Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Pros and Cons of Living in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Some of us bloggy bloggers are doing a little 'pay it forward' for the summertime bidders by describing some pros and cons of our post. So with out further ado, here are some for Tbilisi.

Pros:

1. Food - so being a vegetarian one of the key things we look at is availability of produce at a post. Happily, there are plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables available here. Things are obviously seasonal. Watermelons are appearing roadside already (I always associated watermelons with 4th of July...not late April), last June tons of blueberries (and I filled my freezer with a huge bag of them) and then mid-summer/early fall we couldn't find zucchini for a couple months. So it seems the seasons are a little different with some foods. Beyond cooking at home. There is plenty of good Georgian food, lobiani is my favorite (bean pie), Richard likes shashlyk (meat kabob), both kids like the tonis puri (fresh bread), and the Eastern European fries are soooooo good! Of course you can't forget the national dish, khachapuri, cheese bread/pizza type dish. Each region has their own twist, my favorite Imeruli khachapuri from Imereti region. If you look here on wikipedia, there is a huge list of national foods..... Still don't believe me that the food is good, well Thrillist ranked all 48 countries in Europe on food/drink.....good ole Georgia came in 4th place.

2. Wine - Georgia is consider the cradle of wine making. Evidence of wine making dates back 8000 years.......that is a long time! The Georgians have had time to perfect the craft. Many families have their own family wine that ferments in the qvevris (clay pots) in the basement of their homes. One thing Richard has enjoyed is due to the wine fermenting in clay as oppose to oak barrels is he doesn't have a histamine/allergy reaction like he does with US wines. If I remember correctly, there are 60 varieties of grapes that are grown Georgia (only a few are seedless though). For a good history, dinner and wine tasting, Pheasant's Tears is our favorite place to go. The best part of all this wine making....in the fall during harvest season you can go pick and crush grapes......mark that off the bucket list!


3. Day Trips - The Republic of Georgia is only about the size of West Virginia. So you can visit most of the country in under a day's drive from Tbilisi. Sighnaghi is about 2 hours away, Kutaisi is about 3 hours (and has very tropical/FL keys feel), Mestia is about 8 hours away (you go slower as you go through the mountains), Ushguli is another about 3 hours from Mestia (even though it is only 35 kilometers away), Batumi is about a 5 hour drive (or 5.5 hours on a train). Each of these areas are so different from each other and each so beautiful to see/hike around.

Sventi area just outside of Mestia

4. Household Help - We have a housekeeper, she comes three days a week and does the cleaning, laundry, ironing.....she has cleaned things I didn't even know could be/needed cleaning. We pay less per week then we did for a bi-weekly service in the States (and they just did your basic cleaning). Most everyone I know has a housekeeper, those with younger kids also have a nanny, and a good number of people also employ drivers.

5. Good for kids/families - I feel this a very family friendly post. Georgians are very friendly in general and they really love kids. Clarissa is super shy but has had many Georgians try and talk with her or wave at her. One night at dinner, a group of Georgian men danced with all the kids at our table. The schools are really good as well. We send our kids to QSI Tbilisi. It is the primary embassy school. We live close enough the kids can walk to school, but they also offer bus service to other parts of town (including the downtown area). We have been every happy with QSI, they got a new director this year and he has made many positive changes to the school. Beginning in 1st grade (6 year olds), kids start taking a foreign language (options are Georgian, Russian, French and German) five days a week. Mason is taking Russian and he talked with a Russian speaker last summer and she was very impressed with his accent. There are some special needs kids at QSI and the school helps with coordinating extra things they need. There is also a British School in Tbilisi that offers the IB diploma program, there are some embassy kids that go there as well. In addition, several families send their children to the French School. The French School teaches in all French but some English is spoken in the school, so if you want a French immersion that is the school to go to. A number of the schools are doing Destination Imagination and we get kids from all the schools together for events. There are a lot of parks and playgrounds and they are regularly used. The botanical garden in Old Town is one of the more fun ones we have been to with a climbing web and a kids zip line.

