Rain, Rain & The Day It Didn’t Go Away

Blood was mixing with dirt on the back of my hand, forming a terrifying, congealed sludge. The salt from my tears embedded into the cut on my cheek and made it sting. A sickening scene made my stomach turn; I thought of Fiver, the clairvoyant rabbit in Watership Down, who foretold of the blood which ran through his fields. I cried even more, stung even more. A barely-there thorn prick had metastasized into a gaping wound, all thanks to my mind and its inability to forget stupid films watched in the sixth grade. Soon that would be my blood bathing the fields.

The rain had soaked through my clothes a long time ago. (I now know that toting around the $14.95 Old Navy rain jacket did NOT qualify as being prepared.) We always say rain comes down in sheets or in buckets. And sometimes – this is the really absurd statement – “cats and dogs”. But none of these terms suited this rain. How could it possibly have been sheets? Drops were coming down so rapidly they melded together. It was one continual, lifeless wash – without beginning and without end in both time and form. And there certainly was nothing cute or fluffy about this hellish monsoon; whatever name you could assign to its shape, if any, was uglier than sin itself and sharper than needles.

My shivering brought some solace to my dilemma. I remember that night being the only time in my life when I wished to be cold. I put my heart and soul into that wish, slowly ebbing away at all other concerns until I was left with a blank slate for a mind except for that. I knew if I had only been warm enough, the animals would have found me. And I would’ve rather died of hypothermia than have been eaten alive by some stray wolf or bear out for an evening stroll.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. The chances of being attacked were logistically slim. I hadn’t seen any domestic animals nearby, so I reckoned the lack of food gave them less reason to come my way. But not knowing for sure was killing me just the same.

I tucked myself into a corner of the crumbling shack where I could get a grip on reality. Three and a half walls (if you sum up the patchwork as a whole) separated me from everything else. For all the gaps and cracks of various sizes, there was only one intended entrance. One entrance for me but countless entrances for the residents of Everything Else. Rusty nails shot up through decaying boards – the biggest of which was a makeshift door lying a few meters from its proper place where it could have helped me. I tentatively prodded the boards one by one then stacked them in the opposite corner. I contemplated making a fire for a split second and then forgot it. No chance. The whole world was wet and would surely drown.

So I sat. I must have sat for an eternity. Having accomplished my sole mission for the moment, I simply gave up on thought. Thinking was dangerous. Thinking wouldn’t solve anything. It would only kick start a memory full of fear associations. A good while passed before I remembered to take inventory of my bag.

I had three things which mattered: my cell phone – no reception, but a decent flashlight; two sticks of churchxela I’d bought earlier that day in the bazaar; and a box cutter. I thanked God, or whoever, that churchxela isn’t a fragrant food. My mind always reverted back to the animals, the creatures with their keen senses of smell – one’s nose sharper and more sinister than the next. And I thanked my hindsight for not having washed with the “good” soap, the soap from America whose scent has no place in nature, for the last few days; the organic peppermint residue I was wearing at that time didn’t paint me as a human. The rain would have diminished these indicators but not have muted them completely.

There are disadvantages to living alone. One of them is that no one expects you to come home. This is troublesome enough in everyday life for all sorts of sad reasons but possibly fatal in emergencies. I could have been gone for two, maybe three days without causing so much as a ripple in the neighborhood gossip. I seldom tell anyone my plans because there is usually no plan to tell, and that afternoon when I set out on a spur-of-the-moment hike was no different.

This spontaneity was the first thing to haunt me when I found myself stranded a few hours later. I had quickened my pace as the rain started in at attempt to get closer to home. Then I broke out into a bolt, my Converse scraping jagged rocks and tree roots. I was a few frantic steps away from tripping when I stopped still. I instinctively yanked my cell phone from my pocket: 8:30. It would be pitch black in half an hour. And there I was, lost, somewhere in between my house and the beginnings of nowhere.

No signs of people. No candy wrappers. No beer bottles. No cigarette butts. Not even a heroine needle, which made me certain that this place, wherever it was, was truly off the map – even off the radar to the most practiced escapists.

