Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tis the season...

Around town, it's looked like a combination of Christmas and New Years and Sunnyside sometime around the end of the football season. People are going crazy getting ready for the big New Year celebration. We'll post some stories and thoughts on the holiday itself after we live through it (if we survive; given all the powerful fireworks being set off every minute by our third-graders, that's a mighty big if). For now, though, here are some pictures of what has been going on in town as various Festivus activities approached, passed and continue to be celebrated.

The town "square" all decked out in lights

The light display from a different angle

One more look at the town's lights

In our host house, Shaen was in charge of decorating the New Year's Tree

Lilit wanted to do her part to "help" but this often involved undecorating and attempting to smash ornaments

Shaen thwarted most of Lilit's attempts

And he deemed Sam as trustworthy enough to be allowed near the tree

Luckily, Lilit found some other ways to amuse herself

The mountains retained some of the snow that we got in December, but most of the rest has melted away

My school devoted much of the end of the semester to decorating the hallways and classrooms

If only as much effort was put in to homework!

Or as much attention given to listening in class!

Sam's school decorated as well

I proved that I earned my kindergarden diploma with my creative gift wrapping

Then I discovered the gift bags in a store in town

Lilit has continued to be adorable. Here she is appropriately decked out in both a "Father Frost" hat and bunny shirt (commemorating the Year of the Rabbit which 2011 apparently is. Who knew?)

A group of PCVs celebrated Christmas in style with khachapuri and beer in Tbilisi.

And Sam got the greatest Christmas miracle of all. Turns out you can buy hobbits for only 4.75GEL at the Populi grocery store in Tbilisi.

Hope you all had a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Enjoy what's left of 2010!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Runnin Down a Dream

If you're reading this blog, then you probably already know that I have a fairly serious running addiction. I was insane enough to make one of my last activities in the States before heading out for the Peace Corps a marathon (and a pretty spectacular and fun marathon at that!). Washington/Northern Virginia was the perfect place for me, with its crazy running population, miles and miles of nice running trails and series of races held throughout the year. It was one of my worries that I might have to give up running during PC. We packed our running things to bring with us, uncertain as to whether we'd actually be able to get any use out of them. Running tends to be a fairly odd thing in some places in the world (some parts of the U.S. included), and weather and other variables can be big hindrances to getting in a run.

On the weather front, Sam and I have been extremely fortunate so far to have had pretty much spectacular weather for outside exercising. Sure, we've had some cold, cold mornings and there's been some snow and ice, but we haven't had hardly any rain or anything that's been insurmountable. So weather hasn't been a huge factor.

Places to run haven't been too much of a problem either, thanks to all the street paving projects around town (which make it so that even when it does rain we've got blacktop to run on). When we've gotten snow and ice, we can go to the "soccer stadium" in town and run on the single-track path that loops lopsidedly around it for roughly a quarter of a mile. There's also a park not far from our house that is 1/5 of a mile around. So we have places to run.

Our biggest hassle is the stray dog (and often owned dog) problem. Dogs just roam around, alone or in packs, unhindered by fences or chains or dogcatchers. They make for some unpleasant moments when we come upon one or several of them unexpectedly, whether we're out running or just walking around town. We usually spot them in time to slow to a walk and grab a rock, and so far (knock on wood), we've been able to avoid any serious run-ins. We aren't too worried about the dogs, in any case, since there are always plenty of rocks to threaten them with and since we've already had to get the first three shots in the rabies shots series. So dogs are a problem, but (at least for now) not too much of a problem.

We do get some odd looks and remarks from locals as we run. Mostly these have been easy to shrug off, though, and we don't really see it as a discouragement.

That means that we don't really have too many legitimate excuses against running in the morning. We've been decently good about getting in about 5 morning runs a week, usually for about 3 miles or so. It's always a little fun and rewarding to see people's eyes pop out of their heads when we tell them we've run 5 kilometers and that it's something we do regularly. Today we had a man shout at us "Go sportsmen!" as we looped around the park.

I may not be in my peak marathon performance shape, but I sure am glad to have been able to continue running. Nothing I know helps me better beat stress than a nice run (or even a difficult, terrible run for that matter). And given the extremely large quantities of food we eat every day, running has at least helped keep the weight gain down (although not entirely eliminated it...). So as we approach the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, I'm looking forward to another great year full of running. I hope you all can keep running and have fun, too!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

We wish you a happy...

