Friday, December 17, 2010

Part of Georgia has to go with me

A comprehensive, ongoing list of things that have been given to me that I must take home:

-Two medium-sized drinking horns.
-Two drinking bowls (yes, it's a thing)
-A chocolate bar
-Notes professing love
-Another drinking bowl, used for nostalgic purposes -- it's more of a large vial
-A picture of a horse. In a frame. It is holographic.

This has all come to me in the past 24 hours. I've been telling Lela that I can't take heavy things home with me. I got the sense that when she bought me the horn and bowl set, she had to physically restrain herself from buying the largest set they had.

My 8th graders got me the picture of the horse.

Everyone wants their picture with me. I was hesitant up until a few days ago, telling a friend that I didn't want the photos to show up over at odnoklassniki.ru, which is the Russian version of Facebook (and also requires money at signup). Even though nothing the kids would take could be construed as "inappropriate," the idea of my face floating around a Russian networking site along with other, ahem, less than savory photos did not appeal. But I rescinded my embargo on pictures once I realized that cameras were coming out of the woodwork and the only things I could do to avoid them were wear a ski mask or lock myself in my room. I don't have a ski mask and I'm being paid to be at school so I didn't really have a choice. That's what I'll tell myself.

I'm just glad nobody is crying yet. Lela's hosting a supra for me tonight and wants to take, in her words, "many photos with you." I still have to pack a number of things while making sure to leave room for souvenirs -- that's going to be a nightmare, to be honest. People have suggested shipping stuff home but honestly I'd rather just do without than go through the hassle of finding a box, deciding what to ship, getting to whatever they call a post office, fighting with the employees about where it's going and postage...ugh. And besides, some of my clothes are kind of ratty at this point from being hand washed and wrung, so I might leave a pair of pants and some shirts with my family. Somebody will use them, no doubt.

It's weird to think this is the last time I'll be in my school. I don't get overly-sentimental about these kind of goodbyes, but I know it'll hit me somewhere over the Mediterranean. And anyway, I'm anxious to get home. There's snow on the ground -- in southeastern Virginia, are you KIDDING ME?

Consider this my last dispatch from Georgian soil. I probably won't get around to a net cafe in Tbilisi, so I'll just catch up in Istanbul during my five hour layover (I can't wait to pay eight dollars for a coke at the restaurant there). So, while there will be plenty to discuss in this space once I'm home, it's with a heavy heart that I bid Georgia farewell, though I don't officially leave for another three days. Take care, my friends. See you stateside.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Days turn into hours; a Georgian show.

That's really all there is to it. It's been a long journey as I've mentioned before, but I'm heading to Tbilisi on Saturday amidst a gaggle of other bleary-eyed, worn-out volunteers ready to take a nice Christmas break. I'll stay the night, spend Sunday shopping, and spend Sunday night in the airport in preparation for a 5:15am flight. Kudos to the ones who are staying a bit longer.

So the show. Oh, the show. Yesterday, my school was chaos. I had spent Monday night with two other volunteers in Kutaisi and the following morning traveling back to Anaklia (which turned into a travel time of 4 hours because of constant stopping). I got to school around 12 and it was clear that nothing exactly productive was being done. It was just a mass of Georgians standing around, yelling, and occasionally practicing. I wasn't allowed to preview the show (except for the English bits that I had proofread and helped with pronunciation, admittedly they gave me a pretty good idea of what was going to happen).

The gym was packed. I was made to sit front and center with a bottle of cha-cha (which made me dubious, as in, "Am I going to need this alcohol to get through the show?"). I chose not to partake, wanting to approach the show with a clear mind. Plus, I was apparently going to be on television both during and after the show. Yes, my lovely English teacher invited a local TV crew in to film the entire hour-long production -- a fact she apparently forgot to tell them because they spent about 15 to 20 minutes filming my doofy American self during the course of it. But anyway, the show.

I guess I have to say that it was probably the most adorable, awkward, and fun thing I've attended in Georgia. They really went all-out. The "gym" was decked with curtains, they had rented a sound system, and all the kids were in costume. Unfortunately, wireless systems haven't quite reached our little corner of the Black Sea, so during the performance of Cinderella (in which my host sister Ani, 11, was the titular character) the kids just passed one wired microphone between them. The cable proved to be a hassle; during the palace ball scene one of the teachers had to pull the cord out from underneath the kids' feet.

About 60% of the show was in English. Two of my tenth-graders, Salume and Tatia, narrated everything. Tatia would read Georgian and Salume, by far my most accomplished pupil, would translate it into English with her fairly competent pronunciation. Mari, my 15 year old host sister who you may recall speaks very little English, read the story of how Anaklia got its name (I'll post this later). Other students told the stories of why they decorate the fir tree at Christmas and how woman was created.

The best part, though, was the music and dancing. There were three or four Georgian dances during the course of the show, and I was surprised at how well my students dance. Three musicians provided live accompaniment with two drums and an accordion. The accordionist nearly stole the show when one act was unprepared and he was shoved in front of the crowd to sing a traditional Georgian folk song along with his accordion.

It was full of awkwardness, naturally. Mostly it arose from technological issues, including the fact that all of my students (aside from our school's 7-student choir) had recorded their songs in Zugdidi a few days early and simply lip-synched. This is pretty common in Georgia, I've heard, so as a critic I'll let it slide.

I got interviewed after the show. I fumbled about: "Er, um, yeah, I've been here for two months, hurr hurr, the show was great, blah blah." I couldn't do the school and students much justice in one minute, and I refused to watch it later that night. Lela said they screwed up the subtitles horribly. This did not surprise me.

Tomorrow is my farewell supra. I will rise early on Saturday to begin the journey home. Monday night I will be at home where it is apparently a lot colder and a lot more American. Go figure.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Digging in with a bit more honesty

Note: the following post is a bit more realistic and critical of Georgia. It also contains some swears which I am not going to censor because I think that's stupid. I did, however, choose to leave out one particularly nasty racial slur because I personally can't stand it. If you find this hypocritical in the least, I invite you to click the little red X in the top right hand corner of your screen. Otherwise keep reading and feel free to comment. I reserve the right to delete your comments if you say rude things, disagree with me, or if I just plain feel like it. Ahh, administrative powers.

Geographical and technological isolation have meant that I'm not really on top of what tends to unfold online. I don't follow other volunteers' blogs with regularity (though second-grouper Raughley always provides laughs and fantastic play-by-plays of his experiences) in part because I am ashamed of the infrequency of my blogs, and partially because I just get exhausted trying to keep up with it all. I'm trying to have my own experience out here, I guess, but when I get on the net, I just want a bit of familiarity -- Facebook, Gmail, CNN, Politifact, rinse, repeat. I don't waste time, necessarily, but I just have other priorities.

Sometimes, though, Georgia finds me online. A fellow volunteer, Nicole, was recently called a racial slur, not uncommon for African American volunteers working over here. Understandably frustrated, she posted on Facebook about her experience. The comments exploded from there, in which a Georgian living in America essentially told her to "cool off" about it and understand that Georgians hear this word in rap music, etc, and think it's not offensive. Nicole took offense to this, saying that she's been dealing with stares, unwelcome advances (it's also common for Georgians to want to touch the hair of black volunteers), and other cultural disconnects that would make anyone feel out of place and angry in any culture. Another volunteer, Neal, leaped to Nicole's defense, essentially pointing out in as many words that ignorance is no excuse for such behavior.

