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.

Moving Forward

Some of my legion of followers may have noticed that I have changed my tagline. I have read this quote of Elie Wiesel many times, and at no time have I ever agreed with it more than now. My blog posts have become infrequent the last few months, for a few different reasons, and I’ve been thinking about how to revitalize things now that I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, but still living overseas. I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on national/international matters a bit more, because right now that is really what I care about the most. I will link to articles that I find particularly insightful or helpful, and cover news and reactions to what’s going on back home from a different perspective, that of an expatriate who still cares and is deeply worried about the direction her country is taking.

I’ll still fill people in on how I’m doing, and I will from time to time return to my original storytelling approach – I mean, there are always good stories to tell! But you can expect less of that, and more of this, as it were. I hope it interests you!

Thanksgiving in Tbilisi … not

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer here in Georgia, I felt something of an obligation to present a positive face. I knew people who were considering the PC, or who had been invited to Georgia, might be looking at it, and I didn’t want to discourage anyone. Also, I knew someone at the PC office was vetting my posts, because from time-to-time I got feedback from them. It was always good feedback, but I certainly was aware of their eyes on me. So I was honest, within certain parameters. Now, as just another expat living in Georgia, I can say whatever I please. However, even without my prior constraints, it’s hard to know what I should be posting here … or not. Even as transparent as I am, emotionally, I am not enamored of writing about my private feelings – especially when they are sad, or angry, or frustrated. I like to keep that stuff for my good friends and family, who know me and know that even if I’m feeling down, it’s not ever the whole of who I am.

But the problem is – I haven’t got any friends or family here. I’ve only lived in Tbilisi for 5 months, and most of my friends left in June, when our PC service ended. I have Georgian friends – some very good friends, actually – but we don’t share a common cultural understanding or background. All of my admittedly very small family is in the U.S. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. I’m in good touch with my family, and I’ve met a lot of nice people here. I’m hopeful that some of them will develop into friends eventually. But when it comes to a quintessentially American holiday like Thanksgiving … it’s a little hard.

In 2014 and 2015, I was living in Gori and just as far away from home as I am now. But with my fellow PCVs, we threw huge, festive Thanksgiving supras each year. It was fun, and I felt good, and I didn’t miss home at all. I really felt I was just where I wanted to be.

So … 2016. Yeah, a little different. A promised invitation never came, and I found myself alone, and not happy about it. I guess the person who promised the invitation forgot, or went somewhere else … but I gotta admit, a message, at least, would have been nice. Facebook was not much help – most of the posts showed happy families celebrating together. I even saw a number of photos of Thanksgiving celebrations here in Georgia. Peace Corps had a huge Thanksgiving dinner. I understand that it’s only for current volunteers, but, still …

Well, you see the direction this is going. So I’ll stop now, and just say, sometimes being so far away can be tough. This is the price you pay, I guess. Next year, maybe I’ll make my own Thanksgiving and invite other strays such as myself! Sadly I don’t have an oven, so it might require some serious improvisation – but I’ll worry about that later. In the meantime, I am going to a belated Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday with some people I know, not friends, but nice people. It’s at a restaurant I’ve heard is quite good. I have to pay 50 lari to cover the cost, which is entirely reasonable, but somehow kinda kills the feeling a little bit. Maybe I’m just being cranky. The election is still weighing heavily on me. Tomorrow night I’m meeting some people to talk about we, as American expats, can do here in Georgia to have some impact on the situation. I have some ideas. We’ll see what happens.

For now – happy Thanksgiving to all of you back in America, and hold those friends and family close, especially right now.

Update: On Sunday, as planned, I went to a very nice dinner at Rosemary, a new restaurant here in Tbilisi run by an American guy who combines traditional Georgian cooking with down-South culinary techniques and recipes from “the other Georgia” – the one that has Atlanta located in it. We got a very nice dinner indeed, with all the traditional fixins’, and a good time was had by all.

