I protest!

Mercer has done Tbilisi an injustice with its 2011 quality-of-living-report. http://www.mercer.com/press-releases/quality-of-living-report-2011. It reported that Tbilisi is the lowest ranking (214) European city in quality of living. Even worse, in my mind, Mercer reports that Tbilisi is the lowest ranking (215) European city in personal safety.

How can this be?

Mercer is a human resources consulting company with more than 19,000 employees. It analyzes living conditions “according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories:
1) Political and social environment (political stability, crime, law enforcement)
2) Economic environment (currency exchange regulations, banking services)
3) Socio-cultural environment (censorship, limitations on personal freedom)
4) Health and sanitation (medical supplies and services, infectious diseases, sewage, waste disposal, air pollution)
5) Schools and education (standard and availability of international schools)
6) Public services and transportation (electricity, water, public transport, traffic congestion)
7) Recreation (restaurants, theatres, cinemas, sports and leisure)
8) Consumer goods (availability of food/daily consumption items, cars)
9) Housing (housing, household appliances, furniture, maintenance services)
10) Natural environment (climate, record of natural disasters).”

Why do the rankings matter?

Mercer creates the “quality of living” and “personal safety” indexes in order to help companies “determine their expatriate compensation packages rationally, consistently and systematically. Providing incentives to reward and recognise the efforts that employees and their families make when taking on international assignments remains a typical practice, particularly for difficult locations.” In other words, foreign employees receive a “hardship” allowance to compensate for decreases in the quality of living between their home and host locations.

I’ve heard ex-pats here joke that Tbilisi is a hardship tour, but they were joking! I haven’t met any ex-pat who really believes that living in Tbilisi is difficult (but I’m sure they accept the extra compensation packages).

Here is my personal rebuttal to Mercer’s quality of living report.  The political situation has been stable since 2004 and will likely remain stable. Crime is low and law enforcement is good. Saakashvili fired 40,000 law enforcement officers when he became president because too many had been corrupt; the situation is much better now. Susanna and I feel safe walking down empty, dark streets at 1am.

I cannot comment much on currency exchange regulations and banking services. I use an ATM; it works; I’m happy.

I’ve already written a few blog posts about censorship and at least one about the right to protest. Yes, Saakashvili’s government has control over TV news; yes, it tries to limit criticism from the printed media; but journalists and dissenters have some room to maneuver. Besides, ex-pats can get all the news they want from the Internet.

Regarding health and sanitation, I have talked with a leader of a United Nations Development Program project on water quality, and the news is not good. Susanna and I drink the tap water; we’re healthy; but we’d all be better if sewage treatment improved. In addition, the air is polluted from car exhaust and it’s not likely to get better.

Ex-pats shouldn’t complain about schools and education. I’d have transferred my children from Columbia, South Caroliina’s schools to the international schools in Tbilisi without hesitation.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you probably can guess that I curse some driver every day. The lack of stop signs at intersections drives me nuts; cars simultaneously enter intersections from both directions at 20mph and walkers better jump out of the way. And we sometimes briefly lose electricity—just enough time to wipe out the file I’d forgotten to save on my computer. But I give Tbilisi public transportation an A grade, at least in comparison with Columbia, South Carolina.

Ex-pats shouldn’t complain at all about entertainment. Tbilisi offers first-rate music, drama, and dance. It has film festivals, jazz festivals, and other festivals. There are not a lot of options for sports or movies, but, remember, this is a small country. Tbilisi could, I believe, add diversity to its restaurant scene, but we LOVE Georgian food, so it’s no problem for us.

Concerning consumer goods, Susanna and I have one big complaint—sheets. We want nice, soft sheets. On the bright side, there’s opportunity for an entrepreneur; I’m sure Tbilisi could support at least one scaled-down Bed, Bath and Beyond type of store.

Ex-pats can’t complain about housing. Susanna and I have visited some ex-pat homes and they are gorgeous—as good or better as any homes we visit in Columbia.

Finally, natural environment. Yes, Tbilisi is prone to earthquakes. But, I haven’t heard anything about blizzards, avalanches, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions or other types of natural disasters.

Bottom line? Susanna and I really, really like living here, and we DON’T have a fat compensation package. We live very simply—somewhere between Georgians and ex-pats.

Resourceful women

By Susanna Melo

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Men working for NGOs, embassies, and other such organizations in Georgia enter into an already-made network of support. Women, on the other hand, must start from scratch. Through the International Women’s Association (IWA), we have met many wives of expats who have had to reinvent themselves in their new homeland. For example, Sandra Baretto, our Paraguayan neighbor, is an economist. Because she has not been able to find a job in her field, she has just started her own business. From her home, she sells beautifully handmade lace items from Paraguay. “Nanduti” lace, which in the Guarani Indian language means “spider web,” is woven into a web-like shape.  Another type of lace is the Encaje Ju, famous in the Paraguayan towns of Yataity, Carapegua and Altos.  Patterns for this lace include flowers, birds, plants and geometric designs. Many items such as clothes, bedspreads, runners, and tablecloths are graced by this delicate handiwork, which can be seen in the photos.

Another resourceful female friend has learned the art of making and selling her own jewelry.  One started a pre-school.  Another is opening a cocktail lounge. Others are using their time to learn new skills such as belly dancing, ceramics, or learning additional languages. Starting from a blank slate takes courage and it is an admirable quality!

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Updates and disco shower

Update: Susanna did not get the role in Sleeping Beauty. Obviously the judges were both deaf and blind 🙂

Update: The workers will have GIPA’s building ready for classes on Monday, Sept 19, BUT only the 2nd year students will begin school on that day. The incoming class will begin classes on Sept 26.

Update: Sandra & Aaron Vasquez, formerly of New York City and now living in Tbilisi, kindly lent us a fitted sheet and two pillowcases, so our sheet situation has greatly improved.

Sandra and Aaron also invited us to their home, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of Indian food. The feature of their home that made me jealous was their “disco” shower. It has glowing blue lights, a radio, jet sprays from the sides, water from above, and–most important–a glass enclosure. When we shower, we sit in a tub about 1/3 the size of American tubs and we use a flexible hand-sprayer. We couldn’t find a shower curtain long enough to reach the tub, so we had to buy plastic from a roll and make our own curtain.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011