Saturday, August 29, 2015

Don't Tell me to be Careful

Here are a few of the people who have told me to "be careful":

  • Every single member of my family
  • My neighbor who traveled out of the country once 50 years ago
  • My orthodontist 
  • The man renewing my passport
  • Waitresses
  • Boyfriends
  • Friends
  • etc.
It often comes with a sigh, a shake of the head, raised eyebrows. 

This is what my mom tells me when I drive to the grocery store, what my dad tells me when I go to my first college party, what my boyfriend tells me when I plan to go out drinking with the girls. You tell me this because you love me. Because it's a reflex. Because it feels good to say it, like you're somehow actively aiding in your loved one's safety and well being. Because it feels good to hear it, to be reminded that I'm loved, cared for, that someone has left the light on for me.

It doesn't feel good when a stranger says it. In that condescending tone that says "I know it's not my place to say anything, but you're making a bad decision and I want you to know I am judging you."

It doesn't feel warm and fuzzy when the bureaucrat stuck in the worst civil service job imaginable renewing other people's passports on rush order so they can jet off somewhere while he sits behind his bulletproof glass says it. He is saying "I've seen you before. I've seen the documentaries about the wild college girls who get drunk in the islands on Spring Break and end up on the news; the tragic stories of idealistic young aid workers who walk unarmed, unprepared, and unaware into the heart of civil wars and get kidnapped or worse. I have seen it- you must not have. You can't take care of yourself, you're weak and naive."

It doesn't feel reassuring when the old woman at church says it. The woman who looks down her wrinkled, white nose at you, holding defensively onto her lifestyle of country club brunches and vacations to Florida or New England, her lifestyle of homemaking and child raising, her lifestyle comprised of fulfilling society's expectations- which I am now breaking, her lifestyle whose validity I threaten. She says "You're one of those rebellious children, aren't you? I have gathered a lifetime of wisdom from my viewing of Fox news and that one time I went on a cruise with my daughter's family. You think you can break free from the social norms that defined my life, but soon enough you'll be back, doing the same thing I did, and realizing your attempts at a different life were futile. I heard ISIS is going to take over that country soon anyway."

"Be careful" can be full of love, or it can be full of condescension- or some of both. 

You think I haven't been told to be careful before? I have.
You think I haven't been told be careful enough? I have.

Maybe you don't know what else to say.
"Have fun!" sounds hollow and reveals inexperience, your lack of knowledge, the unbreachable gap between you and I.
"Be careful" seems more appropriate, it gives you weight as an authority figure, a guide, a guard, a warning.
You can't advise me on anything specific because all you know about Russia is that Sarah Palin can see it from her house (or can she? you were never really sure...), and that "that Putin fellow" is for some reason the enemy. 
Are you really concerned for my safety? I don't know. I suppose as far as any of us are concerned for any other person whose path we cross. I don't think you're staying up at night worrying for me, or saying a prayer for my safety and enlightenment before bed, or writing me heartfelt letters. Liking my photo albums on Facebook doesn't count.

So now you know what I hear when you say "be careful." Is that what you want to say? Maybe. Probably not. But what else can you say? What other messages can you convey?
May I suggest:
  • "What are you looking forward to the most?"
  • "What are you most nervous about?"
  • "What would be the ideal take away from this experience?"
  • "I think what you're doing is __insert honest opinion here__"
  • How have you been preparing for your trip?
Not everyone will like these. I think they're fine. Almost anything is fine if it's genuine. 

Specificity is key. 
If you really are concerned for my safety (dad), a generic "be careful" is not going to help anything, or improve my safety. It's not going to make me more cautious or aware or smarter- I am already exercising my very best judgement at every moment. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have made it this far.
Give me some real advice, some real tips, or engage ME in OUR conversation- ask me ways I keep vigilant while walking in a strange city at night. Ask me how I decided whether or not a trip is safe. Give me the benefit of the doubt. Assume I have a good head on my shoulders. Assume I make good choices. Assume I have a strong instinct of self preservation.

