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.