Tbilisi, Georgia Report of what it's like to live there - 10/31/11

Personal Experiences from Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia 10/31/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Eighth expat experience (previous: Nicaragua, Canada, Spain, England, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea).

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. . .14-28 hours through Amsterdam, London+Baku, Munich, or Vienna.

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3. How long have you lived here?

One year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Embassy employees live in four neighborhoods: Zurgovani (cookie-cutter Western-style houses near the embassy--good for families with kids but dismally boring for singles), Digomi (large houseswith poor roads near the embassy; the quality of homes here varies), Saburtalo (townhouses and single family homes closer to the city center; popular with singles with pets and couples), Vake (downtown living in high rise apartment buildings; generally the top choice of singles and active couples. Many things are walking distance from Vake (restaurants, parks, etc). Commute times are 5 mins from Zurgovani or Digomi; 20-30 mins from Saburtalo, and 30-40 mins from Vake; traffic is often several to the latter two neighborhoods in the evening and a bit less so in the mornings as Georgians tend to go to work quite late.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Groceries cost slightly more than in the U. S. at the major supermarkets (Goodwill and Populi). Goodwill has a good selection of foreign products, though most are Russian and German so it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what cleaning products, etc, are for. Shampoo, sunscreen, razors, and other toiletries tend to be expensive with poor selection; these are best brought from home. The bazroba [bazaar] has excellent-quality fruits and vegetables; the produce in Georgia is the best I've ever tasted, though it's very seasonal and winter offers little selection; many people freeze fruit and veggies during the summer for use in winter.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

If you have access to DPO mail, it's better to wait until arrival at post to see what is available locally as availability is expanding all the time; almost anything you need can be purchased online, which is a great option if you have access to DPO. The exception is liquids, as the quantity the mail service accepts is limited, so bring plenty of sunscreen, shampoo, and any other toiletries that you may need. Olive oil is expensive here, so it's a good idea to bring some though other types of cooking oils are readily available and affordable. I brought many spices, but found that I can purchase most fresh spices here inexpensively, and they are delicious and easily dried.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Georgians tend to eat Georgian food at home, so when they go out, they want something different. This translates to little in the way of good Georgian restaurant options, and generally mediocre and somewhat overpriced foreign food. Vake has the best selection of restaurants (including Thai, Chinese, Italian, and Vietnamese), where dinner runs USD$20-30 per meal). There are two McDonalds in Tbilisi with prices similar to the U. S. There are quite a few places serving inexpensive khachapuri (cheese pie) in storefronts on the street, though in general Georgia does not have much in the way of street food. Excellent, inexpensive gelato is availabe at Luca Polare, with locations on U.N. Circle and in the Old City. There is a new American restaurant, Loft, in Vake, that serves good-value, authentic burgers for around USD$11.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Much of the produce at the bazaar is organic. Most of the meat sold in Georgia is cut oddly and includes pieces of tendon, etc, so I tend to only eat meat at restaurants rather than attempting to struggle to cook it myself. Goodwill has Western-style meat, though it's a bit pricey. Many Georgians fast for religious regions, so vegetarians don't have too much difficulty, and many Georgian specialties are vegetarian.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Insects are not really an issue in Tbilisi.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

I use DPO exclusively as the Georgian mail system is not reliable. Packages shipped through DPO tend to take less than two weeks to arrive.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Not particularly inexpensive, but available. Domestic help needs to be told explicitly what you would like done and how; initiative is severely lacking, so be sure to be clear on your expectations.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, though local facilities tend to be very expensive. The U. S. Embassy has a nice gym for employees.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I don't tend to use credit cards here, though I've not had any difficulty using ATMs, including at the airport. Georgia is still very cash-based, and most shopkeepers and taxi drivers don't have (or, more often, say they don't have) change on hand, so carrying small denominations of coins is crucial.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Two English-language newspapers are available, most easily located at hotels, though the quality of journalism in Georgia is low. AFN boxes can be purchased, though I tend to borrow DVDs from the embassy rather than watch TV.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Many educated Georgians speak English, so for work purposes Georgian is not needed, though always appreciated. Most everyone over the age of 30 speaks Russian and people are generally quite amenable to using Russian. Learning the Georgian alphabet at minimum the alphabet, vocabulary for taxis, and the numbers is very helpful and will make your life easier. Georgian is a very difficult language.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Very difficult. . .while some minor efforts have been made to accommodate wheelchairs these accommodations are rather misguides (ramps too steep to be utilized, etc). Sidewalks are more often than not broken and uneven, and there is little in the way of accommodation for visual or audio disabilities.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are affordable, though drivers almost never speak English. Fares should be agreed upon in advance. Very few taxis have seatbelts. The embassy recommends a taxi company that does have meters and seatbelts and can be phoned in advance, but this company is more expensive and I've found they rip off customers even more than taxis hailed on the street. Few foreigners take local buses, but I've found this to be a very convenient, inexpensive, and safe option in the center part of the city. There is also a subway system, though its extent is limited and almost all information is in Georgian. Public transportation takes a bit of effort to figure out, but I've found doing so to be well worth it and much less stressful than driving.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Most foreigners prefer SUVs due to the poor quality of roads outside of Tbilisi and the erratic driving everywhere in the country.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, though I've found the customer service to be terrible and the Internet frequently goes down (or gets cut off by the provider due to errors to users' accounts). Internet costs approximately USD$45 per month, which is expensive given the poor and unreliable service. However, when the Internet is working, it's fairly speedy. There are very few Internet cafes, though quite a few restaurants in Vake and the Old City offer free wireless.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

