Tag Archives: Georgia

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 Different Home

For the first time since April 2014, I went home for a visit. It was a really great trip, with lots of eating, talking and spending time with family and friends. I’ll put some photos up below, but in keeping with my general aversion to travelogue-style entries, I’ll spare you the details. Instead, I want to write in a more general vein, about the idea of going home when home isn’t exactly home anymore.

The minute I stepped out of the airport into the barely controlled chaos of LAX, I felt that everything was completely familiar. Like I went to San Diego or somewhere close by for the weekend, and was just heading back to my little house in the hills to sleep in my own bed again. Except I sold that little house over 2 years ago, and the bed is sitting in a storage unit in Montebello. The feeling, though, was in my bones and in spite of certain realities could not be shaken off. I drove my rental car without even thinking about directions – just went where I needed to go. And boy, did I enjoy driving again!

There were some dissonant moments, though. For instance, I was staying in the house of a very generous friend who happens to live 2 houses down from my sister’s house. So every time I drove there, I felt like I was going to visit Mimi, my sister. But Mimi sold that house a year ago and now lives on a farm in southern Washington. Another example – I was in Burbank, and automatically drove to where I had gotten on the 134 freeway literally hundreds of times before, all those times I came home from working in San Francisco or Sacramento via Burbank Airport, and … it wasn’t there any more! Instead, there was a huge wall, and I had to drive a few miles more (back to where I came from) to get on the freeway.

But generally, I fell back into all of the easy relationships I have always had with the city, and with my network of friends who live there. L.A. seemed very much the same, though I’ve been told that Hollywood has exploded with new development, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, considering Mayor Garcetti’s cozy relationship with developers when he represented the district. I didn’t see it though – no reason to go there, though I drove through a few times. It looked pretty much the same to me, as did the rest of the city. So it felt to me like coming home, except that I have no home there anymore.

So, this begs the question – is Georgia home now? I think I have to say … no. It’s still a foreign country, not my own. There are many things (and people) that I love here, and I feel very comfortable here, but it doesn’t feel like home, really. L.A. feels like home, but it isn’t really, and probably never will be again. So this leaves me strangely stranded in the middle somewhere. It’s not necessarily a bad feeling, but it’s very different from being a visitor – or the opposite, a native, or at least grounded in a particular culture and place.

Interesting. We’ll see where it all leads, if anywhere. In the meantime, here are some of the people I saw and spent time with and really felt loved by back in L.A. – home, or whatever it is.

One of the best trips ever – Khevsureti

So, on the spur of the moment, last weekend I joined a large group of Georgians and Americans, including the original 4 PCVs who started off together here in Gori 2 years ago, on a trip to Khevsureti. I’d been in the general area before, when visiting friends and I went to Kazbegi. Mt. Kazbegi and the town below it, Stepantsminda, are about 3 hours or so due north of Tbilisi, almost up to the Russian border – Chechnya, actually. It’s stunningly beautiful, but to my amazement, Khevsureti, which is the mountainous area lying to the east of Kazbegi, is even more beautiful and mysterious.

We started out in our rented marshutka along the same route we took last September to Stepantsminda, but at the turn off to the Zhinvali Reservoir, we turned right and started a 5-hour climb up to the tiny village of Shatili. The road up to Kazbegi was smooth and paved; this road was dirt or decomposed asphalt, rocky and rough the whole way. We speculated that it was to stop hoards of tourists from ruining the ancient sites we were headed to see, but really, I think it’s just lack of funding to repave.

As we drove by Zhinvali, which I had so admired from the Ananuri Church on the north side of the reservoir last September, it was smooth as a mirror and reflected the surrounding landscape without even a ripple.

13445813_10204581193969544_1447416544684951453_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

We traveled up and up, through leafy, gladed forests with streams and rivers running through them, and eventually began to climb up to higher altitudes where snow still lay on the mountains in June.

 

Eventually we reached the summit, where we stopped for a lunch laid out on a snow bank consisting of fried chicken, lobiani (bean pie), sausages, bread and … some other things. It was delicious, that’s what I remember, and cold – especially when a few of us ladies snuck down the road to have a pee. Chilly! We snapped a few pics to document our presence there and on we went, down and down, to Shatili.

