I'm sick of not running someplace just because I'm full of energy (okay, this desire strikes me maybe twice a year...but still!). I'm sick of seas of black coats only punctuated by the most repetitive and uninspired of trends (Pom Pom hats, fanny packs, platform sneakers).

mid-Jan bus

I know it's the middle of winter, the end of the holiday season, and most people were drunk and/or asleep for two of the past three weeks, so maybe this plays a role. Regardless, I'm feeling crushed by limits and standards I have set for myself, based on what I think people in Tbilisi expect from me. It really is what people expect, but I'm tired of working to seem "normal." My normal is not Tbilisi normal - and I've decided it's time to embrace that.

The past three days the weather has been really lovely! 11 degrees C (52 F), sunny, no wind. I even caught a rare glimpse of the beautiful, snowy Mount Kazbek (or so we all assume) across the city, between the low, close mountains, from my window. The view from my 14th floor terrace left me with a deep sadness that I will soon be leaving this apartment. I have decided to move - for multiple reasons. Partly because I just need a change, to shake things up, partly because this apartment has one huge plus (the huge terrace and beautiful view, although the terrace isn't much use in the winter), and several minuses (its shoddy construction means it's always freezing here, it's expensive, and the 2 bedrooms is way more than I need seeing as no one visits me...). Also, excitingly, Bacho and I have decided to move in together! We are moving to an adorable, cozy apartment just a few blocks away. It doesn't have a view but it has mercifully white washed walls, natural wood floors, and a newly renovated kitchen and bathroom.

Below, for your pleasure and entertainment, I have included a selection of photos demonstrating the types of decor commonly found in Tbilisi apartments, making it clear why the white washed walls and new renovation is not only rare, but really something to get excited about!

Great kitchen
Color Coordination

Super Hip

Old School

Bold wallpaper choice

Saturday, January 20, 2018

First Holiday Season in Georgia

When you're a westerner living in an Orthodox post-Soviet country, you really get much more utility out of "Happy Holidays" than "Merry Christmas," because here in Georgia, there are five holidays to celebrate before the season draws to a close, not just Christmas and New Year like in the US. Now that these holidays have passed, I wanted to share with you a little about how we celebrate here in Tbilisi!

1. Western Christmas (Dec 25)
Often called "Catholic Christmas" or "American Christmas," this is not observed at all in Russia/Georgia. This year was my first ever Christmas away from my family, and I was so incredibly blessed to have my sister come visit me! Since the 25th was a Monday, and normal working day here, I took off my classes and spent the day just relaxing at home with my sister. In the morning, we opened presents to each other and from family in the US, much of which was candy which we then spent the day eating.

It wasn't at all like an American Christmas, and I honestly wouldn't want to do it again unless I had to. I love Christmas traditions and for me it's always been such a day focused on family that it was really hard to be without them. If Riyana hadn't been here, I probably would have spent the day just like any other, in order to get my mind off what I was missing. The one good thing about Christmas in Georgia is that when the day ends, the holiday season isn't over! The streets are still bustling with people buying gifts, light displays have just barely been set up, and there is still an air of anticipation and excitement everywhere. 

my Christmas decorations
I don't even remember which holiday dinner this was

2. New Year (Dec 31/Jan 1)
This is the big one. New Year's Eve is the most exciting day of the year for most Georgians. It is traditionally celebrated by sleeping in to build strength for the all-night festivities, then a late, long family dinner, culminating with a magnificent city-wide fireworks display, champagne toasts, and singing along to Mravaljamier on the TV. Then, young people go guesting. In small groups, friends in their teens and 20s will bounce from house to house, greeting their friends' families with New Year's wishes, eating a small plate at every house and becoming continuously more drunk as the night goes on. Typically somewhere around 3 am, lights begin to flick off throughout the city and drunk, full, sleepy eyes close until late the next afternoon.

Did I follow all these beautiful New Year's rules and traditions? No. We all celebrated a lovely evening at Bacho's family's house, and by 1:30 am Riyana and I were gracefully passed out on the couch, stomachs bulging full of roast pork and khachapuri, mouths stained with wine.

As food is probably the most important part of the night, here is a short list of what is traditionally on a Georgian New Year's table:

satsivi - a spiced walnut paste with boiled chicken (served cold)
churchkhela - a string of walnuts dipped in thickened grape juice
gozinaki - walnuts fried in honey (sort of like granola)
pkhali - eggplant strips stuffed with eggplant/walnut mix

khachapuri - cheese bread
aaaaaand pork. this was a table decoration and also a source of snacks (pig ear)
and, of course, lots of wine, both bottled and homemade!

