Walking down the street, you are a guest

Georgia part 2. Walking down the street, you are a guest

It is jarring to be disconnected from the consumer oriented landscapes
I live with in the UK and US, no matter how much I’m disinterested
normally. Retail is not absent from Tbilisi, but certainly very limited
and available only to the elite. Society is oriented differently, not
necessarily in a more ideal, caring community way that might be
imagined. It is closer to just ensuring survival, and consumption of
essentials is centered around the bazari and the innumerable grey
market entrepreneurial kiosks. There are upscale “supermarkets”, about
the equivalent of corner stores here, which we just found necessary.
The strange thing about these places is when shopping as a foreigner,
you will have someone shadowing closely throughout the store, staring
at every choice off the shelves. We couldn’t decide if they were there
to be extremely helpful or to prevent shoplifting; probably a mixture
of the two and maybe inseperable in some way. The abacus is still
widely used, even when a calculator is right at hand.

Foreigners from the “west” are still a bit unusual these days, even
with Georgia’s long history of being a hospitable world crossroads.
People on the streets have no embarrassment in staring at foreigners
walking down the street. And there are so many men on the street,
without work they congregate near places where their buddy managed to
land a job. It must be entertaining and educational to simply see the
subconcious communication of body movement. In the bazari, once they
smell that you are buying and slightly confused, the competition for
your attention is intense.

After a week, we did manage to affect a manner and bazari strategy
which made us much less interesting to the locals. There’s something in
the looseness of the shoulders and the arms, and you have to look with
your eyes, not your head. It helps to know where your going too. Taking
in the street scene by just rotating the eyes gives a sense of
objectivity, this kind of internal quiet that reveals drama and newness
normally absent in self-absorbed familiar surroundings.

In anyway, as guests, we were treated unbelievably well, by friends
from Friend of the Earth to helpful strangers on the street bridging
wide verbal and non-verbal language gaps. Anna was taken for food and
drink, at steep prices for the locals, and practically had to battle to
pay for her own share on the fourth night out. Looking for a cash
machine in Batumi, a bus was signalled and given directions across town
— and this was without much fear of an obvious situation for a scam.
Georgians on the whole are very honest and trustworthy with foreigners
(despite their own internal and now embattled corruption). And
incapable of receiving thanks. After we’d been helped, it was over;
there was no need for the usual ceremony of appreciation, it must
already be understood.

Romano, our guide in the mountains around Borjomi, mentioned that he’d
been told before how incredibly helpful and welcoming Georgians were.
But he said it with no recognition himself; to him, this was the way
things were done and not any kind of special effort. He did talk with
pride of the ancient welcome and special relationship of Georgians and
Jews, so there is an awareness of this being exceptional. Jews have
been in Georgia for over 2,000 years, with many old synagogues (and
without the security presence you’d see most anywhere else these days). And it’s not like the Georgians are happy with every foreigner that moves from being a guest to settling down — they don’t like Armenians
or Turks or Russians. Maybe it’s the long connection of both Georgians
and Jews being literate cultures. Or maybe the Jews never tried to rule over the Georgians, like pretty much every other foreign presence over
the centuries.

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