Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Running, Rule of Three, & Russians

Leftover tree stump in the Black Sea near Anaklia

I'm churning this stuff out like Dickens, but unfortunately, I don't get paid by the word. I'll be off to Tbilisi this evening; taking a 1 a.m. train from Senaki. I'll be in Tbilisi until Sunday, and I'm probably not gonna bring my laptop (after the iPhone incident, I've decided against bringing any electronics off the farm). So I won't have any new posts for you, but expect a rash of them when I get back. 

Erti – So I don’t enjoy running, in fact I consider it more of a chore than anything. I prefer cycling as it lets you see more in less time, is easier on your knees, and allows you to wear spandex without anybody thinking you’re (that) weird. But cycling here is out of the question; I may buy a cruiser just so I can get to and from Martvili without hitchhiking or waiting for a marshutka, but it depends on what my schedule is like when school starts (I have to be in on the 6th, while class doesn’t start until the 15th). Either way, I’ve been running a lot since I got to Georgia; partly to get a little time to myself and partly to make sure I don’t gain a floater (yep, another Dating in the Dark reference).

Ori – I used to listen to my iPod when I ran, but not only did I find it kind of rude to be a stranger in a strange town while completely ignoring everyone, but I also lost my iPhone, therefore no more iPod. So recently I’ve been practicing my Kartuli (Georgian) while running. Like today I spent my entire run (I usually run down to the river [3 km], hop in for about fifteen minutes, lay in the sun for fifteen more, and then run back; it’s my daily routine that I now look forward to) conjugating the verbs to go (mivdivar) and to come (movdivar). Most of the time I practice in my head but at times I sound out the tough parts. Imagine how crazy I look running along the road while repeating “I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go…” I don’t think Georgians judge as much as most cultures but apparently they love to gossip. Word around town must be that there’s some crazy long-haired American (no men here have long hair) that talks to himself in Kartuli while running for no reason (I’ve now had a few complete strangers in cars stop next to me and ask if I needed a ride. Oh, Georgia).

Bandza Stadium, where our local soccer team (made up of all locals) plays

Sami – Most of us volunteers have realized that it’s tough to say no to a Georgian. Usually it involves eating or drinking; you can put your hand over a wine or shot glass while saying ara (no) and your host will still insist on filling it up. Part of that is just the tradition of making toasts; no one is allowed to not have a full glass. The trick is to not drink any and leave it full (really tough for me). But the same can’t be said about eating. At the table you are constantly being berated with tchame, tchame, tchame. I’m convinced there’s no word for “full” in Kartuli; hence the force-feeding and the stuffed marshutkas.

Otkhi – But I have another theory that I’ve picked up from listening to the Georgians speak to each other. They never say ara just once. It’s always three times, “Ara, ara, ara…” while waving their hand in the air. It usually does the trick so I’ve decided to give it a try. I’ll let you know how it works out, but I have a feeling it only works if you’re actually Georgian. The hair and the presence of shirt kind of gives me away around here.

Khuti – Or maybe it’s that three is their magic number. I assume it has something to do with the trinity, but anytime a Georgian passes a church or a cross, they cross themselves three times. It’s like clockwork. I was on a marshutka as we passed the Bandza church and pretty much everybody on the marshutka began crossing themselves profusely even though there was barely room to reach for your pockets. Talk about dedication.

A funeral procession into the church of Bandza (you can't see it from here, but it was an open casket)

Eqvsi – Another thing I always hear in threes around the family property is, “Ira, Ira, Ira…” which is Luka calling for his mother whose name is Irina but Ira for short. All the kids here call their parents by their names, both to their face and to others in reference. Coming from a culture where doing that is a sign of disrespect or detachment, it was a fairly big shock at first, but now I’ve just gotten used to it. But to be fair, the children call their grandparents both Babua (m) and Bebia (f).

Shvidi – One thing I have not gotten used to are the Georgian names. It’s mostly the men’s names, although that could be because the only people I meet in Bandza are men (I’m still not sure where the women are). I can’t remember anybody’s name unless it’s Dato, Data, or Giorgi. I’m already bad with names, but throw in the crazy names they have here, and I’m at a loss. The worst is our neighbor who knows some English, has given me an adapter and a world radio that he doesn’t use anymore, and has just been overly helpful; can’t remember his name. I guess I’ll just have to go through my pictures with Luka and ask him who is this and who is that, because I feel bad not being able to address someone directly. Especially as I’ve noticed that when people say gamarjoba in Bandza, they usually add the persons name in there as well. I have to get on this, but it’s not easy when the names are Kucha, Tsota, or Iqa.

Rva – So my neighbor whose name I am unsure of told me a little bit about the history of the farmland around Bandza. The farm plots are small because the land is so valuable, but the main crop is now corn (or maize as they like to refer to it when speaking English). This part of the valley used to be well known for it’s grapes and in turn it’s wine (the best Georgian wine apparently comes from Kakheti where they get more sun and less rain). But after the USSR, everybody decided to grow corn instead as it’s easier to manage/harvest. As my neighbor said, is aris suleli (it’s stupid). I can’t really blame them; freedom can make the hardest working man lazy.

Myself out in the farmland of Bandza, corn as far as you can see

 Tskhra – Since the farms are so close together, it’s definitely a close-knit community. But there are some drawbacks as well. Just last night, all the dogs in a two-kilometer radius decided to have a howling contest. I was close to getting the family two-gage. Georgia slowly but surely makes you like animals less and less.

Ati – When I got here, I thought there would be this massive hatred towards Russians, but almost all of the Georgians I’ve met here have nothing but respect for the Russian people. In fact, when we toast to the good people of Georgia and America, Russia is usually thrown in there as well. It also helps that a majority of Georgians have Russians in their family tree (Ira’s entire side of the family is from Moscow). This is a perspective that Americans could learn from a little bit. Georgians understand that a vast majority of Russians do not hate them and could care less about South Ossetia or Abkhazia, while those that do are a small minority led by politicians (on a related note: I have yet to hear any Georgians cheers to politicians). There seems to be this idea in America that you have to be all or nothing. Not every Muslim is an extremist just as not every Russian is a fascist commy. But, as they say in Georgia, every politician might be a crook.

