Thursday, September 30, 2010

Borscht: a Detective’s Greatest Obstacle

I’ve been spending my free time trying to solve an unsolved mystery. See this Swedish girl disappeared like forty or so years ago but no one knows what happened to her. So far, over the course of my investigation I’ve come across a family tied to Nazism, some rape, this money laundering scandal and a few other creepy things. But I haven’t been able to solve the mystery because of borscht. That’s right, borscht; the soup.

How did I get into this mess? Well I simply bought the book “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and got sucked into the story. So technically I’m less investigating a murder and more reading a national bestseller, but potato patato. But my point is that I haven’t been able to finish the book no matter how hard I try because something always gets in the way.

For example, on Tuesdays I have two forty-five minute breaks throughout the day. That is a lot of possible reading time. The problem is that I can’t read at school, because let’s face it, I’m pretty much Lady Gaga here and I get swarmed with children. I love my little minions, but not when I actually want some me time. It’s like, just walking into the courtyard it feels as though honey is being metaphorically poured all over me, and as soon as I sit on the bench then I get metaphorically covered in flour in the form of Georgian children. (I’m exaggerating a tad but I think you get the point).

So, reading at school is simply not an option. Add in five minutes to walk to the nearby park and that still leaves forty minutes of reading time. Forty potential minutes, that is.

Twenty minutes is the longest I’ve been able to sit on a park bench before a Georgian man approaches me and begins to try to have a conversation with me. After I pretend I don’t know any Georgian or Russian, the most resilient of men still stand there and speak louder, possibly hoping that maybe I will understand Georgian if they practically yell at me. On any day, this specimen (we’ll call him the GeMaWhoCaTAH: Georgian man who can’t take a hint) is annoying but when you’ve just made a breakthrough in your investigation; it’s unbearable. I almost told this man, “I am solving a Swedish murder, and if you don’t walk away then there will be a Georgian murder to solve too”. But I held back (mainly due to my being unable to say this phrase in any foreign language).

Now, you’d think that at home it would be easy to read. Au contraire. First, I must give a detailed summary of everything that happened in the book to anyone who sees me reading. (Though I do love how adorable it is that my host family cares about what I’m reading). Then, I need to give updates every twenty pages or so about what is currently happening in the book. Furthermore, I must take borscht breaks.

During the most riveting, revolting most epic part of the book my deda made an appearance in my novel to tell me I must eat. I tried to explain to her that I couldn’t eat just yet, it was vital I finish the chapter but deda could not accept this answer. “Borscht will help you solve murders! Modi (come) jame (eat)!”

Well, better a borscht interruption than a GeMaWhoCaTAH interruption!

In addition to those two interruptions there are a few others that have kept me from finishing my book. There’s of course the ‘come play with this cute baby’ interruption, as well as the ‘how do I get that huge bug out of my room without coming too close’ interruption.

Someday soon I will finish my book and then I will have a new mystery to solve: making the grammar rules for the Simple Perfect tense interesting to eleven year olds. (Talk about a forty year old mystery).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tragedy over tea

A church just outside Samtredia.
 While drinking a cup of rose tea with my deda today, we somehow got into a discussion about prayer. My deda wanted to make sure that her late night praying was not keeping me up at night. After explaining to deda that if one person were to sleep through Armageddon, it would be me, we started talking about how the family became so religious and why they pray so much.

Six years ago, my host aunt and uncle’s sixteen year old son Lavan was hanging out at the park in town with his friends. A drunken classmate came up to him and wanted to give him a little scare with a knife but accidentally stabbed him in a vital artery (my Russian/knowledge of biology is not good enough to understand which artery) and Lavan ended up dying. My deda told me that after that incident my uncle was a complete mess. He contemplated suicide for a long time, and only after turning to religion did he begin to enjoy life once more. 

When my host parents pray, it sounds like they’re passionately reading something but when I hear my host aunt and uncle pray it always catches me off guard. They live right next door, and my window is across from their bedroom so I occasionally hear them if I stay up late enough. 

When I hear them praying it sounds more like Arabic to me than Georgian, and is reminiscent of the various calls to prayer I would hear while walking through the Muslim quarter in Yaffo, Israel. While my parents seem to read, my neighbors sound like they’re crying and singing at the same time. It’s very melancholy, but very beautiful all the while. Deda told me that every single time my uncle prays he literally cries tears for Lavan. From the few times I’ve heard them I definitely think this is true.

Tonight I even learned that my host uncle prays for two hours every morning, two hours every night, and additionally prays every three hours for about ten minutes. I was astounded. That’s practically five hours of praying a day! I don’t know much about the Georgian Orthodox church, but I would not have guessed that mourning could even entail this much prayer. 

My host aunt and uncle also dress very conservatively. My aunt only wears black and covers her hair whenever she is out in public. My host uncle also only wears black, and has a thick beard. Deda told me that in Georgian Orthodox culture, only religious or mourning men tend to have beards. 

Despite the tragedy that befell them, my host aunt and uncle are some of the most wonderful people I’ve met in Samtredia. My aunt is always coming over with a new dish for me to try (she caught on that I like eggplant on day two) and is always making sure that I’m not hungry or thirsty. Furthermore, my uncle is a great conversationalist (though I do have a hard time understanding his accent) and loves asking me about my opinion on world events, religion and politics. 

I was very curious about the family’s reaction towards the boy who killed Lavan but deda had nothing ill to say about him. She told me that as a religious woman, God has taught her to love everyone, even those who may bring others pain. (Deda never ceases to amaze me with her kindness). Lavan’s killer has another three years left in prison and then he is free. No one in town is sure what he will do when he is released, but everyone highly doubts that he will return back to Samtredia. 

