<<  Tbilisi, 30-Mar-2014  >>

Welcome to Georgia and get back to business!

About wonderful town of Tbilisi: food, shops, work, bread, people and Boney-M.

The start was not particularly great: Thanks to Turkish Airlines I missed 2 flights to Tbilisi. The flight from Vienna to Istanbul was delayed by 3 hours which meant that I would miss my contenting flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi, so they changed my flights, but finally even the second flight was so delayed that I missed also the second (and last) connecting flight to Tbilisi and had to sleep on Istanbul airport and wait for the first flight next day. There’s nothing better than arriving to new work being fresh :-)

As I was landing at Tbilisi, staring at snowy landscape I realized that I had forgotten how “Soviet” Georgia was (I had been here less than 2 years ago on a short visit with Jirka). As the plane was getting lower and lower, I could see abandoned, half-demolished or never finished houses and buildings all around, concrete structures left for free decay, silent witnesses of better times gone wrong, or wrong times never turned good. The runaway was more shaky then D1 highway from Brno to Prague. Welcome to Tbilisi International Airport.

I arranged my accommodation up-front and so the owner of the flat was waiting for me at the airport (poor woman had to change her schedule couple of times as Turkish Airlines was delaying my arrival little by little). We drove through sad suburbs (why are all suburbs of big cities always so depressingly ugly?) into the heart of Tbilisi until I could recognize the hills, the fortress, new government built buildings and crumbling old buildings and we finally arrived to my new home. Small, but cozy and modern apartment in an interesting local part of the town, not too far away from the historical center. I soon learned to love my district. Although at first I was bit disappointed by being bit more far away from the center as it seemed on the map, soon I realized that I lived in very atmospheric part of town, full of Georgian soul. Just around 3 corners was a major avenue with grand buildings from end of 19th or beginning of 20th century, but my apartment was locked in typical local houses with their crumbling wooden balconies and walls which had lost their coats long ago. It took me 7 minutes from the subway station at that avenue to my doorstep, and in those 7 minutes I would pass bakeries of exceptionally good Georgian bread (NEVER EVER THAT HORRIBLE AUSTRALIAN TOXIC TOAST BREAD!) , little hole-in-the-wall shops selling nothing but fresh cheese, another small local grocery shops, old ladies selling flowers, vegetables, fruit and church candles. It had bits and pieces of atmosphere of Varanasi, or at least so it seemed to me.

I LOVE Georgian shops. Those small local shops where you can buy all that you need, but only what you need. Every time I go to big modern western supermarkets I end up buying a lot of crap that I don’t really need and still leave half-depressed about all the “goodies” that I did not buy. Here in Georgia, in those small shops there is no consumerist overdose. Get what you need, basic stuff, mostly imported from Russia and Ukraine, one brand of each product - no need for choice. Choice is overrated. The less you have to choose the happier you are!

When I was 13 years old and I learned Russian alphabet (Cyrillic) I knew that one day it would be useful! Well, that has day arrived. Thanks to being able to read Russian, my shopping was way easier, because decoding Russian was the only way to understand what is what, as Georgian script and language is such a unique prehistoric lingo that it makes Navajo code seem like Latin.

Before all this shopping euphoria of course I went to the bank to punch my work card. Black Hugo Boss suit, white Hugo Boss shirt, tie bought in Milano and shiny black shoes – here we go again!
The project office (which the bank rented specifically for purposes of this project) of the bank was a sight itself. It looked nothing like a bank office at all, but I loved it on the first sight. Very personal.
Notebook, MS Excel, lights, action!
Yeah, good old MS Office.
Don’t worry I’m not gonna bore you with details of my work and anyway it’s prohibited to disclose information about our clients and projects :-)

But here’s one thing that I wanna share and which is related to my work.
It didn’t take long to realize the key aspect of my Georgian experience: the niceness of the people. This is a place where when someone has birthday, everybody gathers for a lunch snack and couple of drinks. It’s a place where people address each other without exception by their first name. Including the board members of the bank. It’s place where warmth of the human contact still prevails.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a work atmosphere in bank. I’ve met many lovely people during my career in all the banks and companies I worked for as a consultant, but for the overall feeling, I’ve seen something like this only at the very beginning of my career in UniCredit in Czech Republic. Could it be that there is something cold about us in Slovakia and Czech Republic? From perspective of scheduling workshops, meeting deadlines and overall working discpliine, working with Italians from Unicredit or the Georgians here is close to nightmare, but when you go home, you feel like a human, not like a robot. It might not the world’s most efficient work model, but does the efficiency really matter so much or is the feeling of normal social relationships more important? Choose for yourself.

Another key learning about Georgia: you have never seen anything like Georgian food excess extravaganza!
It’s obvious after a visit to a restaurant, but you only get the full picture once you go to proper Georgian feast. One Thursday the bank invited us – me and my colleagues from Greyson Consulting who were also working on the project – and the girls and boys from Ukrainian company implementing the IT system to a restaurant and I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Layers and layers of plates and food, topping each other, covering the whole long table. With four floors of plates towering the table, I swore that I have not seen so much food since I had left Slovakia 15 months ago COMBINED as I saw now. Only maybe 20% of the food was really eaten, the rest was left as testimony of the Georgian art of gluttony. I just hope that it’s true what they say, that they give the leftovers from the dinner to the poor and not throw them away, but something tells me it was a sweet white lie.
By the way, Georgian food is simply delicious! Very very caloric (I’m bound to gain 20kg here), but sooo good!

Coming to Georgia is like time travel by 20 years in Slovakia.
The way the city looks (sweetly crumbling down), the cars that people drive (think old Mercedes always lacking some huge piece of chassis), the shops (local stores, no supermarkets), the flea markets, the way how people dress (at least some) but most of all the restaurants (kitschy décor, waiters dressed in black suits, and overall feeling of middle class luxury)– it’s all like Slovakia in the first days of “capitalism” in 90’s. It has its good parts – people are friendlier and everything is loaded with particular character, you can buy real home made products on your way home, and its bad parts – the service in restaurants mostly sucks (just like in Slovakia) and the chaos is omnipresent. But I totally love it. I was too young to enjoy that atmosphere in Slovakia while it still lasted, so I mostly know it from the movies. Here in every good restaurant they have karaoke singing by some local “talent”. Extremely loud and excessively melodramatic, it’s better to sit as far as possible, while most of the restaurant is dancing on small dancefloor which is always present in these restaurants. But people, you should see what happens when Boney M makes it to the playlist! Total riot! Everybody stands up to dance and total euphoria kicks in. BONEY M! I could hardly believe my ears and eyes. Being in Tbilisi is cultural travel experience on par with meeting Tibetans in Nepal or attending Hindu pilgrimages. I’m totally hooked!
During our dinner with the bank I was also forced to join the dancing session and I ended up “dancing” to some Ukrainian folk music, which seems to be very popular here (together with Azerbaijan’s Azeri music).

Going back to the beginning…
I arrived to Tbilisi on Monday and already of Saturday I was doing my first trip. Together with my colleague Rado from Slovakia who is also here in Tbilisi, at least sometimes, we went skiing less than hours away from Tbilisi. SKIING! Wooohoooo! It’s been more than 3 years that I haven’t skied, because I’m always somewhere around equator when European winter comes. The season was ending here in Georgia but I couldn’t miss the chance to go skiing when I could so we headed to Gudauri, Georgia’s prime ski resort. Surfing in Pacific Ocean in Australia... 3 weeks after... skiing in Great Caucasus in Georgia. No complaints about my life.

Spring arriving, there was very little snow left and the pistes were full of rocks, so it wasn’t any extraordinary skiing session, but the weather was amazing and the views over snow covered Great Caucasus were fantastic.
As it turned out, the weather was bit too much amazing. Because we didn’t take sunscreen (very smart these IT consultants!) and the ski resort was reaching up to 3000m above sea level, I ended up burnt like Rome when Nero set it on fire. Next 2 weeks I looked like reptile with my face peeling on 100% of its surface, including eyelids.

After workweek of work and skiing trip on Saturday, on Sunday I finally went to see the town. 
I've been in Tbilisi some 2 years ago, and while I did remember it was beautiful. But now that I'm here alone and for more than just those 2 days as then and I'm not just a tourist and I don't have to hurry, I have to say: oh my god, Tbilisi is absolutely gorgeous! 
While its boulevards can easily challenge those of Paris or Vienna in their grandeur, its backstreets have the same authenticity of antiqueness and rough beauty of desolation as Kathmandu, Old Delhi or Hanoi. This is one fascinating city, with mind blowing contrasts and urban/social dynamics. 
This city scores right on top of my list, along my all time favorites – Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Venice and Granada. Beauty with full blooded scarred personality – winning combination.
Check the pics for some old world charms of Tbilisi.

BTW do you know what is Tbilisi’s motto? “Tbilisi – the city that loves you!”.
I’m sure glad to know that J

And so my time passes here, taken away by work and Tbilisi explorations.
Finally a life of routine…

Click for photo gallery

     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak