“Which one do you like better? Georgia or Armenia” was the first question our Armenian friends asked after we moved to teach at another international school in Tbilisi. Now, do you really expect me to answer this culturally insensitive question at a face-to-face encounter? Do you think it is a wise question to answer in a place where tribal conflict has raged, literally for millennia? Yes, according to Armenians it is necessary to discover whether you have joined another tribe, or whether your allegiance is to them. How do you think I responded?
“Well when I’m in Georgia, I like Georgia, and when I’m in Armenia, I like Armenia the best.” Silence. As minorities in Tbilisi, whose relatives were persecuted by Georgians, I think they understood why it was important for me to answer like this. Armenians were a majority in Persian ruled Tiflis – an Armenian built the town hall in Freedom Square. At the same time the Ottomans were becoming disgruntled at their success, the Georgians, mostly the Orthodox church, began claiming Armenian churches for themselves. There are still Armenian towns strewn around the southern border, along with other minorities (including German exiles and Dukhobors).
So, to get some of the stereotypes out of the way – Armenians perceive Georgians as boorish and uncultured sell-outs to Arab imperialism (at one point the nobles converted to avoid death, whereas Armenians apparently have never done so..). Georgians perceive Armenians to be conceited, rigid in their thinking, and geo-politically stupid despite the terrible genocide (The Baku pipeline could easily have run through Armenia and begun a process of reconciliation, and the ruling class is basically dependent on Russia, which “invaded” Georgia in 2008.)
Nevertheless, both countries are full of lovely welcoming people. As you drive by, people stare at you intensely as if subconsciously activating a survival instinct on the ancient Silk Road. But really they are just looking to see if you want to stop for a drink.
Sakartvelo is the real name of the country, not Georgia. Georgia came from the Greeks who thought of the land as great farming territory. Somewhere along the way, St. George (and the dragon) became the patron saint of the country (as well as England). Sakartvelo means “kingdom of Kartli”, and kartuli is the Georgian language. This was the last kingdom to remain semi-independent from Persian and Ottoman influence, centered in Tiflis, until the bittersweet Russian takeover from the Persians in 1813. Georgian heroes are a mixture of feudal kings, monks and nuns – specifically, King David “the builder” who defeated the Turks with crusader help, and St. Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century.
Georgians have a truly distinctive polyphonic tradition, a phenomenal traditional ballet troupe, and are known to be savvy experts of chic hipster sensibilities. They claim major poets such as the “Dante” of the Caucasus Shota Rustaveli, and like the Armenians, also claim to have invented wine. They certainly have much more of it. The Carrefour grocery store has a half-dozen wine tasting stations to start your weekly shop. You’ll see bottles claiming a 6000 year tradition – I even saw one claiming 8,000!! Let’s just say that Pheasant’s Tears winery is becoming famous for a reason. At a recent wedding in Canada, I sipped wine stored in concrete – producing similar results to the traditional qvevri clay jars, lined with beeswax. It had an earthy feel to it, the result of throwing the skins in with the grapes and letting them ferment as they will. It’s called “skin on skin” method – the the light fruitiness of a Rkatsiteli grape can become an earthy, complex, and downright mysterious sensation.
What Armenia has in length of history and distinctiveness (their history and manuscript museums are phenomenal), Georgia has in natural beauty and willingness to feast. There is not one single monastery of equal beauty in Georgia, but there are plenty of monks and nuns in active monasteries, and they produce a lot of wine. Sanahin and Haghpat monasteries, just a hundred and fifty kilometers away in Armenia, remain unequalled in mystery. Yet the norther trade routes are literally strewn with medieval castles and churches waiting to be rediscovered. I’ve been here for two years and barely scratched the surface.
Imagine living in Vancouver or Seattle with nearby skiing snowcaps, surrounded by the ancient ruins of Roman, Persian, and Mongol conquests – castles and signalling towers stringing together deep hidden valleys.
You’re in the 70s and capitalism is in its heyday. Traffic is chaotic, regulations are sparse, families are strong, the threat of the USSR looms. Soviet-style top-down education teeters slowly from the ivory-towers, dissolving piece by piece with every returning grad student from the west.
It’s June, and next to the whitecaps are emerald green hills, 2000 meters high. Shepherds from a bygone era herd masses of livestock along the roads up into the highlands.
Rough staccato baritone ululations fill the air of the bazroba (bazaar), and rune-like script screens out your friends’ pronouncements on facebook. Rugby is the national sport, followed by diplomacy, and the monitoring of the disputed territory populated by Russia soldiers.
The black tinted Toyota landcruisers careen, totally indifferent to your existence as a human being, signalling large-scale connections (or corruption?) in a land once dominated by Soviet era thieves-in-law. The hoipolloi, on the other hand, sell everything they have and live in a hovel to buy a Mercedes and show everyone that they too are connected. Drives home require regular rear view mirror checks, for “players” – red bull smashed kamikaze formula 1 wannabees flashing their lights at you to get out of the way. In Armenia everyone obeys the traffic laws. They also pay bribes. Not here. Instead, driving is a bloodsport – a land where crossing yourself at every church replaces the shoulder check.
Thousands of Georgian restaurants along the roadside are built around faux-medieval themes and play out the national narrative of hospitality, fierce loyalty, and fierce drunkenness every weekend, and sometimes every day. No, you may not leave the party until your brains are shot through with 10 to 15 half glasses of wine for each toast. There is no way out of a supra feast unless you are pregnant or driving. But if the family can sing in harmony, why would you ever want to leave?
Georgia is a screaming comet, bursting into the 21st century, and entirely silent to the rest of the world. Iosif Dzhugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin, played out the ultimate Oedipal drama – slaughtering the entire intellectual class of his fatherland. While Russia rehabilitates the man of steel, Georgian young people know very little about the man who murdered their grandparents. At his museum in Gori, you can board his armoured train and walk into the one room shack where he was raised fatherless.
Yes, the old-timers are nostalgic about the Soviet Union, but most people here (except when talking to their Orthodox priests about the evils of liberalism) want to join the European Union. Driving down the highway within sight of the South Ossetian border, a man walks down the road with a giant scythe over his shoulder. His relatives in Moscow send him enough money so he can retain the lands bequeathed to him by the USSR. He is somewhere between squalor and pride – 1991 was the first time peasants have ever owned land in history as he knows it.
For me there is something magical living in the “wild west” of the Russian empire, the place immortalized in countless “noble savage” romances written by soldiers sent to patrol the Circassian front. I grew up with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago on the shelf, along with Chekov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak. The tensions of liberalism are heightened in a place like this, just as they are in Hadji Murad, A Hero of Our Time, and Gulag. Isaiah Berlin’s secret meetings with the poet Ana Akhmatova, Roger Scruton’s underground university lectures in Prague – we are in some way connected to their legacy and continue the great discussion about tradition vs “progress”. Tbilisi is a city saturated with diplomats. I once drove home to pick up the kids and there was a traffic jam that slowed me down – it was Madeleine Albright’s entourage at the US ambassador’s place.
We miss the walk-ability of downtown Yerevan and the “small-town” feel you get with a country that is nearly 100% ethnically homogenous. Georgia on the other hand feels like a true crossroads, more cosmopolitan, and for very good reason named the “jewel” of the Caucasus by Romanov vacationers.
We love our new friends here in Tbilisi, and we look forward to learning more about Georgia and its people. And no, Armenia, we will never forget you.