It’s been a while since we’ve posted, and that’s mainly because life has settled into a pretty normal routine lately. We’ve had six uninterrupted weeks of school, with one more to go before the holiday. Students are busy getting their classrooms decorated for New Year – pretty much everything we do for Christmas, Georgians and Armenians do for New Year. We’ll have more to say about the holiday once we’ve actually experienced it. For now our host brother has been eager to get the New Year’s tree up, lights have been appearing in stores and downtown, and Melissa’s been busy teaching Christmas carols to her English clubs. I haven’t managed to teach any songs yet, but one of my classes, under their homeroom teacher’s direction, has learned “We Wish You a Happy New Year” (Lyrics: “We wish you a happy New Year/ We wish you a happy New Year/ We wish you a happy New Year/ …and a happy New Year!”)

A few things worth mentioning have happened – we had a visit from fellow PCV Christopher (tweets here and blogs here), during which we traipsed around Akhalkalaki, had some more Rose Dolma, and decided not to walk over the following bridge on a chilly winter’s day (thanks, safety and security training!):

Rose Dolma (kind of like a cross between lasagna and meat dumplings)

We finally started Georgian lessons again two weeks ago. It’s awfully difficult getting back to it, but we’re glad to have the chance to rescue what we still remember and start brushing up.

We had our first real snow last week; it’s mostly gone from the town now (though now the snow’s falling hard as I type), but it’s left its mark on the mountains all around us, and, treeless and scrubby as they are in summer, they really benefit from the snow. We’ll have some pictures up soon, hopefully from one of our morning runs, where we’re treated to the sun rising over the now snow-draped Mount Abul (Apollo). Even my references to Coors Light commercials can’t quite ruin the grandeur.

And here’s just a little slice of life here in town. I’ve sent some letters from my students to students in Oklahoma participating in a program called World Wise Schools that matches Peace Corps volunteers with American primary and secondary school teachers to share experiences and information. I thought I’d jot down my impressions of a visit to the local post office a few weeks ago:

The ladies sit in a little room in the corner of the old Soviet post office. The main office is deserted, the long counters and queuing space gathering dust. You can see the rack where envelopes once where, and space on the walls for signs or posters. Now there are just a few cheap Xeroxes offering optimistic claims of working hours and urging faith in the unseen presence of “electronic mail.” One of the heavy metal doors behind the counter is open – it is a small office or storage room currently filled with shoes and boots, apparently holding stock for one of the vendors at the bazaar outside. The other door is closed, and behind this door is the little cloister of the Akhalkalaki postal service. The room is warm and cluttered with stacks of papers, some of which seem not to have been moved for years. A little cast iron stove cracks from time and its heat fills the room like a grandmother’s corner by the home stove. Pumpkins take up a good bit of the free space, arranged on the floor or perched on sills below dim windows. No one seems to send much – an international letter is an all-hands project, and you sit by the fire and chat while they examine the chart for the rate (5 lari) and laboriously fill out the little receipt and its carbon copy. They are friendly and the whole experience feels like a social call; the absence of a line of customers doesn’t mean you get out of the Akhalkalaki post office sooner than you’d escape one in downtown Washington, though the wait is of a different sort. But finally the receipt is in your pocket and the letter vanishes into the stacks of paper and the same realm of faith where, perhaps, the electronic mail resides, and you’re out again through the big echoing concrete room and into the market street with is dull December air and warm December sun.

We’ll be in Tbilisi next weekend for Christmas. December 25th isn’t a holiday here – like I mentioned, New Year is the big holiday, and while Christmas itself is celebrated, it’s on the Orthodox date of Jan. 6/7. It’s the toughest time to be away from family and friends at home, so we’ll be seeking Christmas cheer in the company of our fellow Peace Corps volunteers. So, if we don’t get to the blog again before the 25th, here’s wishing anyone who might be reading a Merry Christmas! The snow's falling fast here, and a Charlie Brown Christmas might just be in order.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

December 1st is World AIDS Day. Many PC volunteers tried to think of ways to incorporate an HIV/AIDS lesson or activity into their work today, since the holiday would provide a good segue into a fairly difficult subject.

