“Tread carefully, your prejudice is showing” is what I should have said to myself.
I was travelling around Georgia in 2018 with my boyfriend and among other places we also stopped in Borjomi. We’d booked a homestay with great reviews and were looking forward to putting our backpacks down after a sweaty minibus ride. The property’s instructions were something along the lines of find the tallest building on the left of the train station and the room is in the 11th floor, which was a bit unclear, but upon arrival we immediately noticed a very tall, socialist apartment building.
We headed there and one of our first impressions (and likely my favourite thing) of Borjomi was a turkey grazing next to the railway. As we began to approach the very tall, yellow-red building, the words “I hope this is not it” came out of my boyfriend’s mouth and I quietly agreed.
The building looked half-abandoned and was decrepit in the kindest sense, with shutters hanging off the windows, paint peeling of the walls and all kinds of general disrepair you can imagine. The neighbourhood we passed began to look increasingly sketchy, with kids playing on the dirty streets and most of the nearby houses in shambles. We began to consider finding another accommodation, as the entire escapade seemed very ill-advised.
Since we were supposed to meet the owner at the building I insisted we bravely soldier ahead and at least check out the room, but kind of lost my resolve and began to panic when there did not seem to be anyone there. Luckily, an elderly man appeared, asking in Russian if I was me and we headed inside. He introduced himself as Albert and he was one of the kindest people I’d ever met.
After squeezing into an elevator, which required 5 tetri coins that he provided for us in abundance, we finally got to the flat on the 11th floor. At that point I was still a bit nervous regarding the state of the room, however when we entered I could see the apartment was very nice. The room had a double bed and looked like your average Eastern Europe grandma’s bedroom, complete with quilt and a bookcase, but it was clean, came with a private bathroom and even had a window niche with a view.
Albert insisted on sitting us down in the kitchen and making Turkish coffee, offering cookies and his homemade red wine. After establishing that he didn’t speak English and I barely spoke Russian, while my boyfriend looked a bit lost, we learned Albert came from Russia and lived there with his mother Julie. After the coffee break he kindly, but firmly threw us out of the flat saying we needed to explore Borjomi while there was still any day left, which is exactly what we did.
Upon returning in the evening we also met his mother, who looked like you would imagine a babushka to look: extremely kind, warm, stubborn and offering a homemade Georgian speciality, some kind of pastry with fresh cheese, and of course also the wine. While we were eating, Albert showed us the important local sights on his fancy Apple computer that he was very proud of. We debated which ones we had enough time to see and which ones would have to wait until next time. When I say debated, I mean lots of hand gestures, half broken Russian-English-Croatian-Slovenian we could squeeze out, with lots of patience. After the virtual tour was over, they taught us some Georgian words and marvelled at Slovenian ones, examined all details of our lives that we could communicate through and explained all about Albert’s son, who was studying in Germany.
All in all it was a pleasant evening and a very enjoyable stay, which felt like home, as the two hosts were so incredibly kind, patient and generous. I could not recommend it enough and you can find their property on Booking.com here. The following morning we left quite early and planned to leave a sneaky gift of chocolate and a thank you note on the pillow – I usually carry small thank you-tokens with me when I travel, but Albert saw it before we could get out of the door. In his generous manner he insisted we have breakfast, which we didn’t have time to do, so he gave us a bottle of his homemade wine for the journey and we left the apartment a whole lot of human kindness richer. Madloba Albert and Julie!
P. S.: To put things into perspective, we paid 11 € for a night in Borjomi, which is considered an ok price in Georgia, but the number serves to highlight the enormous gap between first world countries and the rest of the world. It makes the kindness and homemade food that much more valuable and genuine, and shows how much travelling responsibly can contribute to the local economy and improve people’s lives. I will always support homestays and locally owned accommodation over hotel chains if I can afford to and strongly encourage you to do the same.