Driving in Georgia!!!!

 Driving in Tbilisi can mean taking your life into your own hands, or, better yet, placing it in the middle of the road, and hoping you make it home in one piece...
I first started driving in Georgia in February 2008, at night, during a snow rain storm. Needless to say, it was an interesting first approach..You see, in Batumi, where I entered at that time, the main road improvements had not yet been done as they are nowadays, and there were still some MAJOR holes in the road. I had just survived a huge snow storm in Turkey, been stuck in Istambul under a couple of meters of snow, so I thought I had seen the worse part...and I had, frankly.

Here is the Justice Building, just in case the road gets the better of you..
You can tell the roads are quite large in Tbilisi. It is actually well marked, it is all made for normal, civilized driving. But civilized driving, it isn't. I always said that the Georgians are excellent drivers, but crazy nuts drivers. Let's say that driving in Tbilisi is a challenge to any human being in his right mind...
This is the road that leads to Batumi. It is actually what I drove in Turkey for hundreds of miles before arriving in Batumi. It was then that I was told that, in case of rain, you never, never drive in a puddle. Why is that? Well, I found out that the manhole covers can sometimes disappear, and you end up with a puddle the size of...a manhole cover, and just as deep. You can just imagine the rest..30 minutes into Georgia, I had fallen into one, which allowed me to understand the Georgian welcome. Within an hour, I had been fed, the car towed to a nearby hotel parking, a room found, a khatchapuri eaten...Yes, now I got it.. but, frankly, it was one of the best moments of my life. The one when I saw the power of solidarity..

In Georgia, the streets are quite large. Actually, they are large enough for 2 tanks to come through! That is the description I was given, and I found that to be a great image, even if it is just a visual for me, and a large amount of memories, not all that positive, for my Georgian friends...Here in Massivi, one of the neighborhoods a bit away from the center, you can walk in the streets, but beware! If you hear a motor, look quickly around you! 

 The police are quite present in Georgia these days. The system was completely redone when Saakashvili came to power. The officers are young, and do not take any bribes. At least, that is the ongoing thought. I have never felt anything but safe in Georgia. I cannot say the same for the Paris underground... There are a lot of cars, but they drive, albeit fast, but extremely well. Did I mention  car insurance is just a notion here? On my arrival from France, I really wanted to insure my car...Why, they said? Nobody does...That would be exactly why, and the fact that once back in Europe, that would be the first question from the French insurance agent..It was cheap, and it was ..available!

 The streets in Georgia are getting much better, but it is not unusual to see gaping holes. Partly, because the street has not be renovated, or, because it has been, and the job was maybe not perfect, and also, because the earth moves a lot in Georgia...It is getting better. This pic dates from 2008.  The streets in disarray, a reflection of the country somewhat, and the mink coat, symbol that they keep that inner beauty...The Georgians have that beauty, inside and out..don't let the streets fool you..
Here, the new cars...and the old cars... Guess the make of the light colored car!















Plenty of room on that street, with a marshootka in the background..This side pic shows that even in newer paving, the holes arrive quickly..

So, go ahead, drive in Georgia! They tell me I am crazy, as a French woman, to attempt it, but my answer is always: "I drove at noon, on the bridge between Europe and Asia in Istambul, and in the streets of San Francisco in the cold winter chill. I can drive ANYWHERE!"

2014:
Funny how you think you can drive anywhere, drive like the locals, and be just fine...
I guess it is ok if you don't drive like a Georgian in front of the police AND with foreign plates. The plates are a sure way to get yourself ticketed. I can drive like Georgians in our Georgian-plated car there, do all kinds of funky maneuvers, and somehow, nothing happens...BUT...
and this is where, you guessed it, I got stopped.
Oh, yes, I was following oodles of Georgians, who were  passing trucks, cutting the solid white line, and speeding in town. So, I thought: "Ok, these trucks can be passed without any problem. No one coming the  other way, no problem. I followed suit on the dozen or so cars that had done the same thing just in front of me. Except that the cops saw only me, a cute French little lady, and my load of tourists in the back seat! How do you spell "Score!"...??
They took my passport, told me to wait, totally disregarded my Georgian husband telling them that I was doing the same as everyone, and asked me for my French telephone number..Went back to their patrol car, and we waited for a good 30 minutes..Then, the verdict was in: 1.my phone number didn't work(well, duh, there is an international code, sir...) and 2. I needed a ticket because "I looked like I was afraid of them". Believe it or not, that was the reason for my ticket! I looked guilty! Whatever...
How much? About 25 US$, or 50 GEL. Not too bad, and I  paid it the next day. You go  into any bank, and give them the ticket, and pay it, and the nastiness is over..
The moral of the story? Don't drive with foreign plates in Georgia,or you will be a "driving duck"
Thanks, Officer!!

