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.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mary’s Visit: Part I

It has been brought to my attention that I am a horrible sister. Therefore, for Mary and Mom, here you go. It just takes a while to write these up, and life has been a little crazy recently.

At the Cathedral in Tbilisi
The saga of my sister’s trip to Georgia begins, as all good sagas should, with a bit of a rough patch. Namely, my marshrutka (marsh from now on out, because I am too lazy to type the entire Russian word for minibus/ a special state of being) ride. If you have ever wondered what the 8th circle of hell looks like I can now tell you. It starts with waking up to 5:15am in the morning, to get picked up at 5:30. The only reasons anyone should ever be up at this time is a transcontinental flight or a potentially fatal gas leak, and you had better make darn sure it is potentially fatal. I will readily admit, I am not an early riser. The marsh was late to pick me up and we didn’t leave Mestia until 7am. The realization that I could have slept for another hour, walked to the center, and still made the bus, was to say the least, a mite dispiriting. We were completely full by the time we were 20km out of town. I was wedged in between the driver and another guy up front, which helps prevent motion sickness but also makes sleeping impossible. Bad Russian pop alternated with bad 80s love ballads, playing on loop. The whole trip. Two babies in the seat directly behind me cried and screamed at random intervals so that you could never get used enough to it for it to stop bothering you. They eventually started playing their own games on a phone, adding another special element to the noise. It was exceptionally hot, at least for me, but I keep my sleeves rolled down for as long as possible because I had a henna tattoo on my inner arm and kargi gogos definitely do NOT have tattoos. Eventually I figured, forget it, I’m about to pass out from heat stroke these guys can think whatever they like about me. I really wanted to just get off that hellish marsh, but I was also sure in the knowledge that I would just have to get on another one in order to get to Tbilisi. Our driver got pulled over by the cops and it turns out he doesn’t have a license. Whoops. He then continued driving. I finally reached the city, got swindled out of 2 lari (80 cents) by a cab driver and was too tired to argue over it and collapsed into my bed in the hostel at 5pm. The next day I got things ready for Mary’s arrival, did paperwork and ended up having to hitchhike to the airport because I couldn’t find the correct bus to take me there. After the driver found out I was a teacher in Svaneti he offered to help me with anything he could in Tbilisi. His son fences at Notre Dame, just to prove that this is a small and complicated world.
Nini got to play dress up
After causing a minor scene in the airport when my sister arrived and probably confusing every Georgian in the place by the fact that the twins were being reunited I brought her into Tbilisi and fed her before she collapsed in the way that is inevitable with an 8 hour time difference. We spent Monday Tuesday and Wednesday wandering around Tbilisi and enjoying the city. We discovered an inordinate number of lovely cafes and holes in the wall, eating far too much ice cream and bread products, window shopping for icons and Soviet kitsch and visiting the Georgian National Museum with one hall devoted to “The Museum of Soviet Occupation”. Actually we went to the museum two days since halfway into our first visit the electricity went out for the block and that museum is creepy as all get out in the dark. When we explained the next day why we wanted our tickets to still be valid we were waved right in, but of course, please enjoy our museum. It was so wonderful to have my sister visit for so many reasons (Reeses Peanut Butter cups anyone?). It was good to be reminded about my ‘other’ life. I sometimes forget about the life that I have in the US. As silly as it sounds, because life in Mestia is so different it’s easier to just compartmentalize and turn it into different lives, Georgia life and America life, than to try reconcile the two. It was wonderful to speak with someone who knows me as well or better than anyone on the planet. It was great to laugh and be silly and generally be a 22 year old woman with all the freedom in the world, and a bank account so she can enjoy it. It was great to show someone around what I think of as ‘my’ country (as least within my friend and family group) and to share its charms with someone I love. Living in a place like Georgia, you feel a little like you have to prove why you like it. People go to Europe because they do, but other parts of the world you have to have a reason, finding yourself or writing your novel or whatever. You can’t just like it there, something specific has to make you happy. I got to show my sister some of these things, like the incredible kindness of strangers, the food, the festivity, the scenery, the piety and history, the friends that I’ve made here. It was also good to see Georgia from a fresh perspective again. At this point much of what seemed incredible to me seems normal, so a new arrival can articulate Georgia far better than I can.