So, I know you mean well, really. I try not to get angry, I try not to ball my fists up at my sides, I try not to grab you by the shoulders and shake you and shout, but please...don't tell me to be careful.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Route Through the Caucasus

This post is a general overview/explanation of my trip to the Northern Caucasus.

More detailed, funny, and exciting selected stories to come!

At the end of July, 2015 I decided to finally stop putting it off and go into the Northern Caucasus- the Russian Caucasus. I have wanted to travel here for years, probably since I first saw the film Кавказский Пленец (Prisoner of the Caucasus) at Startalk Russian Academy in 2011.  The interesting thing about this part of the world is the impressions people have of it, the ideas and images and beliefs they’ve formed at a distance, that they share with you as soon as they find out you’re considering a trip. 

  • Russians from the cities usually react with fear and confusion, even disgust- why would anyone want to visit that uncivilized backwater?

  • People from Tbilisi are also usually fearful, but more encouraging. They see a value in visiting their northern Caucasian cousins, but very few Georgians I’ve spoken with have visited themselves (whether that’s a consequence of limited financial resources, disinterest, or stringent visa laws I can’t say).

  • No one in Georgia (and few people in Russia) understands why I would travel on my own, or how I can travel on my own. “I could never do that” is the response I get most frequently. When asked why not, people usually respond either that they would get too lonely/bored, that it’s too dangerous, or that it’s just not culturally acceptable (especially in the regions outside Tbilisi).

  • People from the North Caucasus usually are very excited and dismiss any concerns about safety. It’s also not uncommon for locals to give me conflicting answers as to whether a place is safe. Of course, there’s a difference between being safe for a group of young local guys to go to visit their friends and being safe for an American woman to travel alone as a tourist.
So, needless to say, choosing where to go on this trip was difficult and confusing, and in the end I decided to just be flexible and play things by ear.

I scribbled out a bunch of potential cities and routes on the back of a work memo, using Google maps to eyeball-estimate convenience of travel. I came up with a few alternative routes:

Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Nal'chik 
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Nal'chik > Grozny
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Grozny > Nal'chik
Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Grozny > Makhachkala > Derbent   
In fact, I ended up following none of those potential routes. 

Instead, I went:

Tbilisi > Kazbegi > Vladikavkaz > Nazran > Grozny > Vladikavkaz >Kazbegi > Tbilisi

Here's what happened...

I left my home in Tbilisi at about 1:30 pm on Wednesday, July 22, and got on the 3 pm  marshrutka to Kazbegi

My friend Kakha met at off the marshrutka in Kazbegi and we headed to his house. He owns a guest house and that night there were lots of people there and we cooked and had a sort of party, talking and laughing and eating late into the night.   

crossing through the Dariali
Gorge to Russia on foot
In the morning, I went to visit my friends Nata and Mito, shared a hot cup of tea, and their son Dato drove me to the city center to get a taxi to the Russian border. While on the way there, Dato suggested that instead I just hitchhike to the I thought, hey, what the hell, and found a comfortable slice of highway to stick out my thumb. I'll write more about my hitchhiking adventures...but in short, I made it across the border and to Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia without spending a dime.  

arriving in Vladikavkaz
I walked around the city for the day, eating every Ossetian thing I could find and seeing the sights. I spent the night at a cheap hotel in Vladikavkaz, and the owner and staff were incredibly friendly. I met a young man from Makhachkala, Dagestan, who changed the trajectory of my trip. I had been planning on going to Nal'chik, Kabardino-Balkaria the next day, but after my exciting day and night (stories to come!) in North Ossetia, the sleepy resort town of Nal'chik seemed so tame. This guy also really talked up Dagestan, promising me I had nothing to be afraid of. I wasn't completely sold that I should go to Dagestan alone, but I wanted to at least leave myself the opportunity, so I decided to go to Grozny first, so that I had another day to decide whether to head south east to Dagestan or back west to Nal'chik.

the marsh to Nazran- all Ingush women
The next day I visited the Beslan memorial, and then hopped on a marshrutka (for less than $1) to Nazran, Ingushetia. After an incredibly awkward stroll around the city center in my jeans and giant backpack, I got some lunch and was put on another marshrutka by the restaurant proprietress to see the memorial to Ingush and Chechen Deportation on the edge of the city. My plan from there was to get a marsh back to the bus station and head on to Grozny, but...
and here is where you should stop reading if you are an adult who is deeply concerned with my safety and will yell at me for doing stupid dangerous things...