Hoo boy. Now, I've surely simplified this way too much, but 27 replies later and it's clear that racial slurs are a hot topic for volunteers in Georgia. I'm only using this topic as a springboard into other issues that I've seen going on, but I'll say this: I definitely fall into Neal's camp. Georgians have enough access to television and the internet to know the difference between "kind of acceptable words" and "extremely offensive words." Every Georgian I've met has known the meaning of words like "fuck," "damn," and "shit." I accidentally let the last of those three slip under my breath around one of my host sisters in a moment of heated frustration with something I read online. Realizing she probably heard me, I quickly apologized in both Georgian and English. She speaks hardly any English and even as I was apologizing, she was laughing and saying her favorite English phrase: "bad boy!"

The point being that Georgians know more than we give them credit for when we defend their use of racial slurs as "blissful lack of awareness." Furthermore, you don't throw words around in other languages if you don't have any inkling of their meaning. And this is rarely the case, I think. If you know that a word references a person of a specific race, then you know that that word may have certain connotations. I'll give you an example: I've got a number of British friends out here, and have been unsure of some slang used to refer to specific nationalities (i.e. English, Irish, Welch, etc). Instead of just yelling whatever words I've heard at them, I've pulled them aside and asked them which words were actually offensive and which were just ordinary slang. That's what you should do. If you're not sure about the word, look it up. If you've heard the word in a song, chances are you heard it on Youtube and that means you were using the internet, where a ton of sites will help you understand what you're hearing. If you can't look it up, maybe don't use it. I know that as volunteers in a country recovering from oppressive Soviet rule, we need to be understanding about these sort of things. But I bet that if there were some slur for Georgians and I walked down the street in Zugdidi saying it to people, I would get layed out within five minutes.

Before I start sounding like a really white person discussing issues I don't know enough about (too late), I'll go ahead and take a breath and explain why I'm frustrated by this sort of thing. I recall during my application process and training that this was going to be a "cultural exchange." The second half of that implies a give-and-take. Now, surely not all Georgians are happy that we're here, fair enough, but it seems like when something happens, the volunteers are either blamed or told that we should just pat the Georgian culture on its head and send it on its merry way. We're not perfect folks, and I'm not excusing the behavior of any volunteer who brings the flak raining down on his or her head. Drawing a Georgian into a fight because you're too drunk to handle yourself is your own fault, not Georgia's. However, being black or Asian or a woman should not create a situation that leaves other Georgians saying, "well, that's just the culture right now." While some Georgians understand that this aspect of the culture needs to change, and fast, others have defended such behavior by pointing again to the oppression and closed-down nature of the culture under Soviet rule. Unfortunately, I think it's about time Georgians started holding their brethren accountable for the words that they use in ignorance, and working with us on ways to help them understand. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Now, with that being said, I know perfectly well that not all Georgians are racist. Using a racial slur without knowing its meaning is just a sign of being uninformed. And as a positive note, a lot of Georgians seem to be aware that racial slurs are not appropriate. And even if they have preconceived notions about your race (or your religion, or your political leanings, or what have you), most Georgians just shrug it off and pour you another shot of cha cha. To a certain extent, I think we all do this. Okay, so I don't have any racial issues to put aside when I invite my black friends over, but, y'know, sometimes it's hard for me to sit down and drink with a Republican (zing!). The issue is that some Georgians are engaging in what could easily be called "willful ignorance," in the meantime subjecting my fellow volunteers to all of the above-mentioned situations -- and more that I haven't discussed -- that leave them with a bad taste in their mouths.

So now I'm all riled up about racial tension, something I cannot really experience first-hand out here, let's talk about another issue I am biologically unqualified to discuss: gender issues! Oh joy!

Yeah, even more than racial issues, Georgia is definitely dealing with gender inequality. It's hard to even pick a place to begin, but let's start with the fact that bride kidnapping is still a thing out here. It's not common and certainly not legal, but it happens. It happened to the host sister of another volunteer recently (fortunately, the man was caught and fined 10,000 lari). It happened to two other women I know in Georgia (many years ago, also anyone I may have mentioned this to, please do not say who they are, they wish to remain anonymous for good reason). Yet many insist that this "does not happen anymore." This is only one way in which the patriarchal monster rears its ugly head. In marriage, women are expected to always be virgins, while there is not necessarily a purity requirement for men. Infidelity is common for men (though not quite as expected as it is in Russia) and jokes about the alleged infidelity are common -- I've seen this first hand. In some cases, women aren't allowed to go out at night by themselves because their husbands tell them not to. When the aforementioned bride kidnapping occurs, rape is common and families will sometimes ostracize the young women, forcing her to marry her captor.

I realize that I'm casting Georgia in a rather unflattering light, but based on what I've seen and discussed, it's at least partially founded. I'm sure that some Georgians will argue with this interpretation, but a society in which women are treated like this is not empowering. I have met women whose initial reaction is to say that Georgia is fantastic, wonderful, amazing...and then I see how troubled they are by what's going on around them after talking with them for just a few minutes (sometimes through a translator).

There's a positive side to things, though. There are strong women all around us, aware of what's going on and working to change it. Our entire program was basically run by women, all of whom fit the archetype of the strong female (I've discussed some of them before). My host English teacher is a calm, controlling force and her mother is incredibly intimidating. Even some of my students show signs of wanting to take charge of their lives. And Georgia certainly has the opportunity to change for the better. It's a democratic society and has a lot more access to information and ideas than it ever has before. It's a matter of time, I think, before the overall attitudes towards women start to shift in a positive direction and build a ton of momentum. I just wish it was happening even faster.

For now, though, we've got to be content with the people who are working against some of the sexist tendencies we've seen out here. Despite what I've said, Georgia is nowhere near the most hostile environment that could exist, and the fact that women are allowed to work, vote, and make their own decisions is something I definitely need to recognize. It's just difficult when you've met some of the victims of the nastier bits of the culture. So please try to understand that before you flay me alive, my Georgian friends!

Let's move on and wrap up with a little bit of self-indulgence. Neal's blog, which I'll link in a minute, led me to this post, which directs a nice bit of annoyance towards the TLG program, some of it founded, some of it...not so much. I'll just say this. Most of us weren't really aware of the exact extent to which the government was going with this program before we got here. I don't know about teachers losing their jobs or not getting salaries or what have you, but believe me, most of us would have been grateful for more training even if it meant giving up some pay. Or at least, that's how I feel.

And in reference to the volunteer who made "questionable decisions," he didn't do anything different than anyone else, and he's not suing. He's an upstanding teacher whose school and students support him. I guess this just frustrated me because I know him personally. There are plenty of people and things to criticize about the TLG program, this volunteer is not one of them.

I referenced several people in this long, rambling post. Neal has a blog right on over here that is quite fantastic. Some of his comments over on the book of faces got me thinking for this post! Nicole has blog right on over here, and she's from the Bahamas, so that's pretty cool. I already gave you Raughley's blog -- I made a guest appearance in one of his posts featuring dragons and ninjas!

I'm headed home in 6 days. It's a strange thought, bittersweet and piercing. Honestly, though, I can't wait to eat some Mexican food.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A bad case of the "Can't-Hardly-Waits"

That is, my Facebook feed which is more often than not dominated by fellow TLG-ers has developed two distinct trends:

-"TLG, where the hell is my plane ticket?"

and

-"Less than two weeks until I go home/my Europe trip/the crushing loneliness of village life finally passes!"

Okay, so it's not all that lonely, as most volunteers will tell you. But as wonderful as this experience has been, it's hard not to feel, as my friend Bran put it, "like you're on the last leg of a marathon." A marathon where you get wine instead of water and butter instead of protein supplements.

Everyone's getting pretty sad around here. They were aware when I came in that I was only signed on for a semester, but Georgians get pretty attached to people in a short amount of time. As one fellow volunteer was told by her host family, "four months is enough time to love somebody."

