Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"It's Nice to Meet You, Mr. President"

So, I haven't posted in a while. There have been a lot of things going on. School started. My host family punished their daughter by taking the internet away (and she didn't even know that that was her punishment. Very effective, eh?). Living in Tbilisi is a lot different than Telavi. And I was going to write about all of these things. But one event eclipsed all of those! I met Misha Saakashvili himself! The President of Georgia! How do you like that?!

It happened this past Saturday. TLG offers excursions for the teachers; basically they take us out to do something traditionally Georgian, or just to see more of Georgia. About two weeks ago they took 200 people living in Tbilisi on an overnight stay in Batumi to see an opera. Yours truly was not able to go because I didn't sign up in time. But it's that sort of thing- all paid for, transportation included, you get fed. Pretty good deal. So this weekend was an excursion to pick grapes in Kakheti- the region of Georgia most known for it's wine and also where I was living last semester. I signed up thinking it would be a nice thing to do on a Saturday. But a few days later I found out that the president was going to be there! I was incredibly surprised because he had been at the opera in Batumi and he had been to another excursion the week before. Nonetheless, it was still exciting!

Saturday got off to a cold and blustery start. We had to meet for the bus at the Radisson Hotel here in Tbilisi at 9am. One thing Georgia doesn't seem to be big on is transitional seasons. A few days earlier it had been in the upper 70s, but Saturday morning was down in the mid-50s and the wind cut through my thin blazer so easily. They had us waiting outside the buses for a good 45 minutes in the cold. No idea why; we were looking at the buses, but we still had to wait outside. By the time we arrived in Katchreti, the vineyard school where we would be picking the grapes, everyone was kind of cold and grumpy. It didn't help matters that we had to wait around for another half hour just to pick the grapes. The morning was pretty unorganized. But everything got very organized very quickly when the president's helicopter got in sight. The security guys, who had been there the whole time, suddenly started walking around, telling people where to go. We weren't even allowed to take pictures of the helicopter as it landed.

Once Saakashvili was on the ground there was a huge group of people that flocked to him. Not being one for large groups I kind of stood off to the side. Close enough to see him, but without getting mixed up in the crush of people. As luck would have it he started making his way past the rows of grapes, shaking hands and saying hello. He wandered in my direction and I was able to shake his hand. I even said, "It's nice to meet you, Mr. President." First time I've ever been able to say that!

He had a little conversation with an older woman next to me. She was talking about teaching in Tbilisi when there was a bit of a lull in the conversation. He kind of looked off in the direction of the donkey, who had all of the grape baskets on his back, when Saakashvili starts telling the goofiest joke about a Kakhetian donkey on vacation as a school headmaster in Svaneti (another region of Georgia, in the mountains). It was so bizarre! But it was even funnier looking around at all the people doing the awkward obligatory laugh; that's what I was really laughing at.

So after his corny joke he moved on, shaking more hands and all that. Having felt satisfied with my handshake I stayed where I was- talking to my friends and just enjoying the sun that had just come out. We were goofing around with the grapes that were in buckets everywhere. We were taking a group picture with everyone holding a grape cluster when who walks up from behind us but Saakashvili asking if he could get in the picture too! We said, "Ooooh, okay, Misha. If you really want to be in our picture..." (or to be more accurate there was a collective, "YES! PLEASE!") How do you you turn down a president when he wants to get in your picture? It was so crazy! After that there was another swarm of people handing their cameras off to people. At one point I think Saakashvili had ten people on either side of him trying to get in.

It was such a surreal day. It wasn't so much that I was star-struck, I was just surprised that the President of Georgia was kind of a goofy guy. Especially the way the Georgians speak about him (the amount of languages they claim he knows boggles the mind. I think I've heard one report that he knows 12 different languages. Crazy stuff like that). But hearing him tell a goofy joke about a donkey and then asking us if he could be in our picture was definitely not what I was expecting.

And don't worry folks, I documented the day in pictures!

This is the security guard's feet at the front gate. There were police officers lined up and down the road for half a mile before we even arrived at the vineyard!

This is Dante the Donkey

Despite the intense security checkpoint, once we were inside we were given really large, sharp box cutters to cut the vines.

