Saturday, December 17, 2016

8 Things I Learned in the Netherlands (in November)

1. Dutch people are huge. Tall and broad shouldered and big-footed. Statistically the tallest people in the world, Dutch men and women average out at around 6' and 5'7" respectively. I went into an H&M to see if they sized clothing differently here because it just wouldn't even make sense to have little feather light mini dresses in size 0 - literally no Dutch people would fit into that. Turns out they do have small sizes, but the designs are a bit different, more flattering to the sturdy Northern European figure.

2. You might as well not even wear makeup on the bottom half of your face because 9/10 times the scarf you have tourniqueted around your neck is going to rub it off.

3. It's dark. So dark! I can't put my finger on why it seems darker...maybe the street lamps are different, or maybe since it's been constantly cloudy the starless, moonless night feels darker. It certainly doesn't help that sunset is around 5 pm.

4. It's so diverse. I thought the Starbucks workers at Amsterdam Centraal Train Station were a great example of this: one tall blonde Dutch girl with Delft blue eyes and a near perfect American English accent, one dark skinned girl, one girl with olive skin and hazel eyes wearing a hijab, and a tall boy with the most hipster mustache and trendy half-shaved head.

5. Spinning off of that last point - everyone speaks perfect English. Some older Dutch people stumble a bit with grammar, maneuvering around the bulky accent you imagine of an idyllic country milkmaid in wooden shoes. For the most part, however, anyone you meet working in a cafe or a bike shop or on public transportation, anyone you stop to ask directions on the street, or any back-house cook stuffing your Dutch fries (fritjes) into a paper cone will speak excellent English. Even more surprising was how many non-ethnically Dutch (either immigrants or children of immigrants, many from former Dutch colonies such as Suriname or Indonesia and others refugees from conflict in the Middle East or African economic migrants) people spoke beautiful lilting Dutch comfortably alongside English.

6. The Netherlands is the 28th most densely populated country in the world (406 people per sq km), and the most densely populated "real" country in Europe (Monaco 2nd, Vatican City 7th, Malta 10th, Guernsey 14th, Jersey 15th, San Marino 22nd). It's even denser than India!

7. The bike thing is real. So real. More real than you are actually imagining if you have never been to the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, there are more bikes than people! I met a girl who owns three bikes. They dredge 15,000 lost bikes out of Amsterdam's canals a year. Across the country, people expect to have their bike stolen about once a year - but I find this quite surprising, as I'm not sure what kind of bike resell market there is seeing as everyone already has a bike!!!

8. Holland is a little country. Amsterdam only has a population of about 850,000 yet sees more than 5 million tourists a year! 14 million tourists visit The Netherlands annually!  

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

10 Things I Would Rather Do Than Write This Paper

1. Write this blog post! 
because it is much easier than trying to reform both the IMF and the World Bank (that's the paper topic)

2. Learn the dance from this video: 
I've almost got it down! There are only like 4 moves...

3. Learn all the words to this song: 
It's sad and moody and beautiful and Dagestan-y <3

4. Read every article about drinking collagen and then decide that is a terrible idea

5. Drink all the water in my water bottle. Go fill up water bottle. Have to pee. Repeat.

6. Eat an entire bag of pretzels. 

7. Start every other paper I have to write for finals.

8. Suddenly recall all the little tasks I have been meaning to get to...
-downloading those new songs I found!
-updating my computer background!
-texting grandma back!
-snapchat my sister to remind her not to hang out with boys!

9. Catch up on my Georgian studying
Just the really important phrases. Can you say "Lasha likes coca cola with ice" or "I like food without salt" or "toasts" (okay, that one's actually super important)??

10. Learn to read Armenian. 
because that could have been useful that time I was not kidnapped.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Perks of the Job

Throwback Story!
Photo courtesy of Barbarestan's Facebook page
One Thursday this summer, I was invited to my first interview/tasting at a local restaurant as a representative of GNTA. I wrote a piece for our website about atypical culinary experiences in Tbilisi- basically, places to go when you're sick of will probably never be published because I ditched my beloved GNTA when I moved to the embassy.

I think this is actually a much-needed article. I also made a video project, and in our interviews with tourists, quite a few people who were towards the end of the trip mentioned how repetitive Georgian food can be, and that they were kind of getting sick of it.

