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"

Connecting with Arianna Huffington

 I have a guilty pleasure; I absolutely love graduation commencement speeches. There are two reasons for this: 1. They are always filled with such hope and inspiration for the future, and 2. There is a part of my brain that refuses to believe that I am no longer a student. In fact, since being in Georgia, I constantly have to remind myself that this is not a school trip or a year abroad. This is actually my job in my real world life.

The reason I'm sharing this guilty pleasure, which may be similar to someone saying that they love when friends sit them down for a slide show of their vacation photos, is because I recently watched the Sarah Lawrence Class of 2011 commencement speech given by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post (which has only been around since 2005, which surprised me. I thought it was way older than that). Of course I have to say how happy I am for all of my friends that recently graduated. It's hard to believe that we're all grown-ups now. No more lying around on Westlands lawn or sitting on the hot rock- well we could, but I think it would be considered trespassing. For those of you who aren't SLC people, here's the commencement speech:

The two things that stuck out from her speech were her thoughts on the desire to connect with the world and her thoughts on getting lucky by being unlucky.

Since being in Georgia I've been thinking about the concept of 'community' a lot (and as soon as I start thinking about 'community' I think back to all of my classes with Julie Abraham where she was dead set on making us realize that the concept of 'community' only exists in our heads. So when I think of the construct of community and how I perceive communities within Georgia I imagine that Julie Abraham is somewhere in New York frowning but she doesn't entirely know why. Sorry, Julie!). I think about Georgian communities- most of which are based on family ties and are very different from the U.S. I also think about the refugee community where I teach every week as well as the expatriate community that I socialize with. There is a whole lot of community going on in my life. And what am I doing with all of it? I'm just trying to connect. I'm trying desperately to connect with the Georgian community- which is very strained at times due to language. I'm trying to connect to the refugee community because I am inspired and humbled and so many other things by the amazing women I meet at the community center. And I am trying to connect with the expatriate community because after all of the cross-cultural connections I'm trying to instigate, at the end of the week I just want to have people who speak the same language and who can laugh about the same things. All I do with my life is connect. Even this blog is a testament to my desire to connect with yet another community- my friends and family who are not on this journey with me (oh man, this post just got kinda meta. Whoa). And I think it is important to say that this project that I am on is a attempt by the Georgian government to integrate Georgia into the global community.

The idea that bad things can happen for good reasons is not exactly a new one. But I think that people too often forget it. For instance, it took me 9 months to get a job that did not involve wearing a shirt with a company logo. And the first real job that I got was to teach English in Georgia. Sometimes I forget that, yes, this was the first job that I could actually get. Although it may sound bad to put it in such blatant terms, it's how it happened. And although the time between graduation and the day I got a job was hard and soul crushing and depressing and ego deflating and I could go on, but I'll spare you, it was worth it in the long run. The other jobs I was applying for involved sitting at a desk for an interminable amount of time, getting coffees, and fixing xerox machines. Sure, the money would have been better, but I definitely would not have been able to have the adventures that I've had and meet the people I have met and even endure the hardships that will be good for me in the long run. I had a lot of doors close on me, but then a big ol' window opened up. And even on my bad days here I think I would do well to remember that being in Georgia is a hell of a lot better than being at Trader Joe's.

So, to all of my new fellow SLC alumni, I wish you all the best in whatever comes next. And for everyone else who is not so new to the real world, remember, we can always make it better.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Confessions of a Tetri Gogo: Adventures in Language

I noticed last night while having dinner with some friends that most conversations with TLG volunteers usually end up being about language. It will either be about how language barriers are difficult or how we've learned things about our own languages since being here. It's always brought up at least once in an evening.

But it's a completely valid conversation topic because language is always around us. Language makes up about 75% of our lives. And I don't mean just talking, I mean 75% of our lives is taken up by explaining grammar, speaking veryveryvery slowly, thinking about how we should phrase something in the most bare bones manner, trying to speak Georgian, and generally thinking about speaking or others' speech.

Although it can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, it has resulted in quite a few anecdotes. I will now share with you the most recent ones, which are also the most hilarious...

The other day I was with a friend in a second-hand shop owned by two little old ladies. These women were just sitting around when we came in. We were meandering among the clothes and the two ladies didn't pay us much mind, they continued their chatting. My friend and I both went up to the front of the store (not that it was that far away from the back of the store). For some reason the two old ladies got up out of their seats and stood there staring at us. They didn't come any closer to us- mostly because for them to be any closer we would have had to give them piggy back rides. So there they were, about a foot away, staring when suddenly I hear one of them mutter, "Tetri gogo [თეთრი გოგო]" For those of you who don't speak Georgian that means "white girl." I can only image that I was the "white girl" in question because I'm pretty damn white. I have no idea what I did to illicit such a phrase being hurled in my direction, I don't even know if it was meant to be an insult. All I know is that I had to fight the urge to crack up laughing. It was such a strange interaction.

Later that day my friend and I went to a cafe. Our choice in cafe was probably not a wise one- we went to the more popular cafe in town where all of the students go (okay, it's one of 2 cafes in town, so it's not like we had a whole lot of choices). Not surprisingly after being there for a little while we were quite literally surrounded by students, all boys.  And they were forming a radius around us. Personally, I do not like a. large crowds of teenage boys, and b. being the center of attention. So this was really not my scene. Not to mention most of these boys went to my school and knew my name, despite the fact that I had never seen them before. I really wanted to leave. However, the problem with having a radius of people around you is that there are no secrets. So I implemented the weapon of ex-pats everywhere: slang. I often use slang and speak quickly when I don't want Georgians to know what I'm saying and it usually works pretty well. So I turned to my friend and said, "I want to peace." Now, I say that slang usually works because after I said that I wanted to "peace" one of the boys turned to me and said, "The toilet is in the back and to the right." I think after an interaction like that all you can do is leave and leave quickly.