Everything trickled around me. Time trickled into seconds, then to minutes, and somehow became midnight. The earth was supersaturated at this point. It angrily spat up water everywhere I looked. I couldn’t help but smile as I imagined the earth was rooting for me and my survival, rejecting the water for the both of us.

Obviously, I couldn’t sleep on such a surface. So I began to heap the wood scraps into a platform. My muscles were wasted from stress. Regardless of the fact I had ample time to become well rested, they felt torn and bruised. Coordination failed me. Holding the flashlight in one hand and my bed fragments in another was too much, and I sank to my knees in defeat every time the light fell from my fingers. As I tossed and turned that night, I flowed from a state of muteness, deafened by the rain and blinded by the night, to a dream world full of horrible voices and colors.

I awoke to a bombardment of sensations: warmth, daylight, stiffness, sand … It’s impossible to say which one stirred me. I was overwhelmed, paralyzed until I took that first breath. Dry air! I flung the flimsy excuse for a rain jacket as far as I could, trampled it to death in the wake of life, and skipped through the doorway into the brilliant sunshine.


Lucky # 13

“Where are you?”
“At home. You?”
“I’m at the house too.”

House. I wanted to say “home”, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

As a little girl, I sacrificed oodles upon oodles of paper in search of the perfect home. (I never drew much else, mostly because my talent was limited to straight lines and ordered forms. Those stick dogs were way too risky.) So you could say I’ve always had a preoccupation with what a home should be; as I’ve gotten older that interest has morphed into a fixation with the word’s connotations. This preoccupation has led to a lot of angst. Out of the 12 places I’ve laid my head down for the night in the past 21 years, not a single one ever earned the right to be called “home”. I was always living in borrowed space.

Now I’m renting #13, a three-room house within 5 minutes walking distance of my school. It doesn’t look like any of the pictures I drew. The concrete walls are crumbling in places. Beneath these crumbling walls exists an entire ecosystem of insects (luckily Wikipedia research tells me that the food chain should keep itself in check).

But I love the house because it isn’t borrowed space. What is within and beyond its walls is a reflection of my inner self – no clutter or pointless materialistic things to throw off the zen. Inside I’m rediscovering the pleasure of simplicity. People who have a tin roof know what I’m talking about when I say you can make an entire afternoon just lying in bed listening to the rain.

Then there’s the new prospect of having guests. Maybe I did watch a little too much I Love Lucy while growing up, but for whatever reason, I’m a firm believer in some traditional roles. As a woman there’s some part of me that always wants to be experimenting over the stove, my hair and apron covered in God knows what, flour all over the floor. Eastern Europe has taught me to go without a lot of things before going without coffee and pastries to serve.

On the outside, there’s freedom and a very cozy porch. Not answering to a conservative host family who requires you to be home at 9 o’clock is life-changing. The gardens and views around the porch are fantastic. The trees are a different green from what we know in America. My neighbors and I share a yard, in which they grow the most varied assortment I’ve ever seen: roses, cacti, herbs, apples, plums, peaches, pears, grapes, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, berries … We do have a cow. Two actually. And several chickens. I get all the eggs, cheese and milk I can stomach. Pasteurization is for amateurs.

Of course, not everything is rose-colored. I still hand wash my clothes. And the rooster’s internal clock is f*ed up beyond belief. Someone needs to tell him 3 a.m. is a long way from dawn.

Now on to topic B.

A truly good person – one you want to love and have in your life forever – is timeless, much like a work of great art. As I was connecting this analogy I thought of the last time I stood before something in awe. Its beauty moved me because it was a self-contained constant that existed in and of itself; it managed to resist the world’s ugly influences while inspiring and uplifting everyone around it. Age will erode its presence little by little until there’s nothing left to see, but the thing will continue to live on in the minds of those who have had the fortune to encounter it.

Single in Saqartvelo

Long before I ever considered going abroad, I always had a thing for Eastern Europeans; any one of my friends would tell you this. But I never could explain why. No, it honestly wasn’t the accent that did it for me. And it wasn’t their appearance. I even once tried to reason that they were more cultured, but that didn’t turn out to be it, either.

