About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Internet is Hard


So this post is a little old, and it hasn't made it to you yet due to internet issues, but it's here for you now!
My 2nd Grade Class
Happy Thanksgiving! Well, what to say. First of all, that internet has been heck of hard to find recently up here in Mestia which is one of the reasons I have fallen off of the face of the earth for a couple of weeks. Sorry about that. I have also been working like a fiend on my graduate school applications which are due in the scarily-quick-approaching-future so that has eaten up my internet time quite well too. But, those deadlines are almost past, I’m feeling like I’m in a good place for the apps, and I miss talking to you all about this amazing place, so it’s time for an update.
Instead of doing anything for Thanksgiving I left training which we had for 4 days in Ureki Guria and sat on a mashrutka for way too many hours on my way home to Svaneti. I could have stayed down south and gotten together with people I suppose, but I missed my Georgian home, bed and family. I’ve grown incredibly attached to the people here. My host mother has stopped qualifying my daughter status with ‘American’ so I am now just her daughter. My Svan is coming along so that means that I have been even further absorbed by the community. My future happy marriage and children (here in Svaneti, spoken in Svan) have become a regular toast at supras at my home. I’ve moved from a kargi gogo to a xocha dina, which is only a language shift but to be embraced by Svans seems to take a bit. I’m not just liked for being a guest anymore, I think I’ve earned the respect of people around me for the work that I’ve done in and out of the classroom, my attempts at their languages (not just the rarely found national language but the dying indigenous one) and my simply having stuck around for this long. It’s starting to get cold and snowy so I think future chances to earn respect are rapidly approaching.A couple more vignettes to illustrate my point.
My 6th Grade Class, Note male to female ratio resulting in much discipline 
My students have started giving me little presents. One day it was a clay flower made by one of my seventh grade girls. My fifth and sixth graders tend to stick to fruit; either clementines or apples. My younger kids draw pictures for me. My co-teachers have given me delicious sweets and a great list of Svan vocab and a pair of hand-knitted mittens respectively. After being gone for 4 days my kids, even the 6th grade boys who occasionally make our 45 minutes together a foretaste of hell, seemed genuinely excited to see me back at school today. My teachers welcomed me back with open arms and my older boys all gave me awkward happy smiles. Pictionary was a revelation to my 8th graders, one of whom remarked in Georgian that they loved this game. People ask me how my life is going way the heck up in the mountains, but I have to reply in all seriousness that all is well. I’ve been to three weddings and a baptism supra, with more sure to come. I haven’t been to a funeral yet, but I feel like that might just be that my family doesn’t want to bring me down by taking me to one. I have no doubt that I will be to one before the semester is over. I can catch rides from pretty much anyone in Mestia since they all know who I am and I feel exceptionally safe in this place. Anywhere else I’ve lived if a man who I vaguely recognized pulled over, opened the door and said to get in, he’d take me home, I’d probably yell and leg it out of there. Here, I climb aboard and have a nice chat before I get to my door.  It’s just the nature of the place to feel completely at ease with anyone in the community. This is not to say that I have thrown caution to the wind but the level of intimacy here, with everyone knowing everyone else means that you have to worry far less.
My seniors, or 9/17 of them which is a huge victory
Young cousin Gio took quite the shine to me on Giorgoba (St George's Day on the 23rd of November), so much so that I couldn't escape to pack for training the next day until he left.  I also discovered just how much friggin work slaughtering an ox is. Every clan or samxub (everyone with the same last name, my samxub up in Mestia is both Kakhberidze and Gvarliani, one from my host dad and one from my host mom) gets together to celebrate the day and slaughters a bull or ox for the event.  It seems to have some deliciously pagan roots, and is also a great way to get enough meat for the next couple of months. I missed part of the slaughtering due to being at Church, but I came home to a headless animal in the yard and the men of the clan working on dividing it into pieces. I saw the neighbors get started the day before, they stunned it with the blunt side of an ax and then slit the throat with a hunting knife. I didn't break my stride walking past. Everybody spent the day dealing with chunks of dead animal. Since I know absolutely nothing about how to process dead animal, I was put in charge of Gio, coffee and eventually some dishes, because really, it was the best division of everyone’s labor. I found the head in the storage room the next morning, and then got fed it after training. It tasted ok, but the brain texture was too weird to each much. 

Banguriani in the snow. Gorgeous, right?
 With the help of a friend I discovered the upper foot path that mirrors the dirt road I live on, but further up the hill. I walked it alone a couple of Fridays ago as a treat after a long week (28 in classroom hours) and because I unexpectedly had the day off. Plus the weather was gorgeous and warm. I took the road out and the shortcut up to catch the path. I had forgotten, almost, how steep ‘hills’ can be here. Fall is largely over so the trees are bare but the grass remains the cows graze and small red berries dot any number of bushes, their color feeling fluorescent again the brown and gray background. The path itself is narrow, dirt winding and bounded on either side by ramshackle fences. The level of picturesque borders on the absurd. I took my earbuds out and walked, enjoying the silence but for cows in the brush. The level of silence you can find here is startling. After about 8, town shuts down, traffic grinds to a halt (such as it is during the day) and the only sounds are animals: cows horses pigs dogs. Once I saw a couple of my students racing down the road on horseback at 10pm. Georgians don’t bat an eyelid. You could hear the hoof falls well before the boys arrived because of the silence. I think adjusting to the noise of even a town again will be difficult because I am now so used to the silence and the darkness. The sun was setting already even though I was walking around 3:30, but the rays it casts here are devastatingly strong. It reflects off the snow on Banguriani like a mirror giving the valley a couple of extra minutes of light and warmth. Laghami is one of the small neighborhoods/villages that compromise Mestia. It is the furthest out with towers and sits almost directly above my home. Because it’s so far out of the center it doesn’t get the same number of tourists (especially in November) and feels deliciously untainted by the failings of capitalism. People acknowledge and accept my Svan with a grin and traditions of hospitality seem to remain strong. It might also be that people in Laghami know me as the English teacher rather than a passing tourist, and act accordingly.
The footpath to Laghami
On that next Sunday I visited the church in Laghami, which is one of the oldest in Mestia and is covered in beautiful frescoes of scenes from the bible, all of them hundreds of years old. A friend and I went and found the caretaker after church at Xalqis Iglesia and got him to let us in. He was a chatty older Svan gentleman with the most bizarre English vocab I’ve ever come across. We stuck to Svan and Georgian for the most part. The church itself is stone, built slightly up from ground level on a hill. It had a small anteroom and then the actual sanctuary, which has a tiny altar (inaccessible to me as a woman), a modern wooden stand holding icons and space for perhaps half a dozen parishioners comfortably. A dozen if everyone agrees not to breathe. It is indeed a small place, and some of the frescoes are impossible to see due to the layer of black grime covering their surfaces. But the high deep stone windows cast rays of pure light onto the floor and hit you with devastating intensity. They give the place a divine feel, and one of intense quiet and serenity. It is a stark place, but also rich in its own way. The combination of cold gray blocks with the lush colors, red and gold, of the byzantine costumes worn in the paintings is enough to bring a hush on its own. The power of small places is perhaps nowhere clearer. My Georgian friend went down to his knees and hands and kissed the floor upon entering, and I found myself doing the same for the simple, Holy atmosphere of the place made it seem the only reasonable reaction.  The palpable power of the spirituality of the sanctuary made me feel both a complete outsider, and utterly at home within its walls. I suppose I feel the same most of the time here in Mestia, an odd combination of looking in and out at the same time, a not unpleasant sensation of belonging and the logical realization that this is not where I am from, and that I have only been here for 3 months now. I am glad for the sensation though, especially on days like yesterday when I was so far from everything I know, but I at least could be surrounded by love.

