|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.
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|