I'm getting that vibe around here. I keep insisting that I'll recommend Anaklia to get another volunteer right away, but Lela just laughs and says, "We don't want another volunteer. We want YOU." While reviewing the conditional, Lela asks the students to talk about their wishes and dreams. One eighth grade girl says, "My wish is that Adam will stay." I wipe a tear from eye, pause, and respond "Instead of 'will,' be sure to use 'would' in this context."

It's also a bit hard to be generous and get the message across. Obviously, generosity is best done selflessly, so I don't get hung up on miscommunication, but let me give you an example. I'm often allowed to bring home the internet card from the school and surf the web to my heart's content. Lasha, our school's bookkeeper, is really the only other person who uses it regularly, so I don't feel too bad about taking it home. Anyway, it's 45 lari a month to maintain service, and it ran out yesterday. I was in Batumi until Sunday night, but came home to find the internet card waiting for me -- soon learning that Lela had "accidentally" forgotten to give it to Lasha, who was now angry with her. So yesterday, I got Lela to tell Lasha and Khveecha, my school principal, that I would pay for the next month as a gift to them. Something got lost in translation, and Lela said very sternly, "They said yes as long as they can use it sometimes." I felt horrible. My whole intention was to help out with the cost of the card they bought at Lela's and my request last month, not hold it hostage for the next two weeks. It took a few minutes to get the message across but I think it was communicated at last.

Sometimes I feel wildly out of touch. I wish it were easier to talk to friends -- the time difference just makes things that more difficult. But in about 12 days, I'll be at home or on my way, just in time to miss all of my William and Mary friends as they head home for break. Oh well. At least I'll have Skype!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The main exhibits at Foreigner Zoo

Georgians stare like it’s their job. I can only imagine how hard the female volunteers have it in this country – I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. Someone suggested the stares I get are MY fault, what with my long hair, goatee, and eyebrow piercing. Fair point, to be sure, but my appearance is far from the most shocking of all the volunteers. Really, I can take the staring in itself, but it’s a constant reminder that I’m worlds away from home. Just when I start to lose myself in this place, when I momentarily forget that my family and friends are thousands of miles away, I climb onto a bus where four guys gape at me while I’m not looking. It’s like being jerked out of a pleasant dream. There’s no fault to be placed here, mind you. It’s just one of those cultural disconnects we all face, though I’m sure it would help if my Georgian were more up to snuff.

Comfort always comes back to food for me. Here Georgians and I share a similar interest. I love trying new things and being surprised at what I like, but even in one of my most adventurous frames of mind I still miss the familiar. That’s why I was so excited when some other volunteers introduced me to this little Turkish food stall in Zugdidi. I don’t quite remember the name of what the little family behind the counter serves, but it’s basically a grilled wrap with sliced roasted chicken, vegetables, and yogurt. I’ve had three in the course of two days.

Zugdidi is kind of a mini-city. I can’t decide if it’s deceptively large or deceptively small (not that the meaning of either of those is altogether clear to anyone), but in truth I haven’t explored it much. There’s a park near the town center that’s relaxing – the paths wind through the grass and trees are scarce and trimmed. A few of us gathered there on Monday and were swiftly reminded that groups of Westerners tend to attract even larger groups of young Georgian men eager to try out their English on the women. Note to such Georgians: “I love you! I love America!” is no longer acceptable English practice. With everyone saying it, it’s starting to lose its meaning. Try something else.

I’m gathering more information about the “show” that Lela and the students are putting on in a week or two. I know they want to sing “Happy New Year” by Abba in Georgian and English; several students will be singing traditional Georgian songs and English Christmas songs; I am expected, as it turns out, to sing the Star Spangled Banner, another Christmas song or two, and a Georgian folk song in 3 part harmony. Let me remind you that this is a show the students are putting on for me. It’s a gift to me. I feel like I’ll be doing most of the performing…

Monday, November 29, 2010

A wedding, a Thanksgiving, and an announcement

Two weekends ago, I encountered my first Georgian wedding. I use "encountered," an otherwise cumbersome word, because I really intersected with the wedding rather than being a part of it. As a foreigner, I found it difficult to feel like an active participant in the whole thing. It didn't really differ that much from any other wedding I've been to, but the language barrier once again found me on the outside looking in.

I finally got to see the inside of our village's tiny church. It's quite beautiful (pictures to come, at some point) but, as with a lot of Georgian Orthodox architecture, very simple. About 5 couples got married that night, but all had separate parties. I'm not sure how big our village is, but they could not have all come from Anaklia. There were about 300 people at our couple's celebration, which I think is small for a Georgian wedding anyway. I never got to see the actual ceremony -- we had to leave before the priest began to catch the bus to the actual supra -- but I think that's standard fare around here. We got to the groom's house and waited for an hour, torture when you're hungry, but tradition dictates that no one eat before the newlyweds arrive.

Finally, amidst car horn fanfare, shouts of joy, and pops from party favors (which I mistook for gunshots, see my previous posts), a procession of four cars rolled into the dirt driveway. The couple exited, stopped at the outdoor stairs to the upstairs, and stepped on the plate that I guess signifies unity (I should really look this up, sorry). We had to wait another twenty minutes for guests to greet the couple upstairs.

I have painted this whole affair as a bunch of hurry-up-and-wait, but it really was fun once the party got going. It was a slow burn but finally we sat at the long rows of tables where cold dishes were already waiting and hot dishes were soon brought out to us. All of the traditional Georgian and Mingrelian dishes were served. And there was far more than anyone could eat. Toasts, dancing, laughing, and general commotion ensued. Lela and I left pretty early in the evening, but the party continued well into the next day -- my host father showed up still quite drunk at two in the afternoon the next day. FANtastic!

This past weekend, I made the long trek out to Tbilisi once again. I was only gone for a night, but the trip was well worth it. Two volunteers from my group share an apartment in Tbilisi and held an amazing Thanksgiving party, complete with butterball turkey and cranberry sauce. It was a little slice of home. It even had a bit of the family reunion feel as I had not seen many of my fellow volunteers since we trained in Kutaisi oh so long ago. So many familiar faces, so much familiar language being spoken...it was a little overwhelming. Thanks to Neal and Steve for a great night!

Which brings me to my announcement. I have gone back and forth on whether or not to put this on my blog, but I have decided not to return for the spring. I signed my contract for a semester knowing I would have the opportunity to extend if I wanted to. That deadline has long passed, and I feel confident that returning to the U.S. is the right decision, knowing I've fulfilled my contract, and feeling quite blessed by the opportunity. Hopefully the next thing I find will be just as fulfilling. Of course, I don't go home for another couple of weeks, so I'll still be blogging more as the semester winds down. The next thing on the radar? A Christmas show put on by my teacher. I'm not sure, but the kids claim they have a surprise for me...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meeting in the streets, in the shops, in the school

It's a long road.

It's flanked by two ditches on either side, not so deep, but lined with piping which will eventually, I've been told, carry fresh, potable water to each house. For now, the people are happy with well water.

Giant, Soviet-era dump trucks rumble down the pavement and kick up plumes of dust in their wake. I get used to shielding my eyes. Other cars pass at such tremendous speeds I wonder how they don't end up in the ditches. People on the street are eager to greet me; usually a simple "gamarjobat!" suffices, while the occasional early drunk will demand more of my time. The houses here are cozy affairs, reminiscent of bungalows. Almost all are two stories with doors in almost every room leading to the outside. Across the street from my house, a family keeps a small cement store in the front of their yard which sits right on the road. This is a prime spot for parties, conversation, and drinking. Sometimes, Lela and I want chocolate, and we take Mariamee and Ana over to the shop to wake up the pleasant woman and her daughter. She complains cheerfully about the cold.

