On Friday after my classes and his French horn lesson, Gaby and I met up in Tbilisi at the TLG offices to discuss our flights and my possible contract extension. This was actually the first time I had been to their offices, which are located in the lovely Ministry of Education building near the Marjanishvili metro stop. Despite complaints from some volunteers, I have found the TLG staff to be nothing but supportive and accommodating. I feel lucky to be working with an organization whose staff is so friendly and responsive to our needs.
Anyway, after this meeting we headed to Guesthouse Nika, a hostel recommended to me by Kate, a Peace Corps volunteer working in a neighboring village. It was small but clean and quiet with good hot water, which for me is an absolute must if I’m going to pay for a place to stay. The proprietress speaks very good English and provides a good rate for teachers, which is nice because our stipend goes pretty quickly when you travel every weekend. She could immediately tell I was American and became very excited when Gaby said he was from Italy. “Ah yes! Georgian and Italian people are the same!” Ok. Because I frequently travel around Georgia with an Italian, I’ve heard this a lot. Italians and Georgians do look similar and gesticulate when they speak quite a bit. But, I think Georgians just love Italy and very inclined to focus on their cultural similarities. Georgians are also more familiar with Italian music and cinema than British or American culture because during Soviet times, media from these countries was banned.
Once she got over the excitement of hosting an Italian, she showed us the room, which was nice and quiet. We did however come across a large rusty knife sitting on a shelf, which we brought to her attention because we were uncomfortable sleeping in the same room with this tetanus bacteria encrusted weapon. She apologized profusely, although I didn’t quite catch the reason for the knife’s presence.
The next morning, we headed to Didube to catch a marshutka to Mtskheta, the medieval capital of Georgia. Before leaving we had breakfast at a hole in the wall restaurant for some of their outstanding lobio and turkuli qkhava that we had discovered a few weeks before. The waitress and the restaurant’s owner recognized us, because the time before we had made some midday toasts to how awesome Georgia and America and Italy are using our slowly but steadily improving Georgian.
Mtskheta is the picturesque ancient capital of Georgia, located about 20 km north of Tbilisi. It has many historical sites of interest, which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A few outstanding ones are the Jvari Monastery, located on top of a steep hill overlooking the town and the surrounding mountains. You can also see from here the convergence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. I was able to negotiate with the taxi driver for a ride to and from Jvari from the town for 15 GEL with a half hour of waiting time for us to explore the monastery and enjoy the view. I was quite proud of myself for getting this deal, because being such obvious tourists, he was originally trying to charge us 30. Yesterday I asked one of my students if 15 would be the “Georgian price” and she said it was! Negotiation success!
I was fortunate enough to visit Jvari on a Saturday as some of the monks were performing a baptism. I stood and watched for as he performed the ritual, chanting and putting holy water on the screaming child’s forehead. Jvari is quite an active monastery—if you go, you’ll inevitably see the monks out and about. Their appearance is like something from another time, with distinctive beards, velvet hats and long robes. Like many Georgian churches, the monastery is full of beeswax candle holders where people can light a prayer candle, icons with incense holders hanging in front of them, small prayer rugs on the ground, and many flowers people have brought for their chosen icon. The Georgian Orthodox faith is really very lovely. The churches have a sense of peace and it’s apparent that this sect is one of the most ancient of the Christian religion. In fact, Mtskheta is where Christianity was pronounced with official religion of Georgia in 337 A.D., and still remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox church.
In the early evening, Gaby and I stood on the side of the road trying to catch a marshutka back to Tbilisi. After a few minutes of standing and no marsh, a silver Mercedes pulled up and a blonde women stepped out and asked, “Tbilishi midikhart?” Are you going to Tbilisi? She offered us a ride, and after she and her husband bought cigarettes, she did not stop talking or smoking for the next two hours. She spoke very good English and was thrilled to find out that I teach English, and asked if I could give her some English lessons when I’m in Tbilisi. I said of course. Once we got back into the city, they wanted to take us out for a dessert. We stopped by a very chic, overpriced Carnivale themed café near the hostel. Ani asked us many questions about what we thought of Georgia, as Georgians tend to do. They are very curious of foreigners’ thoughts on their country. She wanted to know if I thought Georgian men were cute, what Gaby thought of Georgian girls, what Georgian language sounds like to someone who doesn’t speak it, if we found Kakhetian villagers to be very nosy, etc, etc. Unlike most Georgians, she was quite down on her country and let out a little scoff when I said I found Tbilisi to be a fairly European city. Predictably, when Gaby revealed he’s Italian, she said, “Georgians and Italians are very alike, no?”
