About the Blog

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

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


So the celebration that happened the day when I had just gotten back to Georgia has a name. I cannot currently recall it but I will write it down in the very near future and put it here. We had another similar but more elaborate festival on Saturday evening, on a day Americans and the West reserve for the frivolity of Valentine’s Day. Nato spent the day cooking furiously, I tutored the kids and got Nika to read English without the threat of violence. In fact he did so willingly. The children’s treasury I brought is coming in handy already. We set up the supra for the dead at home, but I personally decided to take part in the other side of the ritual.
St George's Cemetery
Round about 7 Gocha, Manana Bidzola (an aunt) Ani Nika Saba Nini myself and Tiko (host sister studying in Tbilisi but home on holiday) piled into the car and drove to the cemetery next to St George’s church—my favorite one. Gocha’s parents, brother and a couple other clan members are buried in the churchyard. Lasha had brought wood over earlier. We carried qubdari, khachapuri, ghomi (the consistency of grits but made of rice, with cheese added) cake, wine and beer. Another clan member brought mandarins, one chacha, and one a whole pig’s head in a pot. The fire had already been lit in the Kakhberidze plot and the snow tamped down so we could walk. Our clan had at least 20 people there, between men women and children. In the whole cemetery there were at least 250 people and a dozen fires. All of the clan members knew me at least by sight, and most by name and to talk to as well. I teach all the school age kids in the clan do they’ve at least heard of Hannah Mas. I was certainly readily accepted as someone who should be there with them, not just some tourist brought along for cultural gawking. We toasted ate and talked. I pulled out my limited Svan and any final skepticism of my presence among the older men converted into wide smiles. Men and women stayed to their own sides of the platforms carved of snow for the feasts. People moved about, some greeting friends and neighbors, but always returning to their clan plot, their kin. I chatted with Tiko who speaks fluent English. Selfies were taken. We had a mid-winter picnic in the cemetery.
And it has to have been one of the most beautiful spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. In the depths of winter, in the dark of night, the city of the dead was transformed into the center of the community. Kids played in the snow and threw more wood on the fires. Adults were solemn, but laughed and joked with one another, particularly as the evening wore on and the various bottles emptied. Everyone was included. The fires in the snow and our veins kept up warm. My fifth grader Monica informed me that she likes beer as she chugged a glass like a champ. I kept thinking how if you were to carry out this commemoration in the US someone would call the cops. But there’s nothing sacrilegious about it, quite the contrary. But why not remember those we’ve lost, those we love, not by sitting around moping and being sad but getting out of the house, getting together with family and friends and having some fun? When I’m dead I’d rather people remember me that way. Lamproba is a tradition only followed in Svaneti and only certain parts of it at that. On a sketch comedy show here in Georgia, I saw it ridiculed. Other Georgians sometimes view Svans as idiots, but also as old-fashioned, even backwards. I hope this tradition stays alive; to lose it is to lose something beautiful both physically and spiritually. We’ll see if it can survive.
The kids at Lamproba L to R Saba, Nini, Bidzina, little brother who isn't my student, Bendo, Nika
The other big news from up here in Svaneti is that Skylar managed to have a bit of a health crisis while visiting us. He felt unwell one morning, which we assumed was just a hangover. He felt pretty bad the whole day, and then around 9pm we heard a thump from upstairs. I went up and found him semiconscious on the floor. Gocha and Nato proceeded to yell at me, assuming I had lied to them about his state of health, while also getting him back to bed, giving him medicine, hot water bottles and calling the ambulance. This arrived promptly and the various neighbors/relatives who had bene milling about carried him in and then drove with Gocha in the car so they could move him into the clinic here in Mestia. I spent the remainder of Sunday, all of Monday and Tuesday morning at the clinic with him, feeding, moving, helping, cajoling, entertaining and translating for him.
 I discovered that health care in Georgia is dirt cheap (total cost of ambulance ride, 2 nights in clinic, treatments there, 4 types of pills to take home, an x-ray and a blood test? Less than 100 USD) but also feels quite haphazard by US standards. For example there is no patient chart. Each new nurse or doctor who arrives just asks the patient what’s going on. Treatments are essentially bought at the pharmacy and then transported down the hall to be administered. The nursing staff can be difficult to find, so at one point I had to turn off an IV to prevent air from going into Skylar’s bloodstream. They didn’t have a sharps container, which frankly scared me half to death. They allowed me to stay in the room while he had his x-ray which I’m fairly certain in a big no no in the US. We had to bring our own food (and bedding), which blessedly Nato was willing to do. The khachapuri tasted delicious. Check-out consisted of packing up our stuff, Gocha turning up and us peacing out. No paperwork. No final check, just off you go. We never got an official diagnosis, or one that we understood since frankly my hospital vocab consists of the body parts, pain, better, worse, and pill. It doesn’t help that our new insurance cards haven’t arrived yet (apparently they’re coming from Tbilisi, on the back of a tortoise considering how long it’s taken thus far) so I had to run to the ATM Monday morning to get cash to pay for everything.
Two Aunts and Ani
Asmat, my Svan tutor’s Mom works at the hospital thank goodness so she shepherded me around to various offices to pay for stuff, get drugs, and to explain in slow and easy Georgian, when and how many of everything Skylar should take and watched as I wrote everything down for him on the packages. After we brought him home for the afternoon and night I took care of laundry, some food and getting his room cleaned up. I will say, at least the clinic here didn’t have that disinfectant smell that hospitals in the US always have and that sets my flesh crawling. I was still very glad to get back to school on Wednesday, even if I was physically dragging myself through the day. All my teachers asked how my friend was, as did two of my senior boys. I’ve realized that probably a big part of why people here stay home from school work etc with small illnesses is that it is imperative to keep them from becoming crises. In the US, exceptionally high quality medical care is never that far away (I’m not saying that everyone has access to it, I’m saying in purely geographic terms it exists). Here, the nearest actual hospital is 3+ hours by car on terrible roads. The Mestia clinic has the absolute basics, but not much more. It’s not worth risking an emergency, because it might just cost you your life.

