Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Musings on snow and thaw

Although we were warned before coming to Akhalkalaki (and subsequently by locals upon arriving) that winters here were nothing to sneeze at, we’ve ended up with a pretty mild run by local standards. We didn’t really get any real snow to speak of (other than a few early dustings and one or two real coverings) until New Year’s Eve, when the world finally turned white. According to most folks, the weather was milder this year in honor of our presence, not wanting to scare us off too quickly. Usually, they assure us, there’s snow on the ground in October, or at least by November, and it lasts until May, sometimes even until June! These stories could be fish tales, but everyone has been adamant that this year has been unusually warm and snowless, something we’re inclined to believe.

Since our New Year’s white stuff, though, we’ve had a pretty consistent covering of snow and ice every day. We usually get snow at least about every other day. It comes about 2-3 inches at a time, just enough to make running a challenge (it’s not as much fun when it comes up over the edge of my shoes), and just enough to make everything seem peaceful and beautiful and clean and calm again, if only for a little while.

Sometimes we get a peek of blue sky through the snow clouds

Our street after a snow

The stadium has become pretty un-runable lately, but sure does look pretty

Lots of people here say that because of the elevation (remember, we’re about a mile and a quarter up), the sun is a lot stronger than it is at lower elevations. I don’t know about this explanation from a scientific standpoint (any of you sciency folks care to weigh in in the comments?), but we definitely do get some bright, strong sun. So in between our bouts of snow, we have full blast rays that, even if the temperature seems too low to allow melting, thaw all our pretty snow and create a lot of ice (as soon as it melts, it freezes again). We’ve had a few days when the temperature is slightly above freezing for a few midday hours, but as soon as the soon starts to go down, the temps drop and we get messes of slick ice all over. When it snows again, our 2-3 new inches help make the ice more navigable, but can also play a real number on an unsuspecting walker, who doesn’t realize the ice beneath. One of the teachers at my school apparently fell victim this week, slipping on the ice outside our school, falling and breaking her arm.

This past week we really thought spring might be on its way, though. We had so much sun and got above freezing several days in a row without any additional snow. You might be thinking this sounds lovely, but in fact it had us wishing for another drop in the mercury. See, snow removal in Akhalkalaki (and much of the rest of Georgia, from what I’ve seen and heard), is virtually nonexistent. No, that’s not fair to say. Mostly, snow removal strategies here center on gravity: eventually the snow will melt and roll downhill into the river. In the meantime, cars drive and slide through the streets, which progressively get higher and higher as the snow accumulates and gets packed down through pressure and melting-refreezing. This week we had full-on lakes in lots of the roads, mixtures of slush and dirty water that caused us to walk, jump and skip our ways across town, weaving like drunk people. More than once I’ve sung the praises of my waterproof boots after stepping onto what looked like solid snow, only to be a cruel trick of an ankle-deep puddle.

I remember when I was in St. Petersburg in the spring, watching the ice break up on the Neva River and in the canals, being struck by the idea of what the word “thaw” means in different languages. In Russian, the noun “thaw”—оттепель—comes from a combination that directly means “from warmth.” I like the sound of it better than the English word, that just makes me think of sticking frozen chicken breasts into the microwave.

Just as in Russia, watching the thaw in action here in Georgia makes more of an impression than thaws in the U.S. ever did. In addition, seeing melting here, watching a thaw, makes me feel like as an American learning about the thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations in history classes, I never fully understood or appreciated the symbolism behind the calling the period “the thaw.” I generally took it to mean that relations were icy and were slowly becoming warmer. Maybe even like the artificial heating of a frozen chunk of chicken in the microwave. It didn’t really have an impact on me, talking about the thaw. Seeing a literal thaw in action, though, I’m struck by how much more apt the term is than I initially credited. You see the sheer force warmth has in breaking up the ice and changing the terrain, for sure. That in itself has an impact. But you also see downside of thaw: the dirt and the trash and the things lost or left behind that were suspended in the ice come to light again. In many ways, it’s much uglier than it was during the freeze, and people are just as likely to wish the thaw to turn back into freezing as they are to wish it further along. Also, as was the case here in Akhalkalaki today, one period of thaw that looks sure to lead directly to the warmth of spring can be followed by another freeze and snow, the beautiful result of which canceled our run today.

