Monday, June 29, 2015

Notes on Fashion in Georgia

If you read accounts of people who traveled to Tbilisi over the last two decades, one word overwhelms descriptions of clothing- BLACK. 

See this Moscow Times article from 2002.

In 2015, however, fashion is evolving. Tbilisians still love their black, to be sure. Particularly in cooler weather, black is chic, slimming, and effortlessly cool. In black, it's easy to evoke the stereotypical characteristics of the post-Soviet Georgian woman: beautiful, classy, disinterested, aloof, and too good for you. 

I have not, however, been surprised by the amount of black clothing here. I wouldn't have noticed any higher propensity for black than in the states if I hadn't been specifically looking for it. There are three main categories of black-wearers that, to the uninformed traveler might stand out as excessively black:

1. Widows 
Including old women begging, who are also probably widows. In fact, most older women are widows, due to men's much lower life expectancy- in 2008 it was 79 for women (not bad) but only 69 for men. Add to that the stresses and dangers of life in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Georgia, including mandatory military service (in the last 80 years- WWII, Afghanistan, Georgian Civil War, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russo-Georgian War, NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq), economic crises, political uncertainty, alcoholism and drug use...etc. 
woman praying on the
metro in typical widow attire
I see significantly more old men here than in St. Petersburg, but it is still far below the number of old women I see daily.
The traditional Georgian custom for a woman who has lost a child or husband, sometimes even a cousin or nephew if they were particularly close, is to wear black in mourning for a certain period of time. Sometimes it's a few weeks, a year or two, or occasionally (especially with older women) for the rest of her life, remaining forever in mourning. 
In modern Tbilisi this custom has largely fallen out of fashion, and it is mostly old women you see in mourning clothes, but in some villages younger women still follow the practice as well.
Some Georgians think it is crazy for a woman to remain in mourning for long periods of time, resigning herself to solitude and black robes, but others see remarriage as disgraceful, and respect for the dead as the utmost priority. 


2. Hot young women
These women have their fingers on the pulse of fashion. Weather conditions matter far less than style- these girls are hot in every sense of the word. In general, women in the former Soviet Union place great importance on physical appearance, wearing makeup, high heels, and tight jeans even to run to the corner grocery at 7 am. If you don't look appropriately made up at work, expectations of your performance may be lower. At the gym, most women seem to take as much time post-workout showering, getting dressed, doing their makeup, and primping in the mirror as they did actually working out. 
Black is the new black.

3. Men
Men like wearing black. I don't have any insight into this. It's probably because it's effortless. 
I mostly see guys in black t-shirts hanging out on the street. 
In the office, people dress in normal western business attire of varying colors...if any Georgian men read this and can add something, please do. 

Some other fashion observations... 

I know Tbilisi is more conservative than where I live in the US, so I didn't bring my most low cut tops. That was probably a good idea, but more because it's just not the style. Women generally replace revealing cuts with revealing fabrics...I've seen sheer and outright see-through tops all over the place, supposedly in favor of simply removing that fabric altogether as is typical in the states. Perhaps surprisingly, skirts are about as short and tight as they are in the states for a night out. Not quite as provocative as in St. Petersburg, but high heels are essential for a night out, and showing off your legs is pretty normal. 
(one note: "going out" in Tbilisi is interesting, in part because there are way more men than women at most bars/clubs)

There is an odd trend of vests going on right now. I can't really explain why people think this is a good or even functional look. It is HOT outside (high 90s F, mid-high 30s C), yet I still see women throwing these vests on over their perfectly good stand-alone outfits. At first I thought it was a grocery store uniform...these vests are generally 3-4 inches longer than normal shirt length, sleeveless, with no buttons or anything on the front. They have no structure, seem to be cotton, and are generally brightly colored- green, blue, yellow, and black are popular. I saw a black-red reversible one yesterday. I think they might dress an outfit up, because I saw a woman wearing one at the theater, but you can really throw them over anything...I can't explain this.

Dark lipstick. I love it. I just bought some. I can't wait to try it out and see if I look more like a local! For example:
Georgia's (really kick ass) 2015 ESC entrant, Nina Sublatti

the ad for the actual lipstick I just bought

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Highlights from Life in Tbilisi

I just wanted to collect and share a few stories that have happened in the past few weeks in Tbilisi!