I love how epic Ani and I look in this picture
Mary aptly described Tbilisi as a strange mix of Central Europe and Calcutta—almost Europe but the occasional scent of exotic spices, the Persian lift of arches and the general air of “it’ll happen when it’ll happen” belies something a little further east. I also introduced her to Borjomi mineral water, and found a convert. Georgia, you’d better start imports to Baltimore. We were given lilacs one night by the lilac and cucumber vendor outside our window for being a) pretty b) female and c) Georgian speaking. They were lovely and smelled great. I took Mary inside her first mosque ever and the caretaker was super nice about it. I then proceeded to blow her mind by explaining its used by both Sunnis and Shias ever since the Shia mosque was blown up by the Bolsheviks. This is the equivalent to Catholics and Anglicans getting together in say, Northern Ireland, and worshipping in the same building. Georgia’s different like that. We also visited a synagogue and any number of beautiful churches, finishing at Sameba, the beautiful new Cathedral of the Trinity up on a hill, completed only in 1998.
It had occasionally been noted that my sister and I share a slight resemblance
After three days in Tbilisi we took the night train to Zugdidi and then the morning marsh to Mestia. We discovered the $11 for first class is more than worth it. I became a complete convert to Georgian Railways and I plan on taking it rather than the marsh whenever possible. I got very annoyed with the tourists on the marsh and got maybe a little too judgy, surprising even my sister with my cynicism, which takes quite a bit. One interesting and unexpected thing I have learned here in Georgia is exactly how to get my bitch on. Don’t get me wrong, the nice Midwestern girl is still there, but I’ve got a bit more edge now, and I no longer feel bad letting you know exactly what I think. I frankly get annoyed with tourists though, especially because once they start showing up, they assume that I am part of their crew. Georgians easily make the distinction though. Also, I find it funny when I speak Georgian with other locals on the marsh and the tourists then English-speaking tourists try to ask in broken Russian how to do things. Typically this ends with the driver turning to me and going “Translate please”.  Once in Mestia I settled Mary in for a nap and did some work around the house. That afternoon we went to Access and she got to meet some of my students and then we went to the wedding. Poor Mary was freezing cold up here in Mestia, and I will readily admit it’s a tough transition from Tbilisi to Mestia. I had been boiling in Tbilisi so I was pretty comfortable in Mestia but I had to layer Mary up pretty well before she could go to the wedding. Everyone was very shocked to see my double at the wedding with me, but since I had told people my sister was coming they were also delighted to get to meet her. We made the rounds of the wedding tent and were personally ensconced at the bachelor table by two of my students. They are apparently going to be working more actively on finding me a husband. I got my Georgian on and urged my sister to “eat eat” and “drink drink”. The geography teacher from my school was the tamada and when I asked one of my friends at the bachelor table whether he was related to the bride or groom he replied “both”. Of course. My friend Dato gave Mary a ride home when she got tired and I went back to the wedding for a little more festivity before coming home for some well-earned rest. 