Some streets in thaw this week

Last night’s and this morning’s snow has solved our problems for today of getting through town without slipping or falling into puddles. And it has delayed, at least for a little while, the threat of spring and warmer days. It’s a bit of a relief that we’ll be able to walk to our Armenian lesson and across town on some errands today without dealing with quite so much slush. But the slush will return, the thaw will continue. In the cycles of weather and literal warming and freezing, you can always count on spring to follow winter. Before you know it we’ll be shedding our many layers of long underwear and sweaters for warmer wear, whether in March, April, May, or god help us, June.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

That's lunch

This was part of my complete and balanced lunch yesterday:

It's okay. I know you're jealous. Maybe you too will eat a food with a similarly wonderful (and shockingly apt) name. Hopefully it'll be tasty, too.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Love is in the air

Since our last posting, we've had a slew of love-related holidays celebrated here in Akhalkalaki. We tried our best to witness/participate in some of these holidays, and gathered snatches of information about what these holidays were, where they came from and why they are celebrated as they are. Lots of this information from people in town was interesting, but left us looking for more detailed explanations. I'll try to combine those stories with what the internet (yay internet!) has to say as well.

First, on the evening of February 13, they celebrated Derendes at the Armenian church. Everyone in town was telling us about how this was a must-view holiday celebration. It is a day of celebrating newlyweds, which includes a blessing at the church followed by a good old-fashioned bonfire and leaping over fire by said newlyweds. The favorite story told to us revolved around one enthusiastic new bride who, in her efforts to show her love for her new husband, jumped the bonfire in her wedding dress, only to get a bit caught up and not completely clear the flames, setting her white birthday-cake-of-a-dress aflame.

Sam and I went with our friend, Marianna, to try to witness this year's bonfire-jumping, but went too early. There was a pile of planks in the churchyard, but no fire yet. It was cold so we went home to warm up and wait for dusk to return to the church. When we went back to the church, alas--there was a nearly burned down fire and the last of the lovebirds had already cleared (at least we hope they cleared) the fire.

Though we were sad to miss the spectacle, Marianna filled us in on some additional interesting explanations to the bonfire jumping. The idea, she said, was that young couples should try to jump over the fire when it was still burning high. The higher the flames, the more passion and love one ensures his or her marriage to be blessed with. So people try to jump over the fire when it's high. But even if they can't jump the bonfire when it's first set alight (or don't want to risk jumping over flames too high lest they set themselves on fire), it's still okay to jump over the remaining embers of the bonfire. Jumping in general guarantees a degree of passion in the new marriage. Hopefully next year we'll get to see the jumpers in action and capture some leaps on camera.

Doing a little research on Derendes, I found this to be the official explanation of the holiday: "The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Dyarnuntarachor (Derendes as it is sometimes called), is celebrated every year on February 14, the 40th day after Jesus’ birth, marking His presentation at the Temple. Because of the significance of this important milestone in the Savior's life which we know from the Gospels, it has become a tradition that at the end of church services, newborn infants in the congregation be taken up on the altar and presented to the Lord. Part of the tradition of this celebration is the lighting of a bonfire after the church service. This practice is a remnant of the celebration of the birthday of Ahura-Mazda (Ormizd in Armenian), the chief God of our pre-Christian Zoroastrian ancestors who worshipped fire as the manifestation of the one true God. After Christianity came to our nation, this ancient custom continued, but with a shift in its emphasis. The great conflagration came to be associated with Christ, "the living fire" who is also the "Light of the World"."

