Tuesday, November 30, 2010


In true Thanksgiving fashion, here is a picture of Lasha doing something old fashioned and manly: choppin' wood.

This horribly busy month of Movember is almost over (oh yeah, remember to MOnate while you still can!), so I should get back to more regular posting when the relaxing month of December roles around. Although I head off to Southeast Asia for four weeks on the 20th, so I don’t know what I’ll be doing here during that excursion. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime, as promised, here’s a list of things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving. Yeah, I know Thanksgiving is over, but deal with it.

Teachers – Mostly I’m thankful for teachers everywhere, as now that I’m finally a card-carrying member (at least to some degree), I understand how much of a thankless and rough occupation it is. Particularly, I’m thankful for my fellow teachers at the Bandza School, who don’t resent me despite the fact that I make more money while doing far less with little experience to back it up. I’m especially thankful for my wonderfully understanding co-teacher Tamari, my fearsome dance instructor Vephkhvia, and the ever-watchful Soso (who told me last week that Coca Cola causes cancer; I didn’t know how to respond in Georgian with What doesn’t cause cancer?)

Hospitality – The word that defines Georgia. I’m thankful for my host family in particular (which I’ll get to later), but also to all the other families who have provided a roof over my head and enough food to supply a small army. Particularly Ian’s host family in Martvili who has never hesitated to force khatchapuri down my gullet and wine down my throat. Dato and Lali are like my second host-family here and I’m thankful for that trait of hospitality they share with the rest of this country. Just last night I was given another taste of Georgian hospitality. I was in Martvili trying to watch the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona match that started at midnight, but when Dato’s satellite dish couldn’t get the channel that the game was on, he drove us over to his friend’s house to watch the game at 1 a.m. Then when we left after watching Barca put on an absolute clinic, the host gave Ian and I each a bottle of wine. Only in Georgia can you invite yourself over to someone’s house in the middle of the night and leave with a gift.

Autumn – I don’t know if this has to do with global warming (also known as man-bear-pig), but the weather in the past two months has been incredible. I’ve always loved Fall, which specifically comes from growing up in Pittsburgh, where the only season you can really appreciate is Fall (Spring feels like it’s only two weeks long, Winter sucks, and Summer is just three months of miserable humidity). But the weather in Samegrelo for the past three months has only reinforced my belief that Fall is where it’s at; with the brisk but light air, changing of the leaves, and clear skies that have reminded me just how wonderful Autumn is.

BaNdza – Say what you want about Bandza (and not many people say much because it’s pretty non-descript besides the name), but it’s my home and I love it. The village has accepted me into their community without hesitation and as long as I’m here, I never have anything to worry about. I can’t walk to town without being bombarded with gomarjoba’s and rogora khart’s.

SaaKashvili – Despite humoring Lasha by responding with boghzi when he yells out Misha’s name, I’ll repeat in saying that I don’t know all that much about the man or his politics. All I do know is that I wouldn’t be here without him. There’s a reason all TLGers are referred to as ‘Misha’s Teachers’ throughout Georgia. So despite Lasha’s attempted brainwashing, I’m still thankful for Saakashvili.

Students – Some more than others of course. But in all seriousness, they’re all good kids. I’m especially thankful that they are patient with me being impatient with them. I’m also thankful that at such a young age, they already understand that things will get better with time.

Georgia – This is a given, but just to reiterate, I’m thankful for everything this small but incredible country has afforded me so far. But I have a feeling it’s just the tip of the iceberg I’m talking about. Here’s to hoping my last six months will be just as memorable as my first four. I’m also thankful for Sakartvelo giving me something interesting to write about.

Ira – Special thanks to my host-mother Ira, who, as previously mentioned, does everything for me. Without her I’d be lost, sustaining on a diet of chips and coca-cola, constantly wearing dirty clothes, and probably sprawled out dead at the bottom of an empty pool somewhere. She is incredible.

Volunteers – Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t use this as a term for my fellow TLG teachers, but it fits too well in this spot not to be used. I never thought I would make this many good friends so quickly. There’s a reason I never get homesick, and that’s because I’ve got friends in Georgia that make it tough for me to ever feel complacent. Thank you all for your constant help and support; I’ll be missing a ton of you who are leaving in December, although I feel as if that won’t diminish the friendships we’ve built since we were packed into that dorm in the ghetto of Kutaisi. We’re a motley crew, but I wouldn’t trade you for anything.

XI Class – By far my most enjoyable class (it’s actually a shame I only get them twice a week). Even if I am convinced that two of my students show up high to class (the only two kids in school with long hair), they still enthusiastically participate. I’m especially thankful that all of the girls do their homework, which also gives me a chance to heap guilt and embarrassment on all the boys. Mostly I’m thankful to know that whenever I teach this class, I’ll never have to raise my voice.

Nino’s – I’m thankful for our program group-coordinator Nino who did everything in her power to prepare us and put us in a position to succeed; she still remains a good friend (despite her incorrectly comparing Bandza to some heaven on earth Utopia and leading me to some initial disappointment). Also for my music instructor Nino and her putting up with me and my once a week attempt to learn a musical instrument (plus taking time out of her own schedule to fix my family’s piano at the house—a painfully tedious undertaking); she doesn’t even get mad when I laugh after she says now you must do it with no mistakes. And finally for all the Nino’s at my school, who unlike all the boys named Torniqe, are the picture of perfection and good behavior.

Gabunia’s – I can’t beat this drum consistently or hard enough, but I am so thankful for my host family and everything they do for me. They’ve given me so much while I feel as if I’ve given so little. There’s no request they’ll turn down and no extra mile they won’t go to make me feel as comfortable as possible. One hell of a family. I really can’t do it justice in words.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giorgoba & Georgian Holidays

So I've donated my iPhone, digital camera, and USB memory stick to the citizens of Georgia since I got here in mid-August; although the last two donations have come in the past ten days (Speaking of donations, remember to MOnate). I'd like to say that I'm abandoning all material possessions in order to live a fuller life (yes, I did just finish Walden, what of it?). But it makes it kind of hard to operate a blog without any photos and the ability to transfer those photos and the actual content onto the family computer from my own laptop. I need to get a USB chip because it's important for teaching and many other aspects, but I may be retreading some pictures for a while, because I don't get paid enough to be replacing cameras left and right.

But right now I don't have any way to transfer files from my own computer to the family computer (which is where the internet runs from). So this post will be short, filled with mistakes (more so than usual), and probably be more useless than my other thoughts. Nonetheless, given that it is Thanksgiving back home (Be ready for a Things I'm Thankful For post in the near future), I have a quick thought on Georgian holidays and how they are honored here. 

I'm really at a loss as to which holidays Georgians celebrate. Tuesday was Giorgoba (St. George's Day) and considering this country is named after him, I thought it would be a celebration of massive proportions. So I went to Kutaisi thinking I might as well be in a somewhat large city for this momentous day, and there was pretty much nothing going on. I went to two churches (one was crowded, the other not so much), walked around the city, and went to McDonalds. It really could have been any other day. 

My host family did nothing for the holiday, and most of my students didn't do anything as well. Tamari told me it's a bigger deal in East Georgia, which I guess is legitimate, but it seems like all the holidays are bigger deals in East Georgia (mainly Tbilisi) including Mariamoba (St. Maria's Day) and Svetitskhovloba (I'm not even really sure what this day was about, but we had school off and nobody did anything). 

I've been told that the real holidays are New Years, Christmas (which is on the 7th of January), and old New Years (the 14th of January) and that all three of those holidays turn January into one big month of suphras, gorging oneself, and drinking tons of wine. It also helps that there is no work to be done at that time and no school in session. This is all very convenient since I will not be here for any of those days (winter break). FML.

But I can't really complain about just a few days, as Georgians are constantly celebrating something that is not a national holiday (there is always a wedding, birthday, funeral, or anniversary of a death going on in your neighborhood). So maybe these random holidays are more or less just a chance for most Georgians to relax from celebrating the rest of the year.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


The Family Car. Don't fuck with the family car.

I came home from school this afternoon to Lasha cleaning out his Mercedes Benz and thoroughly scrubbing the windows all the while mumbling Georgian, Russian, and English obscenities about Saakashvili. If there’s anything wrong in Lasha’s life, he blames Saakashvili. But now that there are two new ‘outrageous’ auto-laws coming into effect soon, Lasha’s anti-Misha rhetoric has increased to a relative volatile state.

I don’t even know if they were Misha’s prerogative, but all Georgian cars must have working seat belts that have to be used at all times and can also no longer have windows tinted past a certain degree. I personally applaud these ideas because I think seat belts are a necessity that everyone should use while tinted windows are terribly tacky and can’t be used for anything productive. Unfortunately, a majority of Georgian men—inlcuding Lasha—don’t agree with me or these new laws.

This is the gas station in Bandza, where they fill your tank with a funnel and measure how much gas you got with a scale. Not an exact science.

Nobody wears seat belts in this country, and the rare cars that have belt straps usually don’t even have anything on the other side of the seat to click them into. Also, I would say a majority of Georgian men have or want a BMW or Mercedes with tinted windows (disturbing side fact I’ve heard: German cars are responsible for over 90% of accidents in Georgia; although that again could just be one of those ‘Georgian facts’). I don’t know why tinted windows are so popular in Georgia (maybe some sort of hold over from the KGB days), but as I previously said, they’re not good for anything. Only sketchy things happen behind tinted windows, namely drug deals and prostitute solicitation.

This is the preferred mode of transport for most older Georgians, including this guy who had just takin' down six shots of tchatcha

I hope that wasn’t Lasha’s motivation behind having them in the first place, and I really don’t think it was. Odds are the reason was what drives a majority of Georgian men’s auto choices; it looks cool. The funniest part behind the whole thing is the reason Georgia is banning tinted windows has nothing to do with real crime, but so they can see who does and does not have their seat belt on. Given how dangerous it is to drive in this country (which I will get to later), the government is actually only trying to make the people of Georgia safer. What a crazy notion!

This is how the children of Georgia learn to drive before they are thrust into their parents' laps and told 'steer'

But Lasha doesn’t care about that. He’s only worried about people seeing him pick his nose from the streets of Bandza. I love Lasha, but he’s extremely shortsighted at times. Still, Lasha is vitally important to this post since when I get to talking about Georgian men and their cars, Lasha is my main inspiration to draw upon. And since Lasha represents the quintessential Georgian man, I have no problem with generalizing all Georgian men by what I see regarding Lasha and his car.