Georgia is a work in progress. Anaklia is doubly so. The government is busy filling the ditches; the hotel-casino about 3 km away is a year away from completion; fathers work on their homes late into the night, their cold sweat highlighted by the spark of welding torches. They light up the night as much as the full moon. Constellations feel unfamiliar until I can spot the Big Dipper.

In fact, I love the night here. There is virtually no light pollution save for the lights that line the bridge to Ganmukhuri, but that is far enough away that it does not impair my view. I will often pick a mandarin from our grove and stand out in the street, not fearing the very light traffic at night, and peel away while I try to pick out the patterns I know in the sky. I regularly see shooting stars.

In the day the road is filled with Georgians and their language, still relatively indiscernible to me. The children walk to school. I pass groups of them. They giggle and greet me, usually in English. The bolder ones ask me how I am. Sometimes, a car pulls up alongside me and I am abducted for a two minute drive, greatly appreciated on mornings when I move sluggishly.

The children are mostly eager to learn. Some do not study at home, so Lela and I have begun quizzing them on a weekly basis. They are learning to study, slowly but surely. We talked with some parents the other day. They are even more eager for their children to learn. The children ask about me when I am not in their class.

It feels like home sometimes.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Eat (and Drink!) in Georgia, Part 2: When in Doubt, Put Mayonnaise on It

It’s finally time for part two of my Georgian culinary series. Last time, I discussed how to handle your liquor at a party with a bunch of Georgian men. Today, you get to learn a new Georgian word: tchame!

The bane of every volunteer trying to keep a slim figure, you will probably hear “tchame” as much as the traditional Georgian greetings. These people love to make you eat almost as much as they want to hear your horribly broken Georgian. After two and a half months, it’s starting to get a little wearing, I admit, but at least I never go hungry.

There’s basically two kinds of Georgian food. There’s the authentic cuisine that they’ve been making for hundreds of years, like khatchapuri and kebabi. Then there’s what I like to call “Failed Georgian Interpretation.” It must be the Russian influence or a complete lack of Georgian communication with other countries, but any time a Georgian restaurant tries to do European or North American cuisine, it winds up being just a little…off. For example, I had a “burrito” in Tbilisi that came out as a deconstructed platter, with beans, rice, and chicken separated on a skillet and tortillas folded next to them (the salsa was pretty good though).
Something as easy as pizza, once put through the Georgian Interpretation Filter, winds up with loads of mayonnaise and a distinct lack of sufficient cheese or sauce. Maybe that’s how they do it in Italy, and if so, I like what we get in the states a lot better.

In fact, the only thing that feels like home in terms of cuisine is McDonalds. I know that’s practically a sin to say at this point, but McDonalds is the only real mark of globalization that seems to have hit Georgia (aside from some internet cafes and an overabundance of cellphones). Ah well, I guess when you commit to teaching abroad in a foreign country, you can’t expect to get the food you’re used to at home. But how I miss Slurpees, California Tortilla, and good Chinese food.

Georgian food is pretty fantastic though. The staple, khatchapuri, comes in several forms. Imerelian khatchapuri is sort of like a pizza: eggs and cheese are folded into dough which is flattened out a bit and baked for a while and then slathered with butter. This is the traditional way to do the dish since it’s easy to serve up to many people (just cut it into slices). Adjarian* khatchapuri, however, is my favorite. It’s sort of like a bread bowl that you get at Panera, but a little shallower and stretched out to look kind of like a boat. In the hollowed-out center, the cook dumps cheese and about half a stick of butter. The whole concoction is baked enough to cook the bread on the outside but leave it gooey toward the center. As soon as they pull it out of the oven, they crack an egg right on top which cooks on the molten cheese. It’s like a heart attack in bread boat form.

Khinkali is essentially dumplings with minced meat in the middle (other less common varieties include cheese and potato). Usually you want to eat these by biting a hole in the middle and sucking out the juice. Then, you eat your way around the little tie at the top, which you leave on your plate at the end. Not everyone does it this way, but it’s a safe bet that you should try to eat khinkali with your hands. And vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.

A lot of what we get here is pretty fresh. They do fried potatoes, kebabi (which is actually ground meat on a stick and the closest thing I have gotten to a hamburger here, aside from the Big Macs), and cucumber and tomato salads. Georgia hasn’t quite grasped the concept of lettuce in salads, but at least I can eat mandarin oranges right off the tree in front of my family’s house. That’s become my customary breakfast, actually, and I’m really happy about it.

Less thrilling is the meat in Georgia. Unfortunately, it’s become a running joke with some of my friends that Georgians really need butchering lessons. I haven’t gotten a cut of meat, whether on a stick or in a bowl, that did not have to be wrestled with; while everything tastes good, you often have to fight with gristle, fat, and bone. And where in the world did they get the idea that everything needs mayonnaise? I had a hotdog the other day that had mayonnaise on it, yet ketchup is strangely absent from most of the smaller stores’ shelves.

All in all though, you’re bound to find something you like here. Homemade is always better, of course, and Georgians are big on guests and particularly making Americans fat with butter and cheese. Mmmm. Now if we could just teach them a bit more about bacon...

*This was caught by a reader and I fixed it. I'm pretty sure I've seen "Mingrelian" on a menu before but I get the different types of khatchapuri mixed up, clearly. Thanks for the correction!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Guns and Patience

It’s starting to get a bit chilly here in Georgia. We had quite the cold snap last weekend. When I left for Tbilisi, it was warm enough that I considered leaving my coat behind – a thought I laughed heartily about later. Lela and I have been complaining about the cold since I got back on Sunday, but she’s far less tolerant of the weather than I am. Georgians are convinced that you catch a cold by failing to wear a coat when the temperature dips below 15 degrees Celsius (since I’ve been here I’ve tried to start thinking in the metric system). Meanwhile, an “epidemic” is ripping through our little town, consisting of four children getting fevers and turning yellow. Does that sound like the Bubonic plague? Did I hit some time rift on the plane over here? Is this Lost? God, I hope I’m Sawyer.

Things are still chugging along. Progress in English is slow and sometimes even Lela gets frustrated. I keep reminding her that there are good days and bad weeks. We’re just in the latter. I’m really not all that concerned – at this point it’s just a matter of encouraging the students to study at home. This is more difficult than it sounds since some students don’t have books. Living this close to Abkhazia, a lot of my students are refugees, and as such are too poor to afford the textbooks Lela picked out. We’re still waiting on some organization to send us resources for the displaced children, but like everything else in Georgia, it’s kind of slow going.

I guess I’m saying that patience is a virtue in this country. My attitude towards life had to change the minute I stepped off the plane in Tbilisi at three in the morning – and prepared for three hours of sleep and a day of travel. The government, the schools, the transportation…they all run at their own pace. If I was spending even a minute of my time worrying about how things were going to work out, I would have been hypertensive weeks ago. By now I would have had an aneurism, and in a month my heart would explode. This is an environment geared towards breathing deep and letting go. Now let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

Anaklia sits right on the Black Sea, about 10 kilometers from Abkhazia, as I’ve mentioned before. Perhaps it’s because of its geographical isolation and relative proximity to a disputed territory, or maybe it’s just plain paranoia, but it seems like everybody out here is armed. I hear gunfire at least once every other day, and I still think Russia is invading every time. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s probably just someone hunting birds or doing a little target practice (maybe on the cows that are EVERYWHERE). The best sight so far: an old woman riding with her son on a horse-drawn carriage, sitting atop a huge load of hay and bracing herself on a double barrel shotgun. It’s like being in the South. Thank God they haven’t discovered gun racks and flannel.