Cons:

1. Drivers - The drivers are crazy here, they all drive how you would imagine a 16 yo boy with extreme ADHD....all over the place and fast. In a way, it is kind of fun: missed your turn, no worries throw it reverse; can't decide which lane you want to drive in, no worries drive in both; can't find a place to park, no worries the sidewalk is open; gotta go potty, no worries just park on a curve in a lane of traffic and go up the hill a bit so no one sees your winkie as they swerve to miss your car. I'm not really sure the meaning of a yield sign here, maybe it is to warn people in the main lane of traffic to watch out. I think my biggest pet peeve is people who will go around you at stop sign/turn if they deem you are taking too long, I especially love it when they attempt to go around me and get stuck because there is truly no opening. Also, not only are the drivers crazy, BBC did a documentary on how dangerous the roads are in parts of Georgia are. You can watch it here.

2. Old Habits - Georgia declared their independence from Russia in 1991, so not that long ago (I am not a history buff, the length of Georgian history (from approximately 600 BC) is amazing to learn about). So there is a large portion of the population that lived/were raised during soviet times. Some habits are hard to break. The one we notice most is lines.....or lack of (probably left over from food line days). People will constantly cut in front of you, especially in the grocery store. You bag your produce and then take it to the weigh station to get a bar code label placed on your bag. Lots of pushing/cutting there. At the airport....boarding by zones....forget about it.

3. Smoking - It seems everyone smokes here. Having lived in California when the ban on smoking in bar/restaurants went into effect, it definitely takes a bit to get used to all the smoke. Most of the time when you go out to eat, there will be smokers at all the tables around you. Outdoor restaurants do help a bit. The smoking does deter us from going out to eat some. CLO came up with a list of restaurants that are smoke-free which is great.

4. Flights - Flying into or out of Tbilisi is painful! I would say about 90% of daily arrivals/departures occur between 3 and 6 am.....yes you read that right, butt-crack of dawn! Given those flight times, you typically end up with insanely long layovers en route to/from Tbilisi (Coming from DC, 13 hours in Munich...sounds great! CLO even did an article a few years ago about tips for surviving the layover since there really isn't anyway around it).

5. Hmmm -  Can't think of anything else, maybe check out the photos on this blog for more reasons to not come to Georgia....

Overall, we have really enjoyed this post. It is our first post, so we worry that the bar has been set really high for all future posts. If it is on your list, I recommend bidding it high!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Whole Handful

Clarissa turned 5 last week and is literally (and figuratively) a whole handful. Last weekend, we had her birthday party on a welcomed warm and sunny spring day (followed by a week of rain and cold wind...seriously, it is almost May temperatures shouldn't be in the 40s anymore).

Given that she is turning 5, any guesses on the requested theme? Can you imagine my "surprise" when she wanted a Frozen party?

So first off the cake. When Mason was younger, I took a couple cake decorating classes at Michael's. Richard really enjoyed that time (making a cake once a week for a month)! So I enjoy making the kid's cakes at their birthdays. While they probably would not win me a spot on one of those cake baking shows, they don't fall into the Pinterest fail category.

Clarissa wanted to have Elsa on her cake. So I looked around online for inspiration. I saw a number of cakes with ice palaces made of melted sugar. These ice palaces involved boiling sugar/oven drying for hours/etc.....I wanted quick and easy. I search some more to see if an idea I had was possible....found nothing. So I tried my idea anyway.

I took some Wilton sugar sprinkles (in blue of course). Sprinkled them on some parchment paper.


I then put them in our toaster oven set on 350°F for about 5-10 minutes (just until it was melted). After about 5 minutes, I had to watch the closely so they wouldn't get too green (very short window of perfect). This is what I got.

Blue - check, Icy Appearance - check, Sweet and Edible - check....that will work! I iced the cake with a homemade buttercream icing that was so sweet it made my teeth hurt the first bite I tasted, but Clarissa essentially only ate icing from her cake and happily kept asking for more. I placed Elsa, Anna and Olaf on the cake and added the 'blue ice'. Viola!


