Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Daily Schedule, 'Have You Got', & Why My Latin Sucks

A picture from the monastery in Martvili, the town just ten kilometers away from me where they had a celebration this past weekend in honor of the famous teacher of David the Builder, who was apparently, a pretty big deal back in the day.

Here come the sweeping judgments I promised just a week ago: it’s backwards, all the students are ignorant, and no one speaks English. Happy? Well I’m not, so here’s a little more introspective thinking.

Ati – Before I go on, no matter what I say or write about my experience of teaching at the Bandza School, it will be unique from other TLG volunteers’ own circumstances. We might share similar problems, but for the most part, everybody has a different situation. Some teach more hours, some have less reasonable co-teachers, some have more structure, etc. My situation is my situation, and does not represent the TLG experience or the education system in Georgia. It’s like the Jersey Shore; those highly entertaining deadbeats do not represent the people of the great state of New Jersey, just the riffraff that go down the shore in the summers.

This is Ian's Grandpa Giorgi, who resembles my own Grandpa in that he's always smiling and looks way past his due date

Otsi – Let me take you through a typical day of teaching in Bandza. I wake up at around 7:30 a.m., check my email and see how much the Pirates lost by in the previous night, take a shower, and eat with the boys at around 8:15 a.m. If I have a lesson in the first period (which starts at 9 a.m.), I leave right after breakfast as it takes me about twenty minutes to walk to school (a little over a kilometer). Sometimes I get a ride from Lasha if it’s raining or someone recognizes me as the new American English teacher in town and stops to give me a ride, but then on those really special occasions I hitch a ride in a horse and cart (true story; it was like going to the prom in your Dad’s antique Porsche, except the complete opposite). Each lesson is forty-five minutes, with ten minute breaks in between. There are seven periods in each day, but I’m not sure why because no one has class in that seventh period. So my day generally runs from 9 a.m. (but only on Monday and Thursday do I have a first period lesson) to 2:20 p.m. On any given day, I will have between three and five lessons that I sit in on, but I am only the head-teacher for eleven lessons a week. I bet you’re wondering what the hell a head-teacher is?

Ian's neighbor V, who is a perverted old man, which also means he is hilarious

Otsdaati – When we started school, I had agreed with Tamari (one of the two English teachers in Bandza, and my main means of communication) that I’d sit in on all the classes and after a full week of observation, we’d figure out what was the best way to use me. See, I’m like a new toy that the Ministry of Education handed to this school, but with zero instructions on how to be used. Which is fine by me, since that allows me to dictate the terms of my teaching. So I sat in on classes for a little over a week (and no, I didn’t just sit there; I brought in my computer to show them pictures of Pittsburgh and the fam damily [including a few pictures of my father asleep on the couch with the cat resting on his belly; everyone really liked those], while I also took control of the class a few times when I wanted to diagram a grammar point). And at the end I decided it’d be best if I took complete control of three of Tamari’s classes and one of Eka’s (the other English teacher). That means I plan and run the lesson, while the other teacher is there to translate if necessary (more like a safety net than anything). As for the other classes, I will still attend them and help when needed, but I won’t be counted on to run or plan the lessons.

My neighbor and I at the monastery; I was waiting for a marshrutka by the side of the road and he picked me up. Doesn't speak a word of English but treats me like his own son...

Ormotsi – So I’m teaching the year XI’s, X’s, V’s, and one of Eka’s classes to be determined. That may not seem like a lot (it’s only eleven lessons a week, which at forty-five minutes a lesson comes out to just over eight hours of actual teaching a week). But considering the time I put into planning the lessons along with sitting in on the other lessons (probably another twelve hours of class time), I’ll still have a relatively busy schedule. I also set up office hours where the students can come to me if they are having problems (a sort of defacto English Club; I have a feeling no one will come, so I’m planning on having Pepsi and cookies by the second week. I remember what it was once like to be a student—Free food? I’m there) while also presented an option to the other teachers that I’ll give them a lesson of English once a week (they all seem eager to learn the basics of English, and receptive towards the idea).

From a mural inside the monastery in Martvili; I have zero idea who these guys are, but they look important...

Ormotsdaati – So that’s the boring schedule stuff; now to the good shit. The first thing I want to bring up, which tends to be a popular subject here at GNJB, is my stupidity. In the midst of the first lesson I taught during my TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language; a certification course I took in Florence, Italy which qualifies you to teach English anywhere in the world), I misspelled apartment by putting an extra p in there for some reason. It was quite embarrassing, but hardly the last time I will misspell a word when teaching. Thanks to the computer, spell-check, and acronyms, my generation has been forged on the inability to spell, and I of course am no outlier.

The grounds of the monastery we visited on Saturday (not the one in Martvili, this one was farther up in the mountains near a town called Salkino [spelling?]); there was a suphra being held for all the big wigs and for some reason, us teachers were invited. The tables can be seen in the background and there were a few of them; probably seated about 200 people all in all

Samotsi – But the shortcomings in my grasp of the English language don’t only lend themselves to spelling; Pittsburgh, as proud as I am of my hometown, has caused me to come off as an ignorant simpleton quite frequently. I’m fond of using a double negative from time to time (a Pittsburgh staple) while also forgetting an article or extra preposition every now and then (I’m heading down the stadium; is there supposed to be a to somewhere in there?). So it didn’t surprise me when I assigned the fifth graders a home task that involved them using the phrase have you got? I blame the student who asked me the day before, “Have you got a sister?” I lapsed back into my old self like I was casually talking to some guy named Vito at Penn Mac on a busy Saturday morning, “Hey, you got any of ‘at prosciutto left?” Needless to say, I ain’t no English scholar.

Georgian Folk Singers at the suphra on Saturday. I need to get me one of them outfits...

Samotsdaati – Speaking of my TEFL course in Italy, it was one of the better academic experiences in my life. Pound for pound, that was the most knowledge I acquired in such a short period of time. The course melded a crash course in English grammar, lesson planning, teaching tactics, and the actual act of teaching (nothing equips you to accomplish things in life like actual experience). After those four weeks, I felt like I could teach anyone English anywhere in the world. And though I’m not about to retract that belief, coming here and teaching is definitely a bit of a reality check. But it’s good for me, knocks me down a peg or two because contrary to popular belief, I am not Socrates.

