Friday, February 25, 2011

Kickin' It Old School

It's going to be another food-related blog. And I've also been wanting to write another blog about Georgian food in general. Sorry about the food theme I've got going lately. And sorry if it makes you salivate or, conversely, loose your appetite. Not a whole lot happens during the week, but there's always food to be had. And, as I'll explain in my Georgian food blog that I have yet to write, it's usually an adventure. So here goes. Another food blog...

This evening was very reminiscent of my high school Russian classes. For those of you who don't know- I took Russian for five years. Unfortunately, I haven't remembered a whole lot (sorry Mr. Hennessy). But I chock that up to the fact that I'm not very good at languages (said the English teacher). Thankfully my Russian classes contained a lot of Russian culture (which is probably one of the reasons that I find myself in Georgia today [I know, Georgia is NOT Russia. But it started my love of Eastern Europe]). One of my favorite field trips was when we went to an Armenian/Russian restaurant. That was where I first had stuffed grape leaves. I have a sneaking suspicion there were also stuffed cabbage leaves because when I had stuffed cabbage for dinner tonight it tasted so good and threw me back to high school. I was in that little restaurant in one of the yuppy neighborhoods of Boston. There were pastoral murals on the walls. And all of my classmates were too scared to order in Russian. It was comforting and reminded me of home. Not in a homesick sort of way, but rather a I-remember-this-and-it's-just-great sort of way.

The other reminder of my Russian days is not quite as pleasant. There is an excellent movie called the Barber of Siberia. It's absolutely fantastic! Truth be told I can't fully remember what it's about, but there are Victorian dresses (but it takes place in Russia, so would they be Alexandrian dresses?) and it's very beautiful. There's an American woman in pre-Soviet Russia, she falls in love with a cadet. I forget the specifics. But one lasting impression is the depiction of Maslenitsa, or in the western world- Fat Tuesday (masla is Russian for 'butter'). There's a big roller coaster, bright lights, and everyone is drinking (kind of like New Orleans without the warm weather or beads). In the morning there's a sweeping panoramic of people asleep in the streets, collapsed in heaps of drunken lethargy (those are the best kind of heaps). And one man is still drinking. Vodka straight from the bottle, of course. Every time he takes a swig he opens his jacket and takes a deep breath of the musky fur lining- his version of a chaser. Now, vodka is considered a "neutral spirit." It is supposed to be odorless, tasteless, mixes with anything. I have always thought that was a giant lie. Odorless? Tasteless? Are we talking about the same hell fire liquid? Or at least that's what I thought until I tasted cha-cha. Let that name sink in: Cha-cha.



Are you with me? Okay. Cha-cha makes vodka taste like the sweetest nectar or the gods. When they called vodka a "neutral spirit" they must have been comparing it to cha-cha. Cha-cha is the Georgian answer to vodka. It is made from what is left of the grapes used to make wine. How it becomes clear is beyond me- clearly it's proof that it's a substance volatile even to itself. But for some reason I always forget just how bad cha-cha is when I start drinking it (the first time I had cha-cha was the last time I was in Georgia when someone bought a little old lady's homemade cha-cha. You knew it was homemade because there was a fly floating in the bottle). So this evening, as I sat down to my delicious dinner of stuffed cabbage, I foolishly accepted the shot glass handed to me by my host grandfather. And as I poured that poison down my gullet I was once again thrown back to Russian class, watching a lone man on a Russian street breathing the fur lining of his coat to take the edge off of his morning drink. At the time my young mind couldn't understand how a drink could be so foul as to induce such a reaction. But this evening's cha-cha had me wishing to take huge whiffs of a big, ol' fur coat.

Also, a very strange coincidence, I just found out that my high school Russian teacher broke his ankle. So this blog posting is dedicated to Mr. Hennessy. I hope you are quickly on the mend!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Importance of Baking Powder or, How I Brought Aunt Jemima to Georgia

As one of my gifts to my host family I brought them real New England maple syrup (okay, it wasn't Aunt Jemima, but that was such a good title I couldn't pass it up). And for the past 2 weeks they have been offering it to me to put in my tea. When I got here I tried explaining pancakes, but to no avail. Do you know how hard it is to describe pancakes? I tried saying blini (Russian crepes), but fluffier and I think that made things more confusing. I agreed over the weekend to make pancakes, but I wasn't there for most of the weekend, and when I came back the family had plans to go to the birthday dinner of Lela's father.