The couple treated us to our snack at the café, and we all exchanged phone numbers for language exchange and perhaps a visit to Turtle Lake once spring decides to stick around. This kind of incident seems to happen frequently in Georgia. First you are strangers standing on a roadside, and two hours later, you’re friends.
To anyone who might read regularly and has wondered why I have not written anything lately—the internet dissappeared for a little while. I’m not sure why, but it has since returned. This is semi-rural Georgia and asking why technology sometimes ceases to function doesn’t help things.
My life in Kakheti has developed a rhythm of a very quiet existence teaching at school and at home with my Georgian family in Sagarejo during the week, and then somewhere around Tuesday I start thinking about where to go on the weekend.
I wear a red peacoat nearly everywhere, and people here recognize me as the foreigner in the red coat who walks really fast around town. Nestani tells me that the residents of Sagarejo know I live with her family and that I teach at the mesame (3rd) skola. My friend Brigid who also teaches here told me a friend of her host family’s asked her is she knew “the girl in red who runs.” I surely don’t run, but I do walk really fast. I think I might be the only person in Sagarejo who hurries anywhere. I book it to school because I’m usually running late (but somehow I never actually arrive late—I appreciate GMT when I rush through the door all sweaty and out of breath but somehow class doesn’t start for another ten minutes), and I hurry home because I love coffee but my school doesn’t have a restroom.
On my walks to and from school I see many things that are oh so very Georgia. I pass by a small market that is about half a block of people selling things on the street or from the trunks of their cars, such as potatoes, grains, packets of tissues, and sometimes churchkhela (“Georgian Snickers”—walnuts dipped in a mixture of flour and grape juice. They are quite delicious). I always say gamarjobat to the lady who sits on a corner selling fish out of a bucket that look too small to contain more than a mouthful of meat, unless you are fond of little mouth-piercing bones. I also walk by a gaudy slot club called las vegasis pokeri klubi. In Soviet times gambling was outlawed, so now Georgians are furiously making up for lost time by opening up small, dimly lit, smoky and horrendously decorated casinos and poker clubs everywhere.
One of the most common ways Georgian men occupy their time in Sagarejo is standing on street corners smoking and playing backgammon—I do believe it’s the official game of idle men. There are many pensioners and people without jobs here, and certain groups occupy certain street corners. I have started to recognize some of them and a few seem to know who I am, especially those who have staked out their standing around real estate on the corner of my family’s driveway and the main road. I always dread passing large groups because it’s uncomfortable when people drop whatever they’re doing to watch you walk by. Staring is something we were told to expect because many of these people haven’t had much exposure to foreigners, so I am unabashedly stared at whenever I leave the house. I dress and look differently than they do, and some part of me is convinced that they can hear me thinking in English. But rushing around a town that moves very slowly and wearing bright red in a place where people wear black is an invitation for people to stare.
I love that we got a day off of work for International Women’s Day and I must say, America needs to get with the program. I took full advantage of this day by taking the marshutka to Tbilisi with Brigid and Gabriele. We celebrated by eating khinkali at the underground House of Khinkali on Rustaveli, which was a delectable lunch for three for about 8 USD. I now know enough words in Georgian to be a nuisance to those in the service industry. I took this opportunity to use my knowledge of “I want”, Georgian cuisine, the numbers one through twelve (actually quite useful when ordering khinkali), and “it’s good” to practice ordering with our waitress, who was sweet and patient with our broken yet enthusiastic qartuli. A few weeks ago I was convinced that I had a snowball’s chance in hell of learning the language, but after meeting a few Americans with a solid grasp on it I have been putting more effort towards learning basic things. I successfully told Zviadi that I was going to Tbilisi for Women’s Day and would be back in the evening, which was very satisfying. I also made a toast to my host family tonight when he busted out the tchatcha with dinner. My family and the teachers at my school are always excited when I can say a few things, so it’s minimal effort that leads to a greater connection.
This meal confirmed that mushroom khinkali are my favorite Georgian food. They are little boiled dumplings filled with finely chopped savory soko and sometimes with what Nestani calls “grass” (she actually means “greens” but I silently giggle to myself when she says she needs to add “the grass” to whatever she’s cooking, so I selfishly haven’t corrected her yet). Between this and my other restaurant experiences in this country, I have learned a valuable lesson. While in Georgia, eat Georgian food. It is cheaper, better, and won’t severely upset your insides like for instance, the Georgian version of Mexican food. I’ll leave the flautas for when I’m closer to Mexico, thank you.