January 2nd is called "bedoba," and the day is a prediction of how the rest of the year will go. If you get in fights, it will be a year of conflict. If you find some money, it will be an economically fruitful year, etc... This year, on January 2nd, we went skiing! So maybe it will be a year of falling on my ass?

3. Orthodox Christmas (Jan 7)
The Orthodox version of Christmas is on the 7th, reflecting the old Julian calendar. It is a rather subdued holiday, with most people marking it by going to church (sometimes a midnight, 3-hour-long formal service), and a family dinner.

Georgian Christmas tree, called a "chichilaki"
- made with curled wood strips!
Most people have the week from the 1st-8th off work, and spend most days drinking and eating and visiting friends. We went skiing in the resort town of Bakuriani, along with what seemed like half the region. I've never seen that many people in any Georgian city outside of Tbilisi! It was mostly Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and Russians with the occasional Iranian, Chinese, or American thrown in.


4. Old New Year (Jan 14)
Most people went back to work on Jan 8th for a slow, difficult week of readjustment before Old New Year on Jan 14th pretty much closes out the season. Riyana was gone by this time, but it was marked essentially the same way as Orthodox Christmas - dinners (yes, plural - the second of which again ended with me asleep on the couch...) with family and friends.

Bacho's work also held it's holiday party at a nice restaurant/event hall on Sunday (the office's start time was pushed back to 11 am on Monday!). It was elegant and fun, and there was WAY too much food.

5. Epiphany (Jan 19)
The final holiday of the winter season is Epiphany! Such a beautiful name for a holiday, I feel like it should always have an exclamation point after it...

Before getting into Eurasian/Orthodox studies, I had never heard of Epiphany(!). In the western/Catholic Church, it's on Jan 6th, but here it's the 19th (that Julian calendar again). The Orthodox say the day recognizes Christ's baptism in the Jordan, and subsequently, it involves the faithful jumping into freezing cold water, or water being poured on them by priests. Interestingly - while Eastern Europeans generally have a neurotic fear of being wet outside, that it will make them get sick, Epiphany is an exception - since the water is blessed, it can't make you sick.

I didn't see much of Epiphany(!) in action in Tbilisi other than most people getting a day of work, and the roads and buses being totally empty on my way to class. I did experience the holiday in St. Petersburg, though, where it's even colder than Tbilisi, and it was really a sight to be seen. It's quite the experience to take an evening stroll along the waterfront in a warm jacket, watching the faithful and brave take the plunge.

NOTE: while it is now January 21st, I still cannot report on when Christmas music will stop being played everywhere...

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Does Georgia's Reliance on Family Hinder the Economy?

This post was inspired by Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace, the episode "Why Family and Business Don't Mix," broadcast 13 June, 2013.

Family is the foundation of Georgian society. For the vast majority of society, family is much more influential than even religion - I say this largely because most Georgians rarely attend church regularly, and Orthodox churches don't really have a Sunday school equivalent where children learn the tenents of the religion. Children are taught religious principles, or at least the general social conceptions of what religious principles are (mainly chastity, obedience, and the virtues of poverty and suffering), by their family. 

Anyone who has spent time in Georgia has likely noticed the intense influence of family. For example:
  • Young people generally live with their parents until they get married
  • Usually, a young married couple will move in with the husband's family, affording them no privacy, no honeymoon period, no independence from birth until death...this also means that several generations usually live in the same apartment
  • Parents call their adult children constantly on the phone, even when they live together
  • Family obligations come before everything 
  • It is completely off limits to date the family member of a friend, including family members not by blood or marriage but by the church, which includes godparents, and best man/maid of honor
  • Parents have a significant influence on their children's choice of partner

A 2010 study by Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano at the UCLA Anderson School of Management analyzed how family ties in different cultures affect economic outcomes. The study determined that "cultures that have strong family ties tend to have weaker economies." Giuliano summarized the two main reasons for this correlation for Marketplace:

"People who rely on the family tend to trust, mostly, the family and less the outside world.  Therefore, they tend to be more inward-looking and they develop a lower level of social capital or political participation."

Relying on close family structures is associated with less reliance on and trust in external institutions, such as the court system, the legislature, and civil society. What direction does the correlation, flow, though? Perhaps it's a chicken and egg question. Is it the case that family structures once dominated the world, and in industrialized, large economies reliable democratic institutions replaced the family as the foundation of life and business? Or is it that in economies where public institutions have failed, families pick up the burden?

