Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Supras and Summer Camps

We've mentioned the Georgian tradition of the supra, a feast whose distinguishing characteristic is a series of often elaborate wine toasts. These happen fairly frequently -- they're held to mark special occasions like a birthday or a wedding, and there's a variation for funerals, but they're also likely to be held for no reason other than a group of friends or neighbors wanting to spend time together. Georgians will tell you that the supra showcases much of the best of their cultural ideals (hospitality, generosity, friendship, gregariousness, eloquence, gratitude, good food and drink), and many will admit that the wine and extravagance sometimes go a little too far.

The key role in the supra is played by the tamada, or toast master. He (it's almost always a man, unless the supra is for women only) is responsible for making the toasts (though there are times when he can pass a toast to another or send the privilege around the table). You don't drink until a toast has been offered, and then it's best to drain your glass. At my last supra, where, for some odd reason, I was made tamada, a neighbor told me a story about what it means to be tamada: Stalin was once at a supra, and the phone rang. He answered, "I can't talk unless the tamada says I can be excused."

Many of the toast themes are fairly ritualized - you tend to start with a toast to peace, then move on to toast your hosts, friendship, parents, siblings, spouses, and children. When you mention any group of which some may have passed away, it's good to mention them and pour a libation on the food being served (sometimes this is just a symbolic tip of the glass, but sometimes the tamada will drop a little wine on each food dish). People can wax wonderfully eloquent, and while (thankfully) I could mostly get away with a simple formula, a really good tamada can spin off toasts with poetry and class.

The rough equivalent of "cheers" is "Gaumarjos!" (or some grammatical variation thereof), and you'll hear it long into the night.

Every family here makes their own wine, usually red, sweet and slightly fizzy. There are all kinds of traditions: you'll see folks getting up, crossing arms, and drinking their glasses to the end over linked arms, finishing with a kiss. Of course we miss a lot for lack of language and cultural awareness, but at the supra people talk politics, tell stories, reaffirm friendships, lavishly display their hospitality (and great food and drink), sing, dance, and generally spend time.

The downside of the supra, which people here have admitted to me, is that it's terribly hard for everyone to stay sober. For all that it's a drinking culture, being drunk is strongly frowned upon (unless, as happened with a neighbor couple of weeks ago, you try to do magic tricks while drunk, in which case being drunk is heartily laughed at). And you have to have a pretty strong stomach to keep up as the toasts continue hours into the night. The tamada especially has to be sure not to be drunk -- sometimes he shows off by balancing his wine glass on the tips of two fingers eight or ten glasses into the night.

The only supra I've stayed till the end for was the one where I was tamada. After around two hours, everyone else was quite prepared to keep going, but I was exhausted, and luckily a World Cup game was calling so no one protested too much. But I got to experience a tradition I hadn't seen before -- the toasting of the tamada at the end of the night. I was really touched by my host parents' toasts to me, and it was really a moment to love this place and the people I've come to know.

As for the daytime hours, this week our group has been conducting "summer camps" in the village -- later, in our permanent sites, we'll be responsible for holding one on our own. The camp consists of about 2 hours' worth of activities every afternoon for a week, and we've had in the neighborhood of 16 kids each day so far. The biggest hit has been a game called "animal sounds," in which kids are given cards with different animal names and must, without revealing their card, imitate their animal's voice and find all the others with the same card. It's a riot -- we've got quite the talented frog impersonator and some really effective donkeys. It's also interesting to see what the different stereotypical animal noises are. In Georgian, for example, pigs don't "oink!" they "groot! groot!" (unless you're the girl who can do a worryingly spot-on impression of a pig at its squealingest). Our suspicion is that we could have just done 10 hours of animal sounds and our summer camp would have been a hit.

But we've also done art projects, learned songs, had a relay race, done a scavenger hunt, played pictionary, made (but never successfully unmade) a lot of human knots, and watched Finding Nemo, ensuring that "dude" is bound to become part of the local slang.

