Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hope you like spider stories!

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I have a bit of a difficulty in dealing with spiders. For reasons I can’t explain, I find them to be the most disgusting and creepy little creatures on this planet. I’d rather swim in a pool of locusts then sit face to face with a big, hairy spider.

Over the past couple years though I’ve come across some scary bugs. I’ve met distant cousins of tarantulas in Nicaragua (thankfully I befriended a Nicaraguan man who ‘spider-scanned’ the shower before I’d venture in there) and I’ve also stumbled upon those crazy, Georgian jumping spiders who always make showering just that bit more eventful.

As the weather is getting warmer, the spiders have really been coming out to say ‘hello’. The other night I saw a huge spider in my room, in fact when I first saw it I mistook it for a crab. Uh yeah, it was that big. I quickly scrambled to get my flip flop to send the crab-spider to meet his other friends in crab-spider heaven (aka my hell) but he got away from me. I stood still for a minute waiting for him to show his face but I believe he was on to me and took cover in my backpack. After I mustered up the courage I shook out my backpack half-hoping slash half-dreading that my new friend would pop on out.

As my paranoia overtook me, I called for Nini to help me find the eight-legged little vagabond playing hide and seek in my room. After five minutes of searching and no signs of the little bugger, Nini decided I would have to sleep in her bed with her because there would be no way I’d be able to sleep with a crab spider roommate.

As we were snuggling and getting ready to sleep, I noticed I had three missed calls and two frantic text messages from Melissa. I called her back and Melissa told me she couldn’t sleep because she found a cockroach in the hallway. I tried to tell her to not be afraid of a little black bug, but of course I realized I was just a pot calling a pan black.

At least Melissa was still in her bedroom; I had to take shelter in my little sister’s bed.

Nini advised Melissa that she should just come on over to our house and the three of us could all just sleep in her bed. Granted, it was 1:30am when Nini advised this- a bit too late to start a twenty minute journey across town to avoid a bug. After I got off the phone with Melissa, Nini asked me what a cockroach was. It took me a second, but the summer before I came to Georgia I completed the Byki Georgian language course (it’s like a free downloadable Rosetta Stone) and remembered that ‘t’arak’ani’ was one of the animals taught in the program.

As soon as I said the word ‘t’arak’ani’ Nini looked at me terrified. All of a sudden she was convinced that a cockroach was somewhere in our room. Until 2 in the morning we were holding hands in bed, convinced our respective scary insect would join us.

The good news is that Nini and I make a good pair. I’m not afraid of cockroaches, and she’s not afraid of spiders. Theoretically, we could be each others’ knights in shining armor.

The same is true for Melissa and me. Like just last week, we were at a friend’s barbeque in Kutaisi when Melissa noticed a cockroach on the wall. Just as I standing on top of the couch ready to clobber the bug, our other friend said, “That’s not a cockroach, it’s a spider.”

Without a word, I climbed down off the couch and Melissa climbed onto it. Upon Melissa’s inspection she noticed it was some type of creepy, flying centipede so she too climbed down and our other friend climbed on top of the couch. Just as he took a whack at the guy, he ended up falling off the couch, landing incredibly awkwardly and hurting himself.

So, how many Americans does it take to kill a mutant centipede-spider-cockroach? Apparently four.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back in the (Former) U.S.S.R

Last Saturday I had the absolute pleasure of picking up my parents from the airport! Not counting a week long trip to Canada, my parents haven’t left the United States since they first emigrated from Russia so it was super exciting (and somewhat ironic) that their first vacation was to the former Soviet Union.

Even at the airport my family and I stuck out like hand of sore thumbs (I think that’s an actual idiom). I watched as Georgians walked through the arrivals gate at the Tbilisi airport and calmly greeted their family and friends with polite kisses and waves. My parents on the other hand practically ran to me yelling, “There she is!” and gave me the biggest hugs ever.

As we drove to our quaint little hotel in the heart of Old Town Tbilisi, my dad chatted away about Soviet cars with Marlen, our cab driver, while my mom marveled at the similarities between the old apartment buildings in Georgia and the ones she grew up seeing in her youth.  It was so amusing to not only watch my parents fall in love with Saqartvelo but to also hear new stories about their childhood from little things they’d see that would suddenly spring a memory.

I kept my parents on a tight schedule while they were here (I never even let them sleep in) and I commemorate them for putting up with the countless long marshutka rides, Turkish toilets, uphill hikes and offers to drink Georgian wine every time they met another Georgian.

My parents got to experience the beautiful Georgian churches of Mtskheta and saw Georgian traditionalism at its finest. We were even lucky enough to see a sheep being walked around the Samtavro Church  three times and saw a choir perform at the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Plus, after experiencing the breathtaking view on top of Jvari, I took my parents to my favorite lobio restaurant and watched them bite into their very first khinkali!

Our whole trip was just full of cute anecdotes I hope I never forget.  Like, on our second morning in Georgia all three of us happened to wake up at 5am and watched the sun rise over the Sameba church and then chatted in bed until 9am.

On day three I took my parents to Gori and Uplistsikhe. My dad happened to read like a 3000 page book about Stalin so I thought it might be nice for him to visit the Stalin museum. Well lesson learned; never take someone who knows 3000 pages worth of facts about Stalin to the Stalin museum. Our poor tour guide kept getting corrected by my father the whole tour. In fact, when my mom and I asked questions, instead of the tour guide answering them- my dad did. It was pretty hilarious as a whole, especially when my dad whipped out crazy facts about Stalin that no one needs to remember. Like for example, did you know that Stalin’s favorite cigarettes were Herzegovinian Flor? (If you did know that, please tell me how).

