Monday, November 26, 2007

Coming of Age in Georgia. Or: Stretching the Use of English Phrases to Make a Weekend of Going to Bars Seem More Important Than It Is

Important pre-post note: I, egregiously, neglected to mention Thanksgiving in my last post because I was trying to rush it out before my documentary club kids showed up. So, happy belated Thanksgiving to you and yours, whether I know you or not. You should be thankful for Kentucky Fried Chicken if you live in America. I will explain why in a later post. Now, the main event:

This past week has had a bit of a coming-of-age feel to it. Firstly, it seems that the winter has come of age. I write this at 11pm Sunday night, and it is so cold that my testicles have booked a flight to Bermuda. It is so cold that I can see not only my breath but my dreams float away in a steamy mist after each exhale. Tonight was the first time I considered buttock comfort in the should-I-shouldn’t-I mental conversation about a jaunt to the latrine. Now, I realize that this is at least the eighth time I have used this space for a macabre decree about the onset of full-blown winter, but this time I believe myself to be correct. And, thinking about it, post-Thanksgiving is pretty late for it to get uncomfortably cold, and I shouldn’t be bitching. But, were bitching to be outlawed, Peace Corps volunteers the world over would go mute. Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been relatively cold but not unbearably so in my village; the coldest I’d yet felt in Georgia was this weekend, when I was in Tbilisi with several other volunteers. I was expecting this, because it is generally known to be colder in the east than in the west. But, when I got back to my site this afternoon, I discovered to my chagrin that it was WAY colder here. Surprise! Chokhatauri 1, me 0.

But winter is not alone in its onset. I mentioned my trip this weekend to Tbilisi – I traveled to Tbilisi on Friday, after a work meeting with a friend in a city on the way there, and spent Friday night through this morning with many volunteer friends, celebrating Thanksgiving by drinking a lot of good wine and trying to speak Italian (more on that later). This was the second weekend I’ve spent in Tbilisi; the last time was at the end of September, during our first month as volunteers, when many of us made a big effort to plan out the specific dates during which we’d use our one weekend out of site that month,[1] and then gathered to find our ways around the capital for the first time. That first time in Tbilisi, I felt as naïve as I assuredly was. I didn’t know where anything was, requiring a map even to find the Peace Corps office, I didn’t know which subway stops were near which places, and I didn’t know what to do for fun there. Sure, we spent that weekend in a similar fashion to this weekend, mostly relaxing at various places during the daytime while swapping site stories and grand theories about Peace Corps service and then finding one or several bars at which to spend the evening, but this weekend felt qualitatively different from that one. After a month not leaving site, where every day usually feels exactly the same as the one before it, it was interesting to go someplace where things felt different and where I could gauge my standing now versus my standing two months ago. Much has, predictably, changed, even while much has stayed the same, and I’m glad to feel like I’m getting a grasp on exactly how this is occurring as we get ready for a blitzkrieg of a December in which our big yearly conference, a two day language training, and holiday traveling will bring Calendar Year One of Peace Corps service to a close.

Perhaps fittingly, the weekend that felt so different bookended a week that started with the boiling point of three months of sameness. I’ve been frustrated, as I have said in this space many times, over and over with the language difficulties that I face to get any work done. I have not adjusted as well as I’d have liked to the perseverance necessary to work in this environment, not because of any lack of desire on the part of my coworkers, but just because working together requires so much effort, and despite the best intentions of everyone involved, huge important pieces of information are always flying in either direction completely unnoticed by one side (me) or the other (everyone else). I frequently wither in the face of this steep uphill battle for mutual understanding and relegate a necessary task for “later,” but I also feel that my coworkers have not, to this point, understood exactly how difficult it is for so much to be going untranslated and misunderstood, and how much more productive I feel I could be here. The issue of no translator being present in my office most of the time was brought up at my site visit, when my project manager and country director spoke to me and my colleagues about six weeks into service, and the solution my director came up with was to write up a specific schedule for when each of the two high school students who “volunteer” at my office would come in to be at my translation disposal. These students are terrific kids, I spend a lot of time with them, and their English is great – but it’s great for high school. It’s not sufficient for translation of organizational language. So this solution has meant that at least one of these kids comes into my office every day after school – after an entire day to that point of little productivity from me – to ask me if I need anything translated. Often, I do, but it’s too complicated for them to translate without so much help required from me so as to be just as difficult as if they weren’t there. I hate that this is the case, but it is, and it’s endlessly frustrating.

So, on Monday, I was frantically trying to prepare a Powerpoint presentation on long-term sustainability for my organization and some issues that I’d pinpointed for special consideration, after a few months of getting to know it. I thought it to be a crucial presentation, because they should be starting, this week, to write a strategic plan for the next few years that will shape the entire future of the organization. The language in the presentation was far too complicated for the kids – fundraising, organizational stability, external relations strategies, and such – so I had to give it to my tutor, who is an English teacher at the local school and speaks excellent English. I had to, basically, beg her to not only translate my presentation outline so I could put it on a Powerpoint – thinking that having a Powerpoint written in Georgian would hold the attention of my coworkers better during a long presentation and would also be a good visual outline for concepts that are pretty new for them – but also to come translate for me when I gave the presentation. Since she’s a teacher, she’s not free during the week until late afternoon, and the only time that was possible for her was Monday at 5pm, at which time she was graciously willing to come to my organization and help me. So I was forced to plan a hugely important presentation that would, under optimal circumstances, be a day-long seminar-type affair, for 5pm on a Monday, when everyone would want to be home. Also, due to the transportation issues of a town surrounded by “suburb” villages, one integral member of my organization would not be able to attend a presentation at this time.

So my frustration, before Monday, was already rising. However, my tutor had spent (far too much of) her weekend translating my outline into Georgian for me, and I was trying to make the best of the situation once I got into work that day, so I started feverishly typing the Georgian into Powerpoint. This was going slowly, because it was a two-step process: my Georgian is getting better, but not good enough to decipher quickly-scrawled handwriting, so a coworker first had to type my tutor’s notes up before I could transfer them into the Powerpoint. I was working feverishly on this all day, because the presentation as I had planned it was enormous. I realized as I was doing this that it would never all fit into a post-5pm session, but I wanted to do as much as I could.

Then the power blew at about 3:30. Someone in the office made a phone call and determined that it wouldn’t be back on for “at least three hours,” rendering all of my work completely worthless, since no power equals no Powerpoint. In my mind, I said all the most complicated obscenities I know, in both languages, I flipped over my desk, and I probably lit fire to several things. In reality, I just stewed at my desk until a well-meaning coworker came into the office where I sit and asked a question in English with an at-that-moment annoying inflection. It was all I could do not to yell at her, so I muttered an answer and pretty much literally stomped out of the office, parking myself with a harrumph on a stone ledge along the street outside. Georgians get very concerned when you sit on things that are not chairs; if you’re female, the prevailing superstition is that sitting on concrete will cause your ovaries to freeze and somehow fall out of your body. Men don’t have ovaries, but I still get looks when I sit on weird things, like concrete ledges. While I was stewing outside, a man from my office came from a nearby shop back towards the office, and saw me. He asked what I was doing, and I said, “thinking” in Georgian, because I don’t know how to say, “thinking about what to take my rage out on that will cause a negligible amount of mess for me to clean up afterwards.” He looked confused and went upstairs to the office.

When I followed him up shortly thereafter, I found everyone in my office waiting for me in a room, their faces all painted with concern. One by one, each of them asked me if I had problems I wasn’t telling them about. I said, “no, I’m fine,” because I’m an American and god damn if I haven’t been taught that capitalism only works if you repress your actual feelings deep inside because massive therapy bills stimulate the economy. My supervisor, looking troubled, shooed everyone from the room but myself and the man who speaks the best English in the office. They asked me what was going on and I tried to tell them about my frustrations and about how I wished I could do more work but that so many things were, at that moment, impossible for me. They looked very concerned, and then asked if I was homesick and/or needed some new friends. I said no, that my frustration was purely about work, and that I liked it in Chokhatauri – remember my intention to write an entire post about my standfast realization that I like it here much more than I thought I would? They didn’t really believe me, but we talked about the work issue, and they actually promised to ask our organization’s overhead funder for the money to hire someone to work with me in the future. I tried to make sure they realized that such a person would be beneficial for the entire organization and for the long-term, not as my doting assistant for two years, and they agreed, and it seemed to have been a productive meeting, even though they and I’m sure everyone else in the office thought and continues to think that the real problem is that I desperately miss my mother.

So, after that highly embarrassing display of vulnerability, not to mention its embarrassing resulting misdiagnosis, the day evened out, and I gave half of my presentation, and it stimulated some major discussion – in Georgia, this means heated arguments that are conducted far too fast for me to keep up, but which seem reasonably civil in that usually nobody ends up punching anyone else – and everyone stayed until I decided it was time to pack it in at 7pm, and it worked out fine. But it was an interesting episode, and seemed to be a sort of culmination of the first three months, a boiling point for everything that had been difficult since I got here, and a thankfully short emotional nadir that left me tired for the rest of the week and just hoping that it truly did represent a bottoming-out from which the rest of my service would grow. And I don’t know yet if it will represent a turning point, but I am of course hoping that it will.

So after a week spent grappling with the aftereffects of the most difficult day I’ve had yet in this country, the long weekend couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanksgiving was Thursday, but we don’t get American holidays off.[2] Friday, however, was Giorgoba, the Georgian holiday of St. George, and everyone in my office went to church, so I took the opportunity to head to Kutaisi – a nearby city – to meet with a volunteer friend about a breast cancer video we’re planning, and also to eat the amazing Caesar salad served at a restaurant there.[3] We ate salad and talked about the video, and then I took a bus to Tbilisi to spend the weekend with some other friends.

I said at the beginning of this post that the weekend seemed almost like a ceremony-less transition; the first time we were in Tbilisi, we required guidance to get anywhere, and it felt odd to be visiting a city with which we did not yet feel any particular familiarity. And, despite a new Peace Corps rule that only allows one weekend a month for personal visits to Tbilisi – the old policy, I believe, allowed volunteers to go whenever they wanted – it’s still the only city of its size and kind in this country, the one that feels closest to the cosmopolitan vibrancy many of us are used to from living in large cities in America, and the only place in the country where you can find and do almost anything you’d need. Also, people tend to speak English there.[4] So, despite the fact that none of us live there, it’s a very important city for us, and familiarity with Tbilisi seems to me an important benchmark on the road to full integration both with living in this country and with living as a Peace Corps volunteer here. The G6 group, for instance, has been here for a year and a half now, and has spent countless weekends in Tbilisi, and has a confidence about moving around the city that only comes with time. We were lacking in this confidence in September, but it seemed as if we’d found it by this time, even though this was only our second visit. This feeling, at least for me, was coupled with the fact that the discussions we had this time around about our service and Peace Corps in general were so much more nuanced than they were last time – having, of course, triple the experience we had in September. Instead of merely telling each other latrine and language-difficulty stories, like we did last time, we had broad conversations about Peace Corps direction, and two-year strategies, and our project plans; and, since Peace Corps volunteers are always jaded when talking to each other, our jaded opinions about big topics made me feel like I’d been here far longer than I actually have. God help anyone who makes the mistake of asking us about these things a year from now. We might just unhinge our jaws and devour such a person, pausing only to make a sarcastic comment about how they don’t even taste good.[5]

We spoke in jaded terms about everything, but that of course does not mean we weren’t having a good time doing so. It was an excellent weekend. I arrived in Tbilisi Friday evening, dropped my stuff off at the guest house most volunteers stay at when they’re in the city[6], and found my friends at a great restaurant nearby that serves good pizza. They were already a bottle or two of wine deep before I joined them, and we drank at least three more as we sat and talked about the last month. This was expensive wine, too. I believe it cost around 20 lari a bottle, which is about 12 dollars. Expensive for us, anyway. The total bill for our meal and the wine ended up being something like 170 lari, which split five ways turned into 35 from me. This is by far the most expensive meal I’ve had so far in this country, and may hold that distinction for a while, but it was absolutely worth it. It was also absolutely a harbinger for the rest of the weekend. We drank a LOT of good wine.

After the restaurant, we went to a bar that a coworker had recommended to me, which turned out to have pretty good beer on tap that was very cheap.[7] Then, because we’re just THAT American, we went to an expat bar with an Irish theme to eat burgers and onion rings. The owner called out to us in a friendly way as we walked in, which seemed weird, because we don’t know her, and she sounds like she’s from Dallas or something. Mmmm, Americanness. But perhaps the Americanness was balanced out by a Peace Corps Moment we experienced while walking there: we were taking a back street through historical Old Tbilisi, arguing about how to get to this expat bar, when suddenly fireworks started going off in the sky. They must have been for Giorgiba, the Georgian holiday that was that day. So we stood in the misting rain on a cobblestone street for ten minutes, watching a fireworks display celebrating St. George over a block of old buildings with wooden balconies. Then we continued to the bar that shows rugby and American college football on weekends. Peace Corps, friends.

The next day, we ate kababi[8] at a restaurant that stole its color scheme from Hot Dog on a Stick, then went to the Peace Corps office for a short while, and then headed to another restaurant to meet up with more friends. This was an Italian restaurant, and much like my first meet-up the previous day, we arrived to find our friends on their Nth bottle of wine. They were talking to an American man and a man with an accent I couldn’t place, both of whom I think work for an oil company. I didn’t talk to them much before they left, but it turns out they were just a warmup in the Fun People To Meet game, because after we’d been talking on our own for a while, we noticed a man looking at us from another table with the, “invite me over” look on his face. So we did.

We discovered that this man works for the Italian Consulate. It’s impressive that we discovered even this, because this man speaks – you guessed it – only Italian. Now, a volunteer we were with spent at least an entire semester studying in Florence. He has apparently forgotten all but four words of Italian. Another volunteer studied Spanish in high school, which apparently is a language Italians mostly understand. The rest of us had nada. But we spent the next three hours enjoying an ATTEMPT at conversation with this man, aided by several more bottles of good wine. We stayed long enough that we ate dinner there. Another Peace Corps Moment.

After this Peace Corps Moment, we did the same thing we’d done the night before, which is find something that screamed “America” as loudly as possible. This time, it involved finding a place called “Buffalo Bill’s” on a street lined with expat bars and drinking beer while listening to a Georgian bar band play Pink Floyd and Gin Blossoms with impressive accuracy. Apparently we just can’t help ourselves. Then, we grabbed McDonald’s and met several G6s at the Tbilisi Sheraton, which has a mini dance club in it. I could not match the enthusiasm for dancing displayed by a random Georgian man who was swaying by himself in the middle of the dance floor for the entire time we were there, but I danced a little, and I also enjoyed the outfits worn by the waitresses in this club, which I cannot describe on a PG-rated blog except to say that they rivaled the outfits worn in a music video that my entire host family chose to watch recently – a video in English, such that nobody in the room but me understood the title, which was [word I don’t want to repeat] My [word I don’t want to repeat] – in their, how do I say, sluttiness. This is an adjective you don’t often get to use in a developing country. I enjoyed these outfits not in a perverted manner, but in an amused manner, because anyone caught wearing such a thing in the village where I live would be cast out of town on a pack mule and never allowed to return.[9]

We had to leave early the next morning because there was to be another big political rally, and Peace Corps wanted us out of Dodge by noon. And so thus was my Big Tbilisi Thanksgiving Slash Giorgoba Weekend Extravaganza – and thus was one of the more eventful weeks of my service so far. This week, I only have three days of work before heading to Peace Corps’ yearly All-Volunteer Conference; then, in December, I have another two day conference and a trip to see my family, all sandwiched around what I hope is a lot of work done by my organization on our strategic plan. I hope to be quite busy, but rest assured I will not forget the promises I have made to you for blog content. Well, I have forgotten them, but rest assured I will go back and LOOK for them, and I will continue to entertain and inform you all the way up to the holidays and beyond. Picture Post 2 of Places I Can Walk to Easily in Chokhatauri is up next, when I get a chance to post it. Stay well, friends.

Postscript: I was just told by a coworker that she does not like my beard and that I look "like Saddam Hussein." This is not true, but makes me wonder if all the Georgians I know secretly hate my beard. Maybe this will turn into a contentious and divisive office issue, during which I will attempt to convince them that Americans are generally okay with beards and they will give me lists of other deceased despots that I don't actually resemble.

[1]During the first three months at site, volunteers are only allowed to spend one weekend out of their sites per month for personal reasons. This is our third month, so it’s the last month for which this rule applies, although it turns out that the rule wouldn’t have mattered much this month, because we were on lockdown for security reasons for two weekends and we’ll be at Peace Corps’ yearly volunteer training next weekend.
[2]Though I’d like to mention for the staff who reads this blog that this policy quite neglects the Peace Corps mission of cultural exchange, since I could far more easily teach my coworkers about Thanksgiving if we took the day off and, um, discussed it over wine and meat-that-might-be-turkey, as the Pilgrims intended it.
[3]Seriously, there so rarely is American-style food here that approximates how such food would taste in America; we HAVE to take advantage of it when we find it. Entire trips are planned around this Caesar salad. And it would be considered excellent salad in AMERICA. It may be the only salad in this entire country for which this is true. “Salad” here usually means cucumbers and tomatoes in a bowl. Sometimes they’re garnished. And I like cucumbers and tomatoes, and I often enjoy this dish. But it is not a salad.
[4]We often try to speak Georgian in Tbilisi, only to be rebuffed by Georgian people whose English is far better than our Georgian. Usually, Georgian is only required for dealing with cabdrivers, when we have to strain our abilities for phrases like, “I hope you also charge your mother double the usual price for this five minute drive to a bar. We will get in your cab because it is cold and we don’t want to wait for another, but we will have you know that, eventually, we will charge YOU double for something, and you won’t like it at ALL.” But often when we’re in restaurants, we’ll order in Georgian, and the waitress will look at us askance and say something like, “would you like anything else?” in perfect English. Once, when I was at McDonald’s – the Tbilisi McDonald’s could be an entire post, and has been one on at least one other volunteer’s blog – I tried my best to order a double quarter pounder meal in Georgian, which was quite awkward, after which the counterperson just paused and said, “your total is 9 lari.” This weekend, we were at a kababi place, and we were looking at the menu with the squinty-eyed determination required to decipher large amounts of Georgian text, and the counterperson said, “I can tell you what we have…” My friend told her, “Oh, it’s ok, we can read it, it’ll just take a while.” Then we insisted on ordering in Georgian just to prove it.
[5]Note: Peace Corps does not endorse jokes or analogies that revolve around cannibalism. Probably.
[6]It’s sort of a Peace Corps-endorsed guest house, and is only a few blocks from the Peace Corps office. The proprietor, a lovely woman named Genora, speaks pretty good English and loves volunteers; I’d estimate that at least 80% of her guests are us, and I’m told that this number is intentional, because she likes us and tries to make sure that she always has room for us.
[7]It did, though, have the metallic aftertaste that ALL Georgian beer-on-tap has had, in my experience so far. I don’t know enough about tap beer to know why this is. If you do, tell me, and I will create a PSA to air on all Georgian television stations about how to fix it. This is a crucial issue. Thank you for your attention.
[8]Meat wrapped in a tortilla, often slathered in mayonnaise, because everything here is often slathered in mayonnaise. A glob of mayonnaise on a plate would probably be slathered with extra mayonnaise, just in case.
[9]This would be extra punishment, because wearing this outfit while riding a pack mule would probably be very uncomfortable.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Time, time, time. Or: I need some more of it, please.

Hello, friends. This has been a crazy week, and I have not had a chance to sit down and write the update I've been very much wanting to write. I keep trying to write it when I get home from work, but I've been so tired the last few days that the writing has been more miserable than its usual miserableness, and I have scrapped it. Here are some of the themes I wanted to write about:

1) More about Chokhatauri and Guria in general, with the help of Wikipedia. Perhaps this will, indeed, be better saved for slightly later, because yesterday some men came into the office and offered to show me around a castle that is apparently sitting in a village near here. I had not known about this castle, but it was sweet how these men couched the actual reason for their visit - a request for me to teach them English that I felt sad to have to rebuff - in an offer to show me a historical site. The Georgians are nothing if not hospitable. It is probably the coolest thing about this place.

