A welcome visit

After 3-1/2 years, my grown son finally visited me in Georgia. We had really good visits before that, in Vietnam and back home in the U.S., but he had never come here. I looked forward to it all summer long, and when he got here, the 2 weeks flew by so quickly it was unbelievable. Mainly I was looking forward to sharing the culture I have become so immersed in, and the people I have become close to. I think I succeeded more on the latter than the former, just because of time constraints, but it was very satisfying.

Almost everywhere we went I had been before, and posted about on this blog, so I will resist the temptation to write a travelogue here. Instead, I will write about only one place, the place I’d never been, which is Svaneti. And I will remember some highlights and interesting things about the trip that will stay with me.

So, first, Svaneti. This was our last big trip – after that, we were in Tbilisi for a few days, and then off he went back home. We flew, reducing a minimum 10-hour drive to 55 minutes. Happily the weather was great, which is definitely not always the case. Flights are often cancelled at the last minute due to clouds or wind, but we had a carefree few days weather-wise. Unlike right now, with the rain pouring down outside, but that’s another topic. Tickets from Vanilla Sky were ridiculously difficult to get – their website is so dysfunctional as to be useless; I had to go to their offices, and even then, their Facebook map locates it at the complete other end of the avenue, resulting in a set of circular taxi rides, but at the end of the day, I got it done, and off we went.

Flying over green and gold mountains, striped with ice, I was surprised to see so many villages below – much more populated than I had imagined. We landed in Mestia, the main town in the region, and easily found a friendly cab driver to take us to our homestay, which had been highly recommended to me by a Georgian friend. Indeed, it was very nice, with friendly owners and good food. The first day we explored the town and had dinner with a Peace Corps friend, Ryan, who has extended for a fourth year – the only time that’s happened in the history of Peace Corps Georgia. We walked around a graveyard, explored an old church, had lunch at a small local cafe on a balcony overlooking a gorgeous gorge – I could have sat there all day. Here’s a few shots:

Our evening meal with Ryan was a great – we ate kubdari, which is the Svaneti-style khachapuri – meat pie with cheese. What more could you ask. A colleague of his was singing that evening, and we were regaled with Russian and Georgian traditional and pop songs – he had a very nice voice. When we were ready to go home, though, we ran into a bit of a problem – no taxis, at all. Ryan found out that we had to just ask people if they were willing to take us – our homestay said absolutely no more than 5 lari, but we ended up spending 8, because … that was the only guy who would take us. I was a little mad, but as I recently learned to say, ra azri akvs, which I cannot translate exactly, but am told roughly means – whatever, or, what is the point. Exactly.

The next day, the owner of the homestay took us on the long drive (only about 45 km, but oy, what a road – 2-1/2 hours to drive) to Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the highest continuously inhabited village in all of Europe – if you count Georgia as Europe, a subject which excites a lot of argument but I’m not going to bother here. Ushguli is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and consists of 4 separate villages spread out below a gigantic glacier, Shkhara, that looms above everything. We explored the lowest village, where sadly the museum was closed, but then up to a fantastic viewing point for the glacier, and then a beautiful old monastery, called Lamaria. Women are barred from entering the ancient church, but since it was locked and no one could get in anyway, I couldn’t get too worked up about it. Then, on to lunch, which was an extraordinary experience. I would say it was one of the best meals I have ever had, seriously. We ate at a family’s home, in the yard, at a picnic table. We had kubdari, we had chvistari (cornbread with cheese), matsoni (yogurt), khacho (farmer’s cheese), sulguni (a common type of cheese), fresh-picked tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce – by which I mean, picked in front of our eyes – and homemade amber wine. And a few other things. Everything was absolutely fresh, homemade and so delicious I almost cried. We sat there, overlooking the valley, enjoying each other’s company, the food and the view, and I felt very, very lucky.