Here in Georgia, the HIV/AIDS rate is fairly low. There are only about 4,000 cases in the country (with a population of about 4 million). But there is still a lot of concern about the possibility of an explosion in the HIV/AIDS rate here due to a number of risk factors. First, the region as a whole (made up of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe) has the world's fastest growing rate of infection. Second, there is a lot of exchange between the Georgian population and some higher risk countries, like Ukraine and Russia (lots of men work abroad in these two countries for part of the year and then come back to their families in Georgia for a few months). Many in Georgia catch the disease from IV drug use. Also, commercial sex workers are also among the most affected population here (and at least according to anecdotal evidence, there seems to be a fairly high acceptance of men frequenting prostitutes and brothels here in Georgia). On top of this, there is very little (to no) education for most of the population about risk factors, how the disease is spread and how to protect oneself. It all adds up to a potential for a disastrously quick spread of HIV/AIDS.

One of the big hurdles to teaching people about HIV/AIDS is that sex is a taboo subject here. The society is conservative and so discussing a disease that, in most of the world, is spread primarily through unprotected sex is not easy. To try to be culturally sensitive and discuss this kind of topic poses a pretty big conundrum.

I decided to give it a try, though, and to see if I could do something at my school, either as part of one of my after-school English clubs or with the older students during class. I found an ally in one of the deputy directors, a woman who also doubles as an English teacher (most of our assistant principals also work as teachers). She immediately jumped on board and encouraged me to teach a lesson to as many of the students as possible from grades 7-12. Then she surprised me today by preparing a bulletin board in the school's main hallway with some information and pictures related to World AIDS Day.

My school's hallway bulletin board display

One of the other volunteers found a great video resource (available for free at about HIV/AIDS. The language is accessible enough that I thought, with some translation, the students at my school might be able to handle it. The video is also done in a very culturally sensitive way, giving lots of useful, accurate information without being too graphic or explicit. I pulled together some other materials and made a whole bunch of red ribbons to distribute to the kids (Sam joked that, with all the ribbon and pins and making of hundreds of bows, it felt like we were getting ready for a wedding).

All Ready to Present

Then today for five 40-minute class periods, I met with all the English classes that were scheduled for today, from 7th through 12th grades. In all there were 187 students and 6 teachers that participated. Surprisingly to me, I was able to translate all the difficult words and ideas with only a few grammatical stumbles (who knew I had so much active vocabulary in Russian on the immune system and ways of transmission and prevention being the best defense? If only I didn't always get tongue-tied on the word for "needle"). And the kids understood a lot from the video. I had some really great questions from some of the kids (like "Can you get HIV from a mosquito?" and "Are HIV and AIDS the same disease?") and had only a minimal amount of snickering and giggling when the discussion was about sex.

I kept the discussion off sex for the most part. At least for a first attempt at starting to educate the kids about HIV/AIDS, I wanted to make sure they had some basic facts and had a good grasp of what the disease is. Also, since a lot of transmission in Georgia is due to IV drug use, I focused a lot on that, since I figure that is both culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate. It's a start, at least, and might open the way for the more taboo subjects to be covered in the future.

Giving the Presentation

All in all, despite being nervous about how the students would take the information and what kind of reaction my presentation/lesson would get from the school's director and other teachers, I think everything went really well. I think it is a bit risky to try to talk about HIV/AIDS in schools here because as PCVs we don't want to alienate ourselves in our communities or gain reputations as being troublemakers. But I also think that it's a risk worth taking, and I'm definitely excited that my attempt seemed to pay off. Hopefully, I'll be able to work in some more HIV/AIDS and general health related education projects throughout my time here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

St. George's Day, Thanksgiving and Preparing for New Year's

We hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving! We were able to celebrate the holiday a bit early at the beginning of November, when all the Peace Corps Georgia folks were gathered in one place for a conference. So we did get some turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie in this holiday season, even if not this past week.

On Tuesday, November 23 we had a Georgian holiday--St. George's Day (Giorgoba), which gave us a day off of school. Our Armenian host town doesn't really do any special celebrating for St. George, but around Georgia there are feasts and family gatherings that sound about on par with Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving day, Sam and I went to school like any normal day. We talked with our students during our English clubs after school about Thanksgiving and played some speaking games that had a strongly food-based theme (Me: What kind of food would you want for your holiday? My tenth grade students: We would want dumplings and stuffed grape leaves and cakes and cognac!). Then we came home and spent the evening with our host family and some friends, who came by with cookies to congratulate us on our American holiday. We were also able to talk with some of our family members via Skype (I got lots of kisses blown my way by a sleepy looking Frankie!), which was very nice.