2) Monday, when I almost went apeshit at my office, and actually did stomp out of it, due to pent up frustrations and the weight of a really important presentation I wanted to give. Everyone in the office thought I was homesick and/or needed more friends, neither of which was true, and it was very embarrassing but ultimately probably a good thing. I very much want to describe this to you, because it relates to

3) which is the previously mentioned discussion about how I found out, during my three week lockdown, that I like it in Chokhatauri much more than I could possibly have predicted when I first found out that I'd be sent here. See, I had - and continue to have - no problems on the personal side of things, here. The not-big-city-ness of it has not bothered me, and I have a couple people with whom I can speak English some during the week, and enough people with whom I can make smalltalk in Georgian. But work continues to be a challenge, when interaction is necessary on a more complicated level, and when it is required (the majority of my work at this point is of my own initiative) it can be frustrating to butt my head against the language barrier without an ever-present translator. And it all sort of came to a head on Monday, when I had an important presentation I wanted to give, and kept running into these problems, and I just sort of snapped. It was an interesting afternoon, and I still ended up giving the presentation after it. Interesting day, and an illuminating look at what can often happen during Peace Corps service; I just haven't been able to write about it adequately yet. Also,

4) I almost set myself on fire without even realizing it, yesterday. So THAT was fun.

All these things and a long weekend's full of merriment (tomorrow is Giorgoba, the Georgian holiday of St. George's Day) in Ozurgeti, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi -- look for it, here, next week! Huzzah!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

PART V - Guria Region, In Pictures (Episode I). Or:

First things first: Our travel restriction has been lifted, so we're now allowed to leave our sites! Hooray! I will have a post this week regarding things I have learned from what will have been, by the time I actually leave Cho either for a meeting this week or for fun next weekend, almost a full month here in my village without leaving. Far from a purely facetious post, this post will actually share at least one exceedingly interesting musing. Interesting to me, at least, which means you will only pretend to be interested so as not to hurt my feelings.

Second things second: Egregiously, I neglected an etiquette lesson in my Emily Post. Here it is: when your tutor slash translator slash ECO Club leader says, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly normal sentence, a word that I will not stoop to repeat on this blog but which rhymes with "Phil Doe," it is proper etiquette not to call attention to this moment at all, even though the word could not have been said more clearly, because she obviously meant to say something else, even though you haven't the foggiest what that something else could possibly have been. You are, then, required to feel bad that you told two people about this incident immediately, on the internet. After all, you have surely said something just as bad in the five months you've been in a foreign country attempting in utter vain to speak foreign words coherently. I mean, the language you attempt to speak contains such tripwires that if you even say the words "your" and "mother" in the incorrect order, which happens to be the CORRECT order in English, you are not saying, "your mother" so much as you are saying, "your mother, with whom I spent the night having wild monkey sex in a dirty motel, which she enjoyed very much indeed." So a simple "Phil Doe" must be immediately forgiven and forgotten about.

Speaking of speaking, last night I had the opportunity to watch my host brother's wedding video, which contains footage of my famous toast. I have never wanted to sprint from a room more quickly in my life. Friends, if you think your voice and/or verbal cadence sounds weird and annoying when you see or hear yourself speaking in your NATURAL language, BOY is it worse than that with a language you DON'T speak. I thought I had delivered this address with aplomb and flair. It turns out I delivered it with about ten seconds of silence between each word. This is an exaggeration, but it didn't seem like one when I was watching. My new life goal is to destroy every piece of video evidence that this toast ever happened. Incidentally, if you think watching wedding videos can get boring when you are watching them in your natural language, they're even more fun when you're watching them in a language you don't speak. First, we watched the video from my host brother's wedding two weeks ago -- 95% of which I did not understand the FIRST time. Then, we watched his sister's wedding from six years ago, of which I understood just as little. Three hours of fun, friends! The only redeeming factor is that seeing what people looked like six years ago is funny in all languages, and we all had a good laugh at my host brother, who looked like Beaver Cleaver in a snappy vest. My laughter was tinged with melancholy after I recalled that evidence exists of what I looked like six years ago. So.

Here, then, after a much-longer-than-intended intro, is Episode I of Part V of Better Know a Georgia! Episode I is subtitled, "Places in Chokhatauri I Was Not Too Lazy to Walk to as I Walked to My Office Today." Later Episodes of Part V will include photographs of elsewhere in Chokhatauri (although there is not much elsewhere in Chokhatauri; what you will see here is pretty much what you get) as well as elsewhere in Guria, if I travel to them anytime soon. Another episode, possibly this week, will consist of what factual information I have about Guria region, which is, it goes without saying, indubitably the best region in Georgia, if we're judging by number of American Peace Corps volunteers with fluffy beards who live there (Guria: 1).

As you can see from this photo, Guria is a heavily wooded region, as opposed to more eastern regions, and is also greatly characterized by foothills. It is also the leading citrus-growing region in Georgia. That citrus tree -- it doesn't grow oranges, but some other citrus fruit that I've never seen elsewhere, the name of which I don't know -- is either in my yard or the neighbor's yard; I don't remember exactly which tree this is.

You can see some of the larger mountains in the background of this photograph, which displays a typical street in the rural areas of Georgia, which Guria can be described to be. Almost all families own houses that have been in their extended families for a long time, with large gated yards where they grow grapes and have expansive fruit and vegetable gardens. Those yellow pipes are gas lines, which have recently been installed in Chokhatauri, entirely above-ground, and which, most importantly, feed into the two Karma heating devices in my house.

A photograph of one of those typical rural Georgian homes; the external staircase is, oddly, present in an overwhelming majority. I don't know why. The second floor balcony that overhangs the door on the first floor is also a highly usual feature. This is, incidentally, not MY house, because I will not allow you to pin me down that easily.

It rains a lot in Guria.

This is a roadside display on my way to work, displaying the flags of the European Commission, Georgia, and Israel. Your guess is as good as mine, on this one.

This is, I think, the only apartment building in Chokhatauri. Guria is the smallest region in Georgia, with only one town that could really be called a town -- Ozurgeti, the regional center -- and two town/villages, of which Chokhatauri is one. This does, however, look like what apartment buildings in Georgia tend to look like, which is, totally tenement-y on the outside. The apartments inside these buildings usually look far nicer than what you'd expect from the outside. Although I have not been inside this particular building, so I wouldn't know, here.

This is the center of town, which is dominated by a large, burnt-out building, fronted with a row of flags. I've been told what this building used to be, but have forgotten. It may have had something to do with manufacturing. I should probably ask these questions before posting such non-information. The flags are alternating Georgian and European Commission flags. Georgia really, really, really likes Europe.

This is the center of Chokhatauri, seen from in front of the burnt-out building. There is a small park between the two lanes of the road; the shop I always go to is in the greenish-blue building, and my office is in the gray building you can just see past it.

This is a bust in the middle of the small park. I don't know who it depicts. I should probably ask more questions about things.

These side-of-the-road crosses are everywhere in Georgia. You Illinoisers - it's like that giant cross in Effingham, except they're much more tastefully small and none of them try to drum themselves up as a tourist attraction! This one is one of the first things you see as you enter Chokhatauri from the east, although this photo was taken from the west.

The small ravine that contains the creek running behind my office, and the mountains in the distance.

