Monday, December 20, 2010

Become Georgian in 6 Steps

In just a few hours I will leave Georgia for a month long vacation in Israel. I’m excited to revisit a country I’ve fallen in love with so many times and catch up with old friends and meet new ones. But before I go I think it’s important to note that when I leave Georgia tonight, I will not be an American leaving Georgia- I will be a “real Georgian girl” (as Nini likes to say) leaving Georgia.

Over the past three and a half months I seemed to have transitioned from East Coast American into Western Georgian- and I will tell you how you too can fake being Georgian in just a few easy ways.

1) Master the “qkh”

There is no quicker way to fake being Georgian than to sound like one. The trickiest letter in the Georgian alphabet makes a sound like “qkh”. The noise comes from a very specific part in your throat and almost sounds like a subtle quack.

Nini and Eka made me practice making the noise so many times one evening that I ended up with a sore throat. Nonetheless, a cup of tea with lemon and honey later, my “qkh” sound making session was resumed.

You are not a true Georgian until you can correctly recite the tongue- twister about a baqkhaqkhi (frog). If I had a lari for every time someone asked me to recite it, I could probably afford my own flight home to New York.

2) Crack open 10 sunflower seeds in twenty seconds

Georgians love their sunflower seeds. It seems to be the snack of choice when watching TV, walking around town or even viewing a play. People seem to eat sunflower seeds as frequently as you might notice someone chewing gum. And they’re damn good at eating them too.

They can crack them open and eat them with one swift motion; some people can even crack several at one time.

I have no idea how people do this. First off, I think the seeds are tasteless. Secondly, it takes me like a minute to eat one seed because I have to spit out half the shell. The art of eating of sunflower seeds is a skill I’ve yet to master (but I have another six months in Georgia to work on that).

Nini loves it when I share a bag with her, because by the time it takes her to finish an entire bag of seeds, I’ve only eaten like twelve

3) Rock the knee-high boot

Sure, we all know Georgians love to wear black, but ladies- to truly fit in you need a pair of black-knee high boots (the higher the heel, the better). Everyone in town seems to own a pair, and Samtredia is not exactly fashion conscious so I can only imagine how high the average heel should be if you live in Tbilisi. My co-teacher Nona even has two pairs of four-inch stiletto boots.

I bought my own pair of knee high leather boots in Batumi the other weekend and I’ve felt increasingly more Georgian ever since.

4) “Vaime deda” is your go-to “I’m scared” phrase

When a balloon pops unexpectedly in front of your face, what’s your go-to phrase? In Georgia, that phrase would most likely be “vaime deda!” This is somewhat similar in meaning to the colloquial phrase, “oh my god” except that “vaime deda” pretty much means “oh my mother”.

I’ve been training myself to say “vaime deda” whenever I am spooked (which is fairly often considering every child in Georgia seems to be setting off New Years poppers every minute of the day).

It’s definitely not a habit. On occasion I do say the word “mother” when I get scared, but it’s less a Georgian colloquial phrase and more an English profanity…

Nonetheless, you can surely trick people into thinking you’re a true Georgian by uttering “vaime deda” at literally any given opportunity.

5) Wink, don’t wave

Winking here is not code for “hey you’re good looking” it’s as common as waving. Even some of my third graders will wink at me when I see them on the street. I mean really, why go through all the trouble of raising your arm when you can just shut an eye and it’s considered greeting someone? (That was sarcasm right there).

It seems as though most American girls have some type of vendetta against winking (me included). In the states, winking is synonymous with creepy men. But if you decided that every man/boy/toddler/newborn baby in Georgia who winks at you is creepy, there would be no men left.

6) “Hello” may not be universal but “I love you baby” sure is

There are very few words that seem to be universal. Sure, “taxi” and “radio” are the same in most every language but these words can only get you so far. (“Justin Beiber” also seems to be a universal phrase these days, but that’s a different story). While some people simply may not know the word “hello”, I’ve yet to meet someone who does not know the phrase, “I love you baby”. It seems to be more of a greeting than a statement.

Case in point:
Person A: Hello
Person B: I love you, baby

Person C: How are you?
Person D: I love you, baby

Person Y: Gomarjobat, sad aris banki? (Hello, where is the bank)
Person Z: Kartuli itsi? (You know Georgian?)
Person Y: ki, tsota (Yes, a little)
Person Z: I love you, baby (I’m most likely an asshole)

So there we go, when you’re in Georgia, and you just can’t quite remember the word for ‘thank you’ (it’s g’madlobt) you can just utter the phrase, “I love you baby” and everyone will be on board.

Okay people, there you have it. As long as you can pronounce the “qkh” sound while you’re wearing your knee-high boots eating sunflower seeds and happen to utter the phrase “vaime deda” when you catch a fifteen year old boy winking at you saying “I love you, baby”- you will fool the world into thinking that you too, are a “real Georgian”.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yesterday was my birthday! And thanks to all my adorable students, caring friends and loving family it was just a great day.

My celebration actually kicked off on December 14th when my seventh graders decided that because I wasn’t going to teach them on my birthday, they’d sing to me a day early. They thoughtfully added the word “tomorrow” (though they pronounced it ‘timaroo’) to each line of the standard birthday song. It was very, very cute. (Though I did have to go into teacher-mode correct their pronunciation of ‘tomorrow’).

On the night of the fourteenth, I stayed up pretty late with Nini as she filled me in on all the latest gossip from school. (I love having a fourteen year old sister). Once the clock hit midnight, I didn’t know if I should mention that it was my birthday so I kept that little fact to myself and crawled into bed around 12:30am. Just after I got nice and comfy in bed, Nini barged in and told to get up. In her grey kitty pajamas she sang me a birthday song (though she adorably forgot some of the words).

Back in bed and asleep this time, around 1:30am Eka barged in and told me to get up out of bed. After some kisses, some congratulations and a cash gift “to buy something nice” I was finally back in bed for my birthday sleep.

School on my birthday was just so much fun. I was a bigger celebrity than usual. Instead of everyone just wanting to say to talk to me, everyone greeted me with a hearty “gilocav" or "gilocav dabadebis dges” and gave me a hug or a kiss. I must have kissed at least eighty people yesterday and thanked at least three hundred.