The kids of the Martvili district showing us some Georgian Folk Dancing, which is amazing... Sure beats the hell out of So You Think You Can Dance

Otkhmotsi – Let’s start with the alphabet. It’s easy to teach Italians because they have the same alphabet, but Georgians have a completely different Cyrillic alphabet of 33 different letters and sounds (similar to Italian, they pronounce every letter the same way and don’t have silent letters like us crazy English speakers), while the English alphabet has 26 letters and 35+ sounds. So that’s the first thing that all students must learn, but unfortunately, due to the ever-changing environment of the Georgian educational system, not every student knows the alphabet (there’s some students in my year VIII class who don’t know the alphabet, and even a few year X’s and XII’s). Part of the reason for TLG is that the government wants to make English the second language of Georgia, so the students that were learning Russian, German, or French before (the three most popular other foreign languages) are now thrust into an English classroom. But it’s not all on the system, because many of the students just don’t care, or think they can start taking an English class midway through high school. But it’s not like it is back in the States; students aren’t split into classes by ability, instead just ushered along with the rest of their year. But despite my vast intentions, I cannot single-handedly change the system. I have to do the best with what I have.

This gent was like that one guy at a String Cheese Incident concert who took one too many hits of acid... except this was a children's dance recital

Otkhmotsdaati – This brings up another thought I’ve had rumbling around my head for quite some time. Learning a language is a lot like learning math or the sciences. You need to build a solid foundation if you’re ever going to succeed at the higher levels. You can’t understand calculus if you don’t know multiplication just like you can’t understand the perfect tense if you first don’t understand how to conjugate to have. I often come to this realization when thinking about my English degree and how I didn’t come to literature or writing until much later in life. You don’t need to have read Shakespeare to enjoy Hemmingway. All you have to do is know how to string words together (also known as reading) and have an open mind. That’s why I became an English major when I just started to enjoy learning and being a student while in college; my previous laziness and apathy don’t really come back to bite me when it comes to literature. Yeah, it’d be nice to be a little more well-read, but I have the rest of my life to devour James, Tolstoy, and Faulkner.

David the Dancer taking a drink the Georgian way; doing a split, picking it up with your mouth, and then tipping it up all without the help of your hands.

Asi – But every time there’s a Jeopardy answer with a reference to Latin, I think, “Wait, why don’t I know this? I took seven years of Latin… Oh yeah, it’s because I didn’t give a shit so I don’t remember anything.” I didn’t exactly flourish in Italian while in college either, but I blame that on my professors more than anything (I know, lame, but they were really quite terrible). But in acquiring a language, it’s so important to build a solid foundation, or else you’ll have nothing to build on later (yeah, I used the foundation/building metaphor… what of it?). So I’m trying to keep that in mind when teaching the younger kids, because there’s nothing worse than seeing a year XI zoned out while looking out the window because five years earlier they didn’t understand how to conjugate to be.

This was the contraption they used to get water from the river at the monastery where the suphra was held. It flung a bucket down about fifty meters to the river, filled itself up, and then was wound back up to the top. Water tastes so much better when you have to fetch it with an ancient pulley system.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Loud Voices, Board Games & 'It Does Not Matter'

So I told myself that I’d give it about a week before I’d make any sweeping judgments about teaching or school, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t have a few intermediary thoughts. I think I have 11-20 down by now, so I’ll go on to 10-100, because the market owners in Bandza are probably getting fed up of having to communicate prices via calculator.

Ati – My second favorite teacher at the school in Bandza (well, I should probably say the second most entertaining teacher) behind Murmani, my decrepit chain-smoking P.E. teacher, has to be the Russian teacher. I don’t even know her name, but she cracks me up. She’s also old, with long white hair and a permanent scowl on her face. If I was a student there, I’d be terrified of her. Actually, I’m pretty sure everyone is terrified of her, including the other teachers. Anytime she speaks in the teachers’ lounge, her eyes grow wide, her voice raises an octave, and she spews out very loud but punctual Georgian. But, no matter what, she always has the last say. So why do I like her? Whenever she does have some sort of shouting argument with anyone, she’ll turn away, catch my eye, and wink at me with a slight smile; almost as if to say, “I’m really not that mean, but I just like fuckin’ with everybody.” I guess she trusts this secret with only me, because I seem to be the only one who finds it entertaining.

Ian's Host-Father Dato and myself at my birthday celebration in Martvili. Dato kargi katsia

Otsi – I remember watching a Simpsons episode when I was younger in which Lisa is lost in Springfield and stumbles upon the Russian neighborhood. When she asks for directions, an old man playing chess screams back at her in Russian, causing her to run away. But in subtitles the man is in fact giving polite and precise directions. I’d never met any Russians, but this was always how I assumed they spoke; the volume or urgency of their speech had little to do with the content. I still haven’t met any Russians (except for my host-deda [mother] Ira, although she never yells) but I’m pretty sure most Georgians, especially the men, have little control over the volume of their voice (kind of like Jacob Silge, a Will Farrell character from SNL; very underrated). So if two men are just rapidly yelling at each other (like Murmani and Donaldi were on the first day of school), they could in fact just be discussing the delightful weather or sharing an amusing anecdote. The only guy I’m sure was pretty angry was that crazy guy on the marshrutka to Anaklia a while back; although even then I could be wrong. He could have just been suggesting an alternate route.

The Palace in Zugdidi, or as I like to call it, the Paris of Samegrelo

Otsdaati – Speaking of chess, I bought a small portable set that looks like someone had originally carved up whilst doing time in Siberia. It’s perfect for carrying around and only cost ten Lari in Tbilisi ($6). Unfortunately my family prefers checkers (Luka’s favorite game), dominoes (Reziko’s game of choice), or nardi (the Turkish name for backgammon). One afternoon, when the power was out, Reziko handedly beat me in dominoes, Luka dominated me in checkers (of which he was hardly humble about), and a cousin wiped the floor with me in nardi. Everybody in Georgia plays nardi, and they do it with a flair and confidence that can both amaze and bother you.

My host-brother Luka, who does not know how to destroy me in checkers with any humility

Ormotsi – If you don’t know how to play nardi or backgammon, I won’t bore you with the details, but it involves tossing a pair of dice and moving pieces around a board in a clockwise direction. There’s definitely some strategy to the game; enough so that I lose every time I play a Georgian but usually win anytime I play someone with less experience (a.k.a. other volunteers who I’ve just taught how to play). But during a majority of the game, depending on the placement of your chips, there’s an obvious move for each roll. But it doesn’t matter if you just started playing and you have to think it through for a moment, if you’re playing a Georgian and you take longer than five seconds to figure out your move, they’ll move the pieces for you. In fact, you can literally play an entire game without thinking for yourself. It actually takes any fun out of the game, which is why I try to avoid playing other Georgians (at least until I’m good enough to play at their pace), but I don’t know how to say, “Cut it out and let me think for myself.” They just wouldn’t understand, because in their mind, they’re only trying to help you.