---Seriously, dad, just skip ahead a few paragraphs---

I don't like standing on the side of the road. This road to Nazran is wide, flat, dusty, and unmarked. It's flanked by open fields of weedy grasses. It feels lazy and boring to just stand there waiting in that field and I'm restless. So instead of just standing, waiting for the marshrutka to drive by, I started walking towards Nazran, planning to flag down the marsh as it passed. However, after about 5 minutes (several cars honking as they zoomed by), a sleek, shiny BMW slowed down and stopped a few meters in front of me. My heart skipped a beat, both nervous and excited. I cautiously approached the passenger side of the vehicle, tightly gripping the straps of my backpack like armor. Leaning down to the window, I saw an old Ingush man in a traditional Caucasian felt hat, Muslim prayer beads hanging off his review mirror. I asked if he was headed back to Nazran and if he could take me to the city center, he agreed, but once in the car I told him my final destination was Grozny, and he explained that he was going to his family's village halfway to Grozny, and it would be best if he just took me there himself.
"Where are you from?"
"I live in Georgia...Tbilisi"

"You're Georgian?"
"Um..." I paused, considering my options- I could say I was not Georgian and not elaborate, which is sometimes a fun, coy little guessing game, but I didn't think this man would appreciate it; I could tell him I was American and risk a negative response sparking aggressive political affirmations, entrepreneurial attempts to exploit my citizenship, or anything else; I could just say yes, I'm Georgian..., "Yes,"
We chatted for a few more minutes,
"Your accent doesn't sound very Georgian," he suspected my deceit 
"Well...I...well, my mom..."
"Where are you really from?"
Another pause.
"My father is American"
"Ahhhhh I see, American..."
I explained that I don't usually tell people right away that I'm American, that it sometimes invites unwanted interest or anger, and he completely understood. He didn't ask me any awkward questions about being a spy or try to kick me out of the car or ask me how on earth I could live in a country with a black president. He was genuinely interested in what I thought of his Northern Caucasus and we had a nice conversation about both of our families.

I didn't fully understand the road plan, though, because I was surprised when we stopped on the side of the highway after about 30 minutes. Here was the turn off to his village, and he would be leaving me here...but not without a ride. He flagged down the second car that passed- a sporty black Toyota. The young driver took me to Grozny without much chatting. He was pleasant and very non-threatening, but was more interested in blasting his house music than talking. He didn't even ask my name until we arrived, although he did take the sun shades off the windows so I could see the countryside flying by. He wanted no money, didn't try to get my phone number or Facebook information, he just wanted to help me on my journey. 
refueling on the road to Grozny

We arrived in Grozny about an hour later, and he offered to drive me through "Grozny Sea" and the city center. After our mini tour, I asked him to drop me in the center, perhaps at a hotel whose name I had read in an outdated online magazine article. He didn't know the hotel, but also didn't want to leave me on the street, so he started calling all of his friends and asking about the hotel, eventually giving up and suggesting an alternative. I ended up in a pretty nice hotel that wasn't much more expensive than I had planned on spending. Plus the manager/check in desk operator/security guard had a shy smile and a glock strapped to his waist, so I was too intrigued to leave. I spent that night in Grozny, where I met two guys who decided my further plan. I realized that I shouldn't go to Dagestan on this trip- not enough time, not enough people, not enough previous planning. My new friends also promised to show me around Grozny and let me in on some insights of Chechen life if I stayed, so I did.

hotel guy's gun
my Chechen friends/tour guides/body guards
Now it was Saturday, and that evening at around 7:30 I pulled myself away from the group who adorably begged me to stay and found myself in a taxi with Ramzan Kadyrov's English translator headed back to Vladikavkaz. I decided to come back to "Vladika" as they call it, because I didn't feel I'd had enough time there, and I felt so comfortable. I wanted to explore more! The trip was about two hours, and all three of us (me, translator, and taxi driver) had dinner in the city, before they turned around and went back to Grozny...