As horrific as this event was, I was honored that deda shared such intimate details about the family with me. I am feeling more like a member of this community with each person I meet, and story I hear. Once deda saw the tears forming in my eyes, she brought me a second cup of tea and began to tell me about Nini’s hilarious kindergarten love affairs and we laughed for a long time. Tea time was very emotional today; I cried, I laughed (and almost cried again when I discovered we were out of fruit cake). 

This cross in front of my house is a memorial for Lavan.

This is the church that saved my family after Lavan's death

Monday, September 27, 2010

‘Bebia Butter’ business begins!

I feel the need to clarify. Listen people, I graduated from university, I’ve been in a kitchen before; I know that there is no actual butter in peanut butter. But forgive a girl. I literally translated peanut butter in English to ‘peanut butter’ in Russian. It’s only natural a few things would get lost in translation that resulted in me eating a spoonful of chunky, sweet butter yesterday. Worse things could have occurred.  But, I am happy to report that my quest for peanut butter is over!

This afternoon, Deda and I created the most delectable peanut butter ever to be tasted. All it took to create such heaven was a can of peanuts, a few spoonful s of honey (fresh from the beehive, mind you) and a tablespoon of sunflower seed oil. Seriously, this peanut butter tastes so good that my Deda thinks we should sell it all over Samtredia. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat Skippy again. (That is a lie. I will continue to eat Skippy in America but yearn for my homemade Georgian PB).

Deda and I hard at work grinding peanuts!
We put our fresh, homemade PB into our empty jars of store-bought PB from Tbilisi.
 I've already decided to use the face of Tara’s bebia (host grandma) on the jar because she is the most adorable old woman in this whole town. Plus I think her ten-tooth smile would really sell. I’ll even call it ‘Bebia Butter’. I mean, hello, that’s guaranteed to be a hit.

In all honesty, it’s been so amazing that Tara has joined our group of three Americans in Samtredia. Her family is beyond lovable and it’s so nice to have another familiar face in town. (For those of you who aren’t my parents, Tara was my college roommate for three years and just came to Georgia a week ago with the TLG program). After knowing me for just twenty minutes Tara’s host family promised to take me to Turkey and to go hiking all over Georgia. Talk about hospitality.

I can’t say I’m really surprised though, hospitality seems to be a trait that all Georgians share. This evening I went over the apartment of my co-teacher Nona for what I thought was going to be just coffee and cake. My own naïveté is beginning to surprise me. Coffee and cake became coffee, half a cake, a pint of beer, and shots of homemade vodka. My line of the night was “ar minda!” (I don’t want!”) and I ruthlessly had to put my hand over my glass to make sure Nona’s husband did not pour me more to drink. 

In fact, when I praised Nona’s adorable one-year-old baby Luka (who likes to pretend he’s a horse and get kisses from his stuffed animal puppy Uf-Uf), her husband said that I could borrow him if I wanted. Excuse me? So not only will Georgians give you the shirt off their back, they’ll even lend you the child from their womb. 

My life is officially complete. I now have homemade peanut butter and my own personal horse-impersonating baby. I seriously love this country more and more every day.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Peanut Butter, wherefore art thou?

There are two foods that I love: grapefruit and peanut butter. While I came to Georgia knowing I would have to temporarily say goodbye to grapefruit, I had hope that me and peanut butter would stay just as close as ever. In Tbilisi, they practically had aisles of the stuff so I was sure I’d be able to find it in any market in Georgia. I could not have been more wrong.

In Samtredia, I think I’ve checked every market. (All six of them). Not only does no store sell it, no shopkeeper has ever seemed to hear of it. Several shopkeepers have tried to sell me peanuts and butter but I had to explain that what I want usually comes pre-packaged in a jar.

Ironically enough, while most shops sell jars of Fluff and Nutella, peanut butter seems to be an exotic dish. I feel as if I am asking pretzel vendors in Manhattan if they happen to have black caviar in their cart.

My host-mom thus decided that we would make our own peanut butter from scratch.  She wrote me a list of all the ingredients she thought we might need and sent me off to the market to pick up the supplies. On the list were peanuts, butter and a pudding-like milk.

Tip: don’t ask someone who’s never heard of peanut butter to help you decide what ingredients you may need.

My host-mom happens to be a great cook though so I figured whatever we’d end up creating would probably taste delicious. On our first attempt we put peanuts, butter and a spoonful of pudding milk in a blender. What resulted was fairly disgusting. It was a sweet butter that happened to have chunks of peanuts in it. 

As my deda began a second attempt by hand-smashing peanuts and stirring them into butter, I explained to her that all I really wanted was ground peanuts that I could eat with bread.  She instantly set up the meat grinder and began grinding the peanuts. What resulted was less a spread and more a hamburger-patty like peanut substance. 

On attempt four, I decided to mix a little bit of the sweet, nutty butter from attempt one, with all the hamburger meat from attempt three. The result looked like chunky peanut butter but tasted like butter with peanuts. I found it pretty inedible, but my deda tried and loved it. She took a spoon to the concoction and asked me when my cookbook was coming out. (Earlier in the day, I introduced apples and honey to my host family. Needless to say, tepla da vashli (apples and honey) is the newest snack with tea sensation).

My peanut butter quest is not over! Tomorrow I’ll try grinding the peanuts with a spoonful of vegetable oil and also try grinding peanuts with a little honey. If all else fails, I’ll be eating peanut-patty ‘hamburgers’ with raspberry jam ‘ketchup’. Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound half bad.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Home is where Lasha's mom is

Despite the fact that there is no café in Samtredia where two girls can just sit and drink some coffee; there is the Geocell store. We three American girls made quite the impression on the entire staff there on our previous visits and while walking today, Melissa and I decided to pop in for a quick hello. (Plus our Geocell phones and internet sticks were not working). After walking in and receiving a greeting of big hugs and kisses on the cheek, we were immediately prompted to sit and asked if we wanted coffee. 