See! Large box cutter! Also, look at them grapes! I think I ate more than I picked, though. Oops.

Don't worry, Georgian Military, this isn't Saakashvili's helicopter, it's the second helicopter carrying all of his security guys with the very large guns and bullet proof vests

Dante the Donkey is a very hard worker

The picture that the president asked to be in!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Oh my бог!

I don't think I've ever felt more American than I did this past week. It's not because it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And it wasn't because I stick out like a sore thumb around these parts as being significantly not Georgian. Nope, it's all because I had the most American evening in my entire life.

It started in pretty typical Georgian flair- the sisters decided we were going to the movies so off we went, without checking the movie times or what was playing. (because why would you plan ahead when you could just GO?) We arrived at the movie theater and had to wait around for over an hour to watch what we thought was a Russian-dubbed version of that really bad shark movie. You know, that one that recently came out. It's about the group of college kids on vacation who find trouble and have to run around while hardly wearing any clothes. Basically, it's I Know What You Did Last Summer, except with sharks instead of a psycho killer. I figured I would just roll with it because that type of movie isn't really dialogue-heavy anyway (a scream in English is a scream in Russian is a scream in Georgian, etc., etc.) It turned out that the movie was actually The Hangover II. Don't know how that mix-up happened, but I was still in the 'I'll roll with it, sure thing' mood. It was still in Russian, though. And even though it was dubbed in Russian and I was the only one who laughed when Mike Tyson made an appearance (because I was the only one who knew who Mike Tyson is), I felt oddly American. I think what really did it for me was the coke. You see, I don't drink coke. I'm not a huge fan of soda in general and coke leaves an overly sweet and vaguely metallic taste in my mouth. But you know, I was just so thirsty and my host sister had bought the thing for me that I just went with it. And sitting there with my popcorn and coke, I just felt American.

And the American tour of Tbilisi didn't stop there. After the movie the sisters took me to McDonald's. For some reason instead of walking to the McDonald's, their dad picked us up in his large SUV and drove us the two block's to McDonald's- if that isn't American, I don't know what is. And looking around at the McDonald's clientele, I couldn't help but notice the overwhelming amount amount of American logos on t-shirts and jeans and handbags. And if a t-shirt didn't have a logo on it, it would have something in English.

It seemed so strange, almost too American. It funny, you don't realize just how America is portrayed through TV and movies until you see people trying to imitate that. When most Americans look at shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen and The Kardashians we realize that it is more fantasy than reality TV. The percentage of people who live like that is very small. But that rationale really gets lost in translation when these images are broadcast all over the world. When a young Georgian sees these images what else are they to think other than, "Wow, that's how Americans live." And unless people actually go to America and see for themselves that we are not how our television represents us, it is pretty hard to crack the veneer of their image of America.

P.S.-The title of this post is one of the Great Moments in Dubbing History. In the Hangover there's one point where one of the characters does a very slow and shocked, "Oh. My. God." For some reason the Russian dubbers decided to say, "Oh. My." in English, but then just said the Russian word for God [pronounced bog]. I was the only one in the theater who seemed to find that incongruity hilarious...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

If You Ever See an On-Coming Georgian Wedding- DUCK. AND. COVER.

So I wasn't in Georgia more than half an hour and I got invited to a Georgian wedding! I had been expecting to go to a Georgian wedding last June. It was my fluent English-speaking host cousin's wedding. I had helped her with a bunch of her English classes at the university and we got along really well, but I didn't get an invite to her wedding... But hey, that's cool. I'm not bitter... much. (No seriously, I'm not bitter. I think it may have been a culture confusion mix-up. I never received a formal invite, but that's because Georgia doesn't have a formal mail system. So everything is done by phone. And I'm still not sure if it's common custom that I am part of the family, therefore I am obviously invited. Or I was snubbed. I'm not bitter, just confused.)

The wedding was for my host father's nephew. I was told it was on the 8th, but no one really gave me an exact time. First it was at 12, then it was at 3, then it was at 2. Then it was 1 o'clock and I was told we were going. Thankfully I had the foresight to get dressed early because I know how these Georgians are kind of liberal with their times. And as it turned out, all of the times I was given were correct. And how can this be? you ask. Well, apparently a Georgian wedding is a multifaceted event (or at least, this wedding was multi-faceted). So here's the run down...

