The “Bad”, Bittersweet & A Test

I don’t like to complain much these days, so let’s get it over and done with in one shot.

I have a confession to make: I’ve eaten more white flour, meat, salty cheese, soda, and candy in a month than a person should in a lifetime. I don’t even like any of those things. (Though I have to admit Turkish coffee is amazing.) And here we have a person who, before she decided to go adventuring, was studying to become a personal trainer. That’s hypocrisy at its best. Before coming here I was happy being vegan and felt better than ever. Now I don’t have any energy to haul groceries home. Ugh, stupid vicious circle. Hopefully this week I’ll suffer through the fatigue and get back in the kitchen.

That contraption of a washing machine and I are on real, real bad terms. It’s constantly destroying new blouses and pants, eating my buttons and ripping apart seams. Some things should never be homemade.

I’d say I’m a private person; I can be an open book information wise, but I like some space and certain property. So when I come home to find my host sister in my shirt and listening to my iPod, I get a little irked. We’ve addressed this in our family pow-wows but there’s still some confusion. I continually remind myself to never be angry with someone if they have good intentions. Most days that helps, some it doesn’t. On that note, never give your phone number to a Georgian male. Once one of them has it the whole village has it. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest; last week I received a mysterious text from a boy who had seen me out shopping and wanted to “meet up for conversation”. Yeah, sure.

The weather here is the craziest I’ve ever seen. When I get up it’s 40 and foggy – by lunch time it’s 70 and sunny. What the hell? Funny choice for someone who could live on the equator for the rest of their life. My room is still an ice box, but I’m gradually adjusting. Now I don’t think anything of sleeping in jeans, a coat, and mittens. Speaking of clothes, I startled myself when I looked in the mirror the other day. There I was in a fur hat, black sweater, black skirt, and black tights. Imagine that. Before I know it I’ll own heels.

Last but not least, I still can’t get over how loud Georgians are. Everyone in my host family raises their voice, all the time. They tell me I’m strange because I prefer to be quiet. Need something from the kitchen? Yell at the person two feet from you to get it. But at least they’re not as bad as the house phone. Almost all the families in the area have the same phone with the same annoying jingle; I sometimes hear ours 40 yards out while standing in the street.

Now for the bittersweet: Jamie and Katie have shortened their contracts and won’t be coming back after Christmas. Imereti won’t be the same without Jamie’s kindness or Katie’s zest for life. I wish I could do them justice on paper.

Enough pessimism! – I can finally call myself a true Georgian 🙂 I’ve been pretty culturally immersed for a while, but still hadn’t partaken in the most important rite of passage: roasting meat. With Musketeeri Katie and Sheila away for the day, Jamie suggested the two of us attempt to prepare mtsvadi – by ourselves. We headed to the bazaar in search of the best pork; selecting meat here is a big ordeal, and outsiders like us wouldn’t have a chance without the help of a local (lest we forget the Great Dog Meat Incident of October).

I spotted one of those motherly types from amongst the shop keepers and asked her advice. She ushered us from butcher to butcher, closely examining the cuts. When they looked too grainy she would tisk in disapproval and show us to the next one. (Did I mention I love Georgian hospitality? Just a little.) We finally settled on a kilo of ribs for $5 USD. The pig went from someone’s farm, to the back of an SUV, to a rusty nail, to a thin plastic bag nestled in Jamie’s backpack all in the same day. And they say Georgians aren’t efficient.

Before our supra we figured it’d be best to hike off some calories. The countryside was stunning: green meadows, snow-capped peaks – the whole bit. I can’t remember the last time I heard the wind gust through trees like that. Aside from that sound and a nearby stream, it was magnificent, deafening silence. Then I broke in the rain boots with some frog chasing. Fun, fun 😀

Back at Jamie’s house everything was going well. We knew exactly (sort of) what we were doing. Jamie’s family kept peering at us from the windows and passing through the yard pretending like they were on a mission. Pretty soon they gave up and decided to make themselves obvious. His grandparents pitched in with tending to the fire; his little bother made sure we turned the meat at exactly the right time; and his mother kept encouraging us to spritz on more and more alcohol. In the end, we made an awesome team and the pork turned out way better than any of that restaurant stuff.

This week is super busy! My eighth grade girls invited me to their dance recital on Wednesday. On Friday we’ll be helping out our favorite local baker in exchange for some of her recipes. I’ve been studying Russian on my own and am supposed to start lessons this week with a tutor. Other than that, I’m going through classic literature like white on rice. And I’m determined to find a used violin. Somehow it’s gonna happen.


