I Met My Pen Pal for the First Time in a Country I Knew Almost Nothing About — and We Fell in Love

Tbilisi, Georgia, set the stage for our romantic story.

A couple on a mountain in Tbilisi, Georgia

Andrew Layden

I'm what you might call a hopeless romantic with impulsive tendencies. During the height of the pandemic, I flew to Tbilisi to spend a week with my Russian pen pal, Anastasia, whom I had known for years, but never met in person.

In a world ravaged by COVID-19, Anastasia kept me sane. Even from afar, her kind words and charming smile filled me with joy and affection. Pairing those emotions with my insatiable wanderlust, I knew I had to meet her in person. But it was spring 2021, and most of the world was still shut down. Due to all the restrictions, finding a country for both an American and a Russian citizen was virtually impossible.

Then, I discovered Georgia, a country I knew almost nothing about. Provided Anastasia and I received a negative PCR test result, we could enter without having to quarantine. We didn’t need a visa, either. So, after a long journey with two layovers and 24 hours in the air, I met my pen pal in Tbilisi.

The Georgian capital was full of surprises. We strolled along the futuristic Bridge of Peace lit with LEDs. We climbed the crumbling Narikala Fortress and passed slanted, Soviet homes. At times modern and at others medieval, the city’s style was strangely addictive. Anastasia and I walked hand in hand, eager to find all Tbilisi’s secrets.

The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi, Georgia

Andrew Layden

Rike Park in Tbilisi, Georgia

Andrew Layden

One such secret was the food. From soup dumplings to nuts dipped in thickened grape juice, Georgian food was a simple and wholesome pleasure. Oh, and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried khachapuri, a soft bread blanketed in cheese, butter, and egg. The stomach truly is the way to the heart because I was head over heels.

Even so, I say, everything in life is better with a glass of wine, so I decided to take Anastasia on a day trip to the Khareba Winery in Kakheti. Together, we tasted Georgia’s traditional varietals and explored the winery’s 4.7-mile-long tunnel system. Our wine tasting was as intimate as it was thirst-quenching.

Scenic view in Signagi, Georgia

Andrew Laydeb

Still a bit tipsy, we headed to Signagi, the City of Love. One of the locals told me Signagi’s presumptuous title is just for tourism purposes. But the cute, pastel houses and stunning valley vistas are enough to put anyone in a romantic mood. As we watched the sun set over the stone walls of Signagi, love was definitely in the air.

But the pinnacle of our Georgian excursion came north of Tbilisi, in the mountains of Kazbegi. On a group trip with Gamarjoba Georgia Tours, we marveled as majestic, green peaks rose around us. Their rocky faces were speckled with spring flowers and babbling streams of melted ice. From the slopes of the Gudauri Ski Resort to the nameless, roadside cliffs, unforgettable views awaited around every corner.

The Gudauri Ski Resort in Tbilisi, Georgia

Andrew Layden

To make the trip even more memorable, the tour guide got us drunk on homemade chacha, Georgia's national hard liquor. Then, he decided it was a good idea to reenact "Dirty Dancing" during a cliffside photo shoot. After all, nothing brings a couple together like the fear of falling off a cliff.

A couple doing the dirty dancing lift in Tbilisi, Georgia

Andrew Layden

Thankfully, I did not fall from the mountaintops, but I did fall for Anastasia. Once we returned to the quaint, cobbled streets of Tbilisi, I told her I had decided to move to Russia to be with her. My family questioned me, but this wasn’t another impulsive decision. Georgia’s rich culture and romantic landscapes had set the stage for our relationship. Tbilisi, it turns out, was the perfect place for Anastasia and I to start our next adventure.

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