Monthly Archives: August 2014

Musing about differences

Today is a very lazy, hot Sunday. When I got up at around 10 am, my family was gone – I have no idea where – so I ate a quiet breakfast doing what I like to do best in the morning – reading and drinking 2 cups of coffee. I wish I was reading the New York times, but almost as good, right now I’m working my way through a collection of articles by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite authors. (Whoops, host mother just returned and told me they went to church, offered me food.) Put up a load of laundry, and decided that since it’s been a while since I posted anything, now would be a good time. Why not? The only problem is – no big news to tell. Work – good, busy, interesting. Home – fine, settling in. Gori – I like it. Travel – Batumi, Tbilisi (numerous times), back to Khashuri in a few weeks for the weekend to visit friends and PST host family. Weather – SUCKS, hot, very hot, extremely hot, every day … will it ever end? I’m sure it will, and I’ll look back at this post and laugh (or cry) when I’m freezing in January, but right now … yeach.

So … what should I write about? Well, one thing I’ve been thinking about lately, as I’ve become more immersed in Georgian life and culture, is that while there are many similarities, there are also many differences. Many are subtle, but they are real. As with my experience living in Japan, the surface appears quite Western, but it’s a very shallow pool. Below it lies a deep cistern of cultural divergence. Possibly in Japan the differences were even more extreme … or maybe I haven’t lived here long enough yet. In any case, below are some things I’ve noticed about Georgia and Georgians that are different from day-to-day American living:

1. A profound love of salt. Everything here is salty, but especially cheese. I love cheese, but I can’t really eat much of it here, because it’s like eating a chunk of pure salt. I’ve seen colleagues putting salt on watermelon, ice cream and bread. Sunflower seeds (another profound love, especially for women) are heavily salted, too. All stews, all soups, dolma (cabbage leaves wrapped around meat) … pretty much everything. The only consistent exception to this rule that I have found so far are khingali – delicious meat dumplings – which are traditionally heavily peppered by the person eating them, but that’s perfectly ok with me. πŸ™‚

Note the pepper shaker at the bottom of the picture. Khingali are traditionally eaten with the hands, and the knob of dough at the top is not consumed, which is too bad because I like it and often eat it anyway!

2. A close second – oil. And not the “healthy” kind either. I mean cooking oil, often derived directly from frying meat or chicken, or purchased in a gigantic jug and liberally poured on everything. Eggs. Stews. Salad. You name it, it’s soaked in oil. I’m not saying I don’t like that, in fact, I do, but it’s like loving fried chicken – you know it’s bad, but you can’t help it.

Refined Edible cooking oil

These are the small size bottles

3. Labels. I have found that nearly every product here is labeled in two languages. Unfortunately, they are Georgian (often in microscopic letters on a sticker, as if it’s not already hard enough to read) and Russian (which I cannot read at all). So when buying, say, beauty products, it’s a little hard to be sure … am I purchasing shampoo, or conditioner? Make-up remover cream, or moisturizer? I dunno, it’s not that expensive, so take your best shot.

 

4. Water. As another PCV recently put it in a blog post, it’s not that there isn’t enough water – it’s that there isn’t access to water. Or, put another way, access to water is … variable. As a result, people here tend to fill large containers and buckets with water at every available opportunity, just in case. This makes sense. What doesn’t quite make sense to me, though, is their propensity for letting water taps run way after whatever container is being filled is completely overflowing, and then well beyond. In some cases, they just never turn off the tap. For a Southern Californian, used to droughts and water conservation, this practice is definitely different.

IMG_20140824_132924223_HDR

 

 

 

 

 

5. A near total absence of clothes driers. Many people have washing machines (again, with Russian letters for the settings, just a little challenging), but NO ONE I have met or heard of has a drier. Clothes are hung out on the line, everywhere. In the city, every balcony of large apartment buildings are used pretty much solely for this purpose as far as I can tell. I’m not sure how well this will work in winter, however, during the warm months it’s fine. Though clothes dry a little stiff on the line, I never knew that before. Or it could be there’s still a bit of laundry soap in them because I didn’t get the settings on the washing machine right!

Our veranda, with my laundry hanging on the line

Our veranda, with my laundry hanging on the line

I know how to set this for a half-hour wash - anything past that is beyond me.

I know how to set this for a half-hour wash –Β  anything past that is beyond me.

 

6. Tone of voice. Georgians tend to be … expressive. You might think people are fighting, and sometimes they are, but often they are not. It’s just the way they talk.