Both my parents loved Uplistsikhe, they’d never seen anything like it. When we started our tour of the old cave city, our tour guide only spoke to us in English but after my parents accidentally said the word ‘moss’ in Russian, our guide boasted the biggest smile on his face (and mind you he only had like seven teeth) when he discovered he could give the tour in Russian. Even though I’d already been to Uplistsikhe in March, our guide told us so many new things about the city that it felt like a whole new place.

The most nerve wracking aspect about the whole week for me was anticipating the meeting between my host parents and my real parents. It’s always a little scary to introduce one of your worlds to another. Imagine it like you have two separate close groups of friends and then you decide that not only should they meet, but their first meeting should be four days of hanging out with each other. A bit nerve racking, no?  Thankfully, both my sets of parents got along great. Eka and my mom bonded and Vakho and my dad had several long and lengthy conversations.

My parents really wanted to watch me teach so I took them to school for a normal school day and they got to observe a day of classes. We had a question and answer session with my crazy, unruly tenth graders where the students were most curious about which footballers my parents liked. In third grade my parents participated in some interactive activities (much to the delight of the kids) and my eighth graders told my parents all about Georgian cooking and which dishes they had to try. The whole school was so excited to meet them, one of my eleventh graders told my mom she looks much younger than her actual age which my mother seemed to like very much. It felt great that my parents got to meet all my co-teachers, and most of all, that they got to experience the utter craziness and charm of the Georgian classroom. 

Of course, a trip to Georgia wouldn’t be complete without experiencing a supra or two, and my parents got to experience fabulous Eka’s birthday party (she even rented a mini bus to take everyone to the restaurant). After getting nice and pretty, my parents and I as well as all the Samtrediettes and oh, about thirty other people, invaded a beautiful restaurant in Kutaisi to enjoy lots of food, wine, music and dancing. My parents don’t drink so they did a very nice job of pretending to look like they drank a lot. The whole night was a lot of fun, I’m even getting used to wearing heels for six hours straight (how Georgian am I?) 

I love that I got to show my parents Kutaisi, which despite its Soviet feel, is one of my favorite cities of all time. We snuck into an old Jewish synagogue that hasn’t been active since 1989 (big surprise) and climbed up to the Bagrati cathedral where my dad took some stunning panoramic photos of Kutaisi. It was actually my third time at Bagrati and I’ve been going there so frequently I actual remember ridiculous facts about the place. On my death bed I’ll probably remember that a Turkish explosion in 1692 made the Cathedral’s ceiling collapse. In fact, if working in the states doesn’t pan out, I could totally make it as a Kutaisi tour guide.

Since we spent a good four days in Western Georgia, it seemed necessary that I show my parents beautiful Batumi, which they of course loved. My mom and I are both fans of the novel, “Ali and Nino” so it was really cool to find the statue that was constructed in Batumi in honor of the great love story. Our whole day in Batumi was nice and peaceful. We walked along the coast of the Black Sea and the three of us even got to attend an art gallery opening for an up-and-coming Georgian artist. It was cool to see an artist explain his work (granted I couldn’t understand what the artist was saying, but I still appreciated the moment) and on top of everything there was free wine. (No Jewish jokes please).

Some of my favorite moments from the week were simple moments. There was one evening after we’d come back from tea at Tara’s host family’s apartment (make that, tea and an hour long tour of her family’s garden) where me, my mom, Eka and Nini sat in the family room together and watched a Georgian talk show. Half the show was in Russian, and the other half was in Georgian. The show featured psychics from all over Eastern Europe so my mom understood most of everything and Eka just explained the rest. It was just a really cute, simple moment where two sets of mom and daughter were just chatting comfortably on the couch.

The funniest part about the whole week was that my parents, especially my dad, had a habit of talking about people right in front of their face. See, in the states my dad speaks English all the time, but when he wants to talk about someone in public he switches over to Russian so no one can understand him.
Now, you can imagine that that doesn’t work in Georgia and it was so funny to have to yell at him to stop doing that. There were so many occasions where he’d be chatting away in English and then switch to Russian to say something that shouldn’t be overheard.  One time we were getting on the metro and in Russian he said, “That lady looks like a witch”. Another time, we were driving in the marshutka and my dad complained to my mom about how terribly the driver was driving. It’s a miracle we didn’t get kicked off the marshutka.

Really it was just so wonderful to see my parents and give them a peek at my life in Georgia. Both my mom and dad were shocked that Georgia has so few tourists; they kept saying how the country could make a fortune if it focused a bit more on tourism. There really is so much to see in this country, I think it’s one of the most beautiful, but definitely the most enchanting place I’ve ever traveled too.

(Another thing that surprised my parents was that Georgia has no exports. The country has such great wine, fruit and mineral waters that it shocked them the country isn’t focusing more on exporting these items, as well as other items. I think it disheartened them to see so many old, broken Soviet factories from Georgia’s days of Russian rule. More exports after all, would mean more jobs in the country).

In just about a month I’ll get to spend a lot more time with my family back in America but for now I’ll be spending lots of time with my second set of Georgian parents who just the other day told me I’m the luckiest girl in the world. As Eka put it, “Some people have no parents at all and yet you have four parents who love you very much”. 

P.S. My internet is too slow to upload photos, but I’ll do so as soon as I can. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Beginner's Luck

It’s been a bit of a crazy month. I feel like I celebrated twenty Georgian holidays in the past five weeks (and I was actually in Turkey for two of those weeks!) Throw in like fifteen parties (some birthday and some goodbye); a weekend of being sick in bed and of course, teaching, and that somehow is my excuse for why I haven’t blogged in so long. 

To be laconic (I like this word mainly because it rhymes with my last name), it was a wonderful month. It went by both slowly and quickly, was boring yet unforgettable. (And yes I’m aware the past month sounds like a Katy Perry song).