Halloween’s Still a Holiday, Right?

It’s strange and very tragic how we are affected much more by our memories of something than by the experience itself, and how these experiences only grow richer with absence. That’s what happened this weekend with Halloween. In that case, I can hardly wait for the Christmas emotional roller coaster. Not.

Georgia doesn’t celebrate Halloween. I polled the teenagers and the general consensus was something like: ‘Yeah, I heard about that. On TV.’ Oh how sad. Poor deprived Georgians, and poor me for missing something I previously thought so trivial. I can do without a big party; there are plenty of parties here to last a lifetime. But what I can’t do without is dumping trash bag after trash bag of candy on the living room floor, rolling amongst wrappers in pursuit of the perfect junk food angel. And then waiting patiently for my mom to examine each piece for razors, crack cocaine, etc. (I did grow up in Dallas suburbs after all.) Plus I have always had a soft spot for popcorn balls and candy apples. Sigh … Oh well, some day my children will know the bliss I once had.

Thankfully the day wasn’t a total loss. Sheila and I were determined to scrounge up some sweets. We braved some gnarly gusts of wind and headed to the nearest supermarket. She splurged on some Pringles (actually really inflated here), and I took forever picking out German truffles. I hadn’t eaten a truffle in months, and those turned out to be the best damn chocolates I’ve ever eaten.

While I’m reminded of food, I have to share something – even though it might sound absurd at first. Every so often, something so great comes along – an inanimate something – and it gives me a feeling I once had that I thought was lost forever, that I knew I could never duplicate on my own; and I become eternally indebted to this thing. The most recent addition to the list is my beloved Tbilisi ice cream shop, Luca Polare. Yes, really. All the varieties are fabulous, but it was downright magic when I tried the orange flavor. I remember, so long ago that I can’t place the year anymore, when I would hide in my tree house on a summer afternoon and eat orange after orange. These had to be the best oranges in existence, and would ripen in the sun until they couldn’t take another day of heat. They gave off their own special perfume, which I rediscovered in this ice cream to be the most heavenly balance of sweetness and acidity.

Now I get to mention Alex and Cande! For those who don’t know, Alex is the (conveniently bilingual) computer teacher at my school. He just happened to be in Tbilisi for the weekend, and just happens to own an apartment on the outskirts of the city. This man has been an invaluable liaison to me since I arrived; without him, I’d be nowhere in my relations with both the school and my host family. So, when we showed up on Friday night to his 30th birthday supra, I wanted to do something special for him. After the mounds of dishes were cleared, we gave him a proper American birthday: chocolate cake complete with candles of every color. We sang the best rendition of “Happy Birthday” possible (slurring pretty heavily after a dozen glasses of wine). He thanked us for making his day; I don’t think anyone could’ve been happier 🙂 .

Cande’s birthday on Saturday was awesome. The weather was horrible, but we finally managed to meet up in the hotel room to feast on real pizza. You have to understand Georgians think mayonnaise belongs on pizza; so when we heard about an American style pizzeria you can bet we were willing to pay twice the price of the room to get our hands on authentic mozzarella. I just hopes everyone forgives me for not going clubbing afterward – any more alcohol and my liver would’ve abandoned all hopes of functioning :/ .

We also paid McDonald’s a visit. Yeah, it is against my non-religion and has been a no-no for years. But what the hey, I was obligated. Sorry to say the most memorable aspect of that excursion was using real toilet paper.

Back to the uplifting parts … Books! Prospero’s is a very famous bookstore among the few native English speakers, and rightly so. To me, it’s everything a bookstore should be; it evokes that feeling of a small New England town, quaint and cozy – a beacon of warmth with its inviting glow and muffin-y aroma. Katie spotted a copy of Ralph and The Motorcycle in Spanish. Of course I had to buy that (as it has also made the list of inanimate things). And of course I wasn’t going to make it out of there without a classic, so I settled on The Picture of Dorian Gray after much debate. Word to the wise: Never go book shopping with me. I am normally the most indecisive person on the planet, and even worse when I’m forced to leave behind reading material. There were also a number of really, really tempting Georgian books. Before I depart in June I’m definitely springing for some Georgian poetry and a local cookbook.

I could write for ages about Dorian Gray, but I won’t. I’ve always believed people must determine a book’s importance on their own and wouldn’t dare spoil anyone’s interpretation. So I will include this one quote: “The love that he bore for him – for it was really love – had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born in the senses, and that dies when the senses tire.”

