In the Czech Republic, most places in the old town are flats, and I imagine most homes throughout the country are flats as well. For each building, the owners of the flats are grouped together in a kind of cooperative, and they discuss things like shared heating, building maintenance, upgrading the building, repairs, landscaping, and so on, something like an HOA in the US. They agree on the monthly prices to charge and someone takes the responsibility to carry it all out. When you rent an apartment, you usually have to pay the rent plus those building fees, which Czechs call “poplatky”. I personally think it’s a remarkable system, and at the core reveals the socialist model of living – it’s democratic and it’s about a shared responsibility for shared benefits. Maybe you don’t want one benefit, but want another, and so you have to make tradeoffs and compromises to get what you want, but in the end, theoretically everybody benefits from the synchronicity.
a street of flats in Prague
In Georgia, it seems they work in a similar method. But on one hand where the cooperatives in Czech Republic seem to do an amazing job at their self-governance and updating, the Georgian system doesn’t seem to have that sort of benefit. Take elevators. Lifts in Prague are maintained by a monthly building fee. In Georgia, they’re usually coin operated (I’ve noticed the same profound system in Italy as well, so it’s not unique to this country). The lift in our building requires a 5 tetri coin (3 cents), and only a 5 tetri coin, to go up and down. That ends up being a ton of coins, but in the long run, not much money. Living on a way up floor, we probably spend a maximum of 10 lari (5 dollars) a month. Now, for the life of me, I don’t understand why we just don’t pay the lift maintenance guy that money directly, and not worry about keeping a stock of 5 tetri coins.
I’ve often heard from Georgians about how they have good neighbors. They’re friends with their neighbors. Unlike in America where we don’t know or don’t care about our neighbors. What they really mean is that neighbors are all up in your business, questioning all your guests like their suspected killers and thieves. There's usually one person in the building that acts as the local sheriff, and that person is usually an older lady who sits on a bench outside all day...
lots o neighbors up there
Knock on our door one morning.
The lady from right under us barges in. She’s old, she’s wearing some very loose shirt where you can see her sagging essentials from the side. She waves her arms a lot while she talks, which of course exaggerates the issue with her shirt. She speaks in Russian, but understands Georgian. As I speak decent Russian, this is no big deal. “Our apartment is flooded with water and it’s coming from our sink, so it must be from your flat! Did you pour a lot of water down the sink?”
“But that doesn’t really make sense,” I said. “How would our sink water get into your kitchen? It goes down the drain, to the central pipes. Maybe something is blocked there?”
you try to work out how our water is going up into her sink...
“No, we all got together and fixed the central pipes last year,” she said. “It has to be coming from here. It’s clean water. If it was coming from the central pipes, it would be dirty.”
“Of course, if it’s coming from here, then we’ll pay for it. Just talk to a plumber and then send him to us.”
And then she went into our awesomely painted bathroom, complete with a mural that reminds me of either Hawaii or Egypt.
“And water is flooding down on top of me. It’s like it’s raining in our bathroom! It used to happen all the time. But now it’s not. But I think I was going crazy!”
Yes, I thought, I can verify that.
Then she welcomed herself to a tour of the apartment. “Ah, it’s very interesting what you did here, and there. You know, the last owner was going to take that piece of furniture, and that one too. And that one that was built in was done by the owner before her, and she was going to take that too!”
“Good thing we changed the locks,” I said to my wife. The previous owner had already taken enough of the furniture we had agreed she'd leave.
She left. A week passed and she came back because she was locked out and needed to use our phone. She then told us, “Water hasn’t been pouring down.”
That’s good. Part of me wonders if there was ever water pouring down in the first place.
Then there was another lady. This one wears thick makeup and in general looks like an American Southern lady whose always ready to go to her Baptist church. I'd half expect her to say "Lordy" if she spoke English, and I imagine she wears big hats to church rather than a scarf. She’s apparently the head of the building government.
She tells us about a petition. There apparently has to be so many signatures in order to be brought up in the building government meeting. And then if there’s something to be done by the neighborhood government, there has to be a percentage of signatures on top of that.
The petition is for helping the other halls. You see, a Soviet block apartment doesn’t waste square footage on interior hallways. Instead there’s just about ten separate entrances around the base, and each entrance has its own staircase and lift, the entrance, area and lift together are called in Georgian a “sadarbazo”, and each has their own governing structure. So in all we’ve got the sadarbazo government, the building government, and the neighborhood government. The darbazi government doesn’t have meetings, but does do petitions and basic agreements with the neighbors. For instance, the water pipes were done by agreement of the sadarbazo.
our beautiful sadarbazo
This petition was asking for money. The other sadarbazos were needing to do maintenance and repairs, and they didn’t have enough money, so they were asking for a grant from the neighborhood government, along with a very small amount of monthly aid from the neighboring sadarbazos. That sounded okay to me.
Save the tree!
While she was telling us all of this, another shorter lady who dressed something more akin to a Canadian lumberjack came up and started yelling at her. “You swindler! You cheat!” she was yelling. “Don’t give these people your petitions, you liar!”
After her tirade, the building president left, nearly in tears. The short lady turned to us and said, “I’m sorry she was harassing you. Anyways, I have a petition here…”
When this lady speaks to my wife, she goes at a kilometer a minute, but with me she’d switch to English, raise her voice, and speak very slowly. “HELLO! HOW ARE YOU?" she says, every time I run into her. I speak back to her in Georgian, but it never seems to occur to her that this American guy speaks some Georgian. Or maybe she just wants to practice shouting English at me. There’s no way to be sure.
Next time I should do the same. "GAMARJOBA! ROGORA KHAR?"
Her petition was for this: this one family in our building wants to take over some public space and turn it into their private yard. I don’t care about that, why not let them. But then they also want to cut down a tree. Nobody wants the tree cut down. She has to petition both the building government and the neighborhood government, both of which have rejected her trying to do so. This lady was making a petition to save the tree as a just in case measure.
without the trees, we only have concrete
This all was of course a lot to grasp in our first couple of weeks living here. But it was a fascinating lesson on local living in Georgia. And it made the whole matter of why I’ve got to pay 5 tetri for my lift even more of a mystery.