Saturday, December 6th: A Brief Summary

გამარჯობა ჩემებოოო. დიდი ბოდიში რომ დიდი ხანი არის წინის ბლოგიდან. Hello my friends. So sorry that it’s been a long time since my last blog post! Winter has arrived here in Sakartvelo, though it is by no means of the … Continue reading

A Post with a Different Tone Altogether

გამარჯობა ჩემო საყვარელებო! რა ხდება ამერიკაში? აბა კიდევ მე გეთყვით ჩემზე შესახებ…

(Hello my lovelies/cuties/favorites! What is up in America? Well, I will tell you about me again…)

These past couple of weeks have marked my first difficulties here in Georgia, at least the first difficulties that hit closer to home than having to choose to stop eating delicious ხაჭაპური (cheesy bread) because my stomach doth protest too much.

A few weekends ago I began to develop a disturbing medical situation and immediately got in touch with my doctors about it. In the subsequent two weeks I have missed all school (including planning time for Halloween parties! Alas, they will just have to happen later than originally planned) and by tomorrow will have spent a full week in Tbilisi. I don’t want to get into the details of the medical issue, but suffice to say that I must move out of my current host family’s house and into a new one, which I am emotionally loath to do however physically grateful I am to do it.

It has been difficult not to feel like a bad volunteer in the past two weeks. Indeed, this medical issue has proved to be as emotionally as physically taxing. However, many other volunteers and friends and family at home have been helpful in reminding me that if you are not first healthy and well yourself, then there is no way to productively and effectively do your work as a volunteer. And they are right, of course, because there would be no way that I could have taught English well in these past two weeks. I have therefore had a lot of time to think about the relationships among health, work, and cultural integration and cultural clash.

Volunteers here in Georgia make a lot of adjustments in our habits, our expectations, and our perspectives as we work and live here in another culture. I think it is a constant negotiation within ourselves about where we draw lines and how far we need to go in order to be a part of our communities and our families. Do you need to bolomde (“until the bottom”) glasses of wine until you’re as smashed as the other men at the supra in order to fit in? Do you wear the same shiny heels as the other teachers? How often do you exercise in public and how often do you pull the surprise pop-in visit on neighbors that is so normal for Georgians and so difficult for Americans to perpetrate? These are examples of situations that I know we all experience here to different degrees according to age, gender, race, sexuality, and location within Georgia itself. And I think everyone here deals with them differently.

I write this to reinforce that what I am about to wonder is certainly something I have been thinking about on my own, and want to simultaneously characterize as not representing the general thoughts of all volunteers here in Georgia but also not excluding potential different volunteer perspectives on this particular subject either.

What I have been thinking about is this: does having a disease and/or infection that is certainly not culturally or otherwise specific to Georgia, but does play a part in some life in my village, in any way “aid” my cultural integration? Right off the bat, I believe the answer is no, and I know that Peace Corps as an organization has zero interest in volunteers experiencing serious health problems in any way. I am not fanatical about cultural integration to the point where I think this is a valid means to becoming a part of a community. But the experience of having a health problem here (even as fortunately brief it has been) gives incredible insight into cultural ideas about health, about what daily life means, about what is a problem and what is not a problem, and what role medical science has in the daily life of a villager in a rural part of a developing country. It is a different cultural context to find yourself in, and I have found myself butting up against a very different understanding of my medical issue than I think I would have found in America. That is to say, it was perceived in my host family as almost a matter of course, of the changing of the fall into winter, and that as one flare-up passed then so, too, did the problem itself. This is not the case in terms of medical fact, but even as I know that I understand the logic employed by these members of my host family. It is… unnerving. It is unnerving to think that my family members deal with this problem on a regular basis and do not necessarily see it as a problem. They do not know the root of the issue or the means to eradicate it. I did try to employ some Peace Corps resources to help them– I had my host mother talk with my Peace Corps doctor on the phone and explain what is going on, but it is more complicated than simply informing a person of the medical facts of disease, or infection, or bacteria. You cannot change someone’s essential understanding of the world around them on a dime, because that is what I am increasingly realizing I was trying to do in this situation. Change in one person on this scale…. what on earth does it take to make it happen? Is it possible for a single Peace Corps volunteer to do this? Medically or otherwise?