This weekend we headed back to Kortaneti to see our host family from training. They were very glad to see us and plied us with lots of delicious food, so it was like Thanksgiving weekend in the States in terms of calories consumed. Our host mom, Maia, and Kelsey's host mom, Tamila, also spent the weekend making a treat that Georgians love to eat during the winter holidays, called churchkhela. To make churchkhela, first you have to string walnuts on a string (just like strining popcorn for the Christmas tree!). Then, you make a concoction of grape juice, flour and a little sugar, heating it until it starts to thicken to a thick paste-goo. Next you have to dip the strung walnuts in the goo until thickly coated and let them cool and harden. The end result is something like fruit leather or a fruit rollup with nuts and a little like Turkish delight. It's pretty tasty and Sam got some good pictures of the concoction being concocted.

The grape juice/flour mix being heated

Walnuts strung and ready for dipping


Finished churchkhela hanging to dry

Now we're back in town and getting ready for the first semester of school to wind down. We have four more weeks until winter break--our last day of school is December 24. We'll have off until January 20, and until then it sounds like we'll just be feasted and stuffed with food for the month-long break. We'll be sure to take lots of pictures of the upcoming feasts and festivities! We hope that all of you (and us, too!) survive the craziness of school during the last few weeks before winter break!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Misha comes to town

On Monday we had lots of big excitement: the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, came to Akhalkalaki! He was working his way through the region to celebrate the grand opening of a new highway that connects our town to Tbilisi in a much more direct manner (the road basically cuts the travel time from 4-5 hours to just over 2). Several other new roads have recently been completed and were inaugurated by the president during his day in southern Samtskhe Javakheti.

Rumors in town that Saakashvili would be coming reached a fever pitch by Sunday night, especially since the town's municipality authorities began constructing a stage in the middle of the main road in town (this made driving and parking patterns even more interesting than usual for the two days). Everyone was saying that he'd come at 11am on Monday morning to give his big speech.

My classes on Monday usually begin during the 4th period at 11:15. Since I'd only heard rumors about the time of Saakashvili's arrival, I decided to head in to school at 10:30 to find out what the official policy would be on classes. As luck would have it, all lessons after 3rd period were canceled, so I got to play hooky. Sam, sadly, had to go to school because he began earlier than I did and his school decided not to cancel classes for the younger grades. So he missed out on some of the fun that I got to have.

I met up with my friend, Marianna, and we walked towards the main "square" (which is mostly just the main road in town, but is a little wider than the rest of the road because it abuts a parking strip and the stairs for the Culture House). I was really surprised a the police and security presence for the event. Usually, when they show Saakashvili on the news, it reminds me a little of governors in the U.S. Here he is, opening a new ice rink! Now he's kicking off the 10-year-old boys soccer game! Here he is, visiting a local winery! So I wasn't really expecting the security situation to be taken very seriously. In fact, they had cordoned off the area and had lots of police who were checking bags and patting people down before they let them in to the "secure" area. I got to play a fun game with a female police officer of taking all the things out of my purse and telling her what they were. ("What is this?" "This is my water bottle. It has water in it." "And what is this?" "This is a notebook." "And this?"That is a pack of tissues." It was a really great Georgian and Russian mixed vocab review.)

We arrived in the secure area in the square at about 11:30, which already meant that things were running behind schedule. There weren't too many people around yet, although it was clear that things were starting to get more crowded and the lines waiting to make it through the security check were monstrous. Marianna and I were there early enough, though, to get up right along the fence at the front, near the stage. We set up shop and waited, talking and enjoying the unseasonably warm November weather. I noticed that the stage wasn't really anything like ready to be soon holding a speech from a president, so I started to worry about how far off the rumors of an 11am start time were.

A big crowd turned out for the event

We waited.

And waited.

I made friends with the various older ladies who kept elbowing their ways through the growing crowd to claim their entitled spots at the front, causing ripples of laughter as I spoke back and forth with them, now in Armenian, now in Russian, now in Georgian.

A schoolgirl being patient and patriotic

We waited some more.