7. Social interaction. Though this varies between villages and cities, in general, Georgians reserve their smiles and greetings for people they know, meaning neighbors and family. I walk about a mile and a half to and from work every day, and there are loads of people on the street walking, sitting on low benches outside their houses, standing around talking … we don’t greet each other. There’s often staring (they stare at me, not the other way around), but no talking. Being a typical American who smiles and/or nods to everyone I make eye contact with, I find this a little hard. Last week, a bebia (grandma) was sitting outside her house with a little baby, and when in spite of myself I smiled at the baby and made some babytalk sound, she smiled back and waved the baby’s hand at me. It made me tear up a little, I was so grateful for some human interchange. This is an aspect of Georgian culture I find challenging to adjust to, but I’m getting used to it. I’m also getting to know some of the people on my street, my neighbors, who aren’t exactly greeting me yet, but at least have stopped grinding to a halt in their tracks and staring at me as I walk by. One exception is a woman across the street whose kids are friends with my host sisters, and she is friends with my host mom. We know each other, and so we always greet each other.

In Khashuri, a smaller place, this was a bit different. I got to know the folks on my street fairly quickly, and there was a lot of stopping and chatting (inasmuch as my extremely limited language skills at the time would allow) on my way to and from school every day. Especially after the dog bite, everyone enjoyed my pantomime of that event. πŸ™‚ A lot of my host mother’s friends knew my name, greeted me, made special efforts to talk with me, and generally were very friendly. One neighbor, Jilda, invited me over to her house for dinner when it was time for me to leave Khashuri. I think in villages it’s even more familiar, as everyone knows each other and volunteers get to know everyone very quickly. A larger city has different challenges.

8. Identification of me as a foreigner. They always know. No matter how I’m dressed, whether I’m carrying a backpack (the mark of a foreigner) or not, whether I’ve said one word in my immediately identifiable American accent – they know. I think there are so many immigrants in the U.S. and especially in L.A. where I am from, that people no longer think in those terms, really. It’s very diverse, people all look different and come from different backgrounds – you don’t make assumptions. Here, people (especially older people) often speak to me in Russian, which is an exercise in futility if one ever existed, and insist on continuing to speak Russian even after I’ve answered in Georgian, and sometimes, in desperation, English. However, yesterday in Tbilisi, even though I was carrying a backpack, no less than 3 people approached me to ask directions – in Georgian! It was gratifying, even though since I don’t live in Tbilisi I couldn’t really help most of them. First, a young woman approached in a Metro station asking me about where a bank was located. As soon as she heard my accent she switched to English, but she started in Georgian – either way, though, sadly I didn’t know where the bank was. At least I knew enough Georgian to explain that I live in Gori. Then, a woman on a bus asked me where the bus went – which I didn’t know, and was concerned about personally as well, lol. Though when the bus turned in the wrong direction from where I thought I wanted to go, I did get off, and even though it turned out I wasn’t exactly where I thought I was, it still was the wrong direction and so it was a good thing I disembarked! The third time was especially edifying. A woman sitting next to me on the Metro train to one of the main stations where folks transfer to marshutkas and taxis to all points west asked me if the train went to Didube. Indeed, it did, and I even knew how many stops it was and was able to tell her. No English necessary.

Well, those are a few of the differences, and a little story … this was kind of a fun post to write after all, hope it amuses and/or intrigues my legions of readers.

Settling in

Hard toΒ  believe it has been a little over a month since I last posted here. A lot has happened, of course, but also things have slowed down in certain ways or maybe a better way to say it is that things are starting to fall into more of a routine. Which I welcome – but it’s strange how in some ways I’m right back where I started. I get up in the morning, have breakfast, go to work, come home in the evening for dinner, reading, watch a bit of tv perhaps … get up the next morning and do it all over again. Sound familiar? There are some pretty big differences between Gori and L.A. though! More on this below, but first I’ll quickly bring everything up to speed.

Well, after my last post, I returned to Khashuri and resumed my training, which included a practicum (I conducted a session on grant writing for several teachers and librarians) and intensive language study as I prepared for the all-important LCE – language competency exam, I think … something like that. I cannot keep up with all these acronyms, but whatever it was called, I knew what I had to do. Failing this exam did not result in expulsion from the Peace Corps, of course – I’d just have to retake it in November. But I really, really didn’t want to do that. So I buckled down and vowed to do my best. The test itself consisted of about 20 minutes of conversation with a trained native Georgian speaker, at a pretty rapid pace. The conversation covered a range of topics, and then there’s a scenario to play out. Mine was an interview with a celebrity in which I was supposed to ask questions that demonstrated what a “family person” this person was – how Georgian. Lucky for me I had a pretty good grasp on this set of vocabulary, and even managed to crack a joke. I asked my tester/celebrity if she had children, and when she said no, I feigned amazement and in a shocked tone shouted “რაგომ!?!?” This means “why” (pronounced “ratom”), and is the typical Georgian reaction to any demurral. You aren’t married?Β  რაგომ!?!? You aren’t hungry? რაგომ!?!?Β  You get the idea. OK, not to prolong the suspense – I passed. By the skin of my teeth. Here’s proof:

Passed

So, ok, that was over. We had a really fun, but somewhat bittersweet farewell dinner. Fun because of the great food and talent show, which involved card tricks, singing, and a genuinely hilarious skit wherein several volunteers mimicked each other mercilessly. Bittersweet because, of course, we are now scattered all over the country and saying goodbye to people who have become good friends. Here’s a few pictures from the event:

OK, moving on, the very next day we all piled on marshutkas at a really early hour and drove to Tbilisi for the swearing-in ceremony. It was well over 100Β°F – seriously – and even hotter inside the auditorium at the medical school where the ceremony was held, with hot lights shining on us and zero ventilation. Brutal. I felt like fainting a few times, and it wasn’t due to emotion. However, putting that aside (though I’ll never forget it), the ceremony was really great. We were sworn in by the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, and it was all very formal, with oath-taking, pinning, and a reception … not at all like the first time around in Yap!

Immediately thereafter, we all left in a chaotic swirl of activity, hardly getting a chance to say goodbye. A few scenes glimpsed as I ran around … a teenage Georgian girl sobbing in a hallway, presumably sad at saying goodbye to her PC sister or brother; PC volunteers of opposite sexes hugging each other long and hard, in total violation of Georgian public protocols; bewildered-looking volunteers pulling luggage down the street with their new families. I’m in a few of these scenes, too.

So, that was July 18th. The next day I went back to Khashuri to get all my luggage and say goodbye to my family there. That was hard. Harder even than I thought it would be. There was crying, and not just me. I really cared for Eka and Tsira, they made me feel part of their family and really welcome in their home. I would have stayed there with them the whole two years if I could have, and I miss them. But, this is the nature of Peace Corps – you make connections, you “integrate,” and then … you leave.

Since then I’ve been in Gori. I’m going to save stories of work for another post, but it’s looking good. The first 2 weeks were a bit light on work, but I kept myself busy researching the organization and potential funding. Now things are picking up, with some major projects in the making. My counterpart, Marta, a lovely woman who speaks pretty good English, will be on vacation for the next two weeks so my Georgian will get a real work-out! More to come ….

My Georgian family here is great, very modern family, lovely house with fantastic water pressure – really an important point. πŸ™‚ There’s a big verandah where I like to sit and read. My room is comfortable and I’m getting to know each family member better as time passes. As with work, more to come on this in a future post – with photos, or as we say here, “potos.”

I’m really liking Gori – a small city, but with some degree of sophistication. Not like Tbilisi, uh, no, but very liveable. And Tbilisi is a 45-minute drive away. I’ve been there twice already, once for fun, and once for meetings. Language is a challenge. Here’s my closing story. I needed to go to the bank to get an internet banking PIN. Marta tried to go with me, but I told her I have to learn to manage these things myself. I rehearsed how to say “Does anyone here speak English?” in case I needed it. I walked over to the bank, and was greeted by a pretty young girl. I immediately defaulted to panic mode, and said in my best Georgian “Does anyone here speak English?” LOL. But what was so disconcerting was that she totally did not understand me, even though I knew I had said it correctly. So I tried saying it another way, and then yet a third way – there’s lots of ways of asking for help, but none of them worked. A small crowd started to gather, to my humiliation, but happily one of them was a bank employee who spoke English, yay! I told him what I wanted and he gave me a number and pointed me toward a line waiting for customer service representatives. Hmmmm, ok, well I started mentally rehearsing my speech …. I only speak a little Georgian, please speak slowly and I will understand, I need a PIN for the internet, can you help me? My number comes up, I say all of that, slowly, to the young woman behind the desk who then says, in perfect English, “so, you want a PIN number?” Arghhhhhh! I took some comfort in the fact that she clearly did understand everything I said, and in fact, we conducted a good part of the whole transaction in Georgian, only resorting to English when I didn’t quite comprehend what she was saying. She complimented my Georgian, which as nice of her – albeit completely untrue. My Georgian is very, very limited and inaccurate. I need to start studying again, and plan to get a tutor. That’s another thing I’ll be working on next week.

So, until the next post … look to Facebook for periodic updates but I’ll be posting a bit more often here now that things have settled down.