I left you in my last post with a description of the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, where I had a somewhat exhausting but very inspiring time. The previous year I had regretted not being able to stay in Berlin longer to see more of the city, so this year I planned to be there for a full week intending to use the couple of days before and after the Gathering to do some sightseeing. I did at least do a bit of walking around and enjoyed seeing inside the Berliner Dom as well as browsing a gigantic bookstore called Dussmann (I feel like this could be the start of a list called “You know you’re a nerdy traveler when…”), but unfortunately I found myself lacking the energy to do much else. I guess I should have given myself even more time to account for the toll of jet lag and the mental exhaustion of the Gathering. Oh well, there’s always next year!
After Berlin I made my way to Georgia to visit a good friend of mine.
And when I say Georgia, I mean the country, not the U.S. state. Since many people don’t even know this country exists, much less where it is (and I have to admit I didn’t know either until fairly recently), here’s a map that points it out nicely:
When I told family and friends in the U.S. I was going to Georgia (“the country, not the state,” I was always careful to specify), the most common reactions were:
- “Where is that?” (Hopefully the above map clears this one up.) and,
- “Is it safe there?”
There seems to be a common tendency amongst Americans to assume that any “obscure” country they haven’t heard much about (especially if it’s anywhere near the Middle East) must be a war-torn danger zone where rapists and murderers roam the streets. But talk to anyone who has actually visited such countries, and they will most likely tell you that this assumption is completely wrong. If nothing else, I can tell you this assumption is completely wrong when it comes to Georgia. This is a charming little country that really should be on more travelers’ radars.
Georgia is not only very safe, but also home to some of the friendliest, most hospitable people you’ll ever meet. Of course you should use common sense just as you should anywhere, but a young woman can go out alone at night in a Georgian city without fearing for her safety, and that’s not something that can be said of some supposedly more “civilized” countries. And no, Georgia isn’t exactly a “first world” country, a fact which is immediately obvious as soon as you venture outside the most touristy areas of its capital city, Tbilisi. But even the more run-down areas of Tbilisi have a unique charm that somehow makes even their state of ruin feel almost inviting rather than off-putting.
I spent most of my 3 weeks in Georgia in Tbilisi (which by the way is pronounced pretty much just how it looks: “Tuh-bee-lee-see”), but we also made a day trip to a nearby rural town called Signagi (which is pronounced… not at all how it looks, but nevermind). Although 3 weeks is far from enough to really get to know a country, it’s enough to get an idea of it, and even enough for a bit of it to get into you and make a lasting impression. I’d like to share a few things about this little country that made an impression on me.
The Food (and Wine!)
Georgian food is delicious, and really quite unique. It didn’t seem similar to any other kind of cuisine I’d tried before, and yet it didn’t seem “weird” either– it put together ingredients that all seemed perfectly reasonable to eat, but did so in ways that were new to me.
The most famous Georgian dishes are khinkali, stuffed dumplings that look like much larger versions of Chinese xiaolongbao, and khatchapuri, a kind of bread usually filled with cheese and sometimes other things. (By the way, the “kh” is pronounced like the “ch” in “Loch”– you know, the sound you make when you’re trying to spit? The Georgian language really seems to like that sound.)
The interesting thing about khinkali is the way you eat them. You’re supposed to grab one by the little knob of dough on the top, hold it upside down, take a small bite to carefully suck out the juice, and then eat everything but the knob, which you leave on your plate as a record of how many khinkali you’ve finished. They’re big and quite filling, so I found that around six was plenty for me, but apparently it’s common for Georgians (even tiny women) to scarf down ten or more of the things like nothing. You can get them stuffed with all kinds of different things including meat, cheese, and various vegetables.
There are several different varieties of khatchapuri as well, but the most common seems to be the type made sort of like a giant stretched out bread bowl filled with cheese, raw egg, and butter. If you order it at a restaurant it will be served to you hot, at which point you’re supposed to immediately break off a piece of bread and use it to stir up the middle so the egg gets cooked and all the ingredients mix. As you can imagine, it’s very rich and very filling, and although it’s not for everyone, I personally loved it!
I got to try some other Georgian dishes I really enjoyed too, but the above two are the ones you kind of have to try if you ever get a chance to visit the country.