Pictures soon.

On the language front, things are progressing, but there are some curve balls. Maybe it's that old American exceptionalism showing, but I really don't think Georgian needs a separate verb for "to wear (something on your head)," when we already have two for "to wear (clothing)" and "to wear (accessories)."

Meanwhile, we've finished our Russian classes and our last Armenian class is tomorrow. Just over a week until swearing in and moving to our permanent sites. As we've mentioned, it's going to be just about heartbreaking to leave, but it'll be good to get down to work in the community that will be our home for the next two years, and we've promised to come back to visit our training village as often as we can.

Actually, last night, our host father gave the following toast: "To friendship. To friendship between American and Georgia. To our friendship. To a friendship that will last, so that we'll visit each other, and our children will visit each other after that..."


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The much anticipated site visit

Last Tuesday we attended our "Supervisor Conference" where we all got our first chance to meet a representative from our school or host organization from our permanent sites. Sam's school director and an English teacher from my school came to get some further instructions on how to handle a PC volunteer (or more accurately to learn what we're here to do and what to expect from us). Then on Wednesday after some activities and a fantastic buffet-style lunch, we headed off with our supervisors to get our first experience in the place we'll be living for the next two years.

Sam and I headed off to Akhalkalaki with two other volunteers who'll be stationed in the next town. We'd traveled part of the road before on our trip to Abastumani and knew we were in for a pretty drive for at least half of the trip. When we took the road south towards our town, we almost immediately saw some major changes. For one, the road started getting really bad- potholes that could swallow a car like braille covering the majority of the surface for miles. Secondly, we started gaining elevation pretty rapidly. Third of all, we started seeing some pretty drastic changes to the scenery; the Borjomi region's thick forests and rolling mountain ridges faded into sheerer cliffs populated by grasses and the rare tree. We wondered sometimes if our minibus would make it around all the windy, broken up roads up the steep climbs.

But only about 3 hours after departing, we had arrived. Our town is fairly flat itself, but located atop the Javakheti Plateau. We were to spend the next 4 days staying with our new host family, getting to know our new schools and trying to begin thinking about what exactly it is we'll be doing. Our host family was very welcoming. We will live with a host mother and father and their 23-year-old son. They also have a daughter who lives across town with her husband and their two sons, aged 6 and 18 months. Our host family, like about 95% of the town's residents, are Armenian minority citizens of Georgia. Coming into town, the population's identity becomes evident pretty quickly; signs are written in Russian and Armenian script, and the familiar curlicues of Georgian are hard to find.

In town, there are 5 schools, with different languages of instruction. Three schools are Armenian language schools (Sam will be teaching at one of these), one school is a Georgian language school and the fifth and largest school is a Russian school (where I will be teaching). Again, since most of the town's population is of Armenian descent, the bulk of the students at all schools speak Armenian at home with their families. All are taught Russian, English, Armenian and Georgian in the schools, beginning in different grades. Resources for Georgian language education for the town used to be pretty lacking, however, and Georgian education still falls short, creating something of an odd dilemma for students. Most choose to focus their energies on learning either Armenian or Russian extremely well in order to attend universities in either Armenia or Russia, since Georgian instruction can still sometimes be poor or opportunities for gaining a full academic grasp of Georgian limited.

We had some great chances to get to know a lot of interesting people at our schools and in the town and are really looking forward to beginning our work in Akhalkalaki. We will have almost 2 months after arriving in town until the beginning of the school year, so we will be focusing on additional language acquisition. We plan to get tutors for Armenian and Georgian and will be practicing our Russian daily with our host family and others in town (everyone there speaks really fantastic Russian).

Once school starts, most education PC volunteers tend to start working on secondary projects in addition to teaching classes. We'll be trying to plan some activities and get a sense of what needs there are in the community (some were already fairly evident just from our very short visit). It's been exciting to think how close we are getting to being able to really put all this long, grueling training into practice!