One more thing: Lela told me yesterday that she has been dreaming in English recently. How cool is that? I thought about it and realized that she’s essentially communicating in English for at least 60% of her day, sometimes a lot more depending on how much I’m around and which classes she has. It’s nice to know I’m accomplishing something. After all, if we can improve her English, that will be the best way to improve her students’ English – far more than my limited time here ever could.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The (Second to) Last Marshutka

Here’s one I didn’t want to share.

Marshutkas are “minibuses,” a name that draws to mind a miniature bus but in actuality means a van with extra seats. They are the primary Georgian people-movers and vary wildly in size, shape, and comfort. They’re typically built for someone who is 5’5” with the knees of some sort of Tolkien orc – that is to say small, knobby and out of the way. The ones used for in-city transport are particularly cramped and rundown, while intracity busses (especially non-stop) are a little nicer -- though the difference is marginal. I’ve become a pro at finding the right marshutka, getting to it on time, flagging it down when need be, and finding a decent seat. Rarely do I get squished between two burly Georgian men, and more than once have I been offered beer and snacks from other passengers (my fellow volunteer Bran would do well to remember our first trip to Batumi).

So they’ve got their ups and downs. This is a story about the latter, and it also involves a few spins.

I was leaving Tbilisi late one Sunday afternoon, heading back to Chiatura where I lived at the time. Okreeba, one of the largest stations, is crowded and noisy, but sends marshutkas just about everywhere at late hours (it’s also Metro adjacent). I was with a few other volunteers who were heading to Zugdidi, but I wanted to wait on two others who were going to Chiatura. I grew fatigued with the noises and, ahem, smells of the station and decided to catch an earlier marshutka (incidentally leaving about 30 minutes before the last one to Chiatura). I would soon regret my impatience.

About 20 minutes outside of Tbilisi, it started to rain. Not hard, mind you, just enough to get the roads wet. I was jammed in the back corner of the bus which was packed full, so I couldn’t see what was happening up front – all I knew was that the marshutka was speeding through a tunnel. For some reason, one that I would never be clear about, the driver slammed on the brakes when he reached the end of the tunnel. I felt the telltale lurch that meant the bus was in a skid, but I was not overly concerned for those first two seconds. It wasn’t the first marshutka I had been on that had to stop suddenly. Then the fun part started.

I’ve always heard that when you go into a skid and your car starts to spin, you should turn in the direction of the spin. In Georgia, I guess you should just jam your wheel recklessly to one side and pray for the best, since your tires are probably bald anyway. That’s what our driver did, at least. So, in the middle of the only interstate coming out of Tbilisi and the major road that crosses the country, our marshutka spun.

I think it spun two times, though it may have been three. I lost count as the blood rushed to my head and everyone on the bus leaned away from the centripetal force pulling us to the right. I kept waiting for the bus to tip over or for another car to smash into us. An overwhelming sense of peace came over me, and I just hoped that I wouldn’t feel the impact (how deliciously morbid).

Thankfully, I was waiting on an impact that would never come. The driver regained control and pulled off to the side of the road. The bus doors flew open and every man on the bus shoved his way out and clawed for a cigarette. In the rain, I called one of my friends who had been with me at Okreeba. She listened to me panic and recommended I call Nino, our former boss. Of COURSE! Nino, after all, can solve just about anything.

As I was dialing Nino’s number, I noticed that the men and women standing on the side of the road were beckoning me into the bus. I wished that they could speak English just so I could yell at them for being out of their minds. By the time Nino answered, I was back in my seat and the driver had pulled away.

“Hello Adam,” she answered, in her typical abrupt fashion. Nino is actually incredibly warm and friendly once you get to know her, but her demeanor is typically very businesslike.

I explained what had happened, not expecting much.

“Give the phone to the driver.”

Any volunteer who trained under Nino will know that when Nino wants to talk to a driver, she means business. I got the phone back one minute later.

“Adam, you need to stay on the bus. I would come get you myself if I had a car, but it is more dangerous for you to stay on the side of the road.”

“Nino, I’m a little concerned. It’s still raining, after all.”

“The driver will go slow,” she replied. “He is just as scared as you are.”

I couldn’t help but smile. I was pretty sure that the driver might be more terrified of the tiny Georgian woman on the other end of the line than dying on the side of the road in the rain.

Now, please bear in mind that marshutkas are generally pretty safe, particularly ones that go from city to city. I have continued to ride all over the country and have had no major problems aside from schedule conflicts. These busses are not the most effective mode of transportation on the planet, but they are cheap and usually very fast. Still, it was quite a harrowing experience.

By the way, I arrived in Chiatura about four and a half hours later (it’s a three hour drive). I called Nino to tell her I was safe.

“I’m so glad Adam. I guess that this is why you never take the last marshutka.”

“Nino, it wasn’t the last one! I seriously thought I was going to die.”

I could tell she was smiling. And then I got the best piece of advice I have received in Georgia.

“You did the right thing Adam. If this happens again, call me. Make your last confessions to Nino.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Three weeks of Internet silence can make you feel like a monk


“Hey Adam, what’s been going on?”

“Why don’t you blog more often?”

“DO THEY HAVE GOOD PEACHES IN GEORGIA??”

These are all valid questions, oh yearning public. Believe me, it has been my greatest inclination to blog. That is, until I actually sit at my computer, at which point my mind blanks and I shed a tear for writer’s block. So what has been going on?

Remember all that stuff about living in Zodi, a little village outside of Chiatura? Well, I’m not there any more. Due to some issues which we attempted to resolve, the Ministry has moved me out of Zodi. Since national Georgian attention is focused on the volunteers and our blogs have been posted on several sites, I will refrain from going into detail. Suffice to say that moving me was the correct decision.

So, I think we left off with “emotionally trumped,” right? I guess I finally got dealt a good hand. After a lengthy wait, I was placed in Anaklia, a large village about 30 minutes to the west of Zugdidi. Try to hold onto your jaws – I actually requested to be out in here in the Samegrelo region. If you’re Georgian (and if you’re reading this blog, statistically speaking you’re either Georgian or my parents), then you just did either a double or spit take. Everything I’ve heard suggests that this region is difficult to live in. I took a chance, however, because many of the male volunteers have been very happy here (granted, the women in our group have been having more issues). And I’ll just go ahead and say it – either I hit the jackpot for villages or this region gets a lot of grief for no reason. The people here are amazing, friendly, and inviting. Zugdidi is nice - though I've only spent a bit of time there.

Anaklia is right on the Abkhazian border – the disputed territory with Russia – and is also a seaside village. The former bit of information might frighten some, but I feel incredibly safe. Most of the people in the village were here when Russia invaded in 2008, and according to them, “we weren’t scared then and we aren’t scared now. You shouldn’t be either.” As for the latter, you can see the Black Sea from my school and my house is about a 40 minute walk from the beach. Furthermore, the Caucusus mountains (already snowcapped) loom in the distance to the northeast. While other parts of Georgia feel run down, Anaklia’s buildings feel either like bungalows or are being built up from scratch. Did I mention that the president is trying to turn Anaklia into a second Batumi? It’s a few years off but it’s got to be exciting for the people here. In short, Anaklia is quite different from anything I’ve seen in this country (and I’ve travelled plenty).

I probably wouldn’t be gushing about the move as much if it weren’t for my family. I live with my teacher, Lela, and her husband Ramazee. They have two daughters, Mariamee who is 15 and Ana who is 12. Lela’s mother also lives in the house. Now, the thing about Georgia is that to be an English teacher, one does not have to be fluent in English. In fact, some teachers have really limited English – and I guess this is the point of TLG. Lela is not this way – her English is fantastic, and already I am able to speak faster than I was when I first arrived on Sunday.

