You can find plenty of Cocoa Puffs in Tbilisi. Modern Western-European style supermarkets have been sprouting up all over, an alternative to the bustling open-air markets. The milk tastes exactly the same (albeit at twice the price) but move down the pristine looking aisles and you’ll find treasures like Nutella, Nutri-Grain and Nestlé Quick.
Most Georgians can’t afford shopping at these supermarkets leaving them the exclusive realm of expats and millionaires. So they’re unsurprisingly very empty, except for a small army of clerks — always women and each one remarkably within weeks of her twentieth birthday. A harem of young Georgian women, or so the perception seems to be, are an essential part of the shopping experience of the well-to-do.
They’re clustered around the cash register chatting and giggling, and there’s an instant hush as they notice me enter. Like a military operation the girls scatter through the store, dividing up the territory according to some mysterious pact. As I approach the meat refrigerator, a sprightly clerk darts behind the counter. She stands there attentively waiting to help me, following my gaze as it scans from the fresh cheese to the salami. She waits and she waits and I am really just browsing but I feel that I couldn’t possibly turn my back and walk away. The attention makes me feel I am obligated to buy something. But my horror at the price tags brings me back to my senses.
I head over to the boxes of juices and she’s right on my tail more determined than ever. As a childish test I veer off to the left at the very last moment and end up in front of the bread shelves. In a panic she takes evasive action and spins athletically around the corner. She takes her post over my left shoulder and watches intently as I deliberate between Italian style and rye. Increasingly irritated by the attention, I grab a pre-sliced loaf of pumpernickel and head straight for a similarly uniformed twenty-year-old standing guard over hair care. The bread woman retreats. The personal hygiene mistress takes over stare duties as I try to deduce from the Cyrillic which shampoo is for dry hair. She offers no help so I pick one at random and put it in the basket, feigning resolve. Without a trace of discretion she grabs an identical bottle and pores over the label. This total stranger now knows more about the shampoo I use than I do.
I never dreamed that it would be possible to feel self-conscious while buying cleanser. But when a beautiful 20 year-old Georgian woman is hovering over you as you choose a toilet bowl cleaner it’s tough to feel too secure. She is apparently getting paid to do this.
Part of the magic of being in Georgia in the early 21st century is witnessing history as it’s made. Since it’s a brand new phenomenon no one knows exactly what will happen to the scores of supermarket nymphs as they grow older. Will they be harshly cast aside in raw capitalistic fashion in favor of a fresh crop of innocent twenty-year-olds? Or will they unionize and demand job security plus guaranteed pay increases with a clearly defined career path (from dog food to caviar based solely on seniority)? This being Georgia they will probably just get married and have babies.