Sunday with the Neighbors

Adjarian Khachapuri
One Sunday, I came back from a morning trip to the store and found all my neighbors in the yard. They asked me if I wanted to join them for some "adjaruli khachapuri," and of course I said yes! So we all piled into a few cars and headed to a restaurant where we ate an incredible amount of much food. My neighbors are basically a big family- three couples, their combined 7 children, a 20-something single woman named Irina, and me. Interestingly, it's not weird at all, I feel very comfortable with them. They have adopted me into their circle, and take really good care of me. While at brunch, Goga (my landlord and all around good-guy) asked me if I had plans for the rest of the day. While I had a bunch of preparation to do for the next week at work, I didn't have any solid plans, so before I knew it, we were all back in the cars and headed north out of the city to one of the neighbor's dachas! The dacha is gorgeous- not just a little woodland hut and a vegetable garden like a lot of the dachas in Russia I've seen. It's a veritable mansion, newly built, with three stories, a wraparound porch balcony, in ground pool, fire pit with circle couch, a big back yard, and a little playhouse for the girls under construction. We played basketball for a while, and I've still got my high school talent haha I even taught 8 year old Natali how to shoot, and she made 3 baskets! My little baller prodigy <3
After basketball, I got a chance to ride (and drive) one of the quad bikes! It was so awesome; going to the dacha would have been worth it for just that experience. We then lit the fire, and sat around and ate khinkali and homemade bread and cold beer and mtsvadi (shashlik), and just chatted about Georgia and life. It was beautiful.
the dacha

dinner at the fire pit
quad biking with Goga

The German princess

One the way home from the dacha, it was casually mentioned that a princess lives in our yard/apartment complex...a our yard...
Apparently, the beautiful, traditional Georgian style wooden balcony in our yard belongs to an apartment currently being renovated for Gabriela von Hapsburg. According to Wikipedia, she has lived in Tbilisi since 2001 and been an art professor, viticulturist, and ambassador to Germany. Her ancestral titles are "Princess Imperial and Archduchess of Austria, Princess Royal of Hungary and Bohemia." Using those titles is illegal in Austria and Hungary, but she's still technically a princess, and also my neighbor, and definitely the most eminent person I've ever shared an address with!

Chairman Usupashvili 

Two weeks ago, Tbilisi Parliament hosted a week long NATO training course/conference, organized my Member of Parliament (and my boss) Tedo Japaridze. I got to attend the conference, and on the first day we toured the Parliament, and the delegation was greeted by Chairman of Parliament Davit Usupashvili. We took a group photo, lots of people schmoozed him, shaking his hand and introducing themselves...including me. When I introduced myself, though, I said my name and that I was interning for Tedo Japaridze, and he smiles, "oh, you're the American girl, yes?"
He knew me!!!
It was super exciting. He said that we will "definitely" see each other again, and he looks forward to working with me! It was a very cool moment, where I felt like I was finally becoming part of the team here at Parliament, and being seen as a valuable member with something to contribute.

Run in with the ambassador

Shortly after the tour the rest of the participants left for their hotel and I headed back to my office. Since I was left in a completely different wing of the building, however, I got super lost. I ended up wandering around for about half an hour. I found some interesting places, including a library and a media room and a lot of vending machines...but not my office. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself outside and realized I could theoretically just cut across the courtyard back to my wing, but there were barriers set up across the yard and guards everywhere and I was about to give up, when I saw my colleague Nino! She was walking with some men, and I waved to her, and she gave me the "just a minute" signal. I sidled up next to them, smiling and trying to look professional while she said goodbyes and put the men in their town car. As the car drove away, I noticed little American flags on the side view mirrors...turns out one of the men was the American ambassador to Georgia. Who knew.

Parliament- even larger than it looks
Охрана Любовь
(Security Guard Love)

After meeting seeing the Ambassador, Nino pointed me back to my wing, and one of the guards offered to guide me back through the maze of weirdly dark hallways, elevators, and velvet-lined staircases. While we were standing in the elevator, he tried to talk with me in Georgian, but quickly realized we had a language barrier. I said "ar vitsi kartuli" (I don't speak Georgian), but apparently he only heard my Georgian and not the actual words, insisting that I DO in fact speak Georgian. So he started chatting with me and I just smiled politely...then he asked if I had a Facebook. Well, obviously, everyone has a Facebook! But that was the wrong answer, because then he handed me his phone so I could find my profile on FB so we could become friends...
I guess I could have been rude to the Parliament security guard, and just walked away, but I was still lost and so I just typed my name and continued to awkwardly smile.
When I got home, I saw he had sent me several messages calling me beautiful and offering to teach me Georgian (supposedly so we could actually communicate and then of course get married). I just ignored the messaged, unfriended him, and cross my fingers everyday that I won't run into him at work.