But her English isn’t even the best part – it’s her attitude and enthusiasm for teaching that set her apart. On Monday, my first day at the school, she had five classes. We were both tired after being at the school for something like six hours, so when we got home, I hid away in my room for a while. When I emerged that evening, I realized that Lela had been tutoring kids from the neighborhood all afternoon – and she didn’t seem to want to bother me. I was floored at her dedication and when we spent another hour that night planning the next day's lessons, I began to question if I could even keep up with her schedule. I’ve decided that for now, the best way I can help her is to talk to her in English and correct her mistakes. Sometimes, this isn’t even necessary as she really only needs to be told once or twice before she starts to realize what she’s doing and self-corrects. Her students love her, her lessons go smoothly, and she cares about the pupils the way a teacher must. In other words, my teacher is amazing.

The bell has rung and I must go to another class. I’ll post this later and will be blogging more frequently (though I have no internet access in Anaklia right now).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Emotionally Trumped

It's been almost a month in Georgia, and don't let anyone tell you that kind of thing ain't overwhelming because it surely is. Back home various men with degrees would probably call me "catatonic" but here it's largely just culture shock. It's best not to write blogs in this state, so I'm told, but I've got some time to kill at the internet cafe so here it is.

I've had a lot asked of me at the school, though nothing I can't handle. It's just a lot of tutoring with a lot of eager minds that want to learn a lot of English. When you have that many eyes staring at you, relying on your knowledge of something inherent to you, you get nervous and insecure. What are grammatical rules, anyway? Surely they're important, but most of the time, I don't follow half of the ones that I have to correct these kids on. I guess on the plus side, my awareness and command of my native tongue are slowly improving. Now if I could just improve my Georgian...

On another note, I spent this past weekend in Kutaisi for a night and then Tbilisi for another. The ride between the two was about 3 hours, so in all I probably spent about 9 or 10 hours on those cramped little things over the course of three days. This weekend, a few of us are just going straight to the capital -- it's large enough to spend a few days seeing the sights. And taste the food, of course. It's a bit pricier in the city, but a friend from back home got me in touch with a local student who was an exchange student in Virginia a few years ago. She's agreed to hang out with us, and maybe if we ply her with good American (and some British) humor, she'll concede and play tour guide for a bit (and if you're reading this, Nini, I promise it'll be fun!)

It's hard to mask my exhaustion in my writing. One of the advantages of not having a set schedule is that days go by quickly, pushing me to the weekend when travel and friendship become more of a reality.

Monday, September 20, 2010

That's just how they fix things


My family has a puppy named Bimi.

Bimi is a complete mess. Georgians generally have love-hate relationships with their pets, and Bimi is a big ball of ridiculous energy that cannot be contained by nature. When he’s around, he attacks my feet mercilessly, and when I try to act tough, he rolls over and stares at me with his adorable puppy face (he even has a black patch around his eye, the fight isn’t even fair). Technically, Bimi is not allowed in the house, a rule he is entirely aware of but refuses to obey. Suffice to say, Bimi suffers my deda’s cheerful wrath on a daily basis.

I love dogs. Their language is universal. Bimi is great company on days when I feel isolated. On one such day, in a fit of puppy love, he scratched my ankle. It didn’t bleed and I all but forgot about it until two days later. I was sitting with my deda, Tedo, Tamuna, and Ana, trying to communicate in typical post-dinner fashion. In an effort to engage in a broken and frustratingly mistranslated conversation, I rolled up my pant leg and pointed to the scratch. “Bimi,” I said simply, and laughed to assure them that I was not angry.

Immediately, my deda leapt to her feet and started shouting jovially in Georgian. The girls started laughing, and Tedo ran off to the bedroom. When my deda started toward the cabinet, I was sure that she was going to find something to punish Bimi with. After all, I am a guest in her home, and Bimi had hurt me (though the damage was minimal, I assure you). Fearing the worst, I started protesting, shouting useless English phrases like “No no!” and “Please don’t kill him!” The house erupted in linguistic fury. It was like a brand-new Babel or maybe Manhattan.

However, instead of casting Bimi out of the house, my deda reached into the cupboard and pulled out what I’m convinced was a bottle of bourbon older than her. Tedo returned to the kitchen with a bag of cotton swabs, and I started to understand what was happening. Georgian home remedy, anyone? I had come this far, and I wasn’t about to shy away from this experience.

My deda soaked a cotton ball in the stuff – and I mean SOAKED. Without another word, and with a giant smile on her face, she slapped it on my leg. It was hardly a trip to the hospital, but the co-pay was nonexistent so I didn’t complain. A question popped into my head, though, and I knew the answer before I asked. “Can you drink it?” I asked, pantomiming a glass.

“Ki!” (“Yes!”) she shouted, and in one decisive motion grabbed a shot glass from the counter, poured a shot, and tossed it back (you know, like any respectable Georgian would). At this point, I could no longer contain my laughter and called three or four fellow volunteers to share my experience – these sort of cross-cultural things are so important, after all. One thing I didn’t count on though: the liquor, allegedly potable, began first to sting and then burn in the all but healed cut. Along with the laughter and the pervasive Georgian shouting match, I got quite a sensory overload.

And, believe it or not, the cut has healed quite a bit faster than I expected. I wonder how strong the stuff will have to be if I break my arm.

I mean, at this point, the insurance provided by the TLG program is all but useless.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Eat (and Drink) in Georgia, part 1

Foodies rejoice, I'll be doing a (hopefully) multi-part series on the joys, trials, ethics, and technique of eating and drinking while I spend a year in the Republic of Georgia. Today: a note on some of the drinks you may encounter and how to drink them when you are invited into someone's home.

First thing’s first: sorry mom and dad. Drinking alcohol here is the only way to truly experience the culture.

I’m not talking about getting drunk or treating Georgia like a giant PiKa house. What I am talking about is immersing yourself in a rich culture of wine, beer, and something called “cha-cha” which, okay, you have to be a little careful with.

You’ll hear “daleba” – “DRINK!” – a lot. It’s an imperative verb for a reason. In fact, I’m not even sure there is a word that just means “oh, I drink,” because these incredibly inviting people are always shoving something liquid into your face to complement the vast quantities of food that seem to always crowd around your plate should you be a guest in their home. TLG teachers are always guests in a home, by the way, and every volunteer I’ve talked to has expressed concern about gaining weight. But we’ll get to food later. For now, the drink.

I lucked out. I love drinking water, and since I’m fairly active – walking, running, hiking – I need to keep hydrated. Dehydration is not something I want to experience in this part of the country. Thankfully, my family loves water – t’skali – and derive as much pleasure from making me drink their well water as they do from the ghvino (pretty sure I don’t need to translate that one). And you have not experienced water until you come drink it from this very village, from this exact well. I’m telling you, I have had every type of bottled water, been all over the U.S, had that stuff they purify in Mexico and Guatemala. I have put every type of flavoring, carbonation, and stimulant possible in my water since I was born. I have drunk straight from a glacier in Alaska. And never, NEVER have I had water that was this good. Before now, I was unaware that water could have a subtle and complex palette. Before now, apparently, I was ignorant.

And that’s just something that comes out of the ground. My family, much like most others even in the city, makes their own wine from the grapes that are around back. Unlike in the US, where wine is considered cultured and perhaps a tad feminine and men opt for a Bud Lite (cue Brad Paisley and Monday Night Football), wine is a matter of pride amongst all Georgians but particularly the men. And this is mainly what they will try to make you drink copious amounts of. I have heard rumors that Georgian men can down liters of the stuff, challenging themselves and each other not to show signs of drunkenness. Needless to say, I won’t be challenging anybody to anything.