Rather than having them run to Wendy's or one of the Chinese restaurants that have been increasingly popping up, we want people to be able to continue to immerse themselves in Georgian culture and support Georgian businesses! So, I started making a list of alternative Georgian cuisine.

The first (and, as it turned out, only) stop on my culinary tour was Barbarestan.
The concept was developed after the founders discovered a 1914 comprehensive guide to hosting guests, etiquette, and culinary art, including several hundred recipes from the late-19th century Georgian aristocracy, written by the Duchess Barbare Eristavi Jorjadze. The menu and style was adapted from Jorjadze’s book.

Barbarestan is located on the ground floor and basement of the Qurasbediani family home, the owners of the restaurant. Their 10 children frequently greet diners, welcoming them into what feels like the cozy living room of a Georgian grandmother.

The Qurasbediani family (Facebook)

Barbarestan is the place to go when you seek a high-class, high-quality experience that will challenge your expectations of Georgian food. They have a rotating seasonal menu, and live music on Saturday nights!

We were invited because someone in the office is friends with the manager. I felt like a celebrity when I walked into the restaurant in my blazer with a pen and notebook in my hand and the manager was there waiting for us. I swear our waiter was a sleight-of-hand magician...I barely noticed him, yet our glasses were always full and we were given clean plates for each course - served by our waiter right at the table off of trays that were literally thinly sliced logs...every detail of this place was amazing. I realized it would be a long lunch early on when I went to the bathroom when our host began ordering, and he was still ordering when I returned...

Barbarestan is a relatively new restaurant that really takes Georgian food to the next level. The concept-manager, Levan Kokiashvili, basically called what we think of as "traditional" Georgian food (khachapuri, khinkali, mtsvadi/shashlik) "peasant food." He believes that the Georgian culinary scene is at a very low level of sophistication, and with Barbarestan (and his culinary consulting/business services firm Gastronaut) he aims to raise it to a higher level of culinary excellence.

Our lunch and interview with Kokiashvili quickly became a eight course meal with two types of wine, Barbarestan's signature house-made bread, and never-empty glasses of frothy, fresh cucumber-basil juice.

Each course was small, like a Georgian tapas, but quickly added up. Levan wanted us to try everything, and I wasn't sure whether it would be impolite to not eat everything, or seem rude to eat to much...for a bit I tried to kind of channel Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares where he orders like 15 dishes and just takes bites of each, but then I remembered that he does that because the food is gross. The food at Barbarestan, however, was freaking amazing, so I settled on the tactic of just eating everything.

Our table was Levan, my colleague Beka, and another colleague who had made the connection for us. I had a little trouble keeping up with the boys on the wine front - also they were giving me special attention because I was the sole female at the table, so my glass was constantly being refilled. While my companions drained their wine glasses, I struggled to finish each course quickly enough (since they also gave me bigger portions) while nodding, smiling, taking notes, interrupting with the occasional question, AND trying to show adequate appreciation for the seriously incredible wine. By the time dessert came, my head was spinning. Levan is amazing - 33 years old, completely self-made, an entrepreneur, sommelier, culinary visionary, and handsome as hell. Also, completely exhausting to talk to. He has a soft voice that you have to kind of lean in to hear, but is passionate and quick, and I don't even know how he managed to eat anything as he barely stopped speaking for a minute. He skipped effortlessly from topic to topic, transitioning with a sip of wine from talking about the building's history to explaining the process of making some obscure mountain diary products. He spoke in beautifully-accented (if grammatically shaky) Russian, occasionally slipping into Georgian or English when it suited him - I think he even dropped a couple of words in Italian! His bright eyes, easy smile, and colorfully tattooed forearms put me quickly at ease (or was that the 3rd glass of wine?).

a version of this is on Levan's left forearm
-by famous 19th c. Georgian painter Pirosmani

Let's see if I can remember what we ate...