Georgia- always weird. Always wonderful. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

and a pinecone for dessert

Adventures in Borjomi, Vardzia, and Akhaltsikhe 

This weekend I took a trip out west-ish to the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia. The places I visited are right on the border with Turkey, and the region is known for its low, panoramic mountains covered in dark forests full of evergreen trees and animals such as bears, deers, lynx, and foxes.
Yes, I went by myself, as every single person has asked me with shock...I wanted to go, and wasn't willing to waste one of my very few weekends I have left in Georgia to wait for one of my friends to be available. Plus, I like traveling by myself- freedom to do anything I want, make my own choices, be on my own schedule, and more maneuverability. 

I set off from Tbilisi on Saturday morning, and got a marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe. It was three hours of very hot, sweaty, bumpy roads, but the views were gorgeous and serene. Thankfully, the marsh wasn't that full. It was just me, a few old ladies, and three young hooligans. About halfway through the ride, one of the hooligans offered me a bottle of ice water, and I couldn't resist...which opened the floodgates of communication. The young guys constantly asked me to translate every English song that came on the radio, asked me about America, about my impressions of Georgia, invited me to shashlik and birthday parties, and bought me ice cream at the rest stop. Although I kind of just wanted to listen to my music and watch the countryside shoot by, it was a prime example of Georgian friendliness, and I can't really complain.
check out the holes in the rock- caves!

As soon as I got to Akhaltsikhe I immediately jumped into a taxi to Vardzia. For 40 lari ($18) I got a round trip to Vardzia (about an hour away), the driver waited for me to explore, plus a stop at Khertvisi Fortress and photo ops. 

Vardzia is an ancient cave city, built in the 12th century by Georgian King Tamar (a woman who gets the title of King because she was so bad ass). It has a long, complex history, and is currently home to monks! It's gorgeous and intriguing- hundreds of small caves hewn into sheer cliff faces, scattered all over the side of a mountain.
looking out from Vardzia

a tree inexplicably covered in chewed gum

locked door to Ananuri Church at Vardzia

Church of the Dormition- paintings from 12th century 

After Vardzia I stopped at the deserted and beautiful Khertvisi Fortress on the road back to Akhaltsikhe.

Khertvisi Fortress

Cows coming home for the night in Akhaltsikhe

Back in Akhaltsikhe, I needed to find a place to stay the night. I just wanted a cheap, simple guest house, and the taxi driver said he knew one place (which seems strange to me since there are like 30 hotels in this town), so we ended up at a small hotel on the edge of town. The proprietress, Lia, showed me one room that was fine, nothing fancy, but she wanted 50 lari for it...I made it clear that I wasn't able to spend more than 20, and went to leave, but instead she showed me a different room in the back of the building. It was weirdly isolated, located on a balcony above a yard filled with wet dirt and old tools, but it was clean enough and I was exhausted, so I agreed.

After a power nap, I went out to explore the town. I crossed the street to a little store, and asked a guy standing on the curb which direction was the city center. Long story short, I ended up in a car (with a half-shattered windshield and ripped out stereo system) with a random guy driving me to the city center, since apparently it was too far to walk. He offers to give me a mini-tour, so we circled the very small city (30,000 people), and he pointed out the sites. Then I asked him to point me to a cheap restaurant, and he did...but he also joined me. Most awkward meal ever. He literally ate one cucumber slice, and I scarfed down salad and shashlik and limonati as he just kind of watched...he asked several times if he was bothering me, but he was so nice, how could I tell him to leave me alone? He was very interested in America, so we chatted a bit, but it was mostly just me eating and pretending to be very occupied with my phone. 