Those are some of my better run ins with language and misunderstandings thereof. I'll spare you the tedious and frustrating ones. I hope you've enjoyed them and maybe you will better appreciate the next conversation you have.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wait, So What is it I'm Doing Here Again? Oh Yeah, TEACHING!

There is one topic that my teaching blog has failed to account for- teaching. Writing about food, culture, and travel is great and everything. But I have yet to write about what I'm actually doing here.

This wasn't an accidental oversight. Truthfully, the reason for this shortcoming is that I don't always like to write about bad things or things that bother me. Don't get me wrong, teaching isn't as bad as that makes it sound. It's just that there are aspects of the Georgian educational system that are kind of hard to a. explain on a very basic level, and b. hard to deal with on a personal level.

A. It's hard to explain to people the things that schools throughout Georgia go without: supplies, all the students being able to afford books, all of the English teachers actually being able to have a conversation with a native speaker, electricity, heat. It's hard to explain that there are a lot things in American schools that no one even thinks about but Georgian schools just don't have them.

B. It is also hard to explain how I am dealing with explaining to teachers that there are many things in their books that are just incorrect. The books are rife with grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes, and gender stereotypes. And the gender stereotypes are often the hardest to deal with. How do you tell a teacher that you don't want to use an entire page of the book because the entire exercise is based on the fact that women can't drive, or that women are supposed to clean dishes and go shopping while men are supposed to fix appliances? How do you explain that although the students will probably forget the actual lesson in a few days, they will retain the underlying assumptions about the roles of women and men? But the gender stereotypes can be another blog all its own (and eventually will be, hopefully).

So what am I actually doing here, day to day? Well, my average week looks a little like this...

Mondays are never very remarkable. Almost all schools in Georgia start at 9am and I have the first class on Mondays. It's the 8th grade. They might be my favorite class. But they might be my favorite class mostly because of one student. He is ridiculously smart, but he is hyperactive. My co-teacher told me that he was diagnosed with "hyperactivity," whether that means ADD or ADHD (its hyperactive cousin) I have no idea. But instead of getting him the help that he needs, his parents refused to believe it. Their child is "normal." So he talks through all of class, standing up, moving his desk, switching chairs, disrupting everything and everyone. But the funny thing is he talks all through class in English- it just has absolutely nothing to do with what we're studying. He'll talk about werewolves and act out his own little movie scenarios (complete with different voices for the different characters) and basically do anything that is not related to class. He could be a really fantastic student if he could just focus. So yeah, that's my first class Monday. Then I have 6th and 4th grades. Nothing much to report on those, honestly. I'm free around 12:30 and then I go to the gym at 3.

And, yes! I have a gym! It took about 2 months to find, but I found one! It's at the Telavi Tennis Courts, which is a small scale tennis club down the street from my house. The gym isn't too, too bad. It's a small room, maybe 12x12. There are 2 treadmills; an eliptical (which doesn't work), a bike machine (which might also be a little broken); a weight lifting machine for legs, arms, and shoulders (it's in need of a little oil and the cords could be tightened a bit); there's this weird thing that's like a bench and it moves so you can work your abs, but I usually just use it as a bench; several random cheap looking things that I'm not really sure what they're supposed to do; a rowing machine that only works your arms, but not your legs at all. And the best thing out of them all is a machine that's supposed to just vibrate the pounds away. It's a belt that's attached to a little machine. You strap yourself in, press go, and stand around while this machine jiggles the pounds away. It is the weirdest sensation! The gym isn't wonderful, but it serves its purpose. And it helps me feel better about all the bread and potatoes I consume on a daily basis.

Tuesdays I have 8th and 6th again, but my last class is 9th grade. Holy Heavens, I hate my 9th grade class. (Can I say that I hate a class? Doesn't sound very teacherly, does it?) It is always taken over by the boys in the class. None of whom do anything or care at all. Some of the girls will do their work and bring their books, sometimes. But they can't ever speak over the din of the boys talking in the back. And you can't do anything to stop it. There is no detention hall, no notes home to parents, no punishment for anything. One day I stood in front of the class and told my teacher to translate everything I was saying exactly (because the boys don't know anything except "Sit down" and "Shut up!" which they yell out constantly during class). I told them they were disrespectful and they should be ashamed at themselves. Shame. Yep, that's a big word in this culture. It didn't get them to stop talking, but it did actually draw them out of their little chit chatting. Ahh well, baby steps, I guess.

Wednesday is my busy day. I go to 8th, 4th, and 9th grades. I get done at 2:20. It was originally 2 o'clock when I first got here in February, but the schools have switched to their warm weather schedules. So now I'm done at 2:20. I have to rush up the hill to my house (about a 10 or 15 minute walk), grab a very quick lunch, then race up to the university by 3 where 2 other TLG volunteers and myself teach English to Telavi University professors. I teach the advanced class. Although "teach" isn't really an appropriate term. I basically show up and have conversations in English. This is the most cultural interchange I probably have all week. Most conversations come down to what they do in Georgia versus what we do in the U.S. It's really interesting and it's a really good forum where I have a valid reason to ask all the stupid questions I have about Georgian culture. After that I go to the gym again. Yay, gym!

And then there's Thursday. I have 8th and 6th grades and then 3rd grade. The 3rd grade is good. It's mostly playing games. But the problem is that I am really handicapped by the language barrier. My co-teacher for the 3rd grade is my worst teacher. I have to repeat everything I say at least once- her conversational skills are next to nil. And the 3rd graders' English isn't good enough to understand what I say unless it's basic questions about what's in the book. So I'm really dependent on this teacher who can't understand me. It eats up a lot of class time. This is also the same teacher who blew me off several times when I had tried to arrange meetings with her to make lesson plans. And when we eventually get around to making lesson plans she doesn't pay attention to them during class anyway. She is really a terrible teacher. It's so frustrating.

