A few thoughts….

I decided to make one of these things after reading the blog of Mr. Neal Zupancic, an American expatriate currently teaching English in Georgia. I read it with interest; Neal seems to have such a terrible time here in Tbilisi, and so many criticisms of Georgian culture that one has to ask; Neal, what exactly are you doing here? Not to put too fine a point on it old fellow, but if you dislike it as much as you seem to, I suggest you pack your bags and leave, old chap. And before I get a tirade of ‘I-said-bad-things-but-I-love-it-really’ emails or comments or whatever it is on this website…keep it to yourself for now, and read on.

So welcome to my haphazard blog, the first I’ve made and probably the last. I’ll be chronicling my Georgian adventures here in the most erratic fashion, in no order and rather incoherently, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to cope. A little about me first, and a few of my own Georgian experiences. I am a former British infantry soldier (Mercian Regiment) and currently loosely make my living from professional boxing here in Tbilisi (though a novel publication is seemingly underway). I regrettably spend about three months of the year in the United Kingdom, working towards earning my degree in Politics from Keele University. I am married to a Georgian, Natia.

I regard myself as being relatively well-traveled; at twenty years of age I’ve traveled extensively in Western Europe (spending roughly eight years of my life in France), and visited Canada, the United States, Mexico, Japan, Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, Latvia and Poland to name just a few. But I truly found my home here in Georgia, five years that seems like a lifetime ago.

My mother had some business out here as a lawyer representing the British government, and like good old Neal Zupancic, was rather shocked at what I found here. I’ll be setting down the exact details of that fateful week at a later date; right now I can’t be bothered, it’s far too emotionally exhausting and today I’m more in the mood for an all-out attack on Americans than broody emotional reminiscing. (I’ve rankled you now Neal, haven’t I? I’m just getting started).

Let’s begin with foreigners in Tbilisi. They’re (we’re?) becoming a more common breed on our streets, what with more American investments and governmental assistance (though I met a bloke on a ‘bird watching tour’ a few weeks ago, God help us), and I’ve met a fair few being a frequenter of all the best hotel bars and being friendly with all the Georgian staff. On the whole, I’ve had a rather negative reaction to foreigners here, and allow me to explain why. Pay attention, Neal.

Firstly, my wife has had several visa rejections to both France and Britain on the grounds that, despite our letters and references and valid documentation, we are somehow not telling the truth. I’ll leave my boiling rage against the European border agencies for another time, but for now suffice to say we were absolutely not intending her to stay in France or Britain, our visa applications were simply for her to meet my family and have a holiday. But no, we were lying, and that was that.

Since Natia is employed at one of the best hotels in the city (I’ll refrain from saying which one for now), I’ve met several members of embassy staff in my time here, and one encounter particularly sticks in my mind. I was just back from boxing, having knocked seven kinds of Hell into a guy called Irakli, and I went to visit her at work and to see my mates who worked there. That day, she was serving guests in the hotel lobby. As we were talking, a fellow British man with a voice like Tony Blair interrupted us and grunted at Natia, ‘Can. I. Have. A. Beer. Please.’

Well, at least he said ‘please’, you might think. I should inform you now, reader, that Natia speaks Georgian, Russian, German and English all fluently, and has a fair command of both Spanish and French. She replied politely and sweetly she would bring him one immediately, and left me with my countryman. I made it very clear that if he spoke to my partner again in the same way he would be taken outside into the street and I’d demonstrate what three years of infantry soldiering and eight years of boxing have taught me when it comes to dealing with people who insult my wife. The memory of his red face and stammered apologies bring a smile to my face to this day. One of your real, top-lofty ‘I say!’ Britons, this chap, to whom anything outside of London is somehow inferior and not be touched without surgical gloves (that’s right Neal, I’m not an anglophile patriot. Why do you think I’m here?).