In each of my classes my students sang to me in English and were just so beyond excited that I chose to go to school on my birthday (my director said I could take the day off if I wanted). My third graders were so wound up that they kept interrupting the main teacher to remind her it was my birthday.

But the cutest class that I had yesterday was with my eighth graders. The entire class chipped in and bought an adorable journal as a gift. They then asked me if it would be okay if they wrote wishes to me in the journal. (They gave it to me blank in case I didn’t want them to write in it, how sweet is that?) Of course I wanted them to write in it so throughout the lesson they kept passing around the journal carefully writing in their neatest handwriting. All the kids wrote their wishes to me in both English and Georgian saying that ‘by the end of June I’ll be fluent in Georgian’ (I teach optimists).

Some of my thoughtful eighth graders and my co-teacher Nona to my left 

I have a journal full of cute notes like this :)
After fourth period all the teachers had to go to a mandatory teachers meeting. Turns out, this teachers meeting was actually just a meeting in honor of my birthday. Everybody just talked about how great I was for twenty minutes. I was even given a huge bouquet of flowers and some cherry chocolates after all the teachers sang to me. They all learned how to sing the birthday song in English just for me. (It was for sure the best teachers meeting we’ve had yet)!
With Nini and my flowers (and my polar bear slippers)

After school I met up with all the girls and they took me out to lunch at our favorite restaurant in Samtredia. Walking to the restaurant the whole town seemed to hear it was my birthday (though holding a bag of gifts and flowers didn’t hide it) as everyone seemed to wish me a happy birthday. After a wonderful lunch of all our favorite Georgian dishes, Melissa and I headed over to my house to start baking my cake while Tara and Emily went to go “do a load of laundry”.

Well, or so I thought we were going to bake a cake. According to Nini and Eka, it’s tradition that the birthday girl bakes her own birthday cake. I was ready to bake and didn’t even really notice that Melissa was stalling, but then all of sudden Emily and Tara walked in with a beautiful fruit pizza cake! It was huge!

After blowing out 24 candles (one for good luck) we all enjoyed fruit pizza and lots and lots of wine. The whole afternoon was just spent drinking, eating, dancing and laughing. How wonderful does that sound?

At one point during the evening a dental patient knocked on the door and I tipsily opened the door. I meant to tell him that I was the birthday girl, the “iubilari” but I accidentally said I was “choti lari” (five laris). After Eka quickly explained that no, I’m not a prostitute, this man also wished me a happy birthday.
Dancing with my host dad Vakho!

The whole day was just so lovely and sweet. Plus after Nini and I walked the girls home at night, we somehow got dragged into a supra with all of Vakho’s friends at a restaurant in town. Nini and I managed to escape and went back home to enjoy yet more wine with more family and friends. The two of us ended up falling asleep together cuddling on a chair; a cute little end to a very sweet birthday.

P.S. Nini took lots of really cute photos yesterday on her amazing camera, but her USB cord is MIA so check back sometime later for cute birthday photos!

Even President Saakashvili sent me a birthday present! Well okay, maybe he sent this holiday gift to all the TLG kids, but you have to note the timing :)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jingle all za Bells!

As the holidays are quickly approaching (unless you’re Jewish in which case they already past) the Christmas spirit is slowly starting to kick in around town. Shops are selling tinsel and lights, kids are walking around town wearing Santa hats and of course, holiday concerts are in full swing.

A paper menorah I made for my window.
 The first (but certainly not the last) holiday concert I went too was put on by the local Samtredia hospital. Many doctors, from pediatricians to gynecologists, performed a little something on stage. I guess you could call it a holiday variety show. Some doctors performed long (may I repeat: long) Georgian poems, others sang songs while most doctors chose to recite funny anecdotes from the workplace.

While my Georgian may be limited, I’m pretty sure anyone could understand the body language for a ‘women giving birth’; a theme that seemed to be a central aspect of many of these anecdotes. After all, nothing says, “Merry Christmas” like a story about a baby crowning.

Of course, the main reason that me and the girls even went to the show was to see our favorite sixth grader Koko perform a solo performance of Jingle Bells. Both of Koko’s parents work for the hospital (they drive the ambulance) and little Koko was asked to perform an English song.

Melissa had been practicing ‘Jingle Bells’ with him for what seemed like weeks. On Wednesday night Koko even called me and serenaded me to sleep. (Okay that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was a cute phone call, nonetheless).

I was sure that Koko knew that song like the back of his hand so I was excited to watch him perform for a crowded audience. You can imagine my surprise then when Koko began singing Jingle Bells in a made up language. Yep.

Instead of “Dashing through the snow on a one horse open sleigh” he said something along the lines of “Dashem bang poo sheem, on a Santa klashen boom”. The entire song was sung in this sort of made up language.  

Melissa and I sat in the aisle to take photos and videotape the whole thing and almost burst out laughing. The whole thing was just so adorably bizarre. Koko had just practiced the entire song with Melissa and me maybe five minutes before he went on stage, and yet all of a sudden he was just making up his own jig.

In all honesty though- did it sound like English to someone who didn’t know English? Probably. Was it absolutely adorable to hear him singing on stage by himself? Absolutely.
Koko singing his little heart out on stage.

After his performance little Koko ran down the stairs into Melissa’s arms and asked, “What language was that?” (Potentially one of Koko’s cutest one liners ever).

When we were back in our seats I had this conversation with Koko:

Me: Koko, why didn’t you sing in English? Were you nervous?
Koko: No. The man told me that there are people from Belarus sitting here. So I sang in Belurussian.
Me: Koko do you know Belarussian?
Koko: no. but I thought maybe if I tried too, it will be Belurussian.
Me: Okay. So you didn’t sing in English, because you thought you’d try to sing in Belarussian, even though you don’t know Belarussian.
Koko: Yes. Do you think it was maybe Belarussian?
Me: No. But you are adorable (giggles)
Koko: Why you laugh at me?