My dinner partner dropped me at my hotel, and I extricated myself from his company. I ran into Lia on my way to my room and I mentioned that I planned on going to Sapara Monastery the next day- and of course she knew a guy. Turns out her nephew speaks really good English and has a 4-wheel drive and will take me to Sapara and give me a tour for only 5 lari ($2) more than a taxi would cost! 
I basically said give me his number, I'll think about it, but suddenly I'm sitting down, given coffee, and in less than 10 minutes the nephew, Davit, is strolling through the door.
Turns out that Davit is actually the bomb. He studied sociology in Ukraine, and we had so much to talk about! It was already around 10 pm, but he took me out to Rabati Castle and the little man made lake in Akhaktsikhe. We agreed to go to Sapara the next day, and he would only charge me for gas.

In the morning, Davit picked me up and we decided to add a stop to the tour and headed up Abastumani- a resort town from the Tsarist era that has largely fallen out of popularity and the guide books. Nowadays, most tourists are Georgian. The town was quaint and peaceful, and we drove up the the still-working astrological observatory for some gorgeous views of the surrounding valleys and a super sketchy cable car with mechanics from the 80s. We took a much needed coffee break and then headed onward to Sapara Monastery

Sketchy 1980s cable car control room at Abastumani

Cable car route...aka risk your life

Sapara was as gorgeous and spiritual as everyone says, and the road really was as terrible as everyone says. After exploring the 9th century complex, we just sat in the sunshine on an old wall overlooking the city and mountains and valleys. It was quiet except for the sound of the river bubbling right below, but invisible through the trees. I could have sat on that wall for hours. 
Davit on the wall

me on the wall
Everything ended up costing me 30 lari, I have no idea how that would compare to a taxi, but I think either way it was worth it to get the company and conversation of Davit! We talked a lot about Georgian culture and social issues and my research. It was a very cool day!

The only picture I took of Sapara...oops
My next stop was Borjomi. 
Adding Abastumani to the itinerary took some time, so I only had about 3 hours in Borjomi, but I think I saw everything I wanted to. You could definitely spend 2 or 3 days in the town, just relaxing and "taking the waters" and such. There are also several hiking and horse trails through the Park. With a population of just 14,000 Borjomi  is even smaller than Akhaltsikhe, but having been a resort/spa/sanatorium town since the late 1800s, is much better suited to tourists. Borjomi is famous for its mineral water, exported all over the world, and especially popular in the former Soviet Union. The water is a bit salty and sulfuric, but apparently chock full of beneficial minerals and nutrients, and has won several international awards.
Empty bottles for sale to fill with spring water

Filling bottles

Borjomuli River

Interestingly styled facades in the newly renovated town center

Cable Car in Borjomi city park

Borjomi City Park

I actually thought the Akhaltsikhe/Abastumani area was more scenic than Borjomi, but both are ringed by these heavily forested mountains, speckled with rocky outcroppings- neither place disappoints on that count. 
The marshrutka driver dropped me off close to the city park, one of Borjomi's main attractions. The park is huge, and well kept. The atmosphere is 1950s carnival meets tsarist sanatorium meets iPhone era. There are several carnival games like 'knock down the bottles' and 'shoot the water gun' as well as a Ferris wheel located at the top of the cable car. The cable car is a bit less sketchy than the one at Abastumani (AVOID THAT), but has spectacular views of the landscape. Apart from the Ferris wheel and a restaurant, there's really nothing at the top except for groups of screaming school children. It's a strangely captivating time warp, and for your sake, dear reader, I wish I was a better photographer...unfortunately you'll just have to take my word for it. I particularly enjoyed the pictures from the early 20th century, showing pre-Soviet aristocrats enjoying the resort. 

Pics from the early 1900s
After my stroll in the park and sampling the medicinal Borjomi waters, I stopped for lunch at a "restaurant" that was just in a house owned by two old ladies. They also sold me a jar of pine cone jam, a local specialty. Pine cones do not taste great- woody and kind of minty and bitter, but apparently they cure sickness and I've had a cold for the past two weeks so I'm willing to try anything at this point. During lunch I was playing with their adorable granddaughter, who was baffled by my stupidity as an adult who can't speak Georgian, and the women decided that since I'm good with kids, I must be ready to get married. The typical series of questions ensued- you like Georgia? You like Georgian food? You want to stay in Georgia? You must marry a Georgian man. Then, when they saw my cross necklace, their excitement went into hyperdrive. They got so excited that I am a kargi gogo (good girl) that they started thinking of who in Borjomi I could marry, and they were about to call people to come court me, but I managed to escape by saying I had to catch a marshrutka back to Tbilisi, but promising that next time I'm in Borjomi I will go back to them and let them find me a husband. So I can never go back to Borjomi. Georgia is always an adventure!