Finally, a van pulled up and started setting up speakers. Then the Georgian flags came out. Lucky for all of us (the crowd started really growing at this point), the sound tech guys not only brought their speakers and microphones, but also brought their finest collection of Euro-techno, which they immediately started blasting for our enjoyment. Maybe they thought they could appease the crowd with the killer beats.

Then we waited some more, occasionally covering our ears. One woman, next to me, put her arm around my shoulders so she could better lean all her weight against me to make the waiting and standing easier.

Finally, at about 3:00pm, all the secret service types and local government officials starting straightening their jackets, the members of the press ran to one side of the stage and a white SUV pulled up. Mikheil Saakashvili had arrived.

Making his grand entrance

As he took the stage, bounding up and fixing his always perfectly coifed hair, all the women standing around me exclaimed on how gorgeous he is. His wife was commented on as being "extremely well put together." He started his speech off in stumbling Armenian, reading from a piece of paper but doing pretty admirably over all, which drew lots of applause and remarks of appreciation from the grandmothers standing (and often leaning) at my side. His speech lasted about 10 minutes and was carried out in the clearest, most eloquently pronounced Georgian that I have heard since being here.

Giving his speech

As soon as the speech finished, he seemed to launch himself into the crowd, running through and shaking hands, waving and smiling and causing mass pandemonium as people of all stripes pushed against everyone to try to get a better view or to shake his hand or touch his hair, I'm not sure.

Causing a stir by diving into the crowd

His wife, the First Lady of Georgia just stood near the front, waiting for him to do his thing.

First Lady of Georgia, Sandra Roelofs

Then, just like that, they were gone. The white car that brought them took them away again and Akhalkalaki returned to a more normal state of affairs. But we had our big excitement for the day and it's given folks a lot to talk about this week!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Catching up

It’s been a little while since our last post, which is usually a good sign that we’ve been busy. Somewhere along the way there we passed our six-month mark in Georgia. Seems crazy to us that we’ve already been gone from home that long and that we’ve already been here that long. Sometimes we feel like we can’t possibly have been here that long; it seems like we haven’t done anything yet. On the other hand, when we look back at what all we’ve done, what we’ve learned, what we’ve accomplished and where we’ve been, it feels like we’ve already been here for ages. Here’s a recap of what has occupied us lately.

During Halloween weekend we headed back to Kortaneti to visit with our training host family. They were really glad to see us and to show off the new kitchen that our host father built (it’s inside the main house, which is helping to keep their house warmer and is much nicer in the winter, not to have to slog back and forth between the house building and the kitchen building. Even though the two are only a few steps apart, in the cold or rain or muck it’s much, much nicer to not have to run between buildings. Also, it makes it easier on our host mom who doesn’t have to carry food and utensils and plates and cups and things back and forth for each meal anymore). They only gave us a minimally hard time for forgetting a lot of the Georgian we had learned during training. A lot of it came back as the weekend progressed and hopefully we’ll be able to start taking some Georgian lessons here soon. It’s been tough, though, since very few people in Akhalkalaki speak Georgian and since we’ve been so busy with other activities and brushing up on our Russian and trying to learn Armenian. But we want to keep improving our Georgian as well, if for no other reason than to be able to keep communicating with our great training host family. We had a lot of interesting conversations with our Kortaneti family about minorities in Georgia. They get upset that at times because it seems to them that the minority groups in Georgia don’t have any interest in learning Georgian or trying to be part of Georgian society. At the same time, they understand that it’s difficult for to try to learn Georgian, and are sympathetic to the challenges that minorities face in the country. It seems like a step in the right direction that average village-dwelling folk can be so understanding of these difficulties for minorities, especially considering the pretty nasty nationalist period Georgia went through in the early 1990s. Certainly more could be done to increase cooperation and understanding between minorities and ethnic Georgians here, but big steps have been taken and it's encouraging, I think.

Aside from having lots of good conversations, we had a chance to eat a lot of our favorite Georgian foods again. It’s been funny that a lot of the other volunteers are already sick and tired of Georgian food, but Sam and I still love it, mostly because we don’t get a lot of Georgian food everyday. There are certainly lots of common dishes and shared tastes in Armenian and Georgian cultures, but many of the staples differ (and don't get me wrong, Armenian food is delicious, too. We've just missed some of the Georgian favorites). Maia, our host mom, had fresh, hot khachapuri waiting for us when we arrived and served Sam’s favorite raspberry jam with our tea. Later she prepared her delicious lobio (red bean soup with lots of spices and parsley, dill and cilantro on top) and we really just ate our way through the weekend. (We'll try to get a food edition blog post soon, with pictures and explanations of lots of the food we've had here.) We were happy to have so much yummy, warm food, too, because it was really cold all weekend, with cold rain (and snow up on the tops of all the mountains). We ended up missing the first real snow of the season in Akhalkalaki while we were in Kortaneti, although some evidence of it remained when we returned home, and lots of snow still covers the mountains around town.

