Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Struggle of Transition Part 2

The price of a dozen large eggs in one of Tbilisi's most upscale grocery stores is $1.43 (3.35 GEL).
The first image when you Google "კვერცხი" (eggs in Georgian)

The price of a dozen medium eggs in a discount grocery store (Kroger) in a medium sized US city (Charlottesville, VA - metro area population 206,000) is $3.59.
the first image when you Google "eggs"

Of all the things I struggle with in transitioning back to my life in Charlottesville, the pain of prices sticks around the longest.

I adjust to the slow, tedious (cautious, law-abiding) driving
I adjust to the soul-sucking humidity 
I adjust to the unsolicited smiles, greetings in store aisles, friendly head nods from strangers
I adjust to the freedom of being able to jump in my car and travel a thousand miles on a whim (I don't actually plan on doing this...just knowing that it is possible is very liberating)
I adjust to blending in and easily camouflaging myself among throngs of young college students
I adjust to people eating dinner at 6 pm 
I adjust to wearing gym clothes and sneakers in public
I adjust to being on the same time zone as my family and half my friends (and to being on a different time zone than half my friends)
I adjust to knowing that I won't be spontaneously invited to anything fun
I adjust to knowing that when I plan things they will actually happen the way I expect them to

but it will take me a long time still to adjust to prices.

Food is such a ubiquitous part of our lives, and I really only learned to shop, cook, and eat as a completely independent adult while living in Russia and Georgia, so grocery shopping is an especially poignant presentation of the contrast between my life "over there" and my life "over here" (those descriptions make sense whichever life I'm living at the moment). My memories of buying fresh produce on the street from my friendly neighborhood grocers (who knew my order of 1 large tomato and often gave me free basil and cilantro) are so vivid and beautiful that paying 4-5 times as much for sub-standard food is incredibly frustrating.

Georgian vegetables

But it's not only food that kills me. The first thing I did on American soil was catch a taxi from the airport in Dulles, VA to the train station in northeast Washington, DC. It cost me $80 for a 45 minute ride. I was appalled. Granted, everyone knows this is a ridiculously expensive service, and I would have avoided it if I could. I just couldn't get over how I could take a marshrutka from Tbilisi to Moscow and back for less money! I could take a 3 day bus from Tbilisi to Istanbul for less money! I could rent a room in Tbilisi for 3 weeks for less money!
Yes, this was a contract taxi and the fee is heavily regulated - it killed me that I couldn't haggle. And yes, it likely provides a steadier, and higher income for the driver, but in the old country this is just not the way things are done. 
Yes, the taxi was a new model, had comfortable seats without rips, stains, or cigarette burns, had air conditioning and a meter and turn signals and all pieces of the bumpers were intact...but I have just become the kind of person who would rather save money and sit in a sweaty, bumpy, uncomfortable, half-broken, ancient van with 15 other people sharing my fate than be isolated in expensive luxury.

With that said, you eventually adjust to almost everything. Give me a private driver and leather seats for long enough and I will soon reject the idea of the marshrutka as anything other than youthful nostalgia. 

But I like this version of myself better. I would rather complain that things are too fancy and too expensive for me than complain that I'm too fancy for things (and trust me, I'll be complaining about something).
I talk more about American elitism and the expat dilemma here.

"I guess I prefer to be the judgy know-it-all expat than the ethnocentric ex-pat who tries to force their new home into as similar a replica of their old home as they can"

All this being said, I have found it much much easier to adjust this time around than the past two summers. 
one more year in this lovely place

In just one week I have already adjusted a lot. I think there is something easier about knowing this is my last year in Charlottesville (finally!), and being able to look forward at my future feels really good and solid. I have a whole year to figure out my post-grad plans, so it is not overwhelmingly stressful (not yet, at least), and I do feel like I am able to enjoy my time here knowing that it is limited. It's ONLY one year, and then I'm free, so I don't feel as trapped as I have in the past.

