Monthly Archives: June 2015

On Being a “50+” volunteer

It’s very unusual for me to post two days in a row, but there’s a first time for everything. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot as my first official year (counting training, I’ve already been here 14 months) winds down, and I thought I’d memorialize my thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.

When I first applied to the PC, I was completely unworried about age. I passed the medical hurdles pretty easily, and I kind of figured that since I felt I was about 28 inside, everyone would just get to know me and forget about my chronological age, which at the time was 59 (I’m 61 now having had 2 birthdays in Georgia already!). I was so confident that, after over 20 years of dying my hair, I decided to cut out that nonsense and let it go natural … not that I knew what that was gonna be, exactly. As it turned out, it’s a shining, silvery, pure white, and I love it … but it’s also a big sign (along with some regrettable but inevitable wrinkles) that I’m no spring chicken. But I thought everyone would just see right past that.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Age was a much more significant barrier than I thought it would be, and even though after a year I feel things have settled out pretty well, it took so much more work and effort than I ever dreamed it would. And to be perfectly clear – I’m not talking about HCN’s, as we volunteers officially refer to locals (as in “host country nationals”). As far as I can tell, no one here could care less about my age. If anything, I’m accorded MORE respect because of it. As has often been written in other blogs and news stories, age is treated quite differently in many countries outside the U.S. Older people are not seen as antiquated or obsolete; on the contrary, wisdom and experience are valued. In my position at CHCA, I’ve made videos, designed websites, worked with designers on our annual report (a copy of which I swear one day I will be putting up on this blog!) and done all sorts of other tasks that probably would never even be contemplated as possible back home, because, you know, we geezers don’t even know how to attach a document to email. Hell, we hardly know what email is! 🙂

No. The barriers I encountered were with my fellow PCV’s. This was a big shock to me. Seriously. I honestly thought I would simply be accepted as a person, liked or disliked on the basis of my personality, not my years. In this I was wrong, and as my son pointed out to me when I whined to him about it, I really should have predicted that outcome. In fact I am older than many of these kids’ parents. And they don’t know how to deal with me, because apparently I’m not really sufficiently parent-like, but I’m also not sufficiently kid-like. I’m … sui generis.

When I arrived, one of only 3 or 4 “50+” trainees, I made it pretty clear early on that I was not interested in being anyone’s parent figure. A friend, yes. A mommy – no. Been there, done that. But I didn’t know what I was talking about. There are differences in how I approach things and socialize, and how many of my fellow volunteers do the same, though not as many as one might think. Here’s a little list of some of the differences, and some of the similarities:

1. Drinking. This is the biggest difference. Many volunteers socialize in a way I think I and my friends never did, even when we were young. For us, getting together was the point – seeing each other, talking with each other, sharing some common experience – a dinner, a concert, whatever. People often got drunk, sometimes very drunk, but it wasn’t the purpose of socializing – it was a by-product, I would say. For many volunteers here, it seems the main point is just to get inebriated. It’s like they feel they actually cannot have fun unless they are 3 sheets to the wind, although of course they often do. I have developed coping mechanisms for this. I like to socialize, and I like to drink – just not to excess. So I hang out in the earlier evening, drink a few gin & tonics, or some wine, and when it reaches critical mass, I bow out. When folks are in my home, I let them drink as much as they want, and I often join them, but again – if it gets to be too much, I slip away to my bedroom and just close the door. BTW these coping mechanisms are not effective when attending Georgian supras, where huge amounts of wine are consumed and “no” is not an option – but that’s another post!

2. Tech. Interestingly, this is NOT an area of big difference. I use my tech as much (and in many cases, more so) than lots of other volunteers. I use it in my job, with my blog, Facebook … a lot. As I recently posted, I’ve gotten more interested in video lately, and intend to be doing a lot more of that sort of thing in the future. I text a lot with other volunteers, too, as well as with HCN’s, especially my 15-year-old host sister. I’ve gotten really good at stickers and emoticons, how funny and expressive they can be. I don’t think anyone is really surprised that I’m pretty proficient, so that’s all good.