There is no one more adorable (and audacious) than eleven-year-old Koko Bakaladze. I wish I had the courage to attempt to make up a language on the spot in front of a full crowd. Maybe I’ll volunteer to perform a Georgian poem at a spring concert and when no one can understand a word I’ll say, “I think I saw a Lithuanian in the back row, I was reciting the poem for him”.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cosmo Magazine in the Classroom

My ninth graders are one of my hardest grades of students to engage. Asides from being rowdier than a cluster of jungle animals, most of them have only a very basic understanding of English. The government-mandated textbook for their age level is just too advanced for them.

Whenever they read something in class, practically every other word is foreign to them. A great majority of them are taking English tutoring lessons during the week at a beginner’s level. So in essence, they’re trying to learn English, they just need to be learning it from a sixth grade textbook.

I tried to talk to Nona and the other English teachers about disregarding a student’s age, and placing them in a class based on their skill level- but somehow, no one at my school seems to think this a worthwhile idea. Go figure.

Thus, I try to do activities with the ninth graders where they can use the minimal English that they seem to know in a way that correlates with their current curriculum.

Not too long ago the ninth graders were studying how to start their own business. Much of the text seemed to go in one ear and out the other for almost every student, but I thought it would be an opportune time to bring in some American advertisements and have the students try to decipher what the ads were for. A lot of their responses were really entertaining.

One advertisement showed a little girl in a tutu jumping on a sidewalk. In the corner of the advertisement was a photo of a Lunchables school lunch. My students noticed the word “Lunch” in “Lunchables” and agreed that the advertisement was for a type of food. They told me that the message of the advertisement was that if you eat Lunchables, even a puny girl like this will become strong like a man.

I’m not quite sure where they got the “strong like a man” part but the class seemed to be in agreement on this idea.

Another advertisement was for some Clearasail product, a type of freeze-away pimple cream. The advertisement showed a frozen Clearasail tube. The girls who analyzed the product told me that you can put this product on your hands when you’re too hot and it will make you cold. (Who needs an air conditioner when you have freeze-away pimple cream?)

It’s pretty interesting seeing how advertisements are perceived to a generation of kids that a) cannot fully understand English and b) are not exposed to creative print advertising.

Similarly, my eighth graders read a text that essentially talked about the ethics of cigarette advertisements. As a supplement to this text I made my kids a PowerPoint presentation of some of the most creative print ads I’ve seen that encourage people to buy things they don’t need. My kids had a real kick trying to guess the products (even the kids that never like to participate were shouting along in broken English). It was funny how some of the ads that I was exposed to almost daily in the states (ads that I don’t even process) had my twelve year old Georgian students hysterically laughing. One boy even fell out of his chair laughing at some silly shampoo ad!

All the print ads that I’ve seen here in Georgia are very basic and simply show a products uses. Many of my ninth grade students even confused the meat of the magazine with their advertisement. They mistook a page full of different pants as an advertisement for pants and not a spread on different fashionable pants.

I guess it’s important to note that the glossy, colorful magazines popular in America and all over Europe are non-existent in Georgia for all I can tell. Popular Georgian magazines like Gumbati and Tbiliselebi have one clustered, colorful cover and then feature newspaper-style, black and white pages with advertisements that barely take up an eighth of a page.

Sometimes there are funny, creative advertisements on television but often they’re just dubbed commercials from other countries. (There is a cute commercial out now for Dirol gum and my students talk about it as if they helped produce it). Commercials aside, my eighth graders told me that print ads in Georgia are just never funny.

I guess the day Georgia starts issuing glossy magazines, will be a day where it’s one step closer to becoming a fully developed nation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Marshutka Madness

Sweet statue in Batumi. (I'm hoping it represents gay rights)
In just two weeks the fall semester of school will be over and with that means many TLG volunteers will be saying “nakhvamdis” (goodbye) to Georgia. In an effort to spend one more fun weekend with friends, many volunteers from my orientation decided to meet up in Batumi.

Our weekend was quite lovely. It was so nice to catch up with good friends from orientation and to just sit on the beach and chat. Plus, it didn’t hurt that there was a wine special going on in town (buy three get one free!) We even had our own driver on Saturday night. He took us everywhere we wanted to go (and for free at that). I’m practically getting used to being treated like royalty!

The real excitement of our trip (asides from finding a restaurant that makes delicious club sandwiches) actually happened during our marshutka rides to and from Batumi. On our way there, our speedy Gonzalez marshutka driver actually slammed into another car and pretty much totaled it. It wasn’t so much scary as it was eerie. Just as our marshutka crashed, a girl slammed a baseball bat into a man in the book I was reading. I was pretty glad to realize it was a car accident and not my book coming to life.
The poor little car we crashed into! Almost all the people in this photo were passengers on our marshutka.

The good thing was that nobody got injured in the accident (accept for a few spooked passengers) and we didn’t have to pay for the ride. As soon as we stepped off the marshutka we were herded like sheep into a passing marshutka and ended up having to pay just a lari and a half. It cost about half as much to ride from Samtredia to Batumi (about a two hour journey) than it does to ride one stop on the New York City Subway (about a two minute journey).

Our marshutka ride home had its own excitements. Asides from a soundtrack of late 90s Backstreet Boys (amazing) there were a great number of interesting characters on our bus. A man named Ganuri (or something along those lines)came onto the bus holding a tree branch full of mandarins and sat between Emily and me. He fed us mandarins throughout the ride and ‘talked’ to us in Georgian from the moment he got on, to the moment we got off. He didn’t seem to mind that we don’t speak Georgian- he seemed to like talking at us. I alternated randomly saying “ki” (yes), “ara” (no), and “ver gavigeh” (I don’t understand) just to please him. For all I know, I could have agreed to bare his twelve children.

Ganuri’s little brother also played a nice role on our ride. The poor little guy couldn’t handle the bumpy road and tossed his cookies (or on closer inspection- tossed his lobio) all over the place. He narrowly avoided vomiting on Tara by mere inches. The funny thing was that the boy getting sick didn’t seem to faze anyone; I’d imagine events like that happen all the time.

Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) the marshutka did not smell like throw up at all. Ganuri’s natural body odor was so potent it masked any other scent.

Next time we travel I may just opt to take the train.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Romeo, Juliet, and Michael Jackson

It must be theater season because over the past week Melissa, Tara and I have been to two Georgian plays. Both were equally, well… you’ll just have to read to find out.

