Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

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