First of all, it wouldn’t surprise me that when Lasha does pass away—which hopefully won’t be for a long, long time—near his burial plot there will be a mural of him and his Mercedes Benz. Now that might sound ridiculous, but if you pass any graveyard in Georgia, you will see a mural of a man with his car. It’s usually shoddily painted, behind a glass case, with the deceased in the forefront, and his beloved car in the background. It’s absurd.

Saw this in Zugdidi; some guy strapping a giant wine barrell on the top of his Lada. Seems safe enough, right?

I mean, I’m sure there’s some redneck in Arkansas who has his Hemi carved into his gravestone, but the sight is so common here in Georgia, that it can’t compare to anything I’ve ever seen before. What’s so surprising is how important family, religion, and death are in this society, but when it comes to a man’s everlasting epitaph, the car gets dibs. I could really stop right there and not have to say much more in order to convince you that Georgian men are fanatical about their cars, but there’s much more to get to.

You can't see it, but there's a car behind that painting. Classic.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this obsession is the length Georgian men go to for upkeep. I would say behind casinos and betting shops, the third most popular business might be car washes. They’re everywhere, and for good reason, as they’re always busy. But Lasha doesn’t take his Benz to a fancy car washin’ place, he just does it himself, which I have a feeling is an act that takes on some sort of religious importance for him, like a Muslim’s pilgrimage to Mecca.

I’ve also never been in a Georgian’s car that is dirty or has trash littering the back seats. You could eat a meal off their upholstery it’s so clean. This, if you even know just my family, is almost never the case in America. Yeah, we take care of the newer cars, but Georgians will detail the inside of their ’76 Ladas. By the way, Ladas are old Soviet cars and they are all over Georgia, since that was the only car people drove before the fall of the Berlin Wall. My friend Raughley put it best: it’s like the bastard child between an old Volvo and an even older Yugo. 

This is a Lada, in excellent condition I may say. 

Before we move away from the outside of the car and onto the inside, one thing that Georgians never care to fix or make look right are their windshields, which are almost always cracked. This might seem odd, but based on the gravel and busted up roads that litter this country, it would only be a matter of time before there was a newer crack. This is the only instance in which I find Georgian men’s judgment to be sound regarding their cars.

This was a Ford truck that we got a ride in one day while hiking. One of the only Fords we've seen, and amazingly, it was owned by the Monastery in Balda (those are priests driving in the front).  

There are a ton of mechanic shops in Georgia, and when I say shop, I don’t mean a Jiffy Lube like we have back home. Usually it’s just some guy who has turned his front lawn into a makeshift garage. I would guess the demand comes from all the cars being used, having a ton of miles on them, and the terrible roads that do a number on axles, wheels, and alignments. Just like in American, there’s never a shortage of Georgian men hanging around the action giving advice or trying to help, except in Georgia, unlike in America, every man knows what he’s doing underneath a car. But to be honest, I feel like the only reason Georgian men know how to fix cars so well is because they are constantly driving them to shit.

This is the driving school we came across in Tbilisi, looks pretty legit, doesn't it?

There are the random accelerations, the jerking of the wheel when passing another car or cow on the road (note: there is no such thing as a safe distance from any sort of traffic; it’s almost as if they try and drive as close as possible just to show off their Schumacher skills), the absolute insistency on never putting the car in neutral, and then the oddest move of all when they randomly turn off their car and let it cruise down an incline.

There are certain other weird characteristics that may have to do with some unwritten driving code to which I’m not privy, like the number of honks when passing someone or trying to cut in (I’ve always thought that honking should be used strictly for emergencies and to grab someone’s attention when trying to give someone the bird) , and then the constant flickering of lights at night from high beams to low-beams to no lights at all (many Georgians will cruise at night without lights in order to save battery power; an extremely dangerous practice and also why I don’t run or ride my bike at night). There’s no other way to put it; Georgian men are terrible drivers.

This is the only nice road in Georgia, which runs along the river in Tbilisi for maybe five kilometers before turning back into a road out of Mad Max

It’s no wonder that my most pleasant driving experiences have come with Ian’s host-Mom Lali. Not many women drive in Georgia, especially outside of the bigger cities. But the women I see driving or even have had the pleasure to share a ride with have been exquisite drivers, although that may have to do with them being overly careful, because if anything were to happen to that car… I’d rather not talk about it.

There’s plenty more I could go on with, including how Georgian men always keep an extra liter of gas contained in an old plastic beer bottle somewhere in their car. Or I could try and guess why Georgians park where the park, which is pretty much wherever they want (I tried to explain parallel parking to one of my classes and they were completely lost). Or what about when they drive with their kids in their laps Brittany Spears style (I’m not making that up).

Go ahead and sleep wherever...

But I’d like to end with my most understanding Georgian driving theory. I won’t hide that I think Georgians are terrible drivers (and I’m pretty sure if I looked up some statistics, I’d have some backing on that front, but this is a blog, not some fancy quarterly). It amazes me how they drive with such utter disregard for their fellow drivers. In America, we call these people Assholes. In the South, people have an obnoxious tendency to cruise the speed limit in the passing lane, while in Massachusetts they’ve melded the term into simply Masshole. Even Pittsburgh has it’s own unwritten rule called the ‘Pittsburgh-Left’ that seems outrageously unsafe to outsiders. 