Really this year at school there are so many exciting projects I get to work on, and while overall I prefer a more spontaneous, uncertain, challenging life, there is definitely something to be said for comfort and security, and I am trying my best to enjoy it while I'm "over here."

Friday, August 19, 2016


Day 1: Yerevan in the Rain

I arrived around 1 am to the Yerevan airport, and my dear couch surfing host A. (name censored for privacy) picked me up and greeted me with a bouquet of flowers! Great start  :)
But then he tells me his sister and her baby are staying with him right now so instead I will be staying with his friend Suzy. Okay, cool.
So we go to Suzy's house and she is asleep...so we wake her up! I felt incredibly awkward and was also completely exhausted after a wonderful whirlwind few days in Istanbul with Leyla, Elyse, and Jen, but Suzy turned out to be a really cool girl so we all stayed up and talked for an hour or so until I decided I needed to pass out. 
The sleeping arrangement was this: Suzy in her double bed, me in a daybed/cot at the foot of her bed, A. on the couch in the living room (why he did not go to his own house I will never know...).

The next morning I woke up around 9 and everyone had already left for work, so I some time alone to plan my day and also learn about Yerevan because I had done veryyyy minimal prep for this trip.
A rain-soaked Soviet apartment block in the city center

After a series of google searches including "yerevan food" "what to see in yerevan" and, as the weather necessitated, "yerevan in the rain" (there is no guide for this!!), I ventured out into the wild.
A. kindly met me at lunchtime to help me get a sim card for my phone, teach me a few quickly forgotten words of Armenian (I only remember "hello" - barev and "what" - inj), and review my itinerary for the day.

I think I hit most of the city highlights:

Republic Square


Northern Avenue

The Blue Mosque 

St. Grigor Lusavorich church

Also, due to the rain, I spent a lot of my time scuttling under the streets through the underpasses, which were surprisingly well maintained and well-stocked with shops selling everything from watches and jewelry to stationary to dried fish.
8/10 would recommend.

That evening there was a goodbye party for Suzy at her place, since she was going for a few months to Egypt (I think?) to visit family. 
It was kind of like a Georgian supra in that way too many people gathered around a flimsy table and laughed, ate, and talked well into the night. 
However, there were not really any toasts, the food was very limited - only 2 or 3 dishes, and the wine was absolutely terrible...I'm so sorry to any Armenians out there, but the stuff we drank was about the worst wine I have ever had, and everyone agreed it was disgusting. Thank the heavens there happened to be a Georgian tour guide who stopped by along with his friend (an Armenian tour guide saying goodbye to Suzy) who brought some homemade Georgian wine and saved the day! Maybe I'm just spoiled now by Georgian wine, but if you go to Armeni and someone tries to give you Areni, run...Armenian cognac is apparently amazing, though

Culture note:
Armenia basically gets constantly battered from every direction, which has made the population generally extremely defensive. Small countries are usually more defensive about their history and culture, since it can be so easily and swiftly erased, but Armenia is the "worst" I've ever experienced...within about 45 minutes of arriving in the country, I already found myself in a heated debate about the age of the nation, the recipient of careful explanations of Armenia's relationship with its neighbors, and an observer of the raw vitriol these people held for deniers of the Armenian genocide.
This constant defensiveness is honestly a bit of a turn off. While in Armenia, I felt like no one was relaxed, everyone was on edge, ready to defend themselves at any hint of a verbal attack. So many conversations turned into spewing anger at their neighbors, desperate justifications of the NK war, and what felt like justifications for the right of Armenia to exist in general. It conjured up a bit of what I imagine Israel feels like in that regard.
It also causes issues such as the name dispute over Lake Sevan (discussed in the footnote). The root problem here for the Azeris, in my opinion, is not that the lake bears a name other than their preferred moniker, but that they cannot visit it. Armenia is more or less cut off for Azeris due to the semi-frozen ethno-territorial conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Day 2: Heat Stroke in the Car

