Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Loud Voices, Board Games & 'It Does Not Matter'

So I told myself that I’d give it about a week before I’d make any sweeping judgments about teaching or school, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t have a few intermediary thoughts. I think I have 11-20 down by now, so I’ll go on to 10-100, because the market owners in Bandza are probably getting fed up of having to communicate prices via calculator.

Ati – My second favorite teacher at the school in Bandza (well, I should probably say the second most entertaining teacher) behind Murmani, my decrepit chain-smoking P.E. teacher, has to be the Russian teacher. I don’t even know her name, but she cracks me up. She’s also old, with long white hair and a permanent scowl on her face. If I was a student there, I’d be terrified of her. Actually, I’m pretty sure everyone is terrified of her, including the other teachers. Anytime she speaks in the teachers’ lounge, her eyes grow wide, her voice raises an octave, and she spews out very loud but punctual Georgian. But, no matter what, she always has the last say. So why do I like her? Whenever she does have some sort of shouting argument with anyone, she’ll turn away, catch my eye, and wink at me with a slight smile; almost as if to say, “I’m really not that mean, but I just like fuckin’ with everybody.” I guess she trusts this secret with only me, because I seem to be the only one who finds it entertaining.

Ian's Host-Father Dato and myself at my birthday celebration in Martvili. Dato kargi katsia

Otsi – I remember watching a Simpsons episode when I was younger in which Lisa is lost in Springfield and stumbles upon the Russian neighborhood. When she asks for directions, an old man playing chess screams back at her in Russian, causing her to run away. But in subtitles the man is in fact giving polite and precise directions. I’d never met any Russians, but this was always how I assumed they spoke; the volume or urgency of their speech had little to do with the content. I still haven’t met any Russians (except for my host-deda [mother] Ira, although she never yells) but I’m pretty sure most Georgians, especially the men, have little control over the volume of their voice (kind of like Jacob Silge, a Will Farrell character from SNL; very underrated). So if two men are just rapidly yelling at each other (like Murmani and Donaldi were on the first day of school), they could in fact just be discussing the delightful weather or sharing an amusing anecdote. The only guy I’m sure was pretty angry was that crazy guy on the marshrutka to Anaklia a while back; although even then I could be wrong. He could have just been suggesting an alternate route.

The Palace in Zugdidi, or as I like to call it, the Paris of Samegrelo

Otsdaati – Speaking of chess, I bought a small portable set that looks like someone had originally carved up whilst doing time in Siberia. It’s perfect for carrying around and only cost ten Lari in Tbilisi ($6). Unfortunately my family prefers checkers (Luka’s favorite game), dominoes (Reziko’s game of choice), or nardi (the Turkish name for backgammon). One afternoon, when the power was out, Reziko handedly beat me in dominoes, Luka dominated me in checkers (of which he was hardly humble about), and a cousin wiped the floor with me in nardi. Everybody in Georgia plays nardi, and they do it with a flair and confidence that can both amaze and bother you.

My host-brother Luka, who does not know how to destroy me in checkers with any humility

Ormotsi – If you don’t know how to play nardi or backgammon, I won’t bore you with the details, but it involves tossing a pair of dice and moving pieces around a board in a clockwise direction. There’s definitely some strategy to the game; enough so that I lose every time I play a Georgian but usually win anytime I play someone with less experience (a.k.a. other volunteers who I’ve just taught how to play). But during a majority of the game, depending on the placement of your chips, there’s an obvious move for each roll. But it doesn’t matter if you just started playing and you have to think it through for a moment, if you’re playing a Georgian and you take longer than five seconds to figure out your move, they’ll move the pieces for you. In fact, you can literally play an entire game without thinking for yourself. It actually takes any fun out of the game, which is why I try to avoid playing other Georgians (at least until I’m good enough to play at their pace), but I don’t know how to say, “Cut it out and let me think for myself.” They just wouldn’t understand, because in their mind, they’re only trying to help you.

Playing nardi like a real amateur

Ormotsdaati – While I was waiting for my marshrutka in Senaki a few weeks back, I was rummaging through my backpack looking for a book when the guy next to me saw my chess set and communicated to me that we should play. I’m pretty sure this guy was crazy, but it’s really hard to pinpoint the crazies in Georgia, because they’re all a little bit off. I think it comes down to the notion that they all want to hug you and maybe plant a kiss on your cheek, and if a stranger (especially of the same sex) wants to have any physical contact with you in the States, you automatically think he’s crazy.

