Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Best possible presents for the preschool set?

Are these the best possible presents you could ever possible get for the preschool set (especially in a country where choking hazards and lower-age restrictions on toys aren't necessarily heeded)? Yup, probably.

In our last, crazed moments of America, sandwiched between a 6am flight from Philadelphia to Chicago and a 9pm flight from Chicago back to Tbilisi, Sam and I stopped in at a Target. Giving in to the culture-shock overload that being in a Target can induce, we stared, wide-eyed at the row upon row of beautifully arranged, colorful doodads and gadgets, the unnecessary junk and the much-missed, how-do-we-live-without-these-products goodness. But we were on a mission, so we clutched our Starbucks cups and marched back and forth in search of the things we could afford to buy to bring back for the little kiddos in our Akhalkalaki host family.

And what did we find? Why, jumbo punching balloons and a frog mask and butterfly boppers, of course. Of. Course. Crazy, the things you can find and buy so easily in America. Crazier how novel some of them are here, and how loved they are.


That's love.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

So another birthday, huh?

My custom-made birthday bracelets, courtesy of Shaen
I went and celebrated another full whirl around the sun here in the time since our last blog post. Not just another birthday, though... this was one where I got to change a front digit! It's probably true that until the recent past, I never, ever would have thought that I'd celebrate my 30th birthday in a place called Akhalkalaki, but I'm sure glad I did.

Since my birthday came only two working days after making our way back to site from our trip to America and week-long COS conference and travels in and around Tbilisi, I was still warm from the memory of visiting with family, taking lots of showers, eating salad and blueberries, and drinking lots of delicious coffee. That warm glow helped (or at least in my fogged memory of something that happened 2 weeks ago) me stay warm as I went to school and work. Also, all of my coworkers were still all excited and happy to see me again, and were all going out of their ways to talk to me and ask me about my time away from school.

Host sister Lilit got all gussied up for the party and wanted her picture taken

Host cousin Narek didn't get dressed up, but still wanted a picture

Our trip to America inspired some incorrect rumors, stemming from a misunderstanding of the American system of higher education, that Sam had successfully defended his dissertation and been offered a spot as a top professor in a university in either Chicago or Philadelphia. This led to me receiving lots of congratulations, which I at first accepted graciously, thinking they were just happy Sam got admitted to PhD programs or that they were maybe trying to wish me a happy birthday (who told?!?). Happily, though, only 2 people at school seemed to know that it was my birthday and give me long happy-birthday wishes, kissing me on the cheeks. But seeing this display just encouraged others to ask "why are they congratulating her?", which led to more spreading of the Sam's-a-new-professor rumor.

In the end, my Tuesday birthday, happily coinciding with my one-class-during-6th-period-only day at school, saw me stay at school about an hour longer than usual, giving a really, really boring lecture on the differences between the American and European systems of higher education, then going into detail on what Archaeology is (yes, I can say "digging in the dirt" in Russian), and explaining rather convincingly why in God's name someone would spend 10 years studying something after already going to college and getting a Master's degree.

If only I had bought the Sam keychain at the Field museum! I could have explained it all so much better!

Coming home from school was a nice reprieve (for whom, for me or for my poor fellow teachers, who were just subjected to my long-winded lecture?). It was made nicer by the smell of baked goods being baked. Our host mom was in the process of making a delicious cake! Happy day! Then Sam greeted me with "well, I wanted to make you a surprise for your birthday, but now the kitchen is busy and I'm not sure if I'll have time, but at least if I don't we'll have 8 bags of M&Ms."

In the end, Sam made it into the kitchen that night and made a really great batch of M&M cookies (which were a big hit with our host siblings) and we still had 4 bags of M&Ms left over to eat in coming days. After dinner we had Armine's cake, Sam's cookies, and a huge, beautiful birthday cake (baked confection #3 for my 30th!), courtesy of Shushan, our host grandmother's sister (and Marianna's mother).

Beautiful and delicious

And as we settled into our sugar comas around the table that evening, the kids provided us with a dance party entitled "We all really know how to break dance." Enjoy the videos!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Being There

We've logged a lot of miles in the past few weeks. In mid-February, I got word that I had been accepted to PhD programs at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania and invited to visit the departments—at the end of February. A few frenzied phone calls and Kayak searches later, we figured out a a way to make it work. And so we were unexpectedly off to Chicago and Philadelphia for the week.