Playing nardi like a real amateur

Ormotsdaati – While I was waiting for my marshrutka in Senaki a few weeks back, I was rummaging through my backpack looking for a book when the guy next to me saw my chess set and communicated to me that we should play. I’m pretty sure this guy was crazy, but it’s really hard to pinpoint the crazies in Georgia, because they’re all a little bit off. I think it comes down to the notion that they all want to hug you and maybe plant a kiss on your cheek, and if a stranger (especially of the same sex) wants to have any physical contact with you in the States, you automatically think he’s crazy.

Two old Georgians playing chess on the sidewalks of Tbilisi; crowd barely seen in the background

Sammotsi – Anyway, this guy (who didn’t speak a lick of English) and I end up playing a game of chess in front of half the bus station (when you play chess in Georgia, it’s never a private affair. People huddle around, although they don’t make suggestions obnoxiously; they only judge quietly with a hand on their chin and a serious gaze). I’m pretty sure he let me win, but it just so happened that said crazy guy/chess opponent was on my marshrutka back to Bandza. He kept speaking to me with great enthusiasm while I tried to express to him that I didn’t understand anything he said (ver gavige is the phrase I use the most here, just as it was in Italy: non ho capito). Eventually the guy sitting next to me who spoke some English translated that the gentleman wanted me to come back to his house in Martvili and drink tchatcha (homemade vodka that’s about seventy proof). As much as I try to never say no to these types of invitations because I know a good story would come of it, I still wasn’t feeling well from my Tbilisi trip. I’d also be lying if I didn’t say I had some reservations about ending up in the bottom of a well while being told in Georgian, “It puts the lotion on it’s skin.”

Speaking of weirdos, there was a West Virginia state flag hanging in one of the pubs of Tbilisi

Samotsdaati – But I don’t always say no to tchatcha. This past Shabati (Saturday), I was heading to Senaki for a fellow volunteer’s dabedebis dghes (birthday). I was planning on taking the 8 a.m. marshrutka that goes all the way to Zugdidi, as I was sure that one left on time in the morning (the earlier the marshrutka, the more likely it will be on time or even show up at all), but Reziko convinced me to take the one at eleven. I don’t know what it was about that morning, but for some reason I wasn’t in the best of moods (I think it had something to do with the food; it gets a bit monotonous at times). So when the marshrutka didn’t show up and Reziko just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Next marshrutka, two o’clock,” I was a little ticked. I know it’s not my host family’s job to have the marshrutka schedule memorized, but it had been maybe the fifth time in a row that their times were off, and I also know that it’s not the most concise or reliable means of transportation… But the whole thing just pissed me off. Don’t these people know I have plans and a schedule?

Otkhmotsi – I didn’t want to take it out on Reziko. It wasn’t his fault (well, maybe it was a little bit his fault) and it wasn’t like he deliberately wanted me to miss my bus. But if I’m going to stew and feel sorry for myself, I’m going to do it alone. So I told Reziko I could handle it myself and let him head back to the house. After waiting there a moment while wallowing in my own pity, I decided to head into town, where I knew I wouldn’t miss a ride heading to Senaki. Just as I was about to leave, my neighbor, who runs a very small convenience store where the road to my house and the main road meet, invited me to sit down with him and two other men behind his shop. I thought, what the hell, I could use whatever they may be offering. Five bottles of home-made tchatcha and ninety minutes later, I had forgotten my worries and had a ride already set up for me to Senaki.

This was the group at the beginning of my neighbor's make-shift lunch (notice the one already empty bottle of tchatcha beneath the table/stool)

Otkhmotsdaati – When we sat down near the ditch that runs behind his shop, it was just four of us (all older men from Bandza), and they immediately poured a full glass of tchatcha and toasted to me as a guest. When I told them about Ali’s birthday, we toasted to her, and of course we toasted to all the other things we usually toast to (peace, countries, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, the dead…), hence the massive amounts of vodka consumed. They also had some bread, sliced up tomatoes (these are included in every meal), and sausage, all of which was continually refilled by the host’s wife, who was working in the shop during this whole time. As time went by and we tried to communicate about my situation (my neighbor took my phone, called someone up the road, and then told me not to worry), every older guy that rode his bike past the shop was flagged down and told to join. By the time my marshrutka did show up, there were about ten men stuffed behind that small market, all taking turns at toasts and shots. The best part of it all was when I got off at my stop, the marshrutka driver wouldn’t even take my money. Sometimes, it’s nice to know people.

My neighbor with his youngest son, who, obviously, had seen this all before

Asi – I’m not really doing the whole situation justice, but the point is that in Georgia, no matter how frustrating things get, it always seems to work out. I know that won’t always be the case, but so far it’s been pretty consistent. The key on my end is to always have that mind frame of, “Sometimes, you just have to say, ‘what the fuck’.” Because I’m pretty sure that’s the mind-frame of most Georgians. My co-English teacher Temari has a great sense of humor and (as far as I can tell) is a pretty good teacher, but one of her most-used English phrases is, “It does not matter.” When I was sick on the second day of class (not the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school sick, more like the I-hurled-out-of-my-window-last-night sick), I called her in the morning to tell her I wouldn’t be able to come in, and she just replied, “It does not matter.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or take offense.

The group behind my neighbor's convenient store by the time my marshrutka came; it was quite the gathering

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Family Politics, Neglecting Farmwork, & My Hero Murmani

The Black Sea near Anaklia

So we’ve been told not to be critical towards the program in any media that could be quoted (another volunteer’s blog was quoted in an online feature), and though I doubt anybody outside my immediate family frequents this site (Hi, Grandpa!), I should probably heed the word unless I want to shipped back to the States or taken to the “rehabilitation camps” (I’m messing with you guys). So there will be no outward complaining towards TLG or the education system in Georgia; all of that will come in personal emails to close confidents who I know not to be in cahoots with Saakashvili.

Tertmet’i – Speaking of which, I won’t be overly critical of Misha here, basically because I have no real reason to be. In fact I should probably be singing his praises while spewing anti-Putin propaganda. Without Misha, I probably wouldn’t be in Georgia. He has put a tremendous amount of political power into the program (in his speech to us in Batumi, he cited his brother-in-law who has taught foreign languages abroad for twenty years as part of the motivation behind the project). There’s a reason the people of Georgia are calling us Misha’s Masts’avlebeli (Teachers). Plus, despite the ostentatiously heinous Presidential Palace (which I’m still not sure Saakashvili built), I think he’s generally been a good President to Georgia (as far as I can tell, but I’m no post-Soviet scholar). Or probably more accurately, Georgia could do a lot worse.