It's khinkali making time!


How to make KHINKALI, the most wonderful pockets of pleasure you have ever met....


 Khinkalis are THE dish to eat in Georgia. They can be made with cheese, but frankly, the meaty kind are so juicy, they are the most eaten version.
So, you start with basic ingredients for the filling:
Ground cilantro (and parsley, too, if you like).
Ground beef and pork, a 75/25 ratio, and a little salt pork
Salt (don't go cheap on the salt, it's important...)and a little red pepper, in flakes or powder
Some water.
Black pepper, for sprinkling on the khinkalis when you serve them

You then prepare the dough with flour, salt and water. No yeast needed. One kilo of flour (2.2lbs) is enough for 4 people, or about 15 khinkalis. People can eat from 4 to 7 khinkalis..


Here you see the kneading technique used in Georgia, where the dough is pounded with the fists, rather than turned as done in the US.


The dough will have to rest a bit. 30 minutes is enough, since it doesn't need to rise.



The ingredients are then mixed with the hands. They need to be thoroughly mixed. Then, a little water is added, to make the mixture as loose as a very heavy pancake batter. The water is a very important part of this dish, as it will separate inside the khinkali and provide the "juice" part of this dish, an absolute necessity.

you may think you have enough water, but at that point, add a little more, you won't regret it...

Then, pound the dough onto a rolling surface, using a little flour
Roll the dough out to about 1/2 thickness, then cut round disks out with a glass or basic cutter.



Then take each individual cutout, and roll it to about 1/8" thickness, keeping the shape as round as possible.
Now, take a large tablespoon of the meat mixture. The water will separate a bit, and that is ok. Gather the sides of the round by making folds. They say in Georgia that you are supposed to fold it 19 times for the perfect khinkali, and that can be a goal, but most will have between 11 and 15 folds. Squeeze all the folds together at the top, making sure that the khinkali is and pinch off the excess. The result should look like a large fig.



Place the khinkali on a floured surface. Do not allow them to touch.


While you are making the khinkalis, warm up a large amount of water. Add a little salt.
Drop the khinkalis in boiling water, a few at a time as so not to make them touch while cooking. The khinkalis are eaten as soon as they are cooked, so you make a few, eat a few, make a few, eat a few...or buy a super large pan...  :)

Let the khinkali boil for about 8 to 10 minutes. They will first sink to the bottom, like pasta, and rise up and float. At that point, they are done. Take them carefully out of the water with a slotted spoon and drop them on a platter or an individual plate. 
Sprinkle with a little or a lot of pepper, depending on taste. Serve immediately! Khinkalis are eaten hot, and with your fingers! The trick is to take a little bite, then let the steam escape. Do not let the juice escape, drink it out of the hole made, then eat around. The tradition is not to eat the little "hat" made by gathering the dough. More room for more khinkalis!
And if you are of age, khinkalis are followed by  a tall glass of beer.

Gaumarjos! 
Enjoy!

Akhaltsikhe, or Religions United


At night, a wonderful sight to behold!
Akhlatsikhe is a big place in a little town. Situated only a few kilometers from the Turkish border, and a few more from the Armenian border, it offers an idea of tolerance, many religions gathered. Although it was not always that united in this valley, with the Ottomans slaying all who didn't convert, the Orthodox dying by hundreds to defend the fortress, the pacha and all of his court and harem inhabiting the place, it might have been a bit of a zoo, frankly.
What is left now, what has been renovated by the Georgian government, is a wonderful display of magnificent buildings, a quiet and beautiful place to wander and wonder..