Other things I will always remember about this trip, mostly things I found out about Eli and how he interacted with my adopted home, its food and customs:

  • He loved Georgian food, especially lobio – beans in a clay pot.
  • He kept up with the toasting admirably at my family supra in Gori, drinking down glass after glass of white homemade wine and delighting Beso no end.
  • He made a very touching toast at the next day’s picnic in Ateni, saying  that now he knows his mom is with people who love her and it brings him happiness. That was really sweet.
  • He was very patient with my physical, post-operative limitations.
  • We should never, ever share a room again, because he is a very light sleeper, and I apparently snore. It caused some friction.
  • Interestingly, he said his favorite spot was Tbilisi. That was unexpected.
  • He really knows how to use a camera and taught me a lot.
  • He learned quite a few Georgian words, and used them.
  • As with Vietnam, we found we had a lot of similar interests. I think had he been alone, he would have hiked and camped a lot more, though.
  • He likes naming and examining plants to a degree I’ve never seen before. He brought a special tool he hung around his neck to magnify plants, and examined them endlessly. He delivered lectures. He was really excited about the flora. He’s an alien to me in this regard.

So, to sum up, it was a really great visit. I was concerned about my back, but though it did impose some limitations, we were able to do pretty much everything. After 2 weeks of 24/7, we got on each other’s nerves a little bit at the very end, but overall we traveled well together and learned a lot about what would make it even better next time. I don’t actually know if there will be a next time, but I hope so! Here are a few more random photos to give a feel for the whole trip.

And last but not least, as always – flowers.

 

Long Past-Due Update

Wow, I just looked at the date of my last post … good god. Back in March. Well, there are a few reasons for this.

First, I had surgery, pretty major surgery, on my back. Fused at three levels, thanks so much. That was in April. I had the surgery here in Georgia, and they did a good job. However, the post-operative rehabilitation left a lot to be desired, as in, everything. No meaningful directions on how to take care of myself when I got home. No nursing service or referrals offered, though the doctor knew I lived by myself. No pain medication – seriously, none. One follow-up appointment, where due to severe nerve pain I literally begged for help, received none, went to another doctor, who tried but could not prescribe the drugs I needed (because they are not available in Georgia, which has draconian drug laws), prescribed other drugs that caused a reaction (body temp at below 95 degrees, nausea, chills, massive bleeding, oh yeah it was fun). Left Georgia to go to Israel and seek help and found it. But it was a long road back, actually I’m still on it, though doing much better.

So a few words about Israel. I was there about 2 weeks. My sister came to take care of me, for which I will forever be profoundly grateful. Though I really was not in shape to tour around, toward the end I did get to go out to eat at a few places, and walk around just a little. We visited Yad Vashem, me in a wheelchair, which was an interesting lesson in how to be invisible, went to Tel Aviv, ate out some more, bought some hats in Jaffa, and generally had a good time. I spent a shitload of money on doctors and drugs, none of it covered by my Georgian insurance. When I returned, I corresponded with my “personal manager” at the insurance company, who at first misunderstood me when I told her I had been in Israel, thinking I meant I had had the operation there. When I clarified, she wrote back, “oh, thanks god!” And she meant it, because the insurance covered nearly the whole surgery and all related treatment, excluding Israel. How ironic, that I have better healthcare insurance in a post-Soviet developing country than I can get in the U.S. under the Republicans.

Here’s a few pics of the trip. My sister took a photo of the incision with the stitches in it, but I will be merciful and not share that one. Some of these were taken by my sister on a few tours she took, and some of them when we were together here or there. Lots of pictures of food were taken, because 1, it was so, so delicious, and 2, that’s really all I was able to manage for most of the trip – a meal out every day or two.

So, after all that, I returned home and started the road to recovery. I’m seeing a physical therapist, and I’m taking steps forward in getting better all the time – literally. A week ago or so, I walked all the way down a very steep hill on a street nearby called Zandukeli – that was a big victory! I was able to spend a whole day exploring an old Soviet Space Factory and Tbilisi State University with my Georgian sister Salome. I can shop without being in agony. I’m off all my medication, and only taking Extra Strength Tylenol once in a while. It’s taking time, but it’s going in the right direction.