What the appeal really boils down to is the difference in mindsets. Most American boys my age (men? – boys on the verge of mental manhood anyway) exist within a bubble. They’re content to go about their daily lives, rarely reaching beyond the American sphere. And, on one hand, who can blame them? The USA is vast in every sense of the word. For a lot of them, it offers everything they’ll ever need or want.

Eastern European men my age (none of which I hesitate to refer to as men) almost always want more from life. Georgia is rich in ways America will never be, but it’s a fact the world is not at their fingertips like it is ours. And because of this search for the ideals they deem bigger and better, they’ve acquired an innate sense of curiosity. This approach is refreshing, and clearly evident in everyday life: When I brought up news stories back home, my guy friends would nod in acknowledgment, and might have remarked, “That’s sad”; when I talk about current events here, I’m often asked, “But why?” Little differences like these separate the contributors from the creators.

Another thing that really stands out is the differences in appearance. These men know how to dress. The majority of them have very little money to spend on clothes, and a lot of them don’t have washing machines. Yet somehow they make it work. They’re always impeccably clean and, although they don’t have much clothing, the things they do have are tasteful. American boys, you have no excuse. You all have a washing machine and TJ Maxx. Make it happen.

Given my preferences, it seems that I would’ve succumbed to the Cinderella fairytale by now. Girl meets boy in a faraway land. Girl marries and invites 500 of their closest friends. Girl moves to Tbilisi with Prince Charming, buys a flat on Rustaveli, and lives happily ever after. Well, not quite. There are many factors to consider. (Scary realization #82: You know you’ve become a woman when you say this in regards to a relationship – and actually mean it.)

Every day strangers and friends alike ask me, “kmari ar ginda? (Don’t you want a husband?)” No. I didn’t want one yesterday, so I probably won’t be needing one today. I’ve learned is this question is laden with insinuation. Not everyone has their own self interests at heart, but some do. Some are hoping I’ll whip out my non-existent magic carpet and whisk their son away to America. Others want to get a feel for how loose I am. A few just want to turn my relationship status into a gossip fest. Of course there are those who genuinely care and are wildly in love with both their country and with me, and wouldn’t be able to contain themselves if I decided to stay. I love them, too, but back to the kaci (men) …

Children are wonderful. I wake up smiling every morning because I know I’ll see my kids at school soon. But having children isn’t for me – not just yet anyhow. Not to be selfish, but I have a career to establish and adventures to experience before that’s a possibility. Conversely, the early 20-somethings here are already prepared to be fathers. They grew up adoring their little sisters or brothers and probably held more babies before they were 12 than you or I ever will. And if they didn’t grow up with siblings, you can bet they helped walk the neighborhood kids to school. While good paternal skills are one of the most attractive assets a man can have, I know what would be expected of me if I became serious with someone. Wedding + nine months = baby. That’s one tradition I can’t accept right now.

The second, and most difficult, barrier to overcome here is communication. I have met some gorgeous men with captivating personalities, or so I thought before we attempted conversation. They chatter away in fluent Georgian, and I carefully listen. Unfortunately, I can understand 80% of what’s said, but responding is a whole other story. Georgian grammar is extremely different from English grammar and makes sentence formation a real b*. So, I say what I can – which usually takes all of 10 minutes. An awkward silence ensues and I make an excuse to part ways. He invites me for drinks at his house, and I politely decline. I’m not interested in what’s in your pants until I’ve had a closer glimpse of what’s upstairs, sorry.

The third concern which I can do absolutely nothing about stems from my background. Georgians like their television. That includes the raunchy soap operas and racy movies. For a lot of Georgians who have never encountered an American, these women are the real thing. So I can easily understand why I’m stereotyped as being easy. And I completely get why I’m not taken seriously – as an intellectual – by many of the men my age. Sadly, I’m forced to not take them seriously, either.

Another lesser important problem is the religion issue. I’m atheist. Georgia is Eastern Orthodox. I tell people my religion (or lack thereof) whenever anyone asks because I don’t believe in being evasive. While some of my generation here might be accepting of my beliefs and even progressive in their own, there’s the parental factor to consider. And that’s one big if.