We reached Shatili in the late afternoon. The owner of the homestay/house where we were staying wasn’t there yet, so we wandered about the tiny village onto a large meadow, where I enthusiastically began my usual obsessive flower photography activities.

Luckily the owner finally arrived just as it began to pour. We piled into the house, where a very complicated discussion ensued about who was going to sleep where. The Georgian contingent was very concerned that someone would have to sleep alone on a bed located on the stair landing; the American contingent was fighting over who got the lonely bed. A cultural divide, for sure. It finally all worked out, we stowed our stuff and started drinking coffee, eating kada (a kind of hard, sugary role, one of my favorites) and playing nardi (backgammon) and spelling games, which resulted in humiliation for me as one of our Georgian friends bested me several times.

Eventually the rain let up, and we hiked off to the ancient ruins of Shatili. Here’s some background. With thanks to Wikipedia: “Located in the deep Arghuni gorge at approximate 1,400 meters, the village is actually a unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings of stone and mortar which functioned both as a residential area and a fortress guarding the northeastern outskirts of the country. The fortress consists of the terraced structures dominated by flat-roofed dwellings and some 60 towers which cluster together to create a single chain of fortifications.”

This description, while entirely accurate, fails to convey the beauty and strangeness of this place. We climbed down into it, through narrow, stony passages, between stacked structures built without concrete, but standing since the 1100’s, to a river flowing right below the complex.

Back to the house, where a lavish supra ensued, complete with mtsvadi (shishlik/roasted meat), tomato/cucumber salad, bread, cheese, eggs, onions, mchadi (a type of cornbread, often eaten with cheese), all sorts of pickles, and copious amounts of wine.

And then the toasting ensued. I sometimes don’t enjoy the Georgian toasting tradition too much, because it’s harder for women. Traditionally, women do not join in toasting. They sit, while men stand. They sip, while men gulp. And they most definitely do not speak – they just sit and listen, and listen, and listen … but this night was a bit different. Everyone was young, or American, and tradition was honored but just a little more flexible. I recorded some of these toasts, and named the subject of the toast in the title. It’s pretty dark, sorry, the lighting was not good, but I think the feeling is palpable.

One of my few regrets here is that I never was able to master Georgian to the extent necessary to make toasts on occasions like this. I can shout “gilostav” (congratulations/best wishes – sort of like mazeltov) and “jost!” (as in gamarjost, the most common toast, meaning victory – when people are really enthusiastic, the tamada/toastmaster yells gamar! and the table yells jost! three times, it’s really a lot of fun) with the best of them, but my language skills never approached Russell and Rachel’s. Kudos to them.

Here’s a few more pictures capturing the spirit of the evening.

IMG_20160611_224410 IMG_20160611_224440

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning, up early to drive further east, right up against the border, about an hour on a crazy bad road to an extraordinary place – Mutso. Again, from Wikipedia: “The village, almost completely abandoned more than a century ago, is a home to approximately 30 medieval fortified dwelling units arranged on vertical terraces above the Mutso-Ardoti gorge, four combat towers and ruins of several old structures and buildings. Difficult to access, the village retains original architecture, and is a popular destination for tourists and mountain trekkers. Listed, however, among the most endangered historic monuments of Georgia, a project of the rehabilitation of Mutso has been developed since 2004.  A legend has it that the villagers worshiped the Broliskalo Icon of Archangel. They were renowned as fighters and hunters, and considered themselves permanent members of the army of the sacred flags and guardians of fabulous treasury donated to the Icon over the centuries. The legends say the treasury that is still kept in the high mountains around Mutso waiting for the chosen one to come.”

The journey was as fantastic as Mutso once we arrived. We drove through the most dramatic gorges I’ve ever seen, with a rushing, cold river, high vertical stone cliffs, surrounded by high, snowy mountains and verdant, green meadows. On a few occasions, we had to disembark from the marshutka and clear rockfalls off the road. We snuck below a small waterfall. We saw a gate warning drivers not to enter because on the other side – Russia. And, most extraordinarily, we stopped at a “plague house.” This is a small stone structure, with a tiny window, overlooking the gorge. Inside are ancient skulls and skeletons of adults and children.  These are medieval communal tombs  wherein times of plague infected villagers would voluntarily enter these tombs and wait for death, looking down on the river. It was a haunting spot, all the more so for being so gorgeous.