When I returned to Tbilisi, I went right back to work. Gotta get back up in the saddle. But it took a lot out of me, and at night I was so exhausted that blogging was really out of the question. I also became increasingly exhausted by the spectacle of what is happening in the U.S. What little energy I had after working I spent calling legislators and feverishly reading article after article on politics, healthcare legislation, immigration, and attending activist meetings here in Tbilisi. Given my physical and, frankly, emotional state, I couldn’t keep it up. But nor could I give it up, of course. I am so appalled at … well, everything. Right now is not the time to pontificate at length, and I’m not going to. Suffice it to say that I have developed a new slogan, expressed by the hashtag #cannotgohome. For those of you on Twitter, you can find my various expressions of outrage and links to good articles if you follow me there – sara_in_georgia. For those of you who are not, I post on Facebook fairly frequently too, though I have been pretty good at sticking to a vow I made to intersperse political posts with some other stuff.

So, as for now, well, it’s very, very hot here. I hide in my air-conditioned flat as much as possible, it’s a good thing, I love it here and it’s really very nice to just relax and hibernate out of the hellish heat outside. I’ve been keeping busy with work, very busy, writing grant after grant for good NGOs here. I had a new partnership a while ago with the City of Gori and wrote a concept note for a new street lighting system. For anyone who is interested, you can see what I do here: sfconsulting.info.

I do try to get out from time to time. For my very first foray out after returning to Israel, while still using a cane, I went to a supra at my former boss’s house (who is married to my current boss), to celebrate the birth of her new daughter – quite a surprise, given that she has two sons age 10 and 11. Elizabeti is her name, and it was great to enjoy the company of my colleagues and friends and eat great food. I couldn’t drink- still on medication at that time – well I might have had a few sips of wine, I mean, come on. I actually made a short and very pathetic toast at this supra, in Georgian, but it seemed to please everyone very much. Here’s the scene:

Marta and I, and her daughter Salli, spent a great weekend here in in Tbilisi, cane and all. First we got all dressed up and went to see the 110th anniversary of the Sukhishvili National Ballet Company, which performs traditional Georgian dances, but sometimes with a slightly modern twist. I’ve seen them before and love their performances. We went to the Philharmonic, which I had not been inside before – it was quite nice, not as fancy as the renovated Opera House, which is spectacular, but modern and with great sightlines. We loved the dance, and afterwards went to Burger Bar in Vake, which Salli told me in breathless tones was better than McDonalds. But her friends in Gori would never believe it. The next day we went to a carpet store and I bought two rugs, which I adore. We bargained hard, but not too hard, because the owner’s son went to ISET, and I know people there, naturally, and … etc. At the end of this explanation, Marta said I had become Georgian.

I went to the swearing-in of the G17 Peace Corps group, mainly to say hi to the Peace Corps staff. I walked over there, after a big rain, but I didn’t really have a good sense of how far it was and overdid it. Took some Tylenol that night. I saw my host mother from Khashuri, didn’t know she would be there and we had a very happy reunion. Chemi gogo, my girl, she said to me. So funny when you consider she’s 20 years younger than I am – more – but that’s how it is. There was really outstanding dancing, some good speeches, and a strong sense of relief that I will never have to be standing there, scared out of my mind, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten into, again. Well at least not as a PCV, anyway. Here’s a few photos.

