Monthly Archives: May 2015

Another list – part 2

So it’s lazy Saturday afternoon here in Gori. The weather was glorious during the week, but today is cloudy and a bit on the cool side, though my window is open – something that didn’t happen from October through May. A fellow PCV who stayed over at my place last night recently departed after a nice visit, going to visit my host family later today … so right now seems like a good time to finish up my “list compilation,” started a week or two ago. After thinking about what I would miss, I now present – what I won’t.

My number one complaint in Georgia – trash. It’s everywhere. It’s all the places you would expect, and everywhere else, too. There is trash on virtually every street, littering medians, front yards, apartment building entrances (definitely including mine), and highways. There is trash in every stream, river and lake. Here is a little video I shot from my balcony of the river running next to my building. It’s a slightly blurry, having been taken by my cellphone from 5 stores up, but the sad truth can easily be seen. Just look at the area closest to the shore – bottle after bottle streaming by, washing downstream, seemingly forever.

Everywhere in Georgia, there are plastic bags hanging from nearly every tree, plastic bottles thrown out of marshutka windows every single day, and mountains – literally – of trash near virtually every village. Just in case you might think I am exaggerating:

Pan2           Typical Gori St.

The picture on top was taken at a village right outside of Gori, and similar scenes are extremely common. The boy is part of a youth environmental club started by my organization, CHCA, providing me with a little hope for the future (as does a recent change in the law imposing higher fines for littering, though it remains to be seen whether it will be enforced). The picture below was taken about 4 blocks from my apartment. 😦 Click on these photos to get the full impact … Georgians not only have an extraordinary love for plastic bags (I commonly come home with 2-3 bags per individual purchase, which I always re-use, but still …) and bottles, coupled with a culture that inexplicably displays both extreme pride in the beauty of their country and a shocking disregard for the consequences of littering, simultaneously, but also lacks the infrastructure to address this issue even if they wanted to. Here is an interesting short article on the potential for recycling in Georgia; note it was written in 2011. Sadly, nothing has changed since then, in spite of the clear economic advantages of cleaning up their act, not to mention the impact on tourism and the environment. It’s taking its toll, and no matter how many beautiful videos Georgia produces promoting its stunning countryside, at a certain point, given the reach of social media, tourists will just go somewhere else where they don’t have to see voluminous trash marring every single landscape, historical site, river and city.

Running a close second on things I won’t miss are the driving habits of Georgians. It really took me a while to grasp how bad it really is. I mean – I’m from L.A, and no stranger to aggressive driving habits. But wow, it really is at a whole different level here. At first, it just didn’t seem possible that drivers actually would not slow down when approaching pedestrians in the street, make left turns directly into people crossing the street, routinely pass on the left against oncoming traffic on hills and curves, drive at speeds exceeding 100 mph on the highway and nearly that on city streets, and park on sidewalks. Drunk driving is extremely common. There are no seat belts in the back seats of any cars. Child seats do not exist, and toddlers are routinely seen hanging out of the window while sitting in their parent’s lap, totally unsecured. The Facebook page below is in Georgian, but the photos speak for themselves. The name of the page, btw, is “Gaitsanit Samartskhvino Mdzgholebi (‘Introducing Shameless Drivers’).”

Peace Corps volunteers make a lot of jokes about taking our lives in our hands while driving in taxis and marshutkas, but we kind of stopped laughing as people we knew were killed or severely injured. My sitemate’s grandmother, killed by a marshutka. My neighbor in Khashuri’s two teenage sons, killed in a car accident. My co-worker’s friend’s husband, paralyzed after being hit by a car. It’s so common, people hardly raise an eyebrow.

I have no explanation for this. I do know that there is a youth movement working to raise awareness of the problem, but … it doesn’t seem to have any impact. Maybe over time … here are some reasons for a little optimism.

Another thing I know I won’t miss is “customer service” here in Georgia. This is a subject I hear Georgians complain about all the time, oddly enough. Assistance in most grocery stores is just not offered, or – and this is the thing I will NOT miss the most – it consists of someone simply following the customer around the store. So, let me be clear – when I say “following,” I mean standing about a foot away, staring, not saying a word. I learned to say “I don’t need any help” in Georgian just to deal with this situation. It’s so disconcerting … I’m not sure whether it’s an anti-shoplifting measure, or a misguided attempt to be available to help if needed, but … I don’t like it!