Consider, if you will, the concept of blood feuds. This series of cyclic, vengeful violence was common practice in many cultures worldwide (including, famously, Georgia's Svaneti region until relatively recently) until societies became more centralized and law enforcement developed to the point where it more or less reliably and predictably punished those who broke the social contract. With the ability to rely on the government (police), people no longer needed to rely on their families (Uncle Joe going after the kid in the next town over for besmirching his niece's virtue) in this particular realm.

Defensive towers in Svaneti, Georgia; Kuriositas

Wikipedia claims that "Blood feuds were common in societies with a weak rule of law (or where the state does not consider itself responsible for mediating this kind of dispute), where family and kinship ties are the main source of authority." It's easy to see how this relationship between family and government transfers to other sectors - banking, property, contract enforcement. When you can't count on the government, you can trust your family to help get the job done, and when you can trust your family, you have less incentive to push the government to take on those roles.
There are some sectors where even family would have a hard time filling the gaps, like copyright or taxes. Still, in less centralized, less democratic, societies these sectors are not very well developed. In Georgia, Saakashvili post-Rose Revolution (2003) introduced what every western news outlet calls "sweeping reforms" which cut through corruption and bribery. Georgia, however, still suffers quite significantly from crony capitalism, and the relation to close family ties is quite obvious.

As noted on Freakonomics, family business are necessarily less profitable, on average, than other business.

"There’s a lot of research showing that a family firm – let’s say where the founder hands off the reins to a relative – that that firm will do worse than if they bring in an outside CEO. I mean, just think about it for a minute, what are the odds that the best person to run my company happens to be blood-related to me?  That said, family business is still very common in many parts of the world — Latin America, parts of Asia and western Europe.  Especially where institutions are not as strong.  The U.S. actually has a pretty low incidence of family firms — and seemingly getting fewer all the time" - Stephen J Dubner (emphasis added).
"family business"

Georgia isn't exactly crawling with family businesses, but I think that's mainly because the entrepreneurial spirit is somewhat lacking. You do see the pattern play out, however, in rampant nepotism. If you're looking for a job, you can count on a relative (by blood, marriage, or church) to find something for you. If you have a job and you hear of an opening, you are sure to recommend a relative for it. Even in government ministries you can find the minister's nieces, nephews, and Dubner noted - what are the odds that the best person for the job is your relative? I wonder how things would look in Georgia if it were a more merit based system.

Another significant problem in Georgia's development is the transparency and efficacy of the judiciary. This is an area where, I think it's relatively clear, due to the inability of the judiciary to provide for its citizens, family relationships pick up the slack. If you want to take an issue to the courts for a civil case, you will be faced with unbelievably long wait times, high fees, and judgements that are often questioned by international watchdog organizations.

During the 2016 US Presidential election, and the recent Alabama special election for the Senate, a recurring theme has been family - family values, family-led policy, support for family businesses. Many conservatives have decried the loss of family as the primary institution in American society. But with this new evidence, you have to ask, has America's post-WWII economic growth, political leadership, and social development been spurred on by a less family-focused structure? Has America's success allowed Americans to center their lives on the institutions of their choosing, rather than being left with family as the only choice?

Ultimately, I think if you ask Georgians whether they would trade their strong family ties for a better economy, the answer will be a resounding no.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

5 Ways Gender Roles are Harmful in Georgian Society

Hello, and good morning/afternoon/evening/anytime of day - because every time of day is ideal for acknowledging (and getting fired up about) the toxic consequences that strict gender roles have on society. In this case, we are talking specifically about Georgia, the country in which I currently live.

feminism protest that freaked everyone out
because some women didn't shave their armpits

First, I want to distinguish gender roles, the topic of this post, from sexism.

Gender roles: social expectations of the distinct and separate roles that men and women should hold

Sexism: "discrimination based on sex or gender, or the belief that men are superior to women and thus discrimination is justified. Such a belief can be conscious or unconscious. In sexism as in racism the differences between two (or more) groups are viewed as indications that one group is superior or inferior." - Jone Johnson Lewis.

In many western countries, sexism comes most often in the form of social norms, ignorance, implicit bias, and institutionalized sexism rather than explicit, intentional discrimination. Georgia has a little of both, but I find myself getting the most riled up about the ways that gender roles are harmful. Additionally, sexism is often banished (at least temporarily) by drawing attention to it and calling out casually sexist behavior, while gender roles are generally more ingrained, more stubborn, and people often have trouble seeing past ‘tradition’ to the systematic harm that gender roles can cause.

