Tskhovreba

Our time in Georgia is winding down.

The last couple of weeks have been hectic but fun: travel to our former home of Akhaltsikhe (more on that later), lunches and dinners with friends in Tbilisi, the wedding of an old Peace Corps friend, business meetings, spice tastings, sauce tastings, wine tastings, factory tours, shopping for things to bring home… and even a quick detour over to Greece for a wonderful getaway.

Tomorrow we’ll already be en route back to the States. As they say here, დრო მალე მიდის (the time goes quickly).

It’s way too soon to really get our heads around this trip. It’s been… so many things. Different things at different times. Fun and exciting? Absolutely. But definitely not carefree.

Three months is too long to be on “vacation,” and our itinerary was filled with equal parts business and pleasure. When you’re on the go as much as we have been, it’s also hard to get into any sort of routine that feels like “normal life.”

We’re not tourists, but we’re not residents. I guess we’re somewhere in-between. It’s all just “life” (ცხოვრება – tskhovreba).

This isn’t a “wrap-up” post — we have a few more things to share — but we thought we’d share a few images of our regular day-to-day life over here. As regular as it gets.

IMG_1274
Our building.
IMG_2538
The neighborhood. Grocery stores and other shops just down the street.
IMG_2540
The neighborhood.
IMG_0921
Part of the park behind our building.
IMG_1738
Driveway outside our building where I would work out.
IMG_0701
The lift. It worked most of the time.
IMG_0696
Working in the kitchen.
IMG_0805
Out the kitchen window — the Saburtalo district of Tbilisi.
IMG_6113
The kitchen.
IMG_2340
Groceries.
IMG_0814
Hanging laundry to dry.
IMG_2452
The magnificent view from our balcony.
IMG_2969
Storm clouds rolling in.
IMG_2345
Shopping for a garlic press.
IMG_0928
The second-hand clothes market outside our metro stop.
IMG_2406
A typical Tbilisi sidewalk scene.
IMG_1301
On the bus.
IMG_5930
On the marshrutka in Tbilisi.
IMG_3711
Waiting for a marshrutka.
IMG_1168 (1)
Waiting at the bus station.
IMG_3756
Waiting in the rain.
IMG_0955
Waiting in the sun.
IMG_0944
Waiting.
IMG_1732
The painting in our stairwell at home.
IMG_3067
Street art.
IMG_2998
Street cat.
IMG_6111
Tbilisi at night from our balcony.

Somkheti

On a whim, Sean and I decided to take a quick trip to Armenia (called Somkheti or სომხეთი in Georgian).  We’ve lamented not visiting before; after all, Yerevan is just 5-6 hours from Tbilisi, depending on your mode of transportation.  Last week we were faced with a couple of free days in our schedule and, knowing it was likely our last chance for some time, decided to leave the next morning.

What a good decision!  We let ourselves be tourists and saw as much as possible during our 48 hour trip in and around Yerevan.  Photos from our short time in Armenia below:

 

IMG_3214
Republic Square in Yerevan.  We found the city to be surprisingly European and modern, but to us it lacked some of the charm we were used to finding in Tbilisi.  (We admit to being biased.)

IMG_5720
Ignorantly, we assumed Armenians were mostly Orthodox (like Georgians). I was surprised to enter this church – the largest we saw in Yerevan – and find it wasn’t Orthodox.  It felt Catholic, but we learned the next day it’s actually Armenian Apostolic, an unique type of Christianity of which Armenians are very proud.

IMG_5788
Originally we thought these Soviet-era steps were only for Yerevan views, but we happily discovered sculptures and a small indoor art museum on our way to the top.

IMG_3463
We had plenty of “moody clouds” during our time in Armenia.  On clear days, one can see Mt. Ararat (16,854 feet), a holy and special place for Armenians – and where Noah’s Ark landed!  It has been a part of Turkey since 1915.

IMG_3246
We went on a day-long tour that took us to Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus.  At 6,200 feet above sea level, it was cold – it started hailing right after this picture – but beautiful.

IMG_3276
Our tour guide joked that God gave Georgians the forests, rivers and Black Sea, and all the Armenians got were mountains and rocks.  In our experience, Georgians and Armenians tend to be competitive and we traded jokes with our guide all day.  (For the record, we found Armenia to be stunningly beautiful.)

IMG_3311
We visited a medieval cemetery filled with these unique Armenian “cross stones,” some from as early as the 10th century. 

IMG_3352
This first century pagan temple (!!) was rebuilt by the Soviets in the 1970’s.  When the area became Christian, the temple was allowed to remain standing as long as a church was built next to it.  They built it – three centimeters away!

IMG_3395.jpg
My favorite stop on the tour was Geghard, a monastery built in 1215 that hasn’t been remodeled since.  Pictured is a chamber that has amazing acoustics; we heard many pilgrims taking advantage of this while exploring the complex.
Of course, seeking out good food was on our itinerary. Armenians are quite proud of their version of dolma – meat and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Shaurma was also everywhere, and recommended by just about everyone we talked to. Although it isn’t uniquely Armenian, it is still tasty, filling — and cheap!

We even ran across Georgian food — especially khinkali.

It was interesting for us, with our knowledge of Georgia, to compare and contrast its very close neighbor.  Admittedly, we prefer Georgia – we are biased! – but we saw some extraordinary sights and were happy we finally visited, after six years of exploring here.

Dzveli

We often say that Georgia is a relatively new country but a very, very old place.  The country broke away from the Soviet Union in the spring of 1991 and became a Western-leaning democracy in 2003 after the Rose Revolution.  Still, Georgia – the place – was a kingdom as early as the 4th century BC (!!), which is pretty incredible when you think about it.