We'll be sure to keep the posts coming, and I hope you're still enjoying them... If any of you have any questions or requests on anything we're forgetting to post, please let us know! Until then, here are a few pictures of our new host town.

Pretty view of the big mountain at the Armenia border

View down our street

A view of Akhalkalaki from a nearby hill

Some pretty flowers given to me by some English students at a local school

The very cool water spouts on many of the houses

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tbilisi Trip

I'm playing a bit of catch-up here in my blog posts. We traveled to Tbilisi last Friday, June 11 to get a tour of the Peace Corps office, meet the full-time PC Georgia staff and get our first real chance to explore the capital a bit. As always, we had to arrive back at our host family's house by 7pm. Given the sometimes challenging unreliability of transportation options, we had to be sure to give ourselves plenty of time to make the usually 2.5 hour journey back to the village, which didn't leave us with too much time to traipse around. Even still, we had a great time strolling around, getting ourselves lost in the old town and happily finding a Russian blini restaurant for lunch.

In all, we're happy with how we were able to figure out the city a bit and looking forward to going back. Here are a few of the shots we got in Tbilisi during our short trip.

An old church in the Old Town

My new favorite graffiti

Old balcony in Old Town

Statue of St. George in front of the town hall

Nice juxtaposition of Soviet Realist art and a Coca-Cola ad, don't you think?

Cool old wall thing

Would any trip be complete without a self portrait?

Parliament building

View up to the hills from Rustaveli Street

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sam's new language instructors

Life is rough on our Georgian teachers during training. In addition to having to teach a four hour language class every day, they also have to pick up and move to the villages for the 3 months. Our Georgian teacher lives in the house next to ours, and has transplanted her family here for the summer as well. She has two of the cutest little girls I've seen (they make me think of a certain two very cutest little girls I know, Miss Abigail and Miss Ella). The two, Ana and Elene, 4 and 3 years old, have taken a great interest in Sam and me. Here's some pictures and a very short video of them teaching Sam Georgian.

Sam gets a lesson from Ana and Elene

Ana help Sam out

I distracted Elene by bringing out the camera.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Site Announcement

Thursday was a big, exciting day for us. We were scheduled to have what PC calls a “hub day,” where all the trainees were to get together for joint sessions (normally we stay in our “clusters” of five people and have language classes and technical training, so “hub day” is a fun change of pace and a chance to see the other folks we don’t see daily). This Thursday started off with a real bang, though. We got to do a practice emergency drill called “consolidation.” PC has a whole slew of safety and security rules and regulations, and in the case of an emergency, they have a safety system in place to rally all the volunteers to one spot. It’s like a fire drill on a much larger scale.

We got the call at about 7:30am, telling us that we needed to grab our “go bags” (the most important things we need to have with us in the case of an emergency situation, like passports, money, cell phones, change of clothes, valuables, water, etc.) and meet at the consolidation point, which, luckily, is also our hub site. Sam and I scrambled around a little bit (I had just gotten back from a run) and headed out the door. The most time consuming part of the drill turned out to be trying to convince our host family to let us go without eating breakfast first. “You have to go to Borjomi for an emergency drill? But you have to eat first! No time? How can you not have time for breakfast?! At least drink your tea!” And so on. After some quick thinking, we convinced them that PC would have breakfast waiting for us, and with some tongue clicks and sighs, they let us go.

Once the drill was over and we got started into our training day, we got to the part we’d been expecting to be the most exciting part: site announcement, when all the trainees get to learn where they’ll be spending the next two years. PC did a great job making this a fun event. They set up a huge outline of Georgia and taped down the names of the cities and villages we’d be off to, then handed out envelopes. We went around, opening the envelope we’d been given, reading off the name of the trainee we’d received and then telling them where they’d be going, Academy-Awards style.

Some site placement activity pictures:

Standing outside the map, waiting to learn where we'll be heading

Tengo tells us how it'll all go down

Oh, the anticipation!