Here’s a funny one. I will not miss the enthusiastic use of mayonnaise here. I’ve seen certain people (Nutsa, I am talking to you) eat mayo directly from the jar (actually here it’s sold in bags, but you get the idea). The worst offense by far is mayonnaise on pizza. Blasphemy! I think the first phrase I learned to say in restaurants was ar minda mayonaysi … I don’t want mayonnaise.

Last, I won’t miss something that seems to either bother me more than either people, or somehow happens to me more than other people, I’m not sure. I often have the experience of going into a store and speaking competent enough, albeit heavily accented Georgian to the people there – “give me two of those,” “do you have milk?” that sort of thing – and being answered in English (usually extremely broken English, significantly worse than my Georgian), or met with blank stares. My favorite is when a whole conversation has taken place, in Georgian, and when it comes time to pay, instead of saying how much is due, the person holds up the calculator to show me the number, or their fingers. Often it’s a whole number, like 2 gel. When that happens I sometimes laugh, a little hysterically, and say oh, you mean 2 lari? in Georgian. I mean … I’ve been talking with them for several minutes in Georgian, why do they think I cannot understand a simple number?

Now, I have to say, this does not happen all the time. I’ve had some good experiences in certain stores, and I tend to frequent them as often as possible. Even if the people who work there treat me with the same sullen indifference offered to every customer, I’m grateful just to be treated like everyone else. And sometimes, I actually have a pleasant little conversation. The baker near my house offers me that pretty much every time. She doesn’t try to speak English or Russian to me – she accepts my Georgian requests for one loaf of bread, and when I say thank you, she says you are welcome. Sometimes we even exchange pleasantries about the weather. I’ve had similar experiences with some taxi drivers, who very rarely speak any English. A few weeks ago I had an exchange with a marshutka driver in Tbilisi who understood me as I asked if there were any seats, if he was going to my destination, and how much it costs. He just answered me in Georgian and seemed to regard me as a regular person even though from my accent and appearance, I’m sure he knew I was a foreigner. I really like when that happens.

I’ll end with a little story that continues with the language struggle theme. A few weeks ago I was heading home from a day in Tbilisi from Didube (the western marshutka/taxi station). I was crammed into the back seat of a car with a very attractive middle-aged woman in a beautiful lilac scarf. I said hello, and offered her some chocolate. On the highway, she got a cramp in her leg, and it obviously was hurting her a bit. I asked her if she was ok, and said it wasn’t far to Gori. So we had a few conversations, which is more than enough for any Georgian to know I am not from their country. In fact I would say that about 90%of the time, all it takes is looking at me (though if I don’t have my backpack on me, sometimes there is a bit of confusion since I have pretty typical Eastern European features – though usually just saying even one word clears that up immediately, haha). But when we got to Gori and I gave my address to the driver, she turned to me – inasmuch anyone can turn while stuffed into a taxi here – and said, in English, “oh, are you a foreigner?” I started to laugh, perhaps a bit more than was appropriate, and said, “yes, of course, I’m American, could you not tell?” We had a lovely conversation in English then, she was really quite nice and I wish I could get to know her better … but we went our separate ways. Maybe I will run into her around town sometime.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll be interested to see whether I feel the same about my lists in a year or so. In the meantime, a lot of good stuff going on/coming up – training opportunities with the newly arrived volunteers, which I really enjoy (teaching, job shadowing, mentoring), activities (picnics!) and then their swearing-in; new volunteers being assigned here in Gori (maybe); some new projects and activities, including a “special olympics” program that seems promising, and our IDP discussion group; my upcoming trip to Paris, fast approaching (August); our mid-service conference (September), followed by a visit from Malcolm, Ric and Helena … possibly. Fingers crossed. 🙂 As I like to say, stay tuned!


GAnother list – part 1

Peace Corps bloggers are fond of making lists – stuff they love, stuff they hate, funny stuff, sad stuff, sometime some pretty provocative stuff – lots of different stuff. I’m not different. I started making a list even before I came to Georgia. That list was all about what I would miss about L.A, and what I wouldn’t. For the most part, I was pretty on the mark, especially the things I wouldn’t miss!

A recent anniversary got me thinking about making a similar list for Georgia. About 2 weeks ago, we all hit our 1-year mark. We’re not quite half-way there – that date will come sometime in mid-June, I haven’t calculated the exact date and probably won’t. I’m not really thinking that much about it, and don’t intend to until at least August, after I return from Paris. Maybe not even until the beginning of 2016, when I return from meeting up with my son in … wherever we decide. Then I’ll begin counting down, I think. But for now, I’m just living my life – work life, social life, Peace Corps life – it’s all pretty good. It’s just in a different place. Here’s a very short video (7 seconds, I think) of some of us marking the moment – Rachel had her eyes dilated that day for an exam, so she looks like Beelzebub, I hope she’ll forgive me for this.