Other things to do in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region include: The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, the Mtsvane (Green) Monastery, Bakuriani ski resort town, Zarzma Monastery, and the Armenian towns of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Barbed Wire on the Border: A Visit to almost South Ossetia


Last week at work there was a NATO conference on the Black Sea Region, and I was able to participate! One of the coolest parts of the conference was a trip we took to the administrative border line with South Ossetia. The region is an occupied piece of Georgian territory, which broke away/was invaded by Russia in the 2008 August war. It is currently accessible only through Russia in the north, separated by a barbed wire fence, Russian peace keeping troops, and hi-tech cameras. NATO organized our visit so we were able to enter the 'grey zone' in between the two officially monitored border lines. We were escorted by a heavily armed special forces police unit of about 10 men with assault rifles, and a small media team. The whole area is under video surveillance, but apart from our tour group it was very quiet. We drew the attention of some locals living in the village of Khurvaleti who came to speak to the cameras about their very difficult living situations. One of the more interesting features of the border was a Georgian man in his late 80's who, as far as I understand, found himself on the Ossetian side when the barbed wire was unexpectedly raised. It's difficult, but not impossible to cross the border back into Georgia proper, but this man cannot leave because his wife is too sick to travel and he would not be able to cross back into South Ossetia to see her once he leaves. So, he lives in the grey zone- too old to work, but unable to receive his Georgian pension because, for political reasons, Georgia refuses to pay pensions in currency other than Lari and Lari are useless in South Ossetia (not sure about possibilities for currency exchange...). He survives by getting food and water literally thrown over the barbed wire fence to him by his neighbors in Georgia. This unbelievably sad situation is caused by many factors, including a) Russia's refusal to broker a real peaceful solution along the lines of international law, b) Georgia's refusal to compromise in any way with South Ossetian/Russia occupying forces, c) the Georgian man's refusal to accept the Russian passport offered to everyone in South Ossetia (affording them Russian social support, although it isn't much). Basically, no one is 100% innocent or correct in this conflict, but a lot of the suffering has been caused and/or is exacerbated by peoples' and countries' stubbornness and unyielding binds to the past and cultural/historical traditions that often impede progress and peace rather than imbuing people with a reasonable amount of respect and reverence while informing decisions in order to avoid past mistakes...the role of the past in politics was a prevalent theme in the NATO conference as well. 
After about 20 minutes of listening to a carefully prepared speech by our lovely 'tour guide' from the Ministry of the Interior, our guards started tensing up and pointing over the hill across the wire, where a man had appeared. He walked toward us, but kept just shy of shouting distance, and had his shirt pulled up over his head to shield his face. He was using binoculars to watch us, and it looked as though he was wearing a Kevlar vest, but I'm not totally sure. They told us that he's either a Russian military officer or a local person paid to watch the grey zone and report back to the occupying forces. People started getting a bit skittish after that and we left pretty quickly.

Overall, the visit was fascinating, and pretty depressing. Such a beautiful, serene landscape marred by the barbed wire and fearful tension marking one of the "frozen conflicts" of the former Soviet Union. 

The ride home, however, was a bit more adventurous...our bus crashed. The road from the border back to the highway is terrible- full of potholes, only semi-paved, and flanked on one side by farm land and the other by a watery swamp ditch. Guess which side the bus fell the end, it was okay. The 2 seconds right after we crashed, when the bus was rocking and we weren't sure if it was going to flip or not was terrifying, but otherwise it was just kind of exciting. While we carefully evacuated the bus, our police officers stood on the up-side of the bus to hold it down. Thankfully, our police escort was able to call some buddies to bring a big anti-infantry truck to tow the bus out. While we were waiting I chatted with some awesome Georgians, and took in the lovely agricultural landscape. The whole thing took about half an hour, and I was very impressed with how efficiently the issue was handled. They decided our bus was still drivable, so we loaded back in and returned to Tbilisi without further incident!

Pictures from the ABL: