I once read a newspaper article that declared Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, to have the worst expatriate lifestyle of any city in the world. Two years later, I’m sitting at my dining room table, looking out on a courtyard of aging Soviet apartment blocks, to the Caucasus mountains beyond.
It’s all about the utilities, in many ways. It took one week to restore Baghdad’s power after a month of aerial bombardment. After twelve years, three elections, and heavy investment by a US power company, Georgia still doesn’t have a steady electricity supply. The daily blackouts also hit the water pumps, so don’t count on brushing your teeth. And gas? Terrorists are responsible for that, regularly blowing up pipelines in rural areas. And that’s if the Russians don’t shut it off first. The Russians say that there are unpaid bills. The Georgians instead cite a Russian conspiracy to sow the seeds of social unrest. Indeed, the people of Tbilisi regularly take to the streets in protest.
But it really hasn’t been that bad. It’s springtime and the snow melt from the High Caucasus has created a surplus of power. True, there have been a handful of blackouts. And I am also a bit mystified by the quick flashes of sparks that fly each time I plug-in or unplug an appliance, harmless I hope. But with reasonable power has come plenty of water, apart from the occasional un-flushable midnight toilet. As for gas… at least there’s an electric heater and a kerosene stove.
Like many developing nations, the reliability of cell phone service has leapfrogged ahead of the land lines. I never use the landline so my only experience with it is the perpetual wrong numbers. The pattern is always the same: phone rings, I answer with a ‘hello.’ Confused voice responds in Georgian. I say I don’t understand and that they’ve got the wrong number. Confused Georgian voice continues with increasing aggravation. I hang up. Phone rings again immediately. Georgian voice shouts at me, as if the communication difficulty is merely one of volume. Again, I hang up. Phone rings back a third time, and I decide to ignore it. If only persistence were the key to a good connection.
It’s not just me. The other day I was at dinner with a friend, interrupted by the ring of her cell phone. Wrong number. Naturally, it rings back, and the whole restaurant hears a maniacal Georgian voice shouting on the other end. She hangs up once again. As she returns to the conversation, I interrupt to ask, “What was she saying?”
“She said, ‘Don’t pick up next time, I haven’t been able to finish dialing the number.'” Her phone rings again and she shuts it off.
It’s not all about the utilities, I must concede. In recent years Tbilisi has developed an infamous reputation for organized and disorganized crime. Rampant corruption has resulted in few arrests by an ineffective police force. Trying my best to be cautious and prudent, I asked one of my colleagues casually, “Are there any neighborhoods here that I should avoid?”
“This is Tbilisi. All neighborhoods are equally dangerous.”
At least during the night. Though I’ve been told it’s safe to walk around as I please during the day, I have a colleague-imposed curfew. Unless I’m accompanied by a local, I am to be home by dusk. But there’s been plenty to do during the day, with an interesting job and endless strolls through the magnificent old city that I’m convinced could some day become a tourist Mecca. I am happy to be here.