Tim in Georgia

This is a blog to chronicle my experiences in the Republic of Georgia as a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer. *The views expressed herein are mine and are not necessarily those of the Peace Corps or the US Government.*

18 November 2007


I think there are four kinds of people who visit my blog – people who are interested in Georgia, people who are interested in the Peace Corps/Volunteerism, people who find me to be a particularly fascinating individual, and people who were misdirected here while looking for something else. If you belong any of the first three groups, I should tell you that some very important and captivating things have been happening in Georgia that will have a large impact not only on Georgia but on the rest of the post-Soviet space. And I, of course, was here to witness it all. If you would like to know the impressions and interpretations of someone who is living and working in Georgia (specifically, me) during these most interesting of times – tear gas, riot police, elections, and rumors, oh my! – send me an email (link at left) and I will happily provide them to you. If you are fortunate enough to be on the list of people I irregularly correspond with via my listserv, you will get these thoughts – solicited or otherwise. But, as I currently don’t know anyone in Africa, Argentina, or Australia – and yet these locations appear on my ClustrMap – I think some unknown interlopers have arrived to my blog. If “unknown interloper” describes you, feel free to send me an email requesting my thoughts or commenting about my blog. And finally, a big and heartfelt thanks to you, unknown reader.

Now, back to what I was originally going to write about.

I don’t crave McDonalds. I never have, and hopefully I never will. Of course, when I lived in America, I enjoyed the conveniences that it offered. I possess the cooking skills of a broken toaster, so the thought of someone else broiling my patties always appeals to me. Additionally, I could glean those precious few nutrients from McDonalds at any hour, which fit well with my young-person’s lifestyle. Of course, McDonalds didn’t really stay for long within my digestive tract, which was perfectly fine with me. Garbage in, garbage out – and preferably as soon as possible. But, aside from as a hunger satiation station with low-yet-still-too-high prices, I never thought too deeply about McDonalds. I don’t know why this was. I detested Starbucks and Walmart, although for different reasons, but McDonalds passed through my ideological filters unscathed – or maybe just unnoticed. But recently, McDonalds has been on my mind more and more.

McDonalds is in Georgia. There are two franchises in Tbilisi. And I even have eaten there. It was exactly (exactly!) the same as in America. I know I shouldn’t have been surprised by this – the reason McDonalds is so successful and ubiquitous is because it streamlined and homogenized the process of making a hamburger so that it tastes the same in Chicago and Colorado and China, after all – but I was. How do they do this? I wouldn’t be surprised if they made the burgers and fries in America, froze them, and flew them to Georgia to be reheated. Obviously, though, this isn’t how it works. But you’d think that the beef or the bun or the sauce or something would taste at least marginally different, would remind you that you are not, in fact, at home. But there isn’t. And this wasn’t the only thing that was exactly the same. I could get the funny salads, the weird parfaits (what exactly is a parfait, anyway?), and the happy meal with a toy – and it was just as expensive as in America. This part really threw me. I could understand if prices were much cheaper or much more expensive – either you can find the products locally (much cheaper, as Georgian prices are not American prices) or you have to import them from another place (much more expensive, because if Georgia doesn’t have it, Armenia and Azerbaijan likely don’t have it either) – but I cannot fathom how the prices are almost exactly the same. It was as if someone went to a McDonalds in my hometown, multiplied the price by the lari-dollar exchange rate (1 dollar = ~1.60 lari), and put these prices in the Tbilisi McDonalds. I’m guessing that the Tbilisi McDonalds is operating at a profit margin unheard of at American McDonaldses. And nobody seems to mind this at all.

While outwardly appearing the same, however, there are distinct differences between the McDonalds experience in America and the McDonalds experience in Georgia. They are differences that only an American or someone who has been to America would notice, I think. Like movies and music, McDonalds is an insight into American culture. And, just like music and movies, it provides a view that isn’t exactly wrong, but isn’t exactly right, either. And it is in this respect that I think the experiences differ. To most of the rest of the world, McDonalds is, more than anything else, a symbol of wealth, speed, and efficiency – qualities more associated with America than with anywhere else. And, of course, McDonalds is a distinctly American creation. But the cultural impact and symbolism of McDonalds in the USA now is much different. It’s not a highly desired dining option. It is convenient and unhealthy, of course, but that does not make it one's first choice for a meal prepared by a professional food preparer.

That is not really true in Georgia. McDonalds is not just a place to dine, it is a means of expressing yourself socially and politically. It is not the McDonalds we know in the USA, even though it has the same taste and the same prices. It is a desired destination for food and a place to see and be seen. Georgian hipsters regularly hang out around the McDonalds at night.

