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 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.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Hannah
    Your globe-trotting adventures crack me up! O.K., I'm also intrigued and envious. Your descriptions are as delightful as the pictures.
    Take care Good Girl English Teacher! Blessings, PamKO