The Narikala Fortress presiding over Tbilisi
After receiving word that I had been selected as a Short Term Observer (STO) with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) Election Observation Mission (EOM - so many acronyms, it's like a whole new language) to Georgia for the May 30th municipal elections, I beelined to the bookstore. I know there are people who prefer to go to a new country for the first time without any information, no preconceived notions, no "Best Of.." short list from the favorite guide book. But I am not one of them. I would only have a week in Georgia, a country I knew little to nothing about before this trip, and much of that time would be spent at pre-election briefings, mapping out an election day polling station route, observing voting, counting and the tabulation activities at the District Election Committee (DEC) and then sleeping at least a couple of hours after spending the entire election night (until 8 am) at the DEC. So, in order to maximize any free time we would be allotted, I picked up a guide book to alert me to Tbilisi's historic points of interests, a brief and incomplete primer on a few key words in Georgian and of course, information on what to eat and where.
A polling station in Samtshke Javakheti
And that is where my Georgian education began. Not with the guidebook. But with the search for the guidebook. Scanning the book store's shelves, which were divided into continents and then broken down again into smaller specialties, my eyes quickly passed over Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, .... wait.... Denmark, Fraaaannnnce aaaannnnd.... Hungary. A B C D E.... singing the song in my head... no, Georgia should be sitting between France and Hungary. A helpful sales woman noticed my perplexed stare and asked if she could help. "I am looking for a guide on Georgia," I explained. "Come with me," she replied. And then she lead me past "Europe", past "North" and "South America" and stopped in the "Asia" section. "Here it is," she pulled the last copy of the "Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan" Lonely Planet off the shelf. I smiled sheepishly and thanked her. Riiiiiiiiiiggghhhht. WRONG CONTINENT. First lesson: Georgia is in Asia. NOT EUROPE.
The Independence Day Military Parade coming down Rustaveli to Freedom Square
Or is it? According to Wikipedia (I know, the arbiter of truth), Georgia is in "Eurasia" straddling eastern Europe and western Asia. Current president Mikheil Saakashvilli is vying for entry into the European Union and NATO. But what's more, Georgia is a regular competitor in the EUROVISION SONG CONTEST - I mean, hello? Forget geopolitical issues and let EUROVISION be your guide. That MUST be why I looked in the Europe section at the bookstore. I guess the saleswoman is not a Eurovision fan otherwise DUH she would have stuck that guide firmly on another continent's shelf. In any case, tracking down the guide book was a humbling reminder of how little I know about Georgia and the Causcasus region in general.
Gorgeous carved wooden balconies in Tbilisi
We arrived at Tbilisi airport at 4 am. For some reason which no one has been able to explain to me, most international flights into and out of Tbilisi arrive and take off in the middle of the night. Our flight out of Munich arrived an hour later than scheduled which meant that by the time we got through customs, picked up our luggage and herded everyone onto the shuttles, it was nearly 5 am. It was still dark as we drove to our hotel and I relished that feeling of arriving in a new country for the first time. Everything being completely unfamiliar from the language and its script to the city landscape, the Soviet and Georgian architecture, and knowing that a week from right now I would be heading back to the airport on the same road but with the feeling that my surroundings had become somehow more commonplace.
"Beer Free on Weekends"