I was determined on this rainy day to go to Goodwili, a kind of shopping paradise for foreigners who miss Wal-Mart a lot. I was really excited to go there after listening to all the hype about it and one failed attempt last week to get there. It was a long bus ride through industrial Vake to get there, but totally worth it. I realized as we arrived that I hadn’t seen a parking lot like I think of them since leaving the states, which made me simultaneously miss home and also happy to be far away from acres of parking lots and big boxy stores.
The inside was remarkably similar to a Costco, but the prices were really high considering what the average Georgian earns. Gaby bought a small bottle of olive oil for 23 lari, or about 13 USD, to make an Italian dinner for the principle of his school. Olive oil is one of those foreign products that are difficult to come by here and are expensive when you can find them. I did buy some cashews, which I have been having a hard time finding here, and some toner. Most products have labels in Russian, which I understand even less of than Georgian, so I just had to take my chances and pick out a bottle that looked like toner. It was worth paying a few more lari for it at the Goodwili because you usually buy these things in an apoteka. This is a challenge that involves a lot of miming and pointing, because everything is kept behind glass and you have to ask the pharmacist for what you want. I always leave these interactions feeling like my time is being well spent teaching English here. Maybe one of my students will one day become a pharmacist and be able to help some silly Texan who comes in looking for an antacid because they made the mistake of eating “enchiladas” in Tbilisi.
When you’re learning about Georgian culture, you’re bound to hear a lot about the supra, or Georgian dinner party. There’s a good reason behind all the publicity: they really are something special and are unique to this country. Supras are a highlight of living in Georgia that I have already come to adore: they are the epitome of Georgian culture, bringing together eating, drinking, socializing, making endless toasts, and perhaps even dancing and singing. This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend two incredible supras, one at the home of family friends of my host family in the village of Giorgitsminda just outside of Sagarejo, and the other a gathering of expats and locals at an artist’s home in Sighnaghi.
One of the things I love most about living with a family is that they are so excited to make you a part of their family by bringing you to their family functions, which provides a rare glimpse into exotic Georgian culture that I am so privileged to experience. On Friday evening, my host mom Nestani told me that we would be heading to Giorgitsminda to celebrate Zviadi’s goddaughter’s 14th birthday and to get ready now because we were leaving. About an hour later, her brother Ramazi showed up to drive us to the village in the family’s Soviet jeep from the 1970s that would be able to handle driving through the snow that has not stopped falling since last week. This arrangement also served to get us back safely, because goodness knows that after all that toasting Zviadi would surely be drunk and Nestani doesn’t drive. Once our DD dropped us off, Nestani introduced me to Kate, a Peace Corps volunteer from California who had been living with the family for almost a year and a half. Her Georgian was impressive and she gave me her notebook from her 3 month-long Peace Corps language training so that I can study and learn to communicate more than just what I want to eat and whether or not I am cold. She also shared with me a few pearls of wisdom about living in Georgia as a foreign woman and some pointers for my English classes.
Our tamada, or toastmaster, was the birthday girl’s cousin who had also just turned 14. The tamada’s job is to lead the toasts, and although I could understand little of what he was saying I could tell he was a very intelligent, eloquent speaker when he recited some lovely Georgian poetry for us. When I listen to any tamada, he (yes, always “he”: gender roles are still very traditional here) always sounds both serious and joyful, interspersing the words “gaumarjos” (cheers to us) and “gagimarjos” (cheers to y’all) throughout the toast. I’ve noticed that when they say “gaumarjos”, it’s always repeated several times in one toast and has a musical intonation that has already become familiar to me. As Georgians love to impress their guests, some of the girls demonstrated Georgian folk dancing for me. This dance is a beautiful, hypnotic combination of ballet and belly dancing as well as that little qartuli something that makes it special. The music they danced to reminded me that Georgia is in fact a crossroads between Europe and Asia with its funky, infectious, Middle-eastern sounding beat.
This party was my first exposure to village life. Kate told me that six people lived in this little house, and that the family had just gotten a computer so recently the house had been filled with visitors there mainly to visit the computer. Things were chaotic, with seemingly motherless toddlers screaming and running underfoot, plates of food being stacked on top of one another on the table (they don’t clear dishes here during a feast) and someone’s hand always reaching behind me to refill my glass. The teenagers were becoming red in the face and their English was vastly improving after drinking shot after shot of wine. One girl shyly asked me how old I was and as per usual, if I was going to marry a Georgian. Meanwhile, the men at the other table were making their way through the 8-liter jug of ghvino shavi (black wine) that my family had brought to the party startlingly quickly. Zviadi yelled something at Kate from across the room and she turned to me, laughing, “Your host dad says I need to teach you how to drink like a Georgian.”
