Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Peace Corps Post #3: Getting Used to Gori. Or: I Can Understand Your Gestures! Great Success!

Today was better than yesterday. That’s the first thing that should be said about it. It didn’t start out better – I woke up, frankly, in abject terror of my inability to communicate and my fading sense of the helpfulness of my presence in this country – but it has ended pretty well. And, I suppose, that is as much as I can possibly hope for – that each day is better and easier than the last, and that I eventually find myself comfortable in this country. I remain terrified of asking to wash my clothes and to bathe, because the water in my host house, as far as I can tell, is currently no more than a slight trickle, and I have no idea what my host mother’s idea of me washing myself might consist of (I’m sure not bathing sounds disgusting to you Ameriklebi, but we have been told by current Peace Corps volunteers that they bathe every few days in the summer and as little as once a week in the winter). But I am abjectly terrified of fewer things than last night. So progress is being made. We’re even communicating sliiiightly easier, though the proper analogy might be taking ten steps up Mt. Everest.

My host mother’s house is not quite a house, in the American sense of the word, so much as a flat or an apartment. People seem to hang out on the first floor, but it’s sort of like an unfinished basement, and doesn’t have many house trappings. The second floor is where the normal rooms of the house are. There’s a modest kitchen, a modest dining room, a living room, a bathroom, and a couple of bedrooms. But, according to Peace Corps host family policy, each volunteer has to be given by his host family a room with a door that closes and locks (this is a foreign desire to Georgians, but they are apparently briefed on Americans’ fondness for space and privacy, not to mention the fact that most of us are carrying expensive electronics that we’d prefer not get stolen by someone in the neighborhood). There is no door for my room – only a curtain. The lockable door is between the dining room and the living room, which is attached to my room. This means that, to close “my” door, I am keeping my entire host family out of not only ONE room but TWO rooms, out of five total upstairs rooms. I feel very bad about this, but they seem to be accepting it perfectly well. My deda (“mother” in Georgian, but I think I’ll use it to mean “host mother,” since it’s shorter) has started to close the door when I gesture that I’m tired or that I need to study. I still feel really bad about it, but at least they don’t really seem to use the living room much. It doesn’t have a TV in it or anything. Pffffff. TV. You Ameriklebi.

In thankful contrast to my current mental state, I woke up this morning terrified of pretty much everything. I am sure that I should have completely accepted the fact that I was not going to be able to understand much of anything for a while, even though we’re studying the language so much, but when it actually happens it makes you feel so helpless. I was frustrated at my inability to transfer ANYTHING from my language classes into a coherent sentence. So this morning I woke up dreading an entire day of the same. Deda walked me to my 9am language class through the streets of the town – I felt like a six year old on the first day of first grade – and we didn’t try to talk much. Language class was difficult (we have four hours of it a day, six days a week from now on), but I think today I pinpointed exactly what is difficult for me. I’ve been breezing through the matching-written-words sorts of exercises, and getting envious stares from my classmates, but it was almost more frustrating because it didn’t help at my host house, and I didn’t know why. But I realized today that, while I can easily understand everything when it’s written, it’s much harder for me when it’s spoken or when I have to speak spontaneously. I have no experience with spoken foreign language – I took Latin in high school. Hopefully I will adapt more quickly now that I’ve pinpointed what I need to work on.

Our language class is at the NGO office of a current volunteer named Mark, which is cool because it allows us to ask him questions and see what his life is like, and also because there is free internet access there. I got about three minutes of wireless access on my laptop during a break, and thankfully it wasn’t too late in the states and Chris was on AIM. It was awesome, and not a little bit weird, to actually get to converse with someone from home who isn’t my mom. It was the first time since I’d left. I wanted to ask him what I’ve missed since I’ve been gone, but I realized that most likely nothing interesting has happened. I’ve been gone less time than I might have been gone had I just gone on a vacation. It just seems like it’s been years. But I was really happy either way that I was able to talk to someone. After class, we headed to an internet café in town; there was available internet at the office, but probably not for everyone at once, and we also wanted an excuse to walk through the city. We found the internet café and spent two hours there. It was distinctly weird to be using the internet again. It felt foreign. It felt American. It felt like something I’d left behind. I realized that I was thinking about it that way, and it scared me a bit. When we went to a reception at the US Ambassador’s house in the capital during orientation, we met some volunteers who are nearly done with their two years of service (they’re “nearing COS” in Peace Corps-speak, with COS standing for “Close of Service”), and it was awfully frightening how far they’d left America behind. One of the girls I spoke to forgot how to say a Georgian word in English while we were speaking. “Sorry, I forget English sometimes,” she said. “WHAT?????” I said. But only in my mind. That’s what I was reminded of when I was in the internet café, realizing that I have lost a bit of my desire to spend hours surfing the web, and I’ve been gone mere days. I was bored in just over an hour, after checking my e-mail, Facebook, CNN.com, Salon.com, and ESPN.com, and posting something short on my blog. When I was working in LA, I’d spend basically the entire DAY on the internet. What’s happening to me?

After my friends and I wandered around Stalin Park for a while (Stalin was born in Gori and the citizens are very proud of it – there’s a Stalin Street, a Stalin Park, a huge Stalin statue, and a Stalin Museum built around his boyhood home), I successfully purchased a large bottle of water at a maghazia (shop) after whipping out “tsk’ali” (“water,” although I should have practiced my sentences and said, “sad aris tsk’ali,” “where is water,” or, “me minda tsk’ali,” “I want water”), “didi” (“big,” after I was initially shown a smaller bottle than I wanted), and “ra ghirs?” (“how much?”). I felt pretty proud of myself. Then I felt less proud of myself when I forgot what my house looked like and stumbled upon it by sheer luck. I’ve spent the evening studying, trying to learn words as deda points them out (and trying to convey that I’m not retarded when I invariably forget them instantly), and avoiding being fed with much more success than last night.

As I briefly alluded to at the end of the last entry, this is more difficult than it may seem. One way Georgians show their hospitality is by feeding their guests. Probably the most common thing said by a deda or a bebia (grandmother) to a guest is, “tchame, tchame,” which means, “eat more, eat more.” They say this over and over while they shove bucketfuls of food at you. The food is great, but there’s so much of it. Last night deda asked if I wanted any chai (tea) before bed, and I said sure. I’d eaten maybe an hour before this. She beckoned me out to the table a few minutes later, where I saw enough food for an entire new meal. And only one place setting. She then spent the fifteen minutes or so it took for my dzalian tskheli chai (very hot tea) to cool off by buttering a piece of bread for me, putting karTopili (potatoes) on my plate, and demanding that I eat it. I stammered that I didn’t want any more (“meti ar minda, meti ar minda”), but it took several attempts for this to work. She does, however, seem to be requiring less persuasion that I’m full with each passing meal, although she apparently told a semi-speaker of English who was over this evening that she is “very sad for him because he eats so little.” At this point, when I don’t want to eat any more, I just start saying, “daghlili var,” which means, “I’m tired,” because it causes deda to become much more concerned with getting me to bed than she is about getting me to eat. Such is life here on Ninoshvili Street in Gori.

Hopefully tomorrow I will remember the phrase for “cucumber and tomato” (kitri da pamadori), so when I am quizzed on it with people watching I won’t be made to feel like a retard.

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