I love Vladikavkaz!
the homies of Vladika
We had dinner on Vladikavkaz's main pedestrian street, and when they left I decided to take one last stroll, planning on leaving back to Tbilisi in the morning. Instead, I randomly met Zaurbek, a former world champion freestyle wrestler (and Olympian) who I got a drink with and who got me to agree not to leave right away in the morning...that night I stayed in the same hotel as before, but I arrived so late that I didn't see the owner. When I saw him in the morning, he was shocked that I had stayed in one of the "economy" rooms, and offered me a free room for that night in the newly renovated part of the hotel. That, plus Zaurbek inviting me to a wedding convinced me to stay an extra night! I spent the day with Zaurbek and his friends (we didn't actually end up going to a wedding, unfortunately, but it was still very fun), and I got a great night's sleep in a very comfortable free bed!

my taxi back to Georgia
crossing into Georgia
The next day, I finally had to leave Russia for real, because now it was Monday and I was supposed to be back at I got in a taxi (against my better judgement- I should have hitchhiked again, because that taxi was both extremely uncomfortable and I got extremely ripped off. I made it back to Kazbegi, Georgia, and my boss was calling me to do some urgent work. Although I planned on just staying an hour or so in Kazbegi to have lunch and say goodbye to friends, I now needed a computer. So I went to a friend's house and did work for about two hours, and then people were coming home from work and opening beers and I was introduced to some cool girls who begged me to stay the I did!

party in Kazbegi


The next morning, I finally found my way onto a marshrutka back to Tbilisi. Which got in an accident 30 minutes into the trip. And the main road into the city was closed due to the European Youth Olympics. So it took forever to get back...but I still made it into the office for the last part of the day, and my boss wasn't even mad!

when the marsh crashed...
Thus ended my glorious first trip to the Northern Caucasus of Russia...and definitely not my last. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Top 20 Most Memorable Social Interactions in Georgia

Sometimes when I reflect on my time here as a whole, or when I try and think of the type of atmosphere I'm looking for in a cafe or restaurant to sit at, certain experiences stand out in my mind. I thought I would collect them here to show a sliver of what life is really like in the most beautiful, pure moments of human interaction.

In no particular order...

1. The hole in the wall "khachapuria" in Signagi

While overall I wasn't a huge fan of Signagi, the so-called "city of love" due to its 24/7 wedding registration office, I had one very interesting morning there. I was staying at a guest house that was more like a family hotel, more upscale (and more expensive) than my usual style. To counterbalance that, although breakfast was offered for 5 lari, I went to go find a cafe early Saturday morning (for the record- 5 lari is about $2, and I was confident I could get breakfast for less than that...Georgia is ridiculously affordable). I looked online and found one place that seemed perfect, but when I arrived at 9:30 it was closed, so I wandered around town for a while, and returned thinking maybe it opened at 10...but no. So I wandered around for another hour looking for another cafe that might be also good, but didn't find anywhere I liked, so I came back to the first cafe at 11...still not open. Finally I gave up, and by this time my head was starting to hurt from not eating, so I popped into a small, empty storefront advertising khachapuri in the window. Inside were just a few wooden tables and benches, and a small counter with piles and piles of hot, fresh khachapuri. I tentatively called out a "gamarjoba?" (hello) and a small, brown woman appeared from a back door. She quickly realized I didn't speak Georgian as I managed to say "coffee and khachapuri" before she sat me down and poured me a double portion of Turkish coffee and a fluffy, flaky penovani khachapuri. This lady called out to her colleague, and before I knew it they were both sitting across from me, watching me eat, smiling and nodding. We quickly exhausted my narrow Georgian, and mercifully a group of middle aged men came into the shop just then. Fueled by their happy surprise that an American girl had found her way into their little bakery, it basically became a bunch of locals fawning over me, giving me coffee and coke, and telling me I was beautiful. Wonderful morning.

