A week away: Tbilisi, Georgia

This Winter Study, Ryan Kelley ’19 and other students have explored the diverse landscapes of Georgia. Ryan Kelley/Executive Editor.
This Winter Study, Ryan Kelley ’19 and other students have explored the diverse landscapes of Georgia. Ryan Kelley/Executive Editor.

On one of my first mornings in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, I wandered into what I thought was an operating coffee establishment in the Old Town. Reviewers on Trip Advisor had praised Newsroom Cafe, my intended destination, as one of the best (and cheapest) options for good coffee and friendly company in Tbilisi. But after circling the same block on Lado Asatiani Street two times and getting lost in the hallways of an abandoned hostel, I could only find a Wi-Fi signal named “Newsroom.”

Prepared to go somewhere else for the morning closer to the Bridge of Peace, I suddenly heard voices behind an ajar door marked with what appeared to be a small coffee sticker. Opening the door, I found two men hunched over a laptop arguing in Georgian.

Not seeing the normal signs of a cafe, such as menus and baked goods, I foolishly asked the men if they sold coffee. Michael, who would later introduce himself as the President of the Association for Sports Journalists in Georgia, explained that he had converted the old cafe into an office for his journalists, but that he would be happy to make me some coffee. I thanked Michael for his kindness and quickly moved towards the door, but Michael (and his friend named Zura, who knew much more about American baseball than I do) insisted that I sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. They even offered me sugar and the Wi-Fi password.

My three weeks interning as a journalist in Georgia have been filled with similar spontaneous and extraordinary adventures in both Tbilisi and the Georgian countryside. Exploring the streets of the city, I have been chased by dogs and attacked by an elderly woman with a broom. I also examined the night sky with Greggory, an older man who happens to own a planetary telescope and knows the Bee Gees song “Massachusetts.” On one of the last mornings of the trip, I managed to hike up Mount Mtatsminda in time to watch the sunrise and enjoy a ride down on the Funicular cable-car.

As a larger group, we travelled east to the Kakheti wine region and walked along the Georgia-Azerbaijan border as we explored the David Gareja monastery complex. We also travelled west to Gori, the birthplace of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and toured the museum that memorializes (and idolizes) the controversial figure. The town of Gori even features a Stalin-themed supermarket.

In addition, we ventured south to the Dmanisi archeological site where the oldest evidence of humans outside of Africa dating back 1.8 million years was discovered. Archeologists have found five skulls at Dmanisi, the most recent of which in 2005, and fossilized bones are still waiting to be excavated. We followed up this excursion with a visit to the Stone Age exhibit at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

Given the language barrier (most people in Georgia speak Georgian and Russian, but English is less common), working for Georgia Today was more difficult than expected. Although the biweekly newspaper is published in English, working on the ground as a beat reporter was challenging. Nonetheless, interviewing representatives from the Council of Europe and Ministry of Health proved an exciting and traditional experience in an industry undergoing significant technological changes in the post-industrial world.

One of my primary interests before arriving in Georgia was the state of the free press in the post-Soviet state. According to the Press Freedom Index compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders, Georgia ranked No. 64 worldwide in 2016 (the U.S. ranked No. 41) compared to its neighbors of Armenia at 74, Azerbaijan at 163, Russia at 148 and Turkey at 151.

One of the reporters I shadowed from Georgia Today shared that she had never felt suppressed or pressured to write pro-government stories. She said that journalists are free to uncover the facts and to express their full opinions when appropriate. This freedom has helped keep the government accountable and the least corrupt of the neighbor countries listed above, based on the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International.

Watching the new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer accuse the media of “deliberately false reporting” on attendance numbers at President Donald Trump’s  inauguration and declare that the White House will “hold the press accountable” from halfway across the world, I further appreciate the freedoms currently enjoyed by journalists in Georgia.

Aside from the random encounters and more structured travel and internship experiences, I most enjoyed my time on the streets of Tbilisi with no predetermined destination and nothing formal to accomplish. The afternoons in which I descended 60 meters into the earth to ride the metro, got lost on the confusing bus system trying to get home and bought khachapuri (a combination of grilled cheese and pizza) from a street vendor were the times when I felt most connected to a place that had previously felt so distant.

Last semester in a tutorial on post-Soviet life taught by Professor of Sociology Olga Shevchenko, I spent most of my time trying to understand how Soviet rule has impacted life in modern states such as Georgia. Some of my expectations formed in the course have been realized. For example, most streets are indeed dominated by drab Soviet-era apartment buildings covered in capitalist advertisements and a vocal middle class has yet to emerge. But eating khachapuri on the street and spending time with actual Georgians has transformed Georgia from a foreign object for analytical interpretation into a comfortable and recognizable place.

As I left the Newsroom after an hour of conversation with Michael and Zura, both men wished me success in the future. Three weeks later, I extend my own wish of success to everyone in Georgia who opened their doors and let me come inside.