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.

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.
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


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!