But do not fret ladies and gents- just because I haven’t been blogging on here, does not mean I haven’t been writing meticulous notes so that I can blog all about my adventures well after I’m home in America. After all, it’s not like I have a job set up or anything (eeek) I’ll have plenty of time to post lots and lots of stories (or at least two).

School has actually been extra insane but super hilarious recently. All my co-teachers (except for one) have pretty much thrown in the towel for the rest of the school year and let me do whatever I like with the class. I’ve come up with so many EFL games using a deck of ‘Scrabble Slam’ cards that I almost feel like I should call up Hasbro and ask if they want me to start an initiative for global learning.

While I like to use just the Scrabble Slam cards in class, Taylor recently gave me his Travel Scrabble set when he realized he couldn’t fit in his suitcase to take back to Canada. I thought Scrabble might be something nice for Nona to have in her English tutoring office so I gave her the set right before a lesson we had with the seventh grade.

All the seventh graders looked at the set in awe. They loved the tiny little bag that held all the letters, the shiny, multi-colored game board and they especially loved that the set came with a red pencil. Each student wanted to touch it and run their little fingers over the board.

After a good two minutes of, “Au mas, chven unda it’amashos” (Oh teacher, let’s play), Nona caved and I tried to explain the game as simply as possible.  Our seventh grade is split in to two levels (beginner and intermediate) so I simultaneously started to run a game of Scrabble Slam with the beginners, and a game of Scrabble with the intermediates (I’m telling you- I should work for Hasbro).

After figuring out the order of who would go first in Scrabble, Dato- the most eccentric and happy child in the universe- pulled seven letters out of the little letter bag. Now, Dato is a great kid but he’s never been a shining example of someone who studies English and actually does his homework. Thus you can imagine my shock when Dato pulled the letters, N, N, A, A, A, S and B out of the bag, thought for a second, and then put down the word ‘Bananas’ on the board.

Yes that’s right. A child who just started learning English in 2009 managed to get like a 100 letter score on the first word he ever played in Scrabble.

Now, if you’re not a Scrabble player let me explain how exceptional this happens to be. I’ve been playing Scrabble for years (don’t I sound really cool) and I’ve never, ever been able to use all seven of my letters- let alone on a double word score and let alone the first time I ever played Scrabble. 

I was so shocked and proud I think I screamed a little. Keep in mind, I was the only person in the classroom who had ever played Scrabble before, so no one saw it absolutely incredible that someone could use all seven of their letters in the first round of the game.

Dato just looked at me after that with the biggest smile on his face and said, “Meeshel, me ‘bananas’ write. Var me kargi bitchi?” (Am I a good boy?)

I only wish I could explain to Dato what a lucky bitchi he is indeed.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My friend got bride napped

One of my favorite things about couples is hearing the story of how they first met. My own parents’ story is actually my favorite (my mom happened to walk in on my dad doing the most meticulous job cleaning a fish) but, in general, I just love hearing how love stumbled upon people.

In Georgia, I’m now careful not to ask this question. The one and I only time I ever asked it I was told a long and harrowing story about being bride napped. 

I have a friend hear in town (we’ll call her Ketino) that I enjoy the company of. We don’t hang out often (she’s always quite busy) but when we do we always end up having a nice long chat over coffee or tea and get to know each other better.

On one particular occasion Ketino was telling me some silly story that involved her husband and that’s when I asked the question, “How did you two meet anyway?”

“Oh, he kidnapped me and I was forced to marry him”.

The casual manner in which Ketino just blurted it out must have alarmed me because I let out a big old, “Are you s***ing me?” (I normally try not to swear in front of Georgians; it makes Americans look a bit classier).

Ketino went into an elaborate explanation of how the whole thing actually happened. Basically, a man approached her one day at a bus station and told her how beautiful she was, begging her to go on a date with him. Ketino refused, and thought nothing of it. The man asked her out again a few days later and one more time Ketino refused. Next, the man figured out where she lived and went to her home to once again plead that she go out with him. After three refusals in one week, Ketino assumed the man had gotten the hint.

Later that week Ketino went out to the market to buy some new shoes for work. As she was walking to a small shop she noticed a car that she thought was her neighbors pull over next to her. Assuming it really was her neighbor, Ketino stopped for a second expecting her neighbor to deliver a message or something.  Then ever so quickly, a man stepped out of the passenger door and forced her to get in to the backseat. Ketino noticed that the driver of the car was the same man who she had rejected earlier in the week.

The two men drove her to a small house about thirty minutes outside of Samtredia where three beds were already prepared. Neither man actually touched her; she was not raped or physically assaulted in any way. The man from the bus station fed her fine meals daily, he talked to her, he let her sleep when she wanted to sleep and he told her that they would stay at this house for seven days and at the end of the week they would get married.

Now, you can imagine that I am getting more and more livid as this story progresses. I was trying to suppress it as much as I could, but surely what this man did should be illegal on so many accounts. It’s incredibly strange to hear someone talk about how their rights as a human were taken away from them in such a nonchalant way.

On around day five of her capture, Ketino’s parents were able to find out where she was being kept and came to rescue her. The thing is, Ketino told them to just go home- she would have to marry this man if she were to have any life in Samtredia.

This is where things really got messed up for me. Ketino was now practically forced to marry this man because if she decided not to marry him she would be ostracized as an ‘impure’ or ‘unmarriageable’ woman in town since she spent five days with a strange man. It didn’t matter that nothing actually happened or that the whole thing occurred against Ketino’s will. In her eyes, and what she assumed were the eyes of Samtredia, if she did not marry this man no one would ever marry her. It’s for this same reason Ketino could not tell the police, this would make it town-wide knowledge that she was alone with a man for a week.

So, on day seven the two got married. The wedding photos are difficult for me to look at. Ketino was so stressed during the entire bride napping that she ended up losing about 3 kilos (7 pounds) in a week. She’s insanely thin and weak looking in each photo. The photo of their first kiss looks like a snapshot taken of two high school kids rehearsing a kiss in a play. There’s no romance; it just looks forced.