But Thursdays always get better. After school I catch a marshrutka (the minibuses that are the primary mode of transportation throughout the country. There isn't really an organized public transit system, just the minibuses) to Akhmeta, a town about 40 minutes away. Akhmeta is where the UNHCR office is located for the region. One of the girls from my group is living with the director of the UNHCR Akhmeta office and helps run the Pankisi Community Center. Pankisi is one of the major areas where Chechen refugees are living. I visited Pankisi for three days last time I was in Georgia. Those were the most powerful three days I think I've ever had and I knew I wanted to try and come back, even just for a visit. But now I can do more than just visit. Every Thursday I go to Pankisi and teach two English classes. The first is for high school seniors who don't have much occasion to practice what they learn in class. I really like this class because they actually want to learn. Sometimes I forget that these kinds of students exist! After the seniors I teach the staff who work at the community center. They are a really great class, too! These women are so funny and have such lovely personalities. I'm pretty sure most of them are refugees (which reminds me: You should never do the activity of describing the rooms of your house while teaching refugees. Mostly because the dining room, living room, bedroom, and kitchen can be the same room. I was so embarrassed when I did that. Oi vey). I wish my Russian was better so I could sit down and talk to them and hear their stories. The staff of the community center is entirely women and they are so inspiring. I always leave Pankisi in a good mood. Always.

And then it's Friday! I wish I could say Fridays were easy, but they are anything but. I have all day with my worst teacher. Our first class is 7th grade, then there is a 10 minute break, and then we have the 7th grade again. It is the most foolish way of organizing a class. I'm sure the students love it because they don't have as much homework. But I think it's a foolish waste of time. After the 7th grade it gets a bit easy with the 3rd grade, but I still find myself wicked stressed after leaving school at the end of the day. My bad teacher is just so bad. And it's an evil cycle: her students don't speak or understand English very well, so I'm dependent on her translating everything I say, which eats up more time, which means that the students don't learn as much and they stay in this stagnant place. It's so frustrating. At the end of the day I usually end up calling someone in the area just go to a cafe and chill out. By the end of the week I'm usually in need of a casual drink with a friend. And I do mean casual- drinking with the host fam is always a huge ordeal that requires toasting and eating and drinking to excess. Sometimes I just want to hang out, chat, and have a beer. Well, ideally I'd like to have a cocktail, but they seem hard to come by in this country of beer and wine. I didn't really have a problem with this until about 2 weeks ago when I was walking down the street and out of nowhere I thought of gin and tonics. Ever since then I can't stop thinking about them, especially since the weather is getting nicer. But I have yet to see any limes or tonic water in this country, a sad fact I'll have to live with until July. And I don't understand how they can be bereft of limes. They have oranges and lemons everywhere, so why not limes?

Wow, that was quite the sidetrack. It's probably a bad sign when you're talking about work and you get sidetracked onto cocktails. But these things happen... evidently.

Weekends are always different. Sometimes I'll go into Tbilisi if I need a break from Telavi. But it can get so expensive, especially because it's almost impossible to spend an afternoon in the capital. It just makes more sense to stay the night, which is 20 lari right there (I get a TLG discount at this one hostel that's in the center of town. It's really great. It's called Boombully. Definitely check it out if you ever find yourself in Tbilisi). I try not to go into Tbilisi too often. Most weekends I'll stay in Telavi, see other volunteers in the area, and basically chill out.

So that's what my week looks like. I hope I haven't bored you too much. But I figured I should account for what my job actually is. People might start to suspect that I've been hired to just hang out and travel around; although, that was the driving conspiracy theory behind my last blog post, wasn't it? But despite the looks of things, I do actually have a job here. I promise.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Two Hours in a Kutaisi Police Station

On the evening of Sunday, April 17, 2011, approximately between 1900 hours and 1915 hours I lost my wallet on the street or in a minibus in Kutaisi, Georgia. It was pink. It contained 150 lari, my bank cards (American and Georgian), my health insurance cards (American and Georgian), my American driver's license, and several hundred dollars in American gift cards. I know these details quite well now because I spent two hours in a police station explaining the contents of my wallet and the events surrounding its disappearance.

I now sincerely regret going to the Kutaisi police because of a simple wallet that I will undoubtedly never see again, a fact I have now come to terms with. But upon the realization that it was gone I panicked slightly, it being the first time I had ever lost a wallet. I was in Kutaisi traveling with a friend, both of us are English teachers in the eastern part of Georgia, about a 5 hour drive away (if you are lucky enough to have your own car and not the public buses). As I was traveling and away from my town and I had never lost a wallet before I had no clue what I should do. I called up Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG), the teaching program I work for, and they told me to go to the police. And thus began an epic endeavor that would color not only that evening, but the entirety of my three days in Kutaisi.

My friend and I arrived at the police station a little before 10 o'clock at night. There was a detective working there who spoke a little bit of English. However, to be on the safe side, I called TLG to help me translate. I gave them a description of my wallet, where I lost it, and what it contained. After hanging up with TLG the female detective who spoke English told us to sit down upstairs. It would only be another 10 or 15 minutes.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, has been pouring money into police departments all over the country to renovate the police stations. The aesthetic is all glass facades- a symbol of transparency. The Kutaisi police station had clearly been recently renovated- the walls and floors were all shiny white marble and you could see the pristine condition of the desks in the upstairs office. But the facade was not glass. It was the standard pink stucco of most Georgian buildings. I'm sure they didn't opt out of the glass facade in order to continue their corrupt ways or anything, don't think I'm alluding to that. Although I did find it odd to have renovated the police station top to bottom (there were before and after pictures hanging on the wall), but neglect to give it the standard Saakashvili touch.

When I went to the office upstairs I was offered a seat in a large, barren office area. There were the new desks arranged in two clusters of four. Most of them were empty, save a few papers and personal items. Definitely no computers in sight. I sat down and watched a James Bond movie that had been left on in the empty room. After 20 minutes the female detective came upstairs and I asked her if they had tried calling the other police stations to see if anyone had turned in my wallet. It had been over 3 hours since I lost it. My primary hope in going to the police in the first place was for them to contact the other stations in the city. I did not expect any crack detective work, I just wanted to see if anyone had turned it in somewhere.