They also have liquor, which comes in many forms. As far as I can tell, it’s fermented from peaches and is sludgy and incredibly sweet. It’s also highly alcoholic, so if you find yourself at a supra – a Georgian feast – don’t be afraid to turn down that second or third shot. Other liquor is common as well, particularly "cha-cha" which is a Georgian vodka. And you should never be afraid to ask about something on the table. Anyone present with a little English competence will be delighted to tell you exactly what you’re pointing to. And then they will insist you drink.

So what’s the etiquette here? There are a few ground rules, but the most important thing to remember is that in their country, you are an ignorant foreigner who needs to be educated about their rich and ancient culture.

1) Try everything. You’re probably American and thus halfway around the world. It’s time to give up that xenophobic fear and dive in. Nothing here will kill you, and you can drink water in most areas right out of the tap – they know how to prepare their food without killing you or themselves.

2) Don’t be afraid to refuse alcohol. Explain to them as best you can that you don’t drink. More than likely, they’ll have met someone before you that doesn’t drink, or someone in the home won’t either. Here’s the key though: if you tell them you don’t drink – really DON’T DRINK. I would highly advise that you not use a teetotaler excuse because you’re afraid about getting too drunk and offending someone. Instead, be cautious at first, learn how strong the alcohol is (very), and go from there. If you’re staying with someone, get comfortable fast.

3) Don’t feel challenged. No one expects you to drink or eat more than a Georgian.

4) Have fun! It’s really exciting to be a guest in a home, constantly watched and always a source of entertainment. Refuse what you need to be enjoy yourself!

My next “How to Eat in Georgia” will be about the food – the amazing, spoil-you-forever food. My mouth is watering as I type this, and I just ate. That’s a little hint.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Land of Manganese (Whatever that is)

I know, I know, it’s been a while since I last blogged, but our week of training was incredibly busy. Plus, I’ve spent the last two days getting acclimated to my new home. It’s luck of the draw, really, but I’m way out in a little village called Zodi, about 30 minutes from Chiatura, a medium-sized town that still has active manganese mines. Over the course of training, I made some fast friends and wound up getting placed near Bran, who is in the city along with 4 other volunteers. I’m the only one in my area on a farm.

Not that I’m complaining too much. I live with a 25 year old man named Tedo whose glasses magnify his eyes to epic proportions, and his mother, my deda (mother in Georgian), who yells almost constantly but never without a grin on her face. It’s pretty incredible.

I’ve met some of my students. From the looks of it, I’ll be teaching 8th grade English, and from the skills of my teacher, I’ll be doing much of the lesson planning. Four of the girls from the English classes live around me, two of them in the house right across the “street.” Let me tell you something about my house. As we were driving up to it, the road got progressively worse – first it was nicely paved, coming for about 2km out of Chiatura. Then, we took a left onto a rocky but manageable road. From there, the road became pocked with potholes the size of small ponds, until it gave way entirely to grass and stopped at my house’s driveway. Oh boy.

So I’m secluded and neither Tedo nor my deda speak a lick of English. It’s not all bad. I can communicate pretty effectively with the girls from the English classes who are always around. I can’t wait to start teaching them so they can help me figure out just exactly how much electricity to expect. We’ve spent the past couple of nights laughing and trying to communicate. We were warned early on that you’d spend much of your time just staring at your family – well, we’re not into that here. We’re going to try to talk, and by God, if that means my deda yells at me in Georgian like I understand it, so be it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Across the Pond

It's been a long trip when you start to lose track of time, days, and meals at the same time.

I'm not even sure what sort of clock my body is on right now. I flew into Tbilisi last night on a plane full of chaos and good ol' fashioned Georgian hospitality, ready to lie down and drift into unconsciousness for eight days or so. Bleary-eyed and ragged, I stumbled off the plane, meeting a fellow TLG teacher in the process. We approached Customs as slowly as possible, unwilling to match our meager five-words-between-us Georgian vocabulary with what we were sure would be formidable Georgian security. Our fears were totally unfounded, and soon we claimed our bags and pushed through the crowd to find the TLG volunteers waiting for us.

Unfortunately, the other two planes arriving in that night were delayed, and on one, 18 volunteers lost their luggage. Altogether, we got in at the hotel at 5 in the morning, searched for our rooms, and collapsed into our beds -- three across in my room.

I don't remember much about the next three hours, but what sleep I got was somehow both deep and unsatisfying. My mind refused to turn off, spinning with Georgian and planes and buses.

Today was full of more travel -- thankfully, the last of that for about a week -- since we attended a conference with the Minister of Education at the Ministry of Sciences and Education. The media was in full blitz; the Minister gave a short talk in impressive English and we were free to enjoy the wines and juices of Georgia. It was all delicious, and some of us made conversation with the man serving the drinks. His English was limited but he was excited to talk to us and teach us the names of juices and wines in Georgian.

After we mingled for an hour or so -- some volunteers needed to get medical testing done while others were doing some emergency shopping to subsidize their lost wardrobes -- we returned to our hotel, packed up our things, and hit the road to Kutaisi. As we drove out of Tbilisi, I realized that I've never been so sad to leave a city in which I had only spent a few hours. The bus ride to Kutaisi is not bad at all, and since we'll all be in this general area, trips to the capital will most likely be plentiful.

The problem with all this travel is that my brain is just too fried to soak it all in. A good night's sleep tonight should put me back in full rhythm, though, which is good since tomorrow is the beginning of our official orientation! Oh, and if you're ever in Georgia and you go to a restaurant with a big group, be prepared for a LOT of delicious food. There's just too much to talk about here and it's just a little too late, but I will be doing a series on "How to Eat in Georgia" starting sometime next week.

That's all for now. I'm going to turn my brain off for a while, maybe grab some late dinner, and discuss the pros and cons of buying a guitar in Kutaisi with another teacher. Until next time!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A thousand places to see

I've spent the past 24 hours in places I have never been. My flight from Norfolk, VA into the formidable JFK International Airport in New York City was short and cramped, but when you're in the business of moving bodies to the Big Apple, you don't waste time on creature comforts. In reality, I had an open seat next to me, and the lady across the aisle was amusingly and easily distracted from her Kindle. She was kind enough to offer some suggestions for my New York sightseeing. I'm just thankful I didn't get such a long layover in Istanbul, where you can't leave the airport.

So in the past 24 hours, I've seen the infamous NYC subway system, Rockefeller plaza, Broadway, Times Square, Famiglia Pizza (delicious, by the way), the Empire State building (where I ate my last American meal with a former William and Mary student and old friend), the inside of a spacious Turkish oversea airliner, minarets, the Mediterranean, and the most impressive collection of duty-free cigarettes that must possibly exist. I haven't even reached Georgia and I've already been in two cities I've always wanted to see. I'm definitely picking up a tourist visa and escaping into Turkey for a weekend once I get settled into Georgia.

Oh, that's right! I've got another two hour flight ahead of me, after which I will finally arrive in my yearlong "home country." I couldn't be more thrilled, both at the prospect of living in Georgia and the promise of a hot shower, a warm bed, and terra firma beneath my feet. I've been following the other teachers' blogs, and needless to say I'm jealous that I won't get to spend as much time in T'bilisi as they have. Still, it's all very surreal, and I'm glad for the extra time spent at home.

Goodbyes are always difficult, but I never find myself too upset when I'm about to leave for a (relatively) long time. Not until I'm at my gate, that is. That period between security and takeoff is a world unto itself, existing solely to challenge those nervous about flying, or to give respite for tired red-eye passengers. It's never pleasant for me -- it's simply far too unstable to allow anything but daydreaming, and daydreaming leads to sadness, and sadness hangs heavily when you're about to fly.