I also tried my hand at skiing for the first time and miraculously managed to not kill myself. I actually had quite a fun time, despite running into an inordinate number of my students while wiped out and trying to determine how to get up from my heap on the snow. Another reminder that while I have many skills in the US few of them transfer here. My plan for getting home from Hatsvali, the ski resort, consisted of finding a ride with someone else going to Mestia, since that’s the only place to go. While this might sound a little haphazard it worked perfectly. Three young Svan men from Tbilisi were going back into town which they were visiting and offered me a lift (I was with my friend Skylar so don’t worry for my safety). We spoke in a strange combination of Georgian and English and they were surprised to learn that I was an English teacher and not a tourist. This broke the ice and they asked where I taught. When I said Mestia their eyes grew wide in the way that Georgian’s usually do when you say you willingly live in Svaneti, and even more surprising, that you love it there. They absolutely floored me with their next statement: “You are heroes”.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

So it's cold in Svaneti...

But what else has happened since my return to Georgia, you might ask. Oh, many things. My return to school was good; my students seemed genuinely pleased to have me back as did the other teachers. As it turns out I only missed 6 days of school so I still now pretty well where my kids were. I was really excited to get back to my Access kids, who are between 13 and 17 years old and hail from both Mestia and the nearby village of Lenjeri. I have a ton of freedom teaching them (3-7 M,W,F but the hours are a little different right now because of the cold and dark). I can try different activities, do group work, make jokes that the students will understand have listening activities etc. The longer classes mean we get a lot more done and there seems to be a bigger focus on oral and aural comprehension which is how I’ve been taught languages so I’m better at replicating those techniques. I think the kids were pleased to see me back too. I have 2 session, the first can be anywhere from 8 to 15 students and the second is 7-9, most of them from Lenjeri.

                I’ve also decided to worry less this semester. If my 2nd graders act up, well then, they do. They’re 7 years old. It’s not a personal insult to my teaching abilities. Its kids being kids. If the 6th graders get under my skin, welcome to the club. They made the Russian teacher cry the other day , so it’s hardly just me. And if someone makes a comment about my Georgian, or so and so other foreigner who spoke perfect Georgian, bite me. I never said I was a linguist. I have the tendency to hide my emotions but then I remember that this is Georgia. Let it all hang out, everybody else does. If I’m angry I can be angry, tired, frustrated ditto. If I’m sad it’s not a character failing to cry. Life is often an emotional rollercoaster here; I may as well put my hands up and scream.
                 We also, the Thursday I got back, celebrated my host brother Lasha’s 22nd birthday. We spent a large chunk of Wednesday evening preparing (though when I say we I wasn’t really terribly useful) and then when I got back from school on Thursday I found Nato, Teona (an aunt) Manana (another aunt) the neighbor and a 5th woman I’d never met before in our kitchen getting ready for the evening. Upstairs a couple guys were there already and the table was laid for 15 or so. My usefulness consisted of doing some dishes and carrying stuff upstairs. On one trip Nini, who was playing backgammon with them called me over “Hannah, this boy is interested in what your name is”. And so the evening began. On one of my frequent trips upstairs the kids (Nini, Ani, Saba, Nika and a girl called Mari) followed me around giggling the whole time. They aahed to explain that they were my bodyguard for the evening, here to protect my honor from all the various young men who would be here that might want to steal it. Or something to that effect. They then followed me into my room (I sleep on the 2nd floor and the birthday supra was to ne in the room/hallway outside my door) and pantomimed ‘if a boy drags you in here and onto the bed we’ll beat him up’. It’s good to know that they kids of the house have your back.  Not that I would ever have been worried about anything of the kids, all of the other guys at the party would have already taken it out of the offender pretty well by then. They were also all good kind sweet young men and being a young professional as I am here (please don’t laugh) I seem to hold a certain place of respect in their eyes.