The other thing to note is that Georgia has not only good food, but good wine as well. The country has a very old wine making tradition, and some Georgians will even claim they were the first people to start making it, though there seems to be no way of knowing for sure if this is true. I’m the last person anyone would call a wine buff, but I thought the wine I tasted in Georgia was indeed really good, maybe even some of the best I’ve had. So yeah, there’s that.
Being a language nerd, of course there’s no way I can write about this country without mentioning its language, which is really quite interesting as far as languages go.
Yes, there is a language called Georgian, and it’s nothing like any other language most of you are likely to know of. It’s the most prominent member of a little family of languages called Kartvelian languages, all of which are spoken in or immediately around Georgia. As far as anyone knows, these languages are completely unrelated to any other language family. In layman’s terms, this means the Georgian language has virtually nothing in common with English, French, German, Russian, or any other “major” world language.
The Georgian language has its own script, which I think is quite beautiful. (Honestly I think it looks like something that could have been invented by JRR Tolkien.)
The Georgian alphabet not only looks cool but is also pretty easy to learn to read, since each letter is always pronounced the same way with no exceptions. I found I was able to sound out most things after a few days of extremely casual studying coupled with bugging my friend about unfamiliar letters I came across whenever we went out.
The more difficult thing about Georgian is trying to pronounce it correctly. Of course, “difficulty” is a relative concept, and a sound is only going to seem difficult to you if you’re unfamiliar with it because it doesn’t exist in any other language you know. So native English speakers may have trouble rolling their R’s in Spanish, for instance, but Italians have no problem with this sound because it also exists in their language. I’m also pretty sure that with practice, anyone can learn to produce any sound the human mouth is capable of producing. The thing is though, the Georgian language seems to have a lot of sounds that don’t exist in most other languages, and the maneuvers required to produce those sounds are going to seem difficult to most people. Having a pretty well-trained ear, I was able to at least hear the differences between all the sounds, but I never quite managed to produce them all. I believe I could do it with practice, but it would be a challenge!
In case you’re wondering, the sounds I personally found most difficult are something called “ejective consonants”, which are apparently so rare that they were intentionally used in the fictional Na’vi language for the film Avatar in order to give the language a more “alien” sound. (If you’re actually nerdy enough to wonder exactly what an ejective consonant is, look it up– I’m not going to scare off the rest of my readers by attempting an explanation.)
I didn’t learn much about how Georgian works in terms of grammar, but apparently it’s an agglutinative language, which basically means you can create words with complex meanings by sticking a bunch of little pieces of words together. One of the few words I managed to learn (because it was important for riding the bus) was a single word that means, as far as I understand, “Stop for me please.”
Since my knowledge of Georgian never extended much beyond basic greetings, a few numbers, and the most essential polite phrases (namely “Stop for me please” and “Do you speak English/Russian?”), any attempts to communicate with locals on my own had to be either through English or my unfortunately rather terrible Russian. Since Georgia is near Russia and a former member of the Soviet Union, Russian is commonly spoken, especially by older people. Many young people can speak English as well, but in general it seems to be a safer bet to try Russian if you can. There are also a lot of Russians in Georgia, so if you are obviously white and fair-haired (in contrast to Georgians who tend to be dark-haired), a lot of people will automatically speak Russian to you.
Interestingly I also ended up speaking a lot of German in Georgia, since for some reason I just kept meeting Germans and/or German speakers. I’m not sure how much of that should be attributed to coincidence, but some of the Germans I spoke to told me they often came across Georgians who could speak German, so apparently it’s a pretty commonly learned language in the region.
The Georgian people are many things, and as someone who has only visited briefly I can’t expect to fully understand their nature. But based on what little I know, in general I would say that most of them are loud. They are passionate. They shout at each other animatedly across balconies and through open car windows (you might think they’re arguing, but usually they’re just having a friendly conversation). They enjoy going out in large groups, chain smoking, and eating. Servers in restaurants don’t take their jobs very seriously. They will forget your order and not seem very sorry about it. But even so, they are friendly. Everyone is friendly. As I mentioned before, Georgians are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve met anywhere in the world. I mean that truly, no exaggeration. On one hand, I’ve found it to be true throughout my travels that people in general tend to be nicer and friendlier than you’d expect them to be, but Georgians really do go out of their way to be hospitable, especially to foreign tourists. It’s like they all consider themselves ambassadors of their country and want to do everything they can to make sure visitors leave with a positive impression.