Host Father Lasha toasting to his Russian nephew Giorgi

Monday, August 30, 2010

Spare Thoughts: Marshutka Edition

Erti – So when we were given our insurance cards, there were a list of various injuries that were not covered on the plan (the biggest debate being what constitutes a dangerous hike). Then there’s the part of our contract that says we are not allowed to drive (something I keep trying to explain to Lasha, but now I’m just convinced he thinks I’m a giant pus). But basically, the biggest concern from TLG and our insurance company was getting hurt in an auto-accident. That said; they should not let us on marshutkas.

Ori – Of course they can’t do that, because it’s the only means of transportation to a majority of the country. But marshutkas are more dangerous than any other clause put in our insurance plan, including base-jumping (by the way, if you get hurt base-jumping, you're probably dead, so why bother?). If you don’t know what a marshutka is, it’s a mini-bus that is packed full of people, super cheap (very few cost more than three Lari), and borderline suicidal.

Sami – On the average marshutka there’s probably about 15 seats, but there will definitely be at least 20 people in it, probably more. The marshutka driver will not leave their starting location until it’s full (which kind of makes any schedule useless). Also, there aren’t any designated stops except the start and finish. You yell gamecheret when you want to get off, while people just flag them down like cabs to get on. It’s crazy.

The sign to Anaklia from inside our marshutka

Otkhi – So my first marshutka to Senaki, which Luka flagged down for me right outside of the road to our house, was packed to the brim. I just thought, there’s no way, but they opened up the door (there’s usually the driver and the attendant who opens the passenger side door and collects the money [you pay when you get off]) and ushered me in before I could question anything. I was bent over and squeezed in with about thirty other Georgians until we got to Bandza where a few people disembarked and I could grab a seat (a minor miracle).

Georgian Army trenches behind fellow volunteer Stephanie's house; like Vietnam all over again. 

Khuti – For the most part, there were never any issues. But if you’re claustrophobic or you’re Howie Mendel and don’t like touching people, then marshutkas are not for you. Just like any public transportation, you have to be cognizant of your surroundings and watch for pick-pockets (or just make sure you have everything with you when you get off, which I didn’t as I left my iPhone on the marshutka to Zugdidi; what a dumbass), but really, expect to be touched… a lot.

Eqvsi – And vice versa. Expect to touch people… a lot. On our marshutka back from Zugdidi, we had to stand pretty much the entire way (about an hour). Now most marshutkas have some sort of bar for the standing passengers to hold onto, but not on this one for some reason (another odd thing; the only no-smoking sign I’ve seen in Georgia was on a marshutka). Anyway, we had to hold on to anything we could get our hands on. I could have easily been arrested for groping. Add to the fact that the lady sitting next to me started breast-feeding her daughter (who seemed a bit old to be breast fed), and I definitely needed a shower to wash away the feeling of disgust after I got off.

Stray kittens, unlike pigs, are internationally cute 

Shvidi – Occasionally there can be an altercation on a marshutka. It’s only natural given the nature of the beast (heaps of people, most of them smell, the driver is usually crazy causing the passengers to be on tilt, and seats are at a premium). When we took our public marshutka to the beach from Zudidi on Saturday (another volunteer, the abominable Rick, set up a private marshutka for Friday) a seat opened up in the back row in which most of us were sitting. A middle-aged man (let us call him, the Prince) made his way back and sat down. Moments later, an older gentleman (who we nicknamed the King; because he was acting like he had royal ownership over the entire marshutka) came back and tried to squeeze in between Ian and the Prince. We had zero idea what was going on but the King came back to hassle the Prince about three other times. Finally, the Prince snapped. The look on his face was exactly how Micheal Corleone looked in Godfather II when Kaye told him about the baby: pure rage. His voice on the other hand, was exactly what I expected from an infuriated Georgian. It puts a chill down your spine. 

Rva – Even when we had the orientation talk about marshutkas, no defined etiquette was laid out for us. Do we give up our seats to women; who gets rights to the seats, etc. (I can't wait to see my Mom post something along the lines of, "Maxwell, you better give up your seat to a woman!") I’ve seen younger guys get up for older ladies, but that’s about it. But apparently, the King was disappointed that the Prince took his seat. And then apparently the Prince took exception to the King’s exception. At least that’s the best we could gather. But, man, what a crazy altercation. Later on, after the dust settled (and the driver had to stop the marshutka just to settle the Prince down), the Prince apologized profusely (bodishi, bodishi) to the girls we were with (who, obviously, were a little startled). All in all, an awesome experience from which I have learned one thing: avoid anybody and everybody on a marhsutka. You never know who could be one comment away from going all Micheal Douglas in Falling Down on you.

Five North Americans stuffed into the back of a marshutka (notice the no smoking sign)

Tskhra – The whole incident got me thinking about how much it would suck to be on a crowded marshutka when a fight broke out. Talk about claustrophobic. And then that led me to thinking about how terrible it would be to be on a marhsutka that crashed; just people on top of people. And then when I got home today we were watching the news during a report about a marshutka that crashed outside of Kutaisi... I think I’m going to take a break from the marshutkas for a few days.

Ati – So this doesn’t have much to do with marshutkas at all (in fact, I’m sick of typing it); but I wanted to say this while it’s still fresh. I am damn lucky to have such an awesome host family. I’ve been able to visit a few other people in their host homes, and I think everybody is pretty lucky (for the most part, but some people have had a few issues), but at times I’ve been too quick to lavish praise on someone else's situation. There are two reasons for this: I’m easily impressed with anything new or foreign (Oh, you’re Bebea milks the cows first thing in the morning? Awesome!), and whenever we visit a new Georgian home, they pull out all the stops for you (I’ve never had so much undeserved praise lavished on me before). So add to this my initial reaction to Bandza (there’s nothing here) and I get a little complacent in my thoughts. But I returned to my farm today and of course the first thing they do is feed me, then they grab all my dirty clothes and wash them for me, then they drive me to Martvili to try to find an adapter and a towel (which I left in Zugdidi), and then when I couldn’t find an adapter, they made me one out of a neighbor's old German adapter. Incredible. And then they fed me again. I’m one lucky bastard.