First, the family of the groom all met at his house for some light toasting. There were a couple of champagne glasses that made the rounds for all the people in the groom's family. When it was a person's turn to toast they were given one of the glasses, made their toast, and the toaster, groom and groomsmen all drank. So basically it all sounded like an elaborate rouse to get the groom drunk (but that's just my take on the matter). And the groom and a couple of his groomsmen were wearing traditional Georgian dress. It basically looks like a Cossack, but without the hat. (Here's just a picture of the traditional outfit I found on google), but the bride was wearing a very modern white dress.

From there everyone piled into their cars and we drove to the bride's house where her family has been doing the same thing. Now this is the thing you should take away from this blog: If you ever see an on-coming Georgian wedding- DUCK! AND! COVER! (It's in the title. I can't emphasize this point enough, people!) When they all pile into their cars it's basically a giant race to catch up to the limo, and the limo drives like it's a race to get to the wedding first. Everyone is bobbing and weaving through traffic, cars are slipping between each other, driving on the wrong side of the road. It's madness. And I was in the car with the guy videotaping the whole shebang. So not only were we bobbing and weaving, we were also skidding 180s around corners so he could get footage of the whole car procession. At one point we drove right up alongside the limo nearly taking off the side mirrors of both cars!

So after we picked up the bride we went to the church. And this was one of the odd parts. We spent a good half hour milling around the church, which is very easy to do because Georgian Orthodox churches don't have any pews. If you've ever seen a Russian Orthodox church it's basically the same aesthetic- no pews, frescoes of saints and Jesus, candle holders, icons. At one point I thought the wedding began because I heard the wedding march, but it just turned out to be someone's ringtone on their cell phone. Finally the priest showed up and the wedding commenced. And maybe I could have appreciated it more if I spoke fluent Georgian, but I don't, therefore the entire hour of the priest chanting was kind of lost on me. But it seemed that I wasn't alone because throughout the ceremony people kept on walking around the church, chatting with each other. At any given point during the ceremony half the wedding party was outside in the church courtyard. And a couple of times my host sister asked if I wanted to go sit down outside. All in all, everyone seemed a wee bit underwhelmed by the whole ceremony. Not a tear was shed.

After the church ceremony we piled into the cars again and began the mad dash to what I assumed was the party (and I was starving by this time, so I sincerely hoped it was the party). And we pulled up to a big restaurant-looking building. Once again we milled around in the big marble lobby for a bit. Pictures were taken by all. My host sister told me it would be a ceremony with dancing, which I assumed to mean party. But it was, in fact, another ceremony. We were all brought into this very, very pink room with some large mirrors on the walls (that all of the women flocked to and checked their makeup). There was a little stage in the middle of the room with a podium to the back of it. A woman, wearing what looked like a waitress outfit of a plain white button-down and a black skirt, turned on a very loud rendition of the wedding march and the bride and groom walked in arm-in-arm. They stepped up on the podium where the waitress-looking woman said a few words and the bride and groom signed their marriage contract. This whole ceremony felt so contrived. It looked more like some drive-by Vegas wedding than an actual ceremony. And yet people were getting tear eyed! After they signed their contract the woman switched the CD player to some corny overly romantic song and the bride and groom had their first dance as one of the bridesmaids went up to a second level of the room and sprinkled large silver confetti on them. Now I thought that this was maybe a little thing that the restaurant did and from there we would go into the room where the party would be. But nope, this was the whole purpose of this stop.

So back in the cars we all piled and off to Sameba Cathedral (here's the wiki page for it). This is the big cathedral in Tbilisi. And I must say, it is quite impressive. Just walking up to it is amazing. The marble walkway from the entrance gates up to the church steps is simply gorgeous. It almost makes you feel like you're walking on water. And there are gardens, which I only saw a small portion of. I would love to go back some time just to spend a leisurely afternoon and really enjoy it. And also take plenty of pictures. Being there really made me wish that I had a nice camera.