The next day, two of A.'s friends - the very hungover and sleep deprived Hayk and the indefatigable tour guide Van drove me to some of the best sites surrounding Yerevan.
  • Garni (I actually took a bus here - it was kind of complicated to find the right one...if you are thinking of doing this, send me a message or leave a comment and I'll explain!)
    • Hellenistic pre-Christian temple from the 1st century AD
    • The only Greco-Roman colonnaded building standing anywhere in the former Soviet Union
    • Very cool site, good quality informational plaques, many tourists, cheap entrance fee is 1200 drams (less than $3)
    • Speakers play some kind of "ancient" music as you walk towards the temple
    • Man playing a wooden recorder inside the temple...hired or an innovative panhandler? Who knows...
    • An interesting article about neglect in the preservation of Garni

      told you...
  • Geghard Monastery
    • I didn't actually get the chance to go here, but you should
    • Free entry
    • Very close to Garni (plenty of taxis loitering around to take you)
    • UNESCO world heritage site
  • Echmiatsin/Etchmiadzin Complex
    • Administrative headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Pontifical Residence of the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.
    • Huge complex of at least 3 churches (felt like more), residences for the leaders of the Armenian Church, museums, a seminary, and more!
    • UNESCO world heritage site

  •  Zvartnots
    • Ridiculous name
    • UNESCO world heritage site
    • Ruins of a 7th century cathedral - beautiful but really just columns...the best part is that it is set against the backdrop of the imposing Mt. Ararat 
    • Archeologists and architects theorize that it was originally 3 stories tall
      Photo Credit: mayel.ru
  • Khor Virap
    •  A monastery about 100 meters from the closed border with Turkey
    • Original site was built on the in the 7th century, and the current building was erected in the 17th c.
    • It's famous for its lovely view of Mt. Ararat and as the location where, in the 4th century, evil King Tiridates III imprisoned St. Gregory the Illuminator in a hole for 13 years as punishment for preaching Christianity against Tiridates' pagan rule  

It was a lot of driving and it was very hot, but with a car, all that is doable in one day with Yerevan as a base!
dancing fountains

That night I met A. in the city center for dinner and to check out the bar/club scene. I arrived to our rendevouz point a bit early and caught the dancing fountains show! It is actually really long...I think about an hour. I don't recommend just standing and watching the whole thing. Some people bring chairs or blankets to have a kind of concrete picnic against the fountain show backdrop. I stood and watched about 15 minutes and was satisfied. 

Day 3: Lake Sevan* and the 1.5 Kidnapping Attempts

For the riveting details of something that did not in fact happen, please see this video. 
gas station in Sevan, Armenia
at Lake Sevan, Armenia
my would-be kidnapper being a classic creeper

Selfie on Sevan
Lake Sevan

*I decided to use "Lake Sevan" in this post, to the likely outcry of all my Azeri friends and readers who have already helpfully alerted me to the widespread belief in Azerbaijan that the lake is in fact Azeri land and is called Lake Göyçə (Goeja).

Wikipedia says: "At least from the early modern era, the lake was often referred to as Gokcha (from Turkish Gökče,[31][32] which translates to "blue water").[33] Besides being used by the Azeri population (Azerbaijani: Göyçə), the name Gokcha appeared in Russian and European sources until the early twentieth century."

An Azeri friend explained to me something vaguely along the lines of in the 18th century the land was Azerbaijani, and then there was a war and Armenian forces conquered the land, but it wasn't "fair" because actually Russian troops helped Armenia and then granted them the land so really it is still Azeri land...this does not really feel like sound logic to me. Additionally, I will continue to call it Sevan because a) the whole rest of the world calls it Sevan, b) this was a REALLY long time ago...no one living remembers when this was Azeri territory or even heard stories from great-grandparents remembering it as Azeri land - time to let it go, c) as I have already discussed above, Armenia is pretty much the local scrawny kid on the playground...this isn't a play for territory, there is no attempt to make the lake change hands, it's just semantics, so come on, just give it to them

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Bus. (plus American elitism & the expat dilemma)

Living in Tbilisi has its ups and downs.
As regular readers might remember, there are many things here that frustrate me
In any second world country, there are some unique challenges, and in Tbilisi one of those challenges is the bus

Tbilisi city bus number 15 in the wintertime

My relationship with the bus has been a roller coaster of emotion...