Here in Georgia, I have no reservations in saying that everyone drives like an Asshole. But the difference is that back home, people get angry at these types of drivers (which is why we’re the nation that coined the phrase ‘road-rage’), but here in Georgia, no one gets all that mad. I’ve yet to see any roadside conflicts or yelling out the window; even Lasha doesn’t get upset if someone cuts him off (a common move here). I think it’s because when everyone drives like an Asshole, there’s really nothing else to expect. It’s just one giant system of relative assholeness. And I think Georgians are comfortable with that, so who am I to say differently.

This is a shot of the road right outside of my house, littered with cows

Monday, November 15, 2010

GNJB Glossary of Terms

I’ve been wanting to get up a glossary of terms for quite some time, but am now only getting around to it. I realize some readers may not be religiously following this blog, and that I often use a term or a phrase that may feel like second nature to me, but is not easily definable to the casual reader. So here it is, the GNJB Georgian Glossary.

LashaHost-father – I don’t really know how to define Lasha, since he’s certainly not old enough to be my father as he’s probably only about thirty-five. He feels more like a watchful older brother, but Rezo (my host-grandfather) looks too old to be considered a father. It’s quite the conundrum.

But Lasha is hilarious in every way. He’s short, stout, has extremely short arms, and a square jaw that makes him look like a rock’em-sock’em-robot. He works on the family farm doing anything and everything (including acting as midwife to the pregnant cows), but also makes a living (or lack thereof) through sports betting, or as I like to call it, Georgian day-trading. He knows very little English, but loves to use the few phrases he does know as much as possible, including telling me good evening when I see him first thing in the morning.

Lasha also loves to keep up with current events, particularly politics, and he has no problem telling me how much of a liar, deceiver, or fibster Saakashvili is despite the fact that I continually tell him that Misha is my defacto boss. But despite these objections, I love to humor him by responding with boghzi when he yells out Saakashvili’s name to me, which in Lasha’s Georgian-English dictionary translates to fornicator or adulterer, but more accurately means bitch.

Ira (Irina)Host-mother – Ira is Lasha’s Russian bride, and my host-mother. Ira is from Moscow, and they met when Lasha was working there in the mid-ninety’s. She definitely feels more like a mother than a sister, since she does everything for me (cooking, laundry, and cleaning my room when I go away on weekends). She knows a little more English than Lasha, is absurdly kind and patient with me, and is always busy doing something (cooking, cleaning, or even helping out on the farm). I almost never see her eat, and if I do, just like for the mother from A Christmas Story, it’s never a warm or fresh meal.

Ira speaks both Russian and Georgian; strictly Georgian with me, but a mixture of Russian and Georgian with the boys. Probably my favorite part about Ira is when Lasha says something funny or goofy (usually about Saakashvili being a fornicator of some sorts), she just chuckles sweetly and says, “Oh, Lasha.” It’s so damn cute and endearing.

Rezi (Reziko) Host-brother  – Rezi is the oldest boy (fifteen) and is named after his grandfather (Lasha’s father) Rezo. Rezi is much more like his Mother in that he’s an extremely hard worker, but does it without complaint. He’s the quieter of the two boys, and I love him for that. As I’ve had times where I’ve wanted to throttle Luke (who I’ll get to), I’ve never had anything but admiration for Rezi. He’s an especially good kid, despite his sneaking up on me while I’m at the computer and scaring the bejesus out of me.

LukaHost-brother – Luka is the younger brother (twelve), extremely smart (too smart for his own good), and drives me crazy. He works hard, but never stops complaining about it. He’s also developed a terrible whiney tone when he wants to let people know about his displeasure (and he is often displeased). But Luka is also terribly funny, because he’s full of energy and loves to put on a show. He’s a bit odd; as one moment he can be singing and dancing to a Lady Gaga song, and then the next moment he’ll turn into a fifty year-old man by slapping his knee in an uproar over something funny on the TV.

RezoHost-Grandfather – I’ve already gone into much detail about this man they call Babua, but I still can’t really put my finger on what he thinks of me. Sometimes I see him and he’s all smiles jabbering at me in Megruli (the official dialect to our region, of which I only understand a few phrases), and then the next time I see him he looks at me in wonderment like he’s never seen me before. But he’s still highly entertaining to observe nonetheless.

LeilaHost-Grandmother – Leila is extremely warm and loving, much like Grandmothers the world over. She’s also led a pretty interesting life as she worked at the pharmacy in Martvili for over thirty years, has traveled to India, and is currently visiting her daughter’s family in Belgium. Not your typical Georgian grandmother, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still milk the cows in the morning and go around pinching every young boy’s cheek.

Tamari (Tamrika)Bandza School’s English Teacher – As some TLGers have been calling them, Tamari is my counterpart. She speaks and understands English very well for someone who has never had much contact with native English speakers. She is absurdly easy to get along with and definitely more open to progressive ideas than others. I feel like for some other TLGers, their Georgian-English teachers have really been the make or break for them, so I’m extremely thankful to be working with someone like Tamari.

Bandza – The name of my village, which is located in the Martvili district of the Samegrelo region. Bandza is fairly large for a village, as there are several markets in the center of town, a hotel, and a Sunday bazaar. Many other TLGers who are in villages don’t have nearly as many amenities as I’m afforded in Bandza. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t get the business from anyone and everyone about living in Bandza. Most people know Bandza because it’s at the crossroads between four somewhat substantial towns in Samegrelo (Khoni, Martvili, Senaki, and Abasha). But the adjective bandzi is the Georgian equivalent of lame. So it would compare to me living in an American town named Lame-o.  Never ceases to entertain any Georgian when I tell them I live in Bandza.