Ketino’s husband is the same man that offers to drive me home from school when it rains, the same man who offers me cake when I walk by his office- he’s the same man who bride napped one of my good friends.  It’s hard for me to look at him in any other way but a negative one whenever I see him.

I hate him for what he did. He saw something he liked and he took it. He did not for one instant think about anyone but himself. It’s disgusting if you ask me. Granted, I know, this is not my culture and I should be accepting and tolerant of alternate ways to court people, but this just seems out of line- a complete violation of human rights.

I asked Ketino if she loves her husband and she hesitated for a second before she said, “Mmm, sometimes. He gave me my children”.

The whole thing is just so sad. It reminds me of an article I read this summer about an eight-year-old Liberian girl who got gang raped and then disowned by her parents for 'shaming their family'. Both stories just resonate events where people are ostracized (or fear being ostracized) for an event they had no control over. 

Fortunately, times have changed in Samtredia and events like this are few and far between. Regardless, gender roles are incredibly defined and men continue to have a dominantly 'nobler' status then women. I don't like the inequality but it has given me a greater appreciation for the equality between men and women in the United States. I love Georgia but a bit more equalism couldn't hurt.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Golds do Georgia

Eka, Melissa's parents and all of us Samtredia gals!

A first visit to Georgia wouldn’t be complete without some projectile vomiting off the balcony, now would it? Melissa’s parents were in Georgia for the past week and they certainly got their fair share of exposure to Georgian culture.

The first few days they were here were full of catching up, Georgian restaurants, sightseeing, a hotel that actually had real toilet paper, Oreos with peanut butter, and lots of hugs for Melissa. It was when the Gold’s actually got to Samtredia that the whole trip started to get especially interesting.

Nana, Melissa’s host mom, celebrated her fiftieth birthday on Tuesday and the Gold’s were fortunate enough to be able to participate in a huge Georgian supra. Plus, due to the fact that I serve as a pro-bono Russian translator in my free-time (seriously, I’m ready to translate the Q&A for all the Russian-speaking chicks at the Miss Universe pageant) I got an invite too!

I’ve been to my fair share of supras, but this one was unlike any I’ve ever been to. The Bokelavadze’s set up a huge dining room table in their darbazi (living room) that must have had table settings for at least thirty people. Delicious little salads, fresh breads and cakes, even an entire piglet (complete with teeth) was sprawled out on the table.

I actually really love it when Georgians hold supras inside their home as opposed of going to a restaurant. I like the whole process of watching a place transform from a cozy little home into an event hall for thirty. The Bokelavadze’s house was truly transformed; they even made space for a dance floor!

It was really sweet watching Mr. and Mrs. Gold interact with Melissa’s host family. Despite the evident language barrier, everyone seemed to really show love and appreciation for each other. It was especially touching for me to watch Mr. Gold hug Koka, Melissa’s host dad. You could really see the whole family was bonding.

After a few hours where Mr. and Mrs. Gold were allowed to do nothing but sit on the couch (they were the guests after all) and I helped cut up a full scale pig with pliers (never thought I’d be able to say that-and shalom Rabs if you’re reading) the whole family sat down to enjoy the supra meal.

The first few minutes were a bit awkward as no one knew exactly how to act around an American family but after a few glasses of wine everyone seemed to get along swimmingly. Mr. Gold especially.

Somehow Mr. Gold ending up being the right-hand man of Dato, the tamada (host leader). I don’t think there was a single toast that Mr. Gold didn’t drink to. Needless to say, he became drunk as a skunk within a matter of hours.

Granted, his interpretation of Georgian dancing was hilarious to watch (I have a video that has YouTube written all over it) and his affectionate canoodling with Dato and Koka was endearing, but lord almighty was he drunk. He asked me to translate various toasts for him that I colorfully edited to be less dramatic and more lighthearted (much to Mrs. Gold’s delight).

The pinnacle of the whole evening however was when Mr. Gold nonchalantly told me he’d very much like to throw up and asked if I could open up the back door for him. I fumbled with the key for a minute but as soon as that door opened up Mr. Gold ran over to the balcony and reintroduced all the wine and meat he’d been eating to the drive-way. (It’s a real good thing it rained during the night…) Mrs. Gold even took the liberty of putting a puke bucket by Mr. Gold’s bedside.  Mr. Gold did in fact he use the puke bucket, but he also mistakenly spilled all of its contents onto Koko’s bedroom floor. Party fowl?

The whole evening prompted a very important lesson: even if you were in a fraternity in college that does not mean you are ready to drink with the big-wigs in Georgia.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Iranian gas lamp and a German vacuum walk into a room…

One of the perks of being a TLGer is getting a free phone from the government. Sure, the phones are old school Nokia blocks (you know- those phones that don’t really have any special features but retain an incredible battery life of five days) but they’re free.

I got bored with my phone last week so I used a set of permanent markers to color all over the keys. Nini fell head over heels in love with my rainbow phone and asked if we could trade. With pleasure I traded my simple Nokia for Nini’s 4G Samsung with a camera, MP3 player and various other functions.

Having the phone was one thing; using it was another story. Even after three days I still couldn’t figure out how to answer a phone call without first hanging up on people twice in a row. Plus, responding to text messages was such a hassle that I basically just stopped talking to people in mid conversation.

The funny thing was that Nini had no problem with my phone. I thought I might have to show her how to turn off T9 word or set an alarm, but no sir. In fact, Nini practically showed me how to use my own phone.

As Nini played with my phone and deleted the Georgian-Ebonics (seriously it might be a new language) text messages from her boyfriend on her own phone, I became amazed at how quickly she could navigate a cell phone in a foreign language. I never realized how important ‘English cell phone’ jargon is to teenagers until I watched Nini plunder through her Samsung and add locks to this, and change the ring tone to that.

