From time to time, my Georgian friends and colleagues or my university students will ask me why I am here.
“You have a Canadian passport,” they say, “and you can go anywhere. WHY (with the emphasis on the why) are you HERE (with the same emphasis on the here)?!”
I smile and reply “For the khachapuri,” or something equally trite, opting for a predictable (although also with its own truth) reply until I can gauge the degree to which they really want to hear my answer because it is a lot more than just the local cheese bread.
I arrived in Georgia over 10 years ago with a new job, a new address and the start of a new life.
The initial novelty of moving to Georgia and taking up residence in Tbilisi with its ancient and unrivalled history of a queen so magnificent she was called a king, the capital’s exquisitely charming Old City with its narrow cobblestone alleys and traditional wooden balconies covered with grape vines growing up from the street, the delicious pleasures of the incomparable Georgian cuisine which immediately resulted in my having to buy bigger pants and the birthplace of wine (we did not know it then but we know it now) the likes of which you will never sip anywhere else in the world did much to ease the growing pains of an international relocation.
In parallel, I was and still am not the typical ex-pat here. My maternal grandmother’s family was Georgian and my father’s side is Ukrainian and so it was also a hybrid homecoming of sorts. Georgia was also mine – at least 25% or so of me – and my Ukrainian self could also stand together with the locals in protest of Soviet horrors and Putin’s imperialism.
It has been an interesting time.
Of course, there is no perfect place anywhere (no matter what Donald Trump says). I was already here for the martial law crackdown in 2007 following violent street protests which put Georgian tanks on Rustaveli Avenue and had the city paralyzed and deafeningly silent which I remember terrified me. I was here when Russia declared war on Georgia in the summer of 2008 and will never forget the fear and panic of the invasion which left the country illegally occupied and set in motion a process of creeping Russian annexation which continues until now. As I write this today, Tbilisi’s LGBTQ community is facing violations of their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression with even death threats to organizers and hate groups and their talking-heads inciting hatred and calling for all kinds of violence.
On a socio-economic level, there are other cracks in the façade which you see when you live here all the time. Anti-littering laws are weakly (if at all) enforced which means Tbilisi is dirty. There is garbage everywhere. The capital has disastrously poor air quality owing to pollution from too many cars and inefficient public transport where the odd bus roof leaks when it rains and old ladies sit under their umbrellas before they get to their stop. The World Health Organization’s report for 2018 puts Georgia in the 70th position in the world for human deaths from air pollution. Traffic and parking are nightmarish even outside of peak morning and evening rush hours. At the same time, we also have the continuing devaluation of the national currency, public schools turning out students who rank 60th out of 70 countries in the Program for International School Assessment (PISA) testing in combined mathematics, science and reading in 2015-2016 and an overall countrywide poverty rate of 32% according to the World Bank’s report for 2014.
So, with all of these problems, why am I here? Or why do I choose to be here? It is an easy question for me to answer.
Tbilisi, and Georgia in general, has a human quality of life and living which I have not seen or experienced anywhere else (and I have been to more than 50 countries and lived and worked in 5 of them). I still struggle to name or describe what this is but it is the closest I have been able to come up with so far. What I mean is that people genuinely have a human or a kind or an open relationship with each other. Families are close. Siblings are close. Neighbors are close. Relatives are close. Your grandparents typically live with you if they are not dead. Georgians enjoy spending time and, as importantly, enjoying this time with each other. When they are good days, it makes for wonderful entertainment and unparalleled joie de vivre. When they are bad days, it eases loss, hurt, pain and sorrow when you have the human support of those around you. I see this all the time and experience it myself. And it is the thing I love best about living here.
This said, my Georgian friends and colleagues or my university students usually have no idea what I am talking about when I answer their question as to why I am here. Of course, they do not. For them, this human component – or whatever I will ultimately end up calling it – is all natural and normal and so there is no reason for them to pay any special attention to it. It is like brushing your teeth. You just do it.
In Canada, where I grew up, and in Belgium, where I used to live and work before moving here, the situations were polar opposites. I have a million examples but I will share with you just a few. My family lived on the same street for 25 years when I was growing up and we knew only one of the neighbors. They were not interested in us and we, for whatever reason, were not interested in any of them. I have dozens of cousins but I have not seen most of them for years. Some of them even decades. It is not because I do not like them or they do not like me. It is just how it goes. Priorities or values or something else. In Brussels, people were closed as if they were encased from head to toe in plastic boxes. You could see them but you could not get close. At home, the curtains were always shut tightly. I remember one incident when a Finnish diplomat collapsed in the street near the European Parliament and passers-by simply stepped over top of him and continued on their way.
The history, the Old City, the food and the wine... Yes, these are some incredible perks when you live in Georgia and I am very happy for the color and the flavor they give and the roles they play here. But it is the people and their incredible sensitivity to the human component of life and living (again, I still struggle with a name for this) that keeps me here.
The other day, coming back from a meeting, my taxi driver started chatting with me and in my broken but more-or-less enough Georgian I was able to tell him I was from Canada, living and working here, and having a very good time. Immediately, he invited me to his home, he would call his wife and she would whip up a feast and we would raise toasts with his home-made wine. I laughed to myself as I thought of something silly. If anything like this happened anywhere else in the world and a perfect stranger invited you home and you went, it was probably going to end up as a homicide. Yours. But not here. It would be an experience of life and living that only Georgians, in my opinion, can do.
I still choose to be here after more than 10 years.