More photos to come tomorrow, as I should really be leaving the office and getting home. After all, given not being able to leave Cho and the fact that my office grants me weekend internet access, I come in here most weekend days, and I believe this is the 14th consecutive day I have come in. I probably look like a workaholic to everyone, when in fact I spend my time uploading pictures to Blogger and talking about sports with people in America. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone. But DO tell everyone this:

#19 ranked Illinois Football: 9-3, likely headed for their first New Years' Day game in six years
#2 ranked UCLA Basketball: 3-0
Illinois Basketball: 2-0
#21 ranked Southern Illinois Basketball: 1-0

Why did I decide to come over here where there is no sports television, again? Oh, right: because there IS Georgian-language "Survivor," which I saw on television last night. I took it as an opportunity for cross-cultural education, and I showed my family what I would do with "Survivor" in America: I completely ignored it because it's silly.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Couple of Life Lessons. Or: This is an Emily Post. Ha!

Lesson 1: when you are at your tutor's home, finishing up a lesson, and you are walking towards the road, you may overhear a bunch of people in the half-building in the yard. When you ask what they are doing, you may be told that they are making homemade vodka. Despite your interest, it is proper etiquette to first ask, "along with making homemade vodka, are people also swinging an axe at a dead pig's genitals in there?" before you express desire to go inside and watch. This way, your surprise when you round the corner will not offend your hosts.

Lesson 2: always make sure to be courteous to your host, whether that host is merely hosting a dinner party or hosting you for two years. Good things come to those who are courteous -- often in the form of new gas-powered heaters in two rooms of your house. Jesus will let you know that these heaters are a reward for your good behavior in the form of the name of the company that apparently made these heaters: a Czech company called, swear to god, "Karma." I musta done SOMETHING good. Even though it has been downright balmy for the last few days, these heaters are almost as awesome as the Toblerone that was delivered in a care package from my mother today. There are, conservatively, 30 tubes of Toblerone in this care package, and I will eat all of them, conservatively, by the time I go to bed tonight.

More, perhaps, tomorrow, when I hope to post Better Know a Georgia, Part V -- Guria Region, In Pictures!!1!1!1! Except, I am still not allowed to leave Chokhatauri, so it will be more like Places I Can Walk To In Chokhatauri, In Pictures!!!!!111!!1!!1!!1!!!!!

Speaking of not (yet) being allowed to leave Chokhatauri, which really isn't a big deal, I am also not allowed to mention some of the things about the Current Situation that I have mentioned in this space. Peace Corps has said this to be so, and while I disagree with that assessment, I have redacted major portions of the large post about politics. If you had not yet read this post, or have any specific questions for me about the Current Situation, send me an e-mail and I will send you the whole post and/or answer any questions you may have. Because I live to be informative, and the stance being taken by several Western media articles I have seen is, well, I can't say what I think it is on this blog, other than to say it's illy-say. But I cannot discuss it further in this forum. Sorry.

But, some links to OTHER news reports:

  • The state of emergency has been lifted, as of yesterday. (Civil Georgia)
  • The opposition has taken the opportunity of the lifting of the state of emergency to say some fun things about President Saakashvili. (Civil Georgia)
  • President Saakashvili has nominated a new Prime Minister to head a new cabinet in Parliament. (Civil Georgia) I don't think it's in this article, but I have been told that he is a graduate of Emory University, joining renowned Georgian seven-footer Zaza Pachulia in the club of Georgians who made it all the way to America only to find another place called Georgia.
  • A Tbilisi city court has suspended the broadcast license of Imedi TV (the station whose equipment was damaged in a police raid), accusing it of inciting government overthrow and being in league with the Russians. (Civil Georgia)
  • A senior American diplomat is confident that Georgia will continue to move in the right democratic direction, stating helpfully, "we have spent over a decade contributing part of our the success of Georgia's democracy." No word yet on how this has been affected by piracy on the high (Black) seas and the falling value of Spanish dubloons against the Euro. (Civil Georgia)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

This Post is a Bright Light at the End of a Long Tunnel. Or: Metaphorically Speaking.

I’ve been thinking about metaphors.[1] I’ve been thinking about how we need metaphors, how we need to use totally arbitrary and usually quite stupid symbols to help us cope with the fact that life, as we know it, is completely and totally beyond our comprehension.[2] You may think that you understand life. Trust me; you do not. You may think that you understand YOUR life. Trust me; you do not. You may think that you have some grasp on how the humans on this planet relate to one another on an essential level, or how we interact with our environments, or what the friggin’ point is, of everything. If you think this, you are stupid, or naïve, or dangerously underversed in life’s lifeities, and you should leave this blog immediately before you contaminate any of the HTML code.[3]

I start with this not because I have been feeling extra-contemplative, today, nor has anything happened that has caused me to rethink everything I ever thought.[4] I start with this because I have been thinking about light bulbs, and light bulbs are an excellent metaphor. For instance: last night, a light went on for me, when I found myself accidentally standing in the middle of a small lake where I was expecting the road to be. Wait. Sorry. Not a metaphor. The actual light, on my crank flashlight, was turned on at that point, by me, about five seconds after I apparently needed it.

Ok, better example: a light went on for me, yesterday morning, when I was talking online with my friend Naresh. I was explaining the spectrum of squat toilets, and the qualities of good ones, and the qualities of quite bad ones, and the qualities of the squat toilet at Tskhinvali State University, in Gori, which is more disgusting than the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen in your life times ten. I was discussing technique, and the required flexibility, and a fun variation on a squat toilet which I have termed a “half-squatter,” which is a western toilet with no seat that is far more common here than you’d think, despite the fact that it’s like boxer briefs in its combination of the worst of two alternatives.[5] And the metaphorical light went on: I realized that I could talk, at this point, for hours, about this. About toilets. It wasn’t a bad light[6] or a good light[7]. It was just a neutral metaphorical light. Hm, I thought. So there’s another thing I am a total expert in, now.[8] This is an example of what I mean, about life. You probably think you know what there is to know about toilets. I am here to tell you that you do not. And what you know about life is the same as what you know about toilets. But I am getting away from my primary metaphor.

Lights are a much better metaphor here than they are in America. In America, you control when the lights go on and off. Choice robs the light of its metaphorical power. A person who chooses to turn on his flashlight when he discovers himself in the middle of a small lake is the beneficiary of no unexpected wisdom.[9] He expects to learn something when he turns that light on. He is a mover and a shaker in his own informational universe. But a person for whom the lights turn themselves on and off is a person who often receives information he was not expecting.[10] He may receive new information at any time, and he may also have information withheld from him. He is neither a mover nor a shaker. He is a deaf mute, and Life is Annie Sullivan.

Thus, living in a country with an irregular power supply affords one the benefit of better understanding that the metaphor of the light works both ways. In America, the light is only used as a metaphor for sudden understanding. “The light went on for me.” In Georgia, we volunteers know all too well that the light can also go off. It can go off literally, perhaps while you are sitting or squatting on the toilet in an enclosed room with no other light source. Or it can go off metaphorically, a sudden realization that you know less than you knew yesterday.