Clarissa appeared to be happy with the cake. After I decorated it on Friday, until her party on Saturday I caught her several times sitting on the floor with the fridge door open just smiling and looking at her cake.

For drinks, I printed off some melted snowman labels from here and put out some capri suns. Given there are not any party supply stores, I bought some white placemats and decorated them using a snowflake stencil.


Table is ready for party time!


For party activities, we played with an Elsa bowling set.


I stole a frozen hand activity idea from here and the girls used warm water, medicine droppers, and plastic knifes to melt Elsa's frozen hands.


The treasures I hid in Elsa's hands were pop beads to make bracelets and snowflake rings. I had put some glitter and ribbon in them too.


I found a Frozen lyrics scavenger hunt. I downloaded the clue cards with lyrics here. I gave Mason the job of leading the scavenger hunt. The final clue lead them to the den. We had popcorn served in cute popcorn containers I'd gotten here. Using the Disney Story Central App, I downloaded the Frozen Fever book. I linked the iPad to the Apple TV and had the story read to the girls who piled on top of each other on the couches.


So we made an improvement over last year. Clarissa did not hide under the table when happy birthday was sung, but she did plug her ears......


But quickly recovered after the cake was served.


After her brother's party, Clarissa wanted a piñata. So I ordered one back in February....and it was one of the items that took a month to get here. We got the ribbon pull type....and of course the last sting pulled open the piñata.


Finally, what Frozen party would be complete without sno-cones? I totally cheated and used my salad shooter to crush most of ice, but Olaf was available for fun.


Finally, since the little ladies had rings and bracelets from their Elsa hands and candy from the piñata, I made little snow man bags with snowman parts (marshmallows, pretzels, chocolate chips) for favors. I totally flaked and didn't a photo though. I downloaded the bag toppers from here.

She said she enjoyed her party.....so that's all the matters. (Again, sorry for the creative cropping...don't want to upset anyone by posting photos of their kids online).

So what does a big brother do with leftover crushed ice after a birthday party? Make a sno-cone stand and starting knocking on doors to advertise.....I think Mason and sno-cone shop gang each made a couple lari after the profits were split.


On Sunday, we let her open birthday gifts from grandparents/aunt & uncle. Then she had something to keep her entertained all day for part of the day. On her actual birthday, little bit got dressed up and took cupcakes to school to continue the celebration.

 

After school, it was 'Take Your Child to Work Day' at Richard's office so we went to Daddy's work. Afterwards, she requested pizza from the man in the white car (aka Ronny's Delivery) for her birthday dinner. She then opened presents from Mommy & Daddy and had one more round of Happy Birthday.


While putting together the coveted Wild Style and Princess UniKitty in Cloud Cuckoo Land, something seemed unnatural about following step by step instructions....just saying.....


Almost 1/3 of the way through getting the annual hand me down figurines from Mommy. Busia gave them to me, now I am giving them to Clarissa (Mason likes to point out the unfairness that he isn't getting them or some sort of equivalent....).


Rockin' out to Happy Birthday!


With one last blow to the candles, the birthday festivities wrapped up.  Hard to believe our little firecracker has been around half of a decade already and my oh my has she changed.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Monday's Moment: Insert Caption Here


Spring Break Adventure: Batumi

So Richard ended up having something come up at work the week of spring break....not feeling like taking the kids on an international adventure by myself, I opted to head to the coastal town of Batumi on Thursday. Richard was able to join us Friday afternoon.

The roads between Tbilisi and Batumi get narrow and curvy as you go through the mountains. The drivers are very confident and will pass on blind curves. In order to avoid having white knuckles for the 5-6 hour drive, we opted to take the fast train. It takes about the same amount of time but I could sit back and relax. Also, the kids and I have never rode on a train. Amtrak in the US is very sporadic in coverage for trips. For the handful of trips I have ever researched, the trip would take substantially longer than driving or involved a greyhound bus ride between two stations (?!?!)....