Now, a disclaimer for all my readers who are afraid of the term ‘feminism’: Some argue that gender equality doesn’t make sense because men and women are biologically different. I am not arguing that men and women are always biologically the same. I am arguing that, irrespective of any biological differences, men and women are equal – equally good, equally valuable, equally deserving of respect and opportunities in society, at work, and at home, and equally able to serve their communities in various ways. Individuals certainly have specialized skills, interests, and desires, but as a group, there are no tasks, no jobs, no ROLES that men as a whole or women as a whole must or should fulfill.

I love Georgia, and want to be part of continuing to make it a better place to live for everyone.

Now, onto the list...

1. Sexual Repression and its Consequences ~my favorite problem~

As I mentioned above, most people can't talk about sex. Even many people who are theoretically sex-positive have a lot of difficulty discussing sex in a mature, rational way. If you are one of these men reading this, please keep reading!!! But please don't think that me discussing sex here is a sign that I am interested in having sex with you. I'm not. I am also not trying to be scandalizing for the sake of scandal, but this needs to be discussed! 

Young people are not raised with an understanding of what role sex can and should play in a relationship other than as a vehicle for reproduction. On the other extreme end of the spectrum, many boys are encouraged by their male family members to go to a prostitute to lose their virginity, sometimes on their 16th or 18th birthdays they are given a visit to a brothel as a gift from an uncle or older cousin. Men are perceived as needing sex biologically, and women are painted as having little to no sexual desire.

Batumi, Georgia
Men learn about sex through internet porn and their 30-min stints with prostitutes. They don't know how to have good sex, consensual, emotion-based sex. It is simply a transaction. They don't know or think about women's needs or desires, or giving pleasure to their partner, or using sex to strengthen a relationship.

Women don't learn about sex other than that it is their duty to provide their husbands a child, through sex, and that men need sex. Women are not told that sex can and should be pleasurable for them. They are not taught how to seek their own pleasure, or even that women can have an orgasm. They are told that if a man asks them for something other than missionary sex, they are being disrespected - it's out of the question that a woman may want something other then missionary herself.

Both men and women are often told that it is disrespectful to a woman to ask for oral or anal sex, or even to have sex in any position other than missionary. There is no dialogue between a couple about what they want from sex, or the role of sex in their relationship. Men are told that their desires for more interesting, varied, or frequent sex is normal, but asking for it from their wives is disrespectful, so going to a prostitute is a good solution - women often accept this. 

I have heard Georgian men explain that prostitutes are working in the sex industry because they love sex so much and can't get enough on their own. Thus, some men feel that they are doing the women a favor by buying sex from them, satisfying the women's needs.

Dolce Vita Strip Club in the daytime

Is this a problem in and of itself? Women feel respected, men satisfy their needs and interests, brothels are a booming industry. 
Yes, of course it's a problem!!!! All the other issues I mention below are interwoven into this essential, kernel problem of Georgian society.
a) A lack of communication between couples harms a relationship, increasing the risk of domestic violence, divorce, and general unhappiness and unfulfillment. If Georgians are so family-oriented, shouldn't this be a concern of the first degree?
b) Women are left sexually unsatisfied - sex is a burden and a responsibility. The benefits of regular orgasm in adult women are well documented hereherehere, and here
c) Women are pressured or even forced into the sex trade, prostitutes are physically and emotionally abused. Teenage prostitution is another alarming aspect. Although prostitution is illegal in Georgia, the laws are barely and inconsistently enforced. With such a heavy push on tourism as a source of economic growth, the government low key benefits from the sex trade as truck drivers from Muslim countries in particular (Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan) see Georgia as the ideal sex pit-stop.
d) Boys are encouraged to go to prostitutes from a young age, immediately connecting sex and their body and physical desires with immediate gratification and a sense of entitlement, as well as disconnecting sex from emotions. This has negative implications for psychological health, and conditions men to see sex as their right, rather than a consensual agreement, entered into through mutual desire and built on trust and affection.

these photos are from an awesome campaign in Georgia from
UNFPA encouraging men to be active fathers and caregivers

Finally, the cult of virginity is extremely detrimental to young women. Anecdotally, hymen reconstruction surgery (generally before a wedding) is alarmingly common. Many people do not understand the female anatomy, and believe that virginity is a clear-cut physical element, a body part. Especially in rural areas, women are often subjected to invasive, shameful, and medically inaccurate virginity tests. Women are taught that their self worth is entirely tied to their virginity. When a woman first engages in sexual activity, her identity and confidence can be shaken. It is not uncommon for young men to promise a girlfriend that they will eventually get married and convince her to have sex with him, then break up with her, leaving her feeling used and somehow 'ruined'. Even if a woman waits until after marriage to have sex, it can still be traumatic to part with something by which her value as a 'kargi gogo' (good girl) has thus been defined.