Two old Georgians playing chess on the sidewalks of Tbilisi; crowd barely seen in the background

Sammotsi – Anyway, this guy (who didn’t speak a lick of English) and I end up playing a game of chess in front of half the bus station (when you play chess in Georgia, it’s never a private affair. People huddle around, although they don’t make suggestions obnoxiously; they only judge quietly with a hand on their chin and a serious gaze). I’m pretty sure he let me win, but it just so happened that said crazy guy/chess opponent was on my marshrutka back to Bandza. He kept speaking to me with great enthusiasm while I tried to express to him that I didn’t understand anything he said (ver gavige is the phrase I use the most here, just as it was in Italy: non ho capito). Eventually the guy sitting next to me who spoke some English translated that the gentleman wanted me to come back to his house in Martvili and drink tchatcha (homemade vodka that’s about seventy proof). As much as I try to never say no to these types of invitations because I know a good story would come of it, I still wasn’t feeling well from my Tbilisi trip. I’d also be lying if I didn’t say I had some reservations about ending up in the bottom of a well while being told in Georgian, “It puts the lotion on it’s skin.”

Speaking of weirdos, there was a West Virginia state flag hanging in one of the pubs of Tbilisi

Samotsdaati – But I don’t always say no to tchatcha. This past Shabati (Saturday), I was heading to Senaki for a fellow volunteer’s dabedebis dghes (birthday). I was planning on taking the 8 a.m. marshrutka that goes all the way to Zugdidi, as I was sure that one left on time in the morning (the earlier the marshrutka, the more likely it will be on time or even show up at all), but Reziko convinced me to take the one at eleven. I don’t know what it was about that morning, but for some reason I wasn’t in the best of moods (I think it had something to do with the food; it gets a bit monotonous at times). So when the marshrutka didn’t show up and Reziko just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Next marshrutka, two o’clock,” I was a little ticked. I know it’s not my host family’s job to have the marshrutka schedule memorized, but it had been maybe the fifth time in a row that their times were off, and I also know that it’s not the most concise or reliable means of transportation… But the whole thing just pissed me off. Don’t these people know I have plans and a schedule?

Otkhmotsi – I didn’t want to take it out on Reziko. It wasn’t his fault (well, maybe it was a little bit his fault) and it wasn’t like he deliberately wanted me to miss my bus. But if I’m going to stew and feel sorry for myself, I’m going to do it alone. So I told Reziko I could handle it myself and let him head back to the house. After waiting there a moment while wallowing in my own pity, I decided to head into town, where I knew I wouldn’t miss a ride heading to Senaki. Just as I was about to leave, my neighbor, who runs a very small convenience store where the road to my house and the main road meet, invited me to sit down with him and two other men behind his shop. I thought, what the hell, I could use whatever they may be offering. Five bottles of home-made tchatcha and ninety minutes later, I had forgotten my worries and had a ride already set up for me to Senaki.

This was the group at the beginning of my neighbor's make-shift lunch (notice the one already empty bottle of tchatcha beneath the table/stool)

Otkhmotsdaati – When we sat down near the ditch that runs behind his shop, it was just four of us (all older men from Bandza), and they immediately poured a full glass of tchatcha and toasted to me as a guest. When I told them about Ali’s birthday, we toasted to her, and of course we toasted to all the other things we usually toast to (peace, countries, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, the dead…), hence the massive amounts of vodka consumed. They also had some bread, sliced up tomatoes (these are included in every meal), and sausage, all of which was continually refilled by the host’s wife, who was working in the shop during this whole time. As time went by and we tried to communicate about my situation (my neighbor took my phone, called someone up the road, and then told me not to worry), every older guy that rode his bike past the shop was flagged down and told to join. By the time my marshrutka did show up, there were about ten men stuffed behind that small market, all taking turns at toasts and shots. The best part of it all was when I got off at my stop, the marshrutka driver wouldn’t even take my money. Sometimes, it’s nice to know people.

My neighbor with his youngest son, who, obviously, had seen this all before

Asi – I’m not really doing the whole situation justice, but the point is that in Georgia, no matter how frustrating things get, it always seems to work out. I know that won’t always be the case, but so far it’s been pretty consistent. The key on my end is to always have that mind frame of, “Sometimes, you just have to say, ‘what the fuck’.” Because I’m pretty sure that’s the mind-frame of most Georgians. My co-English teacher Temari has a great sense of humor and (as far as I can tell) is a pretty good teacher, but one of her most-used English phrases is, “It does not matter.” When I was sick on the second day of class (not the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school sick, more like the I-hurled-out-of-my-window-last-night sick), I called her in the morning to tell her I wouldn’t be able to come in, and she just replied, “It does not matter.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or take offense.

The group behind my neighbor's convenient store by the time my marshrutka came; it was quite the gathering