We volunteers are acquainted with this feeling, because it tends to happen a lot – almost as many times as the actual electricity goes out. In America, you might find yourself in a light-off situation only a few times in your adult life. Your first month at college. Perhaps a new job, a new city, your first child. Most of the time, this is simply an uncomfortable new situation, nothing radical, and nothing too difficult. Perhaps you must adjust your mental outlook slightly, or change a behavior. In Georgia, slightly changing a behavior would do absolutely no good in reducing the number of times you sit back and think boyyyyy do I know jack about what I have gotten myself into. A light turns off, for instance, when you first arrive at staging, when you look around at a DC hotel conference room full of people you do not know and realize that you will be forced to create a dangerous number of flipcharts demonstrating teamwork with them. After two days in staging, you think that light’s back on. You engage in witty banter with the others and have deep conversations over Mexican food or real pizza about what it means to be a volunteer.

Then, you jump on a plane to your actual destination. If you’re Georgia/7, you arrive after two days, two flights, and one hangover-induced bus coma in a place where the water is not drinkable, the language is not readable, the cows are not movable, and there’s definitely no Mexican food. Light, meet the off position again, please. After a week in lockdown at an abandoned Soviet hotel, you again think you know “Georgia.” Please. No soup for you. You are dumped into a host family, with whom you are not yet even able to communicate the intensity of your need for a bath.[11] And over the course of the next ten weeks, you start to think that maybe you’ve got this lighting problem rewired, figured out, solved. This language isn’t so bad, and you kind of like this town, you say to the fourteen other Americans with whom you gather every evening to bitch about training over mugs of shitty beer.[12] But then, almost as if you did had no idea this would ever happen, you are placed at your permanent site, and those fourteen Americans have vanished, and so have the Georgian people who speak perfect English and can help you when you make a language mistake, and so has the nice new bathroom that Peace Corps built for you when it realized that one more week of the squat toilets at Tskhinvali State would have caused a riot. Goddamn, you think, where’s that light switch when I need it?

I was thinking specifically about the light switch yesterday, when I did some reading on the current WGA strike in LA and New York. What? you say. The WGA is the film and television writers’ guild, and it is currently striking for more somethingorother.[13] You have probably heard about this; perhaps you are viciously angry that The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is in reruns, or perhaps you read a newspaper, where TV and film writers have been flocking in recent days to describe their strike in self-congratulatory witticisms, because boy they just can’t help themselves. I was reading about this strike, and I realized that I was not sure this was what I wanted to do, when I get back to America, and hey where did the electricity go? As metaphorical power outages go, this one is likely to last a lot longer than the previous ones.

I have wanted to be a film writer/director for a long time. It is what I worked towards for five years, in and after college. I knew I was taking a calculated risk in dropping that to join Peace Corps – the possibility of losing five years’ worth of momentum was probably my biggest fear, and would likely have been the biggest contributing reason had I decided not to accept my invitation to Georgia. My plan was to finish Peace Corps, having matured as a person and a potential artist, and then go back to film school. When I got here, it didn’t take long to realize just how long these two years are – not temporally, but mentally. I will be a vastly different person in September 2009 than I am now, and I am likely already a vastly different person than I was in June.[14] I recognized early on that saying with any certainty what I’d be doing when I left Peace Corps was stupid; I started saying that I’d “probably” be going back to Los Angeles to resume what I’d been doing before. But, reading about the strike, I found myself asking another question; not, “are you sure?” but, “are you sure you want to?” In reading about the striking writers, and their demands, with which I am entirely sympathetic, everyone involved suddenly seemed very……whiny.

“We want a piece of internet revenue!” say the writers.
“No,” say the producers.
“You’re all evil meanieheads!” retort the writers, who are striking and thus not allowed to come up with something more clever.
“Nu-uh,” scoff the producers, who have no writers and are thus rendered entirely monosyllabic.
“Oh yeah? See how long you can last without new episodes of ‘Cane’ and ‘ER’!”
“We’ll just add reality programming!”
“Everyone hates reality programming!”
long pause

At this point, I am thinking, “Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. I work with people for whom 50 dollars might be more than a month’s pay. And I am trying to purchase cameras so the kids here can make their own documentaries; perhaps you could take some of that newfound internet money and give me some of it.” And thinking this surprises me; I am not an insufferable third-world tart like Sally Struthers, feasting on the overconsumption insecurities of Americans, feeding them emotional pornography, and showing them where they can send the check. My heart has not started bleeding more than usual, and I am making no plans to spend the rest of my life working for Save the Children International. I merely think, at this moment, that the people who do what I wanted to do seem sort of whiny, and I’m not sure how badly I want to do it when I return to America, and that’s a real son of a bitch, because that means maybe I have to pick something else.

Or maybe I will get to summer 2009 and decide that I do, after all, want to return to Hollywood. Who knows. And there are, certainly, plenty of volunteers who do not know what they want to do when they finish with Peace Corps. Some of them make extensive, open-ended travel plans, some of them stay in Tbilisi, working for Georgian NGOs or for English-language universities, and one volunteer has even decided that he will stay in Peace Corps for the rest of his life.[15] I just wasn’t expecting to be one of these volunteers. It is possible that I still am not, and this is all just a mental phase. But, mental phase or no mental phase, it’s left me grasping a bit, feeling my way in the dark for that metaphorical light switch.

Hopefully I find it. After all, I do have plenty of practice feeling my way around in the dark by now.[16]

[1]This post, for instance, is a smoked ham.
[2]The writer of this post is a stuffed shirt.
[3]This sentence is a sausage, bursting with savory flavor.
[4]I mean, like, anything more specific than, “moving to a random country to do a job you’ve never done before in a language you can barely speak.” Besides that.
[5]This sentence contains a simile, which deviates dangerously from the “metaphor” theme and as such should be disregarded. Especially if you think, incorrectly, that boxer briefs are superior undergarments.
[8]Also I know some things about cutting your nails with a Swiss Army Knife.
[9]Except maybe, “I should have turned on my flashlight earlier.”
[10]Example: the information that it’s really annoying when the lights go on and off by themselves.
[12]The bottled Georgian beers are not so bad; they’re like American beer in that they’re all mediocre and taste exactly the same. Georgian beer from the tap, in my experience, tastes either like soap or like metallic shavings. This is one of life’s unexplainable mysteries.
[13]Probably donuts.
[14]This is one of the biggest reasons that I am very excited to be meeting my family in London for Christmas; I have no idea what it will be like, after six months, to again see Americans who are not in the Peace Corps, and to be surrounded by a city of people who are rich and speak English and sit when they use the toilet. Will I seamlessly fall back into my old self for a week? Will merely being in the West be weird for me, after only six months? Will I be unrecognizable to my family? Yes, probably, because I have a Bolshevik beard.
[15]This is true. His name is Peter, and we are all in awe of him. He’s in the volunteer group that has been here for a year and a half, and he is nearly fluent in Georgian, prefers speaking in Georgian to speaking in English, and does not like congregating with other Americans. This is also his second stint in Peace Corps – he was in Mali for an entire 27 months, went back to America, decided he didn’t like it, and signed up again. SIGNED UP AGAIN. And he plans to sign up again INDEFINITELY. I cannot fathom this.
[16]This blog post is a wet blanket.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Some Links Before I Leave Work to Sate Your Appetite for Caucasian Politics. Or: If That Adjective Confused You, Re-Read Some Earlier Posts, Please