Martvili – Martvili is the town ten kilometers up the road from me. It’s a legitimate town, with a supermarket, a cafĂ©, my bank’s local branch, a park with a fountain, and a beautiful Monastery that sits atop the hill in the middle of town. Friend of the blog and fellow TLGer Ian teaches at one of the three schools there, while No-Problem David is from a village a few kilometers outside of town. Martvili is usually where I go when I want to unwind or do some shopping. As I tell Ian, it’s the Paris  of the Martvili district.

Samegrelo – The region in which most of the TLGers from my group are stationed. Half in the mountains, half in the only low-lands of Georgia, Samegrelo affords some pretty impressive views of the mountains to the north and south thanks to plains that run through the southern half of the region. Samegrelo also has it’s own language Megruli, which I mentioned above. People from Samegrelo love it when a foreigner can spout out even the smallest amount of Megruli, so even the few phrases I know come in handy when meeting a Megrelian. Mutcherek (how are you)?

TLGTeach and Learn Georgia – My program that is run from the Ministry of Education in Tbilisi. You can read more about it by clicking on the link in my sidebar, but basically it’s a government program that’s goal is to make English the official second-language of Georgia within five years. They plan on placing upwards of one thousand English speakers throughout the schools of Georgia  by next year. I’ve already said more than I should on a public forum regarding TLG, but it’s an extremely aggressive plan and endeavor that has given us TLGers every opportunity to shape and mold the program to whatever we deem necessary given our situations.

Now I know many of you may not have learnt anything within that post, but it had to be done. I promise another post sometime this week regarding Georgian men and their cars (I know, I’ve been promising that for quite sometime, but this time it’s for real). But I’m still really busy, especially since Ian and I are planning and playing in a Bandza/Martvili basketball game on Thursday. This time, it’s for blood.

Unfortunately, no pictures for the time being since my internet is acting woefully slow. Soon, though.

Friday, November 12, 2010


This is the only picture I have for this brief post. Now try and tell me that pigs are cute. They're F'n gross!

There’s a bar on Carson Street in the Southside of Pittsburgh that I think has one of the better names for a bar anywhere. No, it’s not GNJB’s long lost cousin The Jaggerbush (but if you knew anything, you’d know that The Jaggerbush is off of Carson). The bar I’m talking about is Excuses.

I love everything about that name because it’s so pathetic. If you’re a regular at Excuses, odds are you fit the description of a deadbeat. You’re wife probably left you, and now you owe her alimony. Your boss is on your ass all the time, but nobody notices because you’re such a dick anyway. Hell, you probably steal from the collection plate at church. There’s a reason you’re at Excuses; you got nothing else.

There’s a strikingly truthful American saying that goes like this: excuses are like assholes, everyone’s got ‘em and they all stink. Unfortunately, I’m no different. As much as I want to say mine are legitimate, I know it doesn’t matter to anyone except myself. But honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been this busy.

I’ve got Movember and a plethora of emails to send out badgering people to donate. I’m also trying to help organize my annual Thanksgiving football game from another continent. Then there’s the football game my buddy Ian and I are trying to get together for next weekend in Martvili. I’m taking Georgian dance lessons three times a week, and because I’m so deathly afraid of my instructor Vephkhvia (derived from the Georgian word for ‘tiger’; yeah, he’s intense), I have to practice just as much outside of school. I also started piano lessons with Nino, the music teacher at my school (one thing I’ve realized so far, my musical IQ is comically low). Not to mention how I’m trying to drastically alter the curriculum by splitting up my year VI-IX classes (a vast undertaking that will require much more planning and teaching on my end). In the words of the six-fingered man from The Princess Bride, “I’m swamped.”

I’m heading off to Vardzia for a weekend excursion tomorrow, so there probably won’t be any updates between now and early next week. I have several solid ideas brewing for posts including my long-awaited thoughts on Georgian men and their cars, a glossary of terms that may be helpful to first-time readers, and a dissertation on Georgian names and their uselessness since everyone is referred to simply as Gogo (girl) or Bitcho (boy). But the whole point to this post was to make a ton of excuses that will only help you deduce that I, much like the regulars at Excuses, am a deadbeat. But please excuse my excuses; as Patrick Bateman said in American Psycho, “What can I say, I’m a child of divorce.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Charity, Volunteering, & Contracts

A look back at the mountains of Samegrelo after a long day of hiking in the foothills. Now I understand when someone told me before I came that the views are reminiscent of Colorado

So I’m going to try something a bit different in this post. Instead of restricting myself with bullets, I’ll just write until I’ve exhausted the topic (or I’m tired of writing). Recently, I’ve felt myself filling space just to reach a quota of ten points, and though I think at times that’s led me to stumbling upon some fairly healthy realizations, for the most part the expectations have made writing feel like more of a chore than a joy. So we’ll see how this works, but it should make my posts briefer and more to the point, which may feel like dumbing things down a bit (more Dan Brown than James Joyce), but since this here ain’t no democracy, there’s little you can do about it. 

In correction to a previous post, this fruit is actually called Khumro and is strung up outside the house until January at which point it is deliciously frozen and shriveled. Also makes for a nice ornament

I was discussing charity with my students today during our weekly English Club (I really need to find a better title, as the current one is a bit bandzi [lame]). I was trying to explain Movember while also raising the idea of starting our own charity at the school (I told them that we had to establish a goal that would be useful [new chalk boards, a community garden, cleaning up the school grounds, etc.] and not what some of the boys suggested [TV-satellite and flat screens]). I’ll let you know how it goes (I told them to come back next week with some ideas), but a majority of the EC members are clever girls (in Georgian English, people are not smart or unintelligent, they’re clever or stupid).