3. Teasing. This has been a hard one. Part of the problem is that the guys (it’s mostly guys) who are doing it are pretty funny, so it’s hard to be mad when I’m laughing. But it can be trying, and tiring, and sometimes, it can be a little mean. I think to some extent it’s like a rite of passage – they are trying to figure out who I am, how far they can go, how I differ from their parents, can I take it or not … Even though I am very sensitive, overly sensitive sometimes, I took it. I joked back. I traded insults. I made mock threats, and over time, it lessened, and now it’s more of a minor part of my conversations. What I hoped for seems to have happened – they know me as a person. Guess I passed the test, it was a tough one.

4. Socializing. I’m invited to some things, and to go along on some trips. Not all, and not always. I attribute this partly to age, and partly to a divergence in interests. For instance, I’m not a big camper/hiker, and everyone knows that about me. I like to go to museums and quirky restaurants. So, my time is spent with people who have similar interests – and happily, there are enough of them that it’s not really an issue, and happily some of them are HCN’s, too. I sometimes feel I’m missing out on things, but then when I force myself to do something that I really don’t enjoy, all I want is to be home. You can’t win sometimes!

5. Friendship. This has been surprising to me. All of the factors above have combined to make friendship be challenging, and all the more rewarding for it. One of my best friends here is the youngest volunteer in our group, but she is an old soul, and a smart, funny one, to boot. We share common interests and help each other out, and I can confide in her. Another good friend is a young guy with political views that are different from mine, and we enjoy debate a lot. There are others, quite a few actually, and I appreciate all of them. I especially appreciate those who see me as a person, and not a number. Some have felt that way from the start, and some have evolved.

So, in closing, I would say that I have learned and benefited more from this experience than I anticipated. I’ve learned a lot about differences, how to bridge them, when to acknowledge them, how to work around them. I expected I’d have to do that with HCN’s, but not with my own cohort. In that I was wrong, but now, after a year,I have to say that the adjustment and challenge have been positive and growth-enhancing for me. And I fervently hope that my younger friends feel the same, so when they go back home to the U.S., they are open to broader definitions of friendship, and less prone to ageism. If even a little of this happens, I’ll feel very good!

IDP Group 1-15

Music Soothes the Savage Beast

Apparently it’s actuallymusic hath charms to soothe a savage breast” but I like the beast image better. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of music, especially Georgian traditional music. Not that I’ve been deliberately exploring the genre, but it’s just turned out that way. And it’s been very interesting.

First, I created a video for a grant application we wrote at CHCA. The funder “highly encouraged” it. 🙂 I’ve been getting more and more interested in video, just using my cellphone and then editing in MovieMaker. And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. For this video, I wanted to illustrate the infrastructure conditions in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) settlements in Gori District. This issue has been well-documented, but I aimed at not only demonstrating the lack of things we all take for granted, such as potable water, but also the feelings of the people who have to live in such conditions. I thought at first I wouldn’t use music, but it quickly became apparent that I really needed it for the video to be effective. I listened to a lot of Georgia folk music, generously provided by PC on a flash drive. I settled on a very restrained Megruli folk song called “Asho Chela.”  Below is a link to the video and the full song:

Next, I was again happily invited to attend a traditional Georgian dance performance by Erisioni, a national Georgian ballet company. This time I went with a big crowd of PCV’s, and I invited my counterpart, Marta, to come along. She had told me she particularly loved this troupe because of its long history. Erisioni attained global acclaim thanks to their work on the project Georgian Legend – a performance consisting of the dances and songs of Georgia, loosely bound around tales from the country’s history.

I really enjoyed this performance, as I did the last one, which was more influenced by modern styles (you can see my Facebook post on that topic here: For one, it was truly traditional. Marta knew all of the dances and told me as each started: this is Osettian, this is Ajameti, or Juta, or Adjaruli … It wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the other troupe, but deeply, deeply heartfelt.  For another, there was singing – a lot of it. All by men. And there was drumming, also a lot of it, by men and by some very exuberant young boys! At the finale, the men made a human pyramid with one guy on top waving a huge Georgian flag. The crowd went wild and I have to admit I kinda did, too.

I took some videos and I’m posting them here, but I apologize in advance for the heads at the bottom of the screen and the fuzzy quality – I did my best in a very crowded theater! But I do think these 3 videos give a good idea of the spirit and feeling of the evening.

Afterwards, Marta and I walked together across the Mtkvari river bridge, past the police station and the bazaar, through the shopping street down Chavchavadze, parting ways in front of City Hall with a hug and a feeling that I was at home.