Of course, my description here is not indicative of all Georgians, but it is extremely prevalent in the country, particularly in rural areas, in more traditional families, in places with poorer education, and for older people.

2. Women’s Double Burden (particularly in Economically Depressed Areas)

The concept of women's double burden is not new, and not unique to the post-Soviet space, but it is certainly prevalent here. It refers to women being both expected to work, a legacy of Soviet labor policy, and expected to run the household, including being the primary caregiver of children. The Soviet communist dream was a society where childcare was state run and available to all, where cheap, attractive cafeterias (столовые) on every street would replace the need for women to cook, and where communal apartments would allow families to share the domestic burden. However, this vision never fully materialized, and while women were required to work in factories or on collective farms equally alongside men, they continued to also shoulder the bulk of the domestic burden, as had been the pre-Soviet tradition. 
In modern Georgia, particularly in rural and economically depressed areas, jobs are scare. If agriculture is not productive (and it is rarely more than subsistence farming for most people), there are few alternative jobs. The fact that jobs are heavily gendered (another gender role problem), means that men have less access to work that will support their family that is available in the regions, such as being a teacher, or working in a kindergarten or a health clinic.

Poverty in Georgia 

3. Men Resort to Violence

Gender based violence (GBV) is a huge issue in Georgia, and has been getting more attention lately! Some of the biggest challenges in eradicating GBV is that it is largely normalized and that it is almost never reported to authorities. There are no reliable national statistics on how many women and girls are affected. This article from the World Bank says that "a 2010 study estimated that 10% of married women throughout Georgia have experienced physical violence, and 3.9% of women have experienced sexual violence. These numbers are considered to be vastly under-reported." GBV particularly affects women in national minority groups (mainly ethnic Azeris and Armenians), and goes hand in hand with early marriage. This UNFPA article is full of shocking facts, including that "75 per cent of the women in Georgia believe that domestic violence is a private affair and should not be spoken about outside the family. The same research shows that only 2 per cent of women reach out to police, lawyers and other service providers when they face violence at home."

Gender roles play into this in a few ways - first, it is so tolerated because it is normalized. Women are taught that it is in men's character to be violent and aggressive, and it is not feminine to fight back. It is a woman's job to tame the wild spirit of the man through keeping the home, cooking, cleaning, providing him children, maintaining the family reputation, etc. If her husband gets angry, maybe it's the woman's fault for not giving him what he needs.

poverty in Georgia

Second - emotional conditioning. Worldwide, men are conditioned to not feel empathy, not to express emotions. This can cause men to lash out, to explode, rather than dealing with negative emotions in a productive and peaceful way, such as through crying, talking about their feelings, etc. Men are taught to solve problems through fighting. Honor and respect are such touchstones here in Georgia, if someone were to insult the honor of a man (through anything from someone making a pass at his girlfriend to calling him a name), him and his friends are socially 'required' to physically fight whoever insulted them. Women are conditioned to be open and soft and caring, creating a target for violence and aggression. Women are rarely taught to defend themselves physically. This is sort of an interesting point in Georgian culture, because although this emotional conditioning is definitely strong, the supra tradition includes the effusive expression of emotion, through 'toasts' (speeches), song, and physical affection. Interestingly, this gush of emotion is generally reserved for drunkenness and all-male environments.

Third, of course GBV is prevalent worldwide, in countries at all levels of economic development, but is often exasperated by strict expectations on men to provide for their families. In economically depressed areas, the other side of the coin to women's double burden is the 'impotency' of men (I hate using this word because it sort of propagates the idea that men need to be sexually virile to be men, but I can't find a better term...). This is frequently discussed when describing the lure of terrorist organizations for men in poor areas of Central Asia.

It also contributes to a frustration within Georgian men who feel they are failing to fulfill in the stereotypical role of breadwinner, which can be expressed through violence, particularly within the home.

