Reflection on My Time in Georgia

One week ago I returned to my home in Pennsylvania after an amazing 6 weeks studying Russian in Georgia. It is striking how effective immersion is for language learners. I enjoyed pushing my limits with Russian as I communicated with my host parents, and it was very helpful to talk to my host sister who could correct my grammatical errors in English when necessary. At the same time, I understand the place classroom study has. The biggest challenge I faced was my vocabulary, which is appropriate for having studied for only two semesters but limited my abilities to speak in some situations. I am excited to start my Russian language classes at Notre Dame and hope to find a conversation partner to practice with outside of class.

I encountered many cultural differences in Georgia, some expected and some unexpected. I had read about Georgia’s relationship with Russia and was aware that Russia invaded their country in 2008, so the vigorous support for Ukraine and the west was expected. However, I did not realize how helpful it would be to learn several simple words in Georgian, such as hello and thank you, to win the respect of some locals who may look down on Russian speakers. I also expected to meet refugees from Ukraine and Russia who have fled the war. I ended up meeting a young group of Russians who had been living in Batumi since early March. I also had a conversation with a Ukrainian man who had been living in Batumi for several years. Speaking with them was so rewarding! Finally, I was surprised that Georgians never go out with wet hair, families often stay up past midnight, and nobody hesitates to voice their opinion. 

My time in Georgia provided me with a great educational and cultural experience. It also changed how I see American life. I spent 6 weeks living in a very small apartment with 7 other people. When I came home and drove through my neighborhood, I was shocked at how large the houses are in comparison. I never felt cramped in the apartment so such a large living space seems extremely wasteful and unnecessary now. I also realized that this allows Americans to live more isolated lives. The small apartment provided enough personal space for me, but I was never more than a room away from someone in my host family. I believe this strengthened our family unity. If you are studying a language, I highly recommend applying for a summer language abroad grant. I made significant leaps in my language abilities while also experiencing a new culture that really changed how I see the world. The experiences you have abroad are impossible to have in the United States.

Georgian Home Remedies

While in Georgia, I encountered several home remedies and health practices that I had never found in the United States. I purchased some natural honey while on a weekend trip to Mtirala, a national park in Georgia. When I brought it home, my host sister Tamuna told me about two of the health practices associated with honey. First, eating one spoonful of honey in the morning, during the day, and in the evening is said to maintain good health. Similarly, before bed it is good to put a spoonful of honey into a glass of water and let it sit overnight. In the morning you should drink it to stay healthy. These practices remind me of the times I have drank tea with honey when sick in the United States. It is great for soothing a sore throat, which may be where the practice originated in Georgia.

The honey stand in Mtirala National Park where my friends and I purchased honey.

The next health practice has to do with wet hair. On my first day of classes, I woke up and took a shower before school. As I was about to step out of the apartment my host mom Marina asked me if I wanted to use a blow dryer to dry my hair. She was very surprised that I would go out with wet hair as this is very unusual in Georgia because it is believed that you will get sick from this. I recall my mom telling me something similar when I was very little and have encountered this belief elsewhere in America. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, wet hair does not increase your chances of getting sick. It seems that this widespread belief is a common misconception around the world.

Borjomi soda water. This soda water is extremely popular in Georgia and is what Vazha was putting into the pot of hot water.

Finally, when Georgians are sick they use soda water and boiling water to relieve their symptoms. I walked into the living room one day to see my host father Vazha sitting on the couch in front of a bottle of soda water and a big teapot. He said he was sick and then explained that he was pouring the soda water into a pot of steaming water. Breathing in the steam that rises from this combination helps when you are sick. Again, I have done similar things in the United States when sick. If my nose is very stuffy and I have a cup of tea, breathing in the steam clears my nose. This is most likely similar, although I do not know how the soda water would affect it. 

I really enjoyed learning about Georgian home remedies and comparing them to home remedies I have encountered in the United States!

Chacha Drinking Culture in Georgia

Chacha is a very strong distilled drink made from grapes that is popular in Georgia. Most chacha that I have encountered while abroad has had a concentration of at least 50%, with the highest alcohol concentration being 81%. Despite this absurdly high alcohol content, good chacha is shockingly smooth and can be enjoyable to drink. Properly made chacha is said to have no hangover associated with it, and, according to my host father Vazha, chacha simply makes you tired while comparable drinks like vodka make you belligerent.

A shot of chacha and a slice of lemon. This was the strongest chacha I ever encountered in Georgia at 81% alcohol. However, it was prepared with honey, rosehip, and anise so the flavor was quite enjoyable. This is also why it is brown, unlike most chachas which are clear.

