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Living in… Georgia

by Bruce Haring

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Ray Charles never thought much about South Ossetia, Abkhazia, or other regions that comprise the country of Georgia.

Located in the Caucasus region, the country of Georgia is bounded not by Alabama, but borders Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. While the capital of Tbilisi never will inspire a song (after all, what rhymes isn’t exactly inspiring – queasy, easy), it is a bustling city of over a million Georgians, and gets good reviews from the World Bank. Unfortunately, 34% of the country lives below the poverty line, although it’s getting better as they rebuild from “the unpleasantness,” as they call recent wars.

A former Russian satellite state, Georgia became independent in 1991, and struggled a bit until the Rose Revolution of 2003 brought in democratic and economic reforms.  The country’s history is typical of the region, suffering through the usual booms, busts, and invasions caused by its proximity to the Silk Road trade routes and easy land/sea access. Right now, they appear on the upswing.

So why move to Georgia?  Well, Tblisi is the “City Of Warm Springs,” with its famous sulfur baths in the district of Abanotubani, which gave the city their name. Yes, sulfur smells a little like rotten eggs (okay, exactly like rotten eggs). But once you get past that, it’s allegedly all good. Kind of like the Georgians themselves.

The good news is that you don’t need a visa if you’re a US resident. You can travel to Georgia for up to 360 days without one, then renew. They’re anxious to have you visit and help their nascent free-market economy, which was hobbled for many years by being in the Soviet orbit.

The Unpleasantness

Georgians must have shuddered a bit when they saw the recent problems in Ukraine. The situation has eerie parallels to what they experienced less than a decade ago.

In order to stop Ossetia from breaking away, Georgian forces entered that region in August of 2008. After a Russian peacekeeping base was shelled, the Russian Army entered the fray, and reduced the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali to rubble. The Georgian Army retreated.

Emboldened by South Ossetia, separatists in Abkhazia attacked Georgian troops there, causing another withdrawal. Today, the official position is that the areas are part of Georgia, but the reality is they are under Russian control, although they are nominally independent and Russia made the token gesture of withdrawing from some military bases.

The failure to resolve this dispute has left more than 250,000 people in exile and in a kind of economic limbo, a growth stall that has only recently been ticking upward thanks to investment from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Given the disruptions, there’s no place to go but up. The Georgian government seems determined to shake the dust, removing a lot of regulations that stood in the way of business development. Since then, the famed Georgian wine industry, and its tourist industry, have grown considerably.

Where to go?  There are 103 resorts scattered through Georgia, and about 12,000 historical and cultural monuments, including the Bagrati Catherdral and Gelati Monastery, both impressive examples of the region’s long history of crossing cultures. The Georgian people have adapted with a warm regard for strangers. In fact, should you find someone to fall in love with, marriage can be obtained 24/7 in the city of Sighnaghi, the city of love, which is becoming something akin to the Las Vegas of Georgian shotgun weddings. Without a preacher in an Elvis suit, of course.

If you’re hungry, you can take part in a traditional feast called Supra, which involves a lot of drinking and toasting, all led by a host nicknamed Tamada (or is it Tomada? Let’s call the whole thing off!).  During the banquet, you can partake of the meat dumplings known as khinkali, the egg-topped bread of khachapluri, and lots of fine dishes influenced by Russian and Mediterranean cuisines. Don’t worry about asking for seconds. You’ll be offered fifths, sixths, and on into the night.

Just don’t expect any peaches. They don’t do that in this Georgia.

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