Me jumping off an old dock into the Black Sea near Anaklia

Friday, August 27, 2010

More Spare Thoughts...

It rained all of last night and into the morning, so I had a ton of free time to muster up some more epiphanies. 

My plan today is to take a marshutka to Senaki where I'll be meeting my buddy Bill, and then we'll both be heading to Zugdidi for the weekend to meet up with a ton of the other volunteers (Zugdidi is where a ton of us were placed). So I really won't have much up between now and Sunday if all goes right, but this is Georgia, and rarely do things all go right. Enjoy.

Erti - For those of you who think that pigs are cute, I now vehemently disagree with you. They’re disgusting. Seeing them on the sides of the roads eating garbage while snorting loudly… Babe was just a mirage; don’t buy into the pro-pig propaganda. In fact, I just heard that another volunteer has to go to a funeral on Sunday for a guy who died inside a pigpen, after which all the pigs ate his remaining flesh. Amazingly, the funeral will be an open casket. Only in Georgia.

Pigs are not cute

Ori - The other night, I played basketball with another volunteer, Ian, in his town (Martvili) along with a few of the locals. Most of the Georgians play exactly like guys who have played soccer their entire lives; physical, arms flailing, constantly darting about, and pretty much no skill. But they really do love the sport over here; there are hoops everywhere. In fact, most of the country is staying up past midnight tonight to watch the National Team play in the FIBA World Championships. James Naismith would be proud.

Sami – When I go running in the morning or even walk into town (and I’m using that term quite loosely; the town of Bandza is a few markets, this ridiculous gas station (picture below), bus stop, and the police station), I get stared at a lot. I know why they stare when I run (running as a form of exercise is such an odd practice in Georgia that everyone stares at anyone who is running; where are they going, what are they running from, etc.), but I also wonder if they stare because they know who I am already (the new English teacher) or if they just know I’m a foreigner (that guy doesn’t look right, what’s he doing here). Not too many people in Bandza have ever even seen a foreigner before, let alone an American (which, as I said before, is a good thing in Georgia).

The Bandza Gas Station

Otkhi - The only Georgian words I seem to be remembering are tchame (eat) and dalie (drink) because that’s all they do here. We are constantly eating or drinking. In between meals, we nap. It’s a pretty simple living.

Khuti - I don’t think I mentioned this, but during the first dinner we sat down to at my host family’s house, they asked me what town I was from. I said Pittsburgh without any expectations of acknowledgement, but Lasha, my host father, immediately says, “Pittsburgh Penguins!” I replied excitedly thinking he knew of Ivegeni Malkin. But instead Lasha mentions the names of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Who would of thunk it? Then at the Suphra the other night, when he toasted to me as a visitor and to my homeland, I pulled out an extra Penguins towel that I had brought with me (for what reason, I can’t even recall) and I gave it to him as a gift (picture below). Pittsburgh Penguins, bridging international gaps since 2010. I also brought a terrible towel with me that I think I’ll give to someone else eventually. But I did figure out that sports towels make for great gifts.

Lasha is and will always be a Pens fan

Eqvsi – My host Babua (Grandfather) Rezo is the man (picture below). In between tending to some crops and the cows, he just sits in the eating house with his button-down shirt undone, ripping Georgian cigarettes and smiling. I don’t know what it is, but he gets it.

Babua Rezo tending to the cows

Shvidi – On a related note, I’m still not sure what the men do for a living in Bandza. I know a lot of them tend to their farms, but most of the men are sitting on the side of the road without their shirts on. I also don’t know what Lasha does, but he drives a nice Mercedes (in fact, a lot of people around here drive nice Mercedes or BMWs), has a fairly large property, owns a new computer with internet, and sends his kids to a private school in Martvili (which seemed odd to me, considering I am going to teach at the local public school, which apparently is not good enough for his children). I’m not judging or complaining, I’m just askin’.

Rva – At the Suphra, the guy sitting next to me, who looked exactly like the character Phil Leotardo from The Sopranos (pictured below), knew very little English but basically told me how much he loved George W. Bush and how disappointed he was when McCain was defeated by Obama. I completely understand this sentiment coming from Georgians as Bush/McCain were pro-Georgia while Obama is neutral when it comes to the Georgian-Russian conflict. Fortunately, we were told during orientation that we should never engage in a political argument with a Georgian, not because it may end in bloodshed or anything; but it’s a fruitless battle and we will never win. I tried to tell Nino that political arguments are like that everywhere.

The Georgian Phil Leotardo chugging some wine out of a husk

Tskhra – I wake up every morning at about 5:30 a.m. to every chicken/hen/rooster on the property making some ridiculous sound. I have to put my iPod on just to fall back asleep.

Ati – I used to give my Greek buddy a tough time because he called every Greek acquaintance of his a cousin. It only really creeped me out when he would say something like, “You gotta see my cousin, she’s smoking hot.” But I get it now, because it’s the same thing in Georgia; every acquaintance is defacto family. Like my buddy Ian’s host family in Martvili; they came to pick me up and there was this random 20-year old guy named Zaza (by far my favorite Georgian name I’ve heard so far) in the car. I asked Ian how Zaza was related to the family, and he just said, “I have no idea, but he’s always over at the house.” But the family treated him like a son, and he acted the part of big brother to the two young boys (Tsota and Luka, who is just a little ball of fury; I saw him fall at least five times), plus when we were walking around Martvili, Zaza knew everyone, I know because he introduced me to them all. It really is a culture of family; no one is excluded, and as soon as you ask ragora khart (how are you), you’re one of them.

The Family

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spare Thoughts from Bandza

In order to try to extract some real meaning from my words, I've skipped the summation and focused on some things I've been thinking about over my first few days in Bandza.