2. Lika and I's most personal conversations

At my internship, at the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi, I share an office with a wonderful young woman named Lika. We get along so well. She is sharp and clever, has interesting and intelligent opinions on foreign policy and domestic politics, and she's funny. We have great conversations about Georgian culture, and she helps me better understand society. She also helps me with girl stuff like where to buy bathing suits and what kind of makeup is cool. She is always patient with me when she has to translate Parliament sessions and more or less be my babysitter as I take meetings in various departments. We also bond over the moments when we realize neither of us have any work to do when we start liking each others Facebook photos from across the room. I'll miss you, Lika! <3

3. Armenian-Georgian home restaurant/jammery in Borjomi

 An excerpt from this post

"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 got along well with the little Natalia, 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 literally 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."

4. Meeting sociologist Davit in Akhaltsikhe 

I describe the circumstances of our meeting halfway through this post 

Davit playing tourist
Davit is really a great person. He doesn't speak English, so we spoke Russian, but instead of being awkward or difficult, I hardly even noticed it wasn't my native language. He just happened to use the exact set of vocabulary I know! We got along comfortably, and we were able to discuss the good and bad things about Georgian culture. Those conversations where I can so openly express my opinions and have a local respond not with blind defensiveness but with civil debate are the most genuine and meaningful.

5. Being waited for all night by Aslan in Vladikavkaz
"I love Vladikavkaz" in Ossetian

(yes I know this isn't Georgia)
I haven't written about my trip to the Caucasus yet, but my first night in Vladikavkaz was awesome. When I got to the hotel, I met the owner, Aslan, and asked where I could find good Ossetian pirogi. He told me that he would take me later when the workday ended, but I kind of laughed, thinking he was more or less kidding. I spent the day touring the city, walking around, and returned to the hotel around 9:30 pm. There I found Aslan sitting on the front steps, apparently waiting for me. He teasingly yelled at me for making him wait, asking where I'd been, and then very quickly turned around and yelled some stuff in Georgian. He told me to grab my bathing suit and be ready in 10 minutes...I didn't ask questions, and it turned out to be a super cool night! Aslan waiting for me was indicative of him being so excited to show me his city, and valuing me as a guest and a friend.

6. When my neighbor told me I would be too old to get married in 2 years

I don't really know why I liked this conversation so much, I should probably be kind of offended or maybe even worried, but I guess it was just very amusing. 

My neighbor didn't realize I was leaving in August, and when she found out, she said,
"No, stay!"
"I would love to, but I have to go finish university"
"Oh come on, there are universities here! Why don't you stay? We'll find you a good Georgian husband," 
"Maybe when I graduate in 2 years I'll come back and you can find me a husband then"
"Two years? You will be too old!"  
*cue laughter*

7. When people say "не уежай" in unison
Не уежай means "don't leave" or "don't go." There have been a few moments where I've been discussing my leaving and the people I'm with kind of beg me not to go. Honestly, they probably don't care that much, but it feels good to think that people like me enough to want me to stay.

-The random guys I met in Grozny
-My neighbors
-Friends in Vladikavkaz
-Friends in Kazbegi

8. When I charmed a world champion wrestler in Vladikavkaz

(also not Georgia)
Again, I'll write a full post about Vladika, so I don't want to give too much away, but more or less I met a guy when he was sitting in a car and I was walking. We started a conversation, and I kept trying to leave, but he kept saying "no, wait!" because he thought I was super interesting and intriguing (obviously). And we just went through this little loop for about 30 minutes until I gave in and graced him with my company. (Turns out that guy is the 2009 f
reestyle wrestling world champion and was in the Olympics)
9. When I was offered a job in Grozny

school I could have worked at

(still not Georgia)
The owner of a language school that teaches English, Arabic, and French asked me to be not only an English teacher at his school, but run the entire English program with conversation clubs, regular classes, and cultural events. Right now interest in English language and American/British culture is booming in Chechnya, and he is really trying to capitalize on the trend and seize the moment. He offered to sponsor my visa and find me housing and everything. This guy is also Ramzan Kadyrov's English translator...

10. When I bonded with my awesome waitress in Kutaisi

I was alone. I was chatty. The restaurant was full, but my waitress was so cool and took the time to talk with me. Tatia is cute and bubbly and so candid. She earned a degree in Tbilisi in psychology and religion, but couldn't find a job there so she moved back home to Kutaisi and works as a waitress everyday, making way less than minimum wage. She says she wants to move to Germany, but she doesn't know if or when she'll have the money to be able to do it.

