Barbara Wattendorf on Tbilisi “Cycling is for the suicidal”

Life in Tbilisi is just as colourful as the houses of the old town
Life in Tbilisi is just as colourful as the houses of the old town | Photo: Georgia Insight

Everyone in Tbilisi is relaxed – unless they are driving a car, says Barbara Wattendorf. In our interview, the Goethe employee talks about the love of people in Tbilisi for guerrilla gardening, marionette theatre and Hermann Hesse.

Is it true that taxi drivers in Tbilisi speed up when they see pedestrians crossing the street?

Wattendorf: That sounds more like a nasty assumption. It’s not quite that bad; I have to defend the taxi drivers of Tbilisi. But there is a nugget of truth behind it: traffic in Tbilisi is quite ill mannered. Drivers take little consideration of pedestrians, but it is even worse for anyone travelling by bike. The streets are often narrow and there aren’t any bike paths. Cycling in Tbilisi is only for the suicidal.

Traffic in Tbilisi is not always this orderly: newly renovated Aghmashenebeli Street Traffic in Tbilisi is not always this orderly: newly renovated Aghmashenebeli Street | Photo: Georgia Insight What is your favourite place in Tbilisi?

Tbilisi is a very lively, sometimes noisy city. So my favourite place is the beautifully laid-out Botanical Garden, one of the few spots in the city with plenty of peace and quiet, where there are no cars and you can breathe. I often go for walks there with my two daughters and we take pleasure in nature and the fresh air. It’s a genuine island of repose in the middle of Tbilisi.

What are the people in Tbilisi concerned most about right now?

The people in Tbilisi have begun to fight for a greener city; guerrilla gardening is a big thing here. The people are fighting so that green areas are no longer sacrificed for construction projects. It’s a great initiative that shows that civil society in Tbilisi has become very active. Another topic that many are very concerned about is violence against women. You need to understand that family structures are still often very traditional, especially in rural areas. Cases of domestic violence against women were simply glossed over for a long time. That’s changing now. Young women in particular have begun to publicize such cases, to unite and protest against it both on the streets and on social media.

Famous for its hot springs: sulphur baths in Tbilisi Famous for its hot springs: sulphur baths in Tbilisi | Photo: Georgia Insight What cultural highlight should visitors to Tbilisi be sure not to miss?

Rezo Gabriadze’s marionette theatre. Rezo Gabriadze is a wonderful Georgian theatre-maker who creates fantastic puppet theatre for adults. His plays are profound and philosophical, but at the same time full of creativity and wit. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of Tbilisi.

Who comes to the Goethe-Institut?

Our cultural events are attended by many young, creative people from the Tbilisi arts and cultural scene. Over the years, the Goethe-Institut has become an important point of reference for them. We’ve had an interesting development in our language courses: our courses for children and teenagers are filling up more and more. This offer obviously struck a chord that has something to do with the Georgian keenness for education. Parents are very interested in giving their children as many educational opportunities as possible. This includes mastering multiple foreign languages.

What question about Germany do you hear most often?

Multilingual librarian: Goethe associate Barbara Wattendorf Multilingual librarian: Goethe associate Barbara Wattendorf | Photo: Gocha Nemsadze We are asked most about possibilities to study and work in Germany. Because of the economic situation in Georgia, many people are seeking employment abroad and Germany is very popular for that. For example, nurses and physicians come to us who have already found work in Germany and now want to acquire the necessary German skills at the Goethe-Institut.

What German book are people in Georgia familiar with?

They are most familiar with the classics: Goethe and Thomas Mann are household names to readers in Georgia. What surprised me is that Georgians are big fans of Hermann Hesse. His books are widely read and very popular here. There is also great interest in high-quality literature for children and teenagers. I hope more of it is translated in future.

What Georgian book should we be reading?

I would like to recommend the novel by a young Georgian author written in German: Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) by Nino Haratischwili. It is a thousand-page family saga that reflects Georgian and Soviet history from the 20th century to the present. It is really a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about Georgia.

Raising a glass of Georgian wine: Hospitality is quintessential in Tbilisi Raising a glass of Georgian wine: Hospitality is quintessential in Tbilisi | Photo: Georgia Insight What can we learn from the people of Tbilisi?

Hospitality and serenity are two traits that we could learn from the people in Tbilisi. Here in the city they are relaxed about time. Guest – and strangers in general – are met with great friendliness and openness. This is also illustrated by a striking Georgian saying, “Let your worries be my worries.” You hear this sentence in many everyday situations – even from taxi drivers!

The questions were asked by Michael Heinst.

Barbara Wattendorf, born in Hesse, originally wanted to become a veterinarian, but then studied Eastern European history, Russian and Russian literature in Giessen. The 44-year-old started out teaching German at the Goethe-Institut Georgia and then became the head of the Information and Library division in 2008. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the centre of Tbilisi in a truly multilingual home: she speaks German with her children, English and Georgian with her husband and Russian with the nanny.