On Monday, November 1, we said goodbye to Kortaneti and headed to Tbilisi to meet up with the whole rest of the crew. We had a week-long “Language In-Service Training and All-Volunteer Conference” (or IST and All-Vol, which has a nicer ring to it, I think). We went to a training facility about an hour north of Tbilisi on Bazaleti lake. (The training center is now owned by a university in Tbilisi, but was formerly a radio-blocking station during the Soviet Union, designed to try to block stations like Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and Voice of America from being able to broadcast in the USSR. The grounds were massive and remains of radio towers and satellite dishes were visible all around.) The setting was really beautiful, with lots of wide open space, snow-capped mountains in the background and perfect weather. We spent the first two days brushing up our language skills (we folks in minority communities had the option to choose from our many languages, which we wanted to study. I chose to take a day of Georgian and one of Armenian and Sam spent both days going over Armenian, but other volunteers studied Azeri and Russian as well). The second two days were dedicated to running a simulation on safety and security (we did a mock run of our “Emergency Action Plan” which would go into effect in case of a political or natural disaster or emergency requiring us either to stay put, consolidate to pre-determined locations or evacuate from the country. Peace Corps really likes to have all its ducks in a row and safety of its volunteers is one of its biggest issues, so we have lots of drills and refreshers on the procedures in worst-case scenarios). We also got our flu shots and had a briefing with our doctors. (We have two doctors on staff, one of which is always on call for us, and who only work for Peace Corps volunteers in Georgia. They’re fantastic! Every time we have to get shots, they give us a juice box, so we don’t associate them with pain and shots but happy, colorful juice boxes.)

The All-Vol conference was really the first time that all the Peace Corps Georgia volunteers were gathered in the same place. There are 28 volunteers who came in 2009 (we call them the G9s, because they’re the ninth group of volunteers in the PC Georgia program; Sam and I are part of the G10 group), 30 who came with us in April this year and 7 short-term volunteers who are part of a program called “Peace Corps Response.” These are all returned PCVs who have signed up to serve again in specialized programs for 3 months. All 65 of us had not been in the same place before, so it was great to see each other and get a chance to talk and make new friends and hear about the projects that others are working on and get new ideas. A lot of card games, Trivial Pursuit and Settlers of Catan were played. We also had elections for the many PC-initiated committees (there’s an IT committee, one on women’s and gender issues, one on healthy living and AIDS education, one for safety and security, one about increasing youth volunteerism and a new one-year group that will help plan the Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebrations that will take place next year). It was great to get and share ideas about secondary projects and ways to activate the communities we are living in and get excited about the other ways we can help out in Georgia. I joined the Life Skills Committee (about sharing ideas to educate and encourage people to live active, healthy lives and especially to spread HIV/AIDS awareness and education) and Sam has joined a group to review the language training processes that PC uses during the training period.

The highlight of the week, arguably, was the Thanksgiving dinner. Since we were all gathered together and it was already November (!), we celebrated Thanksgiving with as many of the traditional foods as we could muster here in Georgia. The executive chef at the Radisson hotel in Tbilisi was friends with a former PCV and loved the American Thanksgiving tradition, so for the past few years he has donated his time and skills (and turkeys!) to make turkeys and stuffing for the PCVs. The rest of the food was prepared by our volunteers. Sam helped head up the “Thanksgiving Committee” (we love our committees in PC!) and organized the cooking, baking and preparing of enough food to feed about 100 people (all 65 volunteers, the PC staff and the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia all partook). We had pumpkin pies, apple pies, mashed potatoes, pumpkin casserole, green bean casserole, pumpkin soup, peanut soup, real salad (with real salad dressing, not just sunflower oil or mayonnaise!), fruit salad, cranberry sauce (purchased from the Embassy store by our country director) and biscuits. It was amazing and I think I was in a food coma for most of last week.