My host siblings, managing to not kill themselves with fireworks

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Potatoes and Weddings

It’s been another busy couple of weeks here in Mestia, which might seem surprising given how small a place this is, but there’s always work to be done. School was pretty quiet Wednesday Thursday and Friday last week because of the potato harvest. Potatoes are the main crop here in Svaneti and I’m not actually sure what the heck people ate before potatoes were introduced because they are an all day everyday experience. We were expecting a bad snow storm on Sunday night and after having the snow the second week of October people were super concerned that the crop would just freeze in the field resulting in either poverty (since food costs a fortune up here due to the remoteness of the area) or simply being hungry. Friday out of a total of 125 students at my school maybe 20 came at all. I had helped Nini and Gocha in the little garden in front of our house but I knew that we had other fields. So after school on Friday I ate lunch and headed out with Nini and Saba to join Gocha and his friends.
Sort of Blurry but this is Me with (from l to r) Nini, Saba, Nika and Ani my host sister and cousins

The field was up the hill that our home is built into and then down the road a bit. It is actually part of a larger field, but it seems like different family groups have divided it up. There are no fences or anything but everyone seems to know exactly where their crop ends and someone else’s begins. We arrived round about 1pm and there were three or four distinct groups working to get the potatoes dug. The harvest here is completely unmechanized, at least for people’s personal crops. Adults use pitchforks to dig the potatoes out and kids pick them up, make piles, sort and bag. A small field takes hours using this method just because it is so labor intensive, but here that’s how it’s done. I discovered that there is no comfortable position for harvesting potatoes. When they’re growing on a slope it’s at least a little less hard to reach them, but your legs and back will hurt if you are a newbie like me. I was provided with gloves being the weak foreigner but most everyone else worked without. Everyone had brought some food and water for their time in the fields, and this was pretty much the first time I’ve seen Georgians drink water. We took a nice break round about 3:30 or 4 and shared a picnic with the family at the bottom of the field. The kids are in my class so they addressed me as “Mas” (short for mastsavlebeli or teacher) and a bucket was found for me to sit on. They seemed surprised that I was there, but a sensed a certain respect that I was there and actually sort of contributing. Certainly I was putting in the effort. We had bread, salad, some sort of tomato stew, fruit, water, meat (that looked mostly like fat so I politely declined) and khachapuri or cheese bread. I pulled out some Svan at the picnic and one of my second graders actually gasped. Everyone talked about what a kargi gogo I am, which always makes me deeply uncomfortable.
I took the teacher from the first school shopping in downtown Mestia on Saturday afternoon. Well, I should say we took each other. He needed some winter clothes and I needed some retail therapy. There is a thriving secondhand clothes market here in Mestia, most of it totally under the table and probably technically illegal, but I don’t think anyone here gives a, so people do what they want. He speaks Russian and I speak some Georgian, so between us we were mostly comprehensible, until we were trying to ask for long johns and both went “uhhhh—long johns-i?” We also got asked at every single store we went to if we were married. One time we told the 2 older ladies running the place that we were just friends. They looked knowingly at us and said “And after friendship comes…”. No. I am literally being set up with everyone in my life, and I feel like people here must be so confused as to who I actually am married to/will be married if the assumption is that 1) you are seen with a man 2) there must be marriage and many babies in your future. However, it does provide amusing anecdotes to tell my friends and all of you so I will accept it and move on. I am starting to get worried about what will happen when I eventually go home shopping wise though. All the stores here are one room and frequently run low on supplies. We went into one that had just gotten a new shipment of the random food assortment they inevitably have and we were both completely overwhelmed. We bought chocolate wafers, chips, a jar of pickles and banana nectar. I dare not think what will happen when I go to a Sam’s Club in the US if a single room store that actually is stocked does that to my decision making capabilities.
Me Saba, Vanya (the other teacher in Mestia) and Skylar (the other teacher in Svaneti) 
That evening we went to a wedding in the nearby village of Mulaghi. It turned out that the bride was one of the teachers at my school, which everyone had failed to mention to me. I went with the other teachers from my school and we brought the teacher from the first school as well since he hadn’t been to a wedding yet. We left in typical Georgian style in a slightly decrepit mashrutka or minibus, very late. We kept waiting to try and figure out who exactly was coming. Then the deputy principal Nazo wanted to stop to pre-game. Which, if you’ve read any of my previous posts you know that pre-gaming a Georgian event is like bringing a freezer to Antarctica because you’re worried your food will spoil. But I have learned that here in Georgia, you just go with it. Everyone got to partake and Vanya and I were highly encouraged. We pulled over so the driver could have a shot too, which was at first worrying, but we later discovered that he is the slowest most careful driver in Svaneti. Interestingly enough, the idea of a DD does seem to have arrived here, I think because everyone acknowledges that the roads are super unsafe even if you’ve lived here your entire life. Driving them drunk would result in a great many unnecessary deaths of young people so it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you would think. My host father Gocha was stone cold sober the entire time because he was driving home. At the wedding party (held in a tent in a field) there were perhaps 300 guests already arrived, all of whom turned to stare at the obviously non-locals. I don’t exactly blend here. We were placed near the front of the tent and were served more food than I could eat in 5 years. Common plates were placed all down the long tables and over the course of the evening at least 2 dozen dishes were served. Also fruit, cake, and pitchers of wine and chacha. The tamada was an older Svan gentleman, who seemed to do an excellent job listening to the comments of my teachers. I couldn’t understand everything he said due to the poetry of the language used and the Svan, but I could get the gist of every toast, which I was very proud of. And of course, the dancing. It was an interesting combination of traditional Georgian and Svan songs which many of the young people danced to, and modern music. Unexpected contributions: the Macarena (I kid you not) and a techno version of Gangnam style. The bride threw the bouquet, but both young men and women are encouraged to try and catch it. My teachers and my 10 year old cousin Katya, who lives in Mulaghi were quite literally shoving me to the front of the pack, but a young dancer caught it instead. On the bus on the way back the teachers consoled me. They told me that since Meg (the bride) was married now, my wedding was next. I asked them who I would be marrying and the driver jokingly volunteered for the task. Because this is Mestia.
The whole Crew at home
Sunday morning I went to church, and this time I was determined to stay for the end of the service. As a result I kind of dawdled in the morning and didn’t leave until almost 10. I’m usually the only one from my household who goes and Gocha seems to find it almost funny that the non-orthodox member represents at the Xalqis Iglesia (People’s or Community Church).The priest, Mama Giorgi, is hilarious and was apparently an actor before he joined the priesthood. The older women, who make up the majority of the congregation, have taken me under their wing and quite like me. I did manage to stay the whole time, though there was a moment of confusion when one of the acolytes came over and asked if I wanted confession (I think?) he could tell that I didn’t quite understand so he asked if I knew Russian. When I replied that no I was the English teacher he stopped for a chat about what a kai gogo I am. I didn’t take communion of course which confused the younger acolytes a great deal, all of whom are my students. But the service was gorgeous and it was nice to share the community of Christ here in this beautiful place.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

Mestia in the Snow!
While I’ve noticed that most of my blog posts are a series of random anecdotes about how wonderfully strange life here in the Republic of Georgia can be I would like to try and give them some type of overarching theme to tie them together into something beyond the musings of my delirious mind. For this week, I will try to touch on hospitality and the chivalry that comes with it. Chivalry probably sounds exceptionally outdated as a concept to most Americans, particularly those of my generation. Yet it is the only word that I can think of that accurately describes the often peculiar and many times charming relationship that men and women have here. It is, of course, also maddening at times because as I count myself as a member of the rabid men hating crowd (aka feminists, and yes I have in fact been called a rabid man hater which I found bizarre) and I think of myself as being a self-sufficient human being in my own right. Yet chivalry here goes beyond opening doors occasionally if the girl going into the lecture hall after you is particularly hot. While women have specific requirements to be ‘kargi gogo’ there are also strong expectations about what makes a man a ‘kargi bitchi (ქარგი ბიჭი--good boy)’ which is perhaps not quite as important, but will be taken into account and when it comes time to marry and find a kargi gogo, it never hurts. Chivalry is paramount to the kargi bitchi image. For instance, this past weekend I had three female friends come to visit me up here in Mestia. We had such a blast, in large part because I could call upon my friend Lasha (not host brother Lasha, his friend Lasha, not to be confused with my students named Lasha or other neighbor Lasha). For convenience we shall call him mountaineer Lasha, since he has climbed Tetnuldi which is insane. Anyway, they arrived on Friday morning after taking the night train from Zugdidi and then a mashrutka up. I had a minor argument (a playful one) with my host mother that day actually since I thought I could go into school and they could entertain themselves until I got home. She was appalled at the thought that I would leave guests unattended and told me to take the day off of work. We compromised in that I would go to 2/4 classes and then go home to care for them. I fed them food that I had made that morning, along with items that my host mom had prepared already. Gocha stopped into the house while we were eating and made sure to offer us both chacha (liquor) and wine. It was 11am. Also, they had already partaken of chacha on the ride up so they decided to decline for the moment. Hospitality.
Sunset in Svaneti

