Tbilisi, as I'm sure you know, is the capital of Georgia a country which gained its independence from Soviet Union in 1991.
'Freedom from' Soviet rule was a clear objective, but 'freedom to' what exactly remained unclear initially. After the celebratory parties had passed a nauseous hangover of political and social unrest settled in on the Georgians. They faced civil war. Unemployment was high. Money and goods were scarce. The very infrastructure on which society is based, such as a fully functional police force, above corruption, had to be rebuilt brick by brick.
To some extent, this is the 'known' story - although there are any number of people who will still frown a little when Georgia or Tbilisi is mentioned. Despite the world shrinking into a global village, Georgia remains on the fringes of our western geographic knowledge.
The story I did not know was that people in Bristol have been working with people in Georgia since 1988 - learning about their culture through music and art, sharing knowledge and skills and helping to support the rebuild of the city.
The Bristolians I spoke to told stories of how they had fallen in love with Georgia, with the people, their culture, their boundless hospitality (despite often having nothing), their vitality and energy for life.
Sue and Richard are a couple who were so inspired by their visits to the country, they decided to make it their home.
The interview with Sue and Richard is provided below, as is the link to the Bristol Tbilisi Association website.
What inspired you to up sticks and move to Georgia? What is your daily life like?
We knew of Georgia after reading Stalin’s autobiography and seeing the Rose Revolution on TV. We came here for a holiday and fell in love with it. Part of the attraction was the climate.
On the 31st May 2009 we arrived with a car, a caravan, lots of enthusiasm and 2000 square metres of land to build a home on.
Aside from some minor improvements the house is now finished. We have a garden and small vineyard of around 100 vines that we have just planted.
In the summer we shop in Tbilisi twice a week, for meat and vegetables. Every three days or so we walk to our spring about ½ km to fetch 8 litres each and carry in our rucksacks. There are 3 springs in Kojori.
In the winter on wet or snowy days we read our books, do a crossword or Sudoku and watch DVD’s or TV.
How do you communicate with local people?
We are learning Georgian - the little we know helps enormously. Sign language of course explains a lot of things and after a few glasses of homemade wine or Ch Cha you can speak any language.
What are the local people like?
They are very friendly and helpful people. The villagers have really accepted us.
We were here during the 5-day war in 2008, which I think helped to demonstrate our commitment to Georgia. When we returned in 2009 and lived out the winter in our little caravan that just consolidated our position.
Is there any living habits and customs different from the UK that you have to adapt to?
The amount of wine you have to drink when offered. It is always a minimum of three glasses during a social visit. A party is a lot more because of all the toasts, minimum of 10. Each toast you are expected to finish your glass.
Ian Wright of Globe Trekker fame said “the only thing that will kill you in Georgia is the hospitality”.
What has been especially challenging in your Georgian adventure?
Getting the electric connected once we had built the house was a challenge. The process isn’t terribly straightforward and even less so if you don’t have a full grasp of the language.
We had help from a number of people along the way including someone in our District office who spoke English and wrote a letter for us to take to the main office in Tbilisi. We didn’t know quite where we had to go but again we were helped by a number of people along the way, which meant that we got the certificate we needed to get ourselves connected. We did take a wrong turn and ended up in the Internal Security Headquarters but in true Georgian style there were lots of smiles and we were directed to a policeman who showed us the right building.
After we were connected we took a box of chocolate to the lady in the electric office. She was close to tears at our gratitude.