Looking outside the relationship spectrum, there’s always the possibility of having a friend with benefits. This is feasible in the big city but nearly impossible in a village like mine. A move like that could quickly ruin someone’s reputation and might mean the end of their job. But that option has lost its appeal for me anyway. Been there, done that.

All things considered, I remain single by choice. Georgia is not the place to come for hookups or summer flings, but it’s very possible to find love. Several of my American girl friends are happily dating Georgians. Perhaps if I were really looking I’d find it, too.

Educating A Post-Soviet Nation

I never liked C-SPAN. The Weather Channel, painful as it was to endure, at least provided background noise. But C-SPAN? I had to be in a certain, deep philosophic mood to subject myself to that. I would wonder, ‘What’s the point? What’s the fuss about? – This droning can’t even be considered “fuss”.’ I would get lost somewhere amongst their stale water glasses and maze of desks only to reason that these men in such serious attire carried empty agendas. But subconsciously I knew this was unfair because I never actually paid attention, never really contemplated. I only formed an opinion for the sake of having one.

Today I found myself contemplating in a meeting room not unlike those featured on C-SPAN. First I imagined myself on the outside looking in: If I were at home, would I flip the channel? Maybe. After all, there wasn’t much to it. For all the liveliness present – the blues and reds of the Georgian and EU flags, the girls’ bright scarves, the rich accent of  TLG’s director – the scene could be perceived as very dull. Only when I brought myself back to the reality of an involved insider did the meeting take on new life.

I come from a much different environment where people are accustomed to being fed information; in most debates, attendees don’t actively participate. Yes, perhaps some are lazy or uninterested and others are ignorant, but whatever the reason, we’re all wired to perform this way from birth. Many of us don’t realize it and would probably deny it, but Americans celebrate our victories quietly (if we notice them) and take the beatings while laying down. Reform is the responsibility of a select few in Washington; their job is to sign the papers, then it’s CNN’s job to tell us the next day. Sadly, this is where the process usually ends, and those papers are soon lost to the shuffle and hustle of a massive nation which suffers from information overload.

Though Saqartvelo is tiny in comparison to America, its political paper trail is just as long – if not longer. The difference is that these people follow their trail; my seventh graders can tell me (and have told me) all about Libya’s influence on Georgian imports, which new environmental legislation matters, and why building that airport in Svaneti might or might not have been a good idea. Granted, they get almost all their news from TV, but this compressed outlet is better than no outlet at all. No, Georgia does not have the world/keyboard at their fingertips like the US does, and this will definitely change their scope on news. But for now they’re saved from knowing this disadvantage.

I had questioned basically all reasoning behind Georgia’s approach to educational reform. When I arrived in September, I saw chaos. Two days ago, I chaos. It seemed like the different problems were being randomly attacked without any strategy. Like the majority of Shashkini’s efforts were nothing more but good publicity. I was beginning to agree with a good friend of mine who said, “Georgia is passing all these reforms. No one knows if they’re bad or good. No one knows if they’re working. But they know they’re reforms.” Falling into this trap of dogmatic thinking mentally ruins us, so I resisted assumption as much as possible, and decided to give Shashkini the benefit of the doubt until today when I had a proper chance to judge for myself.

His speech was genuine. He fully and directly answered 90% of our questions. When it came time to admit past mistakes, he spoke with feeling and from experience; he didn’t try to spin shortfalls into opportunities to highlight minor successes, and he didn’t beat around the bush. When fellow teachers brought ridiculous examples to his attention, he had their case written down so they could be resolved post-meeting. In one instance a TLGer talked about his English teacher’s need for one of the Georgian laptops (under contract with Intel), the dedication she showed toward her students, and the difference technology would make in her academic contributions. “What is her name? Where does she live? Ok, we’ll make sure she gets a laptop,” the Minister replied.

All us volunteers are aware that Georgia is indeed a post-Soviet country in transition. But it didn’t really hit home, with me at least, until he touched on specific examples of Soviet teaching remnants which are still evident in many Georgian schools: harsh discipline, not “forcing” children to learn, showing strong preference toward the best students, permitting cheating, etc. Luckily, our Minister is not of this mindset and realizes Western methods can and should be implemented; he pointed out the importance of not only serving as a teacher but as a catalyst for behavior change.