To me, international travel always carries with it something of the surreal, the more so when a trip comes, as this one did, with little time to plan or prepare. But the chance to see the universities (neither of which I had visited before) and our families (after nearly a year) made it a great trip. Also, Girl Scout cookies.

I got a really good impression of both schools and had a warm welcome at both departments, which doesn't make a difficult decision any easier, but we're planning to have that decision made by the beginning of next week, and the next big step in our lives mapped out.

After only a week in the States, we had to hurry back for our Close of Service conference in Tbilisi. It's hard to believe, but we're less than 4 months out from the official end of our Peace Corps service, and the conference is where we start thinking about all the logistics of leaving—plane tickets and health insurance, saying goodbye and finding jobs, filling out all our paperwork and returning to an America in which everyone has a smartphone.

Peace Corps Georgia, in keeping with its amazing ability to make things nice for us, managed to snag space at the Holiday Inn, one of the nicest hotels in Tbilisi. There are worse ways to transition into Georgia from America than three days in a hotel with waterfall showers, king-sized beds, and Internet-equipped treadmills from the future. And having all the volunteers together, for maybe the last time, was a reminder of how lucky we've been not only to have this experience in Georgia, but to have it with some remarkable people.

Peace Corps Georgia 2010-2012

All this time spent thinking about the future can make it hard to live in the present. Especially for someone like me, whose mind is often drifting six months in the future, a hundred miles away, or 200 million years in the past: the Time of the Dinosaurs!

Peace Corps volunteers, like everyone else, find themselves wishing away time, counting down the hours, shutting out the world around, trying to forget where we are. And this is a good thing; at times, a necessary thing. Everyone needs a recharge and an escape. But in these last few months I want to try to be as present as I can, taking my cue from Montaigne on the value of “living to purpose.” It's hard, dodging angry dogs on the ice-walk home from school, head splitting from trying to yell over the yelling of the kids, to think to store up memories to treasure. I doubt I'll be sitting in my rocker at the Old Folks' Home thinking about how much I miss careering down mountains in a hot minibus too full of people and potatoes, knees to my chest and someone's elbow in my ribs.

But we are here, and it's our life, for now. And it's a remarkable and a blessed life. That being the case, it would be a terrible shame not to live it. We will miss the places, and the experiences, and the people most of all. We still have lots to learn about this country, about our villages and towns, about the people we meet and their own stories. We still have lots of work to do. My aim for the next three or four months will be to try diligently to stay aware of that, of where I am and what I am doing, and what the possibilities are.

After the Close of Service conference, we and some other volunteers headed to the Monastery of David Gareja on the border with Azerbaijan. It is a cave monastery complex established by one of the missionary Syrian Fathers, but quite different in its setting and set-up from the cave monastery of Vardzia. I especially like the caves built into the big slanted rock face.

We walked around the complex and up into the sometimes muddy and icy hills behind, but failed to find the path to the monastery of Udabno, where some 12th-century frescoes are still to be found. But the view from the hilltop was something.

Behind Davit Gareja

That evening, we went to Sighnaghi, an extensively redeveloped town in Kakheti, famous for its wine and a hub for tourists in the summer and fall. It was quiet when we were there, but luckily the Mexican restaurant (possibly the only one in Georgia at the moment) was open. We walked around the town as the sun set, and saw the fires in the fields below as the farmers got ready for the planting season.

Fires in the valley

Sighnaghi has drawn some criticism for having been overly remodeled, but I was really pleased with the look and feel of the town. I don't know what the social effects for the people living there have been, but, as a tourist, you didn't get the feeling of walking through Disneyland, but of being in an old Georgian town, well kept and well cared-for.

The next day, we set off for Bodbe Convent, where St. Nino, one of Georgia's most revered saints, lies. We managed, as usual, to take the long way there, thanks to a sign turned just the wrong way, Wile E. Coyote style. Eventually, after making our way down a mountain on a dirt road, a couple of miles beyond where the convent should have been, we debated turning back. But the memory of missing the frescoes at Davit Gareja was still fresh, and so we pressed on, and at last we came across: A Clue!

A clue!

Using our detective and archaeology skills, we managed to piece the sign together and found our way to St. Nino's Spring (where, thanks to some miscommunication with the nuns, we were almost baptised), and then up to the monastery, where we were able to kneel at last to touch the grave of St. Nino.

Church where St. Nino of Cappadocia is buried

Another lesson from the week: you may not always get there, but sometimes, even if you take the long way around, you do.