The monastery in Martvili that dates back to when men were still men... or something like that

Tortmet’i – But just because I think so, doesn’t make it so with all Georgians. First of all, I don’t know what a majority of Georgians think about Misha; hell, I haven’t even seen an approval rating. But I know what my two little dzma (host-brothers) think. Anytime the President is shown on TV, Luka (12-years old) looks at me, shakes his head in disappointment, and mutters, “Saakashvili, stupid.” It never gets old, which is why I always point him out when he’s shown on TV flying a plane over Batumi (true story) or visiting Azerbaijan: “Saakashvili, stupid.” Reziko (14-years old) is less vehement, but it doesn’t stop him from giving the double thumbs down with a look of disgust on his face. But all of this might stem from both of my host-brothers being half-Russian. Luka even told me that he loves Putin, which seemed odd to me. It would be like a boy born in 1860’s Virginia of a Southern father and a Northern mother saying, “Jefferson Davis, stupid.” Usually you go with the home field advantage, but what do I know.

Ian's little host-brother Luka; don't let the cuteness fool you, he's an absolute monster...

Tsamet’i – Some readers have expressed their need for more Babua Rezo (my host-Grandfather if you’re a first-timer here at GNJB). But I really don’t have all that much to tell besides what we already know; he works early in the morning, naps in the midday, and spends the rest of his time sitting on the couch in the eating house ripping cigarettes. I did notice today that Rezo lacks a ring-finger on his right hand, while only retaining half of his pointing-finger on the same hand. I can only assume this was the product of a farming accident. Actually come to think of it, not too many men in Bandza have ten workable digits; there’s either a stub here or there, a finger pointing the wrong way (something similar to what we see in football before the trainer snaps it back into place), or they have arthritis that cripples the entire hand (which makes for some awkward handshakes). Other than that, Rezo keeps out of my way, which is, I believe, because he thinks I’m either lazy or a big pus… or more likely a combination of both.

Totkhmet’i – I don’t consider myself lazy here, but I could see how someone might. I spend a lot of time in my bedroom either reading or writing, other than that I’m running to the river, tchame (eating), at school (now, but not for the three weeks preceding the start of school), or traveling to meet up with fellow volunteers. Other than actually teaching, there’s little I do that a man like Rezo would consider productive. I may be overanalyzing the situation as I just remembered that Rezo sleeps half the day, but nevertheless I do feel a bit useless at times. Especially during this time of year, which is when many are the busiest on the farms (I could try to act like I know what they’re busy with, but let’s just save myself the embarrassment, call myself a no-nothing city slicker, and move on with it). Even the boys are put to work during this time despite the start of school; after getting home, they eat, digest, and then follow the rest of the family off to the crops down the road until dark (and when I say dark, I mean dark).

Ian's other host-brother Tsotne and myself; Tsotne, unlike Luka, is a real sweatheart

Tkhutmet’i – Which kind of puts me in an awkward position. Would I like to lend a hand? Yes, of course; not only to feel like a meaningful part of the family, but also to be able to say, “Yeah, when I was twenty-five, I was sharecropping in Northwest Georgia.” But also, part of me is mindful of opening up that door (or floodgate, as I like to call it). As I said, our host-families generally don’t let us do anything (my buddy Raughley tried to dry his laundry and his host-Mom freaked out, thinking that the neighbors would see and consider them terrible hosts. “If you really want to, you can do it during the night, when they cannot see,” she said. Hanging laundry at night kind of defeats the point though, right?). But some volunteers, specifically the girls (women, or what have you), have been quite persistent that they want to help. Like my friend Stephanie who finally broke through with doing the dishes a few weeks back, and now after every meal, everyone goes into the TV room while she clears and cleans the dishes. Now, Stephanie’s a good person who doesn’t mind consistently lending a hand while not even complaining to fellow volunteers (she told us this in pride, rather than angst), but I’m a bit of an asshole. So no matter how well my Mother raised me to always do the dishes at a guests home, or how my Father would always tell me to help on the family farm if I’m ever in Georgia (the former is true, the latter… not so much); I kind of enjoy where I’m at right now, and I’m a bit scared to try and have it both ways (“Well, it was fun helping you sow some maize, but I’m a bit tired so I think I’ll retire to my room to read some Hemmingway”). I think it’s all or nothing, and I’m pretty comfortable with nothing right now. Again, if you haven’t caught on, I’m kind of an asshole.

The shavi khvino (black wine) making process at the family farm

Teqvsmet’i – Getting back to the men of Bandza, I may have a new GNJB celebrity that could take over from where Rezo left off. The Physical Education teacher at my school is my new Bandza hero. The fist time I met Murmani, I thought he was one of the other teachers’ Babua (Grandfather); he looks that old and decrepit. But no, he’s the man that must whip the young people of Bandza into tip-top shape. He’s probably seventy years old (or more accurately, he’s probably fifty-five but looks like he’s eighty-five, I just went with the in-between), he might weigh 120 pounds (I can get used to kilometers, but forget about me using kilograms… and fuck stones), he’s got arthritis in his right-hand, and he has a hearing-aid. During our first school meeting which basically involved our principle speaking to all the teachers for about an hour, Murmani sat in the corner reading the paper (which is all I ever observe him doing) until for a reason I’m still unsure of, got into a shouting argument with Donaldi (our principle with the least Georgian name I’ve come upon) for five minutes straight, after which he got up, bummed a cigarette off another male teacher, and then sat by the window puffing away. Murmani: the P.E. teacher who looks two steps from the grave, isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with our principle, probably can’t grip any sort of sporting equipment, and smokes in the teacher’s lounge. Talk about a role model. The best part is when he tries to talk to me (he doesn’t speak a word of English and most of his Georgian is incomprehensible); all my co-teacher Tamari can translate is that Murmani is looking for a good Georgian woman for me. I can’t wait until he introduces me to his eligible forty-five year old granddaughter.

The sunset near the coast of the Black Sea

Chvidmet’i – Whenever I visit other places in Samegrelo (the region in which most of the volunteers from my group are placed), meet other Georgians (mostly other volunteers’ host-families), and tell them I am in Bandza, even if they don’t know where Bandza is, they laugh. Most of the people in Senaki, Martvili, and Abasha know where Bandza is because it’s at the crossroads between those three towns and another town called Khoni. They snicker even louder. I always thought it was mostly because they’ve seen the town and how Podunk it is. But recently, even another volunteer laughed when I told him I was in the village of Bandza. I looked at him quizzically; maybe it was just a funny name.“That’s the Georgian term for hillbilly,” he said. Later on I also found out that the Georgian word for garbage is bandzi, which explains a lot.