So, picture it. We’re sitting by a desk in the middle of the store with two delicious cups of steaming hot coffee and a huge bowl of fresh green grapes chatting with all the Geocell employees. We chatted about Israel, skiing, the political situation in Abkhazia, teaching, marriage, you name it. Even as customers were walking in asking various questions about the internet us two girls were sitting there as if we were in a coffee shop with our Georgian friends.

Oh, but Geocell is not just a secret coffee shop. It’s also a tailor. The zipper on Melissa’s bag broke a few days ago, but no fear, Lela (Lasha’s mom) banged a scissor at it and bit something with her teeth and presto it was fixed. You can also add travel agency and car rental service to that list. The Geocell employees even helped us plan future trips around Georgia and offered to take us anywhere we want to go. 

After about an hour of pure chit-chat and a quick English lesson (we taught our friends at Geocell how to say “goodbye” and “how are you”) it was practically awkward to leave. It almost felt as if we were skimping out early from a friend’s birthday party. Clearly, the Geocell employees have become our dear friends.

So pretty much we’ve found the Mecca of Samtredia: an internet store/ coffee shop/ travel agency/ tailor/car rental service / warm home that we can visit anytime between the hours of 9am-6pm Monday through Saturday.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I have twelve boyfriends

At School No. 11 in Samtredia I am a celebrity. Just walking to school children I’ve never met say hello to me by name and high school boys fight over who gets to sit next to me on the bench during break time. I think I have about twelve boyfriends between the ages of 12 and 17 and I’m just starting to learn all their names. One of my admirers from the sixth grade even slipped me a note after class today that said “I lave mishel”. (Now tell me that’s not cute).

My favorite boyfriend is named Dato and he’s in the 7th grade. He follows me around school and makes a point to ask me how I am about ten times a day. He’s even figured out most of my schedule and has been barging into my classrooms (in the middle of class) just to say hello. (A few days ago he even introduced me to his little sister so I think we’re getting serious).

My older suitors have even gotten competitive. After brawling in the school courtyard for my attention they decided it would only be fair to have a basketball shootout to see who should be my official boyfriend. After I refused to participate, the boys seemed confused (as if that has worked in the past).

And today my sister Nini and her friend Teona took Melissa and I to the Jewish Museum and synagogue in Kulashi and two boys from my school decided to tag along. We had an interesting afternoon walking around inside a synagogue that looks as if it hasn’t been cleaned since 1990 (hello cobweb city) and found a cow eating grass growing from a tombstone in the Jewish cemetery.
Outside the synagogue in Kulashi

A copy of Pirkei Avot in Hebrew and Georgian!

Jewish Museum sign! Hebrew and a puppy! I'm in love.

After touring the Jewish part of Kulashi, we looked at a few really interesting churches and the two twelfth grade boys we were with started to plot how to get us to come to their home to drink fresh red wine. One of the boys (we’ll call him Georgian Boy #1) noticed I like animals and said, “Home I have pigs. And wine. Want you see?” Clearly, Georgian Boy #1 is pretty smooth.

But the best part is that right before getting on the marshutka to go back to Samtredia, Georgian Boy #2 showed me a photo from his camera of me reading a book in the park from a few days ago. And we’re talking close-up, he must have been five feet away when he took that. He confessed that he’s been photographing me around town. Uh, in America that’s called stalking but in Georgia it’s considered a way to get girls to drink wine at your house. Georgian Boy #2: less smooth, more creepy.

All in all I think I’ve gotten about four marriage proposals at school (one of which even sounded sincere). Ahem: “Michelle, I love you. So we get married, yes?” Next weekend I agreed to chaperon the tenth grade Russian class trip to Kakheti (about six hours west of my town) and I can only pray that I come back from the trip without a fifteen-year-old husband. But a wonderful thing about Georgia is that marriage licenses are only valid in the Republic of Georgia and null and void everywhere else. After just three weeks in Georgia, I think I know exactly why that is.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Familiar faces in foreign places

Some fisherman in Batumi

 I went back to Batumi this weekend but this time with about 35-40 other TLG participants. The weekend was essentially perfect. We got to explore a beautiful, exotic city but bumped into familiar faces the whole while. All of us had a lot of fun enjoying the beach and exchanging stories. It’s incredible how different each participants experience has been. Several people are living near Turkey with religious Muslim families, others are living in rustic villages with no bathrooms and bathing in a river, and some people are living on wealthy farms eating only the freshest meats and fruit. My simple life in Samtredia seemed boring in comparison. It was a real treat to hear everyone share funny anecdotes (and it didn’t hurt that everyone knew English).
The three of us Samtredia girls by the coast!  
Drinking some fermented black bread! (The Atkins diet is not big in Georgia).
 I spent my Saturday by enjoying a delicious breakfast with good friends, going to a post-soviet art museum, lying on the beach and even snuck into an international film festival. (We saw an odd Russian film about mourning, but it was still rather fun).
Outside the Batumi Art Museum

For dinner, we found this teeny, hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant and had the most amazing meal for just a few dollars. We couldn’t read the menu so we just asked the waitress (her name was Inga) to bring us the tastiest things on the menu. We had delicious osprey, khachapuri, the freshest salad known to mankind, sweet wine and cold beer. After our meal, our waitress pulled my friend Brennen out of his seat and proceeded to dance with him around the restaurant. So what did we do? We joined in! We danced until we sweat, and promised our new friends at the Imereti Restaurant that we’d come back on our next visit to Batumi.

Our new friends/dance partners from the restaurant

The rest of our night was spent on the beach chatting with all the other volunteers. It was really wonderful to discuss difficulties we’d been experiencing, and hear that others were experiencing similar things. All around the beach people were discussing religion, philosophy, cultural differences and just enjoying each other. A few of us even went swimming at 1:30 in the morning which was very fun (albeit cold).