Saturday we hiked up to Jvari, or the cross above town. I invited Lasha to come along because we had fun altogether the night before listening to Georgian folk music with my friends and his friends at a local cafe and because my mantra for hiking around here is BYOG. Bring your own Georgian. Having been raised to respect nature I am perfectly aware that I don’t know the terrain as well as I might and that weather can change frighteningly quickly and that my call to 112 ( the local emergency number, though I pray that I never have to make such a call) would consist of “hello, problem. Us mountain at. Sorry”.  It being autumn now it was significantly colder than my first attempt to Jvari, and foggier. I’m also much better adjusted to the altitude though, so I didn’t really experience any problems. My other friends started tiring about a quarter of the way in though. Some of Lasha’s friends drove past on their way to collect firewood as we stopped to rest so he went over to chat and wrangled a ride for us. So instead of trudging up we flew along rutted dirt tracks in a Soviet era jeep that should have been sold for scrap before I was born. Literally every wire in the thing was exposed and we had to pop the bonnet for unknown reasons halfway up. But it worked. So our ascent was a remarkably quick one. At the top it was quite foggy and a little cold so Lasha immediately got hit extra jacket out of his bag and gave it to me, insisting that I put it on. He then scampered down the hill to collect firewood for a bonfire. My friend Claire tried to help him and was able to carry two whole pieces of wood for her efforts. So instead Hannah Claire and I went and sat on the observation platform and took pictures whenever the fog cleared. Lasha called his friends in the car for matches and then after we struggled over the fire for a while (the receipts that I’m too lazy to clean out of my wallet came in handy) gasoline. That got the fire going pretty good and so we had a picnic of tomatoes, eggs, cheese, cucumbers, bread, ajika (Georgian salsa is the best explanation I can come up with for this mix of peppers, tomatoes and herbs) water, chacha and wine. Because Georgia. We ate laughed and toasted (Georgian, English and Svan were used) by the fire with Mestia spread before our feet. A couple of groups of tourists came and went, continually surprised that some of us were Americans (blending with the locals for a win!) and I think somewhat jealous of our Georgian experiences. We walked down in the late afternoon before the sun fell below the horizon. Hannah wore Claire’s coat and so for the descent Lasha gave his sweatshirt to Claire and walked in his t-shirt. I guess I can best explain the hospitality and the chivalry in that a Georgian would rather starve than see you hungry, would rather freeze than see you cold, would rather carry you than see you tired. It is out of the question that a Georgian man would not walk you home or drive you when it’s raining, or give you a lift if he sees you on the road.
View from Jvari
And while my friend Claire in the city of Gori has had enormous problems with men, my status as a sort-of member of the community means that chivalry dictates respect towards me, since that means respect towards my family. It all gets a little Jane Austen, which while I have been told since childhood this is the epitome of romantic, the 21st century woman in me feels like she wishes she would be allowed to take care of herself sometimes. My terrible Georgian means that I am largely dependent on the kindness of relatives friends and strangers here, so the culture of hospitality works in my advantage but it also gives the feeling of being caught in a state of childlike being. I’ve found outlets (running, helping around the house, writing) but it is a strange existence. Thank goodness my host family gives me an exceptional amount of independence.
Claire and I up at Jvari
Tuesday at school was probably my best day yet. I had the 4th, 2nd, and 12th graders with my co-teacher Tamuna. She was in and out of the 2nd grade class and I was able to control them without picking them up and moving them. The 4th graders were great, they’re so lively and excited. I get cheers when I enter the classroom, which is a bizarre and slightly pleasant celebrity. The 3rd grade I had by myself and we just hit it off. I only had 4 boys but they were on fire, learning the present continuous. It was one of those days when I realize why teaching is such a passion. After that class I was feeling great, and then I went to the teacher’s room. One of their grandsons had his 4th birthday so she brought wine to school. After being peer-pressured into drinking the entire glass, we discovered that the 7th grade was supposed to have English class and the only English teacher at school was me. If this were America I would have been fired on the spot. This is Georgia though, so there was nothing unusual in me teaching after a drink, and I ended up having an excellent class with the 7th graders, discussing technology and their own involvement in social media. All in all a very successful day. I came home and after lunch gathered potatoes and grapes in the garden with Gocha and Nini. The potatoes need to get in before this weekend when we’ve got a big storm coming (we actually had our first unexpected snow last weekend, which has melted but urgency has set in). It has put most people a little on edge, and the other school just cancelled two days of classes so the kids can help. Life here is very different from what I’m used to, but I am so often glad to be here and experiencing it. 
Lasha and our ride

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Batumi and Svanuri

Well, another week in Georgia, another million stories that I forgot to tell you. This past weekend I made a very whirlwind trip to Batumi on the Southwest coast near the border with Turkey. I mentioned to my host mother Thursday evening that a friend was having their birthday over the weekend in Batumi. Within about 3 minutes my host father was on the phone with mashrutka (these are buses that go between towns and within bigger cities and are used as transport since few people have cars and the trains don’t go nearly everywhere) drivers , looking for one trustworthy enough to take their young charge. There aren’t any direct ones this late in the tourist season so it was arranged that I would get on the mashrutka to Tbilisi and be handed off to a mashrutka to Batumi by the driver. It left at 6 am. The last remnants of Westernness left in my soul made me set my alarm for 5:15. I knocked on the door downstairs and Gocha, my host father tried to shoo me off, thinking that I was Roy, the big scary dog. As soon as I spoke he opened the door and welcomed me in. Lasha appeared out of the early morning mist with the car (no idea where he had been, my family keeps the strangest hours sometimes) and whisked me to the city center and got me onto the correct bus. I was there well within time. I got on and waited. And waited. We filled up and finally set off at 7am, with me cursing under my breath the punctual part of me that had gotten up as early as I did. We picked up various people leaving Svaneti as we went, listening to the driver’s rocking playlist (remixes of the current top 40, which he had a flashdrive, gotten from goodness knows where). He eventually pulled over at the side of the road, flagged down a mashrutka to Batumi and got me on it. I was in Batumi by 1pm and wandered the town a little before the rest of my friends arrived (we have been here long enough to be working on Georgian time).
A park in Batumi
We had a slightly overdramatic reunion on the seaside boulevard in which we laughed hugged and cried out in a way that is utterly ridiculous given that I’ve known these people for a month and yet entirely correct given how well we already know each other and the fascinating experiences we are sharing. It was great to speak to other teachers about their everyday lives and see how they are both similar to and different from my own. My school seems to be the normal amount of organized but I seem to have lucked out with my co-teachers who allow me to run some things in the classroom without completely abandoning me to my fate with the 6th graders. My family, having dealt with crazy foreigners before, gives me far more personal space and independence than most of the families which is much appreciated. We made our way to the beach in Batumi while chatting and I went for a delicious swim in the Black Sea with my friend Hannah from the program. We are known respectively as Perfect Hannah and British Hannah to tell us apart. At dinner we discovered just how Georgian we had become when with a little food left on the table we all started gesturing and yelling at one another “Chame!!!! (eat)”, this being a several times a day experience for all of us. I stayed in Batumi for only about 24 hours and caught mashrutkas to Zugdidi and then Mestia. I was given a pair of British tourists to essentially guide through the process by the tourism office in Batumi. Given how basic my Georgian is I wasn’t exactly qualified to translate but I think we did just fine. The weird thing was that as we left Zugdidi I heaved this massive sigh of relief as the road started to climb. I felt like I was going home, which I suppose I am, but it’s amazing to me that in only a month Mestia truly is a place I am glad to return to. The road and the mountains embraced us and I felt entirely at ease even as the driver careened about. I suppose I’ve been adjusting pretty darn quickly.
Batumi's Sunset on the Black Sea
I also had my first Svan lesson this week! My geography teacher Murtaz wrote down a bunch of words in Svan and then in Georgian. He wrote them in the Latin alphabet though, rather than in Georgian so it was kind of difficult to figure out what was what. I came home and transferred it to another notebook and my host family helped me since they all speak at least some Svan, which is spoken by fewer than 15000 people and is estimated to die with this generation. While it might seem like a useless thing to be learning, I find the death of a language and the cultural knowledge that goes with it heartbreaking. Speaking Svan also gives me incredible street credibility here in Mestia so well worth it. I tried it out with a little old lady who saw me running and you’d think she’s died and gone to heaven. She grabbed my cheeks and almost dragged me inside to stuff me full of food. I was able to escape and continue running but it was funny to keep seeing people and students I know. Some tourists were also walking along the road and I could tell that I confused the heck out of them because they just stared at me, trying to see what was going on. I am starting to feel as though I belong to the community here, which is a wonderful sensation.

