Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sectionalism, Dark Clothing, & The Tamada

This is the village sign as you drive into Bandza from the North. Notice the backwards 'n'. No wonder no one respects Bandza, we can't even spell our own town's name correctly.

Two things before I start this post. I just wanted to make it clear that when I say something like “most Georgians…” I am only referring to the Georgians I know or have heard about (usually from other volunteers). I don’t want anyone to think I’m generalizing all Georgians with some of the things I say. Second point: last Friday morning, Luca spent twenty minutes in the bathroom. What can a 12-year old boy possibly be doing for twenty minutes on the can? Okay, on to the good stuff, if there’s such a thing.

Ati – I think I’ve mentioned this before, but sectionalism in Georgia is quite rampant. Georgians tend to be very opinionated about certain regions or cities. There’s some places that everybody agrees are amazing (Svaneti and Batumi), but other than that, places are either very beautiful, or meh. The younger guy who ran the hostel a few volunteers stayed at in Tbilisi openly bashed Zugdidi, calling the people rude and the city terrible. Vano, the kick-boxer I met in Batumi, hated anything and everything about Tbilisi, but he couldn’t really speak English so I never found out why. When he tried on my sunglasses and then found out I had bought them in Tbilisi, he hurriedly removed them as if they were burning his face. Lasha doesn’t really care for Kakheti, the farthest east region of Georgia known for its wine and autumn beauty. His reason: he went to a wedding there a year ago and they didn’t have enough food. Luca doesn’t really care for any place other than Bandza or Martvili. When I asked him about the road heading to Khoni (a town ten kilometers east of Bandza), he just shook his head and gave me a disgusted look like he just swallowed a worm.

This was a sign on the road from Sametredia to Khoni, kind of freaky looking. Definitely the place where they filmed the Georgian version of 'Where the Hills Have Eyes'

Otsi – That’s not to say it’s some rarity to find sectionalism in a country. It’s all over America, and once led to a civil war. There are people in the South who still call it the War of Northern Aggression. Florentines can’t stand people from Pisa or Siena, although that is more deep-seeded given that their history. I guess what’s surprising here are the size and age of the country as well as the general outlook of Georgian people. Georgia is kind of small to have so many divisions. So is Tuscany though, but that doesn’t stop Pisans from spitting on the Duomo. Then there’s the relatively young history of independent Georgia. The area that is Georgia dates back to Greek Mythology (Golden Fleece, say what?), but the present country only runs back to David Hasselhoff singing at the Berlin Wall. Granted, I don’t know much about Georgian history, but you would think a country that has always strived for independence would kind of burry any sort of regional hatchet once they grasped it. But it doesn’t seem that way. I’m not saying Georgians aren’t proud of their country, but just because I love America doesn’t mean I can tolerate the people and land of West Virginia.

My and my new bike outside one of the many signs with the name Max on it, this one was a salon

Otsdaati – Even more confusing than the size and relative short history of present day Georgia has to be the people. Georgians are by far the most happy, care-free, fun-loving group of people I’ve ever come upon. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Georgians love everyone. But not everyone is American (Georgians love Americans), so there are in-fact some people Georgians don’t like. Some can’t stand Russians, others get sick at the mention of Armenia, while people like Lasha can’t respect any Muslim countries (Lasha also doesn’t really care for China either because there’s too many people there). On the face of things, Georgians give a new meaning to hospitality and make Mr. Rodgers look like a crotchety old man. But when you peel away the layers, there’s still a lot of judgment and resentment that commonly plague most nationalities. I guess I just don’t want to see that side of it, because it goes against everything I love about Georgians. So in the words of Jackie Moon, Everybody Love Everybody.

I guess in Georgia, people are still hung up on Katie and Tom. Although I doubt they have the same reservations about Tom that Americans do, since, you know, there's no such thing as a gay person in Georgia 

Ormotsi – Quick note on Georgian men’s fashion. I’ve had a few pictures up of me in my Petroni shirt (for reference, Petroni is the system in Georgia by which the women are protected. If you over step the boundaries with a Georgian woman [or any woman for that matter, including TLG volunteers], you can expect a beat down from said woman’s Petroni, which could be a mixture of Father, Grandfather, Brothers, and cousins. Simply put, don’t fuck with the Petroni). My friend Raughley and I decided (Raughley spearheaded the notion while I just followed; credit where credit is due) to buy these shirts in order to fit in around Georgia, as every man in Georgia has the same shirt; long-sleeve and black with grey stripes. Pretty sure it’s just a right of passage, like Germans with jean-jackets.