Chacha is offered at practically every restaurant and Georgian families commonly distill their own chacha. My first time trying chacha was with my host family. My roommate Jesse and I had just finished dinner and our host father Vazha decided to bring out a bottle of their homemade chacha. He poured a round of shots, which are each 100 g here, and (visibly) psyched himself up for the drink. He then said a toast to our meeting and we all swallowed our shots. It was very strong but the quality was good enough that the cups of компот (kompot; a type of fruit juice common in Eastern Europe and Russia) were more helpful than necessary. After a similar second round, I expected us to be done, but Vazha explained that we must drink three rounds because of the Holy Trinity. Altogether, it was a very enjoyable first experience, made safer because Vazha was there to guide us through it.

There are several basic traditions and rituals practiced when drinking chacha. First, there must be a toastmaster. The toastmaster says a toast giving thanks for friendship, health, the opportunity to be together in the moment, or something else. It is very important for there to be a reason to drink. Next, everyone must sit up straight while drinking. Good posture is part of the process most Georgians seem to go through to mentally prepare themselves before they consume such a strong drink. Finally, as the Holy Trinity is three unique persons in one God, it is proper to drink three rounds of shots in one chacha session. 

In my host family’s house, only the men would drink chacha, but there is no stigma around women drinking it. I believe the cause of this is much more likely my host mom Marina and her adult daughter Tamuna simply disliking such a strong drink. 

A bottle of chacha. At 45% alcohol, this is relatively weak. Most chachas are between 50 and 60% alcohol.

Chacha is often consumed with закуски (zakuski), a Russian word for snacks and candies that are eaten while drinking. My host family usually put out plates of fruit from their дача (dacha; countryhouse), Georgian chocolates, hard candies, and pastries. Chacha is also usually accompanied by a chaser of some sort. This may be a slice of orange or lemon or a cup of компот (kompot). While generally necessary because of the strength of chacha, high quality (and therefore smoother) chachas and flavored chachas may not require a chaser. Responsibly drinking chacha is a very fun and unique experience that I will miss in the United States!

Will Georgia Join the European Union?

One of the most intriguing parts of living in Georgia has been the flags that are commonly found in the country. Besides the expected Georgian and Ukrainian flags, European Union flags are extremely common despite Georgia not being a member of the E.U. Georgia does maintain close relations with the E.U., but since it’s independence it has failed to become a full member. Joining the E.U. is clearly a major goal of Georgia as a very pro-western nation located in the shadow of the Russian Caucasus.

Georgian, Ukrainian, European Union, and Ajarian flags in a courtyard at Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University.

I asked three Georgians about their country’s efforts to join the E.U. First I spoke to Vazha, my host father who is around age 50 and watches some Russian news. He explained that Georgians very much want to join the European Union and have the support of some Scandinavian E.U. member states, but France, Germany, and previously the U.K. oppose their membership. He said membership is difficult because Georgia is a very small nation with many issues common in developing nations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgians expected to become a great western nation, but they still have a long way to go. To put the difference between a country like the United States and Georgia into perspective, he told me that some people still starve to death in Georgia. He believes the education gap between Georgia and countries like the U.S. is the biggest challenge Georgia must overcome to start to resemble western nations and join the E.U.

I again spoke to Aleksandre and Mary to get the perspective of young adult Georgians. Aleksandre was even less interested in talking about the E.U. than he was about Ukraine and simply said “I don’t know” when asked if he believes Georgia will be allowed to join. Young people like Aleksandre may simply be uninterested in the politics around joining the E.U.

Mary, on the other hand, gave a very comprehensive answer with a unique point that I have not encountered anywhere else in Georgia. While everyone in Georgia wants to join the European Union, most people neglect to consider how Russia may respond. Ukraine’s attempts to join the E.U. (and NATO) violated Russia’s perceived sphere of influence and security, leading to the invasion. The same thing could very well happen in Georgia if their membership became imminent, but due to the extremely small military Georgia possesses compared to Russia it is extremely unlikely they could hope to fight a war similar to the one in Ukraine. She then added that Georgia also faces legal challenges to joining, such as their lack of sanctions against Russia. Therefore, she believes that joining the E.U. would be good for Georgia’s future, but only if joining would not lead to a war with Russia.

Georgians very much desire E.U. membership as they develop into a western nation. However, they face many obstacles that will take time to overcome or are out of their control entirely. Time will tell whether or not Georgia can expect to graduate from a close partner of the E.U. to a full-fledged member state.

How the War in Ukraine Affects Georgia

Located several hundred miles away from Ukraine and directly bordering Russia, Georgia is on the front line of post-Soviet Russian aggression. However, this small Black Sea nation is often ignored in western media reports on the war. After living in Georgia for 6 weeks and speaking with several Georgians about the war, a complex relationship with the conflict has emerged. 