Anyway, that was one encounter, and that was sometime last year. Easter, I think, or just after. The next one was just last week. Natia often likes to introduce me to her favourite guests, and these two were a character study indeed. A corpulent man and a dainty, baseball-cap wearing little wife; I didn’t need Natia to tell me they were American (sorry Neal, but you know I’m right), and from the male’s gruff aggressiveness and the little wife’s dutiful deference I didn’t need to be told they were Republicans. As a politics student and former soldier, I prefer to avoid party politics as a rule, but these two were true-blue Republicans to the bone, as I found out (regrettably) later.

Being at a loose end for a few days I thought it’d be good fun to show them around the city. The last time I did that with an American, Natia and I had had a very entertaining week, and Mr. Chris Thompson of Rochester, New York, is a friend to this day. If only this time had turned out the same way.

As a first port of call, I thought a trip to a Georgian restaurant would be a good start. Steve and Janet were at pains to tell me (numerous times) that ‘we’ve been to 191 countries on this God’s Earth, yes suh, and  we’re running out of places to visit, dammit!’. I had thought that people who were seemingly so well-traveled would be open minded, but it turned out I didn’t know Republicans.

Lunch was interesting. Everything brought out to the table was viewed with frowning suspicion, but to be honest they were fairly unadventurous Georgian dishes; khinkali, chicken salad and khachapuri for the most part. The reaction to Adjarian khachapuri was especially memorable. Steve looked at it and asked me, ‘That egg don’t look cooked. Is this safe to eat?’. Why, no Steve, it isn’t. You see, even though people have lived in these lands when your country was still to be formulated hundreds of years in the future, they still haven’t been able to make edible food. After that, I wasn’t surprised when Steve confided to me he and his wife had been eating all of their meals at McDonalds in Saburtalo.

At the end of it all, Steve and Janet’s problems with Georgia (and most of the rest of the world) seemed to be that it isn’t America, and the reason I’m annoying Natia with my incessant typing right now is because I picked up exactly the same vibes when I read Neal’s blog. More on this shortly. Be patient, Neal, we’re getting there.

I appreciate that these two lunatics are not representative of the United States as whole. That would be borderline impossible; it’s so large it’s almost fifty countries in one, and after visiting the place three times in different areas I have a favourable impression of Americans, mostly. Far more friendly than us Brits, and New England is still somewhere where I can see myself having a holiday home. But my experience didn’t help me with my opinion of Americans in this country, which has also been influenced by their political endeavours. You see, before the 2008 war against Russia, good old President Bush came and made stirring speeches how Georgia was America’s new best mate, and the guns, money and training supplies from the USA were tokens of everlasting friendship between the two nations. President Saakashvili took his words rather too literally, but even if he had taken all of Bush’s words with a pinch (or handful) of salt, he still would have been disappointed.

President Bush’s reaction to the war was ‘This is a European problem, let the Europeans deal with it’ (read Ronald Asmus’ A Little War That Shook the World if you doubt me), even though he was fully away Georgia’s relations with the French and Germans were nothing short of appalling. In the end, it was the French who brokered the peace deal (Britain being almost as useless as America), and it heavily favoured the Russians. It wasn’t particularly surprising that when I came here in 2010, two years after the war’s end, the Stars and Stripes flag that had been trailed from every street corner three years earlier were nowhere to be seen.

Enough of politics, though I could talk about it until the cows come home, and back to Neal’s blog. One thing that Steve and Janet told me was how much they hated Armenians (even though they were planning to visit Armenia forty-eight hours after I met them, and I had already arranged for them an Armenian driver. Sorry, Andro). I asked them why this was, and Janet told me as a career teacher in Los Angeles it was always the Armenian kids who gave her problems. It turns out, though, that like so many Americans, it was simply a matter of heritage; they were no more Armenians than I am Pakistani, they were born and raised in the United States, but because of their ancestry they were ‘Armenians’. Just like those wankers in New York who run up to you when they hear your British accent and yell ‘I’m Irish!’ in a Rhode Island twang.