Tvramet’i – But honestly, I love Bandza. I love the people. I love the quiet. I love the river Abasha. I love the simplicity of it all. All of that isn’t to say I don’t get bored or need to get away every now and then, but overall, I really do enjoy it here. As I’ve said before, it may just be the honeymoon period and talk to me in two months (especially as the weather gets worse; I met a boarder policeman on a marshrutka the other day who spoke good English and all he had to say about Bandza was that it gets really cold there in the winter… great). But the simplicity is one of the main things I cherish about this place. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to put myself through work on the farm, or maybe it’s because I just finished reading Doctor Zhivago and feel a bit whimsical about the countryside, but I’ve always been a city person and always thought I’d be one, and though I wouldn’t exactly go back on that just yet, I now see the allure behind “going to the country.”

Lasha in the midst of adding sugar water to the green grapes, which will eventually make terti khvino (white wine)

Tskhramet’i – In much shorter form, this is what I tell my students when they ask me what I like most about Georgia (and every class has asked that question). I like the simplicity. I tell them that in America everybody’s in a hurry; busy, busy, busy. And then Tamari (my co-teacher) says to me, “Yes, but we are too simple here, which makes us lazy. Some people don’t even have food to eat.” At which point I nod and feel like an even bigger asshole.

And boom goes the dynamite...

Otsi – I finally found out what my host mama (father; I know it’s weird) Lasha does for a living; he works on the farm, that’s it. I’m still not sure how he affords private school for his kids, a Mercedes Benz (I kind of understand that as almost everyone here has a Mercedes), and internet, but the way Luka described it today, he does nothing all winter when there’s no work on the farm. All of this came out during a conversation we had about Lasha wanting to learn English. I had previously wrote about how the volunteers can pay back the families that take them in and feed them for free; one of the ways of going about this was to help their children with English (think aupair; only use English around the kids type of thing). But recently, I realized that more than anything, Lasha wants to learn English. I guess it was kind of short-sighted at first, but it’s become clearer and clearer that Lasha loves America, wants to visit the States with his family eventually (he’s asked several times about plane ticket costs), and would like to know some English to get around when he does go. So I told him that during the winter months, I would give him English lessons. I guess it’s something to keep him busy, and myself busy as well. Or it’s a way to make up for my neglectful farm work. Who’s the asshole now?

The immediate aftermath of the birth of a new baby bull on the farm... kind of gross

Sorry for the length of the post (and the length of the individual bullets; I know some of these probably felt like you were reading Plato, minus any sort of philosophical genius), but I really had the creative juices flowing today combined with a lot stored up between birthdays, funerals, Tbilisi, and the start of school. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tbilisi: Gentrification, Beach Courting, & Turkish Baths

The first thing I see when I get off the marshrutka in Bandza, droghebi (cows). I knew I was home...

Due to power outages and a busy schedule (start of school, birthday, pregnant cow), I wasn’t able to really tackle my Tbilisi trip in the way I wanted, plus I have some thoughts churning up that do not involve Tbilisi, so I’ll try to sum up the leftovers on the capital in these next ten points. The lesson is to never let things sit, although I’m sure it won’t be the last time I make it to Tbilisi  while over here.

Tertmet’i – Across from Old Tbilisi and up the slope of the hill, there’s quite the gentrification going on. It actually starts in Old Tbilisi, where the pedestrian walkway area leads to a brand new pedestrian bridge that crosses over the river. They still haven’t finished the entire bridge as it’s quartered off from the other side that leads to a yet-to-be finished park, but what is done is quite the spectacle. The entire bridge is made up of glass, and at night it’s glowing with lights that are built into the glass. More amazingly, the lights operate only when someone is on the bridge. The closer you get to the rail, the brighter that part of the bridge gets. For a country that is full of people living on the poverty line, it’s quite the lavish expenditure. Which isn’t to say that it’s not money well spent; it’s a really nice pedestrian bridge and is gorgeous at night silhouetting off the river. But I’m just sayin’…

Nicest pedestrian bridge this side of Venice

Tormet’i - Probably an even worse offense is the Presidential Palace (pictured below), which, granted I know little about (like if it was built by Saakashvili or the previous president), sits atop the hill above the new pedestrian bridge and is an absolute monstrosity. The best way to describe it is if someone with zero class won the lottery and decided to build a house that they considered “real nice.” It’s got these ridiculous columns on the face of it (which looks over the center of the city) and then an even more ridiculous glass dome at the top. It looks like something out of a bad future sci-fi movie (think Starship Troopers, inter-galactic congress type of building). I know the Georgian people and politicians want to have a nice building where they can host foreign dignitaries, but I could think of a million better ways of going about it.

That does not belong...

Tsamet’i – Like not building it in the middle of a slum. I mentioned earlier how Tbilisi, despite it being a fairly 21st-century city, is still full of shack-like homes and rundown housing. One day, we walked up towards the Presidential Palace and after being told not to take pictures of the foreign embassies (a fair request), we came up to the Palace, which was heavily guarded but not that far off the street. Right across was a house that looked like it was one crow’s nest away from falling down. This wasn’t exactly Pennsylvania Avenue  to say the least. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if it tells us anything, it’s that the government tore down tons of those types of tenements just to build the Palace in the first place. Who knows what will happen to the remaining slums, but I don’t foresee a happy ending. There was already someone building a fairly posh looking residence up the street; all that needed to open were a yoga studio and an artesian bread shop and you have Williamsburg, Brooklyn all over again (and they didn’t even have the spur of a Presidential Palace; just a few white people with a superiority complex).

That's more like it...

Totkhmet’i – Right up the street from the palace is the fairly new Georgian Orthodox Church and headquarters (it’s only ten years old). Now this makes sense. The church isn’t absurdly large (in fact, none of the Georgian Orthodox churches are big, something I’ll tackle at a different date), but sits in the middle of a gated and well-tended property. It’s tastefully done and well put together, the type of project that should have been emulated when thinking about a residence for the country’s most powerful person. I digress, but in a country filled with beautiful old buildings dotting the countryside, it’s weird that they could get it right with a church, but so wrong with a government building. Well, maybe it’s not that weird.

Tkhutmet’i – I said I’d get back to the Metro but there’s not much to say. It’s extremely easy to follow with just one main line (and another that we never used that makes it’s way up into the nicer suburbs south of the city) while also very affordable at just 40 tetri (24 cents) per ride. It’s a much easier way to get around than by bus or marshrutka. Unfortunately, I have no crazy stories about a man that refused to give up his seat. One thing that did stand out were the beggars on the Metro and how much business they received (business in terms of money, not business in my terms). Everybody gave them change, except for us volunteers. We have zero patience for Gypsy beggars.

