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.