My third day in Georgia is coming to a close and after being able to go out into Tbilisi tonight, I feel I can share my first impressions of the people and culture of Georgia and TLG.
1) TLG is quite the undertaking by the Georgian government. They are wanting to brings thousands of English speakers here to teach their people English. This is no cheap endeavor, they are flying the teachers in, sending them home once a year, and paying them a salary slightly above the national average. This also doesn’t take into account the cost of maintaining a growing staff of workers to ensure that TLG runs as smoothly as possible. The Georgians really want to see this endeavor pay off in terms of increasing international relations, attracting foreign investment, providing new jobs and opportunities, and making English the official second language of Georgia.
2) Georgia, while very developed culturally, is an adolescent nation in terms of its infrastructure and international identity as an independent state. By this I mean that roads are still being constructed and improved, water and electricity are only beginning to approach 100% uptime in the big cities, and they are not a country with a well-known identity, at least not in my little corner of the world. I had to do a bit of explaining to everyone I was telling about my destination. “No it isn’t part of Russia or the American state, they are democratic, it’s a small country in the Caucasus.” I did see a commercial in America a month or so before I left promoting investment in Georgia and its rapidly growing economy on CNBC. Georgia has great dreams of bringing its ancient heritage out of the soviet shadow and attempting to emerge into a second Golden Age to rival the days of King David the Builder, and King Tamar (she was female, but the sole ruler so they call her king).
3) The food here is amazingly good. I thought I had seen pretty much every bread and cheese combination there is, but coming here has proved me wrong. Khachapuri (cheese stuffed bread) is a national dish here and each region of the country has its own take on it, some of them put beans in it, some just cheese, one even has an egg cracked and cooked it in it sunny side up. Hot Pockets don’t stand a chance against khachapuri. Also, I didn’t catch the name, but eggplant with walnut paste is pretty awesome.
4) Georgians are focused on the present. At least that is what I have been told in our classes, but it makes sense that in a land that has experienced so much political and sovereignty change over the centuries that one wouldn’t look to far into the future as it could all come crashing down tomorrow. Given this, I am actually impressed that the country has made as much progress as it has in the 20 years since they became independent. They have a stable currency, cheap public transportation, and a working democracy with clean elections. Georgians on an individual level, tend not to look much farther past today. Hence, the evolution of Suphra. A feast, often somewhat spontaneous in nature, celebrating life, friends, family, and the good times. This focus on the present does lend a resiliency and flexibility to the Georgian culture, and the ability for its people to act quickly without hesitation as seen by the driving here. I have personally witnessed three close calls in only three hours or so of walking the streets, but no actual wrecks, though it is my understanding car accidents are a leading cause of death.
5) TLG is doing more than just teaching English. After taking input from the TLG staff and volunteers, reforms have been made all around the education system. It is a huge marketing tool for the country. We come here and have a great time and promote Georgia as a travel destination to friends and family. We become an extension of the government in feeding the economy with our stipends as well as any extra money we bring into the country (US dollars are loved all over the world). There is even a slight positive effect on population growth rates as several volunteers have stayed here a while, some have even married and started families.
So far, I have very much enjoyed my trip, though being stuck in the hotel has inhibited my ability to get a real feel for the Georgian people outside of the TLG staff. I am glad to have this week though, it helps ease the transition not only by teaching us what to expect from the people and culture, what kind of food to expect, and how to speak basic Georgian, but also by using the hotel as a buffer from the jet lag and shock of being in a new country. I look forward to updating you all on my continuing adventures.