-cucumber-basil juice, water, saperavi (dry red) and the best kisi (dry white) I've ever had
-spiced flat bread triangles with 6 or 7 different kinds of thick dips (caramelized onions, spinach and cheese, almond sauce, eggplant, roasted tomatoes, and more...)
-cheese plate with several rare Georgian cheeses, variously spiced
-cucumber salad
-melted dambal xacho (obsessed with this!!!)
-"artichoke" soup - a big tomato stuffed with ground beef in a light artichoke sauce
-roast beef
-fresh trout with mushrooms
-dessert: pelamushi pie - pelamushi (jellied grape juice) on a crushed walnut crust with caramel sauce accents
bread and dips (Facebook)

I also think there may have been one other course I'm forgetting...but 8 is probably enough!!

The food was unbelievable - I even enjoyed the onions, which I usually avoid. I am dreaming of that Kisi wine and dambal xacho...I wonder if they deliver...

There is so much more I could talk about, but I will keep this short. From the brick and lace table cloth wine cellar and auxiliary dining room to personal wine pairings to the precision and care put into the authenticity of each dish, Barbarestan knocked my socks off. Next time you are looking for a light meal full of atmosphere and unexpected, but unmistakably Georgian flavors - head to Barbarestan.
Wine cellar/basement dining room (Facebook)

The most important thing I learned at our lunch? Milk is apparently the best cure for a hangover...will have to test this theory this weekend ;)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Graffiti of Tbilisi

The streets of Tbilisi display some really amazing graffiti. There are artists out there with beautiful talent, and kids with hilarious misunderstanding of the English language.

Unfortunately, most of the best graffiti I saw while sitting on a moving bus, and I was not dedicated to this project enough to go all over the city seeking the actual best graffiti. 

So instead you have this:

Most "convenient-for-me graffiti that I liked" of Tbilisi

"Hey fool do you know? We pay for the spase shuttle 1.7 billion dollars"
"Long live the heroes" (I think...)

"Caucasus Power"

I really hope this is a clever play on The GOP...
not graffiti, but on the street -
this is my favorite wheelchair ramp in Tbilisi

Korean graffiti near the city's only (to my knowledge) Korean restaurant
CL is a Koren pop star
I guess this is promoting disability awareness/acceptance?
Pick up after your pet
Excerpt from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky:
"Eat pineapples, chew grouse
Your last day will turn out bourgeois"
(it rhymes in Russian...)

Georgian kids have an obsession with Tupac

and not so much an obsession with school...

This stencil graffiti is EVERYWHERE

I think I've seen others by this artist, really beautiful!

A rare anti-hate message

Another stencil I've seen a few times


Some fellow Georgian Wanderers submitted more pictures!
Georgian Wanderer Ethan and Bob Dylan in the tunnel out by the old Hippodrome

under the roundabout in Vake

Disney characters in Vake:

not sure what this is, but it's super creepy

the Vake street where a mafia hit occurred in early Sep 2016

Ninoshvili Street

The popular Tbilisi graffiti character "lamb" about to
dig into some khinkali in the Rustaveli underpass

Georgia proverb: measure 100 times, cut once

I do not know what this is...spotted in Old Town

The power of One Direction reaches all the way to Tbilisi

Have you seen any cool graffiti in Tbilisi?
Send it my way and I will post it here!

Instagram: Samanthaksa

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Georgia's Hottest Political Figures

This isn't the most professional post...but after the October 8th elections, I think we deserve a little fun.

Please also note, that this is not a judgement of their talent or performance in their jobs, and as politicians they should certainly be assessed by qualities other than their physical appearance. However, since there is a celebrity culture surrounding Georgian politicians, and since so many are young and inexperienced or entered politics straight from being an athlete (judo and football are favorites) or actor, I feel like this list is somewhat fair, if not good or useful.

Plus a legitimate media outlet made a similar post in Jan 2015, so...

Of course, we must start with Mr. Kakha Kaladze - former Deputy PM and Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. He was also one of Georgia's best football players in the mid-early 2000s before he retired and entered politics, as mentioned in this classic post...
He is number 2 on Georgian Dream's party list, but there is talk of him turning down the Parliament seat he won, and being re-appointed as Deputy PM and Minister of Energy
PS - the man who does his hair everyday is also my Tbilisi stylist!!

as a young footballer

as a young politician

as an older, more distinguished, bearded politician

Giga Bokeria is a leader in the opposition party United National Movement. While his peak of hotness is definitely behind him...Bokeria has this smoldering, dark 90-s, bad boy look about him. Also, he was a major player in the 2003 Rose Revolution - extra points for social activism that changed the world.

troubled soul Bokeria
A little less hot Bokeria...