I started the evening downstairs eating with the women. The kids were given gubdari and scampered back upstairs to watch the guys. It was discussed when I should join the young people upstairs and decided that when the other females arrived I would be sent up. I protested, it wasn’t necessary, but you don’t mess with Svan women. We did a few of our own toasts downstairs. Women seem to have different traditions than men. A toast would be introduced and each person would elaborate on the theme, in this case the first toast was to Lasha. Each woman, including myself added our good wishes to his future health and happiness and then drank our glass. The girls arrived (3 of Lasha’s old classmates, plus myself) and I was dragged upstairs by Manana to hang out with the young people. Misha had been chosen as the tamada, or toastmaster and he did a good job of it. He was stationed at the head of the table with Lasha on his right. I was at the other end next to a quiet Georgian girl called Mari. The kanchi, or hollowed out horns from a sheep or goat that are used as drinking vessels at supras, were being passed around the table. They have their own special rules and regulations. At formal supras they are only offered to men. They are filled typically with wine, occasionally with liquor, and the man who has either requested or been given the kanchi stands and gives a toast to the gathering. He then drinks the full horn, turning it as he goes so he doesn’t dump anything down his shirtfront and holds it upside down at the end to show that it’s empty. Since this supra was less formal, everyone was expected to toast with the kanchi at least once and so Mari and I toasted and ended up following another Georgian tradition whereby you link arms at the elbow and then drink together, still holding your own container. I apparently acquitted myself well enough to earn some praise from around the table. The terrifying experience of having to give a toast over, the evening continued. There was dancing, mainly to American and Russian pop and some singing (in Georgian, all male, polyphonic and impressively good considering how far into the evening we were at this point). And then some more dancing, some more drinking, and more eating. I escaped less than half an hour before the party broke up at about 4:30am after help from my host brother. The excuse of “I have to go to school tomorrow” didn’t convince anyone much. And I did go to school the next day, slightly tired but clear headed and free from any aftereffects of the night.

                And most recently, on the 3rd of February, I got to take place in another intersecting tradition, one that apparently exists only for two families in Mestia. I attended with my host family the litbli, or clan supra for the Kakhberidze’s and Xergiani’s. One of my first graders, Kakha, belongs to the same clan as my family and made sure to invite me to the supra 3 times during class. It made my co-teacher laugh since he rather pointedly only invited me to join. Nini and Ani went with me quite early in the afternoon, round about 2 to the home where the litbli was being hosted. I did my best to help in the preparations but I quickly discovered that my most useful attribute was keeping the kids occupied, so I did for at least an hour and a half. There was quite the brood there, Nini, Ani, Saba, Nika, Keso, Monika, Bidzina and Kakha and two more boys who aren’t my students. Little Kakha was thrilled that I had taken up his offer to come and the kids wanted to sing the songs I’ve taught them in class, play duck duck goose and then we went to the park in Lanchvali, the neighborhood up the road from me. I escaped and got a couple minutes to sit and rest before the supra began at around 4:30. This was a much more formal affair. Two long tables were set up—men at one and women at the other. The men were putting it away in a determined manner, with the toasts, largely in Svan, coming fast and furious. The tamada held up jars of raki, a liquor similar to schnapps, and used them to toast. For most of these, every man got to his feet and removed his headgear. The women were not required to drink for the toasts, and largely didn’t pay much attention to them. Instead every so often a chunk of the table would offer a toast and drink as a unit. A couple of times we got shushed by the men since they were wishing the best for the future of the families and we were having a good chat. The food was delicious and I ate far too much and enjoyed listening to the conversations around me and understand a great deal of it. A couple of the people at the surpa didn’t know me, but soon ascertained who I was and I was welcomed and accepted as an honorary member of the clan, who should of course, celebrate its future. I had a lovely evening and was glad to have been made a part of this very specific tradition.