During the discussion, I brought up the term volunteer, which I think is an exceedingly useful word in Georgia since everybody here seems to be so giving and welcoming. Originally it stemmed from talking about donating, and what we can donate. I explained to them that along with donating money and old clothes, we can also donate our time, and that when we do, it’s called volunteering. Of course they understood all of this. They just needed me to help them navigate through this fairly specific topic. In fact, a few of my students had volunteered before in a program that reaches out to kids who don’t have a family (that notion amazed me, since everybody is family in Georgia, including people who are not blood relatives).

This is a group of guys who hang out on the main drag in Martvili and play nardi all day long; this picture was taken at 9 in the morning and they were out there at 9 in the evening

But I ran into trouble when I told them that our program refers to us as volunteers, even though we get paid. It wasn’t that they didn’t get it; it was that I didn’t get it. I stood at the front of the class for a second trying to figure out how that made sense. When I was first reading about the program and coming to Georgia, I was a little startled at how little the monthly salary was (I will not bring up how much it is; if you’re really interested, you can find out on your own). But after I got to Georgia, and realized how low the cost of living is (not to mention that our food and housing are taken care of), all of my previous reservations vanished.

I’m hesitant to say I live like a king here, but compared to my fellow teachers, I think that’s a fair statement. I make much more than them despite the fact that they have families to worry about (most of them are women whose husbands work, but that doesn’t take away from how little they make). If anything, they’re the volunteers. 

This is where I'm heading when I die, supposedly.

So, needless to say, I’m hesitant to refer to myself as a volunteer, although if you’ve noticed before, I usually refer to other members of the program as “fellow volunteers.” I think it’s a term I picked up from TLG, since that’s what they call us in any official communication. But again, I wouldn’t call any of us volunteers. When my Mother and Father met in the early-eighties as Visa Vista Volunteers, they were much more deserved of the title, since they made next to nothing and had to pay for their own housing (my Mother at first shared an apartment with another volunteer for $80 a month). My parents were downright poor then, while right now in Georgia, I’m practically middle-class.

Quite often, Georgians have asked me why I came to Georgia. I usually tell them some bland answer about teaching and seeing the world. There’s definitely some truth to that answer, but the real reason lies being what I told other members of the program (I am already tring to wean myself off of calling ourselves volunteers) when we discussed the topic. The actual specifics behind me coming to Georgia go like this; I was looking at a few places (Kyrzgstan, Indonesia, and half of Southeast Asia) but the opportunity in Georgia was moving the quickest while I was also broke, unemployed, and itching to get going. Yeah, I did a little bit of research, and Georgia seemed interesting, but I had no burning desire to come to Georgia specifically. In fact, I had never really heard much about it before I started researching during the process, but even then, I read about the terrain and wine and that was all I needed to know.

Fellow TLGer Darryl, Temuri (random Georgian kid), and myself outside the entrance into the Monastery at Balda

All of my fellow TLG members have their own reasons for coming here, but a majority of us fit the same mold: mid-twenties, college educated, but with little idea of what we want to do. A few of us like to joke that since the program is funded mostly through foreign financial backing (read: United States), that this was in fact just a way to lower the unemployment rate back home. But the point is, many of us came to Georgia in search of something.

I have little idea of what I want to do with my life, but if I had any aim at all in coming to Georgia, it was to find out if I’m cut out for teaching. Now TEFL is certainly a specialized form of teaching, and even if I do love or hate this experience, that sentiment may not carry over to, say, teaching English Literature to high school students in Pennsylvania. But I think it’s a fair litmus test.

Saw this kid at the tolerance concert held in Senaki; he was fifteen at the most, but had a better Mo than me... Oh yeah, Donate!

But here’s the twist. Many of my fellow TLG members only signed up for the six-month contract (and really, it’s more like a four-month contract [mid-August to mid-December]) or they had originally signed the ten-month contract but opted to reduce it. Everyone has their own reasons for this (I don’t know specifics, but if I were to guess it’d be frustration, better opportunities, or just being uncomfortable and missing home), and I’m not about to pass judgment or disparage my colleagues.

Again, I can only speak for myself, but three months doesn’t seem like a long enough time to really make any significant change or impact (school starts in mid-September while we are flown out in mid/late-December, making it just over three months of actual teaching). My mother has been working abroad for the past five years, and on her first assignment in the African country of Liberia, she had initially signed a one-year contract but eventually extended it to two years. Her reason being that she felt one year was simply not long enough to make a substantial impression.

A nice shot from my Saturday hike up from the Balda Monastery showing off much of the Samegrelo flatlands in the distance

Now there are definitely some differences between our circumstances (my Mother gets paid a whole lot more, while working under intensely pressurized conditions), but I have the same concerns over leaving early. But really, what it comes down to is why I’m staying rather than why I’m not leaving. There’s two glaring reason, with the first being that I have nothing better to do. I know that sounds like a really bad reason, and maybe it is, but the other presentable options don’t seem nearly as interesting. I could go back to graduate school, but experience always beats education in my eyes. I also might be able to find a better paying TEFL job somewhere else, but I’m not in massive debt and therefore have little monetary motivation. Most important, if I do go elsewhere, there’s no guarantee I would like it as much as Georgia.