This is what the kids look like in my mind all the time

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The thaw has begun and other random observations

Welcome back to a day in my Svaneti life. Since random things happen all the time there is no such thing as an ‘average day’. Let me give you a couple examples. Two Mondays ago I went on a long glorious solo walk. I had wanted to catch some sun which then disappeared behind the clouds and left me freezing cold, but it was good to be alone for a bit and enjoy the silence. I came back after only 2 hours or so since I was about to turn into an icicle. What I ended up coming home to was a pair of oxen hooked up in the yard, with Nika at the helm. I will remind you that Nika is 7 year old and 3 feet tall only on a good day. He was affectionately slapping the oxen’s’ heads and invited me to do the same. He then turned to the darker of the pair and said “this one is angry”. Good, good Nika, maybe let’s not play with the angry massive animal with horns. But whatever. I thought maybe we needed to fetch more wood or hay, since oxen sledges are the favorite way to do both of these activities (dead serious, there was a minor traffic jam once in the center because the oxen team had dragged a pair of logs across the road and then gotten stuck). Instead Gari Bidza brought the iron plow over from the neighbors and he Gocha and Nika proceeded to plow the front and back gardens. With oxen. How this works I discovered is that one guy leads the oxen, the other puts most of his weight onto the plow and almost falls over the furrows every turn and the small child smacks the oxen when they stop moving. And the token American watches and considers how she could turn this into a convincing grad school essay about how she was raised Amish. There’s a life skill I never expected to learn. But I now believe that given a little hands on practice I could plow your yard for you.
It gets harder and harder to write these posts, not because nothing happens but because things that I do seem normal, rather than extraordinary. While in Tbilisi, the capital, recently I went to Carrefour, a Western-style supermarket that expats go to for curry powder, brown sugar and avocados. Frankly, this place seemed far more extraordinary than slaughtering a pig in the backyard the day after Easter. The idea of purchasing meat in little plastic and Styrofoam packages blows my mind. Being able to get out of season fruits (ie anything in the winter). I remember reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a kid and she got an orange for Christmas. At the time I thought ‘big whoop, it’s an orange’. After having now experienced a winter sans-citrus (cabbage was a special treat) I’m thinking “Schmoly you got an orange?!?!”. That particular passage makes sense to me now. The idea having everything you could possibly want available at your fingertips, the incredible variety of foods, and of brands of the same food, nope nope nope. Essentially if you know what’s good for you, don’t take me to a Sam’s Club upon my return to the US for at least 3 months.  The same goes for entertainment (Netflix is going to be insane), infrastructure (I’m so used to the power going out it doesn’t faze me. I’ve also turned off the heater in my room and gotten rid of my third blanket. It’s not even 60 most days but it’s too hot to sleep), health and hygiene (I can buy floss somewhere less than 3 hours away and can speak to the doctor) and a million other little things. Going from the end of the world to a University that’s at least 10x the size of Mestia is going to be…a transition. I apologize in advance for everyone who has to deal with my crazy upon my return. It’s not my fault, reverse culture shock is just worse than culture shock. I think it’s because you feel like “Ok, this should be easy, this is home, this is what I grew up with” but then it still feels so foreign and you start thinking that it’s YOU who’s broken and not just a little lost.
Piggy was delicious by the way, and I was very impressed with how quickly my host father dispatched it. I was expecting the process to be kind of awful, since pigs make a lot more noise than calves and they also squeal. But the animal was silence within 15 seconds, the blood was collected by Saba (11) and then the animal was bathed, shaved and then the rest of the hair burned off by my host father and his friends in the yard. We then ate the organs—the heart was a little overcooked but the rest were quite good. We have a ram in the yard now that has a date with the chopping block though for the time being it’s just hanging out with one of the new calves. I kind of hope we don’t eat this calf since he’s super cute, brown and white spotted.