Heading to Akhalkalaki

Some happy sitemates

Sam and I found out that we will be spending the next two years in a predominately Armenian town in Georgia called Akhalkalaki. From what we’ve heard, it’s the city with the worst weather in all of Georgia, and has very rough winters, worse than the rest of the country sees. Lucky us. The other thing people keep telling us is that Akhalkalaki has the best potatoes in the whole country. So we’re going to the Idaho of Georgia, it seems. Our Armenian language teacher tells us that she knows our host family, though, and that they have a bathroom with a toilet, shower and washing machine. If this holds true, I think I’ll forgive the harshest winters.

We’ll find out a bit more about our permanent site next week, when we’ll go for a “site visit.” We’ll spend 4 days in Akhalkalaki, staying with our permanent host family, and we’ll get the chance not only to see the town a bit, but also to meet the directors of our schools (Sam and I will be teaching at different schools in town) and some of the other people we’ll be spending the bulk of our time with. I’m really glad that we’ll soon be getting a better picture of where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing soon!

Prettier pictures from Rustavi

The Rustavi castle/fortress

Me and Sam, standing on the fortress wall

More castle/fortress

The pretty little lake/stream that had both human and bovine bathers on this hot June day

Monday, June 7, 2010

Job Shadowing

We spent the weekend in Rustavi, Georgia, an industrial town of about 150,000 located about a half hour from Tbilisi. Our trip was as part of a PC program to "job shadow" current volunteers in their daily routines, to give us still fresh-of-the-plane trainees a chance to see how life will look when we're out of our safety bubble of training. Sam and I went to Rustavi to shadow another couple of TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) volunteers who have been in Georgia for a year.

The bus ride to Rustavi was interesting-while we've been in training, we've been kept to a very small part of Georgia and haven't been allowed to go to Tbilisi or its environs (PC is a stricter, more concerned mother than either of us have seen, which says a lot, I think). Mostly this is because we have to stay in our villages to study all the time, but we also have a lot of rules to help keep track of us while we're still pretty helpless in the language.

On the drive to Rustavi, we followed the main east-west highway that cuts across the country through a city named Gori. Gori is an "off-limits" city for us during our training (just as Tbilisi is), although we are allowed to transit it. During the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the city of Gori was bombed and eventually occupied by Russian troops (Gori houses a Georgian military base, which was the main target of the Russian attacks, although residential areas of the city were affected as well). There are two major bridges in Gori that the highway passes; currently, one is fully reconstructed and the other is under construction. It is really something to see the remains of the destroyed bridges, and highway traffic comes to a crawl once in Gori due to all the road construction underway. More impressive to me than the remaining rubble, though, is the speed with which the government has rebuilt. If I hadn't known why the roads were under repair in the area, I would never guess. It just seems like your run-of-the-mill road construction project.

A little ways down the road from Gori towards Tbilisi, we passed an odd village. Unlike most Georgian villages, that tend to be just an odd clumping of houses and fields and farms, this village was more ordered and planned than anything I've ever seen. All the houses are the same size, spaced apart identically, with identical color schemes. We asked some of our Georgian teachers what the place was and they told us that it was one of several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Georgia. Georgia had a really nasty civil war following the breakup of the Soviet Union (from 1992-93) and the most recent conflict with Russia (in 2008), which has caused a lot of people to be pushed from their homes (some estimates say there are 220,000 IDPs in Georgia, a remarkable number for a country of about 5 million).

A picture of one of Georgia's IDP camps (from a blog I found called "Georgia and South Caucasus" by Ralph Hälbig)

Although the camps appear, from the road at least, to be fairly monotonous, they do look to be good, solid buildings. Many of the houses have murals painted on the sides, some of flowers, some of children playing, some of the Georgian flag. Riding past the houses in the camps is tough; on the one hand, the murals are hopeful and show the resilience of the human spirit. On the other, the camps themselves just emphasize the extreme costs of wars and the long-lasting effects they have on people. I hope that the conflicts Georgia has faced can be resolved, but I don't know how or how soon they will be.