Arrival at Mutso, I have to admit, filled me with a certain degree of dread. It was a very long, steep climb, and I’m no hiker! I was actually as worried about going down as up, since my arthritis really acts up under those circumstances. But I was really determined that, having come so far, I was not going to just bail and wait at the bottom. So off we went, straight up a trail that ultimately led … nowhere. We then all had to climb straight up the side of a nearly vertical hill covered in slippery, slate rocks to pick up the proper trail above. I did it, but man -that was kind of scary. At one point I just sat down, while Rachel patiently waited above, trying to decide which was worse – to continue up, or go back down. I went up, but when I finally reached a verandah viewing point, I decided that had to be enough for me on that day. I really enjoyed the view, rested a little, drank some water, and then very slowly and carefully made my way back down.  I’ve been paying a pretty high price in terms of hip and knee pain for the last week for that decision, but I don’t care – it was worth it.

We then all got back on the marshutka for the long ride home. It was as beautiful returning as it had been going, and we made a few stops along the way for lunch (best khinkali in Georgia was the word) and photos. Below are the final snaps from what was, really, pretty much a perfect weekend, and a fitting and wonderful way to approach COS. Special thanks to David Poppick, fellow Gori PCV, for sharing some of his photos with me.

Now, a week later, Russell and Rachel are already gone, and I’m due to leave in about a week. That will be another post …  but for now:

 

Easter

 

I recently had a wonderful experience that I missed last year, due to being in Batumi exploring botanical gardens at Easter. This year I was here in Gori, and I spent Easter with my Georgian family.

The whole thing started off with a funny, and frankly, slightly embarrassing incident. I was at home, getting ready to go over to my family’s, when I heard kids singing in the stairwell. I could tell, it was like Halloween, they were going door-to-door and doing … something. But what? When the inevitable knock on the door came, I let curiosity get the better of me and recklessly opened it. Six little girls, grinning ear-to-ear and holding baskets filled with red eggs, frantically recited some doggerel and held out the baskets. I was COMPLETELY lost! Like … was I supposed to take an egg? Give them money? Give them an egg? It turns out it was the latter, but I didn’t know that at the time. I explained that I was an American and that I didn’t know what they wanted … they kind of just stared at me in shock and beat a hasty retreat to the neighbor’s door.

Sigh … I felt like an idiot. But ok, I went off to my family’s house, dressed in a skirt and bringing along a scarf to cover my head, as we were going to church. First, though, there was some serious egg-painting, which I enthusiastically joined in with. Here are some of the results – mine is the one with yellow swirls, nice, The thing in the middle is the traditional Easter cake, called paska. It’s pretty good, too. I brought one to my family, who promptly gave me about 20 eggs and another paska to take home. Heated up with a little butter … mmmmmm.

At midnight we piled into the car and drove over to the big church. Parking wasn’t that bad, but the crush of people was unbelievable. I think the whole town was there. It was so intense, and at a certain point, Tamriko (my host mom) pulled us out and said we would go to the smaller church a few blocks away. That was a wise choice!

We walked over, shivering a little in the early spring night air, and entered the courtyard of the church. There were also a lot of people there, but not the crazy scene we had just left. When we arrived, the priests were inside chanting, but after a few minutes, it was time to walk 3 times around the church holding long, thin candles. Holding hands with Nutsa, my younger sister, we started off. The priests and acolytes at the front were holding colorful banners, one of which had been embroidered by Tamriko. Another priest was ringing bells, and everyone was chanting a call and response that sounded ancient, and heartfelt. It really didn’t feel right to be using a flash or taking photos at all, really – but I did record the bells and chanting. So, these are not really videos – they’re really audio recordings. The chanting, in particular, was very beautiful. Although it’s a religion very far from mine, and traditions I am not familiar with, I felt accepted and part of the crowd. I saw people I knew, people greeted me, they let me stand among them without comment (for once) and so I was free to just be in the moment and appreciate the history and feeling.

The inside of the small church was very beautiful. There were whitewashed walls, murals of saints, and of course many icons. We all crowded in, listened for a while, and then Salome said it was time to go home – it was about 2:00 am. Her dad gave us all a ride home, and then he returned Tamriko to the church, where she stayed until morning, as is the custom for religious people here.