(On a side note, according to people in town, and confirmed by our observations of how people celebrate holidays here in Akhalkalaki, the Armenian church tends to consider a holiday to begin after 6:00pm on the day before. So, although this has the holiday listed as falling on February 14, it was celebrated on the evening before. Also, the 40 days after Jesus' birth presumably counts from January 6, Armenian Christmas.)

Next up we had Valentine's Day. Really, Valentine's Day has only recently begun to be celebrated here in Georgia, and isn't filled with the same kinds of overly commercialized virtues as its American counterpart. At my school, most of the kids spent the day cutting out red paper hearts to glue to the windows (to replace the remaining New Year's decorations) and drawing new love-themed pictures for the school display cases. At the end of the day, I believe some of the students might have put on some sort of performance or production or something, given the very loud music that was blaring from the performance hall. I didn't stay around to catch the show, however, since Sam and I had an Armenian lesson scheduled.

(Sam and I celebrated Valentine's day in what I consider one of the best possible ways--we went for a run in the morning! My first run post-possible-toe-breaking. It went well, although slowly, given the snow and ice and slush. We're both getting ready to have some warmer weather and no more snow. We also ate some chocolate, since everything should be celebrated with chocolate.)

The biggest and most exciting of the love-centered holidays, though, fell on Friday-night-into-Saturday, February 18-19: Saint Sarkis Day. Everyone in town knows all about the traditions surrounding this holiday, but few could say much about the origins. Again, I turned to the trusty internet for some more information. Turns out St. Sarkis is an Armenian saint who served as a captain in the army and was martyred in 449 AD by the Persians for "refusing to worship fire and sacrifice to heathen gods." St. Sarkis is the patron of young people and their intercessor in finding love. Some legends about St. Sarkis include: he and 40 of his soldiers defeated an army of 10,000; he destroyed a (presumably Zoroastrian) temple to the fire gods after refusing to denounce his Christian faith; he appears on his horse to help those in need of assistance in getting married; his remains/relics were brought from Persia back to Armenia by founder of the Armenian alphabet Mesrop Mashtots. My favorite might be the legend that he and 39 of his soldiers, after a celebratory post-battle drunk, were ordered by the Persian king to be killed. The king sent 40 virgins to kill the soldiers as they slept. 39 of them carried out the task and killed the soldiers, but the woman sent to kill Captain Sarkis saw him sleeping and fell in love with him. Instead of killing him, she kissed him. He awoke and saw what happened, and took the young woman with him as he whipped up a storm and escaped on his horse.

Nowadays, St. Sarkis day is celebrated in by Armenians in Georgia and Armenia (and other Armenian communities throughout the world) as a day for young people to find love. Many people fast for 7 days before the holiday, and on the day before, people are supposed to eat salty foods (especially a salty pastry which is specially prepared for the holiday) and drink no water. When they go to sleep, they are supposed to have a dream in which their destined future spouse with bring them water to quench their thirst. (Freud would have a field day with this one.) Our host grandmother has told us a few times about her own story of seeing her future husband in her dreams, although she didn't know him when she dreamed him and despite the fact that she had been courted by another boy that she expected to marry. Another friend in town told of how her sister dreamed of a man with blue eyes and light hair. Although she found it impossible that she would ever marry a man with blue eyes and light hair (most Armenians tend to have black hair and dark eyes and complexions), indeed, she did meet and marry a man with blue eyes and fair hair.

Other people will put out a plate of a special kind of flour below their bedroom windows on the night of St. Sarkis Day. If, upon waking, they see the imprint of a horseshoe in the flour, it means St. Sarkis has visited and will intercede for them. In other words, they'll get married soon.