Instead of having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate the American day of giving (or whatever Thanksgiving symbolizes) the girls and I decided on the less traditional option of going to see a mimodrame (I like fancy French words) of Romeo and Juliet.

We figured Shakespeare would be a safe bet. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see a group of Georgians miming on stage wearing tights? (In retrospect- the answer to that question is me).

We arrived at the old theater in Kutaisi and purchased our three lari tickets. (Can’t get deals like that in Manhattan!) As we were sitting and chatting in the balcony we began to attract the attention of all the other play-goers for speaking the mystical language of English. In fact, when the manager of the theater found out that there were Americans present, she personally came over to greet us and gave us our own box on the first level of the theater. Just another perk of being a foreigner in Saqartvelo!

Right as the show began I had a feeling we were going to be in for a painfully long treat. Melissa even turned to me during the first minute of the show and whispered, “I may have just spent three lari to take a nap”.

The show opened with a giant white ball being thrown around a stage that was set with black lights. I couldn’t tell if this was supposed to represent the moon or unrest between families or if the director just felt like opening with a giant white ball.

I think the play only got more bizarre as the show went on. None of the characters were really defined so we couldn’t tell who Mercutio was or who was a Montague or a Capulet. Plus, all the scenes were just agonizingly artistic to the point where you probably had to be tripping on drugs to make sense of why the characters were dancing with buckets, flying on magic carpets, or doing backwards somersaults (all actual events in the play).

The best part in the whole show was when Juliet drank the poison and the entire cast took on the role of her stomach. That’s right- they were the insides of her stomach. Another winner of a scene was when the characters went to the masquerade ball and an extended version of Michael Jackson’s “We are the World” was played as cast members pranced around for six minutes.

Asides from the fact that the whole play was distractingly tacky and ridiculous, we got such a good laugh out of so many of the scenes that I’m pretty sure it was well worth the three lari. It’s definitely an example of something that’s so bad, it’s good.

The next day we met up with some TLG friends who live in Poti and told them detailed accounts of almost each and every scene. Our friends were so entertained by our outrageous descriptions of the show that they’re making it a mission to come to Kutaisi to catch the next performance!

Our other play-going experience was equally as awkward and bizarre. Again, the three of us girls (Emily was the only one smart enough to say that she didn’t want to come) decided to check out a play at our local Samtredia theater.

Even though we went into the theater knowing it would likely be hard (if not impossible) for us to follow along (the play was entirely in Georgian) we made no efforts to find out what the place was about beforehand. Not one of our brightest ideas.

This theater experience was awkward even before the play started. We somehow sat down right behind Lasha (yes, GeoCell Lasha) and he happened to be on what looked like a very uncomfortable date. And next to Lasha sat Nini who also seemed to be on a date with her non-boyfriend ‘yet-he-totally-is-her-boyfriend’ boyfriend. I totally felt like I was chaperoning my little sister and my computer technician on their dates.

Understanding the play was a lost cause for all three of us girls. There were drugs, aliens with magic powers and some type of love between a heroin addict and a paralyzed woman. I’m actually not making any of this up; this is what the play was seriously about. Even Nini and her friends who actually know Georgian found the play bizarre and hard to follow.

The funniest part of the show actually happened after the actors took their bows at the end of the night. One of the women in the audience called out to Melissa and then said something to the entire cast along the lines of, “Look! It’s Melissa!” And would you believe that right then and there the entire cast and crew of the show began to give Melissa a standing ovation. None of us had any idea what was happening. Melissa just curtsied and thanked everyone for their applause while Tara and I almost died laughing at the bizarreness of the whole situation.

Even now, Melissa has no idea who that woman is and why the entire cast gave her such a hearty, over-the-top welcome. (Talk about Melissa stealing the actors’ thunder). One would think that after being in Samtredia for three months our celebrity status would die down. Nope, not a bit! In fact, the other day in class I even signed autographs both in English and in Georgian!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Farmandia: a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship

Ironically enough, the reason I’m able to blog fairly often is because I basically never get to use the internet at home. While my family and their friends are busy using the internet on the family computer, I tend to sit at my internet-less computer and write blog entries on Word. But why can’t I get to the computer? Two words: Russian Farmville.

Russian Farmville (Farmandia) sadly has a huge presence in my home. Eka is, for lack of a better word, obsessed with it. She spends countless hours each day working on her cyber-farm. She tends to her garden, plants trees and fruits, and even has several factories that make things like pizza, perfume, and jam. (I hate that I know all this).

It’s actually ridiculous how much time Eka dedicates to her farm. She even plants flowers in such a way that they spell out words in Georgian when they’re in full bloom.

Eka plays so much (these are beginning to sound like “yo momma” jokes) that she even refers to the little red-headed gardener in the game as her husband. Sometimes I get confused which husband she’s referring to: her Farmville husband, or her real husband.

Once in a while she’ll call me over and ask where I would theoretically like to go in her farm. I usually prefer sitting by the lake eating fruit before heading into the geisha house for tea. (Though lately there have been many scary-looking geese in her pond, so I’ve strayed from this general area). Clearly, you can see that this game is constantly being played in my house when even I have somewhat of a theoretical routine on Eka’s farm.

Eka is not alone though. Half of Samtredia has a farm on Farmandia, and this half of Samtredia is always at my host family’s home tending to their farms.

I don’t mind not having internet, I just can’t stand that everyone and their mother (that’s not an idiom, that’s a literal statement) spends so much time on virtual vegetable planting. Like seriously, who knew cyber cotton plants would be such a sensation.

But the worst part about Farmville is that even though I hate it very much I think it’s actually somewhat educational. You read correctly. Nino, the fifth-grade teacher in my school learned all about the holiday of Halloween from Farmville. (They had some special pumpkin seeds and haunted houses available during the Halloween season). She stopped me in the hallway to ask me some questions about American Halloween traditions. There you have it; Farmville is an American cultural ambassador.

Then there’s Irakli, Eka’s twelve-year-old godson, who has actually learned the Russian names of all sorts of fruits and plants. He often requests that I sit by him when he plays and he tells me all about his farm in English. He always asks me to tell him the English words for all sorts of things on his farm, and because he loves Farmandia, he remembers all the new words I teach him.