Reuters: Top U.S. Official Backs Georgia's Embattled Leader
Chicago Tribune: Georgia Crackdown Vexes U.S.
AFP: US Envoy in Georgia to Push for End to Emergency Rule
Civil Georgia: Opposition Coalition Names Presidential Candidate
Civil Georgia: Crisis Recedes As Election Season Begins to Unfold
Civil Georgia: Saakashvili: Test for Georgia's Statehood Passed

Also, there was a major oil spill involving Russian oil tankers in the Black Sea, relatively near to Georgia (although much nearer to Ukraine). Apparently huge winds sank five ships. Perhaps it was the same wind that destroyed my window. Or a wind-cousin. The wind must be stopped. No good can come of it.

Technology Makes the World Go Round. Or: A New Blog Addition Is Much More Personally Exciting if You Haven't Had Electricity Since Early Last Evening

Friends, the internet is a wonderful thing, full of exciting features that upwards of two people might find useful. At the bottom of the sidebar, I have added links for you such that you are now able, if you so desire, to subscribe to this blog in either a "reader" or by e-mail. A reader, if you do not utilize this technology, is a program like GoogleReader that gathers new posts from all of the blogs you read and allows you to read them in one place. I, myself, did not use it until very recently, when I set it up to gather new posts from all of the fellow-volunteer blogs I read. I quite recommend it, if you read many blogs. Or, you can have the FeedBurner service e-mail you new posts, if you prefer. Or, you can continue to visit the actual homepage of the blog, if you enjoy the neat graphics. Also, I don't think the footnote links work in the feed versions of posts. But we'll see if that's something I can fix.

As far as personal updates: things are still fine here, although a windy rainstorm destroyed a window in my office and left my village without power for most of last evening and this morning. It is, as you can see, working now, and I am quite impressed at the speed with which the electricity is usually fixed here, when there is a problem. Swift repairs are not something I would have assumed to be the status quo here, but they seem to be, and that's good news for everybody, because the power goes out relatively frequently. It is nearly always back on very soon, however. But I suppose the damage last night was greater than usual, so we were without power all night, which meant I typed emails on my computer using my headlamp to see the keyboard. Headlamps, if you've never seen one, are lights you strap to your forehead, much like if you were a coal miner. They make you look ridiculous, and I didn't want to bring one. But I did, and thank god, because they can be quite useful when there is no source of electricity for 30km except the freaking house down the street, which is completely lit, flaunting the fact that that family rented a generator for a wedding this past weekend. Keep flaunting, family. I don't envy your light. I have my dorky headlamp, and I can see fine, unless I need to go to the toilet.

Also, we remain on standfast, and are hearing from Peace Corps that our much-looked-forward-to All Volunteer Conference at the end of the month, which is usually a festive Thanksgiving celebration in Tbilisi with turkeys flown in from America (although I'm not sure why they fly turkeys in, because I have plenty of them in my yard, near the toilet), will not be in Tbilisi for safety reasons. This is Bad News. I need fast internet there to finally complete my organization's website. And, more importantly, I have a care package waiting for me in Tbilisi, which I cannot get to. This is like, when you were in college, getting a care package from home and discovering that nobody will be working in the mailroom for the next month. Oh, well. I'm sure the sweaters in my care package wouldn't be helping me now, as I freeze to death in the bitter chill.

As always, if you remain interested in the political situation in this country, which for the moment I am not allowed to comment further upon, you can utilize the website There is also an article in yesterday's New York Times summarizing some further developments. More to come, friends.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

PART IV – Recent History and Current Events. Or: Walk Softly and Don’t Even Carry a Stick While Reading This Post, Please

NEW ANNOUNCEMENT, SAME AS THE OLD ANNOUNCEMENT: This post is, again, being written with the intent merely to inform you, the reader, about third-person events in the country where I am living. These events have been very volatile and opinions here differ wildly, but it is not my intent to prioritize or promote any opinion, agenda, course of action, or political belief. Any content that appears to do this is unintentional, and no part of this post should be taken to be an official stance by the United States Peace Corps, the United States Government, or any member of either, including me.

Now, keep up: “Current Events” was supposed to be part four of Better Know a Georgia, to follow part three, “Recent History.” However, current events have become quite current indeed, and in light of some stunning developments in Georgia, both topics are now extremely relevant, so I’ll discuss them together, and I’ll pretend that the Bonus Supra Coverage was called Better Know a Georgia Part III the whole time, and we won’t discuss this again. Ok? Good.

So, as you may have seen on the news or read if you don’t tend to skip past the International section, we’ve had an interesting few days here. [redacted]

Everything started last Friday, when an enormous opposition political rally took hold of Tbilisi, the capital. This rally had been in the works for a while, and thousands of people from all over the country showed up in front of the Parliament building to voice their displeasure with President Mikhael Saakashvili and others in his government. [redacted] The day before the rally began, members of the opposition party drove through the main part of town in Chokhatauri, honking their horns and waving flags, and held a mini-rally before heading to Tbilisi. So many people were headed there that the police started shutting down the roads into the capital – coworkers of mine, headed somewhere else for a conference last Thursday, were pulled over on the highway and asked if they were headed to Tbilisi. I don’t know if they would have been allowed to continue or not, had they actually been going there.

The demonstration began Friday, and was peaceful, if boisterous. Everyone in Chokhatauri watched coverage of it on the news; [redacted]. It continued through the weekend and into the beginning of this week, with little interest lost. I was wondering how much longer thousands of people would be willing to stand in the street and chant[1]. It turns out that it was longer than Saakashvili would permit them to stand there. On Wednesday, police officers with riot control gear attempted to disperse the crowd, which had been blocking traffic on Rustaveli Avenue – the main conduit through downtown Tbilisi – since Friday. Demonstrators fought back, and pandemonium ensued. Saakashvili maintained, afterwards, that his officers had merely been trying to restore traffic flow, and that they had acted within necessary bounds to clear protestors. He also claims that the entire demonstration was orchestrated by Russian interests who were trying to destabilize Georgia. The opposition says that the police started wantonly assaulting innocent people, chasing and beating people who were trying to flee. Whatever happened, hundreds of people ended up getting sent to the hospital as the streets of Tbilisi turned into a war zone through the entire afternoon and evening.