Akhaltsikhe, or New Fortress, is home to Rabath, or rabati. Very christian in medieval times, it was conquered by the Ottomans in the 16th Century, so the population of Georgians and Armenians, who already had their own set of churches, had to convert to stay alive.. So in Rabati, the recent renovation work has rebuilt surrounding houses all adorn with beautiful balconies, and restored the fortress to a splendor unequaled in Georgia. You will see a synagogue, a mosque, a catholic church, the pacha's chamber...and so much more. It is spotless, polished and, no, don't step on the grass! Some houses at the entrance have also gone through extensive renovation.
The grounds are young still, since the renovation dates from 2011, but as the trees mature, it will certainly be a sight/site to see. 
Rabati is also the home of a National Museum of History that hosts fantastic pieces. Pottery dating from centuries ago, and millenia, too! A page from a 16th Century rendition of the man in the Panther's skin, from Shota Rustaveli, and articles of clothing too magnificent to describe. Absolute must see! The one unfortunate thing is: no pics allowed and no postcards..bummer!

It could look like a Disney project to most, and the new buildings look out of place somewhere, but it does bring some interesting beauty to a region that has been hurting for a long time. There is a very expensive hotel in Rabati, but you can find rooms to rent with acceptable standards right below the fortress. On the way out of town south of Akhaltsikhe, try the rooms on the river. Basic, but clean. The owners also operate a car wash. Negotiate the price...
The best way to see all of Rabati is as follows:
Buy tickets to see Rabati in the evening; see the outside perimeter. Rabati has an outside area, but inside the fortress. It consists of the first "level of defense".  There is plenty to explore. Then wait for the lights to come on at sunset. The fortress doesn't close ever, because it holds a hotel, so there is plenty of time to take beautiful pictures or relax on the terrace of the restaurant. The prices are reasonable..
In the morning, come back in. You can enter the center of the inner fortress at 9am. The restaurant serves a nice khatchapuri and 2 coffees for only 10GEL (7$ or less.2013 prices).
Then, it takes an average of 2 to 3 hours to see the buildings, depending on how high you decide to climb. Going all the way to the top of the tower is not easy, but it is worth the effort. 
You will learn tolerance as you go, or confirm your belief, as people from all faiths visit Rabati.


Really a cool place.
nb: the road from Akhalstikhe in direction of Batumi is VERY rough from Akhaltsikhe to 50 km west. Do not navigate in winter or around the rainy season. After Rouhlo, the road is ok..almost..It is better to go up to Khasuri by way of Borjomi to reach the Black Sea. Not faster, but safer..

Not far from Akhaltsikhe is Vardzia..

playgrounds and ideas


August 19, 2013
These are, granted, somewhat negative comments, but the melancholy is quick to install itself , when no hope surrounds you.. It is very catchy. Let's hope the children can overcome it..

Somewhere, the children have won…

In the years since 1991, the children have been waiting. Anxiously, at the apron strings of their mothers, they have waited for their turn.

It looks like it is finally here. The children will have a chance, maybe.

Playgrounds, the laughter of children in the descending summer sun. We, as Westerners, all take that for granted. What more natural sounds than the laughter of children chasing each other around a plot of sand with a few toys?

Here in Georgia, after years of invasion by anarchists, the playgrounds have bloomed again. And they are well kept, clean and somewhat free of dangerous debris. They used to be everywhere, before the Great Revolution of 1991, for every building in the ghetto had his playground. 1991 marked the start of the children’s prison, inside this society that was more interested in keeping old Russian cars from being stolen, than to hear the laughter of their children. They tore the playgrounds down, and replaced them with awful concrete constructions, just to keep their meager possessions from being stolen. They took whatever land they thought was needed, without any regards for their children. They forced them into the same hell as the one they lived in. Nothing to eat, no job, no electricity, no running water in place of the very repressive lives they lived under the soviet rule. Back then, everyone had a job, and everyone had running water, everything was cheap and although main food items were hard to come by, no one died of starvation. Such was the price of their non-tangible freedom. With the ease in life came the impossibility of leaving it, no visa allowed out of communism..