So what exactly is Georgia doing to tackle the education sector? Here’s a breakdown of the Minister’s remarks from memory:

  • Starting next school year, English will be compulsory from first class. Russian will be optional.
  • In the past, the government decided to let the market regulate textbooks. As a result, there are 900 different English books used by Georgian schools today – many of poor quality. But now English textbooks will be streamlined for the first time. McMillan is developing and donating books for first through sixth class. Every English teacher will receive a teacher’s edition complete with CDs and a dictionary. The following year they will replace seventh through twelfth class books. The price of books will drop from about 15 GEL to 6 or 7 GEL.
  • Schools directors who don’t pay their heating and electricity bills (eventually resulting in no heat/electricity) will go to prison; the Minister recently discovered that 60 out of Tbilisi’s 200 schools didn’t pay these utilities. They were given a few days to pay under the threat of being jailed, and the utility companies announced record payment numbers.
  • The voucher system is being modified. As of this year, the school’s budget is no longer wholly determined by how many students attend (which encourages social promotion). Though this will still be a factor, schools will receive a base amount for utilities and salaries which should lessen the pressure on passing undeserving students.
  • By 2014, every teacher must pass an exam to become certified in his or her subject, and their monthly salary will be raised from 150-300 GEL to 1,000 GEL.  Those who don’t pass will be fired. Currently there is no required teacher certification, so many English teachers don’t actually know English.
  • As of last semester, a new absence policy was instituted which says students who miss more than the allotted number of classes will fail that subject.
  • 75% of schools currently have Internet access. By the start of next school year, 100% should have access. A new Internet provider is currently installing cables across the country; the new servers will be the fastest in Georgia.

… There are a number of others, but I can’t recall them right now.

When you imagine a country that didn’t have any electricity just six years ago, these plans are pretty ambitious. The Georgian education system has a long, long way to go before it achieves status parallel to that of its EU counterparts, but there’s no doubt the conversation is very much alive. Only time will tell.

The week the lights went out in Georgia.

It had snowed. The electricity was down, but this was to be expected. Power lines in the village have a mind of their own; usually they take a few hours’ or overnight sabbatical and this is perfectly fine. I went about my normal business and decided to dare the treacherous two miles to town in those godawful rainboots with their gaping hole (might as well have walked barefoot) … But as this is Georgia, I was saved from most of my journey by a friendly stranger with a rather loud horn. Naturally. Like everyone I know, he went on and on about the ass beating Georgia laid on Ukraine’s rugby team, pasuing only to pass me more sunflower seeds.

When I returned home my host grandmother was bringing in firewood. A neighbor had caught her attention in the driveway. He stood there delivering the day’s news with his hands, his 2-liter beer jug shaking wildly from side to side. My host sister and I watched this commotion from the window. Bebia finally made her way back, slamming the gate while noticing us leaning in anticipation over the sill.

“deni ar iqneba erti kvirit (There won’t be power for one week),” she said casually. This is one of those statements that demands a “WTF!” reponse – except you can’t say it aloud because, before any Georgian learns their “ABCs” or “123s”, they can all translate f* at the drop of a hat. So, I said it anyway. Old habits die hard.

So what does one do with a dead phone, dead netbook, and a handful of candles? Proceed as normal of course. As much as my host sister and I bitched and moaned for the sake of bitching and moaning, nothing went horribly wrong. We were only slightly inconvenienced when it came to the hot water situation; but I have long accepted the fact that some washing here might come in bucket sponge bath form. She also whined about the absence of the toaster oven (which means the absence of cake). But I’m sure we’re better for it.

We did manage to scrounge up a few batteries at our street’s shop. My  host grandmother is a diehard “sad aris eliza (Where is Eliza?)” fan and simply couldn’t go without. She sat at the the kitchen table futzing with our dusty old radio for an hour before I heard the familiar dubbed voice saying something about eloping with her amor, Antonio. Meanwhile, Salo and I were busy translating “Hotel California” and “Not Afraid”.