Neal himself at some point talks about the origins of his Central European name, and it reminded me of so many times Americans have told me they were coming to Europe to ‘get back to their roots’. Your roots are where you are born and raised; Georgian resident and patriot though I am, my roots are in England, in Worcestershire, near the border of Wales, where my family also has heritage. (Incidentally, my last name has Norwegian origins apparently, but when I was in Oslo I didn’t walk around yelling “I’m home! The Motherland!”).

But to get back to the point of this thing, and I’m addressing you directly here, Neal. I’ve just read the part of your blog in which you talk about the Easter traditions here in Georgia. You object, apparently, when children tell you happily ‘Qristie Adsga!’ because you’re a ‘secularist’. Well, Neal, you have absolutely no right to be offended at that, my lad. Funnily enough, the Georgian nation are not going to abandon the faith that has ensured their cultural survival for centuries because you don’t like it. If you don’t like it, well, you chose to be here, and if you didn’t do your research before you came here, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Granted, you can’t appreciate Georgian culture in its true form until you live here, but if you were unaware of how religious this place is before you arrived, then you must have been intending to go to Atlanta.

Besides which, have you not stopped and considered how Georgian people might be trying to include you by saying that? You know, make you feel at home here, that you’re one of them, or an honoured guest. I suppose since they haven’t had the luxury of reading your blog they wouldn’t know that’s the last thing you  seem to want. At the moment I’m reading your blog about an apparent ‘bar fight’ you had, and with amusement I’ve noted you don’t even mention what started the fight. If you marched up to him and said, ‘Hey, Giorgi, you don’t treat women right, you don’t respect my secularism, you need to stop staring at me because I’m foreign!’ then what did you expect? Do you know these people at all? They are proud, with traditions in fighting and drinking, and they aren’t going to take cultural criticism from someone who doesn’t understand it. I’ve lived here for two years and had heavy contact with this country for five, and the levels of street violence here are very low indeed, especially compared with my native land, where if there’s no fight in the pub, something’s not quite right.

One thing (amongst many, apparently) you need to appreciate is this; Georgians know they’re not major political players, so they tolerate American influence here, but that doesn’t mean they have to like it. My Georgian friends and family have told me several times they don’t like the patronising attitudes of Americans in their country, showing no respect to a nations that has endured for centuries against all kinds of adversity. From your blogs, you seem to be a relatively open-minded man but with severe limitations. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re suffering from culture-shock. Not every Georgian man is a sexist bastard who’s only calling in life is to have sex with as many women as possible behind his wife’s back, while she cleans his shoes, irons his clothes and makes his food. There’s an element of that, certainly; but look at your own country, and tell me it’s different. Rap culture for instance. Furthermore, many women here embrace the traditional culture. Not all of them are downtrodden Oxford dons who are just aching to be employed by the Ministry of Defence (in which there are tons of women working, anyway, since I’ve met a fair few).

I also enjoyed how many of your blogs centre around sex, and how one of your articles appeared in the New York Times. A bad time indeed for my cultural standpoint when I’m looking at that and thinking to myself, ‘Bloody Hell, Westerners really don’t have a clue’. You seem to have hit the nail mostly on the head there, actually, but I can’t help but feel you felt ever so disappointed when you realised the dating scene isn’t what you had back in good old US of A.

Personally, I’ve rarely found people more welcoming and hospitable than Georgians. I’m sure you have too, you seem to have been around a bit; Signaghi, Kutaisi, etc. But what I don’t like is how you much you seem to criticise it here for the same reasons good old Steve and Janet did; complaining because it doesn’t do things ‘the American way’. It’s very easy to have the best time of your life here, but frankly you seem to be wasting it, picking fights with Georgian men (whose upbringings have been ten times tougher than yours; believe me, I box them) or telling them to Patriarch is spewing propaganda. I’m looking forward to your response to this, if you decide to do one, and how you’ll tell me I ‘took your words out of context’ or ‘didn’t read the articles properly’, the trademarks of response to criticism. I’d love to meet up with you, I’m sure we’d have lots to talk about, but if you take my advice, I’d go home. You seem to be struggling so much here, I think it’s time to pack your bags, and call it a day. Or as my linguistically talented wife said, ‘Fuck off back to where you came from’.