So, here’s a list of Georgian things I think I will miss. I’ll talk about what I won’t miss in a separate blog, or this will be too long! I’ll look back on these in a year or so and see how they hold up.

What I’ll miss:

Of course, like everyone does, I’ll miss people. I’ll miss my host families, both from training and here in Gori. Both of these families have been so good to me, and well beyond the time when Peace Corps was paying them for keeping me at their homes. Eka and Tsira, in Khashuri, welcome me with open arms each time I visit, along with all the mezobeli (neighbors) on the street. I leave each time with food and wine. My host family here in Gori feeds me a sumptuous feast pretty much every week. They give me honey from their backyard hives, preserved fruit, bread and all other manner of food. They care about what is going on with me, and call me when I’m sick. They help me whenever I need a handyman of some sort. You know … like a family. Best of all, for me, the mother of one child – a son – their two daughters, aged 13 and 15, have finally given me a little taste of what it must feel like to have girls. It’s … different. In a good way.

The other person I will undoubtedly miss a lot is my counterpart, Marta. She has taken me under her fashionable wing from the moment I arrived in Gori. There’s really nothing she wouldn’t do to help me out. Sometimes I have to fight her off just to venture out to do some errand by myself. But I really couldn’t make her without her, not just at work, but personally, too. She’s found me an apartment, sat in it with me all day calling internet company representatives, taught me how to make my favorite sweet bread, kada, and countless other favors. Not least, she can be very tough with me when we are writing grants together. The words “No, Sara!” said in just the right combination of strong will and amusement will always resonate with me.

I will also miss my Director, Eka. A small, slim woman with a gigantic personality and what I can only call a lilting voice and laugh, she is the passionate heart of my organization. If I were younger, I would see her as a model mentor, but being on the other end of my career, I just stand back an gaze in awe. Eka is a IDP from Abkhazia who takes her mission very personally. Married with two little boys, she still somehow manages to do it all.

Then, of course, there are a lot of volunteers I’ll miss. Though the whole “age thing,” as I call it, has proven to be a little tougher nut to crack than I anticipated, I’ve grown close to a lot of them. That’s a topic for another post, though. In the meantime, here are a few pictures that I think kind of capture the gestalt of it:

Next, of course, I’ll miss the food! There’s not a huge variety, but what there is, is darn good. I did a post about food here, so I won’t reiterate all of it again. But a few things I may not have mentioned … homemade cherry cognac in a coke bottle, fresh bread straight out of a stone oven, fresh fruit in summer, especially watermelon, and carbonated pear “lemonade.” All so good. And, oh yeah, Turkish coffee. Last week I saw a new volunteer drain his little cup, sludge and all, apparently never having drunk it before. That guy won’t sleep for about a week.

I will miss Gori. I’ve grown quite fond of the place. I love my flat here – I love the view, the Caucasus mountains, the sound of the river rushing by, the night train wheels on the tracks just beyond, Gori Castle, the arches of Stalin Museum (even if I don’t like what’s inside of it!), the kids and young people thronging the park outside the Museum in summer, the traditional kiss at greeting, the blooming trees, the grapevines outside every house … I lucked out with this site. I don’t know that I would want to live out the rest of my life here, because I’m always restless for new places and experiences, but for now, it fits me very well.

I’ll miss my work here. I work hard, and I try to bring something of value to the table. Being a volunteer always involves an element of frustration, because there’s always so much more that could be done – in theory, anyway. But here I think my age and experience is a big plus, because I can manage that frustration a lot better. I’ve just been there before, a lot of times, and I know how to handle it. Not that I always succeed; cultural frustrations, in particular, are hard, but I do know it will pass if I am just patient, allow myself to feel bad for a while, and then pick myself up off the floor (or out of the bed, more likely) and move on. I’ll also miss my Peace Corps work. I really like the grants committee that I serve on, and I also am enjoying our IDP discussion group, helping with training of new volunteers, and writing articles or pieces for various PC publications. It’s all fun, really. Here’s a couple of work photos:

Well, that’s about it for now. It’s a lot to miss, but by the same token, it’s a lot to feel good about. Next post, I’ll talk a little about what some of the challenges are – what I won’t miss, in other words. But I’m glad I did this one first.