The Georgians we’ve met are incredibly proud of their history, and rightfully so.  Some of the oldest places we’ve visited are churches and monasteries, often perched high on a mountain or hill with stunning views.

IMG_1113After 20 minutes uphill on the roughest road we’ve encountered in Georgia, we arrived at Dedata Monastery near the village of Erketi, outside of Chokhatauri.

A fast-talking nun gave us a tour of the grounds.  Gurians are known for speaking quickly, and while our Georgian is decent enough, religious vocabulary + speed meant that we grasped about a quarter of what she said.  Still, it was quite interesting and a truly beautiful, serene place.

IMG_0085

IMG_1095
Villagers are buried on the monastery grounds.  The cemetery will be full in a few weeks for Orthodox Easter, when people come to celebrate and remember their dead.

Interestingly, the monastery has a room that’s always prepared for the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  It was unclear how often he comes (if ever!) but the nuns were ready for him.

IMG_1116
The nuns also had an enviable wine collection.

A friend recommended we visit Jikheti Monastery outside of Lanchkhuti, which was interesting for totally different reasons.  Legend has it it was built on the site where Saint Andrew preached in the first century, although a church wasn’t built on the site until King Tamar – the famed Georgian ruler – visited in the 13th century.

IMG_1189

IMG_0105

IMG_1188

We were impressed to learn that the nuns that live at Jikheti are almost totally self-sufficient.  They raise cows, chickens and goats; grow their own produce and keep bees for honey.  They also have every fruit tree imaginable:  apple, pear, fig and plum…

IMG_0111

It’s so interesting to visit these ancient (dzveli – ძველი) places.  They are literally hundreds and hundreds of years old, yet remain active and relevant to Georgians today.

Chizhi-Bizhi

Georgia is a stunningly beautiful country. About the size of South Carolina, it packs an enormous amount of natural beauty and diversity into its relatively small borders.

In the far west, up and down the border of the Black Sea, you’ll think you’re in Miami as the humidity envelops you and the sun beats down on palm trees. A few hours inland, you’re in the midst of some of the tallest mountains in Europe, high above the clouds, looking down on snow-capped peaks. Go further east and you’ll find yourself surrounded by vineyards, stretching out over long and flat swaths of land perfectly suited for carrying on the centuries-old traditions of the birthplace of wine.

Last week we hopped on a marshrutka and headed west to a region where we have spent little time before: Guria. We couldn’t get everywhere (a great excuse for a return trip!), but where we did go — the area in and around Chokhatauri and Lanchkhuti — this lush province did not disappoint.

Animals and humans share the land and life moves along at a leisurely pace. With views like this, what’s the hurry?

IMG_0887

IMG_0878

IMG_0043

IMG_0885

IMG_0042

IMG_0898

IMG_0050
A trout farm

IMG_0914

IMG_1102

One area of particular pride for local residents and Georgians in general is Bakhmaro, a mountainous resort town famous for wooden houses on stilts, clean air and lots & lots of snow. So much snow that the road up there is impassable 6-9 months a year. Some people told us that right now there are three meters of snow. Others said seven. And others said nine.

None of this deterred our host for the day from taking us as far as we could go in his truck:

IMG_1048

We winded up and up, past the last inhabited village on the mountain, past the point where snow and slushy ice started to accumulate on the road, past the turn where a dozen or so Georgian men were having a picnic celebrating a birthday (and warning our driver not to keep going), until we could go no further.

IMG_1046

IMG_1043

IMG_1038

After a full day of these and other excursions, it was time to head back down the mountain to our host’s family home in the village and settle into a steaming hot bowl of a traditional Gurian dish called chizhi-bizhi (ჩიჟი-ბიჟი). Made with stewed tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggs and whatever spices the cook is inspired to use, chizhi-bizhi reminded me of a Georgian shakshouka.

IMG_1130

We were told by one Georgian woman that chizhi-bizhi is so common in those parts that people don’t consider it to be anything special, as in “we don’t have any food prepared right now, only chizhi-bizhi.

Hearty, rich and deliciously satisfying, I beg to disagree.

Shetsdoma

Sometimes you learn new Georgian words from a street sign, a menu or in conversation. Other times you look them up. Such as “shetsdoma” (შეცდომა), which means “mistake.”

It’s a good word to learn when you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment and have to call your landlord, who then drives three hours one way to let you in and explain – again – how to properly operate the multiple doors and locks for which there are a full ring of keys.

  
Luckily, our landlord is a friend, and also one of the nicest men in Georgia.

It was an honest mistake to close the inner of two solid metal doors behind us as we met and talked with our neighbor for the first time, mindlessly pulling on the doorknob while putting our complete concentration into communication.

It’s a good example of the effort it sometimes takes to do simple things while traveling or living abroad. This isn’t unique to Georgia or to us, I’m certain. But simple things aren’t always… well, simple.

Like knowing which minibus (marshrutka) to hop on as you try to read the signs in the window:

  

Or which button to push to get to your floor on the elevator:

  
Or understanding why the bus zoomed past you while you were standing at the bus stop:

  

Dozens of things happen every day that require attention and concentration, things that we take for granted in the States.

But that’s what makes living abroad an adventure. It’s a cycle of constant learning, continuous improvement. These experiences become badges of honor, stories of triumph over adversity. They separate the tourists from those trying to assimilate. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which is a good thing, because I can’t.