Fairy-Tale Setting--With Funky Alphabet and EU Flags: Tbilisi, Georgia. April 2007.

The Georgian capital of Tbilisi knows what treasures it has, and it lights them well. The city looks like the setting for a fairy tale at night. Below is a picture of one of Tbilisi's many hilltop churches, taken by my husband, David G. Young.

Like its neighbor Armenia, Georgia was among the first countries where the state, then the king, endorsed Christianity. Both countries had converted by the early 4th century AD and both have stuck with Christianity while their neighbors such as Turkey and Iran adopted Islam. Like Armenia, Georgia has produced beautiful churches that have lasted for centuries.

The churches seem to be the heart of Tbilisi. They were as filled on the Thursday before Easter Sunday as U.S. malls get in the days before Christmas. Standing on the sidewalk near the church, you could smell the burning incense and candles. Inside were fresh flowers and paintings of saints. People stood in worship as there are no chairs or benches. Some people crawled on their knees during their church visits.

All of this happened in Georgia's capital, not in some small town. Out at a seaside resort town on the Black Sea, we later saw people bringing empty plastic jugs and waiting in line for water that seemed to have been blessed that day. It is hard to imagine these people under the Soviet Union, with its limits on religion. We met people later in Armenia who would argue the good points of the Soviet Union. The Georgians instead had a museum exhibit about the Soviet occupation.

Lands of the Farmers

The Russians also had controlled Georgia under the tsars, taking control around 1800. Georgia earlier attracted Persian, Byzantine and Arab invaders as well. Ancient Greeks too valued
the rich agricultural land there, calling the land something close to Georgia, which meant farmers in their language. Georgians calls themselves Karthians, and claim kinship to Noah, according to Lonely Planet's guide book on the country.

`Farmers' seems the right name for Georgia. This is a country that takes food seriously. Eating in Georgia is a pleasure. Soups, stews and dumplings are made with good fresh ingredients. Restaurants often have violinists playing during dinner. People get their bread from bakeries. We saw people walking and tearing little bites on their way home. The bread is
shaped like the logo for the University of Texas-Austin, like longhorn ears.

David spotted people buying bread sold through a bakery window and made sure we picked up some for our overnight train when we left Tbilisi. We could see through the window that the baker was standing in the room with his ovens.

M with an Arrow, Fish Hook for A

Check out the sign above David's head in the picture. Georgia has its own alphabet with no apparent relationship to ours. It made me long for the Cyrillic alphabet I'd barely gotten to know in our few days in Azerbaijan. Cyrillic shares several letters with our alphabet. Other
Cyrillic letters are familiar to anyone who went to college where there were fraternities, which use Greek letters for their names.

The Georgian alphabet? The A is something like a fish hook. There are a couple of letters that look like Ms with tails, while the letter that looks like an A is the Georgian `M.' Seeing Georgian letters on businesses, buses and bread shops seemed normal after a day, although it made me think again and again how hard it must be for Chinese, Japanese and Korean adults learn English when they immigrate to America.

What never stopped jarring me was graffiti in Georgia letters, such as this carving on a tree and writing on the wall of a fort.

The flag of the European Union, shown above, flies all over in Georgia. Georgians have it out in front of their parliament building in Tbilisi, along with the nation's own flag of red and white. That was a surprise to me. Georgia is not one of the 27 members of the European Union, which removes trade barriers and has helped make once-poor countries such as Ireland rich.

Yet, Georgia has put its efforts to join the European Union on hold, realizing that the union willnot be quick to admit it. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said his country sensed an "enlargement fatigue" in the European Union and that discussing EU membership at present was "counterproductive," according to a May 2006 story on the Web site of the U.K. newspaper, The Independent. The European Union in 2004 added the Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia, and has at least five countries as candidates ahead of Georgia.

Georgia needs the European Union far more than the European Union needs Georgia. The union's Web site says Georgia participated in 0.03 percent of theEU's 2002 external trade. The European Union accounted for 26 percent of the products Georgia imported and 43 percent of what Georgia shipped out as exports.

A business park in downtown Tbilisi flies the Georgian and European Union flags. We watched for a minute on an April day as the wind blew the European Union flag into a dancing square. The red-and-white Georgian one was tangled on a wire and would not unfurl, not matter how the wind tugged.

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