Last week, a few colleagues and I traveled from Tbilisi to a town called Akhalkalaki for the opening of a new branch office. We drove over four hours through landscapes that I can only describe as magical, in the way that I think of Ireland as being magical: rolling hills, mountainsides, crumbling castles, herds of unattended cattle blocking traffic. Fairy tale material.
Akhalkalaki is located in the southern part of Georgia, close to the borders of Turkey and Armenia. 90% of its residents are ethnically Armenian and speak little, if any, Georgian, so most of the communication that took place that day was in Russian.
The shiny new office filled up with with smiles and hand shakes. Local media came by to interview the managers and film the ribbon-cutting ceremony. We celebrated with wine, hors d’oeuvres, and a big sparkly cake. Optimism and hopefulness pervaded, and as far as I could tell, remnants of old ethnic grudges never surfaced.
Akhalkalaki is not the only part of Georgia that identifies itself as not-entirely-Georgian. You may have heard of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the five-day war with Russian in 2008; they are both de facto independent regions backed by Russia (though the Georgian government considers them to be under Russian military occupation). They each have their own languages, Abkhazian and Ossetian, and the people are of separate ethnic groups.
Virtually all of the signs I saw in Akhalkali were in Armenian and Russian. As much as Georgia now embraces English as its second language, Armenians here still prefer Russian.
From Akhalkalaki, full of cake and good will, we drove on to the Vardzia cave monasteries with our local colleagues.
Stay tuned for a glimpse of the Vardzia cave monasteries, and an introduction to Georgian feasts!