Erti - Most things that seem bazaar right now, probably won’t feel all that weird in a few months, or even a few weeks. But one thing that I will always find funny are the cows who wonder the roads. It’s not even like they are pensively crossing the road; sometimes they’re just chillin’ in the middle of the road. And what do the Georgian drivers do? No slowing down, just a slight weave while not blinking an eye. It’s crazy and will always be crazy.

Ori – The host families get nothing from TLG. No money, not even a tax break, which would seem prudent seeing as TLG is a government program. But whatever. There’s ways to go about paying these people back, one of them being slipping the host mother about fifty Lari once a month, and the other is of course to help around the house (although the men are not really expected to do anything, especially the guests). But really, the main reason most of these people will host a complete stranger for no monetary benefit is that they want us to help teach their children, which I’m fully in support of. But sometimes I have to remember that they are not there to help us with our Georgian even though we have a natural instinct to try and learn their language. So I am trying to use English with Luka and Rezi while working on my Georgian else where.

Sami - So we had a suphra in celebration of Rezo (host Babua [Grandfather]) and Giorgi’s (host disshvili [nephew]) birthday. When we sat down they presented Giorgi with a set of ceramic husks, which we all drank a bunch of wine out of. Doesn’t that just sound stereotypical? I mean, really, who drinks wine out of a husk. The best part: Giorgi was only turning fifteen. I have already decided that for my son’s 15th birthday, I will bring him back here so he can chug wine out of a husk. It’s really the only way to celebrate.

Otkhi – Actually, scratch that as the best thing. The best thing was a family friend bringing his horse to the suphra for everyone to ride. Get drunk and ride on a horse… now that’s a fifteenth birthday party!

Khuti – A lot of firsts going on for me since I’ve come to Bandza; hunting, riding a horse, drinking out of a husk, drawing from a well, drinking homemade vodka (chacha), etc. But most of this stuff doesn’t particularly limit itself to Georgia. Its just stuff that happens when you live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I figure myself to be a pretty cultured guy with a diverse set of experiences, but really, I didn’t know the half of it.

Eqvsi – This point really deserves it’s own post, but when I went to Italy I had certain romantic or nostalgic expectations which were completely debunked by the time I left. Let me already say that my host family in Italy was amazing and that I don’t want to make a judgment on all Italians (mostly just on Florentines). But the Italians I encountered didn’t really like Americans, weren’t overly friendly, and fit the French stereotype more than the fun-loving Italians we see in the movies. But Georgia is that place. They drink their own wine, invite you to their house upon meeting you, try and marry you off to a relative, etc. I could go into more detail about this, but basically I’m trying to say that I think I found what it was that I was looking for when I went to Italy.

Shvidi – Just wanted everyone to know that we toast (gamarjos) to them at any sit-down. Even you readers out there who have passed away get a toast. Toasting is a tradition in Georgia, and I feel like men are pretty much judged on their ability to toast. Kind of like fixing your plumbing in America; some know how to do it, others call a specialist.

Rva – Very seldom will you catch a man on the Gabunia property wearing a shirt, which is definitely a habit I can get into. In fact this afternoon I caught myself not wearing a shirt while using the computer. I dig it. The drunker we get, the less likely we are to be wearing a shirt. This morning I woke up and looked at the pictures from last night. Slowly but surely, there were less and less shirts until by the end of the night, we were all dancing bare-chested.

Tskhra – You have to be kidding me with some of these words. Like this is the number nine and it involves two of the toughest aspects to pronounce in ts and kh (which is an h sound but like it’s in Hebrew; sounds like someone being stabbed in the throat). It’s not easy.

Ati – Visiting anybody’s house/farm is like going to a petting zoo. This evening we went to another guy’s house and he had parakeets tied to sticks, a pet hawk, a new batch of puppies who couldn’t even open their eyes yet, and heaps of bees (it was the first time I completely said no to something while here; I can’t stand bees). You just don’t get that type of pet diversity in America.

PHOTOS: Statue in the center of Kutaisi, me holding onto two of Luka's rabbits (unharmed during the photo I promise), and the family well that I get my drinking water out of...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Night in Bandza

So, not matter what TLG did in the past week, nothing could actually prepare us for whatever may lay ahead. Personally, I don’t think that isolating us in a dorm type of environment was exactly the best way to go about it, but at least they somewhat tried to slowly acclimate us to Georgian culture.

Anyway, after we finished our training on Sunday afternoon, we had a final dinner and birthday celebration for two fellow volunteers at a local restaurant. We drank enough wine to put a horse in a coma while also giving some of us less inclined the bravery to actually dance. For anybody with sober eyes, it was probably not that pretty. But at least there were a couple real Georgian dancers that put on a show. Georgian dancing is something to be seen. Most of the men have some idea of the tradition, but if you get to see a couple bros really go at it… let’s just say that it beats So You Think You Can Dance?

Needless to say, most of us were fairly beat up on Sunday morning, but after finally learning the makeup of our host family at breakfast, we had to get everything together and move out.

The first stop was in Senaki, where about 20 of us would be meeting our host families and be taken back to our towns/villages. All 50+ volunteers were led into this building that looked like something out of the holocaust. It felt like we were being led to our execution. We entered this wide-open room where there were about thirty Georgians waiting pensively. We sat down and waited for Nino to explain some things to our hosts (some of us have odd characteristics but don’t take it personally type of speech).

The entire vibe felt like a mixture between a slave auction and an adoption pick up. Everybody was a little nervous. Finally my name was called and I went up to the front and met my co-teacher Tamari (one of two English teachers in the Bandza School who I’ll be working with), the principal of the school in Bandza (cannot remember his name, but he doesn’t speak any English), and my host father Lasha Gabunia (doesn’t know any English for the most part).

After everyone met their host families, we had a quick toast (nothing happens in Georgia with a toast), grabbed our stuff off the buses, and we were off. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to a ton of the volunteers I had become friends with over the past week. But I’m sure I’ll be keeping in touch with them and even visiting them soon. But it would have been nice to at least say kargad  (bye).