That “eliza” broadcast inspired a lengthy premarital sex discussion. Apparently, Georgian boys mean business when it comes to virginity. Of course there is the double standard: They, with their parents’ permission and blessing, begin visiting prostitutues around age 15 or 16 to ‘gain experience’. These women may be in their mid-20s or even in their 60s. I’m not saying this approach is bad or good; I’m saying it’s different. And fascinating in a few respects. I only hope they wear a rubber. But that’s tomorrow’s topic.

Living without the Internet for a few (more) days gave me some perspective. I went outside. A lot. And I watched things. I watched the world go by with my notebook, jotting down neighborhood details like who went where when, the time the cows arrived at their respective homes for the evening, how people get along perfectly okay without rock salt or plows, etc. I also doodled in my notebook more than normal at school. And this is what I surmised:

Chixa School has all the good intention in the world. Unfortunately, they posses little in the area of efficiency and even less in the realm of creativity. Unless my twelfth graders work ’round the clock, most will fail their English  national exam in May. Cheating is still a big problem among even the best of them. Many of my students work incredibly hard but lack the proper venue for improvement. I can’t bear the thought of any of these things. So I intend to fix all of them.

Maybe it is already February, but it’s never too late to instill change. Maybe I won’t be the one who turns out a horde of fluent English speakers, but I can at least get all the balls rolling. I encourage my fellow TLGers to resist the temptation to coast along in light of our overwhelming task; instead, make full use of the time we have been given.

I’ve decided to forego most traveling this semester; I can always come back to see the sights, but I’ll never have the opportunity to teach here again. Right now, those weekends are needed for extra tutoring sessions, English Club, visiting students’ homes, etc.

My running list of improvements is far from finished. We’re constantly batting around new policies and extracurricular ideas. To date, I have been met with only open minds and agreement. Approaching peers at school isn’t as difficult as I first assumed. Taking initiative is the cornerstone of this project even if it were to evolve into a sticky process. After all, a mind is a terrible – the worst – thing to waste.

*** Armenia and the Sachxere arrival will be covered in the next post. Scout’s honor.

The End of An Era

Inhale. Exhale. … “He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs.” – Em: 1, Hallmark: 0

I can’t pinpoint the reason why I stopped. Letting my blog go on hiatus is not something I do.  I’ve been a writer since I was 11. I had to write; entirely too much was going on upstairs for me not to. Truth of the matter is, I felt nothing inside for the better part of those 59 days. And I certainly wasn’t going to pretend only to disappoint with nothingness. Anyway, that’s not to say I wasn’t a ball of emotion. I just outsourced it to save myself from the impending implosion. I’ve been meaning to revisit the ole RSS feed many, many times, but it’s been an intimidating, confidence-crushing process: “Does this need a hyphen? Is that a compound noun? Oh f* me, WHY can’t I just say it?!” Kids, rhetoric ain’t like riding a bike. I’m down a lot of grey matter, and up one thesaurus. Use it or most assuredly lose it.

I won’t bother with reconstructing that last month and change in Saqartvelo. It went something like: party, class, party, party, trip, class, party, plane. But all that doesn’t really matter. The important bit is taking place right this moment.

And that bit begins with a very unfortunate turn of events. We have a new guest in our house. She (since names mean nothing in our global computer age) uprooted her life and traveled 1,000 miles just to be under the same roof as her best friend, my Aunt Phyllis. This lady recently had a stroke. Over the course of the next couple months, through careful physical therapy and diet supervision, Aunt Phyllis will hopefully have her buddy back on her feet – literally. Now, where do I come in?

Pointless, nostalgic chatter scares me, bores me, numbs me to the core. Mind you, I didn’t know this lady – although I had been aware of her existence via eavesdropping on phone conversations for years now. I made polite remarks for the first little while but mostly steered clear simply because I had no idea what to do with myself. Then one day: “I have to run errands. Can you make her a sandwich?” *brief silence* “Ok. What type?” …  There were two problems with this; First, I’m a firm believer in every-man-for-himself. Don’t think for a minute that translates into leaving the ‘poor, defenseless elderly’ out in the cold (though I’ve learned they’re anything but). No, I just assume self-sufficiency from all creatures and am severely thrown off course when someone’s lacking. Secondly, the aforementioned doom of pointless chatter.