SIM cards can be purchased very inexpensively, though I use a phone provided by the embassy, on which I can make calls to the U. S. for 10 cents per minute.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There is a dog walker that is frequently used by embassy employees; he also occasionally boards dogs. The local dog shelter boards pet dogs for a reasonable fee, though facilities are basic. Vets get mixed reviews; ask around for recommendations.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

NGO representation is fairly high here, and the U. S. Embassy makes a definite effort to provide opportunities for employment. Many spouses find it takes several months to find employment, often at a level lower than they are accustomed to.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual. Georgia tends to be quite clean, and I tend to wear exactly what I do in Washington, DC, as the climate and expectations are very similar. Georgians tend to primarily wear black. Clothing is expensive here, and there is not a lot of variety, so purchasing clothing online and on R&R is generally preferred.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The careless and dangerous driving is the only serious concern. In terms of public safety, as a young single woman I feel very safe walking in the center part of the city alone, even at night. Drunk men can be an issue, though more in terms of accidental proximity (testosterone-driven fights between intoxicated men can be a problem here) rather than intentionally directing violence toward foreigners.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Health care is quite poor in Georgia in general, though the U. S. Embassy had a good med unit. There are no significant health concerns, though it makes sense to get routine things taken care of prior to coming to Georgia to avoid the local health care system (dental fillings, etc).

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Usually good, though construction and the burning of trash sometimes degrade the air quality.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

For the most part summers are quite pleasant minus a couple of weeks of very hot weather (occasionally over 100F) with variable springs and falls and fairly mild winters, though the wind can be severe.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Most American families send their kids to QSI in Zurgovani; the New School (which offers IB), and theFrench and British schools are also options.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Very little in the way of accommodations or services; this is not a good post for children with special needs. There is not a good understanding of special needs in Georgia.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Fairly large for a country the size of Georgia, though it gets a bit claustrophobic at times. The expat community tends to be active and inclusive of Georgians.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good! The traffic and periodic frustrations of post-Soviet life sometimes put a damper on morale, but in general expats enjoy living in Georgia. The fact that flights tend to depart and arrive in the middle of the night make getting away for weekends virtually impossible unfortunately.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Social life revolves largely around restaurants and dinner parties, though the growing number of singles at post are diversifying the social life. Many people take weekend trips in groups, and hiking is a popular weekend activity, as is visiting wineries.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Great for families and active couples, decent for singles. Single women have very limited dating options, though single men tend to be a bit happier in this respect. In recent years this post has been shifting from almost exclusively families to a more mixed group of employees.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Homosexuality isn't really accepted in Georgia, but I haven't heard of any particular problems occurring; gay expats tend to keep a fairly low profile in general, though they are very accepted in the expat community.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

It is rare to see minorities in Georgia, so stares are not unusual, but it's generally not malicious. In general, Georgians like foreigners very much and while often shy to use English, people are typically friendly to foreigners.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting mountainous areas around the country and getting to know Georgians, who tend to be friendly and hospitable. Being invited to the homes of local friends is a warm and welcoming experience as extended families tend to live together; hospitality is highly valued here.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Weekend day or overnight trips (many interesting locales are located within a few hours' drive of Tbilisi), and visiting local historical sights in Tbilisi(the fortress, historic churches, etc). In summer, Tbilisi Sea (a large lake on the edge of the city) is popular for swimming.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Exploring the rural areas of Georgia! Travel is the best way to spend money here. There is little of interest to buy, though there are some interesting antiques and artwork at the Dry Bridge Market. Sampling the many varieties of wine is also a good option; many people in villages make their own wine, some of which is very good.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Wonderful scenery and good outdoor opportunities (hiking and camping). For a small country, Georgia has a lot to explore, including many historic ruins. Tourism is a growing sector, though still in its infancy, so while hotels tend to be overpriced with poor service, it's well worth getting out and exploring this beautiful country.

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11. Can you save money?

Not really. Western products are expensive here, and there is not much variety in terms of products on the local economy so almost everything is imported (Georgia has very little manufacturing).

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Definitely. Georgia is an undiscovered gem.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Using transformers is a bit of a pain, so purchasing small appliances upon arrival makes sense (coffee maker, alarm clock, etc). Transformers disrupt digital clock functioning, so leave digital clocks at home unless they are dual voltage; I use battery-operated clocks with rechargeable batteries instead.

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3. But don't forget your:

Liquid toiletries, outdoor gear, and patience. Georgia is known as "The Land of Not Quite Right" for a reason. . .things get done slowly and often illogically.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Ali and Nino (Zurban Said)

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Since Otar Left

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Despite a few frustrations, Tbilisi is a great place to live, particularly for people who enjoy nature.

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