So we hop into Lasha’s Mercedes Benz and go rip-roaring up the road to Bandza, which was about twenty kilometers away. Lasha drives like everybody else in Georgia, out of his mind. But I had heard that it was disrespectful to put your seatbelt on when driving in the passenger seat (they insist that I sit in the passenger seat), so instead I just said a small prayer and tried not to pay attention to what was going on ahead of me.

The entire ride back they asked me tons of questions (where are you from, what is your family like, why come to Georgia), explained some things (who else is in my host family, who else knows English, when I start teaching), while I didn’t get the answer I was expecting when I asked my only question (the waterfall Nino talked about is in Martvili, not Bandza); all of this was being said between Tamari and myself, with her acting as translator.

All of a sudden, Tamari told me we were now in Bandza. I looked around and didn’t see any difference between the twenty kilometers that had preceded Bandza. Farm animals roaming, houses sprinkled in, no real sign of life… You call this a village? First we stopped at the school where I’ll be teaching; it’s pretty old. I’m going to wait to make a judgment for when school starts, mostly because I don’t want to sound like a jackass, but I have a feeling teaching will be the biggest challenge I’ll face.

After that we drove through the tsent’ri (center of town), which is a police station, bus stop, and a few markets here and there. I wanted to call Nino right then and there just to say, “There is no way in hell that this would be the first place you’d come to visit.” That’s not to bash the place, it has a really beautiful but small eklesia (church) not far from the tsent’ri, and it is what it is (a village); but there’s just nothing here outside of a few residences and farmland.

Then we get to Lasha’s house and I’m paraded around the grounds while I meet the rest of the family. Basically there are three houses; one for guests, another for eating and cooking, and the other for the family. Lasha has a wife Irina, and two boys Rezo (14) and Luka (12) who both know a little English (Luka more than Rezo). Lasha’s parents also live on the property (Rezo and Leila) while Irina’s sister was visiting with her husband and son. It seems like there may always be someone coming or going here; that’s just the way it works.

Anyway, after meeting everyone, I was still in a bit of a shock. The lack of communication, not really knowing what I’ll be doing between now and the school year, and the fact that I have no idea what’s expected of me. To be honest, I just didn’t see myself being dropped onto a farm.

But then we sat down to eat dinner (dinner happens at around 3 o’clock here, while supper is served at 8; but dinner is the big meal of the day). I sit down with everyone and it’s an absolute feast. I wouldn’t call it a suphra because I feel like that is for really special occasions (like Grandpa Rezo’s birthday today; there will be a suphra later this evening). But food was forced upon me, while my glass was never allowed to not be full of wine. Tamari explained to me that I don’t have to drink the wine, but if it’s not full, the head of the table will fill it for me. Those are rules I can live by.

So in between being bombarded with food, the toasts began. Lasha would raise his glass and say a toast (the first one was to peace, then to women, then to our parents, then to our brothers/sisters, then each guest gets their own toast… you get the idea), after which we all separately cheers glasses while saying gamarjos. It is not expected of you to drink when you cheers (as it is in America), it’s more out of respect and acknowledgment. In fact, Lasha would only drink after every few cheers, but when he did drink, he wouldn’t cheat himself, pretty much finishing his glass. So this goes on for about three hours and I was careful not to be that guy who gets hammered during his first afternoon, but I was definitely a little drunk by the end.

Then I ambled up to my room, which is much nicer than I thought I would get and quite spacious (plus it has a nice view of the front yard), to put away my things and maybe lay down for a few minutes. But right before I could put my head down, I was summoned to go hunting with Lasha’s brother-in-law and the three boys.

We also brought along the house-dog Paco (can’t remember the bread of the dog, but it’s small and black. Disclaimer: when I say house-dog, that doesn’t mean the dog is let in the house, it just means that this dog doesn’t have a purpose) and the hunting-dog Aja (an Irish Setter). They also have one other dog, which is the night-watch dog who I got to meet later in the evening.

We hunted for about an hour and bagged two birds. Lasha’s brother-in-law was the shooter, while the rest of us played the part of chasers. Aja didn’t really do much to deserve his title of hunting dog. Surprisingly, it was the first hunting experience of my life, which, at nearly 25 years old and being from Pittsburgh, is pretty amazing. The countryside is really quite beautiful with the corn farms blending in with the backdrop of the foothills of the Caucusus. But to be fair, an unbelievable sunset will make any scenery seem prophetic.

When we got back from the hunt, I again tried to lie down only to be beckoned back to eat. Tchame (eat) is a word you hear a lot around the Gabunia household. It was a whirlwind day

My initial thoughts are that this is incredible and I am so lucky to be with such an amazing host family while having the opportunity to experience so many new situations. But I know that will wear off and eventually I’ll get bored or even irritated that I have to get my water from a well or that I have to dodge farm animals just to get something to eat. But as of right now, I’m just trying to take it all in and stay positive.

Sorry for the length of the post, but I'm writing these on my laptop and then transferring them over to the family computer which has internet. I'll have another post up later which will be shorter and hopefully contain something a little more meaningful rather than just a laundry list of activities. 

But I did get to experience my first Suphra last night, during which I drank wine from a husk. When I woke up this morning I just had a ton of pictures on my camera of me dancing sans shirt with the family. It was an interesting night to say the least.

PICTURES: My host family's sakhli (house), Bandza's church, the hunt, and the countryside.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Slight amendment; my town is actually named Bandza, which you can find on a map of Samegrelo. here is another link to some more information...

Don't really know how to feel about this (I was hoping I'd be farther up into the mountains, North of Martvili), but Nino did tell me that out of all the places she would want to visit one of the teachers, Bandza would be it... So, I got that going for me, which is nice.

This morning I head to Sugdidi where I'll meet my host family.

UPDATE: Meant to post this yesterday morning but my Internet pooped out. I made it to Bandza okay and all is well with my host family. Right now we are about to sit down to a Suphra to celebrate my host Grandfather (Rezo) and host cousin's (Giorgi) birthday. I have an extended post ready for later, but in the meantime this will have to do. My host family does have Internet access (success!), so I'll be able to keep in touch better than I originally thought.


Saturday, August 21, 2010


I forgot that I promised a picture of stray puppies. So there you are. Now go cry your eyes out, emotional Americans.