Finally we got to the party! As far as American wedding ceremonies go, I would say it was fairly similar. Except the songs were all in Georgian (except for one heavily Georgian-accented Spanish rendition of Shakira's 'This Time for Africa'), and the toasting was also in the Georgian style of no one drinks the wine unless there has been a toast made by the tamada (the 'toast master'). Oh and there was food. So much food. By the end of the night we were five layers deep in food because they just kept piling the serving plates on top of the last one- even though all the plates still had food on them! The food was very Georgian. And my host father's brother (I think that's who he was), kept piling food on my plate and he wouldn't let me pour my glass, even when I was pouring water! He would take the bottle out of my hand and our the rest himself, despite the fact that it was almost full anyway. That did start to bother me. I like to be a very hydrated individual (which is weird for Georgians because they never drink water), so I was refilling my water a lot. But he refused to let me do it myself!

Another difference with the songs was also that occasionally they would do a traditional song that required the traditional dancing, which I have only the vaguest idea of what to do. So I did not dare go out on the dance floor when I saw people's hands start doing the little twirly motions. The dance floor is also a dangerous place when they are doing the traditional dances- there is a lot of leaping and jumping involved. I'm not very well coordinated on a good day. But when there are people running and leaping around me, I know it'll end poorly for all parties involved.

A random cultural thing I noticed was that it doesn't seem improper for other women to wear to wear white! I saw the first woman in white and thought, "Oh, that's in poor taste." But then a couple other women were wearing white, too, so it must not be an issue.

Well, folks, that was my Georgian wedding experience! If you ever get a chance to go to a Georgian wedding definitely grab it. Just be well hydrated and maybe have a snack on hand.

Friday, September 9, 2011

New Semester, New Blog!

Well, okay, it's not a completely new blog. But it's got a new name! "How to Eat Khinkali: And Other Tidbits for the Georgian Traveler." What do you think? Sound good?

Well, I've finally arrived! It was quite the horrible trip to get here. All in all it took 32 hours of travel to get from Boston to Tbilisi. A majority of which was spent waiting around in airports. And after all of that I still didn't finish my book! Would you believe that!

And along with my new semester is a new host family. I was expecting to get an apartment in Tbilisi this semester, but it is really difficult to rent if you're only here for 4 months; I know that's the case in the U.S., but I kind of figured they might be a bit more lax about it here. Oh well. The new host fam is pretty cool. There's a 15 year old girl, Mari, who'll be my student at at school. And then there is an 18 year old girl, Irina, who is married! Jeez! She's married! And she's been married for a year!! When I told the two sisters I was 23 they gasped like I had one foot in the grave. Jeez. I forgot how much of a tipsy-turvy place Georgia can be. The new house is definitely a lot nicer than my old host family's house. This house was re-built 7 years ago. I would say the only drawback is that the shower is across the alley from the house. On the drive from the airport Mari was telling me that they live in an "Italian yard." I expected that to be a courtyard. But no, they live in an alley. Granted it's a very nice alley. They seem to know all of their neighbors very well and it's quiet because there aren't any cars driving by. But I would not call it an "Italian yard." Thankfully it's not a large "Italian yard" and the shower isn't far away. I don't quite know how to describe the shower room. It's not just for a shower. It's sort of like... a basement! Yes, it's like a basement across the street. And in this "basement" there is not only the shower but also a washing machine and a tread mill! Yes, that's right folks, a tread mill! Gone are the days of paying 30 lari a month to go use the tread mill at the Telavi Tennis Courts! A free tread mill!

My new place has some definite perks. Although living in Tbilisi definitely has a much different feel than Telavi.  The people here seem a lot more preoccupied with appearances. The same can be said of any big city, but I didn't expect the discrepancy to be so marked. Although, to be fair, I am basing this assumption on the wedding I attended last night (don't worry, I'm planning a whole other post about it!). And everyone gets tarted up for weddings (except me, evidently. I didn't bring any super wedding-worthy clothes. Oops). Perhaps I'll end up having to succumb to the Tbilisi fashion and get me a pair of 5 inch toothpick-thin stilletoes, a couple pounds of make-up, and a brightly colored shirt with excessive bows and frills.