Just a tip: try not to get a layover longer than a couple of hours, if you can help it. That is, unless it's in New York (and you have a friend living there). Then maybe chance the subway and go see some amazing architecture.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Last-minute packing


My itinerary finally came in this morning! I had an uneasy night, waking up every few minutes starting around 6am, like a kid on a particularly nerve-wracking Christmas Eve, waiting to get an email on my Blackberry. That email finally came around 9am!

...saying I was to leave from JFK at 11:30pm on Tuesday.

I live in Virginia. JFK is in New York City.

I was a little concerned.

Of course, it was all sorted out. I have a ridiculous itinerary. I arrive at JFK around 12:30pm tomorrow, and have an 11-hour layover in the Big Apple. I fly out near midnight, to get into Istanbul at 5pm local time. It's a ten hour flight--and I'd rather be loaded with downtime then suffer anything longer than ten hours in the air. I may wind up eating my words. After six hours in Turkey, I'll fly into Tbilisi, touching down at 3am local.

Clearly, I'm gaining a few hours here and there. My trip time spans something like 25 hours, but it'll be more like 32 to 34 with the time changes. Georgia is eight hours ahead, set your clocks accordingly!

Packing is coming along nicely, as it should the night before I leave. I still have so much to do, including dinner with my family, and a quick last-minute visit to Williamsburg. I'll be up late, exhausted in the morning, and totally out of it by the time I finally hit Georgia.

I've got pants, shirts, shorts, socks, scarves, a winter coat, shoes, books, gifts, cables, toiletries...but as long as I cover the essentials, everything else will fall in to place. I'm done worrying about it. I'm ready for the ride, for a new adventure, for something totally new.

From what I can gather from other teachers already in Tbilisi, I should have internet access at some point. I'll be blogging, of course, and facebooking. Skype may even be in order!

Friday, August 27, 2010

YOU try packing for a year! (Subtitle: can I just leave now?)


I found out recently that it's incredibly difficult to pack when you don't know exactly when you're leaving. It shouldn't be. My date range was clear, so all I had to do was prepare for the nearest date (the 28th) and hope for the furthest (the 31st). Today, we were informed of our itineraries...kind of. Sure, it was a lot of fun to see some of my new Facebook friends post their flight information, but all I was told was that I'll get my specific information on Sunday, leave on Tuesday, and can only take a single checked bag. My worst fears have been confirmed.

The question, then, is as eternal as it is critical: duffel bag or traditional luggage? Both have their advantages and faults. Take the latter, for example. First of all, I have greater protection for my perishables, potables, and breakables. Then there are the wheels. Oh, the wheel, what an amazing and simple invention. The last thing I would want is to get weighed down at an airport.

On the other hand, the duffel is significantly lighter than the traditional luggage, which probably weighs in at about 10 pounds by itself. And I can throw it on my back which makes me more mobile, if a little slower. I think the duffel even has a little more space.

So which will it be? I'm not sure. Maybe I should pay some extra money and take both. One thing is certain: my days, hours, and minutes in the United States are numbered. And that's pretty exciting.

[edit -- for more information on how to actually pack, check out Carla's blog post hilariously titled Packpossible! A fellow Greenheart Georgia volunteer, Carla is clearly more prepared than I am. She's already put some things in her suitcase, for example.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

One last time, from the College

How William and Mary doth bustle with activity on this, the great First Day of Classes. So many of my now-Senior friends have expressed excitement about their Last First Day of College, though many will go on to higher education. Still, it is monumental to think of a culmination of years of hard work in a place so welcoming and yet so challenging. Live it well, my friends.

And here I sit, in the Daily Grind, one of William and Mary's greatest hipster refugees, yet with distinctly less scenester and more Faulkner, particularly near exam time. The scent of coffee is not altogether strong here, though the dude behind the counter has gauged ears, a deep V and a big knit hat. Why not? After all, the temperature has dipped back into the double digits today. I've never spent a lot of time at the Grind. To tell you the truth, I've never felt quite "hip" enough (do these effing kids still use that expression? I'll have to compensate to be sure. Kei$ha! The Flaming Lips! Blogosphere!). But it's nice, has good coffee, and occasionally one of my friends will pass through, chat for a bit, and go back to panicking about some paper I'm sure. Ah, to be one of them.

I will miss this place, one that has been easily accessible over the past four years. There are so many good people here, who have many good things ahead of them. May your year be bright, William and Mary. Try not to take too many heavy books into Morton, it might sink.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

To rig and gig, or fly and buy?

Whew, that week mark is quite significant, when you know your adventure is looming within the frame of seven days. I am a latecomer to the party, having applied late, but I've joined Facebook groups, friended fellow teachers, and started research into exactly what I want to bring with me. A year of my life packed into a 50 pound suitcase. Either I have to rework laws of spatial physics to allow for everything I want and need to take, or I'll have to bring one heck of a carry-on.

Not pictured: my luggage.

In case you didn't know -- I sure didn't! -- the "Teach and Learn with Georgia" program is a pretty big deal in Georgia. According to another blog in the Greenheart community, it's actually been featured on Georgian television. Our orientation packet even warns us to be prepared for media presence at the airport in Tbilisi. Talk about being an ambassador to a reemergent culture. Kimberly Berls can tell you all about what the Georgian government is doing here. It's quite a responsibility for us all, but from the discussions on Facebook, I've gathered that this is an enthusiastic and excited group of people ready to participate in a wonderful opportunity.

I have a tremendous amount to do, a number of people to see, and stuff to sell. The title of this post, and I know you were wondering, refers to a conundrum involving my guitar. Specifically, I am debating whether or not to pack it up and take it with me, or leave it here and invest in an inexpensive guitar in Georgia. I know this is may seem out there, but shipping a guitar is rough on the instrument, and I don't want to risk damage.

Hopefully my itinerary will come tomorrow!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why'd they have to name it GEORGIA?

The day you get accepted to something after graduation, be it a job, grad school, or program is a truly remarkable, life-changing day indeed. Or so I've been told.

I've been told that there's a certain amount of celebration, a veritable soirée if you will, when that phone call comes in. Tears are shed, phone calls are made, and, perhaps most importantly, Facebook statuses are updated. Elation is a word that gets thrown around a lot.

It's been over 3 months since I graduated, and man, have I sent out some résumés. And applications. And phone calls. And I finally got accepted to something. Check it. The Republic of Georgia? When you first say this to someone, they probably laugh and say something clever about peaches. Nope, it's that little country below Russia.

It's really nestled amongst countries that people are generally either a) afraid of or b) totally unfamiliar with.

Yeah, that's a yearlong contract I've signed up for, teaching ESL to kids in a public school (in the Imereti region, if I'm not mistaken). You're probably thinking I was totally elated when I found out I was accepted. Well, not exactly. For me, the decision to leave was a long and difficult one. I spent several days just considering the impact of leaving everything I have here behind and travelling to a country in a part of the world I have never been. And I won't even be able to speak the language! (At first, that is...)

But really, it was inevitable that I would accept. From the minute that application was sent off, I felt that it was going to happen. It's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Just before I found the job (via Idealist), I had posted a status on Facebook to this effect: "Anybody know of some program I could find that would take me away for like...10 months?" BAM. I find this listing, and while it's technically a yearlong commitment, I will be involved from September to June. Ten months!

So, I'm restarting this blog. And while my adventures to Guatemala were not well chronicled (in blog form, at least, but I took a good number of pictures), I should have slightly more reliable internet access in Georgia. I depart on August 30th, but will blog a few more times before I go. Don't you want to know what I'm going to PACK?