Bill's parents sent him an American flag which we were all wearing as a cape last weekend. This is me and fellow volunteer Helen. In the words of every citizen of South Carolina, ' I'm not gonna apologize for my patriotism'

Ormotsdaati – But the point is, all Georgian men dress the same; pants with a dark top. It can be in the middle of August and the men still wear pants. And you will not see any Georgian men wearing pastels—if you threw a Georgian man into an Easter frat party, his head might explode. The women follow suit, as I’ve yet to see any bright colors on a Georgian woman. Usually their outfits could easily be confused for funeral garb (and based on how many funerals there are in this country, that makes it extremely convenient). I guess Georgians are confident enough to let their personality add the color to their lives (which they accomplish with ease), but that doesn’t stop them from staring at me with confusion when I wear my red pants to school. Another final fashion observation (I’m sure I’ll return to this topic, as it’s quite rich), I’ve yet to see a man in Samegrelo with a jacket that fits. They all look like their wearing their father’s old oversized coat.

A nice mural near a public park in Sametredia, which is the depot for bikes apparently

Samotsi – Something that amazingly got skipped in the drinking post; the tamada. I might have mentioned it before, but the tamada is the designated toast giver at any suphra or any sit down drinking session. Usually the host acts as tamada, but some people are invited to parties just to play the part. I was whisked off to a 17-year old girl’s birthday party in Kutaisi by Ian’s host-family a few weeks back, and they had a tamada from Svaneti who looked like Jim Balushi, was bombed by the time we got there, and tried to crush your hand in his fist when shaking hands. This guy was completely gone to the point where he really wasn’t talking in between toasts, but when he stood to give a toast, he regained full capacity and would rattle off a three-minute diatribe on the hospitality of the host. It was amazing.

Me in my Petroni shirt. You can never smile when wearing a Petroni shirt

Samotsdaati – So to be a tamada, you have to be able to hold your alcohol and conjure up sobriety and loquaciousness at a moment’s notice. But even though there may be a tamada at a party, it’s not as if he’s the only one talking; he usually starts a toast and then everybody chimes in from time to time, while the host eventually gives a toast to the tamada at some later point. But toasting is a serious business that is not to be trifled with. My buddy Bill was at a wedding where there were two different factions of men who were debating over who had the right to toast. Bill said it got to the point where that was the focus, while the bride and groom were just secondary. That’s how serious toasting is in Georgia; it can ruin a wedding. I tend to voluntarily make myself the tamada when I get together with other volunteers. It’s an easy fit, because toasting involves two of my favorite activities: drinking and listening to myself talk. I’m no Cicero, but I can hold my own in a toast, which I think is a trait I received from my father (along with L.L Bean loafers and hoarding useless crap).

Bacon flavored Chips? I can dig it

Otkhmotsi – That notion got me thinking about hereditary tamadas. Is that a position or skill that is handed down from father to son (by the way, pretty sure the tamada is only a masculine position)? Do you start funneling your son wine when he hits double-digits, or perhaps earlier (baby bottle, anyone)? Or maybe it’s a position that must be learned through apprenticeship, like a tailor or blacksmith. But then when do you officially become a legit tamada; is it like a Bar Mitzvah? These are the things I spend my time thinking about in Georgia. But before I leave the subject of the tamada, I’d like to relay the highest compliment I’ve received since I got here. In Mestia, Murab–our guide on the second day—came over with a bottle of his tchatcha after hiking with us. After toasting to everything from peace to our mothers, Murab told me I could be the tamada at his wedding. I could have cried I was so happy.

This was a house seen in Sametredia, which I thought would make a perfect place for a Halloween party this weekend, except for the fact that someone probably lives there (not kidding, you would be astounded by the houses that some Georgians live in)

Otkhmotsdaati – Another amazing character at my school is Gigla, whose title I’m still not sure of. He teaches a class every now and then (twice a week, maybe), but for the most part he just sits in the teachers lounge, ripping cigarettes and yelling tsavidet (let’s go) a few moments after the bell rings to make sure the teachers get to their classes (which is vital, because I’m pretty sure if he wasn’t there, no teachers would go to their classes). At first I thought he was just a visiting dignitary from the Martvili resource center who made the schedule and would only be there for a few weeks just to make sure everything was running smoothly. But it looks like he’s in for the long haul, especially since he is married to one of the other teachers and is also chemi mezobeli (my neighbor)—both recent revelations. I think what makes him so likable is his voice; it’s one that’s taken a beating from years of smoking and rapid use (he’s constantly talking), which gives it a rather soothing radio sound. Plus, I admire how little he does but how much respect he commands in the process.