I am being intentionally vague about all of this. I think that my family deserves this privacy and I do not want anyone reading this blog to be swayed to hold certain uninformed opinions about Georgia or Georgians. Suffice to say that every day, as usual, everything gets more and more complicated as I navigate this experience. I have gotten the medical care that I need and will soon be returned, in full health, back to my village to continue the infinitely complex work of integrating into my community and teaching English in my school. If I can venture to give a bit of pretentious and patronizing advice to round out this frustratingly vague post: don’t forget how amazing good health is, and how important it is to maintain it in yourself and encourage it in your family members and friends. It shapes what you are able to do with your time and how much change you can effect in the tiniest ways in the world and the grandest ways in yourself. Wash your hands often and go on a run (in no specific order).

რა თქმა უნდა ფეხბურთი მინდა! or: Of Course I Want Football!

გამარჯობა მეგობრებო! რა ხდება ამერიკაში?

(Hello friends! What’s up in America?)

Here in საქარეთველო I have finally found out how to write in Georgian on my computer, as you can see, thus beginning a segment of my blog that will hopefully become a regularly puzzling part of you “Hannah’s blog reading” routine. I call it,

Who Wants to Learn Georgian?, or, Who Wants to Find Themselves Grateful for Their Own Ignorance of Such a Beautiful Yet Grammatically Shocking Language?

The first name is shorter so I may stick with that. Anyway:

In Georgia, when you are walking around the village (or running, I was earlier today and can sometimes be found doing other days as well) people greet each other in a few ways. The first is in fact the first word that I learned in Georgian: გამარჯობა (gamarjoba). In Georgian you stress the first syllable of the word, unlike in English. When I say გამარჯობა I try to sound Georgian (duh, way to summarize the whole point of learning another language in one faintly patronizing moment of stupidity) and the latter part of the word gets almost swallowed. GAmarjoba. Have fun throwing this classic greeting around the office, gym, or custom cufflink hut that you like to frequent. If you happen to be over the age of, say, 50, then you are well within your rights to use the oh-so-cool-cousin-who-has-3-tattoos-and-studies-political-science of გამარჯობა, which is გაგიმარჯოს (gagimarjos). I am not completely sure of what divides the usage of these two words, as I am not sure of so many things here, but I can observe that age seems to have something to do with it. In any case– go wild with your new vocabulary! Next week: inquiring about someone’s well being.

Actually, one cultural add-on to the vocabulary: both გამარჯობა and გაგიმარჯოს are  related to the word გაუმარჯოს (gaumarjos) which means “victory.” I will need to do some more research to know if they would be classified as direct derivations of the word that means victory (and is used for toasting სუფრაზე, or “at a supra” which is a feast… oh there is so much to explain! Next time) but they are related for sure. Essentially when Georgians greet each other (or well intended interlopers like Peace Corps volunteers greet Georgians as they lope by) with გამარჯობა or გაგიმარჯოს, they are telling each other victory. This does not not make sense, considering Georgia’s long and voluptuous history of getting invaded over and over again. Indeed, Georgia has been invaded countless times throughout it history, from the time that it was so many independent kingdoms and then after it became a united kingdom in the 4th century B.C. until, well, the 2008 invasion by Russia. This area of the world was hotly contested by the Mongols, the Persians, the Turks, and the Russians. It is a located so near precisely the point of east meeting west, to coin a term. Let’s have a look at the map (see series at end of post).

At any rate, you can see that Georgia is indeed straddling the classifications of being Eastern European or Central Asian. Having only been to either Western European countries or Nepal, I cannot give any conclusive statement as to where Georgia “belongs.” I know most Georgians I have spoken to insist that they are European, despite the fact that they are not yet in the EU. Not to say that how a culture identifies itself rests solely on the political and governmental alliances that it formerly belongs to, of course.

I have gone down a tangential path. Here are some more immediate updates about my life:

Yesterday I was running in the afternoon and passed the small sandy stadium where a bunch of boys (mostly 6th-8th graders at my school) were playing soccer. I hesitated to join at first, but them I approached them and said in Georgian: “Boys! I want to play too!” And they said, with some small amount of incredulity and giggling, “You want football?” Here is how it went down in Georgian:

Me: ბიჭებო! მეც მინდა თამაში! (bitchebo! Mec minda tamashi!)