One last video to share, just because I love it so much. This is four Georgian guys in an airport in the Ukraine. Maybe their plane is late and they’re bored, I don’t know, but they are singing with all their souls. Just some guys, no one famous as far as I know, though the bald guy is holding a panduri, a traditional Georgian instrument. One breaks out dancing. At the end two of them are sort of entwined, which one commenter on the YouTube page where I found this video is puzzled by, but anyone who has lived in Georgia knows is a common sight. This is Georgian spirit.




Kakheti Special Needs Field Day

Summertime has arrived in Georgia in full force. The last two or three weeks have been hot and humid (my least favorite weather), punctuated by violent thunderstorms. And when I say violent, I mean the full story – crackling lightening, thunder so loud it shakes the room, hail the size of golf balls, heavy rain … well, I’ll let this little video speak for itself!

Last weekend was no exception, so I had to fight off the characteristic lethargy that is my usual response to such weather, to travel into Tbilisi and then further east to the region of Kakheti for a special event put on by several G13 PCV’s. All the G13’s are about to leave the country this month and next – their two years are up – and they want to transition the project to some of us G14’s.

Here’s the official description: “The Kakheti Special Needs Field Day will bring together members of the special needs community and their Georgian student peers for a day of integrated fun and activities.” And indeed, that is how the day played out. We all met up at Village Gurjaani Public School in the morning, about 10 or 12 volunteers, and got to work setting up tables, signage, arranging different areas for games, distributing equipment, etc. My assignment (wisely, I have to say, given that I know nothing about any sport) was the food. And there was a lot of it! Here is just a small sampling … those are fresh-picked cherries we are holding, btw …


With fellow PCV Alex

We had arm wrestling (a favorite for some reason), tug-of-war, vollyball, soccer (ok, I do know something about soccer, but do not ask me to explain the offside rule), baseball, frisbee, and a few other activities. The special needs kids (and adults) were a varied bunch. There were about 100 people there – some were in wheelchairs, some had obvious physical or mental disabilities, and others had disabilities that were not immediately evident. There were lots of students there as well, mostly recruited from PCV’s schools or by regional organizations/NGO’s that work on behalf of the disabled. The program was supported by the McLain Association for Children, a Georgian NGO founded by an American psychologist and a Georgian educator, and several other organizations. It’s a good organization that does excellent work in Georgia – here’s a link to their website:

I had a lot of fun feeding everyone and watching the games. I also was deeply impressed by the buoyant good spirits of the participants, who were wildly enthusiastic and so happy to be there. We were told that such events are nearly unheard-of here in Georgia, and that everyone wanted to do it again. We made certificates for the kids (Georgians love certificates to a degree I really wouldn’t have believed had I not personally witnessed it). I often think that these things are a bit of a waste of good paper, but the joy I saw on people’s faces as they received their certificate showed me otherwise. Here’s some photos to give you a sense of the day (with special thanks to Tom Kerwin for sharing his photos, since my camera was inoperative due to the fact that the battery was back at my hostel and I was in Gurjaani … whoops).

I will definitely be working on this project in the future, and hope to have more good news to report as it moves forward.

In the meantime, I’m traveling a bit more now that the weather has improved – this weekend, I will be visiting the city of Sighnaghi, aka “the city of love” 🙂 It’s also in Kakheti, so I’m definitely seeing more of the east of Georgia these days. I’ve also been participating in some fun outdoor activities, like “American Days” held in different cities throughout Georgia by the US Embassy. American Days presents information about NGO’s and agencies operating in Georgia, and also features live music concerts. This year the group was Dangerflow, a hip-hop band from Florida. My gutsy host sister, Salome, snagged them for an interview for her ongoing series, “Salome’s Reports.” She has been doing these short video reports for a few years now – she reports on pretty much everything that happens here in Gori, and posts them up on Facebook and her blog. She’s pretty fearless, having interviewed politicians, activists, singers and plenty of “man on the street” reports. I really love her video of Dangerflow, most of which is in English – here is a link:

Here are a few picture of us Gori volunteers participating in the information fair in Stalin Park (yes, I see the irony):

On Sunday I say goodbye to a good friend, a volunteer in Batumi who has been accepted into the Foreign Service, no easy achievement, and so is leaving to start his training. I’ll miss him … nakhvamdis, James!