We had a supra at my house on Wednesday night because… wine was ready? We don’t really seem to need a reason which I appreciate. There was maybe a real reason but most of this stuff goes right over my head so whatever. It was my host uncle, host parents and two neighbors. I got to join in because I was at home. The conversation seemed to float between Georgian and Svan, but at least I can sort of recognize the latter now, or at least pick out the words and made an educated guess as to which language it is. Several rather amusing things happened. First of all I drank, but my host father didn’t.  Another honorary man night. I only had 3 or 4 glasses of wine, this being a school night and all. One neighbor, the father of host brother Lasha’s friend Lasha, gave me a pocket knife as a present.  I have no idea if this is normal or what it could possibly mean. He was the tamada and only spoke Georgian or Svan to me so while we could kind of chat it wasn’t 100%. The other slightly, not concerning, but perhaps interesting item was that the other neighbor, Lasha (yes everyone is named Lasha) asked me about marriages in the US and whether large age gaps (10 years) are possible. I said yes. Turns out he’s 30 and unmarried, which it seems his friends tease him about rather a lot. Oh and he wants an American wife. Time to backpedal like a boss. This week one of my 12th graders, named, you guessed it, Lasha, asked me about my training. I figured out he meant running, and then he asked me about where I went and why. Turns out he’s training too. Interesting note: I’ve never seen him while I was running. So did someone mention it to him, or did he ask?  I’m not kidding when I say all I have to do to be desirable and interesting as a potential spouse (or other) here in Mestia is breathe.
I got mail from the US this week as well. Rather hilariously I was eating lunch when there was a knock at the door. Nini went to answer it and all I heard was a male voice ask “Where’s the English teacher?” in Georgian. It was the postman! My mom had sent me a card and it arrived in only 2 weeks. The postman had to get my passport number before he could give it to me, but it was so exciting. People don’t get mail very much here so whenever stuff comes the postman just brings it around to the houses. I’m not sure if he even read the address, it was in Latin script so he just figured it was me.
The view from my House
And just to finish off this blog post there was a sunshower during my run today and what should I see on the mountain above me but a double rainbow! Mestia is truly an amazing place, and one that I feel privileged to call home for now.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

Georgian Hospitality

I think I ought to take some time and explain one of the most important and probably misconstrued parts of Georgian culture in the West: drinking. Binge drinking in the US in typically either scorned or celebrated, based largely on which generation you belong to. My own celebrates binging as though it were a civic duty like voting and praises those who can hold their drink. Georgia is undoubtedly a drinking culture. It is difficult to avoid as alcohol pervades everyday life in a way I would never have thought possible, and this is coming from a half-German. Most every important occasion (funeral, death, birth, birthday, wedding, engagement, departure, arrival etc) is marked by a supra or feast. Every supra has a tamada, or toastmaster whose job is to make toasts for the occasion. There are in fact professional toastmasters who are hired to give toasts at events. Toasts are often elaborate and poetic, and frequently follow a set order. Here in Svaneti the first toast is to God. Then St George (I think there is another Saint in between there) and for the departed when some of the beverage of choice is poured on the ground for them. And it keeps going from there. How much is drunk depends on the group. Men are always expected to drain their glass, whether it be wine or liquor. In mixed company women are allowed to drink less, perhaps only sipping from their glass, though they will be encouraged to drink more. To not drink anything for each toast is extremely impolite.  In all female groups, women drain their glasses though. As I said before I can either be a woman or an honorary man. I asked my 6th graders as a practice for past continuous whether they had drunk wine. Every hand shot up. Because of course. This is Georgia. I was a little more disturbed when I asked if anyone had smoked and 2/6 hands went up. Anti-smoking campaigns have a way to go apparently. This is perhaps a long lead up to my telling that 2 weekends ago by US standards I had quite the weekend. But only by US standards.

My House!
Friday night I went to the birthday party of a cousin’s friend. It was an all-female group except for Lasha who seemed to be serving as the designated driver and protector of the virtue of the group from any marauding strangers in the guesthouse. We ladies had a dance party to traditional Georgian music and then US and Georgian pop. I have to say that dance parties with girl friends are fun in every language and every culture. I couldn’t speak very well with the company but they welcomed me in and made sure that I enjoyed the celebration as much as they did. They also had a large plastic jug of what must have been wine at some point but at this point had a rather familiar sting when you drank it. We toasted of course and as it was just us ladies, we finished our glasses. Wine glasses, not shot glasses. Saturday morning dawned just a tad too bright for some of us and I got to work lesson planning and enjoying the clear weather which comes distressingly seldom as winter approaches. The mountain that sits in front of my house always had some snow on the very top but every day I can see the snow creep down its flanks. Never has it felt so appropriate to say winter is coming. The snow hasn’t reached the tree line quite yet but it’s on its way. Part of me is so excited for my first snow in Mestia and the coming of winter and the other part of me is terrified of just how cold it is going to get. Because there is already a distinct chill in the air. I’m tempted to buy a thermometer just to see how cold it gets in my bedroom and the other part of me doesn’t want to know.
Saturday and Sunday we had wine at meals with my host family (one with just my host mom because we could and the other was with the neighbor because I had brought the other volunteer teacher over to meet the family and this was cause for a mini-supra). My neighbor I had already met while working on making tomato sauce one night and she is firmly in the ‘Hannah is a kargi gogo’ camp. She asked me if I would be getting married here. It has become a running joke that the extracurricular that we set up will in fact be The Bachlorette: Svaneti and we will find my Svan husband. While I’m flattered that people like me well enough to want to keep me here, it is also a little terrifying to be asked quite this often when and to whom I will be getting married. Especially since they seem to be actively making plans if I haven’t got any.
On a walk. Note me wearing everything I own
Teaching is harder than expected, in part due to the low levels of listening proficiency. The number of blank stares I get in response to “Turn to page 8” is truly frightening. The 1st graders (all 7 of them) are the scariest since their English vocab consists of apple, bag, cat, dog, egg, and fish. And they’re a little iffy on the last two. I’ve been really struggling with discipline in that class and was getting extremely frustrated  but as a good friend said “If it just sounds like blah blah blah would you take it seriously?”. I have requested to always have a co-teacher with me I the future. I also discovered that senioritis is universal. The sense of ‘not giving a’ was palpable among the 12th graders. Can’t say I blame them given that their grades and attendance have no bearing on their university admission, or anything else. I almost have a schedule for my classes which is great though I only have the materials for 4 grades. Lesson planning seems to be a little bit of a foreign concept. But I think the kids are learning and that’s all I can ask for.
Winter is coming!
Monday at school the teacher’s meeting got quite heated to the point that I was a little uncomfortable about the yelling and gesturing and exactly who they were yelling about. It came to an end and a general bohemie returned remarkably quickly given just how high it seemed tempers had gotten. It turned out that one of the teachers had had a birthday so we got out pizza, cake and a liter and a half of homemade vodka. Guaranteed to put hair on the chest of any man woman child or animal. Seeing as there was only one male around (the geography teacher, who is trying to teach me Svan at every turn) women emptied their glasses. I don’t know how teacher’s meetings in the US usually go, but I would guess that they don’t end with everyone a little giddy and going home to eat enough bread to absorb the effects of the afternoon. The drinking culture here might help to explain the amount of bread eaten at every single meal. And preferably there is bulgur, potatoes, grits, cornbread, rice or some combination thereof to go with the bread. It’s a carb heavy diet here. I might add that it’s not just alcohol that people foist on me but also food. I am encouraged to eat more at every single turn, no matter where or when. And not just my host mother. My host sister, brother, cousins, father, aunts, uncles, co-teachers, the other host family in town, everyone at every supra I’ve been to etc. Hospitality runs deep in Georgia, where guests are a gift from God and particularly here in Svaneti where until a few years ago guests of the foreign extraction were few and far between. They must be cherished coddled and celebrated. If that means force feeding them, so be it.
Sunset in Svaneti
The other big news of the week is that I managed to have my first real conversation in Georgian without a translator standing by to rescue me when I floundered. It was quite amusing actually. I was on a walk after school one day after having a rough time with my first graders and I needed to cool down. I ran into one of the male hang out groups called birzhas. They gave me the look and the ‘hello’ pronounced in such a way to be the verbal equivalent of a leer. Since I refuse to be phased I replied in Georgian ‘gamarjobat’. They asked how I knew Georgian and I replied “I’m the English teacher at school number two” (Meore skolashi inglisuri mastsavlebeli var--მეორე სკოლაში ინგლისური მასწავლებელი ვარ). Spines straightened, eyes raced up to look at me straight on, tone of voice changed to humble and respectful and the formal you (tkven) was applied. One of the members came over to shake my hand and ask where I was staying (this sounds like a very poor decision but since I live with a family I’m perfectly safe. Plus everyone in town knows so one phone call and they could have found out for themselves). I was also able to say where I am from, what my name is and where I was going. We had a cheery goodbye and I went on my way, a complete Georgian interaction down and a few more creepers cut down in 3 seconds flat. A successful week by my standards at least!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