Public art in honor of the Rose Revolution inside the Metro

Teqvsmet’i – Bill was the most vehemently disgusted with Gypsies. One ruined his water by sticking their finger in the spout after being denied one of Bill’s new pears, while two other gypsies latched onto him for no apparent reason and gave him a “Gypsy Rash” on his arm that has yet to go away. Then while we were playing chess in the park, a little girl who was swimming in the fountain came over to us and started yapping at me in Georgian. I tried to communicate to her that I didn’t understand, and finally she got fed up and wandered off. Bill thought she wanted money and when I asked why, he said she was a Gypsy. “How did you know?” I asked. “She had dirty feet,” Bill replied. I hadn’t noticed, but apparently that’s a dead-giveaway. I have much to learn.

These aren't Gypsies, but the couple who sang Georgian folk songs at the cafe I wrote about in the last post; couldn't leave them out

Chvidmet’i – Probably my favorite part about Tbilisi were the public parks. Having grown up in Pittsburgh and lived in Charleston, SC for a few years, I really appreciate a good public space, weather it’s a park, pedestrian walkway, or just a small fountain at an intersection (like Savannah, which has awesome public spaces). Tbilisi has heaps of parks and fountains that make the city both extremely livable and enjoyable. My favorite park ran down from Rustaveli Avenue  to the river and a bridge that held a daily out-door bazaar. Being in Bandza makes me miss just walking to a park, sitting on a bench, and people watching (or as some like to call it, stalking).

Me looking up to the statue that stands in the front of my favorite park in Tbilisi

Trvamet’i Tbilisi has everything, even it’s own Sea! Well, actually it’s a reservoir, but it’s called the Tbilisi Sea. A few of us went up there one of the days (missing the wedding in the process; bad friends we are) and got to see a fairly odd courting session. As I’ve mentioned, sexual relations in this country are highly suppressed and complicated. But the pressure put on women to remain chaste has one resounding effect: some of the men go insane after a certain point, and will do anything just for the scent of a woman (there’s a whole other post in here about how Georgian men treat and act towards foreign [specifically American] women). At the reservoir, this Georgian guy, probably about my age, hops in the water, gets out, and then sits five feet away from a group of three girls; all of this being about ten feet away from us (meanwhile, his clothes are on the opposite side of where we are sitting, making it all the more weird). As he lies facedown on the beach, he hums/sings some Georgian song while slowly but surely edging closer and closer to the girls. Eventually he edges a part of his body onto one of the girls’ towels, which only causes them to get up and resituate. But there were zero communicative objections so the guy just continues to creep closer and closer. We were somewhat concerned, but when we caught the look of one of the girls, she just animated that he was harmless if not a bit crazy. The whole thing was odd; is this how men pick up girls in Georgia? All we knew was that if you tried that at Folly Beach, you would have the cops called on you for some mixture of harassment and assault. I’m not doing the whole situation justice, but it was one of the weirder interactions I’ve seen since getting here.

Sketchy Georgian creeping on some unsuspecting ladies at the Tbilisi Sea

Tskhramet’i – One of the last days while in Tbilisi, a group of us went to the dabanas (Turkish Baths) and got a scrub and massage. The girls and guys each got our own personal rooms, which meant that Bill, Raughley (lives in Tbilisi and knows Russian, a good guy to have around), and German Paul (only one of our group who was stationed in Batumi; highly hilarious if only for his German accent and laid-back seriousness) all got naked and sat in our personal bath/sauna (which we only lasted about 15 minutes in before having to get out and cool off). Needless to say, we all know each a whole lot better now than we did a few weeks ago. Once you’ve hung out with a buddy naked for an hour in a foreign country, you’ve officially gone from friends to good friends… and there’s no going back either. Eventually, this old wrinkly guy comes in wearing some sort of Speedo bathing suit and lays us down on this marble slab while scrubbing off all our dead skin (both sides) for five minutes. Then he gives you a five-minute massage (or cleaning) with soap, after which you soak in the tub for another ten minutes. It was the best 40 Lari ($24) I’ve ever spent. I felt five years younger when I got out of there. Thank God I don’t live in Tbilisi, because I would go broke from frequenting the baths. If anybody comes to visit, straight from the airport we’re going to take a shvitz (that’s actually a Yiddish word for sweat that my friends know me to use for shower).

Paul, Bill, and Raughley moments after our scrub down and massage, looking like a million bucs

Otsi – Bonnie M. How did it take me so long to get back to their sweet, sweet sound. I’m sure no one really cares by this point (and if you did, you clicked on the link from the last post and read all you needed to know about this German Disco group made up of Caribbean dancers/singers). When we were in Zugdidi a while back, Bill kept on noticing the odd music that played on the marshrutkas; it was in English, but we had never heard it before. Who is this band that has all of these hits in Georgia (and if it’s a hit in Georgia, it’s probably a hit in Russia and the surrounding regions) but we’ve never heard of? The one song we kept hearing in particular had the refrain of, “Ra, Ra, Rasputin. Lover of the Russian Queen.” Before we even had to Google it, the Bonie M. DVD came on outside that café in Old Tbilisi and played Ra, Ra, Rasputin along with other hits such as Daddy Cool and Rivers of Babylon. We were both stunned and in awe of their musical genius. What topped it all off was at the beginning of every song, German Paul saying, “Yeah, I know this song, too.” F’n Germans.

As promised, a picture of me with the crazy guy outside of the Beatles Club

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tbilisi: Catwalk from Hell, Old Tbilisi, & the Touristy Irish Pub District

Staring up at the statue in Freedom Square. It used to be a statue of Lenin, but they tore it down in '91 and put up a badass depiction of St. George atop a horse killing a dragon with a triton

So enough of that morbid shit. Back to Tbilisi, and I’ll try to avoid a day-by-day summary of what went down.

Tertmet’i – When you’re in Tbilisi, you kind of forget you’re in Georgia. They have real coffee, bars with wi-fi, several McDonalds, a Metro (which I’ll get to later), and no farm animals roaming the streets. Out of the 4 million plus people who live in Georgia, over a third of them live in Tbilisi, and I see why (not because of the McDonalds, but other reasons).

Tormet’i Tbilisi reminds me of Pittsburgh  just a little bit geography wise. There’s a river that snakes it way through the city from East to West, but it’s not in the middle of a valley. Both sides of the river slope upwards to the hills that boarder the area. There’s very little flat land (actually less than Pittsburgh  probably) and if you get off the main streets, you can find yourself making a pretty big hike uphill. The elevation change also lends itself to some pretty impressive views.