 My sister came and visited for 10 days here in Georgia and I brought her up to Svaneti to meet my family and see where I am living. She walked into our main room and her first observation was “it’s like Little House on the Prairie but with a flat screen TV”. This is a true statement, but I hadn’t really thought of my life like that for a long time. It’s just, you know, my life. We went to a wedding supra and my sister was astounded by the number of people (later I was told about 800), the amount of food, the sounds of Georgian and Svan swirling around us, the kids who pointedly placed us at the bachelor table (I think they were maybe bribed), the music and dancing, the fact that you just dig in and the massive amounts of alcohol on offer. To me, it was a wedding, a fun event to get dressed up for. And I did—a new dress and a new lipstick color. If you have ever wondered how to make a situation awkward for all involved I can tell you having a clump of your 10th and 11th grade boys call you over “Hannah Mas!” and then give you a thumbs up and a “very nice” as their rating for your choice of outfit fits the bill. Everyone was apparently quite surprised that I cleaned up that well. I also wanted to dance at the wedding but couldn’t get any of the bachelors at the table to dance with me (perhaps explaining why they are still at the bachelor table). So I tried to find some of my seniors to dance with me. I finally convinced Jema, an incredibly talented young Georgian dancer, to at least walk with me to the front where dancing was kicking off. He got embarrassed after about 15 seconds and bowed out so a neighbor danced with me instead, and then I danced with some of my 11th grade girls. I noticed after a bit that he and the rest of my boys hadn’t gone to sit down though. Nope, they were all standing there, watching. When the song finished the reaction was “that was very good” and “Hannah Mas, that was fantastic”. I reminded them that I might be a little cooler than they thought. I think my seniors were mostly thinking of how much longer it would be until I wasn’t their teacher anymore. 
We also visited Tbilisi, Batumi and Davit Gareja, though I will most likely speak about those visits in another post. What I will say is that it was both awesome to see my sister and being her tour guide was exhausting but a pretty amazing ego boost. Everyone here in town knows exactly how well I speak Georgian and are utterly unsurprised when I speak it. I don’t get any compliments and at home typically what I get is surprise (read: consternation) that my Georgian isn’t coming along better. In the cities and on the marshrutkas where nobody knows me though: shock and delight. I have never been told so many times how well I speak a particular language. Everyone wanted to know how the heck this little pale girl spoke their native tongue with such confidence if not particularly grammatically.  I was offered many relatives for marriage and told innumerable times what a good girl I am. To which the responses were “that’s very kind” and “thank you very much”. Upon my return to Mestia on Sunday I found myself caught up in a birzha that then moved to a village on the outskirts of town and I didn’t get home till nearly 1am. I knew some of the members of the party, others I hadn’t met before but they knew who I was, and others were visitors who were flabbergasted to say the least to find a young American from near Chicago speaking Svan and obviously at ease at what can sometimes feel like the end of the world, and certainly the end of the road. But this is home for a couple more weeks at least and I couldn’t be happier to be here, some days might be rough, but this is where I am and I cannot think of what I’d rather be doing at this moment.
Coming back from training we were crossing a bridge in our car and had to slow down because a cow was manically running across, but weaving from one far side to the other. After reminding myself again to be careful of the cow brain in this country, I took a closer look at the marshrutka in front of us which had also been forced to slow down. There were white things on top wrapped in blue and I couldn’t tell what they were until we got closer. And then, of course, it was half a dozen live lambs wrapped up in tarps and strapped to the top of a moving vehicle. How I didn’t guess that right away is difficult to determine. The lambs seemed perfectly ok with the arrangement. I wondered who was having kebab for dinner and half wanted to ask the driver to follow. Georgia has a pretty endless ability to surprise you if you’re willing to keep your eyes and mind open.

Easter was beautiful if freezing cold here in Mestia. I went to church for the vigil, which started an hour late due to the priest having guests. We kicked off almost exactly at midnight. About an hour in bells rang and everyone streamed out of the church, to circle it three times with their lit candles. The snow was falling heavily and the ground was slick. An altar boy (Datka, from my 6th grade) rang out a cadence on the pair of bells in the churchyard. We gathered in front of the entrance to the church as a group to praise the Risen Lord, listening to the collection of delicate women’s voices calling out. We repeated the same phrase I have always done, just in a different language, Kristes Aghsdga! (Christ is Risen) Cheshmaritad Aghsdga! (He is Risen indeed!). The call and response that has been used for millennia, confirming the miracle of life’s triumph over death, forgiveness over sin, light over darkness, love over hate. Because God is love. I wish you Peace and Contentment my friends, as we all celebrate in one way or another the rebirth of life as spring approaches.