About tcjogden69

Former soldier, current boxing trainer/student living in Tbilisi.
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2 Responses to A few thoughts….

  1. panoptical says:

    I’m glad I’ve inspired you to put your thoughts and experiences down on paper (well, not paper…). Georgia needs more discussion and more exposure.

    To tell you the truth, nothing you’ve said here rankled me even a little. I think there are places where you’ve mistaken my intentions and places where we’ll have to agree to disagree, but overall you’ve presented your case articulately and in that particularly British way you folks have of telling someone to fuck off in the most civil and urbane way possible.

    So instead of just saying that you took my words out of context, I’ll try to actually provide the context:

    The Georgian government invited me to their country in an effort to address a complicated set of issues that could best be summed up as: Georgia lacks substantial ties to the rest of the world.

    Whether or not you agree that Georgia should build cultural and economic ties to America, Europe, etc. is up to you. I can say that the end goal of these ties is to spur foreign investment and foreign tourism, both of which would greatly benefit Georgians’ material conditions. If you’re opposed to globalization or American/Western hegemony, I can understand how this goal might seem deleterious to Georgian culture – and I do try to keep that in mind in my interactions. However, I am specifically being paid, with Georgian tax money, to bring my linguistic and cultural perspective to bear on the problems facing Georgia. I am being paid to teach English, but also to expose Georgians to American culture – to our experiences, our opinions, our values, and our modes of thought. Not to replace Georgian culture, but to add to it.

    Georgia does not need another voice saying “everything in Georgia is great and we’re the best country in the world.” Georgia already has several television stations broadcasting that message 24/7. If I seem to focus on the problems in Georgia, it is because I would like Georgians to know that their way is not the only way – not because I think that my way is the only way.

    But what really benefits Georgia (in terms of attracting tourism, investment, and political capital from the world) is having Westerners here to bring Georgia to life in a way that the facts and figures on Wikipedia cannot. People who are considering coming to Georgia want to know what problems they will face here, and how to surmount those problems. They want to know the major issues and the trivial ones. They want to know if it is safe to go out alone at night and if they ought to bring dental floss or if they can buy it here. That is the main service that my blog aims to provide.

    In short, my blog primarily exists to explain to Americans how, exactly, Georgia differs from America, so that they can be prepared for what they will find when they come here.

    I can understand how you might get the impression that all of these differences add up to an unhappy American, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    As for the social commentary – the part of my blog which is devoted to exposing Georgians to Western culture – sure, I understand that there are reasons why Georgian culture is the way it is, and I understand that Georgians value their traditions highly. However, there are some aspects of Georgian culture that foreigners might not understand and might not like, and I think that, if we’re being honest, we owe it to Georgians to explain to them which aspects we object to and why. Of course, it’s their choice whether they want to accommodate foreigners, and to what extent.

    In the US, we generally expect foreigners to adapt to our culture, so if Georgians wanted to adopt the same position, I could not really fault them for it. But it seems to me that most Georgians – at least, the ones that I interact with – want to be more Western and want to be perceived as more Western. Again, an explicit part of my job is to show them how to achieve that goal.

    With regards to Easter – and here’s where I rankle you – I come from a country that was founded, in part, by people who left your country to escape religious persecution. To many Americans, religion is still a very thorny issue, and a significant (and often hotly contested) part of the American ethos is not having to make professions of religious faith to strangers. Georgians deserve to know that – they deserve to know that they may be wading into a controversy that they know nothing about when they use the wrong Easter greeting. Learning a modicum of religious sensitivity is a fundamental part of interacting with the rest of the world.

    Don’t want to end on that, but don’t have much else to say… enjoy your day!

  2. Pingback: Why I Do What I Do | Georgia On My Mind

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