Tbilisi, Georgia Report of what it's like to live there - 04/10/17
Personal Experiences from Tbilisi, Georgia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
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?
Western PA - Approximately 26 hours door-to-door. We fly either through Istanbul or Munich (with an nine hour layover on the return)- flights out of Tbilisi are limited. Also, they often depart/arrive between 3:30 and 5:30 am. It's a rough trip.
3. How long have you lived here?
A year and a half.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Husband is with the US embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are three housing areas - Dighomi, Zurgovani, and Vake. We live in an apartment in Vake (we don't have kids or pets). The apartment is sort of a weird layout (most of the Vake apartments are), but it's really nice--three bedrooms, two balconies (we had a phenomenal view for NYE fireworks). We didn't have enough storage space initially, but the embassy asked our landlord to built some large wardrobes in the three rooms.
The embassy community in Vake is pretty spread out, and most of the people here don't have kids. The commute is about 15-20 minutes in the morning and 30-40 minutes in the evening (although it's more like 25 minutes in the summer time). My husband really doesn't like the commute, but we both really love the location. We're able to walk to Vake Park, the grocery store, a ton of fruit/veggie markets, and downtown.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
This is a consumables post, so we shipped most of the household stuff that we thought we would need. The local quality (though not actually local) is poor and can be expensive. There are two main groceries stores: Carrefour and Goodwill. There's a Goodwill in Vake, so that's where I typically buy most of my groceries. Because we shipped a lot of canned goods/dry good products, I don't typically buy them, although I think in generally, those types of things are a little more expensive here. Goodwill has a lot of German products that are fine quality, but a little pricey. The milk is all the ultra-hot treated stuff, which I don't mind, but my husband really doesn't like. Goodwill has really good chicken, pork, and trout.
There's also a fancy butcher in Tbilisi where we buy all of our beef and sausages. I don't like Georgian cheese, and the grocery store's selection of cheese is very limited (there's one sharp cheddar that I buy every time I see it, and there is sometimes mozzarella cheese, although it's sort of expensive). Georgians have their own yogurt (which is good, but much more watery than Greek yogurt) and cottage cheese (which is NOT good). Very hard to find good coffee locally. Oh also, there are a ton of spices available for way less money than in the US.
One of the best parts of living here are all the fruit and vegetables stands that are all over. We got here in May and had a continual supply of local produce through...November. Strawberries, cherries, nectarines, lettuce, spinach, figs, tangerines, oranges--they're all incredibly cheap and incredibly good. During the winter, there was still a consistent supply of peppers, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, green apples, and pears. There's one spicy pepper that I've found.
I cook comfortably here, but it just takes more time. There are no pre-cut butternut squashes or cans of chicken broth.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We did a good job with our shipment, if I do say so myself. But I'm glad that I shipped: paper products, garbage bags, personal hygiene things (again, available, but pricey), Clorox wipes, granola bars, snack foods, refried beans and tortilla shells, crackers, beef boullion, mac and cheese. We forgot pizza sauce.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There's an online food delivery service (Food Panda) that's really popular. Georgian food is delicious, but unfortunately, most of the restaurants are really smoky. We eat out way more in the summer, because we can sit outside. Non-smoking restaurants are definitely becoming more popular, thankfully.
There's one good Thai place and one good pizza place. There are some fancy Georgian restaurants that are smoke free. Our favorite place is a hole-in-the-wall shawarma place (that also sells all other Georgian food, depending on who the cook is that day). It's really cheap and everyone is incredibly friendly. You just have to shower as soon as you get home. Georgian wine is really popular and usually really good (the house wine, which you can buy by the liter, is always hit or miss--it's been both the best and the worst wine I've had). There are a couple of new non-smoking bars (!!!) and just a couple weeks ago, a new brewery (!!!!!) opened. Restaurants do tend to come and go.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We do DPO through the embassy (the time varies immensely--between 1 week and 4 months). A friend did send us a Christmas card from the states that did make it through the local post office.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Widely available. We pay 50 lari for a cleaning lady once a week (approximately $20 for 7 hours of work). She's fantastic.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a nice gym. There's a Snap Fitness in Vake, but it's apparently expensive. There are also many inexpensive yoga classes in Vake, although the quality is a little different than in the US (at the one I used to go to (until it unexpectedly moved) the instructor kept telling me (in English) "You must straighten your knees!" My knees just don't straighten...).
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
No, this is a very cash-based economy (and frustratingly, one where you can only use very small bills, because no one every has change). There are ATMs everywhere (although we get money from the embassy cashier for the best exchange rate) and they're safe the use. We use our credit card and the grocery store and that's about it.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Most people get by without any Georgian, because it's a pain to learn and useless anywhere else in the world. Most older Georgians speak Russian and most younger Georgians speak English. I do take Georgian twice a week through the embassy, and I'm really glad I have it. I think it's be impossible to navigate in a taxi in English (another benefit of Taxify - you can enter your destination without having to speak to the driver). It's also nice to be able to read signs. Georgian people also LOVE it when foreigners speak Georgian, so my day-to-day is just filled with more positivity than if I didn't speak the language at all. I think having a little would go a long way.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be nearly impossible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Affordable? Yes. Safe? Eh. Buses are like...$.40, but they're routes are a little hard to figure out. We usually taxi everywhere, and it almost never costs more than 5 lari (10 to get to the embassy). Most taxis don't have seat belts in the back (they're required to have them in the front), and they're usually in rough shape (bumpers missing, headlights missing, etc. The driving here is really (REALLY) chaotic. There's an app called Taxify that's like Uber and those taxis are usually non-smoking and have seat belts. Taxify is also usually a better deal than just hailing a cab. However, they're not always available.