So, although I had not really anticipated being moved by the hoiday and its symbolism, I was. That was interesting. It made me want to know more. Wanting to know more – a big part of why I’m not ready to leave yet, and will be staying here, learning, and sharing, because this blog will definitely continue. As I like to say – stay tuned!

Competitions and Contests

One thing I’ve noticed over the past two years, given that I have two host sisters in their teens, is that Georgians kids really, really love competitions. And international organizations are eager to feed that love, too. Not only are there a myriad of local and state competitions, but the British Council, the EU, and numerous others sponsor an endless flow of contests and shows which reward the winners richly. Many competitions are academic; some focus on specific issues, like a recent competition to show who best knew the Georgian Constitution, and others are just pure standardized test-taking and score-counting. The stakes are high in the 12th grade – the very top performers get free college tuition from the government. Then there are English essay and recitation contests, film contests, overseas opportunities, art … really, everything you can imagine.

IMG_20150824_191052156

I’m not sure how I feel about all this incessant competing, but my host sisters, Salome and Nutsa, are enthusiastic participants, so I’ve been pulled into the process more than once. The outcomes are often good, though not always, and when that happens, it can be very disappointing. I’ve been impressed by Salome’s perseverance – last year she made it through a pretty grueling process to the very end of the Giffoni Children’s Film Festival finals, but was not selected. This year she tried again, and this time she was selected as a juror and will be traveling to the south of Italy for ten days this summer. It takes nothing from her achievement to point out that a young Georgian living in an impoverished village somewhere out in the rural hinterlands would have no more chance of entering and/or winning this competition than the proverbial snowball in hell. For one, you have to speak fluent English. For another, you have to have internet access to find out about the competition, and to submit your application on-line. You have to have the self-confidence and self-esteem to even feel yourself worthy of applying. And, significantly, you have to be able to afford to travel to Tbilisi for interviews, for participation in Giffoni Georgia, and, should you be lucky enough to win, to pay airfare to Italy. All this is just so far outside the experience and resources of the majority of Georgian teenagers living outside of major cities, in small, impoverished villages, that it simply will never happen … or at least, it will never happen until things change, particularly the educational system, which heavily favors those who can afford private tutoring and extra-curricular activities, such as those that Salome and Nutsa are afforded by their loving, supportive parents.

I recently have read some interesting blog posts from ISET, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University on the topic of secondary education in Georgia.  For those who are interested, see here:

http://www.iset-pi.ge/index.php/en/iset-economist-blog-2/entry/lost-from-the-start

http://www.iset-pi.ge/index.php/en/iset-economist-blog-2/entry/the-samtredia-redemption

On a somewhat less serious note, I thought it would be fun to present a few small videos of one of these competitions. This is the British Council English competition held each year in Gori. Kids compete in a two-stage process, stage one being an essay, and stage 2 being a recitation. There’s entertainment, and prizes include cellphones and iPads. The level of fluency of competitors is really quite impressive.  Below is a sampling of the entertainment, along with Salome’s recitation.

 

I particularly enjoyed watching the kids doing traditional dance. When I was coming into the building, I wasn’t sure where the contest was – there are two auditoriums. I was talking on my cellphone with someone from my Tbilisi office, in English, and I kind of wandered toward the bigger auditorium, only to notice that the entrance had been sealed off and construction was going on. I turned around to face about 12 kids, dressed in traditional dancing costumes, literally to a person staring at me in quite obvious dismay. No one spoke – they just stared. It was funny, because I knew exactly what was going on. They heard me speaking English, and they wanted to tell me to go upstairs, and they didn’t know how to say it in English. I know that look, because I personally wear it several times a week. It was particularly funny because actually, they could have said it in Georgian, and I would have understood them – my language skills are at about that level. Or they could have just pointed, “upstairs!” But they were frozen, absolutely unable to even move. I was relieved to see that they were able to step it up for their performance, haha.

