A conversation with Ania Gajda, a traveler, originator and co-author of a success of the Oasis Club in Udabno and Bar Warszawa in Tbilisi – about courage, love for Georgia, hard work, longing for Poland, and openness to what life brings.
It sounds too perfect to be true. But it is! Courageous people make their dreams come true by implementing ideas which make other people dizzy and send shivers down their spines. Indeed, it takes a great deal of courage to move to the desert near the Georgia - Azerbaijan border with only a backpack filled with necessities. This desert is where Ania and Ksawery have settled – a Georgian village Udabno located near one of the most beautiful and valuable Georgian monuments - a rock-hewn David Gareja monastery complex. Until 2013 Udabno had been just a simple dot on a map, however, it started to be more recognizable once Ania and Ksawery built the Oasis Club there - a place which is, first of all, their home, but also a restaurant and a shelter for tourists fatigued by arduous journeys and cold Georgian wind. As Ania writes: “Not only has the Polish media been talking about the Oasis Club and Udabno, but also the media of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Czech Republic.” Following through on what they started, the couple has undertaken to realize their next idea, namely, to open Bar Warszawa in Tbilisi. And even though it has been tough and, sometimes, nostalgia has to be combated with chacha – a famous Georgian brandy – one cannot resist the impression that following one’s heart and dreams brings happiness.
Why Georgia? In a word, how did you end up there? Where did it all start?
It all started with a project aimed at the development of rural tourism in a Chechen village in the Kakheti region of Georgia. It took me only a week in the Caucasus Mountains to fall in love with that magical place. I kept coming back there as a tourist and, eventually, I bought a one-way ticket and packed more things than I usually did when I went on a summer trip.
Weren't you concerned about not knowing the language? How do you communicate with Georgians?
Younger generations speak English or German while the older ones speak Russian so it is possible to communicate with them without the knowledge of the Georgian language. Although, I have started learning it. The Georgian alphabet is incredibly beautiful and even though it appears complicated at first, believe me, it is easy to learn. However, it is not the case with grammar and pronunciation, which are much more difficult. There are numerous words with several consonants in a row which have to be remembered first in order to be pronounced. The Georgian language is unlike any other – simply unique.
You went to Georgia with a plan to open a restaurant in the wilderness. Back then, didn’t you think that a hostel in such a place would do better?
I just really enjoy cooking. Besides, if you can cook and take pleasure in it, you should gain some experience in the food industry. Of course it is not an obligation, but I heartily recommend it! It is a wonderful adventure but also a test of skill and patience. Speaking of a hostel in Udabno - it is already under construction. We haven’t had to wait long for this one...
Not everyone can afford such an adventure… and I am not thinking only about courage and perseverance...
We had some savings of our own, but we borrowed money as well. It paid off. Friends I met in Tbilisi helped us building our restaurant. The atmosphere was international and joyous. It was interesting, but also really hard at times, I have to admit it. We also got support from people who lived in a neighboring village. They were making fun of us incessantly, but they were willing to help. Let alone Georgian kids… they wouldn’t get tired of bricks and shovels. Besides, they eagerly learned new English words and taught us Georgian ones.
How did your family and friends react to your plans connected with Georgia?
It was a hard time convincing them. They did not share my enthusiasm and excitement about the whole idea. Sheer madness - they believed. With time, however, they came to understand that what I have been doing here makes me feel happy and fulfilled.
What did you expect would come out of it? What is it like in retrospect?
Both ideas – the Oasis Club and Bar Warszawa turned out very successful. What did I expect? The club is located on a picturesque trail that leads to David Gareja monastery complex, which attracts tourists from all over the world. The complex itself is one of the main tourist attractions in Georgia. In order to get there you have to turn off the main road on to the one leading to the complex. From this moment, there is an hour-and-a-half long drive ahead of you, the road is of poor quality and, until recently, there had been no store on either side of it. No bar. No toilet. And now, there is something way better! A restaurant. Cottages to rent. And as I have already mentioned – a hostel is under construction. There is an unusual atmosphere, friendly people, delicious food as well as the possibility to withdraw from reality for a while by immersing yourself in the calmness of a steppe landscape.