Irakli even made up a song in English about Farmandia which occasionally gets stuck in my head.

It goes:

I have many factoriiiiiiies
My farm is very boo-tiful
I have a good farm! I have a good farm!

I have many cotton plaaaants
Tractors dig in the grouuund
I have a good farm! I have a good farm!

My godparent made my farm boo-tiful
So I say to her, Thanks! Thank you! Thaaaaanks myyyyyy godpareeeeent!

[Those last three words are sung opera style in a high octave]

The song is actually pretty cute when Irakli sings it, but all in all, I curse this damn cabbage-planting game.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

All the single ladies! And the married ladies!

I came home from hanging out with the girls the other night, only to find an impromptu supra at my home. Every chair in my house was at the table where ten men, Nini and a few of my host cousins were feasting on delicious food and wine.

One of the men at the table, Lasha (who became close with the family after he endured a root canal without any type of novocaine (I can still hear his girlish screams)), told me that if I wanted to sit at the table there was a three-drink minimum. Ha! I thought. I just graduated University- three drink minimums are for pansies.

So as we’re toasting and eating, Nini, my vakhtang duri (drinking partner) for the night decided that it was absolutely necessary for Melissa to be at the supra. So Nini thought it would be a good idea to call Melissa’s little host brother Koko at 10:30pm and beg him to let Melissa come over.

Before I could tell Nini to leave Melissa alone, the two of us could be found dancing in the street to Brazilian house music awaiting the arrival of Melissa. And once Melissa arrived, the toasts really took off. Toasts to life, to health, to God, to friendship, to Georgian culture, to America, to Israel, to children, yada, yada, yada.

But what’s a Georgian party without some awkwardness? There happened to be two single men at the table approaching forty who are still unmarried. My host dad, Vaho, kept awkwardly insinuating that Melissa and I should take a good look at them. ‘They need wives,’ Vaho bellowed. To which Melissa repeatedly yelled, “ME VAR ODZDA ORI!” (I’m 22).

That’s pretty much how the night went. We ate, we drank, we toasted- and we awkwardly avoided any and all eye contact until it was only us women that were left at the table. With Vaho the tamada (toastmaster) asleep on the couch, Melissa took over toasting duties and began to lead a toast for women.

Her toast began with “ajeki” (stand up). Normally at a supra, only the men stand and women have to remain seated. So naturally, any toast that empowers women has to defy a few Georgian cultural standards! I can’t quite recall the toast Melissa made (it was a long supra with good wine) but it was pretty beautiful.

I still don’t understand why woman have to remain seated while the men are toasting. Some people have told me that women have special rights and are entitled to sit, but I hate this answer. First off, special rights are not equal rights. But anyways, men get to do all the fun things at a supra: drink out of rams’ horns, lead toasts, and they don’t have to clean up. Now remind me, what kind of special partying rights do women have again?

P.S. Hope you’re all enjoying having Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” stuck in your head.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SAM-TRE-DI-A (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap)

Every week I teach my eleventh some English idiomatic phrases. It’s entertaining for them to learn spoken English, and I love hearing what they interpret certain idioms mean. For example, they thought the phrase “hit the books” meant physically beating your textbooks when you’re frustrated with a subject. The sweetest thing is that all of them are always studying the idioms and using them at any given opportunity.

For example, on Friday I went to a school volleyball game with three of my eleventh graders and they were all just so excited to hang out with me outside of school and use their newly learned English phrases.
With my eleventh graders Manana and Teona

Many of the towns and villages near Samtredia do not have a stadium, so several volleyball teams were actually there competing in a series of matches. It was a lot of fun to chat with my students and get the lowdown on the different schools. Manana, one of the girls I came with, had a friend on one of the other teams and she excitedly told him to “break a leg” before his game started. She was beaming while she explained the Georgian meaning of ‘break a leg’ to the confused boy.

Even cuter, when the boy ended up losing his game, Manana turned to me and said, “I think he has two good legs”. It took me a second to realize she was telling me that he had bad luck!

Our school happens to have a pretty good volleyball team so it was especially fun to watch them play. Most of the volleyball players are my students, so I actually knew which names to scream out loud after one of them made a particularly awesome spike.

I really loved the enormous amount of school pride at the little stadium. Everyone was chanting, “me tet-me-ti” (eleven; the number of my school) and screaming with joy after every individual point.

The coolest thing about my school’s volleyball team is that the two best players are girls. Many of the schools in Georgia have sports teams for boys only, but my school is different. My students told me that at our school it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl; if you’re good at volleyball, you’re good at volleyball. There were about four other volleyball teams at the tournament on Friday, but only our school had girls on the team. (Woo, equalism!)
My school's co-ed volleyball team!

There was one incredibly intense moment at the game when our school was neck-in-neck with their opponent and whoever would score the next point would win the match. (I was more nervous at this moment than I was watching the Yankees play the Phillies during Game Seven of the 2009 World Series). Manana even turned to me and said, “Oh Michelle, I have butterflies in my stomach!”

We sadly actually ended up losing the game. It was a pretty tragic loss considering that the game was interrupted twice because of fist fighting among the players. In the states, you have to go to a hockey game to watch the players fight, in Georgia, you can go to your local high school volleyball game to see people go at it. They even sell popcorn nearby for twenty-five tetri (about ten cents)! (Talk about a cheap date).

All in all though, the entire team was so excited to have me at the game. Parents and teachers don't usually go to the game, let alone stay for the entire length of the tournament (which in in this case was four hours). They told me I must go to every one of their games so it looks like I have a lot of volleyball to look forward to this month!

I guess this weekend was sport themed, because on Sunday all four of us Samtredia girls went to the newly government-funded football (soccer) stadium, to watch Samtredia’s football team play in the National league.
Samtredia VS Dinamo (Tbilisi). We're the white team.

Much to my shock, our team is actually third in the nation. (I guess since there isn’t that much to do in town there’s plenty of time to work on one’s soccer skills). Anyway, the stadium was completely packed. It was like a Samtredia I’d never seen. Hundreds of men and boys eating sunflower seeds just filled the place.
The girls at the stadium. Count the women in the background...