So, when freedom was won in Georgia, anarchy came with it. Since the Russian umbilical cord was cut, no help was to be expected from the greater power. When man is on his own, he growls like a wolf, takes and does not share. Here in Georgia, they took from their neighbors, they started erecting ugliness in the image of what had been started and left by the Soviet Union. Tall apartment buildings, all concrete, never painted, apartments calculated on square meters allowed for each person, was all that was possible here during the Soviets. And not permitted contacts with the outside world, they believed it was the way it had to be. So, when they started tasting their own freedom, they took away the playgrounds from the children, replaced them with concrete garages made of recuperated steel bars and other oddities, and condemned the children to a lifetime of anguish. After all, where do you learn about society and life, if not on the playground as a child? Where do rules get established? How do classes get built? Where do you learn respect for your neighbor? The families here kept to themselves and the children in town never learned the rules, since there were none.

The concrete universe subsists until today. Vast expenses of ugly buildings, all with people living a meager life. The real Tbilisi lives here..
Today, the generation of children that lived in 1991 and after is lost. Without a job, mostly educated, but without aim. They have no hope, they have no future and they have no plan. One of the main sentences heard here is “I don’t know”. It is the start of every conversation..They just don’t know. They will go to their early graves brought on by years of unemployment, stress and lack of health care. They will never know, for the most part, the joy of being socially successful, or professionally successful. Because they were not told the rules of sharing on the playground, you cannot count of them, since they only fend for themselves. Since they have nothing to claim their own, they go for the essential daily search for survival...but..
.. businesses in Georgia are getting setup on a daily basis. Come to Georgia, they say, and start a business! No taxes for years! Many big Western companies have bitten the worm on the fishing line, and Zara, Steve Madden and Carrefour are running here, among others. Prices are lower than in Europe, since the employees are not paid so much, and the taxes are inexistent…The president has erected expensive, showy, beautiful buildings, in order to make them feel welcomed, but he has forgotten to hire people to clean around them. The cleaning perimeter is so narrow, you can step from beautiful to dirty and unkept in 10 meters or less..

And now comes the conundrum.. How do you reconcile the thousands living in the ghettos left by the communist powers, who have no desire to share themselves, their way of living, and their society, with the power of Western civilization at its worse? The Georgians don’t even want to taste anything other than their own food, so little interest they have in others. The law of the jungle is alive and well here. What can be available, money-worthy, and immediate? That is the plight of a desperate person. Where is the next meal coming from?

Mass consumption? These people have no money. The shaky government has recently established that each person living in one of these ghettos would pay 3 GEL per month for an unending supply of water. The Georgians think that it is expensive, but claim that now, at least, the water runs all day, and not sparingly, as it did 2 years ago. The price is, at today’s rate, $1.81, or 1.36 Euro, so let it  run all day, they say. If a person cannot pay 3 laris (GEL) for water per month, will they really buy a pair of shoes at Steve Madden in the bran new Tbilisi Mall for 100 laris? What will they do so that their children can?

Sugar was 1 lari per kilo at Carrefour this week. The masses came. Many came just to buy sugar, although rice, oats and buckwheat were also available. It is peach season, and “muraba” is also in season. The world over, we make jam. Sugar is the drug of the poor. People were fighting to get to it, to shovel it into bags, since it was sold out of 100kilos bags set in a pile at the entrance of the store. They were told to not overfill their bags, but, used to having nothing, they filled them to the rim, for abundance feels good, and were then incapable of closing them to get weighed. Sugar was on the floor everywhere, and they didn’t see it. People were rushing and cutting in line trying to get their sugar weighed by a non-descript, average Georgian woman. The crowd was getting angry. They needed their drug.

That was, of course, the way for Carrefour to attract them to the place, and make them look at the rest. A population that has been used to buying local products coming fresh from local farms who cannot sell to anyone else, is suddenly confronted with the world of Nestle, Coke, Marlboro and Sony. After all, why couldn’t they buy that for their children? They deserve it, right? So, Carrefour positioned a very slim, very scantily dressed, young and beautiful Georgian woman at the cashier's stands, and she asks all the men “Do you need cigarettes?” You see, she is the cigarette girl. Few are the pleasures of the Georgians. One of them is nicotine. The second is food. Appeal to their sexual fantasies to buy cigarettes they cannot afford by the carton..Makes sense, really..