All of the cell phones in Georgia are programmed in either Russian or English, so basically in order to operate a cell phone here every person needs to know a bit of a foreign language. Take texting for example: if your phone only comes in English you need to text in Georgian using English letters (or is it more correct to say Latin letters?).

I have a Georgian friend in Tbilisi who doesn’t speak any English and he always sends me these long text messages that are written in Russian using English letters. The only way I can understand what he writes to me is if I read aloud his text messages. Not only does this ensure that I look crazy on the marshutka, but it also takes me twelve years to reply. I can’t imagine having to text like this every time I might want to tell something funny to a friend, yet this is what everyone in Georgia is just used to doing.

Sometimes it feels like every object in my host family's house is in a different language. The washing machine is in Russian (I’m still in awe every time I open the machine door and realize I washed my clothes on the correct setting), the gas lamp knobs in the kitchen are in Farsi (an import from Iran) and the vacuum (or should I say vakuum) is an import from the Deutschland.

It’s a little crazy when you think about, but every other item in the house seems to be from another part of the world. Eka is always very curious and very aware of where all her products come from. She knows which country every plate she has is from (mostly China and the Czech Republic) and the exact city where her dining room table and cupboards were crafted.

I love the amount of pride my family takes in all their multinational goods. Both before I left for Israel and before I left for Armenia, they checked the almanac to see what the countries’ main exports were. So far I’ve always been able to bring back at least one of the exports mentioned in the almanac and those are always the gifts my family seems to be most curious about. In the United States I feel like most people don’t really care where their goods come from; usually whatever is cheapest at the store will do.

It amazes me that while I can barely use a cell phone in my native tongue or fix internet ‘connectivity’ issues on the computer, my fourteen year old sister who doesn’t even know what ‘connectivity’ means has no problem clicking around on the desktop and solving the issue all the while texting in Georgian using an English alphabet.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Brennen looking at one of the Genocide memorials
There was one thing I saw in Yerevan that really shook me. The Museum of the Armenian Genocide was by far the most eye opening museum I’ve ever ventured inside of.

I feel incredibly ignorant saying I didn’t know very many details about the 1915 Armenian Genocide before coming to Yerevan but unfortunately, this is the truth.

In all my years of schooling I don’t ever remember the genocide being brought up. Through all my time researching the Holocaust, I never remember reflecting upon the Armenian genocide. Even while protests over the genocide in Darfur frequented my college campus, I can’t recall ever hearing about the Armenian genocide.

Sure, I suppose it’s possible I read something and simply didn’t process it but it shocked me to my core that this utterly horrible, callous event occurred in history- an event that resulted in the death of 1.7 million Armenians- and practically everything I knew about this genocide was written in a one paragraph blurb in the ‘Lonely Planet Guide to Armenia’.

I cried a lot that day at the museum. I cried because 1.7 million people were killed for having a religion that others weren’t comfortable with. I cried because 1.7 million people were killed for being themselves. I cried for my own ignorance. I cried for the world’s ignorance. I cried because genocides are happening right now, in several countries, and I feel like there is nothing I can do to help.

 I cried and I cried. From 11am to about 7pm I was pretty much just crying.

The Holocaust inflicted upon the Jews and all the others who did not fit the mold of Hitler’s “Perfect Race” is a well-known event in world history. There is significant proof it occurred, from photographs and videos to a plethora of still-standing concentration camps that can be visited to this day.

The same cannot be said about the Armenian genocide. “Proof” that it occurred is not as accessible. There are no concentration camps to look at, few photos that lay any blame. There is evidence in the photos of dead starved children rotting on the streets, and in the written accounts of the brutal, sadistic acts inflicted upon the Armenians but somehow this is not enough.

Even now, the genocide is denied by thousands. Forty matching written accounts that say that cattle cars full of women and children were driven into a lake to drown Armenians is apparently not “enough proof”.

Many non-believers attribute the genocide to a simple casualty of war. A war occurred, people died.

Reading about views like this really messed with my head. My entire family was killed as a result of the Holocaust. My grandparents on both sides of my family were basically the sole survivors of their families. The combination of me barely knowing a single fact about the Armenian genocide prior to walking into the museum and the similarities between the Armenian Genocide and that of the Holocaust put something like a real hole into my soul.

The best thing I can think to do is to inform others who similarly feel like they know barely information about the Armenian genocide. There are four people I read about at the museum that I don’t think enough people in the world know anything about. I encourage you to read about these four amazing souls if even for a moment to just say their names out loud and acknowledge them.

-          Maria Jacobsen, a Danish Missionary, who kept a detailed accord of the events of the genocide and saved hundreds of Armenian children from extermination
-          Armin Theopil Wegner, a human rights activist who took photos (proof) of the horror occurring during the genocide 
-          Ruben Heryan, responsible for saving hundreds of Armenian orphans while risking his own life
-          Aurora Mardiganian, author of “Ravished Armenia” a personal account of the Armenian genocide 
The other genocide memorial in Yerevan

A plaque of condolences from Georgian President Saakashvili

Saturday, March 12, 2011

True Beauty

My real mom has a theory that every place is beautiful. Whenever I would tell her that I want to travel to this place or that place because it looked beautiful in photos she would ask me to name a place that’s not beautiful. I definitely think my mom is right (I even find garbage dumps beautiful because of all the different colors present in one place) and Armenia is no exception.

Armenia has breathtaking physical beauty; the mountain towns and stone churches are so striking they seem magical and the capital has a real cosmopolitan feel to it. I only spent about six days in the country but I was able to learn a lot about myself and what makes a trip worthwhile to me.