This is the love I have been searching for, the love I think we all search for even if we don’t have a clue how to describe it. I am done with flings and casual dating. I’ve had my fill of chasing after empty lust. Don’t get me wrong; it’s both very fun and very necessary, but I’m transitioning to that next phase, whatever it’s called.

No, I’m not referring to marriage; love doesn’t have to be so black and white. People here whisper the word “husband”, and though I’m overcome with happiness for a moment, this ecstasy passes as quickly as it comes and I’m left with a sense of terror. Yes, I would love to get married. But being married? I dread something so bittersweet, and so final. It makes perfect sense if you think about it: All the great pose and poetry of the world is written about the pursuit of love, whether it be a new romance or the rekindling of an old one – not the maintenance of it. Whoever first faulted men for being afraid of commitment is a liar because I’m right there with you. Though for you older/wiser readers, don’t have pity on me quite yet; I know I’ll change my tune in five or ten years just as I have now. Ah, good ole foresight …

I have to end this on a light note. The temperate gauge on my travel alarm clock currently reads 55 degrees Farenheit, and yeah, it’s sitting on the nightstand. I never thought I could type while wearing mittens, but well, here we are.

Contemplating Out Loud

Before I get to this week’s drama, I have to bring something to everyone’s attention: it’s (the end of) October. I look back on my New Year’s resolutions and wonder what happened. This is the year I was supposed to get everything in order – career plans, new hobbies, relationship matters, etc. ; this is the year I was supposed to rid myself of self-concern so I could be free to live in the moment. And where am I now? Still drifting, avoiding settling on anything at all costs. Still thinking about credit card debt while brushing my teeth.

Who knows if this is normal, but friends tell me I demand too much from myself. So yesterday I sat down at last to really consider their argument. I listed all the changes I’d like to make, then I crossed them out. And added them again. The end result was a really sloppy collection of mental blocks. I was neither disappointed nor satisfied at that point, so I crumpled it into a ball, assuring myself I’d make a better copy later. Then I sighed; I do worry too much. I’m a procrastinator, simple as that.

Ok, now down to business. I barely survived an encounter with dog meat at a local restaurant. It was just another Musketeeri meeting until a suspicious plate of mstvadi showed up … Something told us not to eat it (the gamey taste? the weird texture?), but we were delirious with hunger. A few hours after the fact and it felt like someone was ripping my GI tract apart with a razor. Back to adamant vegetarianism for me.

It’s been mostly uphill aside from that accident. The children at my school grow more loving with each passing day; since my last post I’ve been given a bouquet of flowers and a gorgeous drawing of a seaside sunset. I spend as much time with them as I can, regardless of my teaching schedule. They can’t get enough of “Simon Says”, and I’ve also translated a couple Georgian games into English for them. Next week we’re learning “Red Rover” and “Duck Duck Goose” 🙂 .

The teachers have implemented a lot of my advice from last month’s report. Now we include a lot more activities instead of relying on the textbooks. They’re really emphasizing the importance of learning each new vocabulary word, and they translate every English text into Georgian as opposed to just making them recite it. But the most fun is teaching the older grades American slang. We cover everything from greetings to love to negative names. I taught one class “What’s up?”, and by the next afternoon it had replaced the standard “Rogor khar?” (“How are you?”).

I’ll have to save the rest for later – time for Tbilisi, round two 🙂 Gelato. REAL Mexican food. And a lot of awesome people I haven’t seen in ages!

You can’t run, and don’t even think about hiding.

I didn’t like being called into the kitchen last night. It was just the way she said it, “Christina. Come here” – flat yet disapproving.  That moment just happened to be the perfect mix of the two things I hate most in this world: 1) being bossed around; and 2) accusation. So, with me in my rare state of anger, we began our third two-hour session …

I sat back and listened. My host mother went on and on about the particular expectations she had for me – expectations I hadn’t met. Why? She claims the government said we are obligated to A) teach their children and B) pay for our share of the utilities. This word – “obligated” – is a new one on me. I’ve always heard “leisure time” and “gesture” when referring to these matters. But apparently that isn’t the case.

After much confusion in general, much yelling from them, and a hell of a lot of diplomacy from me, we gave it a rest for the night. We reached the conclusion that neither party is at fault; sloppy program organization is to blame instead. Yeah, there was the awkward silence today. No, I wasn’t the usual ray of sunshine. At least we’re headed in the right direction – even if it’s a messy, crooked path.