Hollywood-esque sign

We even made a friend in our hotel room. A little mouse decided to join us in the bathroom, popping out and saying “gamarjobat!” while Melissa was taking a shower. He scurried under a bureau but I gave him some khachapuri to munch on and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.

Our view from the hotel

The entirety of Sunday was spent on the beach! (Nothing is better than sunbathing with good company). As lovely as Batumi was, I was excited to go back to Samtredia and tell my host family and new friends all about my weekend. That’s about when it hit me that Samtredia is starting to feel like home.
At a really cute cafe! They only had one thing on the menu: grilled cheese with tomato and mushroom and cheese soup.
Love that Black Sea Coast

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jugs of wine and peach yogurt

So yesterday while I was exploring town with Emily and Melissa, my host sister Nini thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the start of the school year by drinking an entire bottle of wine. Please note, Nini is a 90 pound fourteen year old. When I later bumped into a very drunk Nini on the street I turned on ‘Big Sister’ mode and attempted to take Nini back home. Nini, drunk and resilient, slurredly told me she was going to her best friend Salome’s house. Salome, who was practically keeping Nini from falling, informed me that she was taking Nini to her house to get killed by her mother. Oh, the Georgian way.

Nini’s drama ensued until this morning. She ran up to me in a panic during school and said that kids were talking about her being drunk at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and wanted advice on what to do. This was an easy one. First off, Nini’s full name is Nino much like half her entire school, so I first told her to say, “No, you must be confusing me with one of the other 200 Ninos”. Secondly, I told her to make a list of all the kids that said something about her and to tell them that if they said anything else I would make sure of it that they fail English. (Oh, the power). Thirdly, I advised Nini not to drink an entire bottle of wine at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Nini seemed satisfied with these words and happily skipped off to German class.

Changing the subject, here’s an anecdote about food. My family enjoys eating bread and cheese for breakfast every day. I myself am more of a ‘yogurt-and-fruit’ kind of girl so today after school, Melissa and I went exploring in the bazaar for some phortokhali (oranges) and ioyurt’i (yogurt). After getting free tomatoes for being American and spilling half a kilo of sugared peanuts on the ground (totally Melissa’s fault), we left the bazaar mildly successful. (Though we did mistakenly buy zucchini instead of cucumbers which made for a not-so-delicious salad). Anyhow, when my mama saw that I liked yogurt, he proceeded to go to the market and buy an entire jug of peach yogurt. Literally, if I even hint at liking something my family thinks it’s necessary to immediately stock up.

Even earlier in the week, when I walked by a big hotel with my deda I said what I thought was, “didi sast’umro” (big hotel) but in actuality what I said was “didi sazamtro” (big watermelon). (In my defense the words do sound fairly similar). My deda however, took that as a subtle hint that I wanted watermelon. Within twenty minutes a plate of watermelon was placed before me. I’m practically afraid to look at things in the market because I worry my host parents will buy everything I glance upon. Truly, I am being spoiled every single day.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

School is in session

Well, I’ve officially started teaching! So far school is totally unorganized and chaotic but really fun and enjoyable. While most of my students have a very, very minimal understanding of English, they were all curious to get to know me and ask me questions. Part of the TLG program includes not only exposing Georgians to English, but also sharing with them my American culture. One of my sixth graders asked me to talk about the education system of America. (He asked the question in Georgian). Due to the fact that the class’s English comprehension is so minimal, all I really got to say was “we have big schools”. Thrilling information.

Ducks in a row in Samtredia
 Most of the students questions centered on Halloween, my taste in music and what types of Georgian dishes I liked to eat most. A quirky student even asked me, “Do Americans think Michael Jackson is really dead?” I kid you not. The tenth grade class was even so excited I was there, that both the French and German classes were cancelled for the day so they could sit in on my tenth grade Q&A session. All three of the other English teachers at the school are really sweet and I’m excited to get to know them all better.

My street!

I’ve already gone for walks and tea with one of the English teachers. Her name is Nino and she is also twenty two, just like me. Nino was really excited when I came to teach at the school because she’s never gotten to know a native English speaker. When I had tea with Nino and Khatia, a friend of hers, the two girls asked me lots of questions about American culture and we got into a great discussion about gender roles in Georgia versus in America.
Tea with Khatia and Nino
 I love Georgia, but I am having a bit of difficulty adjusting to how rigidly traditionalism dictates how people live their lives here. I think one of the things I love most about being American is that ‘do-what-you-please-as-long-as-it-makes-you-happy’ attitude about life. This attitude does not seem to be present in my Georgian town at least. Here, people seem too concerned with what their neighbors might say about even the most insignificant things. In Samtredia, it’s frowned upon for a group of woman to go to a café by themselves, drive a car or date someone without the intention of marriage. (This town could use a few equalists if you ask me). Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with life here, it’s just different from what I’m used to. Meeting people who share different ideas about life has always helped me to not only become a more open-minded, worldly person but to also confirm (or modify) my own values and I’m so thankful for that.

I even had a discussion about expressionism versus traditionalism with my host mom (in Russian, mind you!) That was a project and a half. It’s more like me speaking Russian while playing charades just in case. (I swear, all 92 of us TLG participants could play a mean game of charades).
My home in Samtredia!

But anyways, amidst all these serious talks I’ve had, I’ve also found time to become best friends with the employees at the Geocell internet store in town. Melissa and I have been going there to test out these internet stick things (pardon my lacking in computer jargon) and have already been getting chummy with several of the employees but today really sealed the deal. How it works is one of employees speaks to me in Russian and Computer (for me, Computer is its own language) and then I tell Melissa what was said in Russian and she explains to me what was said in Computer. It’s probably a lot like telephone except at the end of the game you have to sign a contract.