Boys: ფეხბურთი გინდა? (pexburti ginda?)

Me: რა თქმა უნდა ფეხბურთი მინდა! (ra tqma unda pexburti minda!)

The last thing I said meant “Of course I want football!” They acquiesced, and they put me on what I almost immediately saw to be the weaker team.

I want you to imagine, my friends, the amount of havoc I proceeded to wreak on their first impressions of me as a footballer. No fewer than five goals were sacrificed on the altar of their misconceptions, along with two or three choice nutmegs and several jovial feints. I recall nutmegging my favorite student in the 6th grade, whose face was lit up by an open-mouthed grin of horror and respect, and I knew I was winning hearts and minds forever. A rowdy game was played, and then another game was played today. Today brought fewer kids, and they were younger as well. If I were Kong, yesterday was my destruction of New York City, whereas today was my chained performance of tricks in the theater for the titillated masses. In other words, they had me take many penalty kicks to show off what I could do to passersby. But it does not matter– both days were wonderful fun and I hope to play again next week. The next order of business: bringing some more girls to play to help break these lads of their ball hogging ways.

Despite winter’s ominous approach, a low but constant presence of physical illness, the difficulty of adjusting and trying to integrate into a foreign school culture, the omnipresence of mayonnaise, language barriers, disturbing and mysterious situations attributed to cultural differences, and 4th graders, I have never been happier and more fulfilled in my life. I hope you all feel the same with whatever you are pursuing.

Until next time! მიყვარხართ! (I love you all!)

Even a smidge more for clarity, I think…

There I am! Naw, look at us go. 

Nothing like a steady, colorful progression showing just how far away from you all I really am. And Chipotle, for that matter.

First Day of School: Opening Ceremonies of the 2014-2016 English Teaching Games

Gagimarjos lamazebo! (Hello beauties!)

Well, the slight chill of fall is creeping into the air as, finally, the school year arrives here in Sakartvelo. Today, the 15th of September, marked the beginning of the rest of my life. I mean, my service. I was slightly naive to think it would be just like the first day of school in America (though, pleasantly, those days are enough in my past at this point that it is difficult to remember exactly what those first days were like. I always remember having trouble sleeping the night before, but I slept like a drugged rock last night, so I might have known change was in the air).

This morning I woke up around 6 intending to run but instead got more rest before (what I then supposed would be) my long day at school. I ate some food and after the obligatory first day of school photo with my cool host siblings, we and my host mom headed down the hill to school. All of the students and their parents were gathered in the yard in front of the school where a sound system was set up for a presentation. My director took it away with all of us teachers stood behind her on the steps of the building. After some time she began compelling the shy first graders to come to the mic, introduce themselves, and then recite a poem.

This is a part of Georgian culture that really fascinates me and that I have had several conversations about with my host mom. The tradition of Georgian poetry seems undiminished even in the face of more speedy entertainments like “Grown Ups” dubbed in Georgian. Every one of these first graders was able to recite a poem, much to the delight of the parents filming it with their smart phones.

The last small child to take the mic, however, was not a first grader. Indeed, it was a semi-adult from central Ohio, don’t you know, and her name was me. My director, a determined, hard-working, and funny woman, gripped my wrist, made intense eye contact, and told me (in Georgian, for she speaks zero English), “Hannah, speak to them in English.” I confirmed, “In English? Ok.” She was wearing, and somehow thoroughly pulling off, a see-through beige lace shirt with shoulder pads visible underneath, so she was pretty much going to get from me whatever she wanted.

I took the mic after she gave me a pre-introduction and said, “Hello! My name is Hannah. I am an English teacher and a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am very happy to be in Kvishkheti. Big congratulations on your first day of school!” The crowd was befuddled. I translated for myself as another teacher pushed the mic closer to my face: “Gamarjoba! Me mqvia Hannah. Inglisuris mastavlebeli var da mshvidobis korpusis moxalise var. Dzalian bednieri var qvishkhetshi qopna. Didi gilocav tqven pirvel dghe skolashi!” The crowd roared and promptly carried me into the streets on their shoulders chanting my name.

Hardly, but they did seem to let out a collective sigh of relief when they realized that I could not be as much of a moron as my childish striped blue socks implied.