Getting tickets for Georgian Railways ended up being quite a challenge. Their website would lock up every time I got to the payment portion....so I gave up on that. I could go down to the train station and buy tickets but there was the potential for a language barrier. I found out that tickets can be bought at the pay box kiosks....so I went that route. Everything was in English, until I got to the screen to pick my departing city....all the cities where in Georgian.....ugh! So I asked a Georgian who works in the CLO office to help me. The pay box we went to got to the 'how many tickets screen' and then said 'the machine is almost out of paper, come back another day'...aaaahhhh! Finally, I asked my housekeeper to go with me. The first pay box we went to also brought up the out of paper message so we tried a different company's pay box.....success! (Luckily I thought ahead and brought paperclips with me, so as tickets printed I put different colored paper clips on the different days since I could not read anything in Georgian that printed out (D, M, C going, R going, and all 4 of us coming home). We also splurged and got first class seats (about $4 more per ticket).

Richard dropped us off at the train station and off we headed on our 5.5 hour adventure armed with drinks, snacks, camera, fully charged iDevices, coloring books and some toys. It should be noted that the train has overhead storage bins (good for air plane carry on size), I was trying to have less to deal with and crammed all our stuff into a large suitcase, I did find places to stow it on both trips, but smaller bags would be better in the future.

The train ride was pretty uneventful. We knew another family on the train, so Mason had a friend to play with and I had a coloring buddy.


We stopped at a number of stations along the way. This one was very welcoming. At another station, there was a middle-age gentleman wearing a conductor hat waiting to greet arriving visitors. It was super cute, I was just not fast enough grabbing the camera to get a picture of him. I was actually surprised that the train was packed on all our trips (even the ones in the middle of the week).


We opted to stay at the Radisson Blu Batumi. It is a little bit pricy but we had heard good things. It was very nice, just about a block off the beach and within walking distance to a variety of restaurants. Even when we took a cab across town to the zoo it only cost a couple dollars.

After checking in, we did what any family with kids does....headed to the pool! Clarissa looked so adorable cuddling with me after her swim!


After our swim, we headed to go find some dinner. On our way, the kids ran through some shrub mazes.


We also found what Mason dubbed the "fountain of inappropriateness" (otherwise known as the fountain of Neptune). The best way to make a tween feel uncomfortable......find this statue! There is a large golden Neptune (nude of course....this is art!) surrounded by some cherub looking babies and some nude mermaids.


I kind of dug the moon hanging out over Neptune's shoulder....gave it more of a Greek god feel. Recall I said it was a fountain....water sprayed from the mermaids' nipples!


After dinner, we watched the sun set beautifully into the Black Sea.


The next morning after our free breakfast at the hotel, we headed down to the Black Sea. On the way, we had to pick some flowers!


We found lots of unique patterned rocks (of nearly every imaginable color combination!).


We saw a lot of moon jellyfish floating in the water.


And the kids threw a ton of rocks into the water (that's what they are there for, right?)


More rocks......I don't feel this would be a super comfy beach to lay out on in the summer.


It was kind of odd to be walking along the beach in short sleeves and flip flops and see snow covered mountains on the horizon!


Cleaning pebbles out of her shoes.....


Afterwards, we walked out on the pier. There were a couple rusty railings....definitely kept my hand on Clarissa.


We then headed over to a playground. We climbed, played on a spinning toy, and nearly got impaled by dinosaurs!


Disregard the people safely playing in the background....lol.


We then headed down the boardwalk. Just enjoying the warm sunny day, we had no real destination in mind. I took lots of pictures of the beach art (I'll save some of it for Monday moments....there is a lot of art and I took a lot of pictures).


Colorful lifeguard stand.


More beach art.


The kids started getting hungry and we found out that the most gorgeous McDonald's was not too much further down from where we were at (Huffington Post claims it is the most gorgeous). Pretty cool looking if I say so myself.


After lunch we headed up the boardwalk a bit more, a got a great shot of the snowy mountains behind Batumi.