ქართული

That means, Georgian language, and this is planned to be a short blog post about my ongoing struggles and today’s final surrender to the absurdity of it all.

So, as I’ve written here before, my Georgian is not very good. My (former) office mate Nodar has characterized it as babytalk. I can’t really argue with that. Nonetheless, I manage. I actually manage pretty well in day-to-day activities, if I am speaking with someone personally. Telephone conversations are definitely more challenging. As are handwritten menus, taxi drivers speaking Russian, marshutka drivers with heavy regional accents, fancy script and other monkey wrenches thrown in my way.

Today was a pretty good example. I negotiated my way along a new marshutka route (winding through very beautiful areas of Tbilsi btw), talking with a woman waiting with me on the corner (jer ara, not yet, accompanied by a resigned shrug from both of us, and then, finally, modis! it’s coming!), the marshutka driver, whose gravelly voice rivaled Leonard Cohen’s, the one guy left at the printing place I went to get a business card made who was telling they closed 15 minutes ago, and to call on Monday (ok, there was a little English in that conversation), then a conversation at the excellent Turkish restaurant where I went to console myself (in Georgian, not Turkish!), and the cleaning woman in my building who I told, madame, I have your money! To which she replied, your Georgian is getting very good. To which I replied, nah, it isn’t, accompanied by a rueful shake of the head.

And then, the final surrender. Off I go to the vegetable stand on the corner. I saw a woman on the marshutka eating the tiny winter tangerines we call mandarini (მანდარინი – the letter “ი” in Georgian is written as “i” in English characters, but pronounced as “ee”) and I thought, yeah, that looks really good, I’m going to buy some of those. So, in I went, and I asked the friendly guy, in Georgian, do you have mandarinis? Are they sweet? He kind of wagged his hand and said, not really. I chuckled and said – again, in Georgian – not yet, I think! I said, I want a few, and I took four, and a few other things. He rang me up and then said IN ENGLISH, 2 lari. Holding up 2 fingers. Usually this behavior, which is incredibly common, drives me into a rage. I complain about it all the time. I mean – we just had a whole little conversation in Georgian. I used non-tourist words and the future tense. Come on! But I dunno … for some reason it didn’t trigger the usual reaction. Instead, I laughed, I said, in Georgian, yeah, 2 lari, I understand, yeah! He laughed too.

I think it’s finally happened – I’ve finally surrendered to the absurdity of it all. Either people are insisting on speaking Russian to me, or they want to speak English, even when they clearly don’t know how, or – and this totally happens – I’m imploring them to speak English and they refuse, even when they know how. This mainly happens at government offices. I’m not gonna get mad about it anymore. I’m just going to accept it. If this means my Georgian doesn’t improve very much because I don’t get to practice, so be it. I’m tired of getting mad about it.

მე მიყვარს საქართველო. Look it up.

 

 

 

 

 

Kiev, or Kyiv?

Last weekend I took a short trip to Kiev … or Kyiv … however you spell it. I was attending a conference, so as is customary at such events, I spent most of my time at a hotel. This particular hotel was well outside city limits and as a result, I didn’t see too much of the city until the last day, when I took a tour. I did have a few interesting experiences, though!

I think the best part was a dinner where I sat with a handsome French guy who lived and worked in Riga, having fallen in love with a Latvian girl, an Italian guy in a wheelchair with a giant white beard, and a young, rather exuberant Ukrainian guy wearing large, neon yellow glasses. Our conversation mainly focused on modern literature. French guy: Celine is my favorite author, although he was a misogynist and rabid anti-Semite, but he writes so lyrically. Italian guy: Mishima was a neo-facist nut, but I love his writing, it’s so strange. Me: Murakami’s “Kafka On The Shore” changed my life, you guys are nuts. We all agreed, however, that Elena Ferrante (whoever she really is) was brilliant and “The Neapolitan Tales” should be read by everyone alive. We also talked about politics, travel, food, and a number of other intriguing topics.