4. Rape.

The World Bank article also references a 2013 study on Men and Gender in Georgia, in which "more than a third of respondents believed that women who are raped have been reckless, or that rape only affects women with a ‘bad reputation.’ Half the respondents believe that if a women does not physically resist, it cannot be considered rape."

I don't have much to say on this issue. It's just horrific.
There is essentially no sexual education in public schools, and thus no discussions of consent.

The topic of sex is so taboo that even among young adults, when I bring up sex in an abstract sense, it usually elicits blushes and silence from women and snickers and crude jokes from men. If you can't talk about sex, you can't talk about respect or consent, or the right to say no. In mixed company, if a woman starts talking about sex, she is often perceived as slutty or easy; if a man tries to talk about sex, it is considered highly inappropriate and offensive to the women. It's a vicious cycle.

5. Political and Economic Disparities

UN Women writes that "Gender perceptions in Georgia place men in a dominant position in many areas of social, economic and political life. Data confirms persistent inequalities between women and men. There is a significant gender gap in labour force participation with the gender wage gap reaching 35 per cent. Women’s entrepreneurship is limited. Female-headed households, marginalized social groups among the internally displaced and conflict affected populations, and women from other excluded groups often experience poverty or at a high risk."

Women have low political participation - only 11 percent of parliamentarians in national and local governments are women. It is a man's role to lead, and a woman's role to support, maintain. So many government agencies are full of brilliant, young women, running everything, but almost always with a male boss at the head. I hear that famous quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding a lot here - "the man is the head [of the house], but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants." I honestly used to love this quote, but now I find it quite dangerous. It tells men and women that they have a "place" and encourages them to stay there. Why have a relationship full of deception, trying to make the husband believe he controls everything when really the woman controls him through manipulation? That doesn't sound like a healthy marriage to me.

Gender is not mainstreamed into national planning and budgeting, and is almost always an afterthought and a platitude. Although, as I mentioned above, women often carry the economic burden of the family, they are rarely economically empowered. Men are considered the final decider on how a household should spend its finances. Despite the fact that women are responsible for shopping for food and household goods and managing the family budget, they are not encouraged to start businesses, ask for raises at work, or negotiate their salary.

If you made it this far, bravo. I hope you're not too disheartened by the situation in Georgia. I hope I have successfully argued about the harm caused by strict gender roles, and I hope that it is clear how they harm both men and women.

There are various campaigns and organizations working on behalf of this issue, with varied success. The UNFPA campaign I mentioned above is great, and the national rugby team recently ran a memorable anti-domestic violence campaign. However, as soon as sexism or gender roles are mentioned by those with real power to change laws or influence norms, the push back from society and the Orthodox Church is extreme and restrictive.  

I should add a call to action here, a link to donate to some amazing organization working to end discrimination and violence and sexism, encouraging sex education and women's empowerment. But I don't have anything to give. 

If you know of an organization doing great gender-based work in Georgia, please comment it here!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

$7.58 Massage

Photo: National Geographic Russia
You can get almost anything for cheap in Georgia.
In most places with less developed economies, less centralization, less chain-ification, less commercial legislation/enforcement of laws, you have a more stratified consumer economy than in the US. 

In the US, if you want some juice, for example, you go to the grocery store and there are 100 brands to choose from, but they all have approximately the same quality, you're sure that you won't get sick from any of them, and their prices are all within a couple dollars of each other. There are also maybe some fancier juices - cold pressed kale carrot or some Jamba Juice concoction. 
But what if you want something else? You don't need high quality, or fancy, you want something super basic and cheap and you're willing to drink your juice from an old Coke bottle even if it doesn't have FDA approval, but the grandma who sold it to you from the side of the rode was super sweet so it's probably fine - and actually even tastes more natural and fresh than the fanciest of cold presses - as long as you don't get food poisoning...

and this is just the cold juices...
So in Georgia, most things are available along this model. You have a deeper range of options, for price and quality (quality of the product itself, but more reliability/predictability of the quality, and quality of the 'packaging'), although a narrower range (of brands) at the mid-upper price point. 

I tell you all this to explain how I ended up getting a 20 GEL ($7.58) massage this Tuesday. There are plenty of places here to get a high quality massage, spas and hotels, but they come at a price! I could get a $50 massage once every 2-3 months maybe, but a $7.58 massage - twice a month! The main problems that come with these lower end products is quality and finding them. You know where to find the high end things - there are websites and facebook pages and big stores full of brand name items. The lower end stuff is trickier. There are signs everywhere on the street for massages but most of them are just fronts for prostitution, so to get something legitimate, you mostly have to rely on word of mouth. So when a friend of mine (thanks Alex!) said she got a pretty good massage for 20 GEL, I was excited to check it out!