11. When I had a rom-com quality meet-cute with Dima 

I was at the gym late one night, and saw a very cute, very buff guy. We made eye contact a few times, but of course my workout comes first (lol) so I more or less ignored him. Then, as he was walking into the locker room he took off his shirt and I passed out for about 30 seconds. By the time I took a shower and got dressed (as is mandated here), I left the gym about 10 minutes before closing and this guy was nowhere in sight. Fast forward 15 minutes and I enter the metro, who do I see standing on the opposite side of the platform but HOT GYM GUY! How ironic- we end up in the same place, but he's going the opposite direction. I gave him some furtive glances, trying to confirm it was the gym guy, wondering if he remembered me. As my train came, however, he crossed the platform onto my train!!! Then he transferred lines at the same time as me...then he got on the next train going the same direction as me!!! As we stood on that platform, he was probably 10 meters away from me, separated by a sea of people, and I just openly stared at him. At that distance he was pretty blurry, and I could tell his head was turned in my direction, but couldn't tell if he was looking at me or not. I awkwardly forgot that my far vision sucks and he could probably see my face perfectly...the whole situation was pretty unexpected and interesting, and I couldn't help but giggle. When I smiled, he smiled back, and it was like "oh shoot, he definitely could tell I was staring at him the past 2 minutes." I quickly faced forward, cheeks burning, and suddenly he was standing right next to me, smiling. My first thought when I saw him was that he looks kind of like a Russian pop singer I love Dima Bilan...and turns out his name is actually Dima!

We quickly found out there was a pretty significant language barrier...but, honestly, not ever going further then that meeting is  probably the best case scenario anyway. We're friends on Facebook, though, so thanks for the romantic memory, Dima.

12. Every time the adorable neighbor kids tell me they love me

They seriously love me. They have chalked all over the outside walls of my house and the facing wall, they have painted me a heap of pictures, one girl has made me a handful of jewelry and little toys out of rubber bands, and every single time she sees me, Natali comes running at me screaming just to hug me and have me say "how are you?" in Georgian.

13. Basically every moment in Kazbegi

In particular, every time
Shalva gives me his sassy attitude. Shalva is the sassiest 15 year old boy I've ever met. I want to write a post just praising his awesomeness. When I hug him he freaks out and makes the sassiest face, and me and his mom laugh, but I know he loves me too. Riyana, if you're reading this- you and Shalva are a match made in Heaven, please marry him and unite our families. 

14. When my landlord/neighbor/coolest guy ever heard me talking on the phone, clearly very annoyed, with a guy. He asked who the guy was, if he was bothering me, and offered to "take care of him" for me

That's basically the whole story. He's my patroni, I secretly decided

15. When I told my landlord/neighbor/coolest guy ever that I would pay my rent tomorrow since I'm leaving so soon and he said "the money does not concern me, it is just such sadness that you are leaving" (I still have to pay my rent, tho...)

16. When our NATO bus crashed and we all bonded on the side of the road in a field outside Gori

17. When I asked a police officer in Grozny for directions and we chatted about life for 20 minutes

(not Georgia...)
I think he was just bored. He was a nice guy.

18. When the FSB officer interrogating me at the border leaving Russia showed some vulnerability and we shared a moment

Sneak pic of the Russian border

(are most of these not actually Georgia??)
There were definitely some aspects of our conversation that seemed to me like curiosity feigned for the sake of getting information about my personal life, but he admitted to me that even though his job means he's forbidden to leave Russia, he has a dream to travel the world. He said he does this work despite its restrictiveness because he's a patriot. I told him that I'm also a patriot, but I believe you can see the world and learn about other places and people and still serve your country. Then he asked me what life is really like in America. He said he didn't believe the movies and TV shows, and I told him that a lot of what you see about daily life is pretty accurate. It seemed like he wanted me to say that life was really terrible in most parts of the country. I told him the truth- that most places have a very high quality of life, and overall I think quality of life is higher than in Russia, but of course no matter where you live money is very important, and if you are in America and impoverished, your life will probably be pretty bad. 