One thing that I learned was that even if a country can have gorgeous things to see, that does not necessarily make a trip worthwhile.

See, there was something missing from my trip: I only met two Armenians. Sure, the two Armenians I met were wonderful human beings, but getting to know just two locals on a week long trip seems laughable.

In fact, I think it was impossible for me to fully immerse myself into Armenia because I basically only perceived the country through the eyes of tourists; none of the people I was traveling with had much of a connection to anything we saw. Yes Roman our taxi driver-turned-tour guide was great (he even took us to his home in Garni to meet his family and bought me a bouquet of flowers after one of our long chats) but there was just something missing from every sight we looked at.

I would have loved to travel around the country with more Armenians. After being in Georgia for six months I really think that people are what make a country great.

I CouchSurfed with one Armenian guy in Yerevan who told me that the spirit and charisma of the Armenian people are what gives the country such heart. Artak, my host, was by far one of the most hospitable and altruistic beings I’ve ever met. Even though he and his huge family live in a small apartment, they still wholeheartedly gave up three beds for me and my two friends and the entire family just slept in one room together. Artak even insisted on getting us coffee, tea and drinks and paid for every cab we needed to take.

Both the kindness of Artak and Roman seem almost unbelievable. Sometimes it shocks me how above and beyond people go to make strangers feel welcome. I mean, asides from Mamuka in Telavi, who’s ever heard of a cab driver taking clients to his home for coffee and compote?

I plan on doing a lot more traveling while I’m in Georgia. There are still lots of cities and towns right here in Saqartvelo that I want to see, and I’m venturing into Turkey and Azerbaijan before I fly home at the end of June. Despite the many sights I want to see, I’m going to make it a point to meet many people. Tourist attractions and landmarks are great, but meeting people and having stories is what makes a trip memorable.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Addicted to Love

Even the cows stare at us funny.

Just yesterday I was buying a loaf of bread from a bakery in town I’ve never been to before. The bakery was quite crowded and just as I was about to receive my loaf the baker turned to me and said, “kartuli khar? G’khavs accenti” (Are you Georgian? You have an accent).

I took a small breath anticipating the aftermath of saying I was American and replied “Ara… Amerikidan”.

Now, I kid you not- the entire bakery broke out into song and dance. The baker began singing to me about America and beautiful girls; meanwhile all the customers at the shop began to whisper to themselves as if questioning whether or not I was a celebrity. Even as I walked away from the shop many customers yelled, “Goodbye America!”

My problem is that I’m getting used to all this attention and love and don’t know how I’ll cope back in the states when I’m just another human on the street. I’m now used to random strangers breaking out into song when they meet me, to children I’ve never met personally addressing me on the street. I’m used to getting free vegetables at the bazaar simply for having an accent and smiling too much and to getting text messages from Georgians I haven’t seen since September who just want to know how I’m doing and if I’ll visit them soon.

Of course, the most love I get is from the students at my own school. (I’ve even dedicated a drawer in my bedroom to love notes from my students). This semester I’ve taken more of an effort to get to know the students that aren’t in my classes. I’d like to meet every child at my school, regardless of whether or not they’re studying English.

Thus, when the bell rings and school’s over I try to chat with a student I’ve never met before even with my limited Georgian. The conversations never really delves any deeper than, “romeli simraera gikvars?” (which song do you like) but I like meeting more kids, especially when they’re all so excited to have me in their school.

After school today I walked home with two tenth grade girls I’d never met before named Naniko and Khatia. The three of us were headed in the same direction so for fifteen minutes we talked about our siblings, the music we like, who our friends are and our favorite kinds of Georgian food. Granted, none of this is brain stimulating stuff but cut me some slack, that’s fifteen minutes of listening and chatting in Georgian! In New York, if I just walked up to someone I’ve never met before and started asking them if they can play any instruments they’d most likely ignore me thinking I’m trying to sell them something.

My ‘foreigner fame’ has reached a new height recently. Over the past few weeks I’ve practically been rented as entertainment for birthday parties. A whole bunch of Nini’s friends have February birthdays and they all insisted that I absolutely must attend their parties.

Basically, I’m a party clown. I sing songs during dinner, I mispronounce things in Georgian, I dance when no one is dancing (and I accidentally use the juice cup as a wine glass and pour myself three times as much wine as anyone else). At the last party I went to I even brought my entire computer to DJ the event and nearly got yelled at by a group of fourteen-year-olds for not dancing “crazy enough”.

There is a lot of power in my being the clown though. At one party, Salome the birthday girl made another girl stand up and move her seat at the table because she wanted to sit next to me. Oh, and at a different party, I decided I was only going to dance with the boys that no girls wanted to dance with (‘Wedding Singer’ style) and lo and behold my ‘undesirable boys’ ended up dancing it up with cute girls the rest of the night.

This power and fame I have as a foreigner has even stretched into marriage proposals with strangers. A woman I sat next to on the train gave me her address and phone number so that I could come and meet her son and marry him.

I’m sure a lot of this attention has to do with the warm and welcoming nature of Georgians (not just that I’m some goofy girl from the United States) but it’s still going to be a challenge to resort back to being just another American in America come July.  Therefore, I’m going to eat up my fame for the next four months.

I mean, I might as well face it- I’m addicted to love.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Indeportant Acts of Georgianglish (and Other Misunderstandings)

When living in a different country it’s inevitable that you’ll face lots of misunderstandings every day. Words get incorrectly translated, customs get misinterpreted, and the big ‘ol language barrier all contribute to this. (I can only imagine how confused the cast members of “Three’s Company” would be over here).

I admire all my students’ efforts to speak English, but often their blunders make for slightly different sentences. Beso, one of my favorite ninth graders, came up to me in the hall one day surrounded by his friends and asked me if I liked rape. I was a bit surprised by his question and replied by repeating his question to make sure I got it right. After Beso and his friends began nodding and smiling he admitted to me that he loves rape. He went on to say that he loves rape lie Jay-Z and Eminem.