After my rousing speech I had very little to do. My counterpart teachers were giving out English books to their various classes and I had no lessons to observe. Indeed, the first two weeks of school for me are just observing all of my counterparts’ lessons in order to figure out which grades in which to team teach. After two weeks I must make up a schedule with them that totals at least 18 teaching hours a week and figure out what days we will lesson plan and other such logistical things.

So as it is, I spent the next 3 hours of my first day of school in Georgia sitting in the teachers’ lounge, chatting a bit in Georgian and in English with my counterparts, but mostly just sitting, listening, and checking words in my new language dictionary. As is my wont, these days.

Life Camp, Tonsils, and Batumi: Land of Humidity

Gagimarjos!

I hope everyone is doing well back in the homeland and enjoying summer to the fullest. Summer here in Georgia is beautiful and full of fun. It is the time when us new volunteers are exploring our sites, getting to know our host families, and on the weekends visiting our friends in the far flung regions of the country. For some it is also a time of plague. Last week I got terribly ill for about a day and this week I have rapidly developed what seems to be strep throat. I am really only writing this post to pass the time until I go get the next marshutka to Tbilisi to see the PC doctor. Alas and alack!

Things are not dour over here by any means, though. I just spent last week in the Eastern region of Kakheti working as a counselor for the 2014 Peace Corps LIFE Camp (Leadership and Integration through Fitness Education)! In June five G14s were selected by the current LIFE committee (five G13s) to serve as the committee for this coming year. Myself and one other G14 were lucky enough to be able to go to this year’s camp and observe. This committee was so fantastic, however, that we ended up integrating ourselves and leading sessions and activities as well as bonding a redonkulous amount with campers, volunteers, and Georgian counselors. To say this is the highlight of my time in Georgia so far would certainly be an understatement, akin to a small house cat looking at a mountain and concluding, “yeah, well, I guess it is pretty big.”

We camped outside for the week and counselors and campers made all of our food and also cleaned up after ourselves, which turned out to be a series of one Herculean feat after another. We had some comically bad water problems– first, the water turned off entirely. Relief water that was brought to us was inexplicably carried in Soviet era gasoline cans, so that gas-water was thrown out. Next day we got some brought from a well–cool, clear water. Lo and behold a parched cow came up and drank from the barrel. Threw that out. These troubles by no means dismantled the overall excellence of the camp, but it certainly kept us counselors stressed and on our toes.

~Several Days Later~

Aha I am back! I departed to catch my marshutka to Tbilisi, where the accomplished yet casual doctor informed me that I had tonsillitis. That’s right–my, myself, and my swollen tonsils. I was given medicine and sent on my way. Naturally I went to get pizza with two of my favorite G13s (shards of deliciousness on my poor throat) and then headed home to Shida Kartli.

After a sunny and raucously restful weekend in the Black Sea city of Batumi I am on the mend both tonsilly and generally. Nothing like 20 Peace Corps volunteers taking over a bar’s outdoor dance floor two nights in a row to reinvigorate the spirit. Swimming in the Black Sea four separate times in two days also helps. I spent much of today posted up outside of my host mother’s market, chatting with passersby and eating two ice creams, as well as catching up on the phone with a few G14s. Hopefully the day after tomorrow my counterparts and I will begin solidly planning our summer camp (to take place during the first week(s?)) of September). Tomorrow I believe there will be swimming in the nearby river. It is high time I learn the verb for “to swim” so that I can stop flailingly miming it to my family when they ask “What did you do at the lake?” or “How was Batumi?”

Living goes on and Georgia in the summer remains hot, hot, hot, and every day full of things I don’t quite expect. Aba ra.

Lots of love to you, my home! Hope all are well.

 

 

 

Me happily aboard the common transport in Batumi. Think Dinotopia.

Me happily aboard the common transport in Batumi. Think Dinotopia.

Shavi Zghva (Black Sea)

Shavi Zghva (Black Sea)

A charming statue couple on the beach

A charming statue couple on the beach

Sweet Summertime in Georgia

Gamarjoba megobrebo, natesavebo, da skhva adimianebo! Momenatra tqven!

(Hello friends, relatives, and other people! I missed you!)