On a slightly more serious note – it was, in fact, a great conversation. These guys were smart, well-read, highly-educated, and had opinions they did not hesitate to express. I think for them, it was a pretty normal discussion, but for me, it was a natural high. It’s been a long, long time since I had an erudite conversation with someone, to be honest. I’ve had some meaningful, personal conversations, and some really funny conversations, and even some educational conversations, but I cannot remember the last time I talked about modern fiction or art of any kind, with anyone. So – I enjoyed myself more than I probably should have, and will treasure the memory of that evening’s conversation as something I really should find a way to have more of, because it’s important to me. I’m grateful for being reminded of that.

On the last day, I took a tour of Kiev … Kyiv … whatever. The tour guide was excellent, though she may have cast a bit of a pall over the crowd in starting the tour by pointing out Babi Yar as we passed the turn-off. For those of you who don’t know, Babi Yar is a ravine in Kiev … Kyiv … and a site of massacres carried out by German forces and local collaborators during their campaign against the Soviet Union. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place from 29–30 September 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed. Nearly 34,000 people, in 2 days. According to a Wikipedia article, “The massacre was the largest mass killing for which the Nazi regime and its collaborators were responsible during its campaign against the Soviet Union[2] and is considered to be “the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust” to that particular date, surpassed only by Aktion Erntefest of November 1943 in occupied Poland with 42,000–43,000 victims and the 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by Romanian troops.”

This information, which was shared by the tour guide, did not put me in a happy mood. Nonetheless I was impressed that she acknowledged the place, and the deed, when she could have so easily let it pass by.

We continued on to Kiev … Kyiv … where we went to several churches and old fortresses, looking at 11th century wall ruins and the like. At one church, the Kiev … Kyiv … Eastern Orthodox Patriarch was in the church for the service, which really excited our tour guide. I watched the service, which seemed to consist mainly of dressing the Patriarch in beautiful blue and gold robes and a crown. A choir was singing in the balcony. It was a bit surreal, but perhaps a little less so to me, being accustomed to Eastern Orthodox pageantry. It didn’t really feel right to be snapping away inside the church, so I haven’t got much to show, but here are a few images I captured:

We went to a number of squares, including Maidan. A reminder of what Maidan Square is, again from Wikipedia: “The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 (also known as the Euromaidan Revolution or Revolution of Dignity; Ukrainian: Революція гідності, Revoliutsiya hidnosti) took place in Ukraine in February 2014, when a series of violent events involving protesters, riot police, and unknown shooters in the capital, Kiev, culminated in the ousting of Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych (who had won the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. This was immediately followed by a series of changes in Ukraine’s sociopolitical system, including the formation of a new interim government, the restoration of the previous constitution, and a call to hold impromptu presidential elections within months.” There are a lot of conflicting reports, but it appears around 75 people, including police, were killed. There are also a lot of conflicting reports on the identity and source of the snipers who shot so many demonstrators, ranging from the CIA to the Russians. According to our tour guide, “we all know who did it but no one will say it.” Apparently she didn’t want to say it, either. This picture of me is not at Maidan Square, but another one, called Khmelnytsky – it was a very misty, cold day.

img_20160925_103640707

Me at Khmelnytsky Monument

kiev

On a much nicer day, with a much nicer camera!

 

 

 

 

 

The architecture in Kiev … Kyiv … was very nice. Many boulevards had walkways down the median, with benches and landscaping, and overall the city was very green. However, the mist became so heavy that my photos are just terrible, so here are a few pulled off the web, just to give you a feel for it:

I’ve been to a lot of cities that just called my name. Kyoto was one: I ended up living there. Budapest was another; I didn’t live there, but I could have, and who knows, maybe I will one day. Kiev … Kyiv … didn’t even whisper. Maybe it was the grey clouds hanging over everything, maybe it was the sad and tragic history, maybe I was just in a bad mood. But all I can say now is, I visited, it was mildly interesting, and I don’t think I will yearn to go back for more. Though, if the right opportunity arose … you never know!