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.

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 Chivalry probably sounds exceptionally outdated as a concept to most Americans, particularly those of my generation.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!