Pets and the way Americans treat them in society has always fascinated me, particularly dogs. There's a great Jerry Seinfeld joke about dogs:

Dogs have no money. Isn't that amazing? They're broke their entire lives. But they get through. You know why dogs have no money? No pockets.

That really doesn't have much to do with what I wanted to wax about, but it's funny nonetheless. But stray animals and the lack of awareness or concern towards them seems to be a consistent concern for Americans who travel into developing countries. How can they do that, right? I'll be honest, part of it pops up into my mind (I love me some dogs, I'm looking at you, Anna Belle and Lando), but I'm not about to start a non-profit. There are so many bigger issues, but I'm not going to get up on a soapbox right now. I'll use a common analogy for people who follow sports and don't really think that hard about social justice: Mike Vick went to jail, Dante Stallworth got probation.

But in Georgia, there are stray dogs everywhere. They roam the streets, parking lots, old buildings, the patios of pubs, etc. Some are dangerous, some may even have rabies, but generally they do their own thing. They don't want to bother you, and for the most part, I feel no need to bother them. It is what it is.

Is it my dream to adopt one and bring them back to the states where they can enjoy organic dog food and upscale bakeries? Like any other hipster white person, of course. But sometimes I appreciate the lack of worship that other cultures have towards their pets. Although when I see dead dogs on the side of the road, and even see a dog get run over by a car going 50 km/h only for the driver to stop just to make sure his fender wasn't dented... sometimes I want to call PETA.

I asked Nino about our host families possibly having pets, and she said that most of them will probably have a dog or cat, but that the whole ownership aspect is flimsy. Pets are not allowed in the house, and even in the rare case that they are, no way in the bedroom and don't even dream about letting them on the bed (for someone who enjoys snoozing with a pooch near my feet, this was tough to swallow). But it's their culture and society; I have to respect it. To each their own.

Quick note on Nino (common name for Georgian women); she's awesome. I wish I could sit down with her and find out her entire story, but she's a pretty busy woman. I can't really put into words how hard she works for us (50 strangers who can, at times, be quite unmanageable). But she answers every question we might have, and if she doesn't know the answer, she finds someone who does. She's incredible and has a huge heart with a fantastic sense of humor (loves to make fun of Georgians). The even crazier part, she got her masters degree from Vanderbilt. I thought only douchers in Oliver Peoples spectacles went there?

Anyways, there's heaps more subjects that I'm sure I'll write about in the next ten months, but at least I've tackled one... stray dogs. But there's so many fascinating aspects of Georgian culture: the women, men (and their odd custom of relaxing with their shirt pulled up over their gut; I hope to have a picture soon), driving, supras, gender roles, food, wine, etc... But I feel like I'll have a better perspective on it when I get outside of Kutaisi.

One last thing I can say that few people realize and was quite refreshing to me. Georgians like Americans. How crazy is that? Almost everywhere I've been, foreign perspective on Americans has mostly ranged between indifference to disgust (things have gotten better since Obama was elected; say what you want about his politics, but he's quite popular abroad). Georgians love Americans (and to be fair, almost all of that is due to G.W. Bush); that's what I had heard before I got here, and in the few experiences I've had while here, it's been spot on.

I don't want to build up my expectations too much, but from everything I've heard, I expect a pretty amazing welcome in Banza. I keep thinking of when Vito Corleone returns to Corleone, Sicily in Godfather II. You know... except for the whole knifing of local mafia chieftain Don Ciccio; I'd rather try to avoid those types of interactions.

Hopefully I'll have something more worth while to say tomorrow. Until then...

(PICTURES: The dogs are strays from Tbilisi and Kutaisi, while the sunset was taken in Batumi along the Black Sea Coast)


A little bit about the village I'll be teaching in, Banza. I don't know anything about it. I googled it and couldn't find anything about it (it's not on google maps; therefore it must not exist, ki?). All I know is what Nino (my amazingly helpful and hilarious program coordinator) told me about it and that was that it has an unbelievable waterfall not far from the village. So I got that goin' for me.

What I can tell you is that the village won't be far from Martvili where there will be two other teachers including a Duquesne graduate (no worries he's from Wisconsin and therefore I am still the only 'Burgher I know of in Georgia). Martvili is a small town in the province of Samegrelo and they have a football team, FC Merani Martvili, in the top division of the Georgian league, which is money (amendment; they are not in the top division, but I will still expect Jogo Bonito).

From what I can gather, I'll be close to the mountains (if not actually in them) and there will be a breath taking monastery close by. This, I can live with. I'm actually relieved that I'm not in a bigger city or town. I may regret saying that, but I think the best way to really experience the culture is to release myself from any sort of familiar outlets (other English teachers/speakers, Walmarts, etc.) I'll probably be the only foreigner in my village, which is exactly the way I want it.

I'll know more when I get there on Monday, but it can't come soon enough.

I was planning on describing more about Kutaisi, my training, and my initial thoughts on Georgian people and culture, but I'm running short on time. So I'll leave you with another tease. Basically, a lot of our training has been us asking questions about Georgia and the people, and we discuss gender roles a lot. Yesterday, we were talking about dating and the accepted way to go about it. In Georgia, it's customary for the woman to decline several times before relenting to go on a date. Nino helped us understand with a nicely put joke:

If a diplomat says yes, it's maybe. If he says maybe, it's no. And if he says no, he's not a diplomat. In Georgia, if a woman says no, it's maybe. If she says maybe, it's yes. And if she says yes, she is not a woman.

Looking forward to that struggle.

More later, along with some pictures up on FB.

UPDATE: Here's a detailed map of the region. And apparently they speak Mingrelian in the region, which is totally different from the Georgian we've been learning the past six days. Nice.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Is the name of the village I'll be in, near the town of Martvili. More later...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Training in Kutaisi

The bus ride back from Batumi was fairly uneventful, just absurdly humid on the inside. It was dark so we really couldn't see where we were going and I was also nodding off the entire trip. We got to our destination in Kutaisi at around midnight and the place resembled a college dorm.