But moving past thoughts of IDP camps and war rubble, let me move on to talk a bit more about the destination of our journey: beautiful, thriving Rustavi! Arriving into Rustavi was a bit of a shock for many reasons. First, Rustavi is much, much hotter than our little village. It was 90 degrees when we arrived at 6:30pm. Second, Rustavi is very much a town of the Soviet Union. It was made into a center of industry (with lots of different factories and plants, for chemicals and other goods) and was built up to house all the good Soviet workers in the lovely Soviet-style blocs of apartments. It reminded me of being back in the city in Poland where I lived out of high school. We were glad to be in town, though, and get off the bus. Although we had air conditioning for the first 2 hours of our bus ride, it was turned off for the last 30 minutes--the hottest part of our ride--to save gas. We barely squeaked in to the gas station at the entrance of Rustavi.

A picture of Rustavi (taken, for some reason, for a Georgia tourism website. Makes you want to visit, doesn't it?)

We were met at the bus stop (after filling up at the gas station, of course) by one of the current PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), who, with her husband, would be hosting us for the weekend. She walked us back to their apartment and it was really a big change for Sam and I to adjust to actually having to watch for cars and to have to cross streets that were not just little dirt paths and to see tons of people we didn't recognize. We've gotten so used to our village life!

As part of the "job shadowing" weekend, we were charged to observe the PCVs in their daily routines, to go with them to their classes and watch how they teach English and work with their Georgian counterparts. It was really helpful--although Sam and I have now had slightly over a month of training and have done some teaching practicum on our own, we haven't yet figured out just how we'll get into the swing of things, especially with team teaching with a counterpart. Watching the current volunteers and how well they work with their counterparts gave us a lot of hope for how things will work when we're out on our own.

We also got a great chance to talk with the PCVs about the secondary projects that they have been undertaking. They range from participation in the Tbilisi Race for the Cure to an English language club, from the organization of a women's health fair to a bathroom renovation/sanitation project, from the starting of a music club to the organization of a spelling bee. We are getting really excited thinking about the types of projects we will want to try to work on outside of classes when we get to our "permanent site" (the place we'll be living and working in Georgia for the next two years).

In Rustavi we also had the chance to eat some really delicious food. Although we've been loving the Georgian cuisine so far, it was pretty luxurious to go out for pizza one night and Indian the next. Also, since most fruits and vegetables haven't come into season yet in our village, we haven't had too much of either (our host family doesn't really eat too much aside from what they produce on their own). Rustavi has a huge bazaar, though, where you can get fruits and vegetables by the kilo, and by the kilo did we purchase them!

I have some more pictures of Rustavi that I will share a little bit later, but I have to run to class now (today we have Russian). I hope you're all well!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hug your washing machine!

Today has been a gorgeous day--something we've come to really appreciate, given the downright nasty weather we've had some days since arriving (and rainy, cold weather really makes village living tough, since the roads turn to sludge, the water out of the tap is ice cold and the bathroom is in a building only accessible by going outside). I've taken advantage of the nice weather by doing our laundry, always a daunting task and never something to be undertaken when it's rainy or cold.

Our host family doesn't have a washing machine, so all laundry is done the old fashioned way, by hand in a tub. Then we hang it out to dry and hope the sun and breeze help move things along. I'm starting to get the hang of doing laundry this way, but my hands (especially my knuckles!) are still not entirely accustomed. And unfortunately, in this gender-divided society, laundry is "women's work" so Sam doesn't get to help me. This has resulted in us wearing clothes well past what we'd consider to be at an acceptable level of cleanliness. Sam does feel guilty about not helping out, though, and promises to pay me back by doing all the laundry for four years when we get back stateside.

My new washing machine

My new dryer