Sunday, September 19, 2010

Family Politics, Neglecting Farmwork, & My Hero Murmani

The Black Sea near Anaklia

So we’ve been told not to be critical towards the program in any media that could be quoted (another volunteer’s blog was quoted in an online feature), and though I doubt anybody outside my immediate family frequents this site (Hi, Grandpa!), I should probably heed the word unless I want to shipped back to the States or taken to the “rehabilitation camps” (I’m messing with you guys). So there will be no outward complaining towards TLG or the education system in Georgia; all of that will come in personal emails to close confidents who I know not to be in cahoots with Saakashvili.

Tertmet’i – Speaking of which, I won’t be overly critical of Misha here, basically because I have no real reason to be. In fact I should probably be singing his praises while spewing anti-Putin propaganda. Without Misha, I probably wouldn’t be in Georgia. He has put a tremendous amount of political power into the program (in his speech to us in Batumi, he cited his brother-in-law who has taught foreign languages abroad for twenty years as part of the motivation behind the project). There’s a reason the people of Georgia are calling us Misha’s Masts’avlebeli (Teachers). Plus, despite the ostentatiously heinous Presidential Palace (which I’m still not sure Saakashvili built), I think he’s generally been a good President to Georgia (as far as I can tell, but I’m no post-Soviet scholar). Or probably more accurately, Georgia could do a lot worse.

The monastery in Martvili that dates back to when men were still men... or something like that

Tortmet’i – But just because I think so, doesn’t make it so with all Georgians. First of all, I don’t know what a majority of Georgians think about Misha; hell, I haven’t even seen an approval rating. But I know what my two little dzma (host-brothers) think. Anytime the President is shown on TV, Luka (12-years old) looks at me, shakes his head in disappointment, and mutters, “Saakashvili, stupid.” It never gets old, which is why I always point him out when he’s shown on TV flying a plane over Batumi (true story) or visiting Azerbaijan: “Saakashvili, stupid.” Reziko (14-years old) is less vehement, but it doesn’t stop him from giving the double thumbs down with a look of disgust on his face. But all of this might stem from both of my host-brothers being half-Russian. Luka even told me that he loves Putin, which seemed odd to me. It would be like a boy born in 1860’s Virginia of a Southern father and a Northern mother saying, “Jefferson Davis, stupid.” Usually you go with the home field advantage, but what do I know.

Ian's little host-brother Luka; don't let the cuteness fool you, he's an absolute monster...

Tsamet’i – Some readers have expressed their need for more Babua Rezo (my host-Grandfather if you’re a first-timer here at GNJB). But I really don’t have all that much to tell besides what we already know; he works early in the morning, naps in the midday, and spends the rest of his time sitting on the couch in the eating house ripping cigarettes. I did notice today that Rezo lacks a ring-finger on his right hand, while only retaining half of his pointing-finger on the same hand. I can only assume this was the product of a farming accident. Actually come to think of it, not too many men in Bandza have ten workable digits; there’s either a stub here or there, a finger pointing the wrong way (something similar to what we see in football before the trainer snaps it back into place), or they have arthritis that cripples the entire hand (which makes for some awkward handshakes). Other than that, Rezo keeps out of my way, which is, I believe, because he thinks I’m either lazy or a big pus… or more likely a combination of both.

Totkhmet’i – I don’t consider myself lazy here, but I could see how someone might. I spend a lot of time in my bedroom either reading or writing, other than that I’m running to the river, tchame (eating), at school (now, but not for the three weeks preceding the start of school), or traveling to meet up with fellow volunteers. Other than actually teaching, there’s little I do that a man like Rezo would consider productive. I may be overanalyzing the situation as I just remembered that Rezo sleeps half the day, but nevertheless I do feel a bit useless at times. Especially during this time of year, which is when many are the busiest on the farms (I could try to act like I know what they’re busy with, but let’s just save myself the embarrassment, call myself a no-nothing city slicker, and move on with it). Even the boys are put to work during this time despite the start of school; after getting home, they eat, digest, and then follow the rest of the family off to the crops down the road until dark (and when I say dark, I mean dark).

Ian's other host-brother Tsotne and myself; Tsotne, unlike Luka, is a real sweatheart

Tkhutmet’i – Which kind of puts me in an awkward position. Would I like to lend a hand? Yes, of course; not only to feel like a meaningful part of the family, but also to be able to say, “Yeah, when I was twenty-five, I was sharecropping in Northwest Georgia.” But also, part of me is mindful of opening up that door (or floodgate, as I like to call it). As I said, our host-families generally don’t let us do anything (my buddy Raughley tried to dry his laundry and his host-Mom freaked out, thinking that the neighbors would see and consider them terrible hosts. “If you really want to, you can do it during the night, when they cannot see,” she said. Hanging laundry at night kind of defeats the point though, right?). But some volunteers, specifically the girls (women, or what have you), have been quite persistent that they want to help. Like my friend Stephanie who finally broke through with doing the dishes a few weeks back, and now after every meal, everyone goes into the TV room while she clears and cleans the dishes. Now, Stephanie’s a good person who doesn’t mind consistently lending a hand while not even complaining to fellow volunteers (she told us this in pride, rather than angst), but I’m a bit of an asshole. So no matter how well my Mother raised me to always do the dishes at a guests home, or how my Father would always tell me to help on the family farm if I’m ever in Georgia (the former is true, the latter… not so much); I kind of enjoy where I’m at right now, and I’m a bit scared to try and have it both ways (“Well, it was fun helping you sow some maize, but I’m a bit tired so I think I’ll retire to my room to read some Hemmingway”). I think it’s all or nothing, and I’m pretty comfortable with nothing right now. Again, if you haven’t caught on, I’m kind of an asshole.