Or not.

More to come! Stay tuned! It's a whole new semester with all new adventures!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Onward and Westward!

Gooooooood morning, Warsaw!

I left Tibs at 4:40 am. So right now I'm working off of 2 hours sleep on the plane and a delicious latte I got here in Warsaw. A latte with properly steamed milk and NO sugar (so help me god) and just the right amount of foam. Oh golly, my heart may have skipped a beat. It's been so long since I've had proper coffee.

But I digress. I'm in Poland now. My layover here is six and a half hours. Oh me, oh my. Then it's off to New York for me. Another four hours there. And then home! To Boston! Land of magic and awesome! And I'll get steak! Oh glorious, delicious steak!

Sorry. Digressing again. Wow, I'm a bit all over the place. I'll try to get a little shut eye, but I think that latte, apart from being delicious, was also more caffeine than I've had in recent months. Woooo weeee!

I think I'll go now. Wish me happy travels!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Winding Down

The last day of school is Wednesday. That's in two days! Oh my! But since there are only two days left, of course I haven't had any students showing up for the past week. I mean, even the last two weeks have been comprised of skeleton classes. Mostly it's just the smart kids who care. But I wasn't able to take advantage of that because the teachers had them doing tests mostly. And then last week happened and whole classes stopped showing up entirely. In my seventh grade last Thursday there was one girl. I taught her how to make paper cranes.

Now I'm not exactly surprised that kids have stopped showing up. The four and a half months I've been here have illustrated that no one seems to be a stickler for classroom attendance. But today I had an interaction with a student that just absolutely floored me. I honestly wanted to burst out laughing in this girl's face. About 2 weeks ago a girl in my 9th grade class asked if I could tell her about American slang. I was a little hesitant because this girl's English isn't very good. I'd much rather her practice vocab and grammar. I also feel like people sound so dumb when they speak slang in other languages. I have images of the old SNL sketch with Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin flash through my head- "We are two wild and crazy guys!" But I talked it over with another volunteer and decided that it might be a good class activity. This was two weeks ago. This girl that asked me to do this hasn't shown up to class once in those two weeks, but she's had no problem stopping me in the hall and asking if I'll give her something on slang. And when she asks I say, "Next class." So today I was sitting in the teacher's room and this girl came by to speak to another teacher and on her way out she came over and asked if I could give her something on slang tomorrow. I said, "Yes, we have class tomorrow I'll give it to you then." And she then proceeded to crinkle her nose and say, "But we class in the 5th period tomorrow and I don't want to stay." This student actually told me that she just didn't want to stay for class! After asking me for two weeks to do something for her, it's really such a hassle to stay in school until 1 in the afternoon?

I have some slang for you: Ballsy.

Holding back my astonishment/annoyance I sternly told her, "Too bad. We are still in school and you are supposed to go to class. So if you want this you'll have to come to class." I can't even imagine ever saying that to a teacher in the U.S. Wow.

I'll be back in Boston in about a week and a half. I can't wait to get a break from Georgia.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Arab Spring. Georgian Summer?

I was a bit surprised to get a warning text from the US Embassy on Friday evening. The last (and only) time I received a text from the embassy was when Osama Bin Laden had been killed. So needless to say I was more than a little intrigued by what it could be about. I was out with some people when we all got the message warning about a "planned demonstration" taking place in Tbilisi on Saturday. Saturday came and went (although the Rapture did not). I had completely forgotten about the demonstrations and I hadn't hear anything about them from facebook or my host family (my two primary sources of Georgian news). But then this evening I remembered about them. Apparently the protesters beat up a car. Here's the video from Reuters:

I have to wonder, who are these protesters and what do they want? Unfortunately I'm limited to English reports, but this well is thankfully not entirely dry. These "opposition" protesters are in opposition to the current Saakashvili administration (and my boss, to some extent). Their leader is Nino Burjanadze; she is the ex-President of the Georgian Parliament. She went to Tbilisi State University for undergrad and received her doctorate in International Law at Moscow Lomonosov State University. According to a recent television ad, or perhaps it was a very obviously biased news program (honestly I couldn't tell, it was too long to be simply a political ad, but too sinister to be a news segment. It was very strange), she is corrupt and in league with the Russians. I asked my host cousin what it was about, but only got this very vague description, so my apologies on that. But the frightening thing about what I saw of her on this television ad was the horror movie music and the cross-hairs that they put on her while showing her picture. From what I could tell the ad was not endorsed by anyone specific, but the message was clear: This woman is evil and bad for Georgia.