After sighing with relief, I explained to Beso that ‘rape’ and ‘rap’ are very different things that he should be careful not to confuse.  

Our exact conversation went a little like this:

Beso: Do you like rape?
Me: [Jaw drop] Do I like rape?
Beso: Yes, yes! Jay-Z, Eminem…
Me: Ohhhh! RAP! I love rap, I hate rape.

Another one of my sweet kinderlach (shout out to Yiddish) is thirteen-year-old Mari. Mari is a real firecracker who’s too clever for her own good sometimes. While writing vocabulary sentences in class one day Mari shared the following sentence: “She is indeportant to her family”.

I turned to Mari and I asked her, “Do you want to say important or independent?”

Mari looked at me as if I asked her a strange question. “I want indeportant. Independent and important. She is indeportant”.

Well, there you have it; my kids are making up words. Shakespeare made up words and the youth of Georgia are too.

At home with Eka, misunderstandings are a dime a dozen. Eka happens to be obsessed with three English words:

1)      Probably
2)      Sometime
3)      Tomorrow

Whenever she hears me say any of these three words she often repeats it like a sweet Georgian parrot and then adds the phrase, “probably sometime tomorrow” just because she thinks the three words sound beautiful when said together.

Well, a few nights ago while watching an American film on television at one in the morning Eka heard someone use the phrase ‘f*** you’ and decided she liked how that sounded too.

She turned to me and promptly said, “Tomorrow f*** you probably sometime”.

Initially shocked, I told Eka that her sentence didn’t really make sense. Eka thought for a minute and then turned to me and said, “F*** you probably sometime tomorrow”.   (Well at least this sentence made sense).

Nini got a huge kick out of Eka abusing the F word and so we didn’t exactly go through the trouble of telling her it’s not exactly a polite thing to say to someone. Granted, I told Eka that the F word is a bad word, but I didn’t go into very many details… 

(Oh, and if you think that’s bad then I’ll spare the story about the time I taught Nini that an “Mmmbop” is just a word for ‘a boy with long hair’).

Well, back to the F word. A few days later Melissa came over to the house for some coffee and cookies (I have a rough life, I know) and Eka deemed it a good time to test out her newly learned phrase. So, with a huge smile on her face she looked at Melissa and said, “Probably f*** you tomorrow!”

Melissa’s eyes nearly popped out of her face.  Before I could even tell Eka that she really shouldn’t be yelling that phrase to every Tom, Dick and Harry- she looked at me with big eyes and said, “f*** you”.

Of course, after this small charade I did explain to Eka just how bad a word the F word really is. And I kid you not; the scream she emitted when she realized what she’d been saying for three days could be heard in Kalamazoo (which is actually a small city in Michigan). Anyhow, Eka gave me quite the scolding for allowing her to say what she said for three days.

Sometimes a simple misunderstanding can be averted by using the Georgianglish principle. The Georgianglish principle is similar to basic Spanglish. See, when speaking Spanglish (a combination of Spanish and English) people tend to add the preposition ‘el’ before any noun and add the letter ‘o’ after any noun. (Case in point: ‘el computero’ sounds like it could actually be a word in Spanish).

Georgianglish is similar; you just add an ‘i’ at the end of a noun and words suddenly sound Georgian. One afternoon I was restlessly trying to explain what ‘cancer’ is in Russian and after describing what one person thought was ‘narcotics addiction causing baldness’ it turned out that simply saying ‘canceri’ actually turned out to mean cancer in Georgian. Just adding one little letter put everyone on the same page.

It even works with celebrities. Eka was watching a movie on television and she was having trouble remembering an actress’s name.

This is the actual conversation we had (except it was in Russian):

Eka: Who is that?
Me: Susan Sarandon
Eka: No, that’s not her name.
Me: Oh, Susani Sarandini?
Eka:  Ah yes, that’s it.

Oh Georgia, your quirkiness never gets old. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chilling with Stalin

When I first decided I was going to come to Georgia I was really excited to tell anyone and everyone that I was about to go on an adventure and teach English for the year. The funny thing was that most people didn’t really know anything at all about the country. The responses I got were limited to the following five statements:

a)      Georgia? Where is that?
b)      Georgia? Don’t people in Atlanta already know English?
c)      Georgia? Are you insane?
d)      Georgia? Isn’t that where the winner of Project Runway was from?

But the most common I response I got was the following:

e)      Georgia? You know who comes from there? Stalin.

Yes, that Stalin. Despite the fact that Joseph Stalin was a man of questionable morals (to put it kindly) he’s definitely an iconic leader who had a huge influence on history.  Ever since I got to Georgia I’ve been eager to go the Stalin museum in Gori (the city where Stalin was born) and see how the museum presented him.

See, before I came to Georgia my parents gave me the following advice: “Never bring up Stalin. You never know who loves him and who hates him”. In my five months here so far, I’ve encountered both deep admiration for Stalin and extreme disgust for the man. I was honestly just curious to see how native Goriebi felt about the man.

On Saturday I finally made it to Gori. The girls and I actually got to the museum before it opened so we spent some time walking around the museum grounds and snapping photos. The house Stalin was born in and the train car he used to travel (he was terrified of flying) are actually in the museum courtyard.
Stalin's house!

Love him or hate him...

 In fact, I was so excited to see the train car that I didn’t notice the huge strip of black ice just in front of the train. Of course I slipped and fell flat on my back. Tara watched the whole thing in shock. It was rather painful and I ended up just lying there for a minute screaming some rather crude sayings blaming Stalin and his damn train for my intense back pain. If I wasn’t wearing two shirts, a sweater and a puffy winter jacket, I’d probably still be lying there blaming each individual member of the Bolshevik revolution- but since I was practically wearing padding I rallied from that fall ready to get my Stalin on.