19. Nastya

A true friend. A wonderful girl. She is Ukrainian living in Georgia, and we bonded right away. She has been my go-to for coffee dates and nights on the town, and she brought into my life in Georgia excitement, surprise, fun, and sisterhood. Love you, beautiful girl <3

20. Spontaneous trip to Kazbegi with the bichebi 

Before I realized the  truth of Georgian friendship (cue bitterness) these guys were my bros. We went out drinking one Friday and decided to head to one of the guy's vacation homes in Kazbegi the next day. Despite the fact that I had been in Kazbegi the weekend before and I had been planning on going to Borjomi that morning...I decided to take the change of plans as an adventure and we had a wonderful time in Kazbegi!

The Truth about Georgian Friendship

Georgians are known throughout the world (to those who know Georgia) for their incredibly warm and generous hospitality. 
This is accurate.
The longer I've been here, however, the more I question the authenticity of Georgian hospitality...

Many Georgians have expressed to me the sacred value of tradition, and the customs of hospitality are part of that tradition. Several Georgians have also expressed to me that this could be an incredible burden. 
People will brag to me about how limitless Georgian hospitality is, how it means that a man can call up his friend at 2 am and his wife will get out of bed and prepare tea and cake for the guests and they will share drinks. Then they will turn around and confess that this tradition is not something they would like to be on the wrong end of.

Georgian tradition says guests are gifts from God, thus, while Georgians will feed you heaps and charm the pants off you while making your life as a guest as happy and comfortable as possible- they won't necessarily like it. It can be an obligation.

This is where things can get complicated. It can be very hard to tell if a Georgian person is being genuinely friendly and genuinely likes you, or if it's just "being polite." Of course, being polite in America is basically a pinched smile and curt nods, maybe offering a glass of water, whereas in Georgia it can be as elaborate as a full feast and singing and dancing and drunken toasts to your yeah, it's not as easy to tell.

Friendship in Georgia is deep. Deeper than anything I've ever seen. It's a small country, and even in Tbilisi most people grow up in small, tight-knit communities. During the 90s when times were very tough (bread lines, neighbors pooling money to buy meat and sharing it in outdoor barbeques, no electricity or water), people bonded beyond blood. Brotherhood is a particularly stirring concept to behold. Friends will give everything for each other, will be there at a moment's notice, will sit outside on a bench for 4 hours just watching the neighborhood, just being together. 
Friends will die for each other. 

For an outsider, friendship is not easy to come by.

It is easy to think you are friends with someone, to think they care about you, to think they really like you. It's easy to get swept up in the poetic grandeur of this kind of friendship, to declare yourself ready to be that kind of friend to those who show you kindness and love and generosity- Georgian hospitality. Then, suddenly, amongst canceled plans and missed calls, when people are less than enthusiastic to help you with small things, when people who made toasts to your undying friendship slowly fade from your realize that you were never friends. 

This can be shocking, especially compared to the way friends are made in college in the States. The first year, and really all through school, people are actively searching for new friends. People may be mean on occasion, but they are more or less genuine. If you don't like someone, you don't talk to them and you each move on to different circles. If you do like someone, they easily become a "friend" within a few meetings. It's part of American culture, and part of university culture.

When you realize the way the Georgian system works, on the other hand, it's easy to feel used (especially if you were involved sexually/romantically), it's easy to feel cheated and lied to and stabbed in the back. 
But it's also necessary to keep in mind the way the system works. Georgian bonds of friendship have been formed over long periods of time, through suffering and survival, through shared experiences and understanding. You are an outsider.
I've heard rumors that it can be done, that the circle can be broken into, that a foreigner can become this mystic, unattainable thing- friend. But it takes time, it's not easy, and it's usually through marriage. 

My advice: take advantage of the positive things about Georgian hospitality, embrace the warmth and poetry, but don't kid yourself about what it means. 

I googled "brotherhood" in Georgian, and a good third of the pictures
are from the Russian 2002 gangster miniseries "Brigada"