Georgian Nature

Two parables (OK, “unfunny jokes”) to give you some idea of the Georgian national character, the first by an until recently fellow teacher, the other by me:

Americans have a mistress by love their wife; the French have a wife but love their mistress; Georgians have a wife but love their mother.

A constant controversy is whether Georgia is in Eastern Europe or Asia.  Eastern Europeans, if asked, would say Georgia were a part of Asia; Asians, if asked, would say Georgia were a part of Eastern Europe; Georgians, whether they are asked or not, say Georgia is a part of neither.  It’s just Georgia.

More on that first point later; let’s focus on the second.

Georgians, in general, have a very xenophobic and self-centered view of their place in the world.  This is by no means unique, my guess is that every country has it to some extent, but the degree here in Georgia is staggering.  It’s nearly on the same level as countries famous for their disinterest in foreign influence like the U.S., France, Great Britain, or China.  Take a moment to compare these five countries in terms of influence in the world, though.  Georgians are constantly underestimating the insignificance of their own country.

And what’s more, they five every indication of desiring foreign influence and approval.  They’re desperately trying to join the E.U. and N.A.T.O., are sinking hundreds of thousands of lari into English teacher programs every year to make the country more tourist-friendly, and are expanding development of tourism attractions in cities like Batumi and Sighnaghi.  It would be fine if Georgians were as arrogant as they are about their worldview and customs if they had a prevailing isolationist view, but they don’t.  Implicitly, what they’re expecting is for foreigners to want to come here for the bland culture and food, as opposed to something more vibrant elsewhere.  And they have absolutely no desire to adapt to other lifestyles or try anything new.

Everything in Georgia fees like the supermarket generic of something else.

I’ve already written on the blandness and homogeneity of their food (which can’t be overstated), and I’m not the only one who feels this way.  A Peace Corps volunteer here in Telavi told me that she met some Polish tourists here for a week who told her that they were already tired of it.  My girlfriend has been here for a month and she long ago agreed that our bad versions of non-Georgian foods were the only things keeping us both from completely wasting away.

It goes far beyond the food, though.  Georgian electronic music—of which they are very proud—sounds like it was recorded by a bored college freshman in GarageBand.  Architecture is either extraordinarily primitive church architecture (the authentic Georgian end of the spectrum), ugly Soviet-influenced buildings either dilapidated and falling apart or superfluously defended with gates, bars, and barricades everywhere—sometimes both—(representing the middle of the spectrum), or cobbled together from Persian, Asian, and European influences in an uncanny valley effect that’s more troubling than it is pleasing (the end of the spectrum that contradicts the “Georgian is better” ethos).

And of course Georgians are oblivious to all this, and even in denial about the ways those who visit from other countries feel about their food and culture.  (Yet) another teaching volunteer told me about a conversation she had with the inhabitants of a small, out-of-the-way village.  She asked a young woman what she (i.e., the young Georgian) thought foreigners thought of Georgian food.  She replied, completely confidently, that foreigners “all loved Georgian food.”  What tourists had she met?  Well, no tourists, per se, but all the foreigners she knew loved it.  What foreigners did she know?  Just one.  The volunteer asking about it.  Who hated Georgian food.  Vocally (something most volunteers, myself included, shy away from sharing out of politeness and fear of reprisal).  So she (i.e., the young Georgian again) was evidently basing her view of foreign tastes on her own.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with some culture pride, but when it’s combined with an aggressively inclusive foreign policy, it comes of as proselytizing or, “come here, love out ways, or get bent.”  Maybe a good explanation for President/Prime Minister (Georgians can’t seem to decide which he is) Saakashvili’s recent remarks about Russia was that Putin said he hated khachapuri.

Speaking about national or cultural pride, the first parable isn’t just about the pervasive mama’s boy culture here.   It’s also about a national obsession with the past.  Georgians jump at the chance to blame Russia for any and all problems.  I was recently discussing the country’s litter problem with a Georgian and he sighed despondently and started talking about how it was because of the U.S.S.R. and how they were telling Georgia, “No, you cannot be free.”  It was completely irrelevant and a shallow, pathos-heavy argument.

Along with this, Georgians completely lack the “my parents done fucked up” view.  I don’t mean that all children should be completely critical of their parents, but no one should have a completely gilded view of them.  Parents are human beings with selfish as well as selfless impulses and desires, and the only healthy way to think of them is like this.  No Georgian I’ve spoken to has, though: they think their parents could do no wrong and live only to serve their children.  It would be a sweet view if it weren’t so naive.  This limited view of their parents naturally extends to previous generations and customs, which surely contributes to the solidity of the hold on their customs that Georgians have.

They are justly proud of the view here in Telavi, of the mountains, the forests, and the clear air.  Due to translation problems, their way of bragging about it is to ask you, “How do you like our nature?”  If I didn’t know they mean the view, flora, and fauna, I’d answer, “Well, I find your nature a little terrifying and very frustrating, but at least you really want to join N.A.T.O. so I’m mostly safe.”

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