About half an hour after arriving I was informed that a local English teacher would be coming to help get my statement, which I had already given to them via the TLG translator on the phone when I first arrived. My friend and I were shuffled into a smaller office. Despite the fact that the office had all of the lights off and the door had been locked, the television in there had also been left on, and it remained turned on during the entirety of my interview.

After waiting another half an hour I was introduced to a rather unsavory looking detective who's gun was rather hastily shoved into the waistband of his trousers. Although he seemed friendly enough, I got the impression that I would not want to be on the wrong side of the interview table from him. To kill time before the English translator arrived I was given the usual Georgian line of questioning, “Do you like Georgia?” “Do you like Georgian food? Khachapuri? Khinkali?” “What are you going to see while you are here?” It was our first night in Kutaisi, so I gave a list of the sights we were planning on seeing, something I would later come to regret.

The English teacher finally arrived and we went through a long hour of repeating the same basic facts. "I got my wallet out to get money while waiting for the 1 bus." "I shoved it in my bag as I saw the bus coming." "No, no one was around me at the time. No, no one saw how much money was in my wallet." "No, no one could have stuck their hand in my bag. It was on my lap the entire time." "Did someone steal it? Probably not. I don't know."

There were many times I wanted to say that if I knew exactly how I lost it I wouldn't be here in the first place. But I figured that would not be the best thing to say to these rather greasy looking detectives. Shortly before midnight I finally signed my statement-which had been entirely hand written by a yawning officer on a blank piece of computer paper. And before I left I was instructed to come back in the morning at 11 o'clock to pick up my "official documents- free of charge." I had to suppress a groan at the thought of returning to the police station. And I had to suppress a laugh at the thought of being charged for paperwork- damn right it'll be free of charge. I don't have any way of paying you, anyway.

At 10:55 the next morning I trudged my way to the station. The officer at the front desk looked at me uncomprehendingly when I tried to explain that I had been there the night before because I lost my wallet. No English. He went to find someone that could understand me. "Khuti tsuti" (5 minutes), and he raced upstairs. The person sent down to understand me also had a bit of a problem. "Please wait here five minutes." He also raced upstairs and returned with a rather tall, friendly looking man who arrived to state quite bluntly, "Our computers are down. Come back later."

"When?" I asked with a sinking feeling developing in my stomach.

The man turned to the clock behind him (11:20). "After 5 o'clock." Presumably, his shift was over at 5 o'clock.

So what more could I do but leave? By this point I was determined not to let this bother me or my trip. My friend had offered to lend me some money and it was only my first day in Kutaisi. So we went out for the day to see the sights. We returned to the city center around 7 and I had very little desire to spend another night at the police station. We returned to the apartment where we were couchsurfing. I was plenty happy to call my wallet gone for good. The police could not do anything to help, and I doubted they would even try. So why should I dedicate more time to a lost cause?

Around 11 o'clock that night my friend and I were sitting around in our guest bedroom talking, when suddenly we heard the large metal front door creaking open and someone shouting, "Chase?" (the name of our host) We heard Chase come out of his room and say, "You can't just come in, you need to knock before you come in." He said it in a rather even, if slightly irritated, tone. The intrusive speaker, who I would find out later was Chase's landlord, mumbled something of which the only word I could understand was "police." I let out a groan and hauled myself into the living room. The detective from the night before (the one with the gun shoved into his waistband) was standing in the middle of the room, looking like he owned the place- and rightfully so, as his wide girth seemed to make the room look smaller.

"You did not come to the police station today," Chase's landlord said.

"Yes, I did," I stated, without doing much to veil my exasperation. "I came at 11 o'clock. They said their computers were down."

"They need your passport. You must come."

"Now?" I piped in a high pitched tone.

He conversed with the detective in Georgian for a second and responded, "No, you may come tomorrow morning at 11."


They left and the apartment felt bigger again. Safer. I apologized profusely to Chase, whom I had only met the day before and who's kindness I was dependent upon for my housing. My mother has always told me to never trust the police. She was a public defense attorney in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Boston. Her voice was running through my head the entire time I was at the police station. They wanted to know where I was staying in Kutaisi. As I said, I was couchsurfing with this guy. He did not have to let me stay there, and considering that the police barged into his apartment looking for me I'm surprised he didn't kick me out then and there. The police had my phone number. If they really needed to find me they could have easily called me. But instead they walked into someone's house without permission and without even knocking. I realized that I had no choice but to deal with them, no matter how much I just wanted to forget about the whole ordeal.

Once again, at 11 o'clock the next morning I found myself back at the police station. This time their computers were working and the English speaking female detective was there. After having my passport xeroxed and receiving 7 copies of the same piece of paper without any explanation of what these paper were for- they were entirely in Georgian, save my name- I thought I was free to leave. But the female detective asked where my friend and I were going that day. We wanted to go out of town to the Sataplia caves.

"Yes. We will have a police officer drive you," she responded.

"No, no. That is alright. We are going to get a taxi. We do not need a police officer." But there was no point in arguing. We were getting a police officer to drive us. We were also instructed to come back to the police station the next morning, the morning of our departure to Tbilisi, in order to get a ride from the police to the bus station.

We were handed over to a police officer in uniform and a plain clothes detective (with a gun sticking out of his waistband). We got into a large SUV with no sign that it was a police vehicle other than a siren attached to it somewhere (which they used to break up the line at the gas station). The SUV took us to the edge of town where they pulled over to the side of the road next to a waiting taxi. The uniformed officer got out and spoke to the cab driver, then returned to open my door and repeat, "Sataplia, Sataplia." I have no idea why we needed to go so far just to be put into a cab. Maybe it was cheaper away from the city center? Maybe the police officer knew this driver? I have no clue. Due to the language barrier, most of my interactions with the Kutaisi Police Department went unexplained.