School has started

This week at school was…interesting. Admittedly I’ve never taught anywhere before so it is difficult to tell whether this is normal or not. From the students end, it always seemed like my teacher’s had it all figured out, but this was probably my awe of them talking and not reality. I certainly was in way over my head. The schedule wasn’t quite set yet so I was never quite sure which classes I was going to. I simply starting walking into school knowing that I could be anything from 1st to 12th grade and that I could only hope that I had a co-teacher with me. I did several times get put into a class on my own, which I discovered is one of the most terrifying things in the entire world. Particularly when the students have little or no idea what it is that you’re saying to them. I was sent to the first graders on my own one day, and it was their first day of English. My Georgian was not up to it. I am starting to wish that I had a greater physical presence. That or I need to work on my confidence because I think the students can tell that I’m a little unsure of myself and they are exploiting it. I’m glad that I am physically stronger than I look, but an extra foot or so of height and perhaps a sex change would give me a little more authority in the classroom. I did have to haul one first grader off of another for fighting, he didn’t expect me to simply be able to pick him up and move him. More incentive to work out while I’m here.
My road and Tetnuldi in the background
 I’ve decided to start running again while I’m here (at least while I can run on the roads, which might not be for much longer). I can’t go very far at all (ie like a kilometer). I am telling myself that this is because of the altitude to feel better about it. It’s very interesting because this region seems to produce a lot of athletes so there are actually a fair numbers of runners. I see at least one every single day. But there’s a catch. A big one. Every single runner, every one, is male. I am the only woman running that I have seen. Given the reactions that I get, I’m pretty sure I’m the only female runner the Georgians have seen too. But, they all seem more pleased than pissed about the breaking of gender roles. I get essentially cheered on by everyone I see and my host father has taken to calling me ‘sportsman’. People seem to know me too, since one night I was running past this house and the father called out to his son (maybe 20ish, also leaving for a run) ‘Who is that?’ to which the reply was ‘the new English teacher’. This all happened in Georgian so I was glad to understand it, but it also made me laugh because frankly I have no memory of meeting the son. So apparently I am known now.
My school!
Speaking of gender roles, I’ve found that I seem to belong in this strange limbo land of being pretty clearly a woman, but I being Western don’t have to conform as closely to Georgian gender expectations. It’s almost as though I can be both a man and a woman. I can get away with running or shirking household duties because I am an honorary man. I could sit at supras and drink away if I wanted to (though again, drunkenness, not allowed ever). But I am still expected to dress in a certain way most of the time, and I notice the looks that I get as a woman. HBO and its like have thwarted me again with the ideas it gives men around the world about Western women.  I don’t seem to get the creeper stare when out with any family member (10-year old Nini will even do) or when I’m running weirdly enough, but just walking, completely allowed. The male gaze, for anyone who has ever wondered, is a very real thing. It makes me and every woman I’ve ever met exceptionally uncomfortable. That being said I have faced far less harassment in Georgia than anywhere else I’ve lived. Full stop. Less creeping than in the US. I think again the rural grapevine is working in my favor because I’m understood as not really an outsider. I belong to the community and to a family. Ergo, don’t mess with me because everyone will know and it will get back to the zillion men in my host family who probably won’t take kindly to it, since I am a kargi gogo (კარგი გოგო, good girl). And you don’t mess with a kargi gogo. To overestimate the importance of those two words is difficult, they denote not just the way you act around men, but children, the church, work both in and outside of the home, your attitude towards your family and your personality/sociability. My teachers all agree and I think are already planning who to set me up with. I was asked in the teacher’s meeting (which mostly consists of yelling) whether I was going to get married in Svaneti (I had been here less than a week at that point). My response? It depends on Svaneti. I felt it was the best response considering.
This is what Svaneti looks like to me
I’ve decided that I am in fact living in ‘How to be Georgian 101’. My host family has been wonderful including me in their everyday lives, which I so appreciate. Last night my host father came home from Zugdidi where he had been shopping. I tried some Georgian gum (which comes from some unidentified plant that I can’t pronounce). I still have some stuck to my teeth. He had also bought a ton of grapes. We crushed them and now have a blue barrel in the corner of the living room where they are fermenting for wine.  My host father is determined to teach me how to light the wood stove properly. Given how badly I fail at camping this is an uphill battle, but I appreciate his willingness to teach. He already asked me if I would be staying in town for Christmas, so presumably he likes having me around. Nini certainly wants me to stay, which somehow surprises a great deal since that would require her to do English over the holidays. This morning my host mother showed me how to make cheese from fresh milk and then how to make khachapuri, the national dish, from it. The process was similar to making gubdari so I maybe sort of had it. Except not quite. I seem to be in training to become a Georgian, but I always wanted to become a part of the community and learn about the culture when I came. I’m glad that I’m getting the chance to do that. Also, I’m going to have the most wonderfully random collection of life skills after I live here. I feel like I will be able to live just about anywhere in the world and do ok for myself so that in and of itself is a skill.
My end of Mestia as the rain comes in from the Mountains
The cold is already starting to set in. The power went out again this morning for a while so we were again dependent on the wood stove for heat, light and cooking. I worked with Nini and Saba on their English while Nato translated for me and peeled potatoes. We discussed the goals for the various classes today and about my idea for an after school club for the older kids with whom I don’t have as much time to work. English through rap. American music seems to be popular just about everywhere so I figure rap might draw some kids in who might otherwise not show up to a conversation club.

I also went for a nice walk this morning in the fog. The mists covered the mountain that sits above us almost completely but strangely enough cleared on Tetnuldi (other side of the valley), giving a stunning view of the snowcapped peaks. I find myself wanting to romanticize life here for you folks but I also want to be realistic. Life is hard. Power cuts mean that it is difficult to get basic things done and the cold will soon be bone-shattering. The school I work at has next to no supplies. The walls are largely bare. Students are still getting textbooks. Chalk is rationed. Wood stoves are the only source of heat in the winter and we haven’t gotten them out yet so the building is freezing in the morning. Kids aren’t fed at school so the level of concentration drops the longer the day goes on. The government runs a special program to bring new graduates out to villages and towns since young people flock to cities, despite youth unemployment being astronomically high. The road I live on isn’t paved so after the rain it’s a muddy mess. Central Mestia has a newly build commercial center that is empty and will be for the time being due to infighting.  This is a place of great beauty and if I was just a tourist it would be easy to gloss over everything else. Visitors are so often in search of ‘the authentic’ without realizing that by authenticity they often mean poverty. They want life to seem raw, but where the hell did the lights, wifi and hot water go? They seek the quaint, ruin porn and blood feuds. Life here is so much more than that. I’ve only been here for a little over a week but already I find myself at odds with some of the tourists coming here, and the characterizations I find in the guidebooks of a mystical swirl of history, a place suspended in time. Mestia is no such thing, it is…a place that cannot be summed up in a paragraph and one that as an outsider I cannot yet describe and perhaps never will be able to. But is it quickly working its way into my heart. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Roll with the punches