We also found a cool lighthouse like tower. It had a restaurant on the bottom floor. When we got to this point, we got a text Richard was about to disembark the train, so we cabbed it back to the hotel.


After Richard's arrival, we headed to the pool again. Clarissa loved that the hotel elevator was a giant mirror. Every time we rode in it, she would strike a pose....too funny!


We ate dinner at the Hotel's "Clouds" restaurant (did you guess it was on the 18th floor). It had a great view overlooking the city. (disregard Clarissa's silly face.....)


After dinner, we headed back out to the ice cream/gelato place we had found the day before. Afterwards, we walked through the Europe Square. Before I knew the name, I commented to Richard that the buildings looked just like the buildings in Warsaw. In the middle of the square there was a monument of Jason and the golden fleece. 


Around the sides of the pillar there were different scenes depicting Jason and the Argonauts quest in Georgia.


Mason brought his backpack with him and we headed back out to the boardwalk but headed the opposite direction. He wanted to collect some rocks (I didn't want to carry rocks all day so he had been banned earlier). As I glanced over and saw him practically shoveling rocks into his bag, I limited him to 10 rocks....(we are moving in a few months....gotta watch that weight!).


The sky was overcast this evening, so the sunset was not quite as spectacular. We found the couple having coffee statue (or a tea party) and played around.




We found the Ali & Nino sculpture (also called the Love Statue). Depending on what angle you view it from you can see one figure or two separate figures. The figures can also appear to be kissing.


I had been scanning the water all day for dorsal fins (I can't go to the beach and not do that...lol) and was quite excited when we spotted a group traveling.


It was even more exciting when they switched directions and started leaping!


Due to getting a great shot of its coloring and doing a little internet research, I'm fairly certain it was a pod of Black Sea Common dolphins.

With the sun set, we headed back to our room. According to my activity tracker, the kids and I had walked nearly 18,000 steps and we were tired!


The next morning, we cabbed it to the zoo. Trip planning fail....the zoo doesn't open until 11 (we got there 10ish)....oops. We saw a few of the ungulates but the small mammals and birds were gated off. We did stop and snack on apples by the zoo. And what do you do when your legs are tired?


After the zoo fail, we decided to head up the boardwalk some more to find the WHERE sign. That sign is very far away.....but we finally did find it after several hours of walking (oops sorry kids, but I was on a mission). 

Richard also photographed a life guard station.


More pebbley pebbles.


We did find some more beach art.


Including a giant pair of flip flops.


Also found an upside down building, Mason thought he was being funny photo bombing me, but it provide some perspective!


After we had lunch we headed to dolphinarium. Even though their website and any travel book I read said they have a show at 14:00.....when we showed up to get tickets for that show we were informed they didn't have a show until 17:00....uh okay. So they have a 15 minute swim with a dolphin program, so we inquired about that. The lady at the ticket counter with all the pricing/buy here signs for the swim program told me I had to call and make a reservation. Again, nothing we had read mentioned reservations....ugh, fail #2 for the day. On the bright side, before catching a cab back we got a picture of this huge mosaic.


After going for another swim, we headed over to the ferris wheel. Since she saw it from the train, Clarissa had been begging to ride it. 


Unfortunately, as we went to get our tickets, you had to be at least 7 years old.....fail #3....broke poor Clarissa's heart....so we solved that by having ice cream after dinner for the third night in a row. We did try on some new shoes.....



We also played on some large boulders.


This is right before a group of middle school girls walked by, they all checked out Mason, and then did that middle school girl giggle (he was totally oblivious to all of that).


Super sillies!


We enjoyed the building next to our hotel all lit up at night.


We could also view the Georgian alphabet tower from our room.


We ended up walking just over 23,300 steps on Saturday! While most of what we had planned Saturday didn't work out. We did have fun just relaxing along the sea.

Sunday morning we caught the train back to Tbilisi (and Monday morning there were snow flurries in Tbilisi). Our trip to Batumi was fun and provided us a nice break in a quaint little seaside town.