The next morning I prepared a note for the English speaking female detective explaining we had left for Tbilisi. My friend and I could not be bothered to go through a whole ordeal of getting a ride from the police again. So I wrote the note in the hopes that the detective was not working and I would be able to escape the city unnoticed. This was the one time I was glad not to find someone who spoke English. I went to the officer at the front desk, handed him the note and said the detective's name. The officer told me she would not be in until 10. I tried to convey that it was okay- "Kargi. Kargi" (Good. Good). He started to get his phone out, clearly with the intent of calling her. And I said, "No, no." and mimed him giving her the letter. Eventually he got it and I left quickly.

I can not help but think that all of my interactions with the police in Kutaisi were so absurd and quite unnecessary. The first night did not need to last as long as it did, and the succeeding days did not really require a daily trip to the police station. Every day I was in Kutaisi I went to the police station once. I'm sure all of this transpired because of two factors- the language barrier and the fact that I am a foreigner. Because of the language barrier everything took longer and there were miscommunications. Because I was a foreigner they were clearly going out of their way for me. I'm sure most Georgians would not go to the police if they lost their wallet, which would probably explain the fact that it took them two hours to get my written statement together. And I know that if a Georgian were in the same position as I had been in, they probably would not offer them rides around town. I don't know if this was the famous Georgian hospitality kicking in, or if their hope was to impress me, but whatever the reason I was disgusted with the whole affair.

Saakashvili considers his reforms of the Georgian police to be his most major achievement. Of his reforms he has said, “Together with you [police officers], we have created one of the most successful, one of the most well-equipped, one of the most efficient police force in the country, where the reputation of police was extremely bad just several years ago.” (Civil Georgia, 'Saakashvili Hails Georgian Police as "Most Efficient,"' 24 June, 2006 <>) I wish I could say I agree with him. It is clear the Saakashvili administration has put a lot of money into the police force, but from my experience this money appears to be going towards making things look nice, but not improving the roots of the problems. Saakashvili claims the police are "well-equipped." I saw only one computer at the station in Kutaisi. Saakashvili says they are efficient. The officer taking my statement did not know what to do- his supervisor had to dictate everything to him, while several other detectives sat around watching television. If I have witnessed the result of years worth of reform, I am truly afraid to think about the state of the Georgian police ten years ago.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Google Saved My Life

Over the past month I've been waking up some mornings with the strange urge to google search random things. I'm not talking I-wonder-what-the-capital-of-Mongolia-is strange ( it's Ulaanbaatar, in case you were wondering). I'm talking how-do-I-survive-a-dog-attack? strange and what-are-the-symptoms-of-bochulism? strange. I haven't had any dog attack or botulism related dreams, at least not that I can remember. In fact, the dreams I can remember have been remarkably mundane. But I still wake up with the need to know how to survive these life-threatening situations.

Well, it turns out to have paid off.

I was walking to school the other day and I suddenly noticed a very cute dog standing in the open doorway of a fenced-in yard (all the houses in Georgia have some sort of wall, gate, or fencing around their yards and homes. This results in the streets resembling a long, high walled wind tunnels). Telavi has a lot of stray dogs and dogs that probably belong to someone because you always see them near the same house, but they just wander around outside during the day. I've been here for about 2 months and I have not once met an unfriendly dog, and on one occasion I met an, erm, overly friendly dog. When I came upon this particular dog in the gateway I was startled at first not because of the dog, but simply because I hadn't been paying attention. When I saw the dog I paused and noticed that it had a thin, broken rope dangling from its neck and it had already been staring at me. I quickly took an inventory of everything I could remember from the eHow article on surviving a dog attack. I wasn't more than five feet away, so there was no way of avoiding the dog. I blinked to break eye contact and decided to walk on slowly in the direction of the opposite side of the street. Although I had never met an unfriendly dog in Telavi, and this dog couldn't have been more than thirty pounds, I still had a bad feeling about this particular pooch.

As I stepped forward the dark barked and jumped out of the gateway, straight towards my legs. Instinct told me to flee! Run away! Run away! But google had told me to stand still. I came to a dead stop and bent my knees, ready for the dog to pounce on me. I actually stopped so quickly I swayed back in the direction of the dog. This ended up freaking the dog out and it fell out of its lunge towards me, scrambling to get back to the gateway. I stood there for a moment, waiting to see if Fido would make a jump for me again. Thankfully it seemed content to defend its territory from the safety of its yard. I crossed the street calmly, but with haste and felt the tingling going up my spine the rest of the way to school.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tourist for Hire

I received an interesting phone call today from TLG, the government program that I am working for. They were calling to let me know that they offering an excursion for volunteers this weekend which was leaving from Telavi, the town I live in. Alexander, the friendly Georgian in charge of these excursions, wanted to know if I was interested in joining this all expenses paid, one day excursion. Unfortunately, I had already made plans for the weekend. Alexander seemed a little disappointed, but assured me there was another free excursion next Sunday and he promised to e-mail me the information.

Alexander's call was very informative and I appreciated his effort to inform me of this complementary outing. But at the same time the call reminded me of a telemarketer calling to let me know about a free weekend at a ski resort, if I would only agree to an hour long informational session, or a free lunch for anyone interested in a real deal of a cruise package! But, no. Of course these excursions aren't gimmicks to get me to buy something... Or are they?

The teaching program I'm on is called TLG, Teach and Learn with Georgia. It is run by the Georgian Ministry of Education and its objective is to bring native English speakers into Georgian public schools and teach English alongside a Georgian English teacher. At its heart it is an educational program. But I can't seem to shake this nagging feeling that it is also some greater tourism ploy. And this suspicion is not unfounded. From the outset TLG has strongly encouraged us "volunteers" (because we are technically, legally, and contractually called volunteers, an irony that I will reveal later) to travel around Georgia. Although TLG is an educational program, it is also a cultural interchange program. We live with host families- which, as you may have inferred from my previous blogs, is a whole lot of cultural interchange. As a result of living with host families we get to know the culture of the area we are living in. TLG also encourages us to visit fellow TLG'ers around the country, which offers a chance to learn more about the cultures in different areas; and in a country that's only the size of South Carolina, there are actually significant differences between the regions. (Me? I'm in the region known for its traditional values and aversion to social change. Great.)