It has been many a moon since I sat down at this here laptop and updated you all about my doings here in Georgia, and for that I apologize. I hope the wait was not too agonizing. In the interest of not prolonging that wait further, I will explain just what I have been up to these past 12 weeks, briefly what I am up to now, and what lays ahead in the coming weeks and months.

As I wrote approximately 15 years ago, I lived in a small village called Tezeri for the duration of the 11 weeks of PST (Pre-Service Training) with my most excellent clustermates, possibly THE most excellent clustermates, in all of Peace Corps. This training included 4 hours of Georgian language class every day (except for Sundays and the odd Saturday when we were able to travel to cultural sites, or visit other villages, or celebrate the Fourth of July like The True Americans That We Are). In the afternoons we travelled by marshutka (the dominate mode of transportation here Sakartveloshi) into the nearby town of Khashuri for our technical trainings in English Education. Before and after sessions many ice creams were bought and summarily destroyed. Collectively our weight gain (though the number is currently unknown) tippeth the scales in favor of whale status.

PST also included three weeks of teaching practicum in my village’s school with exceptional counterpart teachers, one of whom my cluster befriended especially and has the most beautiful singing voice. There was some hiking, lake swimming, wine drinking, repeated visits to my village’s neighboring cluster, star gazing, and lots of situations when no one expected food to appear but then it did, of course.

And one month ago we learned where our permanent sites would be for the next two years. I happily learned that I would be living in in the very village where my best friends outside of my cluster resided, a gorgeous mountainside village called Kvishkheti located only about ten minutes from Tezeri. In addition, I am now lucky enough to be living with a most exceptional family who has hosted not just one, but two other volunteers during PST who I consider great friends of mine and excellent volunteers. Peace Corps score.

This past Friday, July 18th, in a sweltering theatre in Tbilisi, 52 other trainees and I were officially sworn in by Ambassador Richard Norland as the 14th group of Peace Corps volunteers in the Republic of Georgia. As far as ceremonies go, it was quite nice. There was a huge cake afterward and who doesn’t love that?

After cake eating and some emotional goodbyes to family and friends, we hopped on different transports with our new host families or counterparts or directors, and split off to different areas of the country. And so began an entirely new part of our Peace Corps experience, which thus far was focused on our new relationships with each other and the intensity of learning the language together. And this will, of course, be the dominant theme of our service– that is, not all being around each other all of the time.

So we enter a time of rest before the beginning of teaching (this applies to the English Education volunteers only– the IOD volunteers (Individual and Organizational Development) have already had their first and second days of work at their various organizations and NGOs. Sucks to suck). We spend our days reading, spending time with our host families, exercising, and writing self-reflective, navel-gazing blog posts about the nature of our experience so far (see: the rest of this blog post). I have been enjoying sitting at my family’s market and being given ice cream as I watch the people and cars go by. Some volunteers have actually already started their work, either their mandatory summer camps at their schools or forming their professional relationships with teaching counterparts through lesson planning. I have not begun this part of pre-school year work, however. I will indulge in a week of relaxation, and then I will start working again.

I have also had the great fortune to be elected to a representational Peace Corps committee and applied and was selected to work on a second. The first committee is called the Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC). I will serve for a year as the representative of the Education East volunteers (those of us living in the East of Georgia have one program manager and those in the West have another). This committee serves as a go between for the volunteers and the powers that be in Peace Corps Georgia, and we will work closely with the Country Director to ensure that volunteers have the safest, healthiest, and most productive service possible. The second committee is called LIFESkills, and it holds summer camps for children from all over Georgia and teaches healthy lifestyle skills through sports and active learning. Needless to say, I am over the moon, and possibly orbiting distant stars, about being on this committee. At the beginning of August another new committee member and I will go the the week-long life camp in Kakheti and serve as counselors and observers. Can’t can’t just can’t wait.

As far as culture shock goes, I am wearing rose-colored glasses and euphorically surfing on the crest of cultural adjustment. While riding a unicorn who grants wishes. Not much more to say about that until the hard times come (presumably on the coattails of winter, though more likely they will be tucked into his cummerbund. Winter is such a snappy dresser). These challenges will come and hopefully I will be calm and strong about negotiating them.