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?
We have a small SUV, and it's great. It's nice to have four-wheel drive for driving around the country (and to the ski resort), and having some height on the city streets makes me feel safer. The little taxis tend to give me some space. Most people have cars like ours (or even larger). The driving is insane (think: backing up on the highway, passing someone who is passing someone around a blind curve), so I really appreciate having a car that actually works right (accelerates, has brakes) among all the little terrible falling apart Georgian cars.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Our social sponsors had it working for us when we arrived. We get 70 Mbps for....to be honest, we're not actually sure how much it costs. We only know to pay our bill when the internet suddenly stops working, and then I just go put 100 lari on our account, and we're good for another....while. I'd say maybe $40/month? However, our colleague (also in Vake) had super slow internet, and it took him about 6 months to get Fiber installed (although he did and now it's working great).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We brought unlocked cell phones and used the SIM cards the embassy provided. For unlimited date, it's 60 lari/month. (~$25)
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?
This is a hard question. I think most spouses try to work at the embassy (some telecommute). Not many work locally, although there are some schools that need English speakers, so if you have a teacher certification, you could look there. When I first got here, I applied for an embassy job and got it right away (but then got stuck in the security clearance/hiring freeze limbo), but I've heard now that spouses are competing for embassy jobs, so I'm not really sure.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Some, but not a ton. I volunteer with a local dog shelter, a friend volunteers with an orphanage. I think at most places, you have to speak Georgian.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business at the embassy (suits and ties). Older Georgian women tend to be more conservative in the dress (long black skirts and head scarves, regardless of the time of year/temperature), but younger people wear whatever. They're very into fashionable (and outrageous) footwear. I tried to wear dresses/skirts when I first got here, then it got super hot, and I switched into Old Navy jean shorts. Nobody seemed to care.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No, not really. Periodically, there will be a protest or something that RSO will tell us to avoid, but generally, it's incredibly safe. I walk everywhere, usually by myself, and have never had the least bit of a problem. I do keep my purse close/zipped when I walking in busy areas, but that's just common sense. Being hit by a car is by far the biggest danger here.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
No particular health concerns. The embassy medical care is fine, although people do get medically evacuated out for serious stuff (and pregnancy). Georgian dentists are good.
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?
Good, I think. There are definitely some days when it seems hazy and smells gross, but in general, Tbilisi is pretty breezy, and that helps keep the pollution away. I usually keep my windows rolled up while I'm driving, but I also go running outside all the time. As long as I stay off the main streets, it's fine. It's worse in the winter when people burn things for heat. There are cities in America with worse pollution.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's nice, similar to D.C. It snowed a few times this year, and people told us that was unusual (typically it only snows once). Summers get hot (high 90s), but only for a few weeks. I think the weather here is great, but I'm from Buffalo--my standards are a little off.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Pretty large. Morale among those who tend to live downtown = very high. People who live in Zurgovani/Dighomi have a really different lifestyle than I do, so it's sort of hard to say how they feel. There are things that make me really happy (for example, my fruit market having spinach for the first time all year, and the Georgian fruit seller laughing at my excitement and then teaching me the Georgian word) that just don't happen to people in Dighomi/Zurgovani, because they buy all their produce from the grocery store. I think though, that everyone is pretty happy here.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The CLO does a lot of events that are family-oriented. In Vake, we tend to socialize independently of embassy events.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, yes, and yes.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Episodes of outright hostility are rare, but there aren't many opportunities to meet other LGBT people. It's a religiously conservative society.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
The huge majoritiy of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Minority religious groups are tolerated, but they're a very small part of of the population.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I love exploring Vake, downtown, and Old Tbilisi. There are so many streets tucked away that are fun to wander around. Outside of the city, going up to Stepantsminda (and staying at Rooms hotel) is definitely worth a couple of weekends and skiing in Gudauri is fantastic. We're looking forward to traveling more in the country this summer (last summer, we didn't have our car yet). The Tbilisi ballet is lovely. Hiking in the Caucusus is amazing.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
No, not really. Lots of wine. Hand-knitted (and itchy) wool socks. Some people buy local art. It's inexpensive and easy to get things framed, so we've picked up some posters and pictures.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Cheap, fresh fruits and vegetables. (Oh and bread! Delicious bread.)
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Georgian cheese = too salty.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely! Are you kidding? I love it here.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Desire for things to be like America.
4. But don't forget your:
Skis. Extra clothes to change into after you go to a smoky restaurant. Walking shoes. Hiking boots/camping gear.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Bread and Ashes
6. Do you have any other comments?
Tbilisi is beautiful and chaotic and busy and never boring.