It is not surprising that TLG encourages us to travel. Most of us are under 30 and if we're willing to take a job in the tiny, little known country of Georgia than chances are we are a group of people not averse to travel. But what I was surprised by was just how emphatic they are about getting us to travel around the country. In order for TLG "volunteers" to be able to travel around we are actually paid more per month than our Georgian co-teachers. Yes, you read that right. We get paid more than our co- teachers who do this thanklessly day in and day out. And it is not a small difference. Volunteers working for TLG get paid 500 lari after taxes every month. The average Georgian schoolteacher gets paid 100-200 lari per month. This is an awkwardly huge discrepancy that I am often embarrassed of when people ask me what I get paid. And Georgians do ask what we get paid, often. I have met people and within five minutes of being introduced they have asked me what I get paid. The extra salary is not going toward our savings for flights back home, either. TLG pays for our flights to and from Georgia, including summer vacation. During our week-long orientation the TLG staff was quite open about the fact that we get paid this extra amount in order for us to travel around Georgia, and in part to compensate for some of the situations that people might be placed in. In a country where a kilo of fruit or vegetables might cost as little as 3 lari, 500 lari goes a long way.

So why the expense? It's not like the Ministry of Education and Science couldn't use the money somewhere else, like making sure every school has heat and electricity, basic supplies for schools such as chalk and proper chalk boards, repairing the rooms that simply can't be used because the floors have been torn up and the windows have been broken. The list could go on. Perhaps the government hopes that by bringing enough foreigners into this tiny Caucasian country- they're goal is to have 1,000 volunteers by the end of the school year- that word will spread about what a wonderful vacation spot Georgia is. After all, when the program started they placed volunteers in the west of Georgia, on the Black Sea. I don't know how familiar you are with Soviet-era vacation spots, but let's just say Moscow is still green with envy that they don't have easy access to Batumi any more. The program has been moving eastward. My group, which arrived in January was the first to be placed in the Kakheti region, the last region in the east of the country. Despite the fact that the TLG program is being run out of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital and about an hour and a half car ride from Telavi, they started placing people in the west. The west of Georgia not only has beautiful beaches but it is also a lot more socially progressive. And it is in Batumi, the biggest town in the west, that Donald Trump will have another tower in his name. This latest mammoth of gambling and western "culture" (any dictionary with a definition of culture including Donald Trump should be sent back to the editor) is the product of a friendship between Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, and Donald Trump himself. Clearly, the president has high hopes for Batumi to become the latest summer hot spot.

I might be thinking about this too much, but I simply can't shake the feeling that this is all part of a greater desire by the Georgian government to propel itself back to the "first world" or the "developed world" (which ever term is no longer politically incorrect). I had a conversation with a Georgian man not much older than myself today and he told me that Georgia used to look at countries like India and Pakistan (those were his countries of choice, not mine) and think how nice it was to not be in the third world. But now Georgia is behind. After independence in 1991 Georgia went through a few civil wars, which left a majority of the nation without electricity, even Tbilisi had regulated blackouts at night. This electricity crisis lasted several years. It was probably this period that caused Georgia to slip "out of the top." As other countries in the world were quite literally powering forward- advancing technology, incorporating computers into daily life, developing this little thing called the world wide web- Georgia didn't have any power. And to this day there are stop lights in Telavi that have not worked since Georgia became an independent country. If there are any Georgian political experts in the audience, please correct me if I'm wrong with this theoretical summary of modern Georgian history. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that is is a bad thing for a country to want to improve its status in the world and bring in foreign investments, but I do want them to be up front about it. If I'm being used to promote Georgia, just give me a heads up, and maybe a bumper sticker or something. However, before Georgia uses all of this energy and money, they should sit down with a mirror and see what needs to be fixed internally before they focus on external opinion.

Perhaps the Georgian government hopes that these several hundred volunteers will spread the word about this sleepy little country with high hopes. Perhaps I am simply a pawn, part of some plan thought of during some governmental financial planning meeting. All I know is that no matter what ulterior motives may lie behind my being here, I am here. And I will enjoy my time here while I have it, even if I am playing right into their hands...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Obligatory Food Blog

I think every travel blog or personal journal has to mention something about the food. It is such an important thing to every culture. After all, everybody's gotta eat. But because food is an important part of cultural pride, I am somewhat hesitant to write this blog. To insult Georgian food seems to insult the Georgian people as a whole. In fact the one time I mentioned that I didn't like a particular food my host gave a quick response, "That is actually a Ukrainian food, not Georgian." Whether this was true or not I can't say. The fact still remains, I did not like this food and they were quick to throw the blame onto some other culture. I'll try not to insult anyone, but I can't make any promises.

Also, I realize that some of my readers are either vegetarians or don't particularly like to contemplate their food. Some sections of this blog may be a bit gross for these people. I'll put some asterisks around the headings as a warning.

"Do You Like Khachapuri and Khinkali?"
This is the second most popular question I have been asked (the most popular question being, of course, "Are you married?"). Khachapuri is directly translated to "cheese bread." And who doesn't love cheese, bread, and butter?

When ordering khachapuri the main question one must ask themselves is, "In what form would I prefer my cheese, bread, and butter?" You can choose to have it fried or baked. But the choices don't stop there! There are then shapes to choose from. The fried version is usually in a circular shape with the cheese on the inside. I would say this is the most popular form of khachapuri. But the baked version is an entity onto itself. There is the envelop shape where they put cheese in the middle and wrap it up in the dough to make it look like an envelop. Or the triangle shape- sort of a less creative version of the envelop. Then there is the open circular kind with the cheese on top. And then, the pièce de résistance is the egg boat khachapuri. This is not its formal name; but I can't remember the formal name, so it always remains in my head as 'the egg boat.' And that is exactly what it looks like. Imagine a large glob of dough. Take that large glob of dough and shape it to look like a canoe. Then put cheese and butter inside of the canoe and bake it. Once the bread is all cooked and the cheese is nice and gooey they take it out of the oven, crack an egg, and put it in the middle of the hot, molten cheese. In theory the cheese is so hot that it will essentially cook the egg, but when they serve it to you it's not fully cooked through. There are still some uncooked white parts. I hate the uncooked white parts- they freak me out. I've never eaten this kind of khachapuri. It's way too heavy for me. Maybe I'll have it one day, with the help of a small army.