As I mentioned above, Salome and I took a little jaunt to an art exhibit in Saguramo, a village about half an hour outside Tbilisi. Once we arrived in the village, we started asking where to get off the marshutka and two guys were laughing at us and telling us, this is the village, we don’t have taxis here! You will have to walk, it’s 5 kilometers, you Tbilisi-dwellers! HAHAHAH! While they were amusing themselves, a taxi drove by, and we ran in front of a giant truck to flag it down, got in and drove off to the Soviet Space Factory, which was indeed a good 5 km away. Unfortunately, though both the website for the exhibit and the printed material we had said it ran through that day, in fact they had packed up most of the art and left the week before. Nonetheless, some interesting stuff was still there, the buildings were amazing, and we explored the whole site thoroughly, then drove back to Tbilisi with the driver for an exorbitant price which I was happy to pay, walked all around the University where Salome will be going in the fall, and then went to dinner at a nice restaurant with a bright young colleague and another PC volunteer, who is Ukrainian by birth, U.S. citizen by choice, and a very interesting person. Here’s a few photos of our little adventure:

Last but not least, I experienced my 4th birthday in Georgia – unbelievable. I had my 60th birthday during training in Khashuri, my 61st and 62nd in Gori, and now my 63rd here in Tbilisi. A group of friends and I went out to dinner at a restaurant that has a great reputation for authentic Georgian food. I will say that while the atmosphere and service were great, and the company could not have been better, the food was only so-so. I think I have been spoiled by attending too many supras.

It’s getting really late here, and I’m tired, so I’ll end on that note – I feel that my legion of followers are all caught up! I will try to post more often – got some fun trips and things planned, and of course, there’s always Trump, McConnell and Ryan.

What to do about it?

This is what I’ve been saying all along:

“The surge in global populism is not reducible to economics. It is about racism, sexism, homophobia, and cultural backwardness. It is revenge—not of the economically insecure, but of the cultural left-behinds.”

So the question is, what to do about it? If this is what’s driving populism, how do the Democrats, or anyone else, counter these deeply-held beliefs, without betraying their very core values?

https://www.citylab.com/politics/2017/03/what-is-really-behind-the-populist-surge/519921/?utm_source=atlfb

 

Khinkali and politics

I got so many “likes” on my Facebook post about this day that I thought I’d elaborate a bit on my khikali adventures last weekend. It was an interesting day, for more than one reason.

The first reason was that the group of people I was with were highly engaged, political folks, all of them. One, an American former PCV from Azerbajian, now works with a production company here in Tbilisi owned by an expatriate Azeri guy who covers news and stories that are banned in Baku these days. His girlfriend was here visiting from Jerusalem, where she works with refugees. A German guy who is here researching his Ph.D. on Georgian migrants in Siberia, a woman who has worked all over the world in all sorts of interesting jobs … and rounding out the group, our teacher, Nana Chkareuli, the Executive Director of For A Better Future, an NGO and social enterprise working at the IDP settlement Tserovani. I’ve known Nana for about 3 years now, in fact she’s one of the first people I met while in training; it’s always a pleasure to spend time with her.

Our conversation covered a lot of territory. It wasn’t all about politics, but it kind of circled over our heads most of the time. I felt like we were all … worried. Worried about the future and what it holds, not just for ourselves, to varying degrees, but for the constituencies we all serve in one way or another. In spite of this hovering cloud, we had a really good time, proving once again how humans can compartmentalize things!