The Thanksgiving Dinner

An Anniversary Cake

We headed back to Akhalkalaki and got back into the swing of things pretty much right away. Sam had already started an English club at his school (split up on different days between different grade levels, with a day for teachers as well) and he got right back into meeting with them after school. He also has a small group of students that work on their speaking skills with him every Tuesday evening at the Language House, an NGO in town that mostly focuses on teaching Georgian for free to people in the town, but also has some English and other classes. I started my “Extra English” group along the same lines as Sam's club once we returned. After the first week, I feel like it’s been somewhat successful and I’m looking forward to keeping it going. Sam and I mostly work in our clubs on encouraging the students to speak a lot and use a lot of games to help teach grammar and speaking and listening skills. We’ve both been keeping busy as well team-teaching English classes at school (I teach 19 classes each week and Sam teaches 17), lesson planning with our counterparts and generally trying to be prepared for classes. We spend a lot of time hanging out with our new host family (especially in the evenings; we’ve become study buddies with our host brother, often doing our “homework” together or watching the popular Armenian soap operas each night with our host parents and grandmother). In addition, we continue to meet with our tutor to study Armenian three times a week. We’ve also been very lucky with the weather and have been able to keep up our running, meeting with some friends most mornings to run. Although it’s been very cold in the morning and at night, it’s been dry and clear so we can bundle up and run either around the park (1/5 of a mile per lap) or around the soccer stadium (1/4 mile per lap). People in town are always impressed to hear that we run 5 kilometers most mornings. Our new host house is right near a new road that has been built to the Turkish border. Some mornings, we run along the sidewalk (!) towards Turkey. It’s only 31 kilometers, but so far we haven’t been inspired to go that far.

We have lots of other projects and interests and goals in the works, and after being here six months (and rapidly approaching the seven-month mark now), we are really starting to feel like we’re integrating into the community. We are hopeful that some of the projects we are working on or will work on will be sustained after we depart, but at least we hope that they’ll have some impact during the two years we’re here. We’ll keep you updated on how they go!

The whole group of Georgia PCVs

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Our new digs

As promised, here are some pictures of our new house, new family and the new view we have when we wake up each morning. Overall, it's been a very pretty fall, aside from a 2-week spell of very cold, rainy, gross weather at the start of October. Lately we've been having great weather; it's been pretty cold overnight and into the morning, but we've had warm days and lots of sunshine. Perfect weather for the changing leaves!

I still need to get some pictures of our new host dad and host grandmother, but since we've got shots of the kids (and that's mostly what our mothers want to see), I'll post these for now, with more to come later. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

Our new house is across this bridge from the main part of town. It is situated right outside the old Russian army base, which is called the gorodok (little city, in Russian) by everyone here in town. This is the view from our back porch, with the bridge and my school in view.

This is the view from out the front door of our house. The wall marks off the start of the gorodok . Inside this wall there are a lot of apartment buildings, which were formerly inhabited by Russian soliders and their families, but are now lived in by other residents of Akhalkalaki. The base itself has just been abandoned, and there are lots of empty buildings, slowly crumbling away. Their windows seem to be favorites for target practice by young boys throwing rocks. Georgian police officers patrol the area to make sure people don't wander into the abandoned Russian military buildings and structures. The road seen in front of the wall is a new highway being under construction that will stretch to the Turkish border (about 30 kilometers away, apparently) and funded largely by U.S. foreign aid.

This is our new room. We have lots of space and it's a really nice, comfortable place to be staying!

Our new host sister, Lilit, is 15 months old and absolutely loves Sam. She loves playing with his glasses and his watch, but most of all, she loves listening to him play his guitar. Whenever he starts to play, she comes a-flying up, as fast as her fastest crawl allows, and either sits and watches him play, "helps" him play or sits and dances.

Here she is "helping" Sam play.

And a video of Sam and Lilit rocking out together.

Our new host mom, Armine, and host sister, Lilit, went out for an evening walk to look at the changing leaves and show me around our new neighborhood. They always really bundle up the little kids whenever they go outside, regardless of the temperature.

Our host brother, Shayan, dressed as his favorite superhero after school the other day to celebrate his receiving a 10 (like an A+ 100% grade) in school on Thursday. As a reward for the perfect grade, he was given a new pair of Spiderman socks, being shown off here.