Then, the day came when we were definitely going to make these fabled pancakes!  I had been very smart and wrote out the recipe ahead of time, because the internet hasn't been working. However, I wrote the amount in imperial measurements, not metric. A lot of the process went as thus:
Me: How much is in this cup? (holding up a coffee cup)
Maka (their English speaking cousin): About 150.
Me: 150 what?
Maka: Yes, 150.
Me: No, 150 of what?
Maka: Grams.
Me Thinking: Grams?!?! Aren't there a lot of grams in things?? (looking up grams the conversion measurements page in my date book) Yep. There are .0353 grams in one ounce. And I need three cups of flour... 8 oz in one cup... 24 oz... Okay... 24 oz... Dammit, math is hard! They're still staring at me. How much flour do I need?!?!?
Me: Uh, yeah, that cup will work. Sure.

Once the measurements were figured out, the hardest part was trying to explain "baking powder." On a good day, I barely know what baking powder does. I know that it's not baking soda. And then I think of how baking soda is used to make refrigerators not smell bad. And then I get distracted by wondering why people would eat baking soda, considering its olfactory negating properties- it just can't be good for the insides, ya'know? Theeeeen I start thinking about why people eat liver. I mean, that's the part of the body that filters out all the bad things. To eat that part just seems silly. And then I realize there was a whole reason I got on this train of thought and get fed up with the whole shebang.

So baking powder, I now know, is a chemical compound that releases carbon dioxide, which gives baked goods a light fluffy texture (i.e.- pancakes). They don't seem to have baking powder in Georgia. Or at least, based on my hand gestures, my host family had no idea what I was talking about. And no, if you look up "baking" and "powder" in the Georgian to English dictionary, it does not adequately explain "baking powder." So we had to get a little inventive. First we tried yeast. It was... not successful. Then we added baking soda, which Lela produced out of a cabinet half way through the batch. The only thing with baking soda is that you need vinegar to activate it... So I was saying, "No, no, pancakes are supposed to be sweet." But looking at the pathetic lump of silver dollar pancakes on the plate made me think it couldn't get much worse. So we added the baking soda and vinegar- a very tiny amount- and let the Fates take over from there. The pancakes, as they were cooking, looked like perfectly normal, American pancakes. But sitting at the table chowing down on what I used to refer to as the sustenance of the gods (working in a diner will do that to you), I was a tad disappointed. They weren't so much fluffy as they were yeasty. Definitely not up to snuff with Ernie's Lunch. But the syrup was good and helped mask the taste.

And the family's reaction?

They looked pleased. And they said the pancakes were good, but... I suspect they just thought it was all a bit weird. I mean, I made a big deal about it and in the end they said they were like blini (which I tried explaining! I think something got lost in translation).

Despite this whole ordeal, at least now they understand what maple syrup is for. Except while we were eating they asked me if it's supposed to be used for anything else...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gender Politics and School Absences

I have been teaching for one week and one day. Which means that my host brother has missed half of his classes for the past week and one day. Every day, when I'm done with classes Sandro finds me and walks me home. The past couple of times he's had to chase me down just to walk me the rest of the way. Now, I found it nice the first couple of days. I didn't really know the way very well, there were quite a few turns in the road. But, trust me, I have a very good sense of direction (I was able to give directions to people visiting Telavi, despite the fact that I hadn't been here in a year and a half), I know the way home now. And it isn't that far- it's approximately 3 Lady Gaga songs away!

However, I'm not surprised by my daily escort home. During our cultural training the first week we were here, we were reminded that the families would be extra cautious regarding the safety of the girls. It's a "cultural thing." And although I know it's a "cultural thing," it doesn't mean I have to like it. Yeah, I'm a woman, but I don't want to take an hour-long stroll through the ghetto at midnight. It's a ten minute walk in a nice, quiet neighborhood in Telavi at noon. And the fact is, I'm a teacher. It looks kind of bad if I'm the reason a student continues to miss classes!