Phase One: I feared the bus from afar. Really, who can blame me? Seeing the sweaty, miserable people packed inside ancient, exhaust-billowing, rickety yellow mobile saunas was terrifying. Their desperate faces pushed up against the glass made me vow I would never set foot inside one of those monstrosities. 

And then my options shrank...I live pretty close to a metro station, but neither place that I worked this summer is near a metro station, so while at GNTA, taking the metro to work would mean...
-5 min walk to metro
-15 min ride on metro
-change lines in a 5 min, pushy speed-walk through the station
-15 min ride on metro
-15 min walk to my office
and at the embassy...
-5 min walk to metro
-10 min on the metro
-change lines in a 5 min, pushy speed-walk through the station
-12 min ride on metro
-26 min walk along the highway to the embassy

Neither of these are ideal...particularly not at the embassy!
So, while taxis in Georgia are veryyyy cheap compared to most developed countries, on my student budget and intern salary (of exactly $0/month), they aren't practical for everyday use.

Thus, I was forced to ride the bus.
I started off optimistic...and then immediately hated it.

Relatively relaxed looking people on Tbilisi city bus number 37

Phase two: I hated the bus from the inside. This also has good reason. First, I will say that whether you can find a seat or have to stand makes a tremendous difference. 

Standing on the bus is as miserable as it looks from the outside.
  • you have to constantly engage your core in order to stay vertical
  • to hold onto a hand rail you have to snake your arm through a sweaty tangle of passengers
  • you are constantly jostled by people moving on and off the bus, or trying to swipe their transport card
  • for those with purses, the strength of the straps is tested as your bag gets caught between people and probably also hits a lot of sitting passengers in the face

Speaking of sitting passengers - you will probably get hit a lot in the face. Sitting is a bit better, but...
  • you really don't have your own space, as passengers standing in the aisles spill over into your seat with their bags, their elbows, their rotund, sweaty guts peeking out from under the hem of a grease-stained, short sleeve button up straining at the seams
  • any moment an old woman could get on, who needs a seat, so you must be always aware of the hierarchy. If you are the youngest and there are no young or middle-aged men around, you will be expected to stand up for the elderly
  • also, if someone gets on with a large bag, small child, or perhaps an unwieldy box of khachapuri, (and in rural areas - livestock), you should offer to hold the item for the standing passenger
  • if you're really unfortunate (and you probably will be), a big sweaty man will stand right next to you, and reach his arm up to the hand bar above, placing his dripping, noxious armpit in direct range of your face
  • disgusting smells are just a part of life in Tbilisi where air conditioner is rare and deodorant is apparently even rarer, and at least twice a week you will find yourself next to someone that smells so foul all the passengers get up and move...we usually try to be subtle about it, but if we fear that the stench may be contagious we will not hesitate to bolt to the other end of the bus 
Eventually, I got used to these facts of bus riding, and I began Phase Three: I appreciated the bus for what it was. The bus is relatively reliable, schedules are predictable and posted on electronic boards at most stops, and it is more efficient for my daily routes than the metro. 

While I didn't eagerly await my commutes, I stopped complaining (for the most part) and accepted my fate.

my fate


When I started working at the embassy, the first week they give all new employees courtesy shuttle service provided by motor pool. This means home pick up and drop off in a shiny SUV with red diplomatic plates - not too shabby, I've gotta admit.

After a while, though, I felt like I was barely living in Georgia anymore...
I was either at home, in an Embassy car, or at the Embassy (aka - carbon copy of the USA). The Embassy's geographic location means the only option for lunch is the cafeteria. Even going grocery shopping is barely a Georgian experience for me now since I live right next to the giant western-style super market Goodwill. Working full time at the embassy means long hours and after-work exhaustion, which discourages me from going out after work.