A large Ukrainian flag in Europe Square, Batumi, Georgia.

It is impossible to walk down any street in Batumi, my city of residence, without seeing a Ukrainian flag or other symbol expressing solidarity with Ukraine. In light of the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, it would appear that Georgia’s widespread anti-Russian sentiment has translated to wholehearted support for Ukraine. However, one must take into account that Georgia relies on Russian tourism and has little ability to repel an invasion. Therefore, I decided to speak to three Georgians about their perspective on the war and how the conflict has affected them.

I first spoke with my host father Vazha. He is around age 50 and watches Russian news channels. When asked what he thought about the war and how it has affected Georgia, Vazha started by stating that he believes it is very bad and opposes the war. He then elaborated that Georgian trade on the Black Sea has suffered heavy losses due to the conflict. Agricultural products like the watermelon we were enjoying during the interview are stuck sitting in ports. This aligned with an alert I received from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi in April about drifting mines in the Black Sea. He also said that the war is very bad for tourism. I am not surprised considering the horrible exchange rates I have seen for the ruble. While 1 U.S. dollar translates to nearly 3 Georgian lari, 1 Russian ruble is about 5 Georgian tetri (the Georgian version of the cent). Finally, Vazha reminded me that there are good and bad Russians. While he opposes the war and his country suffers from it, he does not dehumanize the people of a country that less than 15 years ago invaded his own homeland. 

I also spoke to two younger Georgians, Aleksandre and Mary, both aged 20. Aleksandre is my conversation partner at the language school I am attending here. When asked about his perspective on the war, he expressed opposition to the Russian invasion, but also said that Georgia fought their war with Russia in 2008. He was also very eager to switch to another topic. Aleksandre’s perspective shows that some young Georgians want to stay out of the conflict directly, even if they support Ukraine.

Mary was more receptive to a detailed discussion of the war. She also immediately made it clear that she opposes Russia’s war. She then explained that Georgia is at risk of a similar invasion at any moment and that Russian troops already have bases in the Georgian territories they captured in 2008. She believes that Russia and Georgia will one day fight again unless Russians successfully revolt against the current regime. Finally, she noted that Georgia has not been able to sanction Russia because of the significant risk of invasion. Mary’s answer illuminated the high risks concrete support for Ukraine and opposition to Russia poses to Georgia’s security. It appears that young Georgians like Mary want to do more for Ukraine but feel that they are unable to.

I know it is not uncommon among older demographics in Georgia believe the Russian narrative on the war. These people often support Russia in the war and sometimes espouse conspiracy theories, such as American biolabs in Ukraine creating the coronavirus. Unfortunately I have not met any of these people myself so I could not interview them. 

While Georgians almost universally oppose the war and are suffering from it, they also must balance the constant risk of invasion, their dependence on Russian tourism, and access to the Black Sea with support for Ukraine.

Georgia (The Country!)

After weeks of explaining to confused family and friends that you can indeed study abroad in Georgia because there is a country with the same name as the state, I am finally on the brink of my trip! I am a bit nervous about my conversational Russian, but I am even more excited to see my language skills develop through constant use.  In the classroom, the pressure of native Russian speakers attempting to communicate with me just does not exist, but in Georgia I will be immersed in this very situation every day. I trust that “necessity is the mother of invention” will help me refine and go beyond what I have learned over the past two semesters at Notre Dame.

I have enjoyed researching Georgian culture over the past several weeks, but I highly doubt that I am prepared for everything I will encounter. I am sure I will discover that some of the things I have read are not actually true for most Georgians. As a result, I am going in with a very open mind. I am very excited to adapt to a new culture, especially through a homestay, and I have been thinking about how to make a good first impression and avoid becoming a burden on my hosts. When I was choosing a language program, I was very particular about finding one that offered homestays because Professor Tom Marullo left a deep impression on me about their importance to cultural immersion. I am looking forward to living in a Georgian house in a Georgian neighborhood, and I hope my hosts are very knowledgeable in the local culinary arts. 

I have traveled to Costa Rica and Ireland with my family, but I have never traveled to Eurasia, and I have never visited another country to live with a local family for 6 weeks. I am excited to watch my language skills develop as I adjust to a very different culture. Additionally, the end of the Cold War in the United States was very different from that in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. I have studied this topic on my own, but I have never experienced what it is like to live in one of these countries, and I expect that this experience will allow me to understand life in a post-Soviet nation. I have also been following the war in Ukraine very closely, but I cannot truly relate to the experiences of the people involved. I expect to encounter people who have fled Ukraine and Russia because of the war. Reading about their experiences is important, but it will be even more valuable to talk about them in person.