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Impressions of Georgia

Wrong-way driving is OK: Adventures and impressions from an American student

Friday, January 21
Impressions of Georgia

By Libby Wassmann

When I first decided to come to Georgia, I really did not know what to expect. I knew I wanted to study abroad at some point in my college carrier, but the thought of picking up and leaving for a year or even a semester seemed a little daunting. When I heard about this three week exchange in the Republic of Georgia, it seemed like the perfect stepping stone. Not to mention, an adventure! How could I pass up an opportunity to travel to a corner of the world, almost entirely unknown to me, and explore it? As a Russian-Eurasian Studies major, naturally I was curious. I attended a few informational meetings, thought about it for some time, and finally decided to go.

Then I started telling people about my plans. I have to say, I got a very mixed response. First of all, when you say “Georgia”, most Americans think of the state in the U.S. This is understandable, so I began specifying the “Republic” of Georgia. Many people were excited for me, some had never heard of it, and others looked confused. Why on earth would you go to Georgia? Who even knows what there is in Georgia? I think they got the impression that I had spun a globe, closed my eyes, and resolved to go to whatever country my finger landed on.

After being here for two weeks or so, I would say it’s a real shame that more people don’t know or think about Georgia in America. It’s a wonderful place to be! The city is very safe, the language is charming and unique, and the people are unbelievably hospitable. I think that the countryside is very beautiful, but I have been told that January does not do it justice. Not to mention, the diversity of Georgia. For such a small country, it has everything from mountains to the sea side.

Many people seem to think that Georgia is in the middle of nowhere, when in fact, it is in the middle of everywhere. It is south of Russia, north of the Greater Middle East, on the Black sea, close to the Caspian Sea, in the Caucasus, and in between Europe and Asia. This little country surrounded by large and powerful neighbors, both now and in the past, has maintained its cultural identity. Certainly, it has adopted some aspects of other nations, but it has not been lost in the shuffle. It is not entirely one way or another. I have never been somewhere where I have felt such solidarity and love of one’s country.

To those people still on the fence about Georgia, I would say, come and see it for yourself. Come with an empty stomach, an open mind, and some uninhibited curiosity. Let this place warm your heart; it certainly has warmed mine.

Wrong-way driving is OK: Adventures and impressions from an American student

By Jennifer Luo

On a sunny Friday afternoon, I found myself in the back seat of a black sedan driving through the mountains just outside Tbilisi, playing rock music on the radio and chatting with my newfound Georgian friends.

The sedan was also driving in reverse, and on the wrong side of the highway.

My Georgian hosts were unfazed. Indeed, they were chuckling about how it was “just for a little while,” since we had “just barely missed our turn-off.”

I preferred not to watch.

You see, though I may not have been entirely captivated by the 90+ hours of my driver’s education course back home in America, I do remember a line or two that driving the wrong way is a major no-no.

But, no worries. This isn’t America. And besides, as my Georgian friends were saying, it was just for “a little while.”

As a native Georgian told me when I first arrived in Tbilisi, “In America, you drive on the right hand side. In England, you drive on the left hand side. But in Georgia, you drive everywhere.”

I believe it.

The next day, another native Georgian told me a second nugget of advice: I was running 20 minutes behind schedule to a meeting with friends when he sagely mentioned, “Don’t worry about being late. I’ve never been on time in my whole life.”

Sure enough, when I arrived at the coffee shop half an hour late, only one other person (a fellow American) was there.

This, happily, suits me just fine. I’m chronically late, which usually results in embarrassment, especially at home, where to be on time is almost late, and to be five minutes early is just right. My watch is set at 10 minutes ahead, a vain attempt to scare me into being somewhat on time.

But here in Georgia, my watch is still turned to America’s Eastern Time Zone. As in, it’s nine hours behind, which doesn’t matter since I barely use it. It’s been liberating, to not be hanging to time, to not be counting each minute of my day, to not be so stressed about the time that I have to eat dinner in the car and don’t have time to at least say hello when passing friends in the street.

Instead, I’m getting a re-education in prioritizing family, friendship, and food. And I like it. I like it a lot.

To tell you the truth, before I arrived, I knew surprisingly little about Georgia for someone who is about to spend three weeks in Tbilisi. Family and friends would ask me about my upcoming travel plans, and I found myself, over and over again, having to first explain that I was not going to Georgia the US state, but rather, Georgia the Caucasus country; when they asked where exactly this “Georgia the country” was, I would reel off places like Azerbaijan and Armenia, which was of little help, since none of my friends knew where those were either.

There was the rare occasion when someone actually recognized Georgia the country, in which case, the subsequent question was usually sometime along the lines of, “Wasn’t Georgia invaded by Russia not too long ago?” or “Is it safe?”

It didn’t help that my school’s health center, to which I was supposed to schedule an appointment with prior to the trip, sternly warned me to not only avoid drinking tap water in Georgia at all costs, but also to never eat raw, uncooked foods, and to close my eyes when taking showers so as not to catch any strange water-borne diseases.

Needless to say, which such little recognition of the country, I had no idea what to expect when I boarded my plane bound for Tbilisi.

I’ve now been in Tbilisi for two weeks. I’ve drunk water from the tap, and I didn’t get sick. The Russians have not invaded. The scariest thing that’s happened was Thursday’s earthquake, which I didn’t even notice.

Quite the contrary: I’ve found Georgia to be bright, friendly, and peaceful. I arrived in Tbilisi at night, and I remember sitting in the car, looking up at the sky, and seeing, not an empty black sky, but rather a carpet of twinkling blue lights.

The second day, lured outside by smell of freshly baked bread, my roommate Christina and I went for a walk around Tbilisi. We strolled along the cobblestone streets, gazing at churches, buying earrings from street vendors, peering into bakery windows, and chuckling at the sight of a giant McDonalds in the middle of the historic city. When we ran into the Orthodox Christmas parade, Christina and I followed the crowd around the city, to Freedom Square, across the bridge, to the Church. Along the way, several Georgians befriended us, chatting with us as we walked, pressing pieces of paper with their phone numbers into our hands, and inviting us to dinner at their homes. Christina and I were charmed by their kindness, and we found, as our stay progressed, that such hospitality – legendary hospitality, I would say – was a nearly universal quality among Georgians.

Case in point: within that week, Christina and I had both been treated to several different meals and excursions around Georgia by our coworkers, neighbors, and friends of our host families. At my host family’s home, lifelong friends and family were always dropping by to say hi and stay for dinner, and there was always something delicious cooking in the kitchen. We have sampled the heart-stopping titanic-sized Adjarian khachapuri, had too many toasts to count, and attended feasts (what feels like) nearly every other day. In short, we’ve been warmly welcomed into so many lives, a generosity that sadly would be hard to match at home.

I know for a fact that my experiences weren’t isolated; I arrived in Georgia with 15 other students both from my college, Williams College, as well as nearby Mount Holyoke College, and we’ve been swapping stories all month long about Georgian hospitality and kindness. I’m surprised that the magic of Georgia’s friendliness, cuisine, and terrain isn’t better known throughout the world.

On one of my first nights in Tbilisi, a Georgian man told me that here in Georgia, I would see the true meaning of friendship and community. I’ve only had the honor of experiencing Georgia for one short month, but I am sure that, at the very least, this – this Georgian hospitality and generosity to give - is what I’ll bring back to the U.S.