The second supra of the weekend was in Sighnaghi, a beautiful town about an hour east of Sagarejo that beloved Georgian president Misha has focused on restoring to its pre-Soviet glory in order to attract tourist dollars (or lari in this case). I was planning on staying in Sighnaghi just for the day, but Georgian Maybe Time becomes exacerbated in the event of foul weather and for some reason, the last marshutka to Tbilisi had been cancelled for the day. So unless I wanted to take a taxi home I was stuck in Sighnaghi for the night. This turned out to be a blessing because I was able to attend a fantastic supra that evening that was almost completely vegetarian, a rarity in Georgia. My friend Gaby and I had gone to Sighnaghi to visit two other teachers, Barry and Diana, who were living with Barry’s brother, Connor and his wife. Connor is an artist who had been an apprentice to Jonathan, an American ex-pat who has lived in Georgia on and off for over fifteen years, is married to a Georgian woman and speaks fluent qartuli. They are both artists, have an art gallery in Sighnaghi, and Jonathan also runs a vineyard called Pheasant’s Tears a few kilometers outside of the town.
During the day we went to the vineyard to have a look around, met a darling but already huge Caucasian shepherd puppy, attended a tchatcha tasting and ate fresh, warm bread (if I haven’t already discussed Georgian bread, just know that it’s amazing and I need to stop eating so much of it) with delicious sunflower oil. This is dangerous at 2 in the afternoon, as tchatcha is strong stuff –our day could have easily dissolved into a tchatcha-induced stupor. But, we pushed through the sleepiness and headed to Jonathan’s home/gallery for an unforgettable meal. In attendance were ex-pats from around the world, including the director of the American school in Tbilisi, a French executive of the Borjomi mineral water company, of course the four of us TLGers from the US and Italy among others from the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere. At the other end of the table sat Zadasha, a Georgian folk music group led by Jonathan’s wife Ketovan who sang beautiful polyphonic Georgian folk songs from time to time throughout the meal. The food was incredible and endless—walking home at the end was a challenge because I was so stuffed. Salad olivie, cottage cheese khinkali, that addicting bread, mushroom stew, a walnut and beet dish, stuffed badrijani (eggplant), fresh fruit, and a squash stuffed with honey, dried fruit and walnuts for dessert are just a few of the dishes that I can remember. And of course no supra is complete without wine. You’re supposed to sample the tetri (white) and the shavi (black) and then stick with one for the rest of the night. I chose the shavi and it was delicious but luckily not too strong considering the numerous toasts that were made. We drank out of traditional terra cotta bowls, and although the rules dictate that you can only drink during a toast, Jonathan was a very talkative tamada and I’d be surprised if any guest was ever thirsty.
One of Jonathan’s toasts was to our various homelands, and to whatever thing that might symbolize home for you personally. For him, he said, this was an apricot tree in northern New Mexico. Once he was finished with the toast I excitedly asked him where he was from and his answer was, many places, but that he had grown up in Nambe, just outside of Santa Fe. This blew my mind for about a second, but then it made total sense. This guy was so Santa Fe—I could see it in his demeanor and hear it in his speech. He told me about wooing his wife Ketovan with shipments of Hatch green chile. Perhaps I’m biased, but Santa Fe’s values tend to nurture creative, adventurous spirits so it came as no surprise that this artist who had studied painting in Moscow, come to Georgia, married a Georgian woman and was now running a gallery and a vineyard as well as a folk music and dance school in this lovely town of Sighnaghi had grown up in Nambe.
The night ended with still more toasting and the members of Zadasha performed more songs and danced for us. It was a really lovely evening of Georgian culture, a touch of Santa Fe, and the contributions of foreigners who had been welcomed by this community. Something I absolutely love about Georgia is their openness to foreigners who want to get to know the place. One guest made a toast that has stuck with me to the fact that in Georgia, it’s possible to actually become Georgian if you stay for long enough thanks to the warmth of the people. You really can’t help but fall in love with this culture.
