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.