Welcome to our travel blog! We have been living in Tbilisi, Georgia, for just over a week. In upcoming posts we’ll tell you more about the city and what Matt is doing here, but we wanted to begin by answering a few of the main questions that we’ve gotten about this place.
Where is Georgia?
It’s on the east coast of the Black Sea, in a region of the world called the South Caucasus, and has land borders with Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As part of the Caucasus, there are lots and lots of mountains around.
So is it in Asia or Europe?
Tricky question…it’s somewhere in between. Architecture, history, and artistic forms (including music) all bear out this mixed character. A few factors, like Russian and Soviet rule over the past 200 years, and current European Union aspirations, push it slightly more toward the European side.
Who lives there?
About 5 million people. Georgia is multiethnic: roughly 83% Georgian, 6% Armenian, 6% Azeri, 2% Russian, and 3% other. And let’s get this out of the way now: yes, Joseph Stalin was actually from Georgia, born with the name Ioseb Jughashvili.
I know that Georgia was part of the USSR. So do they basically speak Russian?
Nope. The official and majority language is Georgian. It has its own alphabet that looks something like this: ქართული ენა. That says “kartuli ena,” which means “Georgian language.” It’s known for having a ridiculously complicated verbal system, tongue-twisting consonant clusters, and some unusual consonant sounds that Yok likens to beat-boxing. Also, Georgian is a language isolate, meaning it’s unrelated to any other language (with the exception of loanwords); it’s not even in the Indo-European family. In case you don’t believe me: the Georgian word for father is “mama” (მამა).
You do still get some signage in Russian, so reading the Cyrillic alphabet comes in handy on occasion. And middle-aged people are pretty likely to speak to you in Russian once they figure out that you’re a foreigner (we don’t blend in very well here).
Even before the formation of the USSR, Georgia was part of the Russian Tsarist empire for more than a century. Lots of people do speak Russian and watch Russian TV, although since 1991 English has replaced Russian as the second language of choice in public schools. But this is a touchy subject, and you’d better not confuse Georgia and Russia in front of a Georgian. After all, Georgians would tell you, Georgia has a much older civilization than those upstart northerners, and has had an alphabet and literature for half a millennium longer.
Wait, “Kartuli”? What the heck, that sounds nothing like “Georgian”!
You are right. Ethnic Georgians call themselves Kartvelebi (ქართველები), and the country’s name in Georgian is Sakartvelo (საქართველო), which literally means “place where the Kartvels are.” How it came to be known as Georgia in some languages is still historically unclear (for what it’s worth, it’s “Gruziya” in Russian). St. George is a pretty big deal, though, as the patron saint of the nation.
So is Georgia a Christian country?
Yes, the majority religion is, by far, Georgian Orthodox (72% or so). There are also significant Russian Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox populations (for the nitpickers out there, Armenian Orthodox is not part of the same communion as the Greek, Georgian, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and most other Orthodox churches). There are some ethnic Georgian Muslims, and most of the country’s Azeri minority is Muslim too. Respect for the Georgian Orthodox Church is enormous, and its Patriarch, Ilia II, is a highly-revered figure.
Georgia’s constitution does allow for separation of church and state, but also grants the Georgian Orthodox Church special powers. Secular-minded folks and members of minority religious groups (Protestants, Muslims, and JWs, mostly) have been critical of the way the church has enforced its privileges. But the church can point to a history of victimization under communism, and an overwhelming revival of devotion in the 1980s, to support its claim to be the moral voice of the Georgian people. And that devotion is pronounced: you’ll regularly see people crossing themselves on the street whenever they pass by a church, and on my first trip to Georgia in 2012, I was both amused and horrified to see a saint’s icon taped over the speedometer of the van driving me over sketchy mountain roads.
Are you worried about Russia?
People often ask this question, familiar with the past year’s unrest in Ukraine. Georgia and Russia have had fairly hostile relations for a while; this hostility came to a head in a brief war in 2008. Spoiler alert: the country with a population of 144 million won. Like with Crimea, Russia has sponsored breakaway regions within Georgia who would prefer to be independent or part of Russia. There are two such regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, neither area has actually been under the Georgian government’s control for more than two decades. The 2008 war just solidified that fact. So, Russia basically already has control of the Russia-sympathetic parts of Georgia, and is unlikely to physically invade another region where resistance would be much more vehement.
Most importantly–what’s the food like?
Pretty dangerous. Dieters beware, bread and cheese are everywhere–in fact, the national staple food found on every street corner, khachapuri, is basically a disc of bread stuffed with cheese. This stuff is ridiculously cheap and I gained about 10 pounds in just a few weeks during each of my previous trips to Georgia. The other national dish is khinkali, a boiled dumpling stuffed with meat and broth.
Georgia is a cornucopia of agricultural diversity and riches, especially in the eyes of a Central Canadian like me, and in the summer and fall you can get all kinds of fresh local fruit–oranges, apples, peaches, pomegranates, plums, pears, watermelon–at fruitstands half a block from your apartment. The local “ketchup,” called tkemali, is made out of Georgian plums. But the country’s most famous fruit comes from the vine; Georgian wine is a major export and the national mythology states that wine was invented here. There are many rituals associated with the consumption of wine. Also, everyone and their uncle makes their own wine, and the homemade stuff is often really good, at least if you like your wine sweet.
Georgian food goes beyond even this; in fact, it basically became the gourmet cuisine of the Soviet Union. For me, Georgian “tonis puri” (kiln bread) with local honey, or with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, homemade cheese and a sprinkle of local seasoned salt, is worthy of a king’s table. Feasting is of huge importance here too, and there are all kinds of interesting rituals associated with it, which has led to much interest from anthropologists and ethnographers. There’s a lot more to talk about, and perhaps you’ll think of more questions for us, but we’ll leave this first installment for now!