I think every country needs a form of meat wrapped in carbs. For the Italy it's ravioli. For Russia it's pelmeni. For Georgia it's khinkali. But it isn't just meat wrapped in carbs, it's meat intricately wrapped in carbs. They carefully fold and pinch the dough around the meat. It's really hard at first. I made such a mess when I tried making them. You have to get your hand motions just right and in synch with each other. But watching a Georgian do it is like watching a magic act. Zip, zip, zip. Done! Khinkali should be the shape of a teardrop with a very distinct top- the top will be the handle you hold onto while eating them. Once you have finished your wrapping and folding you then toss the whole lot into a pot of boiling water and wait about half an hour. The meat and the dough are both raw throughout this entire process, so the boiling is very important.

And of course the best part is eating these delicious dumplings. But it's not as simple as bite and chew. The inside of the khinkali becomes soupy with all of the juices from the meat. So when you bite into them they have a tendency to explode. You have to carefully bite and hold them upright. The sign of an experienced khinkali eater is to not have one drop of soup on your plate by the end of the meal.

Khachapuri and khinkali are the pride and joy of the Georgian people. To not like them is a grievous offense to the people of Georgia and the thousands of years of traditions that they hold dear. Thankfully I like both khinkali and khachapuri.

The White Diet
Georgia is a beautiful and lush country. However, like most countries, nothing grows in the winter. So what do people eat in winter? A pretty solid diet of potatoes, cabbage, pickled stuff, and a whole lot of white carbs. The nutrients in this assortment is next to nil. (I'm kissing myself for buying multivitamins before I left! Smartest buy ever.) It wasn't so bad at first. But potatoes, cabbage, and carbs get really old really fast. I could kill for a whole week of just raw veggies, fruit, and lots of water.

"Tchämé! Tchämé"
If you ever eat a meal in a Georgian household you will no doubt hear the word "Tchämé!" shouted at you repeatedly. It means "Eat!" And they do mean Eat! I don't know what it is about the Georgians but anyone over the age of thirty wants to see you with a mountain of food on your plate and stuffing your face.

Here are a few tips to avoided the dreaded "Tchämé!"
1. Eat slowly. I don't care how much you love that one particular tomato dish, TAKE YOUR TIME. Trust me, there will still be plenty left over.
2. Stay hydrated. You can eat slower if you alternate a sip of water, have a little food, pause, a sip of water, a little food. Also most of the food they are serving is packed with salt, so you'll really want some water handy anyway.
3. Always have some food on your plate. Just look like you're still eating and they usually leave you alone.
4. If you absolutely can't eat anymore and they keep offering you food just laugh. You might look like an idiot, but it sounds a lot better than shouting, "I don't want to eat anymore. Just leave me alone!"

Clean Plate Club
The Georgians, from what I have seen, are all members of the clean plate club. I notice this because I am somewhat of a picky eater. Onions and cilantro are the devil's foods. I have always picked off the fat from my meat. And I find it weird to eat the skin left on chicken. At the end of our meals I seem to be the only one with a small pile of gristle, fat, skin, onion, and/or small bits of cilantro shoved to the side of my plate. I take great pains to shove all of this together to make my pile of refuse appear as small as humanly possible. But the fact still remains- I will not be eating this.

I can't tell if they're insulted by this. I really hope not. And I'm sorry that I have more scruples about my eating habits than everyone else. But I just cannot bring myself to eat some things.

*Love Handles on a Plate*
And some of the reasons that I am not part of the Telavi Clean Plate Club are due to the fact that they eat some weird things in Georgia. Things that I do not consider to be real food. The one recurring "food" at the dinner table is fat. I don't mean fattening, unhealthy foods. I mean fat.

Once I was served what I can only describe as a very thick, very fatty prosciutto. Normally I absolutely love prosciutto. Add a little melon, put them on a platter and you've got yourself a lovely appetizer! But this stuff was thick and fatty. It was about 75% fat, 20% meat, and 5% spice around the edge. And there was not a melon in sight! The worst part was that this food was made by my host grandfather. He seemed very proud of it. I managed one bite- with a bread chaser- then hid it under the rest of the pile of food on my plate.

While in Georgia I have also had some of the fattiest fish. I didn't know that fish could have fat on them. Or at least, I assume this thing they keep serving is fish. They told me it was fish. But it was kind of hard to tell for myself because the thing was so overly salted I couldn't taste anything else.

I am proud to say that I have never thrown up because of the quality of the food. Although I did come close once. For the record, don't eat anything from an animal that is beige in color. I was presented a bowl of large beige and white things. I can't even begin to describe what it looked like. They had a layer of white and then a layer of beige and they were large and kind of... scribbly. I asked, "What is it?" and the response I received was simply, "Pig." I figured, What the hell! As I chewed, and chewed, and chewed I realized that what I was eating was pig fat and skin. That was why it layered. It was all sorts of epidermis and fat.

You know, I really don't need to see what my love handles will look like before I eat them.

This might not be the best time to mention this, but despite all of my varied food experiences I fully intend to make a big Georgian meal for people when I get back to the states. And don't worry, I will be kind and not prepare any of the weirder things. Besides, I really don't want to be stuck with those leftovers.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We're Off On the Road to Armenia

I went to Armenia for the long weekend, like you do. We had Mother's Day off on March 3 and International Women's Day off on March 8. So, along with 6 other teachers, I took off for Yerevan.
One the way down we took the overnight train. It was a 12 hour excursion. The really odd thing about the train ride was that our entire wagon was packed with fruit. All of the overhead spaces and even under some of the beds was all fruit. I guess that's what third class will get you. Thankfully we went got to the border within the first few hours, although actually getting past the border was a pain. Out of the entire 5 wagon train there were only 10 people who needed Armenian visas- the 7 of us, 2 other TLG teachers we met on the train, and a Japanese guy. I don't think they've ever had to process so many people at once. They crowded us all into this tiny room. Most of them did speak English, though, which was great. And I got another sticker for my passport. Yay!