The employee that we were speaking with was named Lasha and I said to him, “Lasha! What a good name for a dog”. I proceeded to act out calling a dog named Lasha to eat some kasha (which Lasha did not at first find funny) to which every other employee at Geocell almost died laughing at. We were soon asked to go on a family vacation by none other than Lasha’s mother. Oh hilarity.
Ducks in the sewer

It’s also been funny to see my students wandering around town. Tonight I saw a few of my twelfth graders waddling around (after drinking a bit too much wine) and they all said someone along the lines of, “Hello! I love you!” All my students seem so full of life and charisma that I think it will be a real treat to teach them. Let’s just hope I don’t catch them waddling like this the night before exams!

Melissa and her host brother Koko (isn't he adorable)

Melissa's street after the rain

Monday, September 13, 2010

Kids (and host moms) say the darndest things...

Two days ago, my host mom and sister took me to Ajara for the day. Ajara is the coastal region of Georgia with lots of different beaches and tourist attractions. My family insisted that we go to Sarpi, the southernmost beach in all of Ajara; a beach that is shared by both Georgia and Turkey. You could literally see the Turkish flag waving just a few hundred feet from where we were sitting. My deda (mom) even told me to be careful walking the beach, so that I don’t walk onto Turkish territory. So crazy!

Nini and me at Sarpi. Behind us is Turkey!

While sunbathing on the rocky beach, Nini got very excited that there was a black man sitting just in front of us. She told me that I could speak English with him and encouraged me to go talk him. I said to Nini, “How do you know he speaks English?” and she looked at me and said, “He is black! All black men talk in English. Black men is very, very smart”. She proceeded to enthusiastically exclaim how much she loves black men, and talk about how smart all black people are. At this point I think the man (who indeed did know English) became well aware of our conversation and pretended to ignore us. Little snippets like this make it so interesting to travel the world and hear about different perceptions on things. All the black people Nini has been exposed to, whether in the media or in real life, have been English speakers or simply successful. I found it ironically refreshing to see such a positive stereotype exists in the mind of my sister. Her friends also have a similar viewpoint on black people, they all were jealous that I had black friends and a black president and looked at me in awe when I explained that when you walk down the street in New York City people of all different races, religions and ethnicities walk side by side.

In Batumi with my host family!

Another interesting conversation that I had with my family was when I explained to them that I was Jewish. One of my deda’s dental patients was asking me all about my family and why my parents left Moscow and it just sort of slipped out. My deda didn’t say anything so for some reason I took that as a bad sign. Little did I know, my deda then went around town asking everyone where there is a good synagogue nearby so I can go to some services. Like seriously, how kind is my family! She even told me that she is not going to cook ghori (pork) anymore because she knows I can’t eat it due to Jewish dietary laws.

Interestingly, while my neighbor was over he was telling me that there is even a synagogue within walking distance! I think he was saying that there used to be somewhat of a large Jewish population in the nearby village of Kulashi but that around twenty years ago most of the Jews went to Israel. In all honesty though, this neighbor has a really weird accent and I can’t understand about 80% of what he says. It kind of sounds like he is gurgling mouthwash while trying to sing in Arabic. But gurgling-singing aside, I’m excited to go exploring in this village!

Turning over to the environmental leaf, today while Melissa was over for lunch we asked Nini, Koko (Melissa’s 12-year-old host brother) and my little neighbor (I forgot his name so we’ll just call him Archie) if they recycle. Recycling? They’d never heard of it. All the bottles and cans in town are just thrown out in the trash. I really want to come up with an idea to get all kids in Samtredia to recycle. It’s improbable that someone would pick up any bottles we collect, but it would be nice to make something practical out of the plastic bottles instead of just throwing them away. It would be easy to make planters or decorations but I really want to come up with a school-wide idea that would make all kids want to collect bottles at home and bring them to school.

Not to get negative, but there’s been a few instances in the past couple days when I’ve second-guessed whether or not I made a bad decision to come here. Sometimes it just gets really frustrating to not be able to communicate what I want to say and not understand even the simplest Georgian phrase that someone says to me. It’s daunting to imagine I’ll be living in Samtredia for an entire year. Having Melissa here has been a godsend though. It’s been easier to transition from life in the United States to life in Georgia because she’s here with me, experiencing something similar. Although funnily enough, Melissa’s family gives her too much space and my family gives me no space at all. Nini adores me so much that I half expect her to crawl into bed with me at night. I tried to explain to her that I need alone time to rest and she understood that to mean that every ten minutes it’s okay if she comes over to tell me something. It seems silly though to complain that someone loves me too much and most likely once Nini starts school she’ll lose interest in me and find a boy to obsess over.

While on the subject of men (well kind of) my host mom asked me if I want to get married in Georgia or in New York. I told her I don’t want to get married in Georgia so she shouldn’t even look for a match for me. She seemed a bit disappointed but agreed she would not find me a husband. She additionally made me promise though that if I fall in love with someone I will consider moving to Georgia forever and making her the godmother of my babies. To clarify- I’ve been here three days and she already wants to be responsible for my metaphorical children.

Sunset in Batumi

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My first day in my new home

Never in my life have I experienced the emotions I felt over the past two days. Within my five minutes I would go from incredibly nervous to insanely happy and back down to absolutely anxious, almost as if I was on a cycle. All 92 of us only found out where we were going to be living at around 11:30pm the night before we were supposed to leave. You could literally smell the anticipation in the room. Our group ended up getting split up not just in the Imereti region, but all over Georgia. While about half of us were placed in Imereti (including me, Melissa and Emily) the other half were spread in the regions of Ajara, Tbilisi, Samegrelo, and various other places. About twenty people were even placed just five kilometers away from the conflict zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It seemed like all 92 of us were in a state of shock. We didn’t have internet the last few days in the dorms so no one even got the chance to google where they were going to and find out how far away they’d be from their friends.