Well, I suppose the rule in Georgia is going to be that there are no rules. I told you all last time that I was going to be placed in Latali Svaneti for at least the semester and probably the year. That has changed now, but it comes later in the story I suppose.
Me and Nato Making Gubdari
 To start with, training ended much as it began, abruptly but also well, with lots of wonderful comments from our teachers, encouragement and simply kind words that we had traveled from the US or the UK or Canada to come and teach in their country. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so undeserving of praise from people. I earned the nickname “Perfect Hannah” from the other students in my Georgian class because I was most definitely the teacher’s favorite student. Oh well, those who are perfect must continue being so. Anyway, we had a wonderful last night in Tbilisi. I went for a long walk with Kim, a British volunteer to buy stamps get our banking all straightened out and to check out the last couple sights I wanted to see in the city. This ended up being the Azeri mosque (surprise surprise from me). I had a lovely chat with the caretaker who asked if I was 1) Tajik or 2) married to a Turk. The fact that I was 3) neither seemed to surprise him to no end but hey, keep life interesting. There was actually a Turkish television program filming at the mosque (which was super beautiful, with light blue painting on the ceilings, great turquoise and dark blue tile work and a spectacular view out of one wall of windows). We waited around to say hi to the imam and ended up getting filmed a little. So if you see someone who looks like me on Turkish TV, you know why now. So just to rehash the situation: we were a Brit and an American in an Azeri mosque in Tbilisi speaking Turkish with the imam. And they say that life is dull.
After that highly satisfying encounter we saw a little of the old town and went back towards the hotel for dinner, where we accidently ordered enough food for an army of teachers. We ate plenty of it and saved the meat scraps for the cat lurking in the shadows waiting for the dumb foreigners to feed it. It did well that night. We then just hung out in the hotel with the entire group, or near enough to it, finishing off bottles of wine, chatting, determining fun trips and hikes for us to take once we arrived in our new homes and just enjoying the company of other English speakers before we headed out into the great unknown.

Tuesday we set off for our new lives. They sent ten of us on the bus, plus Nata who is a coordinator for TLG, the driver, and his son who came along as a porter/looking for an adventure. We had an epic race with the bus going to Adjara which included careening through a small town outside of Kutaisi, narrowly swerving to avoid hitting the cows eating out of dumpsters. The entire way animals were simply grazing by the side of the road, or preferably, ambling or lying in the middle of it. We saw goats, sheep, cows, ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys and pigs. And this was the main highway through the region I might add. We won the race too. Once in Kutaisi we split up for good and dropped off our first volunteer. We left 6 more in Samegrelo, some in their towns and some nearby. Everyone was handed off personally to their future parents and often the principal was there too. Nata spent most of the day on the phone coordinating pickup locations. Two of the volunteers got dropped off at their doorstops in Samegrelo so that meant a supra, or a feast of various foods and drinks in honor of guests. These were delicious and we had two within about an hour. And these are feasts: grits, bread, khachapuri (cheese bread) different stews, 2 or 3 types of salad, cake, wine, soda, water, fruit, you name it. Everyone was terrified that were would have another one but luckily the next volunteers were handed off without a supra. At this point only the 3 of us headed to Svaneti were left and we had left Tbilisi about 10 hours before. I was so tired but the bus ride was too beautiful to close your eyes. We had been skirting the mountains for a few hours but now we entered them and the views took your breath away. Even though the sun was setting you could still see some of the valleys and forests that covered the entire landscape. The road hugged the side of the mountain, constantly using switchbacks to climb higher and higher. Our speed slowed considerably to avoid falling off of a cliff and I started regretting how much I had eaten at those supras. We dropped off our first Svaneti volunteer with another supra, this one including a liberal dosage of whisky (not for the women, thank goodness, the altitude would have killed me) and many toasts to guests and new family. We got to Latali after about 12 hours on the road. It was decided at the last minute that I would not be placed in Latali due to a decision by TLG. I have no problem with them making said decision and I know that they had my best interests at heart. Nata was effusive in her apologies which were unnecessary. Georgia is a place where you roll with the punches. It’s largely just a question of how well you roll.  We dropped the final volunteer off about 15 minutes later and I stayed at the hotel with everyone.In the morning Nata asked if I wanted to stay in Mestia or return to the Samegrelo region to be placed there. As you can see from the pictures, Mestia has to be one of the most stunning places in the entire world, so I chose to remain here, where I will be teaching at Public school number two. I live with the principal (moved in Wednesday) and her husband’s extended family. I haven’t figured out exactly how everyone is related quite yet but I will get there. Four kids seem to belong to the household as well as an older brother who is my age and returning to Tbilisi for his studies soon, and two or three more couples. They have two dogs, a cat and at least one cow judging by the fresh milk I had this morning. And a horse apparently.
Mestia from Above
So I have information for about 6 blogs from my first days with my host family. The first day they took incredible care of me, setting me up in my room and for a nap (thank you God they understand travel fatigue) and feeding approximately 7 meals in as many hours. My host mother came in on the mashrutka and speaks beautiful English. The kids took me over to the spring behind the school and gave me some water from it which is deliciously carbonated and wonderfully cold. The fact that you drink it out of cut off two liters that have probably been there since plastic was invented is neither here nor there. This is Georgia, I reminded myself, time to adapt and just get all of the parasties that live in the water. Knock on wood, I haven’t died yet.  I discovered that we play a mean game of badminton at my house after sparring with everyone who lives here (host dad and host aunt, Ani, Saba, Niko, Nini and Lasha). It is super fun and a good way to bond/teach counting in English. My host sister seems to particularly enjoy it and my host father has decided that I am a ‘sportsman’. Hahahaha, no.It seems that the bar for women is set pretty darn low. All the better for me. My family, despite having less than 2 hours notice from “Would you host an English teacher?” to “Here she is, have a good semester!”, has taken me under their wing like I truly was one of their own. My host mother is teaching me to cook and I hope that I can also learn how to milk a cow (never thought that would make the list of skills acquired in my first year out of university). My second night she taught me how to make the Svan specialty gubdari, which is flavored meat wrapped in a basic dough that has risen overnight and then grilled on a hot surface and baked so that the meat is actually cooked. I think mine was wild goat meat, the same as I had for breakfast that morning, along with rice porridge made with fresh milk from the cow (and I mean from cow to bucket to porridge, I’m going to have the best immune system in the world when I am done with this trip). My host siblings have been sleeping late so mornings are for me and my host parents. I don’t know my host father as well but he too has taken me in and is incredibly kind to me. He calls me ‘kargigogo’ or good girl, which is the label to have around here. I have been joking with the other teacher in town not to start a blood feud with me because I have such a massive extended family (that I know of already). Both my parents are one of five, plus further extended family/friends. My first day I had so many people swing by to say hello that I had no idea who any of them were. I really still don’t, but they are associated with the family somehow.
I’ve moved to a country when helicopter parenting is not a thing, the kids of the house like to climb from the second floor to the concrete center of our compound. No one blinks an eye, so I’ve decided not to either. It’s a bit of a change from the US though, where kids can’t do anything without a bike helmet on. The kids also love to ride in the back of the pickup truck up ‘roads’ (they’re pretty generous with that description here) or even better when the host male who farms comes home with the tractor they climb in  the front and ride up the driveway while he raises it so they can see better. You’re not in Kansas anymore. The second day I hung out with the family all morning, played badminton and Lasha took me and Nini around to see some of the sights. I discovered with them the people’s tower (people meaning community rather than some sort of revolutionary movement) which is an abandoned Svan tower that is kept up so people from the community, not tourists, can enjoy it and the view. The part of me that doesn’t like heights was scared to death but the view was incredible and when the heck else am I going to climb an 11th century stone tower used by the Svans in times of upheaval. How can you say no? It was funny to watch the tourists swarming the streets below and realize that while I am in some ways a part of them as a Westerner, I am also not the same since I plan to stay and live here in Mestia rather than pass through, take a couple nice pictures and hop on a plane and leave. Long term foreigners are rare in this part of the world, in part because of the harshness of the environment but I think it is entirely worth it.
In the afternoon in the middle of a badminton game with Lasha (host brother age 21), Saba (host male cousin age 10) brought over what I affectionately call ‘the big scary dog’ (who likes me already for some reason) and started yelling in Georgian (or Svan maybe, my entire household speaks both fluently so sometimes it’s hard to tell which is being used. I will try to pick up some of both but I may end up frying my brain instead in the process. Live and learn). Lasha took big scary dog, also known as Roy and the puppy up into the garden and sicced them on some pigs which turned out to be the neighbor’s. The neighbor then poked his head out his window and started yelling at Lasha about Roy biting the pig and Lasha yelled back. Then one of my host uncles came around the corner and started yelling as well. I have no idea how the pig got back to his home but he must have done. Georgians often speak a little loudly and with passion (ie they tend to yell) so at first I was freaked out about the tension with the neighbor and then I realized that this is just how people speak and interact here. Time to adapt again.The dogs live outside and are used for protection and also perhaps for hunting, since my family seems to do that. Most people don’t have warm cuddly feelings towards animals here. If you hit a stray dog, it’s one less that could bite a child. Maybe I’m cynical and emotionally broken but you have to adjust to the world as it is. PETA doesn’t exist here and for good reason, people have other things to be concerned with than that all the stray dogs live in happy homes. Dogs don’t sleep inside here, and they aren’t for companionship. They have purposes and jobs. Ours protect the house since nothing locks and ward off strays that could do real and permanent damage. I’m ok with that. I think everyone in town will know me within a few more days, certainly I’ve been out and about with my family some and I am always introduced as ‘the English teacher’ which people are happy about so hopefully I am integrating into the community. I got a couple looks (leers) and creeper ‘hi’s’ going into town yesterday but I suspect that this will slow within not too long. People protect their family and friends around here, and being integrated into a family means that I come under their scope. Since they seem to like me, I should already be protected. It’s like creeper insurance and I suspect it will be exceptionally efficient. I tried to meet my co-teachers on the third day. The teacher’s meeting was for 11am. By 1pm it was me, my host mom who is also the principal the geography teacher the cleaner and one other woman. I went into town to meet with a long term expat and teacher who lives in Etseri down the road, which was helpful, and came home. At 4pm two more teachers had arrived. Us TLGers have started calling it GMT—Georgian Maybe Time. You can either lose your mind or accept it. You guessed it, I’m rolling with the punches. The other teachers seemed to like me a lot and the fact that I was at least working on my Georgian. Some of them tried to abduct me from the street to take me sightseeing. We had a supra to attend so I will be going on Monday I guess.
Picnic!
One of my host nieces had her third birthday so we went over to the house for cake and food and a mini-supra, since it wasn’t enough food to sink a ship. My host mom’s father and mother were there along with our family, her brother and his family and a friend who had helped to bring in the hay that day. I was offered wine and food of which both I partook. Georgians have an interesting drinking culture. You should be able to drink like a fish (a bottle of wine a person is nothing, it should be two to three, preferably homemade and when you’re 5000 feet up that’s no joke) but any overt sign of drunkenness is completely socially unacceptable. All I can say is that these Georgian men could teach the frat boys at MSU a thing or two about putting it away. I sipped where they finished their glasses for the toasts, which come in a predetermined order (to God, Georgia, men, women, friends, the dear departed, those far away etc etc. I don’t think I got the order right but I know God comes first. For the dear departed you pour a little wine on the ground/floor or onto your plate with some bread. It’s rather beautiful). I was encouraged to drink much more, but I was firm, no need to break social taboos by stumbling out of a three year old’s birthday. I am proud to say that all I was at the end was a little red in the face. My Big 10 education has at last come to good use. They didn’t get out the chacha, (a hard liquor based on various fruits) which was good because I would have been sunk then. Then we drove like lunatics down the unpaved road on which I now live to pick something up at the next village.