And Samtredia’s fans are quite passionate about their team. Even the slightest bad call from a referee put men in an outrage. Boys would climb the fence to throw things at Dinamo, the opposing team, and men screamed obscenities that happened to be omitted from the phrasebook TLG provided us.
The fans going crazy after a bad call from the ref

This game was especially exciting because we were playing Tbilisi! It’s kind of funny even that our wee little town could even be compared to Tbilisi. Nonetheless, we totally rocked it and beat Tbilisi 2-0.

Samtredia may not have all the glitz and glam of Tbilisi, but our boys and girls certainly know to hit a ball!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wild and Crazy Kids

I went on my first excursion (field trip) today with Nini’s ninth grade class. To call the ninth graders wild and crazy kids seems like a terrific understatement. Spawn of the devil seems more accurate (but it’s a bit harsh) so we’ll stick with wild and crazy.
Some of the ninth graders (and me) trying to look cool

We were supposed to leave for our trip to Vani after fifth period but of course we were on GMT time (Georgian Maybe Time) and left a half hour after that. Why were we late you ask? Well, a teacher came over to the marshutka to yell at several of the ninth graders for skipping fifth period and when she came over she noticed that many of the other ninth graders were taking shots of vodka in the schoolyard.

Ten class-skipping, vodka-guzzling fourteen year olds isn’t enough to cancel a trip, so after a quick scolding we all got on the marshutka and set off on the road (drunk kids in tow). We first made a brief pit stop to pick up a few chairs as the marshutka only sits twenty and there were twenty seven of us. Despite the fact that we were packed like sardines, the ride to Vani was pretty fun. We sang Georgian songs and played “Never have I ever” ("Me ara sodis" in Georgian) while a few of the boys tried to sneakily smoke cigarettes in the back of the mini-bus.

When we arrived in Vani we toured an archeological museum that had all sorts of jewelry and pottery from way back to when Jason and Argonauts made their way through the area. It was pretty cool to see that so many artifacts were found in just small part of Georgia. It’s funny how in America, we think objects something from the 1600s are old but in Georgia, artifacts that were found a few thousand years before Christ came about are considered old.
Outside the archeological museum in Vani
Soon after witnessing a few kids vomit (vodka and marshutkebi are just not a good pair) we were back on the minibus, headed for a celebration in honor of the Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze. Well, as soon as we arrived at the celebration, we left. Literally, I think we were at the celebration for less than ten minutes. It kind of felt like a celebrity publicity event. We made an appearance, took a photo to show we were there, and bounced.
This is Melissa trying to get Nini to smile in photos
Me with Salome (basically my other little sister)

Before heading back to Samtredia, we stopped by a little stream on the side of the road to have lunch. While enjoying our carbs, cakes and chicken one of the boys had this brilliant idea to take the air out of the marshutka’s tires, so we would get stranded and have a longer field trip.

So, lo and behold, when it was time to leave one of the boys “noticed” that there was no air in one of the tires. Our marshutka driver was raging mad; I think we’re lucky he didn’t kill one of the students. This poor man was driving around drunk, screaming, smoking, vomiting fourteen-year-olds (beyond capacity) and then someone thought it was a good idea to create a flat tire to lengthen the excursion.

Our driver was no idiot. He knew one of the students took the air out. (Plus, the air caps were put back on the tire incorrectly). To make matters worse, as our driver began jacking the tire, a bunch of the girls’ twelfth grade boyfriends pulled up in an SVU and the students began to have a dance party with Georgian music. Meanwhile, somehow all the leftover food caught on fire (I blame the ninth grade pyro) and then one of the girls started hysterically balling after she accidentally got hit in the head with a small boulder that was meant to hit a dog. (Did I not say wild and crazy was an understatement?)
The work of some not-so-sneaky kids

Finally, the tire was fixed and we all got back on the marshutka. You can tell our driver wanted us all out of his car because soon after we passed a road sign that established we were physically back in Samtredia he kicked all of us out (instead of dropping us off at our school).

The weird thing is, even though I was somewhat fearful I was going to die today, I totally feel like I bonded with these demonic kids. They all wanted to talk to me and play with me and even with the language barrier; we learned a lot about each other. They may be insane, but I somehow love them all.

And at the very least, they make a simple trip to a museum an excursion and a half.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The long-distance thong gone wrong

Earlier today my neighbor Irma came over carrying a big bouquet of a dozen red roses, a small package, and an exhausted smile on her face. She excitedly told Eka and I that her friend-who-wants-to-be-more-than-a-friend sent them to her from America. We’ll call this man Giorgi (because let’s face it, that’s probably his name anyway). Giorgi used to live in Samtredia ten years ago but he has since moved to Manhattan and started a successful hotel and Georgian restaurant.

For practically three years, Giorgi has been trying to win over Irma- all the way from New York.

The roses and gift he sent her were just another one of his ways to win her over. As Irma began to open the package, she unveiled a small silk make-up bag with the words ‘Victoria’s Secret’ printed on the front.

While Irma and Eka asked me who this Victoria was, I started to explain that ‘Victoria’s Secret’ is a popular store for women in the United States. I just happened to omit the fact that it’s known for its sexy lingerie.

Thus of course, after taking out a few lotions and body sprays, Irma pulled out a tiny, black lace thong from the silky bag and put it over her head. That’s right- she thought the thong was a headband. I watched in silence as Irma tried to maneuver the thong to fit on her head, deciding if I should say something or not.

Frustrated, Irma asked,“Is ra aris?” (What is this?)

Eka and I shared a quick smile before yelling, “Trusiki!” (Underwear!)

With the thong still on her head, Irma let out a loud gasp followed by, “Martla? ...Vaime!” (Really? …Oh my).

The three of us had a good laugh after that. Nothing is funnier than watching a conservative Georgian woman try to wear a Victoria’s Secret thong as a headband. When Eka and Irma began analyzing the situation, Irma turned to me to get my viewpoint on the whole matter.

In her Georgian-Russian Irma asked me, “Ehh, shto shen dimosh?” (What do you think?)