There the sandwich and its owner sat, alone minus a sad water glass and some scattered pills for neighbors. Watching the birds outside nibble busily to the point of vivacity on their seed block. Well hell. Even in such an awkward situation that stark contrast of a scene couldn’t be permitted. So I pulled up a chair and some soup. She talked. I heard things. Then I realized I was listening. She was absolutely, 100% there. Fully alert. Fully engaging. And she was funny.

During our few encounters I’ve observed her with great attention. I wonder a lot about aging, especially lately what with Peter Pan Syndrome waxing and waning. This tiny event – this sandwich and its consequential meetings – teaches us some mighty lessons. Who is time to phase you? What are trials to discourage you? Usually, people live by their many calendars of days, weeks, years … There’s always a drastic sense of movement in this continuum of time, almost always tainted by bittersweetness, when one hears stories about the “good times”. Yet here we have a woman whose decades-old anecdotes are ever painting a picture of the present. This is the character I hope to resemble now and until the end of my days: not moved by the extremes of hardship, joy, anger, grief, etc., but shaped by them.

The other highlights have come about as a result of “Days with God” (wherein the role of God is played by Ben & Jerry, a mountain peak, or something equally enlightening). Just because I’m not a believer doesn’t mean I can’t be religious about something, right? Right.

One particular highlight centers around that foreboding, next step of a career move … These last several years I’ve disappointed myself. Once upon a time not so very long ago, I was destined for great things. Then came the burdens of death, taxes, and fighting the red tape all by my itty bitty self, and well, everything just sort of went to shit for a while. I was lost. So. Lost. But now, thanks to perspective gained in a faraway land, things seem to be righting themselves once again.

Don’t expect me to pour my heart out over some fabulous five-year plan. Thus far, I am only certain that all the inspirational sayings I ever heard are true. We really can be anything we want. As someone who’s fallen on rock bottom a number of times and, though now lifted yet still seeking the proper way out, I can say the quotes aren’t unrealistic bullshit spread by the rich and famous. My biggest fear (which I’m sure a lot of folks share) is winding up as another drone who’s content with discontent. So why do we  allow ourselves to get there? In order to avoid such a downward spiral, we must remember the words of a very wise man: “Live like no one else, so you can live like no one else.” – Dave Ramsey

So whatever you find me doing these next few years, there’s no doubt I’ll be going without. There’s no doubt some of the food in my kitchen won’t be organic, and no doubt my next car won’t be the beautiful blend of art and machinery I’d hoped for (*cough* Lamborghini *cough*). And this is all ok.

“I’ll probably never get the props I feel I ever deserve/But I’ll never be served my spot is forever reserved/If I ever leave earth that would be the death of me first./’Cause in my heart of hearts I know nothing could ever be worse./That’s why I’m clever when I put together every verse.” – Em: 2, Hallmark: still nothing

Death, The Enemy & A Secret

Our school only has a handful of male employees, most of which are security guards. If I’m lucky I might see these men once or twice a day in passing; we exchange a quick “Gamarjoba (hello)!” or “Kargad (See you later)!” and part ways. They’re pretty elusive. But on Tuesday that all changed when Alex brought me to their hideout. At first it was just the seven of us huddled around a card table, bullshitting about anything and everything that came to mind. Then, dish by dish, food began to appear out of nowhere. We made awesome cheese sandwiches out of corn cakes; nibbled on some scallions and parsley; and politely picked at my contribution of shelled walnuts. (Pre-shelled nuts aren’t fresh enough. They must do the cracking themselves, and I admire them all the more for it.)

While I was preoccupied with the lovely, gooey cheese, I noticed a plate of fish in the corner. One of the teachers had caught them the day before, and now there they lay – eyes, tails, and some river muck that still clung to them. Alex demonstrated his method before happily pushing me our makeshift plate. He added some reassurance: “Don’t worry. You don’t notice the texture.” I tore off the fins and head, tossing them to a patient Kusha (school dog). Don’t notice? – my a$$. I counted the different organs as they exploded under my jaw: heart, intestines … It was a little muddy, and a little prickly thanks to those barely there bone slivers, but it wasn’t half bad. I ate another few before relinquishing my turn.