There was also entertainment with young people belting out pop songs, mostly ballads, at excruciating volumes, with a lot of emoting and hair-tossing … I didn’t record those. 🙂

My other host sister, the younger Nutsa, is no less talented. A very gifted artist, she won an international art competition – the World In Your Hands Art Contest, run by the NGO Together for Girls. Her artwork was featured in Safe Magazine, and shown at the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2016.  The instructions were:

We all know that girls can achieve great things and be powerful agents of change when they’re given the right tools, support, and opportunities. Unfortunately, poor health, violence, lack of education, gender inequality and discrimination, and violations of girls’ human rights often keep girls from reaching their potential. So what should we do?

How would you improve girls’ health? How would you reduce violence or gender inequality? How should we address the violation of girls’ rights? We want you to use your artistic talent to show us your solution.

Use your creativity and talent to create a piece of art that illustrates how you might overcome one of these barriers confronting adolescent girls:

Poor health
Gender-based violence
Gender inequality and discrimination
Violation of girls’ human rights
Lack of access to education

Show us your solutions – take the world in your hands – and help us build a better, brighter world.

Nutsa’s result, one of the top five chosen, was this:

This water color painting was accompanied by the following essay (written with help from Salome):

When I heard about this competition, I started thinking about how to say and how to show  my ideas about violations of human rights for girls. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest problems in the world. I live in the Republic of Georgia. Last year in my country, nine girls died because of violence. In my country people think that a girl’s “work” is to stay in the kitchen and have kids. Because of these incorrect opinions and stereotypes that some parents have, sometimes girls marry as young as 14 or 15. That’s it why I made a painting about violating girls’ human rights. When people see a violation of a girl’s rights, they always close their eyes and think that it isn’t their business. In my opinion if we will close our eyes again, and if we won’t do anything to protest violence against girls, this problem will come to us, too.  There are governmental and non-governmental organizations working in my country to solve this problem. I want to join them and show you my thoughts about how to solve this problem. I think that if we will forget  silly but strong stereotypes, if we will be brave, strong and  educated about our rights, we will solve this problem and we will show the world that we can do all the things we want. Because we are brave, we are strong. We are courageous and educated girls.

All of this makes me very proud of these two girls.

This & that …

It’s been a while, and that’s due not to apathy or laziness, but rather being really, really busy. So now, a quick catch-up on a number of rather interesting things that happened in the last 6 weeks or so.

First, I have finally found the text I want for a tattoo that will represent my time in Georgia. I want text, because I love the way Georgian script looks. I want it to contain the letters უ and ლ (pronounced “oo” and “l” respectively) because I love writing them. I just like the way they look. And I want it to be personally meaningful. With thanks to Francisco Resto for bringing this quote to me, from Shota Rustaveli, perhaps the most famous of Georgian poets, from his epic medieval poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, here you have it:

 რასაცა გასცემ შენია, რაც არა დაკარგულია

I’ve seen this translated a few different ways. My go-to translator, Marta Bibilashvili, says it means “whatever you will give to anyone, it is yours, what you do not, that is lost.” I really like this one. Cisco, whose Georgian skills far surpass mine, translated it as “That which we give makes us richer, that which we hoard is lost.” You get the idea, and I feel it represents my experience here quite accurately in many ways. So, sometime in April, my 35-year-old tattoo on my left leg will get a new sibling on the right. No photos will be forthcoming. 🙂

Second, speaking of my Georgian experience, it’s winding down to an end soon – at least the Peace Corps part of it. Just a week or so ago, therefore, we had our “COS Conference” in Tbilisi. “COS” stands for Close of Service. We got a lot of information and even more forms to fill out and appointments to make, all of which I’ll be working on for the next few months.

A highlight of the conference was a trip taken by me and two fellow PCV’s, Catherine and Karen, to see “Swan Lake” at the newly renovated Tbilisi Opera House. Not only was the performance incredible, especially the lead ballerina playing Odette, Ekaterine Surmava (who in spite of her rather Russian-sounding name is definitely Georgian – contrary to the common misunderstanding in the U.S. on this topic, these are TWO DIFFERENT NATIONALITIES), but the completely full to the rafters audience was on very good behavior. I regret that I didn’t take more photos of the Opera House, which was magnificent. Here are some grabbed off the internet, a shot of the actual performance, as well as a few of us girls enjoying ourselves.

Third. Well, the more alert of you may have noticed that above I alluded to the PC experience ending. And it will. But will my residency in Georgia end? It remains to be seen, but I am having some very intriguing discussions which may result in a major pivot. Stay tuned.