I hesitated for a second before I said, “Ya dumo ohn khochit shtota…” (I think he wants something…)

Without missing a beat, Eka sarcastically chimed in, “Da, pravda. Ohn khochit shtota” (Yes, that’s right. He wants something).

This promptly began a rant where Eka and Irma began to gather and confirm evidence that Giorgi is crazy. Granted, the fact that he sent a thong to his friend from 6,000 miles away seemed to fit in nicely with this conversation.

Crazy or not, I’m just excited to hear that this guy opened up a popular Georgian restaurant in New York City. I might just drop the name Irma when I’m back home and see if I can get some free khinkali.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mullet Magic

My hair was getting too long so I thought it might be a good idea to get it cut at a salon in town. Now, had I known that getting a haircut would be the most nerve-racking experience ever; I may have opted to wait until I was in Tbilisi to get it cut.

On Friday, Nini met Melissa and I after her classes and took us to her favorite beauty salon in Samtredia. As soon as I walked in I started to get a bit panicky. The hair salon (which also does electrotherapy treatments) had two female customers who both seemed to be getting frighteningly short mullet-esque cuts.

In retrospect, when all the customers in the shop are getting mullets, that should be a cue to quietly exit.

A good friend of the family owns the salon however, so once we stepped inside it was pretty clear we had to get something done. As I quietly panicked that the haircutters would cut off all my hair, Nini began to tell me what hairstyles she thought would like nice on me. Nini was encouraging me to get an asymmetrical cut. As in, one side of my hair would be really short, the other left long. I then looked at Melissa in further panic; Nini was my translator. After explaining to Nini that I most definitely did not want an asymmetrical cut or a mullet or a mushroom cut, it was time to meet my hairstylist.

My first hairstylist was named Miranda but after seeing how panicked I was, Miranda decided she refused to cut my hair. True story. Thus, the elder woman in the salon agreed to take me on. I think I explained about eight times how I wanted my hair cut. Once with actual photographs, twice with hand motions, two times Nini explained what I wanted in Georgian then Melissa told the woman what I wanted in English, and I explained what I wanted in Russian (and in English, just in case).

Before the actual hair-cutting however comes the hair washing. In Samtredia, you self wash your hair in the sink using fancy shampoo. Now, I am not an ignorant person but I did not at first understand that I was supposed to lean over in the sink and wash my hair.

That posed this conversation:

Me: “I wash my hair?”
Nini: “Yes, Michelle”
Me: “So, I wash it in the sink”
Nini: “Yes”
Me: “I put my head in the sink and I add water and shampoo”
Nini: “Yes”
Me: “In the sink? I go to the sink?”
Nini: “I will be with you. Don’t be afraid”
Me: “Wait, I wash it or the stylist washes it?”
Nini: “Okay, if scared, I can wash it”
Me: “No, okay, wait- so I wash it in the sink?”

Well, finally I understood. And I washed my hair in the sink. Like a big girl. Unfortunately due to my crazy nerves, I also washed my face and my t-shirt.

Now picture it, I am soaking wet, terrified, about to let the resident mullet-expert cut my hair. Melissa rather spontaneously decided to go first, hoping that if she got a bad cut it might make me less nervous. (Somehow this seemed to make sense at the time).

Well Melissa went and did just that. I wouldn’t say she got a bad cut, but let’s just say she’s been begging one of us to take a scissor to her hair so she doesn’t have layers that are three-inches apart. So as Melissa began panicking that she had what one could feasibly describe as a subtle mullet (but really it’s not that bad) we both agreed we’d only get through the day with some wine and chocolate.

Thankfully, my hairdresser pretty much seemed to understand the style I wanted. My hair isn’t perfect, but the cut only cost six laris (less than four dollars) so I can’t complain too much. Plus, after your mom accidentally cuts off all your bangs when you’re in the third grade, no other haircut can really be called ‘bad’ (love you, Mom).
Melissa washing her hair in the sink. (The disarray of the photo seems to accurately describe the situation).

Miranda taking a scissor to Melissa's hair. (Once again, the dark undertones of the photo seem to describe the scene perfectly).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teaching English to English Teachers

The view of Kutaisi from the Bagrati Monastery
After classes today, Melissa and I went to Kutaisi to go meet up with Salome and her friends from University. All of Salome’s friends are studying to become English teachers so I assumed that all of them would speak English as well as Salome does. Nope, not even close. The girls could barely say, “Nice to meet you”.

Clearly this says something frightening about the Georgian education system. I mean, if these girls can’t speak English and they’re about to become English teachers, how can anyone expect that kids will be able to learn English from them? (Then again, that’s probably one of the reasons why Mishiko is paying me to be here).

It’s possible that all the girls (besides Salome who is an English-speaking rock star) were too shy to talk, so I think if we hang out with them more (or give them vodka) they’ll become more comfortable speaking with us. They told us they could understand everything we were saying, they just couldn’t respond.

Honestly though, it really made all the girls day to meet Melissa and I. They took so many photos with us and were so excited to simply be around Americans. I practically felt like a character at Disney World, as if the girls wanted photos with Melissa and me because we were wearing Timon and Pumba costumes.
With all our new friends! (Though I totally stick out like a sore thumb)

Plus, despite somewhat of a language barrier, all of us had a lot of fun going to the Bagrati Monastery (it’s from the eleventh century) and drinking coffee at a little café. The girls are all very warm and love to laugh and want to us to come visit them as often as we can.

Salome told me that most of the kids in her major classes at University have had no actual way to practice speaking English and many honestly can’t. They can conjugate verbs and define words but they can’t actually phrase sentences. It’s practically a mitzvah for us Americans to hang out with them and speak English!

If I help one of my students become a better English speaker; that’s great for my student. But if I help one of the English teachers become more comfortable engaging in English conversations; that’s great for an entire school.
Melissa rocking the Georgian head-to-toe black look
Salome and I

P.S. If you were given a quarter for every time I used the word “English” how much money would you have?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Olympic acts of Georgian Hospitality

You can never have too many adorable sleeping dog pictures.
I think I’ve been living in Georgia too long because I’m beginning to actually look forward to long marshutka rides out east. When I look out the bus window all there is to see are just miles and miles of snowcapped mountains surrounded by beautiful foliage. It’s so beautiful that if I’m having a conversation with the person sitting next to me, I’ll sometimes get distracted just because of how stunning Georgia is. Fall in Georgia honestly makes fall in New England look like a joke.