If this woman is so evil she must be leading protests that advocate the public murder of babies and puppies, right? No, actually what she and her party, the People's Assembly, want a reformation of the electoral system. There are eight parties, conveniently being called the group of eight, who were trying to reform the electoral system. The ruling party and the group of eight were in transparent negotiations, called the Election Code Working Group (ECWG), from November to the end of March when suddenly the group of eight pulled out of negotiations. Then on April 5 the group of eight came back with proposals, but no meetings occurred after that. On May 12 the group of eight issued a statement/ultimatum that stated they wanted a written response to the April 5 proposals before the end of May, despite the fact that in negotiations both sides had come to determine upon an autumn 2011 deadline for electoral reform negotiations to end).

So what is the opposition saying now? Well, I'll tell you that it doesn't sound non-threatening, although it doesn't sound completely threatening, either. The first protests happened on Saturday, reported number range from 6,000 to 10,000 people. The protests continued into today, Sunday.

Although these protests originated as outrage against negotiations for the reformation of the electoral system, they are quickly becoming about government oppression. The opposition is claiming that the government is oppressing the opposition parties, arresting activists, and the storming of the Batumi headquarters of the People's Assembly party (all of which the government denies). The protests are now supposed to continue into tomorrow, Monday. Nino Burjanadze said of Sunday's protest numbers that “is not enough.” According to, she later said, "In separate remarks also on May 22 she said that that large number of people was needed in order to prevent a bloodshed as the authorities, she said, would not dare to take any actions against the protesters in case of large-scale rally." Personally, I find this to be a two-fold argument. Yes, it's true that a very large demonstration would lessen the likelihood of police brutality, however the fact that that is one of your arguments for encouraging more people to attend seems... fishy. It just doesn't seem on the up and up, for some reason, especially when you take into consideration these vague and potentially sinister remarks also given by Burjanadze, “If we are ready tomorrow we will act tomorrow… If we are ready by May 25, we will act on May 25, but it won’t be a long process; we will act in the nearest few days.” What exactly do you mean by "we will act?" And how will you define when you are "ready"?

And what is the significance of May 25, you ask? Nothing, yet. However the Georgian Party is calling for it to be “the Day of Rage of the Georgian people”, which would turn into “the last day of the Saakashvili’s regime.” And I'm sure it is no coincidence that May 26 is Georgia's Independence Day (which has me strongly rethinking this Independence Day powerpoint presentation that I just finished this afternoon. The last thing I need to set the youth of Telavi into a rebellious fervor- or maybe I'm just overestimating my skills as an educator).

The whole call for more protesters and the fact the protests are continuing two days past the original demonstration is a bit strange, and you factor in this when "we are ready" statement and it all sounds a bit foreboding. Although I don't know much about how far public opinion for the opposition spreads I can tell you that when I was watching the Reuters video, I recognized those yellow and purple flags from about two weeks ago when about five to ten cars packed with people were driving all around Telavi with those flags being held by the cars' occupants.

I'll try to keep you posted if anything else happens!

Here are the links to the articles I found. has been the most informative. They are in chronological order from oldest to newest:
November 28, 2009"Iron Lady Nino Burjanadze finds the steel to threaten her struggling ally,"
April 5, "Opposition's New Proposals on Electoral System,"
May 12, "Opposition Wants Ruling Party’s Response by End-May,"
May 12, "Ruling Party MP on Opposition's Electoral Talks Statement,"
May 22, "Some Opposition Parties Warn Against Escalation,"
May 22, "Clashes at anti-government protest in Georgia,"
May 22,"Protest Leaders Say Rally to Remain at GPB,"

May 22, "Anti-president protests continue in Georgia; opposition calls for massive turnout Monday"