That is how I found myself jumping onto a rickety yellow Bogdan in a rainstorm on Tuesday night headed towards Lamika's house. I called her when I got the Domino's, as she'd told me to on the phone the day before.
"SAMANTA?! HI, HI" she shouted into the receiver
"Hi, Lamika? I'm here, at the Domino's"

"Hi Lamika, it's Samantha! I'm here, at the Domino's - how can I get to your apartment?"
"It's a little further down the street - by the new cafe [it was a Dunkin Donuts]"

I looked up and saw a small blonde woman waving frantically from her balcony.
I made my way up to her apartment, where she was standing, smiling in the open doorway, wearing a tank top, linen pants, and an apron-type over skirt. In the front room there was a spread of fruits laid out, and when I declined she led be into the massage room/her bedroom/second half of the living room separated by a sheet hanging from the ceiling. There was a massage table set up on one side of the room, and Lamika worked quickly to strip it of the sheets from the last client. As she ran around the apartment doing I don't know what, she told me to sit down, relax, without telling me where exactly to sit, so I picked one of the several chairs near the massage table and sat down.

a fair approximation of Lamika's apartment

I was trying to play it cool, but I was actually super nervous. After a few minutes of me trying to look really occupied with taking off my jacket and earrings, Lamika stopped flitted around and asked me - "полное, да?" (polnoe, da?) The thing about language is that when you are nervous, you stop thinking...and while sometimes this makes your instincts kick in and you just start speaking like a pro, other times you get super confused and mix up the words polnoe (full) and golaya (naked). So Lamika verified that I wanted a full body massage, and I thought she was asking if I would be naked, which, obviously I would be, so I took it as a sign that I should have already stripped and she was waiting for me! So, without further hesitation, I started to take off my clothes just right there next to the table in her bedroom. She sort of cocked her head then turned around and occupied herself with untying and retying her apron over skirt thing. It wasn't until I had awkwardly slithered on the table (crinkly from the layer of plastic wrap under the cloth) and under the blanket that I realized what she had actually said...but never mind, I was here now and that was the ultimate goal. I hoped she would just think I was super cool and confident and not concerned about nudity.

"Music, yes?" I nodded and Lamika went over to her boombox (yes, it was an actual boombox), and twisted the dial until she found Radio Monte Carlo. At this point, I strongly recommend you click THIS LINK to get the full effect of what my massage was like, listening to a rotation of Romanian beach club music and electronic remixes of Destiny’s Child, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna. Not exactly ocean waves or rain sounds, but it added its own sort of ambiance. It perhaps also added a sense of urgency, a driving rhythm, because the massage itself was pretty good, but her hands worked extremely fast. She probably spent as much time on each area as any other masseuse would, but used twice as many strokes. She also employed the favorite technique of children giving their dads massages everywhere: the karate chop method. I sort of thought that wasn’t a real professional technique but I guess it is... The only thing that I was really not happy with was that the table was too short for my legs, which is really no one's fault but genetics for making my legs awkwardly I came away with a pair of bruises across my shins where the edge of the table bit into them.

Throughout the massage, Lamika's primary concern was clearly not my modesty, or that my skin not touch the plastic table underneath the cloth, but that I don’t get cold. She frequently shifted the little space heater and halfway through the massage remembered she had a thicker blanket and brought it in to lay across me. I think this obsession with staying warm comes from her being super Slavic - she also refused to accept money directly from my hand, insisting that I lay it on the table, which is a superstition I had heard about in Russia but never actually seen anyone take seriously!

After the massage, she just said “relax” and then sat on her bed (4-5 feet from the table) and got on her laptop. When I asked if I could get up, she said sure, but didn’t leave the room or turn to give me privacy like she had when I undressed. Instead she came closer and held the sheets so they didn’t fall off the table as I got up. At least I was wearing underwear, but although I'm not really a shy person, I definitely felt awkward that my top was totally exposed, just, like, free swinging in the breeze, and Lamika just smiled at me and said “tell Alex hello for me!” It was great. Also, I'm definitely still not clear on the European concept of boobs. I know that in magazines and TV, boobs are often not blurred out like they are in the US. On the other hand, it’s not like nude beaches are common in this part of Europe or women wear transparent shirts (like in Spain, wow that shocked 14-year old me!). But I guess this massage was like the sulfur baths - we’re all ladies!