On Friday, I was enjoying my beautiful view out the marshutka window while we were well on our way to Borjomi to meet up with our friends Bran, Tracey and Katy. Borjomi is one of the more famous towns in Georgia because it has special springs of water that are known to have renowned health benefits (and just happen to smell like eggs).
Washing my hands with the famous Borjomi water

Our night in Borjomi was rather interesting. While looking for our home-stay, the four of us (Emily, Melissa, Katy and I) had easy instructions to follow. We were told to walk straight and then go up the hill. Easy enough. Except that Borjomi is a hilly town so “go up the hill” was not exactly a clear instruction.

And so, but of course, the four of us found ourselves lost on top of big, dark hill looking for our home stay which seemed nowhere in sight. Right here is where a small grey kitten started to cuddle around my boots and pounce onto my leg leaving little kitten paw prints (and holes) as it climbed my tights. Also at this time, a Georgian man drove by in his car and started to ask us questions about the TLG program. To recap- we are in the dark, lost, a kitten is climbing me and a random man is interrogating us.

Out of nowhere the woman we were looking for seemed to appear though and she whisked us away to her adorable home where we were given delicious tea and lobiani (beans). I noticed the woman had a certificate of thanks from the Peace Corps on her wall and she told us that she has housed four Peace Corps volunteers over the past ten years.

She then told us that both her son and daughter each married a Peace Corps volunteer. Crazy! How ironic that she generously allowed these Americans to live in her home and they repaid her by marrying her children and whisking them away to America.

Her daughter Mako and her American husband Mike happened to be visiting that day so obviously we needed to hear every detail about how they got together. We spent the night exchanging countless stories about being Americans in Georgia. It was so wonderful to chat with such a cute, happy couple. We definitely picked the right home stay in Borjomi!

Borjomi berries

Exchange rates by family background.

Want an entire roast pig?
The next morning we woke up early and went right to Bakuriani. Bakuriani has got to be my favorite place in Georgia so far. The town is known for its fantastic skiing and scenery, and while there was no snow when we were there, we were just overwhelmed with kindness from the people at our hotel (and all the delicious food).

The woman who owns the hotel is named Dodo and asides from being an amazing woman she happens to be married to an Olympic bobsledder and her son is an Olympic skier. The hotel was filled with the family’s Olympic memorabilia and tons of different trophies.

Dodo and I at her beautiful hotel
Our first American style lunch (mac and cheese with hot dogs)!

It was surreal to talk about the 2010 Winter Olympics because the man who died in the luge accident was Nodar Kumaritashvili. Not only was he Georgian but he also happened to be a very close friend of this family. Dodo was telling me all about him and what an amazing person he was.

I remember watching the 2010 Olympics on television and thinking how sad it was that this young athlete had died but I felt completely disconnected from this tragedy. If you were to tell me then that in ten months I’d be living in Georgia, hanging out with Georgian Olympic athletes talking about what a great person he was, I would have called you crazy. Weird how you really never know where life will take you…
A memorial to Nodar Kumaritashvili in Bakuriani

Anyway, another reason Bakuriani was amazing was because we went horseback riding through the mountains! This may have been the most fun thing I’ve done in Georgia. It was just us, our horses, our guide Misha and the beautiful land of Georgia.
I could have stared at these mountains all weekend!

Our guide was a real character. He was actually a competitive arm wrestler and kept asking me questions about professional arm wrestlers from America. I didn’t even know professional arm wresting existed. His other favorite topic was horses and rodeos. Another topic I know nothing about. I was literally making stuff up just to please him. I said something about Montana having the most wild horses and the best rodeos being in Kentucky. (He seemed a bit upset that I didn’t share more statistical information).
Misha  challenged our very own Bran to a match. (Bran lost in maybe three seconds).

The best part about horseback riding was that after trekking through the beautiful terrain, Misha took us to a field to go racing! There is no feeling more exhilarating then when you’re perfectly in sync with an animal and going 60 kilometers per hour. We were flying. It felt like me and my horse Yuda were one being just about to soar through the sky.
 I like that you can see Yuda's ears on the bottom of the photo.
Riding through a nearby town

Give us some cowboy hats and we could pass for extras in a John Wayne film
I still remember that when I went horseback riding in Nicaragua the name of my horse was Serena and the previous night a tarantula had bitten her behind the ear and she had a bad infection. The two of us seemed to bond over our hatred for spiders. Me and Yuda also bonded. I mean hello, his name was Yuda that’s Georgian for Judah which is a Hebrew name. My horse was Jewish! (And at one point I asked him if he was feeling okay and I swear he neighed ‘no’).
Yuda, my new best friend

When we left our hotel on Sunday morning, the entire staff seemed to come out to wish us goodbye. Misha, Dodo, her husband, all the cooks and crew; everyone was just standing out in the cold waving us goodbye as we drove off in our marshutka (which came directly to the hotel to pick all of us up). The marshutka driver even came thirty minutes off schedule to get us! Talk about Georgian hospitality.

It still boggles my mind how kind and hospitably everyone treats us. Our marshutka driver Miram even took us to the Borjomi mineral water park for free, and picked us up for free a few hours later! And to top him, our second marshutka driver of the day, Gosha, stopped off at a restaurant to pick up some khachapuri for us as a gift. I mean, what? Who has ever heard of a taxi driver stopping to buy lunch for their passengers just to be nice? Miram even called me a few hours later to make sure I made it home okay. It seems as though every marshutka driver I meet becomes my own pseudo-father.

I went through my phone on the marshutka and noticed I have the name and number of a marshutka or cab driver in every city I’ve been to in Georgia so far. Ludacris may have hoes in different area codes but I have patronis in every city!
Defending Emily from seesaw dragons at the park in Borjomi
We're rowing ourselves to Valhalla
The Pocahontas tree brings out the best in everyone.
This nice man saw Tracey staring at his cotton candy machine so he made her this huge thing as a gift!
Who knew cotton candy went so nicely with marshutka rides?