February 22, 2010

Can’t I Just Buy Something? ~ Elizabeth Atwell

I traveled 6,000 miles to discover that I am a rampant consumerist.

Okay, that may be a sliiight exaggeration. Back in the States, I considered myself only a moderate shopper. I preferred farmer’s markets, sales racks and vintage/used clothing stores. I didn’t have to make a purchase – window-shopping was pleasant enough. Sometimes I used shopping as an excuse to be alone, enjoying the anonymity.

Then I arrived in former Soviet Georgia. Here, commerce, like many other things, is a different experience. It took me a few months to realize that one of the main ways in which I interact with the world (as a consumer) had been dramatically altered. Why and how?

1) There is no such thing as shopping alone.

Even in a crowded mall in the U.S., one can be alone with their thoughts. Sales people often leave shoppers to look around, not wanting to rush potential buyers. In Georgia, however, one is never alone. The bazroba (bazaar) is the place to find anything and everything – from fresh vegetables to USB cables to Soviet antiques, it’s all there. Bazroba is crowded, exciting and full of energy. Haggling is expected, which is intimidating for visitors like myself who speak little of the language. Consequently I never attend bazroba by myself, but always with my partner. He speaks near-fluent Georgian.

In boutique and clothing stores, sales staff follow shoppers both to assist and to ensure that no one swipes anything, an alternative to security cameras. Outside, street vendors call out to passers by, eager to sell something. It is a very active type of salesmanship and I often find it invasive, sometimes bordering on aggressive. Some street vendors stay out all night, desperate to make a sale… for it is their livelihood.

2) No leisurely window-shopping.

Full grocery stores are a fairly new occurrence here. More common are small family run stores located on almost every street. Inside these stores are two or three tiny sections – groceries in one, toiletries in another – owned and operated by separate vendors. Shoppers don’t linger for there is barely room to walk through the isles. People typically know what they need upon entering such establishments.

3) Expense & practicality.

After giving away many of my belongings back in the States, I brought all the clothes I own to Georgia in two army duffel bags – four seasons worth including shoes. It just didn’t make sense to store tons of excess clothing for an entire year. If I didn’t need it during a year, did I really need it at all? And it was a good thing that I brought everything, because I discovered clothing here is often too expensive for my budget.

4) People share.

I’m used to friends who share things, from baked goods to clothing. In Georgia, however, sharing with neighbors is even more of an integral part of culture. When our landlords acquire fresh fish or raw honey, they often send some up to us. People don’t necessarily need 18 matching sets of dishes or chairs “just in case” they throw a large dinner party – they often borrow from neighbors. When they do decide to throw a party, the neighbors are invited. It is customary to serve guests everything a household has to offer – this goes for everyone, no matter the income of the host. Even while visiting people displaced by recent war who live in government-built prefab cottages, I have been fed delicious food to the point of being stuffed.

The absence of rampant consumerism on my part felt quite strange the first few months. Buying “stuff” was a major part of my life back home, whether I recognized it or not. In Georgia, I was hardly buying anything! I felt a little lost. As soon as I realized that a change was happening – a sort of shopper’s withdrawal maybe? – I started paying attention to commerce here and my part in it.

And I am stunned by what I’m noticing.

I am eating better foods. Food is my biggest expense, but practically my only expense. Seasonal and dried fruits and vegetables are incredibly cheap. They are tasty and good for me to boot. Citrus season has been my favorite so far!

I still find solitude, just not while shopping. I make space at home or find quiet moments out in nature.

I am more resourceful. Rather than fixing a problem by buying stuff, I find an alternative way to make do. This is resulting in more creativity in my life, from cooking to household chores.

I am saving money… without even thinking about it! I even splurge for the occasional soymilk and peanut butter (imported from Germany, they are the most expensive foods I consume) but overall, I’m just spending much less.

I don’t know what such changes mean for me in the long term, although I am finding them to be positive. How will it feel returning to the U.S. in five months? Will I carry these habits home with me, or check them at the border?

However, things are changing in Georgia. A large department store filled with everything from groceries to camping goods has opened at two locations. “Establishing credit” is becoming more commonplace, and billboards advertising credit cards can be seen in major traffic circles. This is a stark contrast to what was a generally cash economy. The first Georgian supermall is being constructed as I write this. How will these changes affect consumer society here?

Personally, despite the crowds and chaos, I’m glad to be here at a time when bazroba is still the best place to purchase… well, just about anything.

Elizabeth Atwell is a Fulbright fellow currently studying folk dance in the Republic of Georgia. She blogs about yoga & learning to live in the moment at www.yogicdancer.blogspot.com @yogicdancer

She wants to point out that her writings reflect only her opinions and have nothing to do with the U.S. State Dept., Fulbright Commission or any other entities in the universe!

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