To my fellow volunteers who are reading, I know the misunderstandings can become unbearable. But it is up to us to make sure this program succeeds. There will always be a double standard for communication; we must answer any immaturity with professionalism. When tensions rise and our families become defensive, we must be more calm and open than ever before. Yes, it’s very demanding and unfair, but those are moot points at this stage. Relocating when conversation proves uncomfortable or difficult is taking the easy route. And like some famous person once said, ‘The only way around is through’.

Publicity 100, Privacy 0

Let’s start with today and travel backward through the week …

I learned my lesson about saying “monastery on the rocks”. Apparently, Georgia has a monastery on every corner, and all those corners (crevices?) happen to be rocks. We realized this after we were taken to the wrong one – twice – before arriving at lucky number three. (Taxi rides here demand a lot of faith.) We decided to give the first one a try, but were shooed away by a bitter priest mumbling “Why no skirts?!” in Georgian.

After a bad sketch of said monastery by yours truly, we finally reached an understanding with the ticket office and were dropped at the bottom of the world’s steepest hill. The place was unbelievably quiet. We stood in awe at the gate before a few men appeared. An economist from Moscow who spoke decent English and instantly befriended us. He told us all about the church’s history and how it was built in the fourth century. Aside from the heights issue, I’m pretty jealous the monks got to live on a vertical pillar of rocks. We watched some sheep amble around and then the man said, “The BBC comes soon. They want to take photos.” Sure enough, a British BBC employee showed up in the last place on earth you’d expect a newsman. We talked with him a bit and ate some of the fruit they prepared for us before saying our goodbyes. If only women were allowed to make the 40-meter climb to the top …

People collect some strange things, and that’s their business. I don’t judge. But I was beginning to question the massive amounts of china in our shed. My family must have hundreds of plates, glasses, etc. Tonight my host sister finally explained that our grandfather rents out china for funerals. That’s … hmm, unique? So long as they don’t start embalming here I’m good.

One other small family note: I think they finally understand I don’t have much in the way of biological family. My (non-English speaking) grandfather started to toast my family tonight at dinner but caught himself. Instead, he remembered Maggie and shouted, “To your mother … and … to your cat!” Progress. *fist pump*

Our visit to Katie’s village this weekend brought me back to Saturday mornings as a child. I would watch Recess and Babar, mindlessly shoveling Cinnamon Toast Crunch from a mixing bowl. Fast forward a decade and you have three almost adults shouting, “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME NOW!” (Malcolm in the Middle) – Mars bars bits going everywhere in our excitement. Now that’s how you spend a rainy day.

Before coming here I equated Georgian culture with Russian culture (wrong!). At the time only a few stereotypes came to mind, and one these was borscht. I figured they would serve me borscht if I ever became ill (right!), but Good Lord at all the borscht. I solemnly swear to never be sick again … Earlier this week I was getting over a cold and was given borscht – and only borscht. But the real cherry on top of the soup was my overprotective babushka; I couldn’t go anywhere without slippers, and wasn’t allowed to shower for four days. Don’t ask me why. Yes, I tried to; no, I never succeeded.

Many of us volunteers have been sick since arriving; a friend is in the hospital with pneumonia as I type. Some people have said they’re paranoid over drinking the water or food sanitation. I’ve honestly reached the point where almost nothing phases me; bees on my pastry? Cool. Flies landing on raw meat? Normal. Worms in the fruit? To be expected. Oddly enough my body’s more in balance with all these things than when I was eating processed junk in America.

Speaking of showers, I waved to my neighbor the other day while lathering up. Not that I wanted to, but he saw me, and I saw him seeing me … I waved on instinct (regrettably), and he waved back like it was the most natural thing in the world to see his teacher buck naked (yes, my 11th grade student). I still don’t know if it’s really a common occurrence, or if he was just playing it cool. Note to self: buy thick, opaque curtain.

Last but not least, something must be said about books. When I get the chance I’m going to read every English classic ever written! Imagination is such a beautiful thing. Here I’m forced to communicate the bare essentials; consequentially, I’m left with basic feelings and basic ideas. I miss giving life real meaning, describing all its wonderful facets like “friendship”, “love”, and “hope”. I say these things but now they’re just words.

Black Sea, Gray Days

Lots of seemingly bad things have unexpectedly good endings. Like dreary weekends at beaches. Or trying nut butters that look like canned dog food.