Bill found a weed leaf bandanna at the market in Sametredia and just had to get it; the best part, we saw a three year old girl walking through the market wearing one right after Bill made his purchase. 

Atsi – Typing up chemi mezobeli reminded me of a pretty funny mistake another volunteer was making with her host family and fellow teachers. Ali is from Wisconsin, and her actual parents will call her every now and then on her Georgian cell-phone. When her mother would call, she would try to excuse herself from whatever she was doing by just exclaiming chemi deda (my mother). Little did she know that those two words exclaimed alone are the same as saying “f’ my mother” (censored here for some reason; maybe because typing the word that close to “mother” just doesn’t feel right, Oedipus be damned). So if you ever come to Georgia, make sure you add a verb or some other word into any phrase involving chemi deda, or else everyone will be disturbed and consider you a vulgar and vile person… like Ali Jones.


  1. MAX add me on Facebook !!!

  2. Nodar, I am very hesitant as you are a fan of Amy Winehouse. But considering I hear her on the radio a lot over here, I guess it's understandable

  3. Yeah ... first i love vocal jazz , second amy's voice.
    Total I love AMY :D

    You are Already Heard Georgian Voices ?

  4. one suggestion for you, and other volunteers could also contribute, you have a rigorous style of writing, why don't you write a book "why one should or should not visit Georgia" would be interesting to read, even for Georgians... i find your blog very amusing, and mostly truthful (there are parts i don't agree with, because of me being subjective to my nation and habits)
    good job, keep it up!

  5. Max,

    Natia is right - you've got real talent for writing, I'm reading your entries again and again and I can't get bored.

    You describe everyday life in foreign country with such details in observation and with so uplifting light humor that Mad Men and House will wait in line for my time until I read all of your postings.

    You've being in Georgia for several weeks and most interestingly, you are not living in urban area. May I ask you questions summarizing your experience? Just three of them:

    1. What would you change immediately in the country, in the host family, your students and teachers - what inconveniences you or drives you most crazy?

    2. What was the most important things you did not take with you but you found out that can't live without them?

    3. What would you advice to people who will be coming later on TLG program so they are successful in their jobs? At the same time - what are the greatest obstacles they need to overcome to archive such a goal?

    Thanks in advance,

  6. Excellent questions Irakli (by the way, I had assumed it was always Iraqli, but I stand corrected). In fact, so excellent that I will look at and answer them in a separate post as soon as I have time (I have another post ready for today, so after that hopefully). Although I would never advise against skipping Mad Men for anything.

    Natia, thanks for the good words. I hope your use of the word 'vigorous' doesn't mean my style is tough to read (which I think is true to an extent, given all my parentheses, brackets, and run-on sentences). I think a book by some of the volunteers after we left would be awesome; but I don't know if there would be many reasons not to visit this place. Everyone should visit Georgia in my opinion.


  7. I meant rigorous in a most positive sense, as your posts make themselves to be read :) I myself am from samegrelo so many traits are very familiar and also interesting to rediscover from outsider's point of view

  8. lol
    Petroni shirt
    whats with this patroni thing? i understand, the TLG staff wanted you guys to be careful,
    but did they really need to freak you out and make "patroni" sound like an official occupation?

    i mean i was like wth are they talking about? big, bad patroni guys walking around? o_O

    i've always thought of patroni as a family member who takes care of you
    not a bodyguard or whatever

    i reeeally like your blog
    and waiting for the new car-obsession post

    p.s. welcome:D

  9. I think the whole Petroni thing was more to ease the worries of the female teachers, since they were being adopted into a random family in a country they know little about.

    I have not had any Petroni related incidents... yet.

  10. i dont know. maybe it makes sense, but for me it would be one more reason to freak out.
    its like: if having a patroni is necessary for girls, then its not really safe here and if its not safe then..hmm...

    good luck with your blog and teaching and with the new post which im really waiting for:D

  11. not only i like the content of you blog but also the way u write. analyses of georgian rural life are so true, except for the petroni (it sounds like patroni) :)

  12. Excellent observation and writing! Love your sense of humor. Even though you are a bit critical, you are not “over stepping boundaries” (citing your expression here ha ha), i.e. you are never hostile.