Here in Akhalkalaki, people follow these traditions as well as making a trek to the church named for St. Sarkis in a neighboring village. People are supposed to go on foot (it was about a 3-4 mile walk each way). When they get to the church, they should walk around it three times before going in. Inside, people light candles (and unmarried people are supposed to exchange candles with one another, preferably with someone who has qualities you'd want in a spouse). Along the road, people sell candles and doves. The doves are to be carried around the church three times and then either released or sacrificed. We saw a fair number of released doves (and the released doves seemed to either be stunned by being handled and carried around and so often seemed to basically hang out in easily recapturable spots; we presume that many were later re-sold to others coming to circle the church and wish/pray for love). We also saw one sacrificed dove. We still don't really know what one would do with a sacrificed bird, though.

It was pretty amazing to see the numbers of people walking to the St. Sarkis church. Sam and I went with some of the teachers from my school at about 8:00pm on Friday night (earlier than most people in town set off; most try to go closer to midnight). In a town were people (and especially women) aren't exactly thrilled about walking long distances or exercising, I haven't ever seen so many people walking around. I was surprised that it was as far as it was to the church as well (usually when we're told something is very far away, it turns out to be about half a mile). On the following day, we started hearing the stories of how crowded the church got by midnight and how difficult it was to breathe, let alone move, inside. We were very glad for the early start.

On Saturday (officially St. Sarkis Day), we went to a birthday party for a friend in town and everyone asked about one another's dreams. They spent a good part of the party relating stories of relatives or friends of acquaintances who had eventually married their St. Sarkis dream water bearers. Then they moved on to various types of fortune telling. The most widespread and commonly practiced fortune telling is reading coffee grinds, but other methods were also discussed.

For now, though, we'll have a little break from the love holidays. We'll just have to sit back and watch to see if St. Sarkis brings more weddings through Akhalkalaki (but the weddings here will deserve a separate blog post altogether).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Busy Couple of Weeks

Our lazy days of winter break wound down and we worked to get geared up for the new semester, which was set to start on January 20. Our schools ended up getting back into having classes only on Monday, January 24, however, because there were some necessary meetings and discussions about changes our schools would be undergoing this semester and next year.

Georgia’s Ministry of Education has been unveiling a number of different changes and reforms, many of which have been extremely positive and productive, some of which are well intentioned but maybe not entirely thought-out before being implemented, and a small number that have been difficult for us and our local counterparts to understand the reasoning behind. On average, they seem to do a pretty remarkable job bringing up the standards of Georgian schools after nearly two decades of education being underfunded (or non-funded), underdeveloped and overall under-prioritized. That said, there is often a lot of feeling that their reforms and changes are really ambitious but lacking some of the follow-through or direction to make them entirely successful.

My school held an all-hands teachers meeting on January 20 where a lot of the newest reforms were discussed, argued and complained about and railed against. The main difference this semester has to do with a fairly complex funding system that Georgia uses. This has led to a cut in funds for many schools, which school directors are supposed to manage to make sure that students still have all the required classes. There wasn’t, it seems, really a lot of direction from the Ministry, however, on how to “make it work.” What my school did to match the gap in funds was fire teachers and staff (about 20 people lost their jobs) and combine classes (we went from having classes of about 20-25 to having some classes with up to 48 students). Sam’s school managed not to lay off as many (or possibly any) teachers, but cut down the number of hours that all the teachers have (and thus cutting the pay for all of the teachers, instead of having a few lose out entirely). His classes have gotten larger as well.

Everyone was really upset about these changes, understandably, and the semester started off on a sour note. Adding to the troubles is a change in the rule about students that lack Georgian citizenship. Previously, these kids could study at Georgian schools alongside Georgian citizens. Now, however, children with foreign citizenship are supposed to pay a pretty hefty fee to continue studying at Georgian public schools. At my school in this minority region, about 10% of the student body has foreign citizenship. This is causing a huge problem. Lots of families are being forced to make the tough decision of sending their children with Russian or Armenian citizenship to live with aunts or uncles or family members in Russia or Armenia to finish school or trying to come up with a sum that is equivalent to about 4 months’ of a schoolteacher’s salary per child.