Fourth, we had our “Let’s Play Together” event here in Gori in late February. This is the same program that we originally called “Kakheti Special Needs Field Day” (see my post from June of last year). It’s now evolved to a full-on regular program that is held every few months throughout the country. We always planned to have a LPT day for Gori, and after I got back from Vietnam in January, I started working with fellow PCV David Poppick, who is assigned to the Workplace Development Center in Gori. WDC serves disabled children and adults and was a great partner for this project. We had 36 special needs kids attend, an equal number of “youth partners” (teenagers from Gori and around the region), and over 20 PCVs participating. Here is a link to the LPT Facebook page, which has all the photos and videos – it would be great if you would “like” it, because the more, the merrier!

https://www.facebook.com/LPTGeorgia/

We also were honored to have Keti Zazanashvili, professional dancer, who works with partners who are disabled. They put on a fantastic performance; it was truly inspiring to see the rapt attention of the audience, and think about how the disabled kids here in Gori perceived this presentation. Keti generously hosted dance workshops throughout the day. Here is a TED video where she explains the origins and philosophy of “inclusive dancing,” it’s really fascinating. Also, she speaks extremely good English, but with a classic Georgian accent, so if you want to know what that sounds like, here it is:

A video of the performance at LPT/Gori is available on the Facebook page.

We also had the perennial favorite, arm-wrestling, wherein Russell was soundly beaten multiple times, as well as arts & crafts, relay races, dodgeball, “fish,” ping-pong for the seeing-disabled, and much more, including a delicious lunch. Again, lots at the LPT Facebook page, but here are a few highlights:

Last, some other miscellaneous stuff, let’s see … well, ok, my host sister, Salome, was selected as a delegate to the European Youth Parliment. This is a very prestigious event here in Georgia, and very few kids from “the provinces” get the chance to participate. It was a big honor, and she learned a lot – including some lessons about what it’s like to spend time with snotty, rich kids from private schools.  Just yesterday, I was in Tbilisi waiting for a marshutka on a busy street when a pristine, white van, the likes of which I had never, ever seen in Georgia before, pulled up. A few expensively dressed teenagers daintily disembarked, as I openly stared at the white curtains and seats, the red accents, and the generally shockingly fancy vehicle – it was like seeing a Rolls-Royce in a used car lot. And then it made sense – it said “Buckwood School” on the side. Ahhhhhh … one of the schools Salome mentioned. Got it. These are lessons we all have to learn, but my heart still ached for her.  I am proud to report that after some struggles, she has emerged all the stronger for it, and wrote a fantastic essay on lessons learned and resilience gained for an exchange program application. Here she is at the EYP event:

12743895_1149625715047486_6483848459927680393_n (1)

 

 

 

 

 

A great dinner at Marta Bibilashvili’s lovely apartment for all of us Gori PCV’s – no reason, just being nice. She had just returned from a 3-week trip to the U.S., sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and focused on learning about youth and volunteerism. It had been a dream of Marta’s to travel to the States, and I’m so glad she got that opportunity. She was nominated by the PC!

Well, that pretty much covers the last six weeks or so. Not counting extensive work on new CHCA website, writing an EU grant, job hunting adventures, and the last, the VERY LAST, language exam! I am proud to announce, that due to pity, the language teacher awarded me an “intermediate-mid” level, which means I advanced a step. I think I actually have advanced, but I assure you that no one could ever have discerned that from my performance during that test, which included forgetting the word for “picture,” several dead silences while I frantically searched my numb brain for vocabulary, verbs conjugated in the future instead of past tense, and other embarrassing gaffes. Never mind – onward!

Posh Corps

Lately I’ve been reading various posts and comments on this topic. It’s on Facebook, it’s on Reddit. There are blogs, and podcasts, and videos, here: http://www.poshcorps.com. There are articles with snarky headlines like “Has Peace Corps become Posh Corps?” (though the article itself wasn’t snarky at all): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ross-szabo/peace-corps-posh-corps_b_887566.html.

The term raises a lot of issues. For one – what IS “posh corps?” Some people define it purely in terms of physical surroundings. If you have hot water, or a washing machine, or regular internet access, and, of course, the pinnacle, an indoor toilet – you are in posh corps, and somehow your experience is considered inferior by those who don’t have such modern conveniences. This is a very common cultural phenomenon within Peace Corps.