Saw this in the hallway at the school in Senaki; hey, at least they're using the language (plus I learned a new Georgian word)

Which brings me to the second reason, I love it here. I really am convinced that the place I was looking for when I bought a one-way ticket to Firenze this past summer was here in Georgia and not in Italy (a topic for another time). I love the customs, the people, the unwarranted friendliness, and the natural beauty (something that’s become more and more obvious as the air has thinned and the views have cleared up). Probably the most compelling reason to stay is my host-family, their devotion, helpfulness, and willingness to let me be me. Yes, there are and will be some trying times, but those are everywhere and I doubt there’s a place on Earth where we can hide from them. But adversity makes us stronger and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere perfect, as I’d learn little from myself in such a place.

I doubt I’ll stay in Georgia past a year, mostly because I’m young and there are tons of opportunities out there. I left Charleston because I was convinced that five years in one place at a young age is four too many, and I’m sticking to that theory. I never want to be too sedentary or comfortable because at my age, I have the blood and attitude to be a bit transient. But really, who knows? Just as soon as I’m set on putting an expiration date on something, I remember that I’m also at the age and have the mind frame where I can’t put restrictions on myself. Just go with it.

This was the bonfire they had outside the school in Senaki immediately following the tolerance concert. Some of the students were jumping over it, which would normally be cause for alarm, but in Georgia it's just chalked up to boys being boys

Prologue: So I guess that was kind of similar to my previous posts, as I went from charity to volunteering, to contracts, and right back to my love of Georgia. But at least I didn’t need to insert any abrupt expressions like, and now I’ll be changing directions… But I promise I’ll soon get back to ignorantly tearing apart Georgian culture. Next up: A post on Georgian men and their cars.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Change, Miss, & Advice

Gorgeous Svaneti

I don’t want to make excuses, but this month of Movember might be a bit slow here. I have a lot on my plate, including raising money for a worthy cause and the creepiness of my face, organizing my annual Thanksgiving football game from over 3000 miles away, a stiffening workload (I’m now tutoring a few of my students while also giving English lessons to the other teachers at my school, not to mention the teaching I’m doing at home), and trying to see as much of Georgia before the weather gets to the point where I’d rather not go anywhere (at which point, I’ll have plenty of time to fill these pages). I’ll still do my best to update this blog as much as I can, but don’t be alarmed if a week may pass in between posts (although I hope it never comes to that).

In response to a question one of the readers (Irakli) prompted in the comment section a week ago, this post will step back from Georgia a little and focus more on judging myself. As Thoreau said, “I should not talk about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” The most elegant excuse for being a narcissistic asshole I know of.

The family car, which gets washed every other day. By far, the most important family possession. I hope to have a post on Georgian Men and their manqana (car) obsessions up soon

ErtiWhat would you change immediately in the country, in the host family, your students and teachers - what inconveniences you or drives you most crazy?

I had to think about this awhile. There are many things I believe to be “backwards” in Georgia, but I don’t know if I would change any of them. Little faults and chinks are what make Georgia, Georgia. They give it a sense of identity and—if this makes any sense—culture. Mostly we think of culture as positive things that define a society, but negatives can also do the shaping. I only have one request of anywhere I go: that people won’t be assholes. Needless to say, that has not been a problem in Georgia.

Beautiful Svaneti... Again

But the one thing I do find frustrating is the resistance to change or progress. This is especially true in the schools (specifically mine), where they’ve had a way of going about things for so long and at such a comfortable pace, that they are averse to any change whatsoever. It could be the simple things (having teachers’ meetings in the middle of school when classes are going on [and therefore taking away class-time from the students] instead of having the teachers come in early or stay later) or the big things (not splitting up classes based on proficiency; there are kids in my year VII-XI who barely know their alphabet but are still blindly shuffled along with the rest of their class. I could write a dissertation on the problems with this system), but it all depends on one thing: it’s too much work. It’s easier just to keep going on at the status quo as long as it’s comfortable, and it’s always comfortable doing things the way they’ve always been done.

God knows this isn’t restricted to Georgia, this is a problem everywhere in the world. In some places the bureaucracy is so gigantic and established that bringing about change resembles hopelessly trying to move Everest (ask anyone who works for the US government), while in others there is actually a chance to change but the people are too content with the current system (my Mother encountered these same problems while in Liberia, where the average working day was five hours). The key for me is to not fall in with the process. It would be easy for me to just say, Do as the Georgians do, and mindlessly sludge away for the next nine months without trying to enact any real progressive change. Unfortunately for my fellow teachers and director, that is not my intention. I’m still relatively new to the school, so I’m not about to crown myself the King and declare what needs to be done. But things will change, mostly because they can. All it takes is a little hard work.

Luka booting his Rugby ball. The boys love Rugby much like most of Georgia

OriWhat were the most important things you did not take with you but you found out you can't live without them?

I was asked this same question by a New Yorker I met at the sulfur baths in Tbilisi this weekend (kind of a weird place to meet a fellow American), and I had an answer that surprised even myself, “Not much.” That’s not completely true as there’s certainly tons of things I’ve missed from time to time, but they all seem of the material type that were holding me back from living a life of fulfillment. Part of the reason I’ve loved Georgia so much is that it’s deprived me of American distractions (constant connection to the internet, excessive TV, and sports [this blog was originally built upon my obsession with sports]) and got me back to doing things that are much more mentally healthy (reading, writing, and thorough thinking). 

