Big Love

Why Americans swoon for the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Five minutes into a pro-Georgia rally in front of the United Nations earlier this week, Ceil Brody, an American co-owner of a Georgian restaurant in Watchung, N.J., began telling me about what makes Georgia so extraordinary. “Once you experience the culture, you can’t help but fall deep for the people,” she glowed. “If you go to Georgia, a man will sell the shirt off his back to buy you dinner.”

American Georgia boosters may not boast the same numbers and history as, say, lovers of Paris. But what they lack in size and tradition they more than compensate for with depth of feeling. In fact, it is hard to overstate the level of passion felt by Americans in thrall with Georgia. Love for Georgia is uncompromising and consuming. To be American and reside in Georgia is to be locked in an endless meta-conversation about being American and residing in Georgia: how Georgian culture enriches, how Georgian politics fascinate, how Georgian cuisine nourishes.

As Lincoln Mitchell, an assistant professor of politics at Columbia University who lived in the country for nearly a decade, is quick to point out, Georgia’s light burnishes bright in a dark neighborhood. Many expats in Georgia have lived in other former Soviet republics, where national narratives feel like horror stories set against a Georgian island of magical realism. Scenes of sullen Slavs hammering vodka shots give way in Georgia to boisterous celebrations of copious wine, joke-telling as bloodsport, and supreme hospitality.

“It’s a strange and irrational thing,” Mitchell says. “I don’t want to be cynical—on balance I like Georgia—but people come to the country and make a fetish out of the place. And their assumptions go unchallenged: Yes, the wine is good, but come on, not knock-your-socks-off good. Yes, the food is good, but the best they’ve ever had?”

Georgia is something like the Italy of the former Soviet Union, where mothers are considered saints and histrionic displays of emotion are roundly approved, where traffic police refuse to write tickets to pregnant women and grown men worship fresh produce. Television viewers getting their first taste of Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili (Misha to everyone in Georgia), this week are not wrong to detect a surprising emotionalism, volatility, and American-style openness from a leader of a country sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. It is not a stretch to say Saakashvili’s qualities are emblematic of the nation as a whole. As Mitchell said to me, “There’s no other post-Soviet government with a president everyone calls by first name who can argue about where to find the best Indian food in New York.”

I got to know Georgia—and Saakashvili—when I profiled him for the New York Times Magazine. For almost two months I shadowed Misha. In Slovakia for a regional summit, walking next to Saakashvili along Bratislava’s cordoned streets, the Georgian head of state hooked his arm on my elbow and offered to trade gossip about his senior staff. In Tbilisi, Saakashvili gave me carte blanche access, not once ordering me out of his office. In a region where governments routinely conflate tribe with nation, Saakashvili pointedly switched languages to inclusively address ethnic minorities. One evening I answered my cell phone to hear the cackling voice of the then 37-year-old president, who called to tease that his evening was more interesting than mine. I had been crank-called by the president. Stockholm Syndrome was inevitable.

Georgia’s charm doesn’t end with Saakashvili. Few sights are as beguiling as barrel-chested Georgian men greeting each other on the street with the traditional cheek kisses. Georgian toasting is a triumph of rhetorical theatrics. Then there is Georgian hospitality. The mother of a friend I had visited shined my shoes while nobody was looking. Before arriving in Tbilisi, I called a Georgian friend to ask if I could stay in her three-room apartment “for maybe 10 days.” I stayed three months.

My friend’s boyfriend was an important presidential adviser with a late-night pizza addiction. Receiving delivery was an ordeal: The delivery man, schooled in the pre-Rose Revolution tradition of refusing payment from high government officials, would knock on the door, drop the pies, and try to make a run for it. The adviser, dedicated to ending a culture of corruption, usually was able to head him off, money clutched in his fist.

So there are many reasons to like Georgia. But for the Americans trafficking in Georgia-thrall, enthusiasm for the country of 4.8 million can be extreme. In Tbilisi, the picturesque Georgian capital that is now a precarious 40 miles from the Russian occupation zone, I met American expats—veterans of any number of other-country postings—who quit their jobs rather than accept a new country. Of course, at the government level, assiduous courting of Americans is all part of the plan. Saakashvili has been reaching out to American politicians, especially Republican ones, since he took office. When I spent time with the president, he was obsessive about influencing American opinion-makers in the press, and his chief of staff complained to me he was spending more time dictating responses to articles in American newspapers than governing Georgia.

For Westerners, Georgian cultural idiosyncrasies can be intoxicating. But for Russians, Georgia is also innerving. The two peoples are badly handcuffed. Russian women falling for Georgian men is a stereotype in both countries, and ethnic Georgians populate the upper reaches of Russian pop culture as celebrated singers and actors. Long before the Russian army rolled into Gori, Russian tourists streamed into the country to enjoy its warm Black Sea coast and to hike its soaring green mountains.

The signature traits of Georgian identity—a romantic, somewhat lugubrious sense of national fate; male machismo; the Orthodox Church; even good toast-making—are claimed by Russians. The two countries rarely resist tormenting each other, and if this week has underscored the lack of equality between the two in hard power, there is an equanimity in national psyche. Both peoples find the cultural aspirations of the other to be intolerable.

American fans of Georgia, a good number of them anyway, have located a far-away dreamscape, a colorful Caucasian people kissing each other on the cheeks and speaking a strange, unique language in a fairy-tale land, where poor men will sell the shirts off their backs to buy a woman dinner. Ironically, a lot of Russians look south and see something similar. Too much love is never a good thing.