Kutaisi was the location where all the cars were put together in the Soviet Union. Since the collapse, it's fallen into total destruction; hence me calling it the Detroit of Georgia (international sister city; Columbus, OH... don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing). Unemployement is high and there are tons of abandoned industrial buildings.

All the guys stay on the third floor with the women on the fourth floor, while all the training sessions are on the second floor, and the cafeteria is on the first floor. This building is in probably the most depressing area of Georgia. I haven't even seen much of Georgia, but this place resembles a post-Soviet wasteland. Farm animals everywhere even though it's an urban environment (I've seen a giant pig, many cows, roosters/chickens, and tons of stray dogs), concrete tenements that look like they have zero electricity, trash everywhere and nothing green (everything is concrete). This place is like a set for a Renny Harlin movie.

The livestock aspect along with the typical look of the Georgian people (somewhat dark and the men have heaps of body hair), really brings to mind Borat and Kazakhstan. But I have yet to meet anyone who hasn't been friendly or helpful during one of my morning runs (I've been jogging in the morning in order to see some of Georgia while also to make sure I don't blow up like a tic) I helped a guy restart his car that stalled; I felt just a little bit assimilated right then. Also, when you run in Georgia, people stare at you like you're crazy (as our program instructor Nino said, Georgians only run when they have a reason).

The overall orientation has been pretty boring. We've been getting a crash course in Georgian for three hours a day, and it's pretty interesting considering they have a completely different alphabet than us. I don't do well with foreign languages, and cramming a ton of it into seven days probably won't help, but I feel like I'm making a bit of progress. The other stuff is similar to the TEFL course I already took, but it's taught by Georgians and is crammed into much smaller spaces. Orientation kind of sucks.

But it will be over on Sunday and I think I find out where I'll be placed tomorrow. In the meantime, we did get to visit an ancient monastery this evening and I hope to go check out the actual older part of town sometime this week (we drove through it this evening on the way to the monastery and it seems somewhat interesting).

It really is quite beautiful when you get out of our neighborhood...

Nakhvamdis (Goodbye in Georgian)

(Picture: The caged bear on the grounds of the restaurant we ate at on the first day... he looked bored, but it didn't fool me)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kutaisi: The Detroit of Georgia (UPDATE: Pictures)

So yesterday we spent almost the entire day on a bus, first travelling to Batumi, and then backtracking to Kutaisi, which is where I am right now. We did stop about halfway between Tbilisi and Batumi to eat at a neat outdoor restaurant. The best part: on the premises, they had a bear in a small cage. Bears! Number one threat to America according to Stephen Colbert, but I guess in Georgia they just keep them locked up in cages for shits n' gigs. I kind of felt bad for the bear, he just kept walking around in circles (he was not an ambi-turner). But then I remembered what had happened to this guy and had to restrain myself from kicking that bear's ass. Hopefully, I'll have some pictures up shortly.

But it took almost 7 hours by bus to get to Batumi. The roads got worse the farther away we got from Tbilisi (although apparently, five years ago they were barely paved and had pot holes the size of man holes), and the people drive like absolute madmen in Georgia (including our bus driver). I've been to Peru and Italy, where the drivers could be classified as insane, but here, they make Evil Knievel look like a school-boy bitch (might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but they're crazy nonetheless). Most of the highway was only two lanes, but everyone uses the passing lane at will and some use it as a cruising lane. It's insane; I couldn't even pay attention in fear of a head-on collision. Needless to say, if anyone is planning on visiting me, I would advise against renting a car unless you're up for a panic attack.

We got to Batumi, which looked lovely the closer you got to the old town (even farther out it looked amazing, like something out of South America). I really wish I could have been stationed closer to there, but I feel as if I'll have plenty of time to check it out over the next ten months. There is a ton of development going on in Batumi and they are really trying to spiff up the beach front.

Anyway, we were running late so we got a police escort the last 20 kilometers (although it's not like it mattered since there are zero rules on the road; in the words of George Costanza, "It's like Thunderdome out there!"). And we arrived at the venue where the President would address us.

I thought it would be a parliamentary building of some sort, or a giant venue packed to the brim with people. Nope. It was a beach side club that resembled something out of South Beach: lots of white upholstery, billowing sheets, DJ, chaise lounge chairs on the deck, and table service (don't get ahead of yourself, sparkling water and that was it). The only people in attendance were a few government workers, the TLG people, and all the teachers (which is my group and the other teachers that got here on August 1st; total of about 100).

President Saakashvili came in dressed in casual clothing, shaking hands (no, I did not get the honor), and basically enveloping the room with his charm. His speech focused on the progress Georgia has made in the last seven years (conveniently, the time he has been in power; although to be fair, the country has made leaps and bounds since he took over) citing certain polls that show Georgia to be low on corruption and crime, while one of the top places in the world to do business. And basically that is kind of what Saakashvili's Georgia has been; progressive reforms in government corruption and education, while creating a free market economy that makes it attractive to foreign and local investment.

It was a short but pertinent speech and he even took a few questions from us teachers (while dancing around a nifty question about environmental control). He was pretty much what I expected him to be; charming, confident bordering on arrogant, funny, informal, and very much a 21st century politician.

Here's a link to one of the English news reports on the "press conference." I have to hurry off to dinner, but all-in-all, it was a pretty ridiculous affair; as one of the other teachers said to me as we were walking up to the venue, "This is like if Obama held a press conference at the Jersey Shore."

More later on the bus ride back, my first day of training, and the wondeful town of Kutaisi: The Detroit of Georgia.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

While you're all watching the Steelers game...

I can't sleep in Tbilisi (local time 5:41 a.m.).

I slept relatively well while on my planes from DC to Amsterdam (fantastic personal space and leg room on United international, although no free booze and the media options were lacking for an int. flight) and then from Amsterdam to Tbilisi (slept the whole flight time of 4:15).

Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport is easily the nicest airport I've ever been to. Very clean, tons of nice shops and bars, and comfortable spaces to relax between flights. The only problem (which is a continual issue in all European countries in my opinion) is the cost of Wi-Fi. It was something like eight euros for 60 minutes of internet access and eighteen euros for an entire day. I guess if people will pay it...