I will end this information-heavy post with a thought that has been occurring to me often over the past few months of settling into a new life in Georgia. It comes into my head when I am sitting and quietly observing the daily life of my two host families. I feel this quiet sort of wonder that this house, this mode of cooking, this family, has been living and working and have been right here this whole time. While I was growing up and going to school and getting to know my family and myself, this house was here. This whole other way of life was happening and I had no idea, and they had no idea of me. It is a responsibility and a gift to leave my culture and come to live in Georgia’s, and it is an honor to be taken in by my family here. I cannot imagine a more fruitful way to spend my time when I am young and still so self-centered, albeit by necessity, than to strike out to places that have been here the whole time, and to experience what I have been missing. I hope that when we are presented with the opportunity to leave our known worlds and immerse ourselves in another that we have first the capacity and means to seize it, and then the bravery to move forward. I increasingly think it is the primary work of human beings to seek to understand one another as best we can and through understanding empower our better humanities.

I am reading The Grapes of Wrath and our good man John Casy expresses this thought better than I:

But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang–that’s right, that’s holy […]. I’m glad for the holiness of breakfast. I’m glad there’s love here. That’s all.

I hope everyone is happy, healthy, and pursuing what they love. Kargad ikavit.

Tezeri: Ideal cake

Gamarjobat megobrebi!

For all of you laypeople not versed in Georgian, that is “Hello friends!” in this incredible ancient and consonant-cluster heavy language.

Here is my current status in Peace Corps Georgia:

 

  1. I live in the village of Tezeri, which is about a 5-10 minute drive outside of Khashuri, which is our PST Hub site. Khashuri is a medium sized town west of Tbilisi and south of the South Ossetia region.
  2. Tezeri is itself a small village, populated not only by Georgian humans but also by many Georgian cows, goats, pigs, dogs, chickens, ducks, etc. etc. standup citizens. I like it very much. I share this village with four other PC trainees. Our cluster is a solid mix of hilarity and commitment and, rapidly, specific inside jokes. Ideal cake, you might say.
  3. My host grandmother is a fantastic host and a wonderful teacher. I have been learning so much Georgian from her as well as important cultural lessons. Also, she feeds me lots and indulges me going off running at 6 in the morning. 
  4. Six days a week the day goes like this: get up around 6 and run (this is my optimistic plan for the future, anyway). Bucket bath, then breakfast/chatting with my bebo (grandma). Language class starts at 9 and goes until 1. My language teacher, or LCF (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitator) is wonderful and, therefore, I am learning a lot in class every day. Then we head to lunch at one of my cluster mate’s host families’ homes. We eat–a lot. Khachapuri (Georgia’s national dish– cheesy bread), puri (bread), kveli (cheese), kitri (cucumbers), and soups and cake and more and more and then (most likely, as we all want to be awake for the afternoon) Turkish coffee. At 2:30 we board a marshutka (the most common and cheap form of transportation here in Georgia–tis a van) and head to Khashuri. We then have about three hours of technical training, which for me is training as an English teacher. After that we hop onto the marshutka again and had back Tezershi (to Tezeri). We sometimes hang out a bit and then head home to dinner with family and language study and, in the case of tonight, blogging! I hear tell that other volunteers watch Turkish soap operas (dubbed in Georgian!) with their families, but alack and alas, not in my house. I like to listen to a bit of music and then fall asleep. We have Sunday off. 
  5. One week down– ten more to go. That is, ten more weeks of PST, which precedes swearing in as a volunteer and then heading to our permanent site where we will live, work, and probably have some diarrhea for the next two years. 

 

There are a million things I do not have the patience to write about while my bed calls to me! So I will allude to them in a vague way: the terrible road into Tezeri and the Kvishketi cluster who must suffer on it every day, the frogs in the pond, my clustermate’s host family’s calf whom I have named Franklin, the night that I peed in an unexpected place (intentionally), my bebo’s knowledge that I like walnuts and she tells other people this about me. All of the men named Giorgi and the two dogs in Khashuri making sweet and tender advances on each other in the middle of a roundabout. Mistakingly switching the word mountain (mta) and hair (tma) in conversation with my grandma and her laughing at me. 

It is a different kind of time here and we are very busy. I am thinking about all of you and miss you. I hope your adventures are going as well as mine.

Sikvaruli (love)