They fitted in a couple final toasts before the bell rang: a congratulations to me for being the first lady to join their secret meetings, and an invitation for hiking … The women teachers are becoming more receptive too. I knew the question of all questions was coming, and when they inquired about my sex life yesterday afternoon, I did the proper Christian thing and shook my head vigorously. Massive brownie points.

Wednesday’s Muskeeteri meet-up was the usual breath of fresh air, but we were down one member L I had received a text from Jamie during school saying he was in the hospital. When I explained to my last class that I had to cut out early for his visit, they went into a frenzy of concern. Two of the tenth grade boys led me to the road, flagged down a tow truck, and jumped on the back. They yelled, “Modi! Modi chventan ertad! (Come! Come with us!)” So there I stood beside my amigos, balancing on the exhaust pipe cover and hanging on for dear life. We just so happened to bump through town during the biggest soccer match of the season. Everyone and their mother were staring at the ballsy, slightly crazy English teacher and her noble escorts.

Last night I graded my first set of essays. Every week I give my groups a homework assignment; they were a little awkward and reluctant at first, but these days they’ll do anything since I’ve started bribing them with candy prizes (their choice – usually a bar of Kophona) J Now I understand why my mother saved every doodle I ever drew, every paper I ever wrote; reading those essays filled me with pride. It’s one thing to be proud of your own achievements, but sharing in a child’s brings happiness beyond words.

That random history degree is actually coming in handy. Today I gave all my classes a short talk about the background and customs of Thanksgiving; I described how the Native Americans befriended the Pilgrims and all that, but kind of left out the ensuing two hundred years of war, disease, turmoil, etc. But of course you have to mention Black Friday if you bring up Thanksgiving, so I explained the concept of a shopping mall in depth. That and the ingredients in gravy really blew their minds. Everyone, including my co-teacher, is fascinated at how we can make a pie from pumpkins. She’s hell bent on discovering this for herself and must’ve reminded me a dozen times to find a good recipe.

Relations with my host family are neither improving or worsening, only complicating. Before leaving America I had bought a copy of “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Road Dahl is near and dear to my heart, so when I finally found a use for it in Salo’s tutoring I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, good literature is falling on deaf ears :/ She’s not interested in learning a language for learning’s sake. It’s pretty disheartening to find yourself in an obligation where you’re not wanted. Still, if it’s the last damned thing I do, I’ll fulfill my purpose here and she’ll score well on that exam.

Going to the wake yesterday was a real eye-opener. Almost all the teachers and a couple dozen students left school early to pay their respects to our economics teacher’s deceased father. Walking up her family’s driveway, I was praying for a closed casket while Alex explained Georgian funeral traditions. He said something about keeping the body in the house for three or four days … The rest has been lost to paranoia.

We finally crossed their threshold, very slowly and with great respect – echoed in our soft step and dismal expression. An elderly lady sat in the living room within inches of the casket (closed – thank God). She was wailing a mix of Georgian and Russian in between sobs. Us teachers filed around the room in a circle (as is customary), patting her shoulder and murmuring well wishes; I thought it best to pass by silently since she was a stranger to me.

After that short procession, we went outside and shook hands with all the relatives. The last in that line was an eighth grade student of ours. He tried not to cry but had given up by the time I reached him. When it came my turn, I did my best to kiss the hot tears off his cheek. We hugged and then it was back to the marshutka.

I didn’t expect anything extraordinary on the return trip to school. Then suddenly the ladies sitting beside me jabbed my shoulder excitedly: “Nakhe! Nakhe! (Look! Look!)”. There was a bridge – wider and more desolate than any I’ve seen – spanning a gorgeous river. A small group of soldiers sat guarding barracks surrounded by barbed wire. On the opposite bank the Russian flag was flying next to a little hut. I surprised myself, an American, when I empathized with these Georgians’ reactions; we were unified in leering, curious yet wary, at the scene as if it were a strange zoo animal. And that’s when it dawned on me. I live within 15 minutes of Russia – and, for my duration here, danger.