It was quite funny waiting near the gate in Amsterdam. There were tons of other English speakers around my age who had the same "I'm going to teach English in Georgia" type of vibe. It made me think of the first day of grade-school when we're all waiting for the yellow bus to pick us up. Thank God there was assigned seating, I was afraid I might get a cold Seat's Takin' whilst walking up the aisle.

We got into Tbilisi International Airport (quite nice for a developing country) and found our program directors. I got my bag somewhat soon while most everyone else was waiting on theirs. It ended up that all the people who flew from Chicago to Amsterdam had their bags lost to the perils of air travel (everyone blamed the short layover at Schiphol; only 40 minutes).

So half of the 40+teachers do not have their luggage (and still don't; hopefully will get them today).

We had dinner at the hotel (The Bazaleti Palace; close to the airport but as yinzers say, Real Noice) where we got to mingle a bit while also being introduced to the program directors and given our itinerary for the next day. We were originally supposed to be exploring Tbilisi, but plans changed and we are heading to the coast town of Batumi; where we will meet up with the other group of teachers (who arrived on August 1st and will be stationed in Batumi or close to it) and then go to a reception or grand opening of some sort where we will meet the President of Georgia.

Real Noice.

I ain't never met no president before. The President of Georgia is a pretty interesting guy named Misha Saakashvili. I had a flew links in the previous post about him, but he's a pretty polarizing fellow; some see him as a forward thinking leader of progressive Western ideas, others as an autocratic war criminal (this is mostly a Russian view-point, since they see him as responsible for killing Ossetians and Russian peace keepers in the conflict of August 2008).

He's paying my salary basically, and he also once replied to Putin's threat of hanging Saakashvili by the balls with saying, "He doesn't have rope long enough." So I like him.

It's a pretty interesting dynamic of teachers that are here. I haven't met everyone but it's your typical wide variety of English teachers; young, old (the older people tend to be very talkative and somewhat awkward), English, American, Canadian.

I'll have more to say later, but last night I hung out with two Americans at a near by bar (we each had 5 draft beers and the total bill came to 25 Lari [$14]... it was a good sign) which had a DJ playing loud Georgian music (I'm gonna wait a little bit to make a judgment on that) and Dogs roaming about (tons of stray Dogs in Georgia including two puppies that roam the parking lot of our hotel; too cute... I'll have pictures up soon).

But the entire night we (and by we, I mean the other two Americans) discussed European politics and USSR history. Another guy, my roommate the first night, just got his masters from Stanford on USSR history and politics. A little over my head, but I'd rather be surrounded by smart people than the boring type... Maybe I'll learn something.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Georgia Crash Course

So there's probably very little I can tell you about Georgia that you couldn't find out yourself, but just in case, I'll post up a few links if you're interested.

Georgia is a country, not a republic or a soviet state (hint: those don't exist anymore). If you don't have the energy to read up at Wikipedia, basically Georgia is known for being old, hospitable, and into wine. Really I can't do the country justice, just read up on it; it's got an amazing history.

National Geographic magazine recently published a story about a trade line they are building from Baku (capital of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea) through Tbilisi (capital of Georgia) on to Turkey which will make Azerbaijan even richer while also plugging trade capital into Georgia all the while making Armenia feel more left out. It's an interesting look at the politics of the Caucasus (the region containing the Caucasus mountain range, that includes Georgia, Azerbiajan, and Armenia).

There was also this article from the New Yorker (sorry, subscriber only) a while back about the Georgian President, his struggle with Russia, and his goal of making Georgia the most Western thinking country in Eurasia.

And then there's this recent issue involving some racy photos taken of the new minister of economic development. The whole thing seems ridiculous and doesn't make Saakashvili's regime look any less of a banana republic.

Either way, lots of interesting stuff going on over there, and I'll be right in the thick of things in less than 24 hours. I am currently in DC waiting for my flight to Amsterdam, where I will catch my final flight to Tbilisi. I'll spend two nights in Tbilisi and then I go to Kutaisi for a seven day orientation, after which I'll find out where I'll be for the duration of my contract and will also meet my host family. Here's to hoping they cook as well as my last host family in Firenze.

If you're interest is peaked about Georgia, I am currently reading Stories I Stole by Wendell Stevenson, who spent two years living in Georgia from '98-00. I would recomend it to anyone trying to get a grasp on the culture over there, but probably not to anyone who might worry about me (Georgia was still very much a 3rd world country during that time, and is not made out to be all that accommodating).

Hopefully the next time I post I will be enjoying some ChaCha on the streets of Tbilisi.

Just found this neat opinion piece from the WSJ about the two year anniversary of the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the northern territory of South Ossetia. I'd like to be as optimistic as this author... And then here's another good look at the Caucasus Wall.

And then there's this writeup from the NYT on Tbilisi from 18 months ago...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So it's been a couple months...

And I blame the Steelers for not raping anyone. I mean really, what's a guy got to write about between the Pens bowing out, the World Cup ending, and the Pirates wallowing away the dog days of summer? At least training cup started, am I right? Am I right?

Well actually I don't care about training camp, and all of the things I stated before could still be talked about in length. But that's not what this post is about.

The blog is heading in a different direction...

Since no one really follows this blog, it's really not a big deal. But hopefully, people will start to read the blog more often (I'm looking at you, Grandma!). Either way, I'll still be posting about Pittsburgh Sports and random stuff. But I'll also be posting about my journey to Georgia. No, not the place where Ben played hide the salami in the bathroom, the actual country of Georgia. Or as my Aunt refers to it, The Former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

So in honor of the new content (and the new format, check it out, there's books! That means I'm smart...), I'll be posting a little bit before I fly off to Georgia on August 15th. Some of the posts will be about Georgia, some will be about the Pirates, Pitt Football, and maybe the Steelers, and maybe there will be a post about some other random event that I find amusing (USA/Brazil tomorrow night!).

But all I wanna say is... GNJB is back (yeah, I am too lazy to change the name and URL, deal with it).