Our admission to the museum included an English speaking tour guide who told us all about Stalin’s background; how he became a leader and how we went on to influence so many people. The tour was very informative, but didn’t touch upon any of the ‘bad things’ that Stalin did. Our tour guide, Tamuna, only casually mentioned that he was responsible for killing 47 million people but nothing in the museum actually noted this fact. Tamuna told us that the purpose of the museum is not to focus on the questionable actions of Stalin, but to show his sense of character and his journey to become such an influential person.

It was definitely interesting if not a bit surreal to hear someone talk about Stalin in such a glorified manner. With my western education I can only really compare Stalin with Adolf Hitler and I’ve yet to meet anyone who even marginally praises Hitler for being a great leader and omits the fact that he was also responsible for an entire genocide.

In addition to the museum we also went to Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave city from the third century. Uplistsikhe was just really cool and so beautiful. It’s pretty well preserved and you can see where the ancient apoteka, amphitheatre, winery were. We also had a great English speaking tour guide to tell us about the caves but I couldn’t help but finding his name to be so strange.

So get this- our tour guide’s name was Stalinberia. I was pretty taken aback when I heard this. For one thing, having ‘Stalin’ as part of your first name is pretty crazy, but the weird thing is that his name was Stalinberia. See, Beria is the last name of the man who supposedly poisoned Stalin who’s responsible for his death.

Sometimes I have a huge mouth with no filter and that happened to be the case when Stalinberia introduced himself. I think my exact words were, “Stalinberia? Like Stalin and his supposed murderer? That’s like being named Caesarbrutus!”

I probably should have kept my mouth shut but I couldn’t help it; all that kind of slipped out. His name surprised me so much that my mind started wandering on the tour thinking of other combination names encompassing a killer and his victim. (Other bizarre combo names I thought of include Lincolnbooth, Abelcain and Mufasascar). 
This one is for Barbara.
Right where they're standing is where human sacrifices took place way back in the day.
The whole gang (and Melissa's backpack)
Anyway, right after our tour the girls, Taylor and I actually stumbled upon the slaughtering of a cow. I can honestly that one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard is fellow cows mourning over their slaughtered companion. The “moos” they emitted were so woeful and full of sorrow; even the nearby stray dogs were whimpering over the dead cow that was just lying there spread-eagle.

Ironically enough, my day of Stalin and cow slaughtering was one of the loveliest days I’ve had yet. Granted, it might be due to the fact that the rest of our day was filled with adorableness. We met up with a sweet Fulbright scholar who is teaching English in Gori and already working on her PHD (she’s twenty-two) and later we cooked two huge pans worth of Israeli shakshuka at our hostel. (The easiest way to make friends at a backpacking hostel is to cook dinner and invite people to help you eat it). Then with our new hostel friends, we hit up a few bars in Tbilisi and just had a great, great night.
Meeting up with Fulbright scholars in Gori
Oh and in case you’re wondering, I rode the metro escalators all weekend and I didn’t shed a single tear.

Monday, February 7, 2011

When Big Puddles Attack

Samtredia has a good relationship with puddles.
Back where I’m from in the States, February weather translates into snow-induced school closings and early dismissals. In Samtredia, Georgia- February weather also means school closings but for a slightly different reason.

It rains here. Sometimes it rains so much that school is cancelled.

In general my school has been having a rough couple weeks. A combination of swine flu and pneumonia has somehow made it to School No.11 and bedridden about sixty percent of the elementary school. (Last week, 27 of my 35 third graders were home-sick). The school director thus made the decision to indefinitely cancel all classes for students in fourth grade and below.

School hasn’t been the same without all the cute little rug-rats running around screaming my name and asking me if I like ‘snow, cat or dog’ (hey, it might be a strange grouping of words but it’s English).

Plus, with all the third graders absent my days are much less adorable. They just happen to be my favorite. They shriek like I’m a puppy wearing a dress whenever I enter the classroom and give me love notes and gifts when class is over. It’s almost funny how singing some songs, whipping up a few games, drawing a picture on the board, and correcting some class work- can send eight-year-olds into such hysteria. I guess I just miss the little squirts. Well that, and I’m generally concerned they might all be violently, ferociously ill.

Asides from the dying elementary school, school days are being cut short by one to three hours each day because of bad weather. Most kids walk to school and the school faculty is terrified to have kids walk home in the rain convinced that they’ll get the swine-flu pneumonia bug. 

Thus, every morning my day is pretty unpredictable. I don’t know whether classes will be shortened or whether certain classes will just be cut out of the day. It’s a bit annoying, but the unpredictability makes my day interesting. For my own sanity, I’m trying to love all the little quirks in the Georgian educational system.

Anyhow, today was an especially odd day at school. We had no electricity or heat (which is pretty normal) but all classes were cut to half-hour sessions which really isn’t that much time at all. You go over homework, you read something, you play a game- boom, class is over. At around 10:45 though, the faculty decided to cancel all classes because there was a giant puddle outside the school and they were worried it would only get bigger throughout the day.

I thought the same thing you did- a school cancellation because of a puddle?

Well, turns out that ‘big puddle’ was more like a lake. My students were even joking around and asking me if I knew how to swim since I’d practically need to swim home. As I left school today, the entire school even led me in a chant of “Swimming! Swimming! Swimming!” (Again, a bit of a bizarre chant, but it’s English).

This is the 'big puddle' aka lake outside my school.
Normally, on the left of that concrete barrier is a small creek and on the right is a road
Hydroplaning at its finest.

Random lonely ferris wheel cart
The new church they're building in town- and its lake.

Everything just looks prettier after the rain.

Isn't Samtredia pretty?

I love a good tree reflection photo