Ex-Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania is now leading the Free Democrats, making a serious play for power in the 2016 parliamentary elections...and a serious play for our hearts  ;)
*post-elections update - Free Democrats failed to reach the 5% threshold for a seat in Parliament and Alasania resigned as head of the party without explanation*

Next, we have the not-so-famous Mariam Sajaia. What this United National Movement MP lacks in name recognition, she makes up for in bouncy hair and a piercing stare. Also, she became a member of parliament at the ripe old age of 21! However, she only voted 3.55% of the time during her tenure in Parliament from 2012-2016, as she was studying abroad at George Washington University. Thankfully, she has not been reelected. Gotta love #postsovietpolitics

Another UNM MP, Tina Bokuchava was elected in 2012 at the age of 29. I met her while I was working at Parliament - she came and spoke at a special conference on violence against women, even though she was on maternity leave! This video does make me a little uncomfortable...really displays the celebritization of Georgian politicians (which this post shamefully proliferates), and also displays Georgia's streak of bad feminism

Ketevan Bochorishvili is the Vice Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia. I don't really know anything else about her except she's super cute.
A rare Georgian natural blonde? Who can say...

Ms. Nino Kalandadze was a member of parliament from 2004-2008, and was in the running again this year as number 29 on UNM's party list of MP candidates. Based on their percentage of the popular vote, they won just 27 close, that's gotta sting. Kalandadze is director of the Tbilisi-based Saakashvili Presidential Library, and was deputy foreign minister from 2008-2012.
(not to be confused with Miss Georgia 2006 of the same name)

Look at that vision of reform glittering in her eyes
Ministering the Affairs

Tamar Chugoshvili was head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association from 2010-2012. She worked as an advisor to the Prime Minister, and as the head of the Foreign Relations Unit at Georgian Dream. She has an MPA from Harvard's Kennedy school...definitely one to watch.

Tamar Khulordava is Georgia's First Deputy Minister of Corrections. Like so many young politicians, her path to public service has been through law. From 2005-2015, she managed the Rule of Law Program at the EU Delegation in Georgia. She was number 7 on Georgian Dream's party list, and will become an MP in the next session.
Locking up criminals...and our hearts

Kakhaber Kuchava is another legal expert and a businessman. He is also the CEO of mining company JSC Georgian Copper and Gold. Number 11 on Georgian Dream's party list, he will become an MP in November.
Laughing because he is rich and becoming powerful

Vera Kobalia was the Minster of Economy and Sustainable Development from 2010-2012, and objectively gorgeous. She grew up in Canada after her family fled the post-war instability in Abkhazia in 1996. Appointed as Minister at the age of 28 with little experience or relevant education, she fought corruption under the slogan "no nepotism." 

Khatuna Kalmakhelidze was the Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance from December 2009 to September 2012. She is US-educated from Hunter College in NY and the George Washington University in DC. She is now a university lecturer in Tbilisi.
That hair is unbelievably bouncy

I realized many interesting trends while researching this post - the majority of Georgian politicians are men, but women are making serious political gains. The gender gap is also stratified by age - older politicians are much more likely to be men, while women are beginning to dominate among the younger cohort.

Also, as you probably noticed, there are much more attractive women than men...some reasons for this:
1. I, a straight woman, compiled this list, and am likely much harsher when evaluating men than women

2. As a 22 year old, I also tend to find people closer to my age more attractive, and (as I explain here) Georgian men tend to age very poorly. Since there are more women in the younger classes of politicians, it's more likely that the women will be attractive

3. Young Georgian women are smart, driven, and the wave of post-Soviet hiring has focused on replacing old-style workers with new, young visionaries untainted by the Soviet system giving young people many opportunities unthinkable in the west. Georgia also has pretty good paid parental leave laws, which allow women to continue working after having a child

4. For women, physical appearance is much more important than for men. Men still do most hiring, and less attractive women are less likely to be hired/tapped for a position of power. Also, it is much easier for women to adjust their looks than men, through makeup, hair, clothing, etc.

*This post inspired by this 2012 video from Georgian Journal