I realized I was in Phase Four: I missed the bus.
(missed like I was missing its presence in my life, not like the bus left without me...)

After the first week, motorpool shuttle costs $1.55/ride, which is cheaper than the 6 lari ($2.57) taxi fare, but significantly more expensive than the 50 tetri ($0.21) bus fare! Over the course of 5 weeks, I could spend:

Taxi:                       300 GEL ($128.41)
Motor Pool:            181 GEL ($77.50)
Bus:                        25 GEL   ($10.70)

I think the choice is clear. Yes, I lose some time by taking the bus, but I save sooooo much money, and I really benefit in other ways as well. 
Here is where I enter Phase Five: I appreciate my time on the bus.
much like this young bus rider appreciates his ice cream

This is a pretty big deal, since objectively taking the bus to the Embassy is really uncomfortable...
First, I walk 6-7 minutes to the bus stop. In the cool morning air before the 9 am rush hour traffic hits, this is actually pretty pleasant.
Then I ride the bus for about 35 minutes, an experience which I explained above. 
Then I run off the bus (which drops me off at 9 am...the time I am supposed to be at work), run across the crosswalk-ed street in front of the bus and try to be cool and confident and show by example that cars should stop for pedestrians at crosswalks but that rarely works and I usually almost get hit at least once...
Then I scamper another road, 4 lanes, without a zebra crossing but with a mercifully long red light.
Then I generally have to wait 2-3 minutes on the side of the highway for there to be a break in traffic that I can run across, and this is the worst part because usually lots of people honk and me and sometimes stupid men lean out and try to wink at me or blow me kisses or give me thumbs ups...
Then I cross (today I was forced to walk right through a huge black exhaust cloud so my lungs might be shriveled now...) and walk for about 3-4 mins along the side of the highway, hugging a line of awkwardly parked trucks.
and finally I reach the Embassy!

While I am at the Embassy, I am more or less in America. People give American smiles, shake hands instead of kiss, the floors are carpeted, the AC blasts (one of probably less than 50 buildings with central air in the whole city), English is spoken loudly and boldly, there is (some) ethnic diversity, there are TALL people - you get the point... 

The thing is, as much as I like America, I chose to spend the summer in Georgia for a reason.
I like Georgia too. Most of the time I like living here more than I like living in the States!
One thing I know for sure is that I don't want to be the kind of expat that my parents were in Saudi Arabia (sorry mom and dad, I know your situation and circumstances were different!). I want to speak the language (I just started taking Georgian lessons!), I want to make Georgian friends, I want to shop where locals shop, eat where locals eat, and travel how locals travel. I want to integrate, I want to belong. 

Riding the bus is a small way that I can say I'm not "above" the Georgian people, unlike the slight, and probably unintentional vibe I get from so many seasoned diplomats working at the Embassy.

I'm not too good to drink instant coffee when it's 5 time cheaper than espresso.
I'm not too good to share an apartment in Saburtalo with a Georgian instead of staying in cushy Vake Embassy housing.

and yes, I take a certain pride in this, which is maybe just as bad as the subtle American elitism that pervades the Embassy, but I guess I prefer to be the judgy know-it-all expat than the ethnocentric ex-pat who tries to force their new home into as similar a replica of their old home as they can...

That is the expat dilemma...is there a perfect expat? Someone who can flawless straddle two countries, effortlessly slide in and out of cultures, embrace and adapt to the new while not rejecting or forgetting the old, never complain and never boast? I doubt it.

I also appreciate my bus rides for a more personal reason - I like having 45 minutes at the start and (especially) at the end of my days to just think, gather my mental energy, or decompress.
Plus it's generally a fascinating exercise in people-watching!

Georgian morning ritual: the watching of the people

For the record, I know that my bus riding days are limited, and this knowledge probably makes Phase Five much more tenable. I would imagine after some period of time, Phase Five would end and Phase Six: get me off this freaking bus would probably take over...but for now, I am honestly enjoying my rides - strangers' sweat and pushy old ladies and treacherous road crossings and all...