There is also the possibility to meet Georgians…
Yes. These are extraordinarily hospitable people who love singing and drinking wine. They have a tiny issue with job attitude and punctuality, but who would care about it! You can get used to it. Strangers are welcome in Georgians’ homes and offered whatever hosts can give them. It is a nice habit to be able to repay their generosity (a piece of advice for those coming to Georgia - do not repay it with money, but a friendly gesture). Georgians love Poles!
They are impulsive at times, but also romantic and emotional. They speak so loudly you can get the impression they are constantly quarreling; whereas, what they are talking about is weather or yesterday's dinner. Directness and openness is what characterizes these people.
I have witnessed a lot of situations I believe I would not see happen in Poland… Once, a man with a child entered a bus in which every seat had already been taken. A boy who was sitting next to the door took the kid on his lap. After a while, the father took the child, thanked the boy and left the bus. He was not concerned that his child was sitting on a stranger's lap because it is completely normal in their culture – a genuine help. The child, being used to other people, was not crying. When I am coming back home from a market and there is nowhere to seat in a bus, someone will lend me a hand and take my bags. At the beginning, when I used to say “no, thank you”, some women would simply snatch bags from my hands. Now, I let others help me.
Unpredictable stories, then…
Plenty of them! Every step of the way. Life in Georgia is unpredictable. Somebody is handing you flowers on the street or, when you hitchhike, somebody is driving in a completely different direction and eventually you spend your weekend in a dacha (a summer cottage), drinking czacza in the region called Racha ;) It may happen that someone treats you to wine on a mountain trail. Someone starts singing polyphonic Georgian songs in a restaurant or invites you to a wedding reception and, even though you are far from being a good singer, you end up singing in front of 500 guests. Sometimes you enter a wrong bus because the Georgian alphabet remains a mystery to you and end up in the mountains where you have to wait five hours for a next one…For the first hour you just keep worrying, but then you sit down and spend the remaining hours sipping wine while sunbathing.
Tell me a few words about the next project, Bar Warszawa, which has recently been opened in Georgia's capital - Tbilisi?
Bar Warszawa is only one year old. We celebrated the first anniversary on March 14. A lot of people turned up and we had a live concert of Shota - a country singer from Georgia who speaks Polish and sang some famous Polish songs for us. During summer the bar is full of tourists. Poles who miss Polish cuisine eagerly eat żurek (a traditional Polish soup) or have a bite of herring while drinking vodka. Generally, the tendency is, that tourists think of us as a tourist information (not that we are complaining!). Once the summer season is over, the bar is visited mostly by young Georgians. We are very pleased with that and have our regular customers. Everybody should feel invited to visit us at every time of the year. It is easy to get here as the bar is located near the main square in Tbilisi.
Coming back to the Oasis Club - it seems apparent that the place got its recognition thanks to some famous Polish enthusiasts of Georgian landscapes?
In the case of Udabno, the promotion of the place took care of itself. First, we were visited by Marcin Meller (a Polish journalist) who later wrote an article for Newsweek; then there were other journalists who either wrote articles for well-known Polish magazines or talked about us in the Polish media. Somebody wrote about us in a travel guide. The Oasis Club is such an absurd and, at the same time, brilliant idea it is doing well without any special marketing. People just come to us.
How has this experience changed you?
I would say it has changed me a lot… I have learned to be assertive, patient, and self-confident. Besides, I have become a do-it-yourselfer ;)
Do you think about future? Make any plans?
We could say I make plans; although, it is nothing specific. For the time being, I live here and now. In Georgia, in Tbilisi.
Do you miss anything or anyone?
I miss my family and friends. Sometimes I miss my favorite places in Warsaw, beach chairs on the Vistula River and bike trips near the Nida River. So yes, I do miss people and places but I do not want to come back…
And if you could turn back time…
I would do the same thing all over again! That was the best decision of my life!