City Hall at Freedom Square

Tsamet’i – I don’t want to give off the impression that Tbilisi is some oasis of splendor, because it’s not. Once you get out of the Old Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue, and Avlabari, the town is filled with what we saw in Kutaisi: old soviet tenement buildings and past it’s due date infrastructure. The apartment that Bill and I rented was in Didube, an area Northwest of city center, and was fantastic for us, but definitely a little sketchy. To get there you had to hop on the Metro and get off at the Elektrodepo stop (one of the only stops on the Metro above ground), walk out of the Metro building and to the opposite side only to go back up steps onto this catwalk, which goes over the rail yard for about half of a kilometer. The catwalk was made out of concrete and was littered with cracks the size of skateboards. There was also zero lighting at night, and beneath the catwalk were tons of stray dogs just waiting for a victim to fall over so they can ravish the corpse (well, maybe not, but that’s what it seemed like).

Bill's and my apartment building, quite the palace

Totkhmet’i – But as I said earlier, parts of the city were really quite nice… almost too nice. Old Tbilisi was my favorite area as it was filled with old churches (including a synagogue and mosque), the streets were cobbled and narrow, and there was a really nice pedestrian walkway that cut along the river with tons of cafes and bars scattered about. It was a little pricey (comparatively speaking) but I think it was money well spent to get a good drink and a refreshing atmosphere. Although Bill and I were both bummed that we couldn’t go to Vault, a nightclub along the pedestrian walkway whose door was just a giant bank vault. We’re pretty sure that instead of having your name on the list, you just have a combination code to get in. Very Euro.

The Catwalk from Hell; or it's literal translation in Georgian, Place of Rape.

Tkhutmet’i – Rustaveli Avenue was also quite classy. The nicest part runs from the concert hall at the top of the hill down to Tavisufleba Square (better known as Freedom Square). There are tons of upscale shops (Zegna, Dior, etc.), fancy hotels, and some of the more important buildings in the city (Ministry of Justice, City Hall, etc.). Though it has a wide and comfortable sidewalk to stroll along, I still prefer the Old Tbilisi area, as it’s more authentic and filled with less douchers (not including Vault).

Ministry of Justice, say what? Little shout out for my Moms

Teqvsimet’i – The touristy Irish Pub district was about three blocks long and only one block off of Rustaveli towards the concert hall and Metro stop. The group tended to migrate there each night, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for on my trip. I went to Florence to go to Irish Pubs (not actually, but that’s what it felt like), and I think I had my fill while there. But we did find a pretty neat locally owned café along the strip (quite out of place now that I think of it), which was filled with art from the owner (even the menus were done by him). The one night we were there, an older group of Georgians were sitting at a table near the piano, and the of the men would play a song every few minutes (he was an excellent piano player) while the lady in the group would sing in Georgian. What made it memorable was how they would stare at each other during the performance, it was intense but exactly what some of us were looking for, rather than Buffalo Bill’s Saloon (yes, there actually was a bar right across the street with that name, pictured below). I told the owner Sandro that I would send out the good word, so if you’re in Tbilisi, definitely frequent the N. Gallery on Akhvlediani Str. They’re actually on Facebook as well, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Bill in front of his bar; I've traveled 4000 miles to a small country in Eurasia, now where's the Goddamn saloon?

Tvramet’i – The Beatles Club was also up in that district, which was a European type dance club in the basement of a restaurant. At first they tried to charge us 10 Lari for cover, but then realized we were American and let us all in for free (oh, the perks of being American, even if they can only be found half-way across the world). We had a good time and many of the volunteers ended most of their nights there, as it was open until 4 a.m. My only recollection was on the first night, while waiting outside the club helping some of the girls get a cab, there was this crazy guy without a shirt on who kept on trying to lift me up (he was about half my size). All I know is that Marissa, a fellow volunteer, has a ton of pictures of me with my shirt unbuttoned trying to be picked up by this nut job like he was carrying a bride to a honeymoon suite. Now I have to blackmail Marissa with pictures of her being molested on the dance floor by Georgian men. We have an agreement. Side note: the girls complimented me on my ability to sense when a Georgian man was creeping on the dance-floor and quickly step in front to dance with the prospective victim. They used a term that I would rather not repeat, let’s just call it the gentleman in me, although I’m sure it’s a skill (or 6th  sense) that I picked up Italy. Ultimatum: no matter where you go in Europe, there will be creepy men on the dance floors, although you could probably say the same for American “dance clubs.”

I didn't really know where to splice these pictures in, but I figured the Synagogue would fit between the creepy Georgian men and the only gay bar in Georgia. 

Tskhramet’i – The only other bar of note on that strip was the sole gay bar in all of Georgia. They are a few gay volunteers in our group, although the one lesbian amazingly already has a Georgian girlfriend whom she met in her small village (what are the odds?). One of the nights, most of the group decided to make a pilgrimage over there (we’re volunteers and we’re accepting of all walks of society; at least that’s what’s Stuff White People Like told us). I didn’t attend, but apparently there was no one in there, and after about 20 minutes, someone told them they should leave. So it’s official; the only impolite people in Georgia are the gays. Talk about backwards. Side note: please do not take that seriously.

This is a street that resembles Old Tbilisi (although I don't think it's actually in that neighborhood), but it's cobbled, narrow and snakes it's way up the hillside

Otsi – The last night in Tbilisi a group of us went to a café along the pedestrian walkway in Old Tbilisi. We picked the place because they were projecting a BB King concert DVD on a giant screen across the walkway; plus they made Irish Coffee Milkshakes. Unfortunately, right as we sat down, the DVD ended and they put in a different one. It was the best of Boney M. And just like that I will end this post as they end every episode of True Blood; overall it kind of sucked, but that cliffhanger makes me want more! As a teaser, I promise to include a photo of me, shirt unbuttoned, with the guy from outside the Beatles Club. Stay tuned...

View from the balcony of our apartment in Didube, Tbilisi

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Birthdays and Funerals

Pink rose at the house of the deceased

When I was heading to Tbilisi last week, my host-father Lasha was supposed to drive me to Senaki at 10 p.m. in order to catch my train, but at around 4 p.m. all hell broke loose; everyone in the house was running around and Lasha looked flustered. I asked him what was wrong, and he tried to communicate to me that a cousin had been hurt by hitting his head off of something, and that he needed to leave immediately (Lasha knows next to zero English, so our means of communication are fairly comical).

Ira called my English teacher Tamari to explain to me over the phone that Lasha would not be able to drive me to Senaki, but I could take a marshrutka (quick note: I’ve been misspelling marshrutka the whole time, leaving out the second r; as German Pauli would say, “Whoopsi.”) at 5:30 p.m. All of this was fine by me, but I didn’t really understand the seriousness of the situation until while waiting for the marshrutka, Luka told me that the man had died.

