Study abroad in Georgia is a great experience. Here are several pluses and minuses to heading abroad to this great country in the Caucasus with a rich culture, history, and fabulous cuisine.
1. Hospitality Culture
I CANNOT speak enough to this point. I know almost every country boasts of its warm and gracious people, but Georgia will take you in unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world. As a tourist, this hospitality lessens your anxiety and enriches your overall experience. You know that even if you show up in Batumi without a place to stay – someone (likely several someones) will help you; you know that if you just ask a few questions to the hostel owner or the restaurant manager, you’ll likely open an evening of friendship. For a resident, however, especially someone who grew up in a very different, less community-oriented culture (like in the States), this hospitality can come off as restrictive and even oppressive as nothing is ever only your own, every encounter is an obligation to sit and chat for an hour. But that’s just a note to think about if you are considering moving your life to Georgia, because trust me it will cross your mind while you’re there. Travelers don’t fret! Georgian hospitality will lead you to gain insight into the unique ancient culture and history of the people. It will also fill your belly with more fresh bread, cheese, mchadi, and other snacks then you could fathom.
2. How Easy it is to Travel
Georgia is a small country. Don’t let a short timeline stop you from exploring it! From anywhere in the country there are great daytrip or weekend opportunities – I highly recommend going north to Svaneti or Kazbegi or into the wine country in Khakheti. Find your city’s transportation hub (Didube metro in Tbilisi, Batumi Bus Station/Tbilisi Square in Batumi) and hop a marshrutka or hail a taxi to anywhere you want! Batumi is also only about 20 minutes from the border with Turkey. The dozens of drivers at the transport hub will gladly help you find the best way to get to your destination. You’re also likely to find someone who has a family member with a guesthouse wherever you’re headed so it’s not difficult to find affordable accommodations.
Like most of Eastern Europe, Georgia is an Orthodox Christian country, with a Patriarch being the primary religious leader. Christianity was brought to Georgia by Saint Nino in the early 4th century (learn more about her and why Georgians love her so much here, a summary here, and about the slanted cross here). Almost every vehicle has a cross, icons, Holy water, or some combination of religious talismans on the dashboard or hanging from the rearview mirror. It is customary for Orthodox Christians to cross themselves as they see churches, which, in Georgia, is basically all the time. Don’t feel obligated to join in, although you might get some curious looks if people don’t realize you’re a foreigner! Georgia is a very tolerant country and the majority of the people will not pressure a visitor about their religion. A large portion of tourist highlights are churches. In working churches, women are expected to cover their heads (keep a scarf handy) and men to uncover them (no hats), some require women to wear long skirts (they will provide cloth to wrap around your waist while visiting) and forbid men to enter in shorts (men can also wear a wrap skirt!).
Perhaps this should have been number one on this list, since Georgian food is a major highlight of any trip to the country. Rich, fatty, filling, and delicious describes most Georgian cuisine. Some key dishes: khachapuri varies regionally, but is some variation on cheesy bread – the iconic Adjarian khachapuri is a bread boat filled with melted cheese and butter with an egg cracked on top, khinkali are pretty dumplings stuffed with meat, potatoes, cheese, or other savory fillings (with meat khinkali, the special technique involves nibbling a small hole in the dumpling, sucking out the hot juice, then eating the dumpling minus the knot on top), shashlik/kebab is fried meat on sticks, generally made on an open fire pit and absolutely delicious (a summer tradition akin to an American backyard barbeque), kupati is thick pork sausage with pomegranate seeds, you will see churchkalo hanging outside shops looking like a sausage, but it is really a dessert made by dipping a string of nuts into grape juice thickened with flour, and dushes is a refreshing pear soda (Natakhtari is my favorite brand, but fresh-made is by far the best way to enjoy it)!
Try to maintain as balanced of a diet as possible. It is much too easy to go days at a time eating almost nothing but bread and cheese, but your stomach will likely not take well to the sudden increase in fats and oils. Georgians are also big on the fresh veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers, and stuffed peppers. It is not hard to find them in the plentiful markets, but easy, perhaps, to overlook with all that bread and cheese filling your nostrils.
5. Male-Female Relationships
If you are a woman in Georgia, you will be called beautiful constantly. It will sky rocket your self-esteem and make you feel like a rock star! Men of all ages will compliment your Russian and tell you how great American girls are…then they might propose marriage! In general, these men are harmless flatterers who give every girl some loving attention because Georgians love women and think they’re really special (check out these Georgian Queens: Tamar and Ketevan). A group of men may buy you and your girlfriends a pitcher of wine and mean nothing by it, they just want to show you hospitality! Do not read too much into interaction, remember that unlike in America, in Georgia it is normal to share conversation and food and laughs with strangers (because no one is a stranger for long in Georgia). You should, however, be careful especially with younger men and women. Georgian women stereotypically tend to play “hard to get” if you will – saying no numerous times is often taken to mean “work harder for me” and the guy will not stop trying. If a man tries to become romantically involved with you and you are not interested – be firm immediately and do not beat around the bush, explain you are not interested in a relationship with him and he will probably leave you alone. (If the man is especially persistent, it may be helpful to draw in a babushka or two – Georgian men avoid public humiliation above all and it will make your feelings very clear). Although hanging out in groups is common, men and women generally do not hang out together one on one as just friends, so boys, if you take a girl to a movie or for coffee, make sure she understands if you’re only interested in friendship!
How to Read: Georgian is not an easy language, and if you’re on an SRAS program, you’re there to learn Russian! Don’t worry about trying to learn two languages, it is quite easy to get around with only Russian. Especially if you already have Cyrillic down pat, though, I strongly suggesting putting a few hours into learning to read Mkhedruli – the Georgian alphabet. It will make your life significantly easier if you can read simple signs like “toilet” (a cognate), names of dishes on a menu, or city names marked on buses! It is also a great skill to impress your Georgian friends with. I learned with wikitravel.org.