So here we all were, with a location dictating where we would spend the next year of our lives, with a family we knew nothing about. (Normally in the past, TLG would write a small description of everyone’s family and hand it out when they got their placement, but we were such a big group that they just didn’t have time). About here is when everyone went, “This is crazy! Why did we do this”!

The morning after was an entirely different range of emotions. Our group was leaving in sections depending on location, so it was hard to start saying goodbye to friends that we felt like we’d known for years. Granted, we all plan on visiting each other, but one person leaving signified that soon we too would be leaving and setting out on a solo adventure.

We met our host families in small sessions. My session consisted of about 25 TLG participants. We were placed in a room where all the TLG participants sat on one side of the room, and all our host families sat on the other side. It literally felt like we were dogs in a pound and the Georgian families were looking and pointing at which one of us they’d want to adopt. We were laughing at nothing simply to come off as funny, and sitting up straight to demonstrate we had manners. We too, were looking around the room picking out who we would want to be our family. After our Director, Nino, talked about the program to all our families, she finally began to read off the names of who we would spend the next year of our life with.

I remember when my name was called I was so excited that instead of walking to the podium-area to meet my family, I walked down the aisle to greet them. Two women greeted me, both giving me a kiss. I used the little Georgian I could muster to say “sasiamovnoa” (nice to meet you) and felt a huge relief. Both my deda (mom) and my school director came to greet me. My deda told me that she had one daughter and a husband and that our house was two floors. The whole time she was talking to me she kept holding my hand and stroking my face. They both kept saying, “kai gogo” (very good girl) to each other so I felt relieved they liked me. One Georgian woman even walked up to my deda, and said what sounded like it would translate to, “you got a good one”! (I was then also happy to not be the reject puppy at the pound). Then after a few goodbyes to friends, I was in the car, on my way to my new home. Just like that.

The first thing my deda did was to take me to supra at a restaurant. Here we were met by my sister Nini, my mama (dad), and two family friends. Nini was shy at first but within a few minutes she was chatty and showing me what taste good mixed with what and finding me the best pieces of meat to eat. (I told my deda that I don’t really like meat, but Nini was so excited to have me try her favorite dish, I just couldn’t say no). My mama (dad) was the tamada (host leader) and he led about eight toasts. The toasting was done exactly like studied it would be. The men stood for every toast while the women sat, and after the tamada made his little speech, the other men added on, and then we drank. The third gamarjos (toast) was in my honor, the fourth was in honor of Georgian-American relations, and the fifth was to ending terrorist attacks around the world. I’m not quite sure what the other toasts were for, but I toasted to them anyway while eating delicious Georgian dishes.

Nini is fourteen and speaks English fairly well. When we talk to each other we use a lot of pointing and sound effects, but somehow it works. Both my host parents speak some Russian, though they don’t like to use it, so they first speak to me in Georgian and then when I look at them blankly they often switch to Russian. I got really lucky that my entire family is very warm. Nini always wants to hold my hand, my deda (mom) constantly just wants to hug me and my mama (dad) always gives me a kiss on my forehead whenever he sees me.

Plus, in true Georgian hosting style they’ve given me a beautiful room. I should clarify though, not only have they given me a bedroom, but I also have my own terrace and my own parlor room. They kept asking me if I liked it and I was in shock. Queen Elizabeth would be pleased with these arrangements. I mean, my own parlor room? I don’t even know what a parlor room is for. My deda is a dentist who has her own practice attached to the house and my mama is a pediatrician and also owns an apothecary and another market in town.

Nini has been showing me around the whole neighborhood. All the neighbors have been coming to the house to meet me, and she keeps telling me that everyone likes me and wants me to stay forever. Nini was also taking me around town to meet her friends, and at each house I visited, her friends parents insisted I eat something and drink some homemade wine. To refuse entirely would have been seen as an insult so I started asking for mere droplets of food and sips of wine just because I was so full.

Conveniently, my family lives just a ten minute walk from the center of town. Melissa and Emily also live in Samtredia and we live so close to each other that I’ve already bumped into both of them while walking around town. All three of us feel much more comfortable knowing we are literally just a fifteen minute walk away from each other. There are two big parks in town, a bunch of different restaurants, cafes, dress shops and markets and even a beauty salon and two micro-financing organizations. Cows and stray dogs wander the streets and everybody seems to know everybody. It’s a really cute, quaint town, much bigger than I expected even though Nini keeps apologizing for it being so little and having “no American maghazia” (shops).

So far everyone I’ve met has been lovely. Most of Nini’s friends don’t speak any English or Russian but again a phrase like “Me momtsons Pink Floyd, ACDC da Beatles, shen?” implies that someone asked me what music I like. All Nini’s friends like to dance and that’s pretty universal too. Her friends especially enjoyed when I danced my way into an open pothole in the street. (I blame Shakira and her infectious dance music). At the end of the night when I said goodbye to her friends, a few yelled to me, “Bye Michelle! I love you!” and Nini told me that everyone liked me very much. So it looks like so far I’m off to a great start in my new home! I feel so lucky that everyone is warm and curious about getting to know me. Gamarjos to a wonderful year!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Don't smile so much!"

The past few days have felt like a mix of sleep away camp, high school and fraternity pledging (not that I’d really know though). With all the classes and meetings and panel discussions we’ve been having, we’ve been running on a super tight schedule. Every few hours we’ll have a fifteen minute break to eat a plum (a super delicious plum), feed a stray dog or sprint to the Apothecary to get medicine for our digestion-challenged friends. Other than those brief breaks though, it’s pretty much TLG time from 9am to 10pm. It’s only after ten, when a hoard of forty of us English speakers go to the pub together does it start to feel like fraternity pledging. And with beer being just $0.65 you can literally have an amazing evening and spend less then $2.00. Oh, Georgia, how I love you.