 On Saturday I wanted to see some of the town. So my host mother woke Lasha up and sent us on a hike up to the cross above the city (Jvari). It ended up being just the two of us since the other adults had actual work to do. The hike took about two hours to get to the top and consisted of me having 16 heart attacks and being ready to fall over and die. The next day Lasha and his friend Lasha ran it in 30 minutes. Freaks.We got water from various springs on the way up, but I didn’t know how far apart these were going to be. I think it is a strictly BYOG hike (bring your own Georgian) since none of the springs are marked. We ate some fresh hazelnuts and blueberries on the way up as well. Lasha eventually filled a liter bottle with water for me since being the stupid foreigner I needed a ton of it. I don’t know if anyone has done a study of Svans as a high altitude people but they really should. Lasha wasn’t winded even though he was carrying our stuff and he hardly needed any water. I felt like I was in the worse shape of my life. I think part of it is that when you start at 5000ft any climb gets way the heck too high for a girl from Michigan. At least the walk to school will feel like a piece of cake. After a million water and Hannah’s lungs are going to explode breaks we made it to the cross where a couple of German tourists were having a picnic. We stopped for a couple of pictures and then Lasha directed us further down the road (more up, I thought I was going to kill myself) and towards a pasture with a bunch of houses that had kind of fallen down. Apparently it’s the family’s grazing land and all of the huts belong to various members. Lasha has one himself. We settled into a picnic that Nato, my host mom, had packed and which consisted of matsoni (sour yogurt), tomatoes and cucumber with salt, bread, the water we had grabbed and chacha. It was delicious and perfect, with no tourists as far as the eye can see and a view that took my breath away. I can see why Svans hate to leave, to say that this place is achingly beautiful is to seriously undersell it. We sat and ate and chatted in a broken English Georgian mix (he speaks more English than me Georgian but not a ton. I think we both understand better than speak but that doesn’t help much when it comes to conversation). We ended up having a three hour picnic which is just as well given that we had plenty ofchacha for the two of us. It certainly meant that my Georgian got better as the conversation progressed. We enjoyed the sunshine (I’m badly sunburnt on my face but totally worth it) and walked down to be home about 7 hours after we left. We had dinner and now as a family are sitting and watching the news, chatting and just hanging out.
Me and Lasha, note me looking like death and he is fine
I went to church with Nini on Sunday morning. I made sure not to eat beforehand because Orthodox tradition is to fast until Eucharist.  I wouldn’t be able to partake since I’m not orthodox anyway, but I feel like I should still follow the practices. I managed to dress appropriately too, so points for Hannah. I apparently still have my ‘kargigogo’ (good girl) image so that’s something to continue to strive for since it makes my life so much easier. Anyway, I was up in time and Nini and I set off a little bit late. We actually did a bit of a church tour, we went to the new church up on the hill first, which I had thought was only for baptisms and weddings, but apparently no. Then we went to the neighborhood church, which was smaller, more ornate and more full. It also didn’t have any tourists in it, which I kind of liked. It felt a little more genuine though I still feel like a fish out of water in the orthodox practice. The whole moving around during the service and then just leaving when you’re in the mood, weirds me out. I’m Lutheran, we sit stay and leave when it’s over. However, the music in the churches around here is so overwhelmingly angelically mystically beautiful. The upper Svaneticommunity is famous for polyphonic singing, which is so difficult to explain to someone who has never heard it. In our world music is centered on the melody with a little harmony thrown in sometimes. Polyphonic music is completely harmony-centric. Singers will each be singing their own harmony, which means that when you have 5 singers you have 5 parts working together but separately at the same time. It is indescribable until you hear it. I suggest youtubing ‘Georgian polyphonic singing’ immediately because it is one of the most amazing things you will ever experience. To hear it in person, in a church smelling of beeswax, incense and people is perhaps one of the most otherworldly things a person can experience. I plan on being a regular churchgoer here, and not just to help my reputation.
Did I mention that it's beautiful here?
TRIGGER WARNING: For the super animal lovers out there, you might want to stop here, it’s about to get real.