I might be reusing a few of this picture by now; but this shot just reinforce my longing for a solid two-wheeler

There are certainly some practical things that I wish I had the foresight to bring (more winter clothing becoming more and more apparent as the temperature dips), but those are just things that can be replaced (as my Dad always says, opportunity to upgrade). But if I had to choose one thing, it’d have to be the Kindle my Aunt let me borrow which I left in my room at home (by the way, if someone wants to grab that…). I’m running out of books quickly and recently went to the English bookstore in Tbilisi, and there wasn’t much selection (not surprised, but I’m just sayin’). I could think of a handful of instances where a Kindle can really help, and amazingly, I find myself in one of them right now.

And I miss my bike. I rode a rickshaw through college to earn money (sort of a bike-taxi thing with a carriage on the back), so I never really wanted to go biking in my spare time (I always compared it to an accountant doing his taxes when he got off work). But when I moved home a year ago, I started cycling consistently with my father (already an avid cyclist) and came to really love the sport. The time alone is nice (it’s an astoundingly solitary activity), but what I really love is the ability to see so much in such little time (more so than running, plus better for your knees) at a good pace (you can’t really enjoy the sights of the road when you’re in a car, you miss too much). When I first got to Georgia, I thought it’d be suicidal to ride a bike on the roads, but now I’m not so certain. It would be dangerous, but no more dangerous than riding in Charleston (worst place to cycle in America). So I’ve bought a cruiser than I can use to get around town and the close surrounding area, but I really miss my road bike and the ability to get up early, bang out one hundred kilometers, get some good thinking in, clear my head, and see some sights (Georgia has some impressive views now that the dense air has cleared away).

My father and I on our bikes in Tuscon this past March; gettin' is some quality F&S time

But that’s kind of it. Give me my Cervello and a Kindle, and I’d have zero reason to complain. But as for people…

I’ve actually decided not to come back stateside for Christmas and instead head off to Southeast Asia to meet up with my Mother. TLG offers us a plane ticket home for the winter holidays, or a ticket to anywhere in the world for the equivalent price (or less). I figured I was already a quarter-way around the world, why not take the plunge to half-way around the world and go see some place amazing while I can.

It was a tough decision, because as much as I long for my Kindle, I also miss my family and friends. But—and I might sound like a heartless bastard here—I grew up a very independent person who has gotten used to separation by now. Being a child of divorce, going far away for college, a constantly shifting group of friends… all of these things have helped me to become a very adaptable person. It didn’t take long for me to gain a solid core of friends in Georgia (mostly volunteers) and I already feel like I’m part of a new family here at the Gabunias. Don’t get me wrong, both of these groups would have to go to the end of the world for me before they could replace my friends and family back home, but I feel like wherever I am in my life, as long as I look for it, I’ll have support.

Although it would be nice to see my Annabelle (sister’s dog).

My Annabella; the love of my life

SamiWhat would your advice to people who will be coming later on TLG program so they are successful in their jobs? At the same time - what are the greatest obstacles they need to overcome to achieve such a goal?

When I was in Tbilisi the first time, myself and a few other volunteers got to partake in an question and answer session with the newest volunteers who were just starting their training. I was ecstatic, because I felt like this type of thing would have been monumentally helpful when I had first gotten to Georgia. There were definitely some positive things that came out of that conference, and I think the new volunteers were probably for the better because of it. But immediately afterwards, I had the feeling that a few of us answering—including myself—had come off as a little preachy, this is going to happen to you, and this is what you should do… That sort of thing.

So of course I did what I’ve been doing here for quite some time, I thought about it (I also talked about it with a few of the wiser volunteers). I came up with what I feel like is pretty good advice to anyone coming over here: whatever may happen to you will be unique. There’s no set of guidelines you can follow that can guarantee you will be successful or even like Georgia. But if you keep an open mind and are motivated enough, this should be as great an experience as it has been for me. I know that may seem like a cop-out or that I’m dodging the question, but the point is that I don’t feel comfortable telling someone how to go about things, since we are all different people with different personalities (and in turn, different reactions to each situation). 

Again, probably already used this one as well, but it's getting so cold over here, and this is the only source of heat in my house

Just enjoy it as much as you can. Don’t worry (because in Georgia, that never helps and usually only results in useless anxiety), try and always say Yes, and never lose perspective on just how lucky you are. When I was in Batumi, and we were partying on a Pirate Ship (also a hotel) in the harbor, I had to stop for a second, look around, and think this is pretty fuckin’ crazy. There’ve been heaps of other experiences that have mirrored that same outline, and I’d have to say that if you stay positive and optimistic in Georgia, the same thing will happen to you.

I just realized my answer had little to do with the teaching aspect. So my advice on the actual job side of things is to never be afraid to speak your mind to your fellow teachers or director, and don’t be afraid to be dependent on your fellow volunteers. There are tons of us over here, some with excellent teaching experience, and we are all willing to help because we’ve probably been in the same tough spot before. That’s one of the highlights of TLG, the outreach provided, whether it’s the bigwigs in Tbilisi, or your fellow volunteer ten kilometers down the road; help is never too far away.

Me trying to tempt a stray dog at the Senaki train station. I was a little wet due to an apocalyptic rain shower