We got to Yerevan eeeeeeearly in the morning. Well, it was 7, but that feels early after a somewhat cold, bumpy journey. We made it to Envoy Hostel after a long walk because we got off at the wrong metro stop. One of the nice things about traveling in former Soviet satellite states is that you can be in the most yokel of capitals and they'll still have a subway system. But don't let that mislead you- Yerevan is not a yokel capital. Yerevan was definitely farther ahead than Tbilisi. The roads were well paved. The sidewalks were flat and so clean. There were working pedestrian lights at all of the crosswalks.

And the best thing about Yerevan was the sun. Let me tell you about the sun. It was shining. It was bright. And it was warm. Oh God, was it warm. Please don't think I'm crazy for emphasizing that gloriously glowing globe in the sky. Before I went to Yerevan I hadn't seen the sun in two weeks. Two weeks. For two weeks it had been grey cloud-cover for me. While living without the sun I wasn't incredibly depressed like you'd think someone would be. I just got used to the constant grey. But as soon as I saw those bright yellow rays again I realized just how depressing grey can be.  I wanted to put the sun in a jar and take it home with me. All of us were happy to see it. In fact, on several occasions we opted to walk on the wrong side of the street just so we could walk in the sun. We were constantly crossing the street just for a chance to soak in those warm rays. It was glorious. Have I said that enough? Glorious.

But Yerevan doesn't just have the sun. It has other things, too. I was absolutely shocked at the difference between Yerevan and Tbilisi. They're only a couple hundred miles away, probably the distance between Boston and Washington, if not closer. But Yerevan has one glittering thing that Tbilisi seems to be in large demand for: Infrastructure. Yes, that's right, Infrastructure. And yes, I did capitalize it on purpose. Come on, who doesn't think about infrastructure when they're on vacation?

I will admit that I have not stayed an extended period of time in Tbilisi, but I have seen enough of the city to allow me to compare. Tbilisi has one road that is its shining gift to tourists, Rustaveli Street. It's a long boulevard with many shops and it's very well taken care of. However, if you go a block off of Rustaveli, you could be anywhere in Georgia. Well, okay, maybe not anywhere. But the streets immediately surrounding Rustaveli look like some of the slummier parts of Telavi, no question. But all of Yerevan looks like Rustaveli street. All of Yerevan is well maintained and kept clean. I'm talking sidewalks, roads, and even the buildings. Yerevan looks like it could be any city in Europe, not just it's one or two main streets, but the side streets as well. It just boggles the mind how different these two cities are.

Perhaps it isn't fair to compare these two cities. Honestly, I was expecting a city very similar to Tbilisi because their histories seem so similar, or at least, what I know of their two histories. But the primary difference between these two countries- and this is something we heard from more than one Armenian- is the Armenian diaspora all over the world. Every summer people of Armenian descent travel back to Armenia and just pour money into the country. And Georgia just does not have that source of income, which is really a shame.

As a result of this diaspora Aremian seems to be more worldly. I ate at an Irish pub, a Greek gyro fast food place, a baguette type of bistro, and had pad thai at a restaurant that didn't really have any type of "style" or "theme," just a whole lot of different kinds of food.

And it's probably good that Armenia has a lot of other cultures to choose from because Armenian food isn't very good. And Armenian is wine is foul. On a good day it tastes like Minute Maid and vodka. On a bad day it tastes like nail polish remover. And yes, I know this from personal experience. But don't worry, even though they can't do wine or food very well, they still have cognac and a very active nightlife scene.

Yerevan is definitely a young city. We to several bars and there are young people all over the place with different styles and looks. There are the people with leather jackets and sunglasses at night who go to clubs and stay out til 5am (because apparently Yerevan doesn't have a closing time). And then there are people with beards and dreds rockin' the plaid shirt look. I would call them hipsters, but I went to school in New York. I know what true hipsters look like and these people weren't them. I could totally see myself being an expat in Yerevan.

On one day we got out of Yerevan and saw some of the countryside. It was pretty. But also, pretty much like Georgia. Not gonna lie, for all of the differences between the two capitals, Georgia and Armenia look a lot alike when you step outside of the cities. We saw lots of monasteries and churches. In my opinion the best parts of the tour, out of the whole day were the last two places we went. One was a pagan temple in the Hellenic style. One of the kings of Armenia had been decided by the Emperor of the Roman Empire. So he went down to Rome to get crowned. While he was down there he was so impressed by Roman architecture that he wanted some for himself. He built a temple for his summer house and even put a Roman bath next to it. That was the last thing I was expecting to find in Armenia. And the last place we went to was truly awe inspiring. It was a monastery built into the side of a cliff. The acoustics were fantastic! The tour guide told us that sound waves reverberate for 48 seconds in this one room. I wish I knew some opera just so I could start belting out some tunes. It was really great. And in the surrounding cliffs were all sorts of caves. Big ones, small ones. All sorts! Very cool!

So that was Armenia. And here are some pictures for you:

A traditional salt holder, because women give life and salt gives food flavor  (I never got the connection either, but just go with it) 

Here's to acetone wine!! Cheers!

Very cool restaurant with very bad food

Republic Square. Yerevan was big on its public squares and parks.

I don't think I will ever be so depleted of energy to need "Spam Energy Drink"

Traditonal Armenian Dancing

The Armenians know how to do nuts.

Map of Yerevan

For the record, Lemon Rent-A-Car is out of business. I wonder why...

I'm not a car expert, but I know this is no Mustang.

Armenian Genocide Memorial

Lake Sevan

Pagan Temple

Roman Baths!

View from the Roman Baths!