I’m in my third week of teaching, and yesterday was the first day since I’ve been here that Nini and Tazo have gone to school. They are 6 and 8 and attend a private school in town that Nestani refers to as “the babysitters.” I think she means nursery school, but I too now call it “the babysitters.” She hasn’t sent them to school because she fears they will get sick—a totally legitimate fear, as my classes have been very empty due to a recent flu epidemic. She prepared her children for school by chopping up garlic and putting it in their pockets and then dousing them in a little Chanel No.5 perfume. They’ll be the classiest smelling kids at school today. Nestani says it’s a very old method, her grandmother’s, of preventing illness. This incident is a good example of one of those “what? This would never happen in America!” moments that happen from time to time. Pulling your kids out of school for two weeks when they’re not even sick and then sending them back with their pockets full of garlic just wouldn’t fly in the states. However, here it’s pretty common. School leans more towards optional and less towards mandatory especially in the winter months because schools are not heated, and damn, being inside a cold Soviet cinder block of a school building all day is pretty rough.
My experience at school has definitely been the most difficult part of living in Georgia so far. Public schools here are pretty sparse—I’m fortunate to have a dry erase board in my English classroom. It’s the only one in the school, thanks to one of Mrs. Zaira’s classes winning a competition for translating of some of Grimm’s fairy tales a few years ago that awarded the school’s English program with 2000 GEL that they used to buy new furniture, a computer, some books and the whiteboard. But, they run into problems when the markers dry out so we use them conservatively. Talking to my fellow English teachers, it seems that no heat, no bathrooms and minimal books and school supplies are problems across the board in Georgia’s public schools.
Nestani went to this school and in fact was a student of Mrs. Zaira and a friend of my principle, Lela. She feels very connected to this school—there’s a reason I’m living with her and teaching at the third school. Several teachers (including my other co-teacher, Nino) are graduates, and they have all told me that in recent years the school has started to fall apart but once had a very good reputation in the area. Some years ago it had a central heating system that has since become too expensive to maintain. In the past weeks, I’ve learned that my school is in the poorest part of Sagarejo, and the reason behind my students being a little slow on the English uptake is that they lack families who motivate them to study. Mrs. Zaira frequently tells me that the better-off families send their kids to #1 and #4 or perhaps a private school, but it is often a struggle for the families of the students of #3 to put food on the table. When they are trying to feed their families and find firewood to heat their homes with, it’s unlikely that they’ll be terribly concerned with whether or not little Giorgi has done his English exercises. It’s very sad, and sometimes I find myself wondering during classes which of my students are the ones who are living in poverty. Even though my school is incredibly poor, the staff and students are sweet and welcoming. Yesterday Lela brought me some yogurt and pineapple juice as a gift, and today she noticed me spacing out in the staff room and gestured me into her office for coffee and cookies. She doesn’t speak much English, but wanted to rescue me from the drudgery of the staff room. It’s all little old lady teachers loudly squawking in Georgian and occasionally talking to me, and of course i have no idea what they’re saying most of the time. Lela said, “Our teachers are very old and have many, many, many problems. Many complaining. It’s better for you to come in here. Tchame.” And then, as per usual, pushed a plate of food towards me.
Nestani went to this school and in fact was a student of Mrs. Zaira and a friend of my principle, Lela. She feels very connected to this school—there’s a reason I’m living with her and teaching at the third school. Several teachers (including my other co-teacher, Nino) are graduates, and they have all told me that in recent years the school has started to fall apart but once had a very good reputation in the area. Some years ago it had a central heating system that has since become too expensive to maintain. In the past weeks, I’ve learned that my school is in the poorest part of Sagarejo, and the reason behind my students being a little slow on the English uptake is that they lack families who motivate them to study. Mrs. Zaira frequently tells me that the better-off families send their kids to #1 and #4 or perhaps a private school, but it is often a struggle for the families of the students of #3 to put food on the table. When they are trying to feed their families and find firewood to heat their homes with, it’s unlikely that they’ll be terribly concerned with whether or not little Giorgi has done his English exercises. It’s very sad, and sometimes I find myself wondering during classes which of my students are the ones who are living in poverty.
Even though my school is incredibly poor, the staff and students are sweet and welcoming. Yesterday Lela brought me some yogurt and pineapple juice as a gift, and today she noticed me spacing out in the staff room and gestured me into her office for coffee and cookies. She doesn’t speak much English, but wanted to rescue me from the drudgery of the staff room. It’s all little old lady teachers loudly squawking in Georgian and occasionally talking to me, and of course i have no idea what they’re saying most of the time. Lela said, “Our teachers are very old and have many, many, many problems. Many complaining. It’s better for you to come in here. Tchame.” And then, as per usual, pushed a plate of food towards me.