Some people define posh differently. They are more interested in the contrast between urban and rural life, say, which can be extreme. That is certainly the case in Georgia. Or they look at the impact that modernization has on volunteers and how they integrate their experiences. A recent film made by the folks at poshcorps.com takes this approach by focusing on volunteers serving in South Africa, one of the most modern countries where PCV’s serve.

Some people feel guilty. A recent post in the 50+ Facebook group I belong to asked the following question: “Hi guys….did any of you ever suffer from “posh corp” guilt? Is so, how did you deal?” The response was pretty energetic – 57 comments. Some people described their surroundings, some debated whether it was appropriate for PC to be in certain countries, and some really focused on their work, arguing that their surroundings were irrelevant.

I am in the last group, for sure, with one caveat. I strongly believe that PCV’s should not live at a level that exceeds that of their surrounding community. Not only does it look bad, it can and usually does impede integration. It just feels wrong. But – that raises the question, what is the community level?

If you are living on an remote island, say, in Micronesia … hmmmmm, someone I know did that … it’s easy to figure out. There’s no running water, no electricity, no toilets, huts made out of woven leaves, a ship every 3 or 4 months. You get the picture. Definitely not posh corps, and everyone lived pretty much the exact same way. But here in Georgia, it’s much harder.

For instance, everyone here has a cellphone. Even in the most remote villages, it’s a common sight to see everyone from teenagers to ancient crones chatting on their mobiles. There’s a mobile network that extends throughout the country, though admittedly it’s better in some places than others.  Many, many people have computers and internet in their homes; wifi is less common outside of the cities, but easily acquired at a fairly reasonable cost. Of course, that cost is prohibitive to someone who is supporting a family of 8 on one salary, so lots of people don’t have it. Almost everyone lives in a real house or apartment. Some are luxurious; most are functional, and some are hovels. Insulation is non-existent, and it’s really, really cold in the winter, so heating by wood stoves is of limited utility. As a result, many families close off parts of their homes and only heat a few rooms. That’s really common, too. The standard of living varies widely between Tbilisi and everywhere else; to only a slightly lesser degree, between any city or large town, and villages.

So, not surprisingly, a lot depends on where you live. Here in Gori, a city of 50,000, I live in an apartment that is very typical. I pay the same rent as everyone around me. I know this because it’s common practice in Georgia to ask what a mere acquaintance’s rent, salary, pension and savings are! It’s in an extremely run-down Soviet apartment block. The concrete stairwell, with its windows partially covered with plastic sheeting, peeling paint and mold, snaking pipes and wires, and half-tiled landings, would be unimaginable many places in the U.S.

Thankfully, it’s nicer inside. I have running hot and cold water, most of the time. I have electricity, the holy grail, most of the time. When the electricity goes off, so does my water, because it gets up to my 5th-floor walk-up via an electric pump. I have a washing machine, but no dryer. Hanging out wash in freezing weather, not fun, but then again … I don’t have to do it by hand. So there’s that. I have internet and wifi, most of the time. I think anyone would say I am having a posh corps experience, but this is how everyone in an apartment building lives in Gori.

My host family lives in a house that would compare to any middle-class housing in the U.S. In fact, I’d say it’s nicer because of the verdant garden, beautiful veranda, and lack of McMansion-like qualities. So – what standard am I intended to conform to?

What it comes down to, really, is that it seems to me that as long as a PCV is living within reasonable parameters, it doesn’t matter if you are posh, or living the way I did in Micronesia. What matters is the work. Are you productive? Are you sharing skills? Are you forming meaningful relationships? Are you making a difference, in any way? If the answer to some of those questions is yes, or, if you’re very lucky, all of them, then whether you have running water or not is just irrelevant. I very much dislike the macho posturing and judgmental attitude that causes some volunteers to feel guilty, or inferior, or somehow less. I know that I have done so much more here in Georgia than I ever did in Micronesia. Partly that’s because I’m older and have a lot more experience. Partly it’s attitude. Partly it’s luck – I got a good organization, and good people to live and work with. And when I finish my service (in a mere 5 months!), that’s what I’ll take with me, and that’s how I’ll be remembered, I hope. For what I did and who I was – not where I lived.