In the end I think this is a good thing. I think it improves America's image abroad and lets us know that we still have friends and admirers. But, when a country is inundated with McDonalds, this appeal will fade. The view abroad will begin to converge with the view in America. Of course, eventually, Georgia will obtain a third McDonalds, and then a fourth, and so on. Who knows where it will stop. But hopefully it will. I'm glad that Georgia has McDonalds, but I don't think it would be good for Georgia to become Fast Food Nation. The one McDonalds in Tbilisi that I've been to does not have a drive-thru. It currently has a walk-thru express window. Here's hoping it stays that way.

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04 November 2007


I had the great pleasure of talking with some of my (still living in America) friends on my cell phone last week. During the course of our conversation, as we discussed my imminent move to an apartment, my friend said "Why Tim, I thought you had become a minimalist!" Later, after our phone call had finished, my mind returned to his remark. My first thought was "Oooo, a minimalist, how exciting and exotic!" This seemed like the kind of personal change and growth that one expects to receive from the Peace Corps - an entirely new way of viewing life. It is certainly more appealing than increased chest hair.

But am I a minimalist? Was I? Should I be?

I think I can say safely that I am not currently a minimalist. I possess many useless things, such as books I've already read, a flyswatter that I never use, a travel iron (well-intentioned, but disagreeable with my clothing style), and 3 pairs of shoes (plus sandals!). And, while I was extraordinarily careful with money (aka cheap) when I lived in America, I don't think you could call anyone who owned a sports-bag designed specifically for frisbee a minimalist. This leaves only the third question.

[Since too much philosophy at once is a bad thing, I want to digress for a moment. This is almost (really almost) related. It couldn't get more almost-related without actually being related. So anyway, "minimum" is my favorite word to write in cursive script. Go ahead, try it. Now, stare at it for a second. It's all humps or upside-down humps, especially if you, like me, seldom dot your i's. Isn't it great? It looks just like a scribble, or like you were testing the pen to see if it worked. But it's a word, too. I think that's wonderful, especially since everyone says that my writing looks like scribbling anyway. But in reality, I don't scribble, I just write "minimum" over and over and over again.]

So, should I be a minimalist? I suppose that, in the Peace Corps, it couldn't hurt. I already have less money, fewer clothes, and fewer "needs" than I ever had before. But still, despite the stereotype of a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am not living alone in a hut writing in my journal all the time (when I'm not saving the world, of course). Instead, I try to vary my activities, and this requires (for me at least), a bunch of stuff. Invariably, it's stuff that I sometimes don't need or want. Like a romance novel. I don't need a romance novel. I don't even want a romance novel. But, somehow, I have one. Actually, I know exactly how this bizarre scenario came to pass. Sometimes, when somebody offers you a romance novel, the prospect of saying no is too daunting. You need to then explain why. And for me, this is a long ordeal. I really dislike romance novels. Invariably, after I finish my diatribe, I seem like a literary snob. Next, my conversant usually asks that, since I don't like romance novels, what kind of books could I possible like? I mention that I like sociological nonfiction and spy novels. This doesn't help, as spy novels are romance novels for men. Then, I end up looking like a hypocrite. Sometimes I'd rather just say yes, take the romance novel, and be done with it. So now I have a romance novel.

I guess the romance novel example means that I should be a minimalist.

Romance-Novel-Junkie: "Tim, would you like to read a romance novel? This one is my favorite. It's Danielle Steele."
Tim: "No, not really."
Romance-Novel-Junkie: "Oh, that's too bad. Why not? I think you'd like it."
Tim: "Actually, I'm a minimalist. I'd love to take the book, but I don't want anything extra in my life right now."
Romance-Novel-Junkie: "Oh really, you're a minimalist? That's so cool! Do you want to go out to dinner? My treat..."

Actually, I guess that means I shouldn't be a minimalist. Romance-Novel-Junkies aren't really my type. On the other hand, I think that me dating a minimalist would be a good idea. Think about it...no need to buy gifts, a Big Mac is an extravagent dinner, and for once I'm not the cheap one. It would be wonderful!

By the way, if you are a female minimalist, please contact me.

In other news, I have decided to move to an apartment. Also, Halloween occurred, and I received no candy. My students enjoyed seeing pictures of me in costume, however. As Georgia doesn't have Halloween, the photo of me in 1992 with green hair, a multi-colored painted face, and a large black cape was (and who can blame them for thinking this?) the strangest thing ever for my students. I earned many cool points for that one.

If you dressed in costume this Halloween and have a digital photo, please send it to me. My students would really enjoy it. I'll even send you their comments and guesses as to what you are.


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