Batumi doesn’t deserve more than a couple paragraphs. It rained poured. The Black Sea wasn’t the cleanest thing on the planet, but its hue and rocks were oddly serene and captivating. Most memorable moments? Eating my first real salad here (!) and the roller coaster of a marshutka ride. Stuff 20 people – one of which was claustrophobic, another other extremely nauseous – and a s*load of boxes into a very small, rickety van for four hours. And our driver had no idea where he was. Good times …

Second paragraph: We found a cheap hotel ($13 USD per night) across from a discount grocery store, and I’m proud to say I ate every type of pastry that store offered. There was some impressive architecture; we oohaed and aahed at the fountains with their lights and music. Someone found a hispter coffee shop decorated with vinyl records. We came within ten feet of the English section at the library before being told it was closed for the weekend. My sad excuse for a comforter at the hotel was more like a threadbare towel, but the fact I got to watch Fight Club in Russian completely made up for this. Last but not least, the ferris wheel had shut down for the season. Thank Jesus.

Ok, so I lied. Coolio most definitely gets his own graf. 1,000 people or so showed up for what was the weirdest concert of my life. No one could contain themselves in the count down, but things took a turn when he actually came on stage. At first, I felt embarrassed for America. A 47-year-old man has no business rapping – especially not that one. The crowd went silent; talent wise, he sucked. But the situation was so damn funny we had to enjoy ourselves. The other onlookers, who didn’t have a clue what he was saying, noticed our singing and must have thought, “Hey, they think he’s alright. Let’s go nuts too!” The old men stood around looking somber. First graders somehow managed to get in the front row. And some very, very nice looking shirtless Russian boys our age danced up a storm.

Oh, and I bought a Georgian children’s book there – something about a beaver building shelves. When I finish translating it next year I’ll make a video of me reading.

Last night I ticked off two more things on the cultural bucket list: making khinkali (meat dumplings) and learning the local version of dominoes. I’ve gotten over the lack of food sanitation here – except for seeing cow carcasses being transported in the back of SUVs. That (almost) killed the khinkali adventure. And my host mom kicked my butt at dominoes, in which we kept score with an abacus.

I’m just now starting to get into the TV here. We watch music videos in English, Russian, and Turkish. It’s either those, their version of America’s Funniest Home Videos, or the news. They all look at me in surprise when we’re watching the news and I blurt out, “Oh my gosh! That’s horrible!” in response to a story. Yep, I guess the Georgian and Russian are really catching on …

Before leaving America, I changed my mind many times about many things. But I was always adamant about leaving behind our materialistic, convenient way of life for something more challenging. My friends said, ‘Then go! You’ll see … We’re the best!’ Honestly, I questioned my own reasoning about this on the plane ride here, but now I think it’s safe to say have a verdict on the issue: I was right. No, nothing is ever 100%; I still want my Ben & Jerry’s and down quilt.

Short & Sweet: Var Dzalian Daghilili (So Tired!)

Some days are exquisitely good; today was one of those days. I tried some vodka at school with my teachers, was given a rose by the sweetest 11th grader, and was allowed to cook for the first time (!) Note: my sample of vodka = rubbing alcohol (100 proof).

Not only was there vodka – they had every other form of grape as well: the actual fruit, wine, and a jelly-like dessert. The teachers and I can’t talk much, but when there’s someone handy to translate it’s always a fight over who gets to bring Christina the next new food. On the rare days food isn’t mentioned I reiterate my reasons for being single :/

Tonight’s dinner was lovely, and reminded me just how integrated everything is in this country. I breaded and fried fish next to my school principal as she worked on soup. During kitchen prep, my host father and grandfather laid tile in the her new bathroom. And then our IT teacher dropped by to join the party. We all watched Russian bloopers on TV and chased after their cat, Chorna (Russian for the color black). Can you say family?

Every day at school presents new possibilities. In my free periods when I’m not playing sports with the students I jot down ideas: 1) English posters for classrooms; 2) Christmas play; 3) English club, and the list goes on … This infinite potential is simultaneously exciting and overwhelming.

Planning lessons is always a challenge because the students, even though they’re in the same class, are never on the same level. The Georgian method is to encourage the participation of those who do well and leave the “lazy” ones to fend for themselves; my students got quite a shock at first when I made everyone participate, no matter how much they had to struggle. No, I don’t think this faulty system can be changed overnight, but I’m starting to see a couple raised hands from former “lazy” students.

I found that nice Georgian boy. Well, a couple actually. Too bad they’re (barely) minors – and my students. Yet I explain this to my friends and host family and no one sees the problem. Ohhh the cultural differences …

This weekend I go adventuring with some fellow English teachers to Batumi, a port on the Black Sea. It’s very, very beautiful from what I’ve seen – and equally expensive. Oddly enough Coolio will be in concert there on Saturday 🙂 Then next weekend we’ll be staying local to conserve funds and attend a town festival.