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.