And then we went home, ate, hung out and just as I was thinking that it was going to be a super boring day, Gocha,my host father rolled up in his pickup truck with a couple of friends and a calf tied in the back. My first reaction, being a stupid foreigner was “oh how cute” and I went over to pet it. I don’t know how old it was, but maybe a couple of months. It was perhaps as tall as my mid-thigh, and its head was about my waist. As I went up I noticed that the calf was male, which seemed weird since we only keep cows. And then my host father went into the house and started sharpening a knife. This was my cue to not get too attached to this particular animal. And so it proved. The kids of the house were super excited about the whole process, which was a certain level of disturbing to me, but then I decided, this is their life, who am I to judge. I considered leaving for the interim, since I had no idea how this was exactly going to go but I had a pretty darn good guess. But since I am an omnivore and have never turned down beef in my life I decided that I would stay. I come from the hard-core carnivore camp, and I firmly believe (at least for myself) that if I’m not willing to admit that it was once a living breathing animal on your plate, I probably shouldn’t be eating it. We have gotten very far removed from this in the West but I figure it’s time to reclaim it. So I stayed. I will say that the men involved in the process were incredibly respectful towards the animal and what it meant. A shot of chacha was shared. Everyone who was going to be involved in the process crossed themselves. And the calf was dispatched. I never realized just how red blood really is. Crimson doesn’t even begin to describe it. Vivid, pulsating red. I apologize for disturbing those of you reading this, but it really was something new to me. I was worried how I would take it, but frankly everyone respected what was going on. These are hardy people up in the hills, and they know what it means to take a life. But frankly you can’t survive here without meat, particularly through the winter since so little will grow here. And so meat is your only option. And so animals must become food. They did their best to make it quick, painless and without fear for the animal. While I cannot say for sure that it was all those things, a best attempt was made. I don’t know that we do it any better in a factory farm with an abattoir attached. The calf was quickly skinned and the organs removed. We ended up eating the heart lungs liver and I think kidneys. I helped prepare them after watching how the calf was butchered. I’m going to get some hate mail for this, but it was pretty delicious. The men had a mini-supra (three in three days, I’m on a roll) and I was invited to partake of the wine with them. It was delicious and I again was able to keep up my part. I sipped where they finished the glass and was encouraged to drink more. But at least I had a pretty good idea of what the toasts were this time.

I think I’m going to love it here and love my family more than I can say. Sorry that this is a million miles long but a lot happens in a week in Georgia. You’ve got to roll with the punches.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Georgia

View from Narikala Fortress of Georgian Church Architecture
Welcome to Tbilisi! It is a stunningly gorgeous place, with some of the most beautiful buildings, architecture, public art and scenery that I have ever seen. The river runs through the middle of town like a heartbeat, but it doesn’t divide it. While I am by no means an expert yet, it seems to me as though the city simply continues on over the river, expecting it, anticipating it, enjoying it. This is a city that has been conquered at least 15 times in its history. It has different expectations that the rest of us. The newest onslaught, in the form of tourists with guidebooks and buses, pales in comparison to the brutality of the past. The architecture is a wonderful blur of Persian, Ottoman, Imperial Russian, Soviet bloc, modern weirdness and traditional Georgian architecture, which is most evident in its churches. But the time should not just to be spent looking up, because come down to eye level and you will have the chance to meet some Georgians, who are some of the kindest, friendliest and most helpful people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. While smiling to people on the street in seen as socially unacceptable, staring completely is. I have gotten some stares. On the bus the social barriers break down and people begin to chat. Once we started our Georgian classes and could have extensive conversations like “Hello, thank you, excuse me, pleasure to meet you” whichever Georgian you are conversing with, or alternatively the entire bus, since they are all watching you, will turn and smile broadly at you and your attempt at their language. Since no one ever tries, your three or four word vocabulary places you far in front of the pack.

Central Tbilisi
All of the new volunteers are training together right now. There are approximately 40 of us, about 60% female and all but one under 25 years old. We have two Brits, a South African and two or three Canadians, with Americans making up the majority. We had a few days free as people arrived from their various places, all of us with ridiculously long layovers in various cities (mine was Warsaw, 10 hours). I went into the old city, saw the Mtsaminda Cathedral, walked up to various churches in the hills above the city, walked along the river and took the funicular down from the amusement park. We started training on Monday morning, with three to four 50-minute Georgian classes and 2 or 3 classes covering cultural differences, teaching methodology or program information. The Georgian classes are going well, but I have become so accustomed to the intensity of classes with 2 students that being with 18 other people, many of whom have little to no other language experience can be slow. I expect the attitude to be ‘keep up or drop out’. Many people are overwhelmed by the amount of information but I know that they’ll be fine. We can figure we’ll be working from 9am to 5pm with coffee breaks or lunch in between every program. We get fed at the hotel three times a day, consisting of bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, meat stew of some kind, potato salad, and some form of carb (bulgar, potato, pasta rice) and a stew of some variety featuring pork most frequently. At dinner we always get fed either khacapuri or lobiani, which is bread with cheese or beans baked in respectively. After training we often go out and explore the city more. We saw more of the Old City, ate delicious Georgian food and drank delicious Georgian wine and went up to the Narikala Fortress which sits above the city. We took the cable car down just after the sun set, sending us over the river just as the lights of the city started to twinkle on. Tbilisi has a very laid back feel, with people in no rush to get any particular place in any particular time, and the buses leave whenever they are in the mood. The flexibility (read: chillness) about the linear and concrete nature of time could be frustrating if I weren’t so used to it. My time in both Turkey and Azerbaijan has prepared me for stuff to start when it does. So too did Baku prepare me for Tbilisi traffic, which can be frenetic at the best of times and overwhelming at the worst.
Monastery in Mtskheta, with Georgian National
Flag (left) and the Georgian Ecclesiastic Flag

Probably my favorite things that we have done so far happened in the past 24 hours. Last night, knowing that we had a field trip today, we went out into town to a restaurant which was supposed to have traditional Georgian folk dancing, but in the end did not. Even better, they had polyphonic singing which is a Georgian practice recognized by UNESCO and featured on one of the space flights. It is practiced only by men and is achingly beautiful to listen to. I can only look forward to listening to much much more if it. Today we went into Mtskheta, which was the former capital of the Georgian kingdom and still has some of the most important churches and monasteries in the country. Jvari monastery is the site where Saint Nino planted the first cross in Georgia and monks still live and work the church. We got to go into the town of Mtskheta and visit the church and walls surrounding it, and walk through the cobblestoned streets full of poorly translated tourist signs. A priest inside the church read the liturgy and the side alcoves smelled deliciously of incense. Orthodox churches always have a certain mystery to me, in part probably because I don’t fully understand everything that is going on around me. I like the coldness of stone walls, and the contrast of the bright frescoes and jewel adorned icons. The flicker of candlelight contrasts to the streams of light coming in through open doors. I find even tourists fall silent in the sanctuary of the stone walls. In Jvari Monastery we were awed not just by the octagonal walls but by the stunning views from the mountaintop, of rivers, of towns and of some wonderful cows eating on the hillside. We then drove down the road and had a spectacularly enormous and delicious picnic of Georgian food, sitting on the ground next to a corn/sunflower field. The people on this program have proved themselves to be intelligent, passionate, fascinating, insightful, dedicated, and motivated. The staff of TLG have put in longer hours than any US bureaucrat has ever even heard of. They are always available, they know us all by sight and they want us so badly to be happy and to love their nation and its people. I cannot imagine people more willing to bend over backwards to make us happy despite the fact that they have hired us to work for them. They picked me up at the airport at 4 o’clock in the morning, they made sure that we always have more water food and coffee than we know what to do with, they help us figure out how to get into the city, to get back afterwards and to keep us comfortable and happy in our placements.
Cathedral in Central Tbilisi
Speaking of  placements, we found out yesterday where we were going and pandemonium erupted. It was almost like we found out that we got into med school or something similar. We got our regional maps since many of us are so far off the beaten path you can’t find it on a larger one. I myself will be heading to Latali, Upper Svaneti region. https://www.google.ge/maps/place/Mestia/@43.0443635,42.7089859,14z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x405bd976dbdf6305:0xd4e140f4c76dc486?hl=en (This is the nearest I can find in google)  It is a small town not far from either the Russian or Abkhazian borders, but the region is famous for being utterly unconquerable. It is very high, with little below 1500 meters. The information on my town is pretty much nonexistent. No Wikipedia page, nothing in my guidebook. Essentially to get to where I am, you take a bus to the boonies, transfer and get off at the stix, transfer and get off in Latali. I’m thrilled to be in a small community high up in the mountains in the part of Georgia that many Georgians regard as the most ‘true’ form of their culture and national character. My village is also famous for its singers and I am near some of the most beautiful hiking trails in the nation. The road ends fewer than 3 miles from my community. Time to dust off my coat, get ready to learn some Svan (fairly unintelligible to most Georgians) and get cracking. I cannot wait to leave on Tuesday and meet my host family, see my school and get going on teaching, planning and integrating into my community. Most details to come!