After relaxing and showing off the socks, though, it was time for Spiderman to get back into action.

Later that day, Spiderman went to the chapel down the hill to light some candles.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Moving house

6 months, 2 continents, 4 languages, and 4 homes. When you say it like that...
We moved last Sunday; our first three months of service were up and with it our initial homestay at our permanent site. We were happy with the family we were staying with, but the heating situation in their home wouldn't allow us to stay there with winter coming on. So we started asking around and found that the aunt and uncle of a good friend of ours here had a room that they'd be willing to let us move into.

We'd met the family before and they struck as extremely kind and welcoming, but that turns out to be an understatement. They're just downright great, and we've really enjoyed getting to know each other better over the past week. Our host mother teaches Russian at Melissa's school. Our host father owns a pharmacy downtown. Our host grandmother is busy around the house and helps watch the two kids (a 7-year old boy and a 1 1/2 year old girl) while the parents are at work. Our host brother is a big Spider-Man fan, which made for some instant bonding.

It was daunting moving on Sunday and getting right back to work on Monday, so it was a relief in some ways to finish 4th period on Monday and return to the teacher's lounge to get the news that the rest of the week's classes would be canceled to allow students to work on the potato harvest.

Meanwhile, Melissa and our friend in town who works at the adult education center were in Tbilisi from Sunday (just after our move) to Saturday for a training on conducting peer health education with a focus on HIV/AIDS. The training was interesting and revealed a lot of the challenges of talking about the subject in this society. It was also a good chance for her to spend time with some other Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts.

And today, in celebration of Melissa getting back and our really being moved in, we had a deliciously huge khinkali dinner. It's been a great week; we really couldn't be happier with our host family, and we're eager to get back to work tomorrow.

(I'll get a picture up of our new place shortly).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What do you think? Sam's bench?

Happy (belated) Teachers Day!

"We congratulate you, our beloved teachers!"

Tuesday was Teachers Day in Georgia. It seems like this was a very important and much-celebrated holiday in Soviet times and nowadays it is marked in various parts of Georgia with different levels of acknowledgment. Sam's school barely celebrated whereas my school went whole hog.

I think it's largely due to the fact that I'm working at the Russian school in town that I was lucky enough to have such a big, festive holiday. There's more room for carryover from the Soviet Union at a Russian-language school (we had lots of nice posters and banners in Russian, extolling teachers for their dedication). Moreover, there are just a ton of songs in Russian specifically penned about the Teachers Day holiday (we had a lot of songs in Russian about the first day of school, too).

One of the Teachers Day posters note made by students

My school really made the day special. All day Monday, students were extra rowdy, rushing around the halls and making signs and banners and generally decorating the school to prepare for the big day. (The school had a competition to see which class could decorate their classrooms best; I didn't hear if a prize was awarded to the winning class, but since it seems like at least half of each class was allowed to be absent from classes on Monday in order to hang balloons or arrange flowers or whatnot, I think that everyone got a reward.)

Some of the flowers used in decorating the school

On Tuesday, we had a shortened schedule; students only had three classes (instead of the usual 5-8) and these were cut to 25 minutes (from 40) and started an hour later than normal. All the teachers in the school were given flowers--roses, mostly--by their students and each other. The big excitement came at 2pm, though, when we had the Annual Teachers Day Concert.

The concert's emcees kick things off

The show included some prepared speeches by students and the principal, the singing of many of the aforementioned Soviet-era Teachers Day songs, a few skits portraying what students imagine teachers' lives to be like and the recitation of a few poems about teachers. More roses were given to all the teachers and a few brave 12-graders asked the principal and assistant principal to dance during one of the songs. But the very best part of the performance came from two of my 11-graders, who sang a song in English, dedicated especially to me. They did a great job, and though the lyrics might not match up as well as those of the Russian language songs, I was still very touched by the gesture. (And since the only song in English I can think of that's about teachers is "Hot for Teacher," theirs was probably a safer choice.)

The grand finale

No event in our town would be complete, it seems, without a television camera from the local news channel, and without fail, I was interviewed (in Russian) and asked to give my thoughts on the celebration. I was honestly able to say how impressed I was and what a great job the kids did. They seemed very interested to know that we not only do not celebrate the holiday in the same way in America but in fact don't really even have the holiday at all. At any rate, I was glad to make it through my third tv interview in Georgia (three more than I've ever had in America!).