I began to experience this friendliness and hospitality before I even set foot in Georgia. At one point during my trip over (from Berlin through Athens), I found myself sitting next to an elderly Georgian woman on an airport shuttle bus. She attempted to speak to me in Georgian, which I obviously didn’t understand, so I asked if she spoke Russian, which she did. We had a stilted but pleasant conversation in which she asked where I was from and so on. Then a young woman standing nearby, apparently gathering from the conversation that I was American, spoke to me in very good English. She seemed to be very invested in the hope that I would enjoy my stay in Tbilisi, and even expressed concern about how I would get from the airport to where I was staying, since we would be arriving in the middle of the night. I reassured her that my friend would be coming to pick me up, but I felt quite certain this woman would have done anything she could to help me if I’d needed it. This made me feel like I was going to a safe place where everyone would band together to take care of me if necessary, and it was a very reassuring feeling.
But my most memorable experience of Georgian hospitality happened when I went with my friend and two other girls to a village in the countryside. My friend and I had previously been given an amusing piece of advice from a tour guide at a museum: The guide told us that if we went to visit a village, we should go knock on the door of any random house and ask if we could see the large clay pots where they keep their wine (because apparently everyone in the Georgian countryside keeps large pots of wine). If we did this and made it clear we were foreign tourists, the locals would surely not only show us the pots, but also invite us in and serve us wine, she said.
Everyone in our little tour group was on board with this idea, so we decided to try it. Luckily one girl in our group could speak Georgian, so she was the unfortunate one made to go around asking strangers suspicious questions about wine pots. When we approached them on the street to explain our request, the people in the tiny village we had wandered into gaped at us like we were Martians at first, but after a bewildered shake of their heads they quickly sprung into action. They whipped out their cell phones or shouted into neighboring courtyards, and before we knew it our little group had somehow doubled or tripled in size as what appeared to be the entire village population led us around in search of the elusive wine pots, apparently excited to have something interesting to do.
At some point we learned they didn’t actually store their wine in clay pots, since the pots had apparently been phased out in recent years in favor of a more modern storage method. And so we found ourselves filing into a tiny, damp concrete cellar full of plastic vats of wine, right in someone’s backyard in this random minuscule village. As his fellow villagers looked on expectantly, an affable middle-aged man produced a set of little clay drinking bowls, which he filled with dark red wine and offered to my giddy friends and I. Our sommelier gave a little speech, and through our impromptu translator I gathered it was something about international friendship and world peace and other such lofty things. We said cheers, and all together we drank. And it was the most delicious wine I’ve ever had in my life.
That alone would have been enough to leave an impression, but the villagers weren’t done with us just yet. Immediately one of them announced they would take us to see their vineyards, and soon I found myself riding with a pudgy Georgian man and my translator friend in her car. But then we came to a very muddy dirt road my friend didn’t think her car could handle, so a second car was sent to come and get us. I have no idea how this second car was able to handle the muddy road, because it was no bigger than my friend’s and sure didn’t look like it had 4-wheel drive. But its driver maneuvered it at astonishing speed over bumps and valleys of mud that jostled us and lifted us into the air as we shrieked in delight, finally spitting us out into a tranquil, sun-kissed field full of grape vines as far as our eyes could see.
We stayed there by the vineyards for a little while, posing for photos and laughing as the village men joked good-naturedly about marriage proposals. They even invited us to stay for more wine and food, but it was getting late and we had to head back to the city. And so we thanked them and were on our way.
I’m not sure if that experience could have happened anywhere else but Georgia. Where else can you just knock on a stranger’s door unannounced and have them mobilize a whole task force of villagers to take you on an adventure?
As you may have gathered from some of the above photos, Georgia is just gorgeous. Here are a few more examples in case you’re not convinced.
I hope this post has gotten some of you interested in visiting Georgia. It’s a place that really deserves more attention, and I think Georgians would appreciate that. I’m really glad I got the chance to visit, and grateful to my dear friend Alyona, all of her friends, and the many kind strangers I met for making me feel so welcome. I would love to go back again someday.
A little update on the “Where in the world is Jana?” question: As you probably guessed from my use of the past tense, I am no longer in Georgia now. I’m actually in Montreal, Canada, where I will be participating in the North American Polyglot Symposium on July 23-24. The symposium is what brought me here, but obviously I’m a little early. I think I’ll try to explain the reasons for that in my next post. Until then, cheers!