All these factors have combined with the cold, wintry weather to make going back to school pretty rough. As the administration of my school tries to clarify details and get exceptions and exemptions to make things more bearable, we’re still without a permanent schedule for classes (this three weeks into the spring semester). It’s going to be a bit of a slog as they work everything out, but I’m hopeful that things will be made a little pleasanter soon.

We got a nice break from all of these school bureaucracy problems this week thanks to two back-to-back Peace Corps trainings. The first training was one that I helped work on and coordinate as part of my work with PC Georgia’s Life Skills Committee (a PC-wide initiative committee that works on health-related topics, and specifically on HIV/AIDS issues). We held a two-day Training of Trainers for any PC Georgia volunteers and their counterparts to discuss ways to introduce and teach healthy living topics in the classroom or in after-school clubs or community organizations. The other committee members and I (funnily enough, the four of us are all married volunteers; one of our PC staff members refers to us as the “married wives committee”) had been working hard on getting things together for this training. It’s a nice feeling of relief to been done with this initiative, especially since we’ve got a lot of other projects that we’ve been working on. One big project done!

After the ToT, all of the Education volunteers and their teaching counterparts had two more days of training to work through issues of how to team teach more effectively and efficiently. It was another very helpful training and nice to see how the other volunteers have worked out strategies to have good working relationships with their counterparts. We’re all very fortunate to have a lot of dedicated, hard-working, patient counterparts, and it was really nice to have some chances to think about ways to make our working relationships that much better.

The trainings were also a huge success on the room-and-board front. We stayed in a pretty swanky training facility in Bazaleti, about an hour north of Tbilisi. Our rooms had tvs with BBC news in English! The facility “restaurant” served lots of tasty food, too, too much of which was eaten on a regular basis. But I just couldn’t pass up the chance to have coffee with milk and bliny and cheese and yogurt and salad and lots more delicious. Who knew that PC service would have so many luxuries?!

Just prior to the trainings, Sam went to Tbilisi for an extra day. He had an interview to be a cross-cultural trainer for outgoing high school exchange students from Georgia to the US as part of the FLEX program. He’s hopeful that he’ll be selected, not the least because his training for the program if chosen would include a week-long trip to Ukraine. Several other volunteers applied, though, so he’ll have to wait to hear back once they’ve reviewed all the applications.

And even though we spend almost all of our time together, while Sam was away (we were apart for slightly over 24 hours), we were given some reminders of why we’re better together. Sam spent a cold night in Tbilisi at the guest house because he didn’t realize there was a blanket in the room. He says that if I had been there, the blanket probably would have been found. I, on the other hand, was tasked with turning off the light to go to bed on the night Sam was away (his side of the bed is closer to the light switch and usually he’s the one reading so he’s the one who’s in charge of turning it off). I hadn’t realized just how ridiculous this was until Sam was away and I, in making my extra lap around the bed after turning off the light, kicked a chair with all my might in the dark. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten the right language training to say the words I really wanted to say at that point. I figured I’d be fine by the next morning, but instead I had a black-and-blue, swollen, painful toe. It was still bothering me some when I went in for the trainings, so I talked with one of the PC doctors (our doctors are amazing!), who gave me lots of goodies to take care of my toe and got me an appointment for an x-ray after the training if my toe was still bothering me. Luckily my toe is on the mend so I didn’t have to get any x-rays, but I’m still supposed to take it easy for another week (no running for two weeks! I think I might go crazy). Sam was extremely sympathetic when we met up in Tbilisi just before the training, remarking that we really will be one of those old married couples who dies at just about the same time. Not because we’ll be so heartbroken that the other is gone, just because we’ll forget to eat or electrocute ourselves or something similarly stupid without the other there to remind us.

So with all these stories and way too much text and no pictures as yet to reward you for slogging through my way-too-long blog post (I could never do twitter), I’ll leave you with two videos of what has become my new favorite pastime: watching our host sister, Lilit, trying to walk around in my slippers.