The shavi khvino (black wine) making process at the family farm

Teqvsmet’i – Getting back to the men of Bandza, I may have a new GNJB celebrity that could take over from where Rezo left off. The Physical Education teacher at my school is my new Bandza hero. The fist time I met Murmani, I thought he was one of the other teachers’ Babua (Grandfather); he looks that old and decrepit. But no, he’s the man that must whip the young people of Bandza into tip-top shape. He’s probably seventy years old (or more accurately, he’s probably fifty-five but looks like he’s eighty-five, I just went with the in-between), he might weigh 120 pounds (I can get used to kilometers, but forget about me using kilograms… and fuck stones), he’s got arthritis in his right-hand, and he has a hearing-aid. During our first school meeting which basically involved our principle speaking to all the teachers for about an hour, Murmani sat in the corner reading the paper (which is all I ever observe him doing) until for a reason I’m still unsure of, got into a shouting argument with Donaldi (our principle with the least Georgian name I’ve come upon) for five minutes straight, after which he got up, bummed a cigarette off another male teacher, and then sat by the window puffing away. Murmani: the P.E. teacher who looks two steps from the grave, isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with our principle, probably can’t grip any sort of sporting equipment, and smokes in the teacher’s lounge. Talk about a role model. The best part is when he tries to talk to me (he doesn’t speak a word of English and most of his Georgian is incomprehensible); all my co-teacher Tamari can translate is that Murmani is looking for a good Georgian woman for me. I can’t wait until he introduces me to his eligible forty-five year old granddaughter.

The sunset near the coast of the Black Sea

Chvidmet’i – Whenever I visit other places in Samegrelo (the region in which most of the volunteers from my group are placed), meet other Georgians (mostly other volunteers’ host-families), and tell them I am in Bandza, even if they don’t know where Bandza is, they laugh. Most of the people in Senaki, Martvili, and Abasha know where Bandza is because it’s at the crossroads between those three towns and another town called Khoni. They snicker even louder. I always thought it was mostly because they’ve seen the town and how Podunk it is. But recently, even another volunteer laughed when I told him I was in the village of Bandza. I looked at him quizzically; maybe it was just a funny name.“That’s the Georgian term for hillbilly,” he said. Later on I also found out that the Georgian word for garbage is bandzi, which explains a lot.

Tvramet’i – But honestly, I love Bandza. I love the people. I love the quiet. I love the river Abasha. I love the simplicity of it all. All of that isn’t to say I don’t get bored or need to get away every now and then, but overall, I really do enjoy it here. As I’ve said before, it may just be the honeymoon period and talk to me in two months (especially as the weather gets worse; I met a boarder policeman on a marshrutka the other day who spoke good English and all he had to say about Bandza was that it gets really cold there in the winter… great). But the simplicity is one of the main things I cherish about this place. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to put myself through work on the farm, or maybe it’s because I just finished reading Doctor Zhivago and feel a bit whimsical about the countryside, but I’ve always been a city person and always thought I’d be one, and though I wouldn’t exactly go back on that just yet, I now see the allure behind “going to the country.”

Lasha in the midst of adding sugar water to the green grapes, which will eventually make terti khvino (white wine)

Tskhramet’i – In much shorter form, this is what I tell my students when they ask me what I like most about Georgia (and every class has asked that question). I like the simplicity. I tell them that in America everybody’s in a hurry; busy, busy, busy. And then Tamari (my co-teacher) says to me, “Yes, but we are too simple here, which makes us lazy. Some people don’t even have food to eat.” At which point I nod and feel like an even bigger asshole.

And boom goes the dynamite...

Otsi – I finally found out what my host mama (father; I know it’s weird) Lasha does for a living; he works on the farm, that’s it. I’m still not sure how he affords private school for his kids, a Mercedes Benz (I kind of understand that as almost everyone here has a Mercedes), and internet, but the way Luka described it today, he does nothing all winter when there’s no work on the farm. All of this came out during a conversation we had about Lasha wanting to learn English. I had previously wrote about how the volunteers can pay back the families that take them in and feed them for free; one of the ways of going about this was to help their children with English (think aupair; only use English around the kids type of thing). But recently, I realized that more than anything, Lasha wants to learn English. I guess it was kind of short-sighted at first, but it’s become clearer and clearer that Lasha loves America, wants to visit the States with his family eventually (he’s asked several times about plane ticket costs), and would like to know some English to get around when he does go. So I told him that during the winter months, I would give him English lessons. I guess it’s something to keep him busy, and myself busy as well. Or it’s a way to make up for my neglectful farm work. Who’s the asshole now?

The immediate aftermath of the birth of a new baby bull on the farm... kind of gross

Sorry for the length of the post (and the length of the individual bullets; I know some of these probably felt like you were reading Plato, minus any sort of philosophical genius), but I really had the creative juices flowing today combined with a lot stored up between birthdays, funerals, Tbilisi, and the start of school. 


  1. Excellent post, Maxi! I've linked to you on my blog--hope it pays dividends!

    Also, to answer your final question of your blog (see immediately before the awesome post-birthing photo), You are still the asshole.

    Lovingly Yours,

  2. Excuse my ignorance so far, but I am indeed a first time GNJB reader. And I liked it a lot. That P.E. teacher must be hilarious. Maybe you can also teach him English in the winter, he can probably tell nice stories.

    Pauli (or Polli, how I am referred to here sometimes)

  3. Your blogs are hilarious! My husband (who is Georgian) and I read every word and laugh and laugh. Today's hilarious post about the gym teacher: He said the description is EXACTLY like his teacher in high school in T'bilisi.
    Keep writing, your fans are loving it (just proof that people other than your immediate family actually read your blogs).

  4. Connie, until otherwise proven, I'm just going to assume you're close family.

    Thanks for the good words.

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