Over time I'm sure they'll realize that it's not necessary for me to be accompanied everywhere. And I'm sure that Sandro has loved having an excuse to leave school an hour or two early everyday. However, the sooner it stops the sooner I will be happy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fewer Words, More Pictures

This is going to be a picture-heavy post, with the best of my photos I've taken so far and a video I found online about the program I'm on. I want to show this video because I think it shows a good balance between the government, students, and volunteers saying "Go English! Rah, rah, rah!" and a Russian-born parent's feelings about the in curriculum and the underlying political implications/ ramifications further down the line. I think this parent's concerns about Russian being eradicated from the school system are valid, but not for the reasons that the parent gives. Georgia, whether they like it or not, is Russia's neighbor. It's not something to be ignored. Therefore, it is only smart not to completely ignore Russia and its proximity. I also think the parent in this video is being somewhat of an alarmist. Let me also assure you that Russian and English are being taught simultaneously in schools all over Georgia and there is still a Russian-speaking presence with most of the teachers. But anyway, I promised less words this time. So here are some pictures and video! Enjoy!

First morning in Tbilisi was a bit grey, thankfully it cleared up... eventually.

Khingkali gone wrong.

Khingkali gone right.

I loved that my breakfast view looked like something out of a fairy tale.

Georgian Alphabet. Be afraid!

The ceiling of KGB Bar.

Slavophiles Unite!

Shashlik- basically a Georgian shishkebab.

Shashlik a'roastin'

The power went out during dinner, so my host grandfather, and resident poet, had to continue by candlelight and flashlight

Sometimes the toasting can get so intense that all the men have to stand on their chairs (no women allowed to stand on chairs, though. Not okay.)

No women standing on chairs, but girls (or in Georgian, 'gogo.' I kid you not) are okay. This is my host sister, Nini.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Telavi, Not Tel Aviv

Here I am in Telavi! Before I left the hotel in Tbilisi I wrote a long, very interesting, quite philosophical post (How would you know it wasn't interesting or philosophical? You'll never see it.) The computer ate it. So I guess I'll try again and ensure that copy and paste works this time.

So I'm here in Telavi. It's to the northeast of Tbilisi, but ages and ages away from the hotel where we were staying. No continental breakfast here (although I did nab a few of the miniature hotel-brand Nutellas before I left). No one putting water bottles by my bedside when I'm out. Or leaving fresh towels... Damn, I'd love to live in a hotel. But the hotel wasn't Georgia. It was a weigh station. It was where we prepared for Georgia. And now I'm actually in Georgia!

I'm living with a five person family- mother, Lela, father, Zura, little sister, Nini, and two brothers, Sandro and Giorgi. But the elder brother is studying at university in Poland. The house is a little small, but my bedroom is bigger than the one I had in the apartment in Malden, where we lived for about two weeks before I left. And this bedroom has a door! Rock on!

Yesterday was my first day at Telavi School Number 3. I had some serious 'pepelas' in my stomach, I'll tell you that. It was a craaaaaazy day. The classes only last forty-five minutes! And the kids are so disruptive that, in total, ten or fifteen minutes are probably lost every class just trying to get them to stop talking. I have never had such short class times. Even in middle and high school the classes were ninety minutes... and I suspect we were no where near as rambunctious as these kids. Even the smart kids are yelling over each other to answer things, whereas the kids sitting in the back are just joking around with each other and talking. Although once you get into the ninth and tenth grades the talking kind of stops altogether and the whispering and laughing kicks in. Oh, the teenage years, how little I miss you!!

Yesterday I had five classes to sit in on. There was a bit of confusion and the school thought that I had to be getting twenty-five hours of class time in every week. But I cleared it up today and explained that it was only three classes every day- which is what the other language teachers do. And it turned out to be kind of a moot point for today; I went to my first two classes, then the third one was canceled because none of the students were there, and the last two were canceled because my co-teacher was sick. So it went from a five class day to a two class day. I was at home and in front of the fireplace by 12.