I felt bad leaving for Tbilisi on the day of a family tragedy, but there was little I could have done by sticking around. When I got back, I was informed that I’d be going to the funeral with them on Tuesday (which I already covered here). Part of me was hesitant; during all of the orientation and cultural information sessions, we had never covered funerals. I had been told not to miss a chance at going to a Georgian wedding, but when it came to funerals, I had no idea what to expect. Although part of me felt proud that the family would already include me in such an important event. 

Lasha’s cousins came into town and stayed with us, while two other family members from Bandza also accompanied us as we took the two family cars to the man’s village, which was up the road past Martvili and into the foothills of the North Caucusus.

About ten kilometers past Martvili we get onto this dirt road littered with giant potholes, so we have to drive at about 20 km/hr, which is basically a slow crawl compared to how fast we usually drive. That road followed along a river that snaked it’s way up the valley between giant foothills on both sides. After about an hour in the car, we pulled up to a house surrounded by parked cars. All the women entered the yard first, while the men followed behind.

The house was similar to most Georgian households. It was two stories with double-doors on the first floor that probably opened up in to some sort of family living room (they were closed for the viewing), and then an outside staircase on the right side that led up to the second floor with a balcony area. The viewing was in the main room on the second floor, so the visitors were ushered up the staircase group by group.

While waiting to be ushered up, from the yard I could hear a feint wailing sound. As we got closer to the staircase, the sound got louder and more intense. It was at that moment I thought, maybe I’m not ready for this.

I haven’t been to my fair share of funerals (I mean, I’m no Harold or Maude) and those I have been to haven’t been open casket. I had no idea what to expect, but from the continuous sound of crying coming from the second floor, something told me that whatever I was about to see would be startling.

I was trying to pay attention to how most of the men were acting, in order to have some sort of code to follow. Most of them around the yard were fairly stone-faced, but the men who were making their way down the stairs from the viewing room were using their handkerchief (all Georgian men carry handkerchiefs, mostly to keep the constant sweat off their foreheads) to dry their eyes and clear their noses. But one thing I was sure of was Lasha not crying.

Lasha is a fairly intimidating physical specimen; he’s short but stout, with arms like a lumberjack, and such a square jaw that he looks cartoonish at times. I hope to never see him unleash fury (in fact, I bet on not seeing it; he’s a kargi katsi [good man]), because he looks like he could tear a man apart limb to limb. Add to the appearance his deep Mingrelian voice and you get what I might call, a pretty tough guy.

So as we are making our way up the steps and the wailing keeps getting louder, I’m starting to get a little nervous. We get to the balcony and then walk into the main room. Right as we walk through the doorway, all the men I’m with begin sobbing, including Lasha. I look around and the room is bordered with tons of wailing older Georgian women, and the casket is in the middle of the room. The casket was open with just the head of the man showing, green with decay and bruises from his accident still showing. He looked younger than his age (34) but I only got as close as I needed and turned around, as did all the other men who I followed out the door to pay our respects to the father, brothers, and nephew of the deceased who were waiting by the entrance (also sobbing uncontrollably). After that we walked down the stairs and went around to the back where all the men lit up cigarettes and immediately stopped crying. After that, the only time a few of the men got stuffed up was when they were lowering the casket into the grave.

The whole procession only lasted a few minutes, but it was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life: the wailing (that I believe were Georgian Orthodox prayers), the decaying body, and the male sobbing (which seemed like it was turned off and on with a switch, but of course was not, a subject I’ll get to later). It was something I would expect out of a romanticized novel set in the 17th century, but never see myself being a part of.

After viewing the body, we sat down in the eating area which was behind the house, seated over 150 people, and was covered by old Marlboro adds that acted as tarps. The men sat together while the women stayed in the viewing room to mourn. For thirty minutes we ate and toasted to the dead with wine from pitchers that were never empty (people constantly came through refilling everything on the table).

After four hours of waiting in the yard; they carried the casket out and the procession was led by all the children carrying the flowers that people brought, followed by six men who carried the casket (still open). The men took turns carrying the casket up a steep hill behind the property to the cemetery (I am not doing that hill or the difficulty of the task any justice; it took thirty minutes to get up there and I was winded by just walking up it). They carried it around a small church at the top of the hill three times (to represent the holy trinity, I assume) and then slightly down hill to the burial plot. They closed the casket, lowered it into the ground, and then everyone took turns tossing a handful of dirt on top of the lowered casket while a few men busied themselves filling the grave with cement and dirt. Afterwards, we ate again and then headed home at 8 p.m. while it was getting dark.

I kind of breezed over the procession, but the viewing was the part that really struck me. What I’m about to say may not pertain to a majority of people’s opinions, but it’s my honest feeling about how death is handled back home as compared to here in Georgia.

In the States, funerals are mostly seen as a celebration of the life of the deceased. We celebrate their life through remembrance and by gathering with their friends and family. It’s not looked down upon to cry at a funeral, but for a person to hysterically sob is almost seen as inappropriate of selfish. This is about the deceased, not about you. Pull yourself up and keep it together for just a few hours, at which point you can seek solitude and bawl your eyes out for hours on end. In fact, the real mourning period is supposed to take place immediately following the death and end right before you have to put on a happy face and be sociable. But it doesn’t always work that way.

When my Father’s long-time girlfriend died in a car-crash when I was 16, I didn’t cry until the middle of the ceremony held at the Phipps Conservatory (about a week after the accident), and I couldn’t control myself at all, sobbing hysterically for a majority of the service.

My Father didn’t spout many tears immediately following the passing of his mother, but when confronted with delivering a speech at the ceremony in Pittsburgh, he could barely utter two words before succumbing to sobs.

When I found out my best friend had a very serious cancer last fall, I was in shock for three days, before at a random moment whilst in my bedroom at home in Charleston, I began hysterically crying for two hours.

Grief or the realization of it, as much as we want to control it, can’t be controlled. It can hit us at any time and when it does, we are completely vulnerable to it. No matter what the rules we laid out or envisioned for us dealing with any sort of sad news, few times does it go as planned.

All of this is to say how tragically beautiful and profound it was to walk into that room on Tuesday and see all of that pent up grief let loose. The discipline it takes to control the most spastic of emotions, and then to be able to drain yourself just like that…

Our program coordinator Nino has constantly preached to us that this experience is a give and take, and just like any other cultural exchange, you each learn and borrow from each other. Attending a Georgian funeral on my 25th birthday was an experience that I’ll be able to draw upon for the rest of my life; something for which I will be forever grateful to the Gabunias and the Georgian people. Mshvidobisa.

Looking down on the burial after the long procession up the hill