Melissa and Craig walking down the street in Kutaisi

A few of my so called TLG fraternity brothers, Bran, Katy, Steph and Me
 So far the Georgian language classes have been the most helpful thing that we’ve done during training. My Georgian is coming along really well. I even uh, bumped into my teacher at the pub and had a conversation with her in Georgian. (Seriously, they should hand out chacha (homemade Georgian vodka) in class, everyone’s Georgian will improve). Some people in my class have never even studied another language before so it’s truly delightfully hilarious when some people with thick Southern accents (think Texas cowboy) try to say something like, “kvertskhi” (egg) or really any Georgian phrase.

 Asides from language class, we’ve been learning a lot about Georgian culture. Giorgi, my intercultural teacher has already told me that I smile way too much and constantly tells me to “look more Georgian”. In Georgian culture, smiling at someone is indirect communication for “I like you”, (even in the classroom setting)! I can barely go five minutes without smiling, let alone teach a class of teenagers without smiling. I’m either going to come off as a pedophile at my school or somehow get engaged with my neighbor from smiling at him three times in a row. Should be an interesting year!

This is our toilet in the dorms! It's an eastern style squatter. (It's been an experience).
One of the many gangs of street dogs in Kutaisi.

Amidst our fully-booked daily schedule, we managed to make it to the 900 year old Gelati monastery in Kutaisi. We went at night (so we couldn’t really see the place) but we sat in on a nighttime prayer session of the monks. Now, I’ve been around Europe and Jerusalem and I’ve seen my fair share of churches, but this was really one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. In this huge cathedral all the lights were out except for this one candle, and the voices of the monks just reverberated throughout the whole place. It was so moving and beautiful that I went and said Schechianu (the Jewish prayer that you say when you experience something amazing, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before). Kind of ironic, I know, but it was just that beautiful.

While at the monastery, Giorgi (the same Giorgi who told me I smile too much) gave me, Melissa and a few other people a private tour of Gelati. Asides from the fact that it was so dark I have no idea what I saw, it was very cool (and creepy) to walk on King David the Builder's tomb and be inside a thousand-year-old classroom. I can’t wait to go back in the daytime (and see the place). We’re even going to try and go see a mass! Gosh look at me, I’ve been in Georgia for ten days and I’m already excited to go to church!

Melissa and I at the little pub!

Friday, September 3, 2010

I feel Georgian already

I already feel like I’ve been living in Georgia for at least a week. I’m spitting out greetings in Georgian left and right, albeit sometimes not exactly perfect, but the Georgians seem to appreciate the effort and find it endearing. (One of the cleaning ladies I was trying (key word) to have a chat with even grabbed my cheeks as if I was some adorable five-year-old).

Outskirts of Tbilisi

It has definitely been quite the advantage that I have some Russian proficiency. When I went out in Tbilisi with a few friends of mine, our cab driver spoke Russian and even gave us a free tour of the area. I translated as best as I could to my friends and when I didn’t understand something we all just went, “ooohhh” and “aaahhh” as if we were told some magical tale (which seemed to please our driver). He did tell me that the President of Georgia was killed that morning (which is not true) so I can’t imagine how factual the tour actually was. One of the TLG team leaders, Nino, told us that Georgians will often fabricate an event just so it’s more interesting. How fun, right? It’s as if storytelling is a huge part of Georgian culture!

From what I’ve seen of Tbilisi so far, I can definitely say it’s a beautiful city. There are lots of interesting statues everywhere, and a lot of the buildings have really unique architecture. We walked down Rustavelli, one of the main shopping streets and saw lots of luxury stores like Swarovski and Cartier which is something I suppose I didn’t expect to see. One thing I found interesting was that the McDonalds in Tbilisi didn’t have a drive-thru window but it did have a walk-thru window. Almost like the McDonalds was a little bodega shop.

A theater on Rustavelli street. 

Forget the drive-thru, they only have walk-thrus in Georgia

While we were walking around Tbilisi we found this sweet little park not too far from Rustavelli with a few park benches and an old statue. Well, while we were sitting and chatting of course these three Georgian men walked on over as if they were on mission. One of the girls I was with, Ilana, speaks Czech so I tried to say to her “speak in Czech” so we wouldn’t be able to talk to them and they’d walk away. However I made the mistake of saying “speak Czech” in Russian. Goodness did I open up a can of worms. So there I went translating from Russian to English and back again, trying to be polite but insinuating that we had to leave. No, Georgian men do not understand, “We need to leave” apparently there is always time for coffee. Finally after lying and saying that I had no phone, forgot what hotel I was at and that I never drink coffee with boys I meet in parks they slowly began to take a hint. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if they were making fun of my Russian or if they were simply amused by it, but I have to say, as creepy as they were they did help me with my conversational Russian! So, spasiba (thank you) creepy park boys.

On a more cosmopolitan note, this morning all ninety two of us TLG people went to a press conference at the Ministry of Education and Science in Georgia. I sat in the front row and got to be on Georgian TV and I also got some great pictures of the Minister. He told us how excited he was for us to be here and that he knows we’ll all make a huge contribution to the Georgian education system. The curious person that I am, I snooped around the building (not sure if you can do that, but hey, how often are you a guest at the Ministry of Ed?) and I found this great podium that must be used for other types of press conferences. I definitely had to take a photo of myself eating my nametag at the podium, much like President Saakashvili eating his own tie during a press conference in 2008.
Me and my friend Emily at the Ministy of Education and Science

 A Video of the Press Conference (Look for me! I'm in the front row!)

After the conference, all 92 of us we went to a beautiful restaurant in Mtskava, this quaint little town outside Tbilisi. The restaurant we ate at was right on the water and so beautiful. Oh and the food could not have been more delicious. Tons of different potato and mushroom salads, khachapuri, fresh squeezed juices, delicious veggies and fruits- and these were just the appetizers! It is easy to eat like a queen when you are in Georgia. (Oh and the wine? You have not tried wine until you’ve tasted Georgian wine).