On that note, let me elaborate that sitting in front of the fire is incredibly necessary. I've always thought, "I love winter! Oooh, isn't the snow so lovely! And shoveling? It's just a good work out! You burn 190 calories in one hour of shoveling, don'tcha know?" That was American winter. Georgian winter is different. The schools have heaters, but they don't work very efficiently, so everyone has to keep their coats on (really glad I went out and bought all those nice teaching clothes now...). Today when I got to school they told me that the electricity wasn't working. No electricity, no heat. "So that's why all the classrooms have those little, portable fireplaces, but they weren't using them yesterday!" Actually, the fireplaces work better than the heaters. I wouldn't say I was warm enough to take my coat off, but I wasn't shivering like I had been the day before. Improvement! I almost wish the school's electricity would stay off.

It's all completely alien to me right now. It's hard to imagine that I came to Telavi a year and a half ago. The summer and winter are complete polar opposites (no pun intended, I swear). Although Telavi is actually somewhat warmer that Boston right now, because most rooms aren't heated with more than a two by one-foot fireplace, it's hard to get the cold out of your bones. And I'll you tell you, I can't wait til spring.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tbilisi, The Place to Be

Greetings from Tbilisi!

I finally arrived after a day and a half of travel. It took forever. But at least I got to get out and see Warsaw, Poland. A pretty city that I'd like to go back and see more of. Although we had 13 hours in Poland, I just did not have it in my to haul my carry-on all over Warsaw. So we ('we' being about 9 other people from my program) walked to the old town from the train station, got lunch at a kebab shop (yeah, I know, I know, it's not very Polish), then coffee in the old town square. Like I said, great city and I'd loveto see it again.

We got to Tbilisi bright and early on Sunday morning. I watched the sun rise through the clouds and fog as I sipped my coffee in the restaurant on the top floor of my hotel. And let me tell you, this hotel is nice. They sent us to the classy hotel, that's for sure.

While at the hotel I've had a very short foray into the metric world of weight lifting. The food they've been giving us at the hotel is so good, but so heavy. I really wanted to work up sweat to counteract those delicious, delicious desserts and breads and rich meats and chocolate croissants and... Oh sorry. Got a bit away from myself there. They really do put out a good spread. So you can understand my urge to work it off. I arrived at this mirror-encrusted pit of hell fairly optimistic, but things quickly turned for the worst. I started with one of the arm machines- none of the machines, save one, looked familiar to me. I had no idea how much I should lift so I just did it by how many of the weight plates were on it. I did a few reps and moved on to a few of the other machines. However there was this personal trainer who kept putting her things over the machines to reserve, so I just moved them. You can't claim most of the machines in a tiny gym., It's just not okay... I'm lucky I didn't get punched in the face.

But, to make a long story short, the metric system and I didn't get along very well. But at least there's still the pool to try out. You don't need to know math to use the pool!

In other news, we started our intensive teacher training this morning! Quite intensive, indeed. We started at 8am with an orientation meeting, then moved right on to our Georgian language class. Gamargobat! Me var Mary. Ragora khar? [Hello! I'm Mary. How are you?] If I had the Georgian alphabet on my computer I think I would even be able to spell it! I learned Georgian for four hours and then had a lunch break. A group of us took a walk down the street to get outlet adapters at an electronics store. However, no one in the group spoke Georgian (except for the few phrases we learned half an hour before) or Russian and the people in the store spoke very little English (surprisingly). So after four hours of a language class I then became the Russian translator. The language muscles in my brain are POUNDING from all this language going on. It's really great to be in the middle of all this, but it's tiring.

After lunch we then had four hours of intercultural training. The first half of the class was a bit redundant and more closely resembled a theory of anthropology class, and really had little to do with Georgian culture. Truth be told, I'm not too optimistic about these classes. I've been here before. I've dealt with a lot of these things before. I know what 'culture shock' is. I'm sure there are some people that might be benefiting from these things, but most of the people on this program are very well traveled and have experienced these things. Reportedly the class will get more specific to Georgia and problems we may run into here. I'm really crossing my fingers for that.

Well, the hours grows late and I have another full day tomorrow, so I must retire to my virtuous couch.

Good night, good afternoon, or good morning wherever you may be!