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. 🙂
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.
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.
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!
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. 🙂 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.