Sugar, the great pacifier of the masses. So few people here are obese, that in public transportation on the way to Carrefour,…, a very heavy man made his way into the bus. Under American standards, he was heavy, and not obese. When he left at his stop, the men talked about him as the refuse of society..It will be interesting to see what the obesity percentages will be in 10 or 20 years in Georgia. The appeal of ready-made, and somewhat cheaper food at the one large supermarket Carrefour, will leave its mark, to be sure. Little local markets that make the foreign visitors take pictures will soon be a thing of the past. Fresh will be replaced by cellophane goods.

In the meantime, in this fine little morning, the local little lady announces in the street “bulkebi ak aris”, or “the sweet rolls are here”. She is a leftover of the soviet society. All dressed in black, and quite cute in her way, she has baked them herself in her home, and goes from building to building in this ghetto where our apartment is, just to earn a living. You see, if you worked all your life, you get no retirement here. The soviet took the work records with them. No reward for your lifetime of investment. She has to bake to live. So people will peek out of the window, see the children play on the newly sanded playground where a covered table and benches have been added to, so that the mothers can see their children happy in the summer morning, and think “Well, she is a nice little old lady, but I can buy croissants from France cheaper at Carrefour”..

I'd rather have the bulki..
How about you?


Sweet Wine of Kakheti! Saperavi? Rkatsiteli?

 Here we are in he Kakheti region, with its reputation for great wines and great food.  Another fun-filled time!







A few pics to put you in the spirit...

David Garedja Monastery. I personally love the second pic...Now, that is monastic!







If I were a monk, which of course is not likely to happen soon...this would be my house!
I think that looks like a great house for a hobbit!


Kakheti is famous for its wines. They say that wine originated in Georgia, with grape stocks dating millennia! Here is a fun rendition of the Georgian passtime.  As seen on the wall of the wine cellar of the Chavchavadze Princes residence in Tsinandali. Here, you see the place where the princes would enjoy the wine, right in the cellar. The storage of the bottles in quite interesting, too. These bottles are too close to the general public to be valuable, no doubt.

In Alaverdi, a few miles from Telavi, the Monastery is a wonderful  place to visit. It is very quiet, in the middle of a great valley, and surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains. The monks live there in peace, so you will need to be respectful, and to dress accordingly. No pants for ladies, no shorts, no tank tops for anyone. They do have "coverings" for those who do not have the proper clothing. If you are a lady, you are supposed to cover your head in the cathedral.
It is really a very beautiful place. It has suffered much from an earthquake in 2002, and since it is several centuries old, it is menacing to fall down, if no restoration is coming soon.
We saw this in the evening, when a great thunderstorm was upon us. As we were leaving, after being stuck on the parking lot with car problems for over 2 hours, the bells tolled. It was a magical time. We never got a drop of rain on us.. Yeah, there is peace there...
The frescoes inside are incredible. I admit I took them as no one was present, but it is not allowed. May I be forgiven for that..The rest of our day was trying enough to make up for that transgression, I think..


 The orthodox monks are quite self-sufficient. They have planted olive trees, and here, peach trees, where bees make honey below them. Think of how great the honey is going to taste. They have grapes, evidently, for they are well known for their making of wine. The monks no longer give tours to their inner courtyards, but you can see large clay pots or qvevri in front of their living quarters. They also grow veggies.
A big recommendation for this magnificent monastery, one of the main stops in Georgia.

In Telavi, Pirosmani is a good restaurant with regular prices and visited by locals, it seems. It is in the center of town, on the way to the Persian Castle, on the left. It is a doukani, and is below the street level. Enjoy a great meal, and a great Georgian beer!



Make sure to visit Sirnari, sometimes written "Sighnaghi". Although the Georgian government is trying to make it the mecca of tourism, and the only place to go in Kakheti, it is placed in a very interesting region, high up on the mountains, and it does need to be a stop on your tour, but not the only one...This wall is particularly cool in Sirnari, south of Telavi. It is on the main plaza, below the Sirnari Museum. The museum also holds several originals from Pirosmani, the great Georgian painter.
Sirnari is a very nice little village, with good restaurants and lodging, but its prices are getting to be a bit high.



I do believe that is what you came for....
This is a glass of homemade wine from the Rkatsiteli grape stock. 
Looks as rich as it tastes!