Three days later, my back muscles were still a bit sore - in a good way. By the fourth day I had completely recovered. I can see myself going back to Lamika! Maybe once a month. Not as a relaxing end of week spa treatment, more like a medical procedure, but definitely not a bad use of $7.58!

Friday, October 6, 2017

First Field Visit - Marneuli and the Thousand Staring Eyes

Over the last two days, I ventured out to one of my field work sites for the first time - the town of Marneuli!

Marneuli is interesting because it is the capital of the Marneuli District, about an hour south of Tbilisi in the Kvemo Kartli region, and it is about 80% ethnic Azerbaijani.

Signs are alternately in Georgian, Russian and Azeri. I theorize (without evidence) that when a sign is in Georgian and Russian, it's a Georgian-owned business attempting to bride to Azeris, and when a sign is in Georgian and Azeri, it's an Azeri-owned business. There are also sometimes signs only in Azeri, so I guess those business either aren't making an effort to attract Georgian clientele, or figure that their business is obviously pharmacy/vegetable stand/flower shop and multilingual signage isn't really needed. 

Azeris are generally Muslims, but on my hour and half stroll of the town center, I only saw about 10 women wearing the hijab (I actually didn't see that many women...maybe 20% of the people on the street were women). There were many older women wearing kerchiefs and sort of standard Caucasian Muslim clothing, but, interestingly, there were also a handful of younger women, maybe high school age, wearing more Arab or Turkish style Islamic clothing (basically abayas). 

As I walked around, I was stared at like an alien. I haven't been solo traveling in a small town in Georgia in a long time and had forgotten the mix of apprehension, confusion, and celebrity you feel when everyone gawks at you. Even little kids somehow noticed my foreignness and leapt back when I passed them on the sidewalk, and grabbed their friends' arms and pointed, open mouthed. I have no clue what they were whispering, though, because it was in Azeri.

On the first day, I ended up with a massive headache because I forgot my contacts/glasses and because I didn't have time to grab coffee as I had planned. On the second day, I left my house an hour before I had to be at the meeting point (without traffic, it takes 8 mins by car/24 mins by bus, and there wasn't much traffic at this point) so I could stop by Dunkin Donuts to grab a latte. This plan was quite successful, but pretty much as soon as I got in the driver's fancy new Prius with a no-smoking sign, I spilled the coffee all over my seat. The thing is, no one seemed to I frantically tried to use the 2.5 tissues I had in my backpack to hide the evidence of the spill, as the scalding hot coffee seeped into the seat and into my pants...and my butt, let's be real. I had coffee everywhere. As the pain from the burning subsided, I continued to sit in a pool of hazelnut scented embarrassment. No matter how I shifted, I couldn't escape it. Thank goodness I was wearing black pants! But the seat did not escape a stain, and the whole car smelled like the coffee. I was sweating bullets throughout the hour long ride, waiting for someone to say "WOW that coffee smells SO intense! Did you spill it or something?" but no one said anything...I am terrified to get back into the car because the driver will definitely have discovered it by then. I can't decide if it would be more embarrassing for him to have cleaned it up, or not...I know this smell is going to follow me around the rest of the day. I hope people just think I'm wearing hazelnut perfume. On my butt.


Since I was in Marneuli as part of a different project that I was observing, I didn't have that much time in the town, but I did manage to take a few pictures. This is a short post - I don't have much to say yet about Marneuli, I just wanted to share these photos, Hopefully more to come from Kvemo Kartli in the near future!

huge lemons? young grapefruit? bumpy apples?

Town mosque

Monument to Persian/Azeri poet
It wasn't raining but water was overflowing from the
cistern on this roof and falling on the street


Sign in Russian

Typical Caucasian Muslim head covering

Marneuli Judo Academy

Signs say something like 'keep the grass green - stay off'

One of many shops selling elaborate party/wedding gowns
(Azeri brides typically wear white and red)

Kids putting up posters of the ruling party
candidate for mayor in this months' elections

A row of ruling party election posters torn down

"Men's Paradise"

A big poster of an opposition candidate for mayor
(whom I met - the first Azeri woman to ever run for mayor of Marneuli!),
above rows of smaller ruling party posters

Something in Arabic script on a residential side street
(if anyone can translate, let me know!)

Poster in Azeri on a lamp post. I think it said something
about a credit bank or an agricultural collective...