We met up at Didube, the hub for all routes to the west, and hopped on a marshutka to head to Tserovani. Here I am with one of my fellow khinkali chefs. Right before we took this photo, a Georgian guy approached us and asked, in Georgian, where the Metro entrance was. Well, I understood him, and I knew where it was, and I gave him directions, which impressed my friend no end. But … why did he approach us in the first place? It’s quite obvious we’re not Georgians. I don’t know, but that was interesting. Especially in view of the fact that we were aggressively solicited by at least 8 taxi drivers trying to take us to far-away tourist destinations like Batumi (where, btw, people were rioting that day, supposedly over someone being given a parking ticket – only in Georgia!) or Kazbegi. I never get approached by those guys when I am in Didube alone, which when I was a PCV was a lot, at least every week or two. Never. I think it must be because Michele has blond hair and blue eyes, and I am of Eastern European extraction … but still, a foreigner. Everyone can tell. So, it’s a mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we arrived, we headed to the Hello Cafe, a social enterprise created by Nana and a former PCV. When we arrived, Nana was surprised to see me and greeted me effusively, which was nice. I was glad to see her, too. The ingredients for our culinary adventure were all set out – flour, water and salt, for the dough, and ground beef, spinach, onions, garlic, cheese and cilantro for two different fillings. That’s it – couldn’t be more simple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We started by making the water a bit salty, adding flour, and then kneading until the dough was quite stiff. This was harder than it looked, but we all finally succeeded!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, while letting our balls of dough rest a little while, we all chopped up all the other ingredients and mixed them together – no recipe, just however we wanted, to taste. The spinach balls had been bought in that form, frozen, and defrosted – no need for fresh spinach, which is not in season right now. It’s all gonna be boiled up at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, we rolled out the dough and, using a small wooden cup with smooth edges, cut out small disks. For some reason, I don’t have a photo of this process, but I definitely have photos of the end result. I was amused to see how the German guy lined all his disks up in a neat line, whereas Nana and I threw ours all over the place. Guess I know where my national inclinations lie, haha.

Georgian style

German style

 

 

 

 

 

Next, we pressed two disks together to make a plump little circle, and then rolled it out to be very thin at the edges and just a bit thicker in the middle. Then, we dropped our filling in the middle.

 

 

 

 

 

Now, for the really challenging part. The crimping. I’d say my skills were about even with my Georgian language abilities – better than some, worse than others! I was able to make the khinkali pretty well, but they were a little … wrinkled, I think I have to say. Here are two samples, guess which one is mine, and which one is Nana’s, haha.

They all tasted good going down, that’s the truth. We made what felt like a hundred khinkali. Spinach (above), the little knob at the top is pushed in; meat, it sticks out. Here’s me giving it my best effort:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, into a huge pot of boiling water. You have to gently shake it while its cooking – no stirring, as that may break the thin dough. The khinkali first puff up, then deflate – and then they’re done, maybe 5 or 6 minutes cooking.

What a feast. Not only did we have our dumplings, which were, honestly, so delicious – nothing like fresh khinkali. And the spinach ones were the BEST EVER. We also had salad, and bread, and wine, and cha-cha from Nana’s mother. Cha-cha is like grappa, made from the skins of grapes after they’ve been crushed for wine. It is wicked strong. I had to take a little nap when I got home.

So, a good time had by all. We made our back to Tbilisi, all full of delicious food and a little quiet on the marshutka. The cloud was hovering a bit lower, for me at least. I was thinking of all the IDPs in the settlement, and how, for all the problems they brought with them, they were welcomed, housed and taken care of by Georgia, one of the poorer developing countries in the world. Some of these refugees weren’t even Georgian – they were, for examples, Ossettians married to Georgians. They were welcome, too. Well … it’s the times. I always feel a bit on the melancholy side, and I know I’m not the only one. Yet, we still have the ability to appreciate something as simple as cooking some khinkali in good company.

A Singular Thunderclap

Now this is a good idea.

“When people hear concerns about democracies declining into authoritarianism, they expect that moment to come in a singular thunderclap where everyone can see that this is the time,” said Ian Bassin, who’s leading the new group. “In reality, often times, democracies decline over a period of years that happen through a series of much smaller steps.”

http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/obama-trump-lawyers-worst-case-235280

When I read quotes like this one from Sean Spicer, my blood just boils.

“White House press secretary Sean Spicer, responding to the group’s formation, said, ‘This administration has raised the level of ethics training and oversight to a new level compared to the practices of the previous administration.’ ”

Eight years of the Obama administration without one scandal, and he has the gall to say this? It’s as if the concept of honesty has just completely and utterly deserted our country’s leadership, and what’s even more appalling is how many people buy their disingenuous tripe.