A few appetizers from our lunch in Mtskava

A train station by the restaurant

Currently though, I am in Kutaisi. We just arrived here a few hours ago (I slept on Melissa for the entire four hour bus ride; she’s such a good friend she even let me drool on her t-shirt) so I’ll give a nice report on the area once I do a bit of exploring. We’re going to be here for about a week taking classes in Georgian language, teaching methodology, and cross-cultural awareness. I’m excited for all this! I just hope I won’t get cabin fever (we’re sleeping in dorms in the same building all our meals and classes are in). Speaking of class in the morning, I should possibly get some sleep. Those few hours sleeping on Melissa didn’t quite do the trick.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Greetings from Georgia!

Well I made it to Tbilisi! I’ve only been here for what feels like a few hours and I already have thousands of anecdotes to share. I guess I’ll hop to it and fill everyone in on my adventure thus far.

To be honest, I could write a book based on the plane ride to Munich alone. Melissa and I sat by this very kooky woman named “Lady Jane” who rocked a green and pink sequin skirt with old sneakers. Our plane actually ended up having some engine problems and was delayed for two hours, but Lady Jane enchanted us with her life story for the entire two hours. Yes, the entire two hours (I’ll spare you all the details). The rest of the plane was filled with kids en route to Florence to study abroad, and a very angry crying baby. After an hour or so Melissa and I got bored and began walking around the plane giving out chocolates to nice people. Needless to say, it was quite the entertaining flight and the Lufthansa staff made sure Melissa and I always had a full glass of water. Lesson learned: bribing your flight attendant with candy will get you special treatment.

When we finally landed in Munich, all us Greenheart Travel participants were able to recognize each other (Facebook stalking is actually useful it seems) and set out for the city. Our group (there were six of us) found a free tour of Munich and this young, peppy Scottish man took us all around the city and showed us some interesting sites. We got to see several old, beautiful churches and some important sites of Third Reich history.

I met an Englishman who agreed to let me walk his dog (Byron) around Marienplatz (the old city in Munich).

The best part about Germany was having lunch and beer at the Hofbräuhaus. This is the same restaurant where Hitler revealed the swastika for the first time and the first site where Jews and communists were attacked by the S.S.. As a Jew, it was really powerful to able to eat here and get such friendly service. This might sound strange, but it was strangely meaningful. Plus, all the beer at the Hofbräuhaus is brewed right there and it was absolutely delicious. Plus, our group of six was incredibly eclectic so once the beer kept coming it was uh… a good way to get to know each other. And by eclectic I mean we had a 56-year-old former spy for the CIA, a 28-year-old Canadian who has never traveled outside the U.S., a Mormon from Utah who just graduated from college, a college athlete (who later became my roommate) who spent the past four years in Montana and Melissa and I. It was awesome to all chat and get excited about teaching in Georgia. Plus, it was really cold and rainy in Munich so the two liters of beer that we drank (it’s a miracle we made it back to the airport) kept us nice and warm!

Me, Melissa and Ilana enjoying delicious, German beer at the Hofbräuhaus

Eventually, of course, we did take off for Tbilisi! I was so exhausted I feel asleep before we even took off and woke up just after we landed. (I may be the only person who finds that the more turbulence there is on the plane; the easier it is to sleep). The six of us and about fifteen other Canadians that were also in the TLG program where greeted by two TLG representatives named Data and Maryam at the airport. Despite the fact that it was 4am when we landed, it was exciting to begin to start using my newly learned Georgian. When I greeted Maryam in Georgian her first response was, “Whoa!” (which I’m taking as a good sign).

You can imagine that after traveling for oh, thirty hours, all of us just wanted to shower and sleep and TLG definitely foresaw that. Our orientation doesn’t even begin until Friday. For now, all we’ve been doing is sleeping, meeting the other participants and eating. (My oh my, the food is good!) New participants are arriving until Thursday (there will be 92 of us in total) so every few hours there are new people to meet. Tomorrow I’m going out in Tbilisi for the first time with some new friends that I made today! Should be fun to do some exploring!

But even though I’ve only been in Georgia for uh, fifteen hours, there are still lots of very evident cultural differences. For one thing, smoking indoors is completely acceptable. When we first pulled up to our hotel, a Georgian man who was smoking a cigarette saw me struggling with my chimidani (baggage) and began to carry my huge suitcase to the lobby. He carried the suitcase with one hand, and smoked a cigarette with the other. And then, after dropping off my suitcase he just saw at the couch and continued to smoke. I can't say something like that would not happen in the United States! It's also definitely a plus I lived in Israel because I completely am not fazed by the hotel's cigarette-esque aroma.

Also, it seems completely evident who is Georgian and who is American from the way people dress. I went for a walk outside with my roommate Ilana (Melissa and I are trying to not be cliquey and meet new people) and Melissa (well, clearly we’re still inseparable) and saw how many of the locals were dressed. The young women I saw where wearing long skirts, and cute t-shirts and many of the boys were wearing slacks and colorful polo shirts. Tomorrow the TLG organizers are taking all of us to a supermarket and Goodwill store to shop for any items we forgot at home. Goodwill is actually described by Georgians as a “Georgian WAL-Mart”. The foodie that I am, I'm pretty excited to check out the supermarket.

I wish I could write about the many awesome conversations I’ve had with all the amazing people I’ve met in just the past two days (including a conversation I had in Russian with one of the hotel workers who speaks no English (Mom aren’t you proud?)) but I think this blog would take seven hours to read if I did that. I better quit while I'm ahead.

The view of Tbilisi from Melissa's hotel window (my view is of a generator).