Before this year, here is what I knew about Georgia (the Republic of):
- there is a country named Georgia, which is very easy to confuse with our state;
- it is somewhere near Russia and used to be part of the Soviet Union;
- it was in the news a while back due to intense fighting.
And that was it.
It was otherwise a shapeless entity, a blob somewhere on the map that I had no desire to visit. Why would I, when all I knew of it was from reports of war?
And now, how that has changed. First, it became like a person I knew, with a face and a character distinct from even its closest relatives. This was in part thanks to one of the other Fellows in my regional group, Melanie, who is in Georgia this year; I have learned quite a bit through my communications with her and through her blog. In addition, Georgia has a presence here in Ukraine. Georgian food is one of the most common foreign foods here. The former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is now the governor of the Odessa region of Ukraine. And Georgia has a reputation for good wine, hospitality, and resorts on the Black Sea.
Then I visited, and it became a friend. This face and character took on richness and detail, showing me what was within and treating me with kindness. I’d like to introduce you to her, so that you might also know her as a unique land and culture. I realize that my knowledge just scratches the surface, but it’s a big step up from next-to-nothing.
- Tblisi. What a cool name! It sounds so exotic, so foreign. So alarming in its stand on vowels. What traveler wouldn’t want to say, “I’ve been to Tblisi” or “When I was in Tblisi…”? The city struck me, my very first night being driven by taxi from the airport (in Tblisi) to my hotel (in Tblisi), as being one step in the direction of the Middle East: the hilly, narrow, gravelly roads; the brick walls covered with slabs of mortar, the sheets of metal separating buildings from streets; the high metal gates that open to reveal courtyards of plants and terrace furniture; the bright sun shining down on conservatively-dressed women and men; the small markets and shops spilling out onto the sidewalks with the rich smells of spices and bright colors of fresh fruit. I spent two days in this capital city with my fellow Fellows Melanie and Ryan from Georgia and Armenia. We walked around and around, up and down. This city shows off its cone-top cathedrals and modern futuristic-looking structures. The muddy-brown Kura River slicing through the center blends in with the rocky cliffs and stone buildings. Hills rise up from each side, and both cable cars and a funicular lead up to a view of the rooftops.
- Georgia will always hold a special culinary place in my heart. My favorite item is Khachapuri, a bread-and-cheese-lover’s dream come true. It is made especially tasty with sulguni, a very salty white cheese that looks and tastes similar to feta. One type is boat-shaped with a raw egg broken on top; you mix it into the cheese and get a kind of cheesy scrambled egg mixture.
Khinkhali is also a famous dish: it looks like a bag with the strings pulled together at the top to close it. There is an art to biting into it and sucking out the liquid so that it doesn’t spill everywhere; then you can start to bite into the meat or other filling. I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m pretty good at it. Oh, and if you want to look like you know what you’re doing, make sure not to eat the ‘stem’.
Churchkhela is a sweet that consists of a string of nuts (generally walnuts or hazelnuts) covered with dried fruit paste. It looks awesome and tastes…well, it’s no chocolate, but it’s good. Here I am displaying my pomegranate-hazelnut purchase.
I had other tasty food as well: beans baked in a clay pot, roasted vegetables, roasted meat, and desserts.
- The Georgian language is amazing. It is a Kartvelian language, which has not yet been connected to any other language family. Wow. It might help if you know the other Kartvelian languages: Svan, Mingrelian, or Laz. Yeah. And it has a script all its own: How cool is that? I spent a good bit of my spare time – on the taxi rides, during the conference speeches (the ones in Georgian, of course) – trying to memorize these letters. When this will come in handy in my life, I’m not sure. But if you need someone who can distinguish between the Georgian b and g, please let me know. Really. Please.
And here ends Georgia 101. For additional pictures, see my previous post. I hope she now has a face for you, too.