That afternoon, I was in the office of my NGO, working like it was any other day. The days leading up to Wednesday had been quiet in Chokhatauri, with no indications of swelling local emotions tied to the demonstration. I had lunch that day with a volunteer from Kutaisi who was bringing me books for my local ECO Club, and while we were eating[2], I glanced at the TV and saw one man hitting another man at what seemed to be the demonstration. But I paid it no mind, because we were discussing other things, and when I got back to the office I was not under the impression that anything was drastically out of the ordinary. That is, until I got a call from Peace Corps, telling me that there was violence in Tbilisi and that I had to return home immediately. Friends, I don’t mind telling you this – I was pissed off. I had a lot of work to do that day, and while a part of my mind relaxed immediately and went into Early-Day-at-School mode, the rest of it was upset that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the work I had to do on one of the rare days that I actually did have plenty of work to be doing. I got off the phone and told my coworkers, who were confused.

“But nothing is happening here,” they said.

“I know,” I said. “But Peace Corps has rules about this sort of thing, and it wants all the volunteers to go home.” I told them that if I did not comply, I might get sent back to America.

“Fine,” they said, laughing. “We’ll let you know if we get killed.”

Now, I want to make clear that I almost never have problems with Peace Corps’s safety and security policies, and I don’t in this instance, either. I was angrier more because I didn’t realize how bad the situation was in Tbilisi, and because I legitimately had a lot of work to do and there was no security threat to me whatsoever in my town. But I know that Peace Corps has to do what it has to do, and I admire the extent to which they take our security seriously. I have never felt seriously in danger in this country, and that is due in very large part to the preparation and continued surveillance of all situations by the Peace Corps staff. I say all this because I know Peace Corps staff reads this blog, when they find the time to do so, and because in the interest of full narration of the events of the week I am going to disclose that, after I packed up and went home from work on Wednesday, I went to a birthday party even though we were supposed to stay home.

At the party, for the birthday of a teen girl who helps frequently at my NGO, we sat around the table for the supra, and everyone’s eyes were glued to the television. Images of the afternoon’s events in Tbilisi were being played on repeat; police advancing in riot gear on demonstrators, people getting beaten up and trying to run away. There was even an oft-replayed image of a bloody bandage on the floor of a church, which was explained in Georgian that I didn’t understand. Shortly thereafter, President Saakashvili came on television himself to address the crisis. [redacted]

When I arrived home, my family was, of course, also watching television. As I watched more coverage with them, one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen on television occurred. We were watching Imedi, one of the three main broadcast stations in Georgia, which is quite critical of the government. Suddenly, the anchors looked confused and stood up at the desk – something that’s odd to see, because of the fact that TV anchors wear jeans that are usually concealed from view. They removed their earpieces and moved off-camera as an out-of-breath man took their place. He talked quickly at the camera while repeatedly checking his cell phone, which kept ringing. Then, when he was done saying whatever he said, the camera was pointed towards the ceiling, the set lights were all struck, and Imedi went dark. I had no idea what had just happened, since I’d understood none of the Georgian the man spoke. My new host sister tried to explain it to me by saying, “Politsia,” (“the police”) and mimed pulling an electrical cord out of the wall. I found out later that the government had shut down two of the three television stations.

The next day, Thursday, everyone was on edge. Nobody knew what was going to happen. School was canceled, so many of the students took it as an opportunity to march around the center of town, chanting that “Mischa must go.” Rumors were flying everywhere. And I was not surprised to get another phone call from Peace Corps, telling me [redacted] that the President had declared a 15 day state of emergency. [redacted] I had no idea how the country would react to the violence, or whether there would be more. I was just glad I was allowed to be at work, because I had a Document Your World club meeting that day, and I thought that “Dan isn’t allowed to leave his house today” would not seem particularly convincing to the kids. That evening, after work, I went to my tutor’s house for a tutoring session, and they were – of course – watching the news, on the only station that was allowed to continue broadcasting during the state of emergency. Saakashvili came on to give another address, and in this one, he stated that he would be calling presidential elections on January 5, many months before they were scheduled, and also putting a referendum to voters on when to hold parliamentary elections.[3] This is what everyone had wanted, and my tutor’s family was quite happy.

[redacted] my tutor told me. She was referring to the nonviolent coup that swept Saakashvili himself into power, in November 2003, which has usually been referred to since then as the “Rose Revolution.”[4] Saakashvili, a Columbia University-educated Georgian politician who had at one time been a member of then-current president Eduard Shevardnadze before leaving it to found his own party, was swept into power with 96% of the vote in a presidential election following Shevardnadze’s resignation, which he tendered after weeks of massive protests in Tbilisi concerning what was thought to be Shevardnadze’s corrupt government.[5] So there are some parallels here, although Saakashvili is not resigning (as I mentioned in my last post, which I have since redacted after a request from Peace Corps of all volunteers not to mention political news that we receive from them) and is merely calling new elections, which he says he will win.

So that is where things stand, as of now. The country seems to be rapidly finding its way back to normal, and [redacted] we do not seem, currently, to be in any danger. I will update you more if things change.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in further developments – and things will surely remain interesting up until, and through, the election – I recommend the site, which has up-to-date stories in English. One interesting story that I am just reading now: Imedi TV, which is currently managed by Rupert Murdoch and News Corp because the former managing partner decided to finance the opposition demonstration and didn’t want Imedi to be accused of bias[6], apparently had its equipment destroyed when it was shut off by police on Wednesday night, and is saying it won’t be able to go back on the air for three months. Hopefully, cool heads prevail on all sides for the foreseeable future, and everything will remain normal for us volunteers, so we can get our work done. Needless to say, I was not expecting things to be this…exciting during my time here, but at least it makes for a good story to tell.

Speaking of story to tell, I apologize for the mediocre writing-quality of this post and the lack of snappy prose and jokes.[7] I am quite ill today, from a combination of a nasty cold and eating cookies that have apparently made me sick. Naturally, my family wants me to go to another wedding tonight. I’m hoping to God that it’s laid back, because otherwise I’m just going to go to bed at 9 again, like I did last night. More soon, friends.

[1]A popular chant, apparently, during political demonstrations, consists of one man screaming, “Sakartvelos gauMAR–” and the crowd screaming back, “—JOS!” Because I am such an excellent cultural teacher, you should know what this means by now.
[2]An aside, for those of you who remember my discussion of local restaurants: we ate at the second of the two restaurants, and there were actually other people there! At noon on a Wednesday! It was shocking, and my classification of the place a an actual restaurant was affirmed, even despite the fact that the one menu was handwritten and tacked to a wall, and that the proprietor’s answer to my entirely reasonable, “What kinds of limonati do you have?” question was a scowl and the response, “The Chokhatauri kind,” even though this answer makes no sense at all.
[3]One of the specific complaints held by the opposition was that Saakashvili had changed the date of next fall’s elections, putting the presidential election and parliamentary elections on the same day. He said it was logistical; the opposition claimed he was trying to gain an unfair election advantage.
[4]When it’s mentioned in the American press, it is usually coupled with Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” which was very similar and at about the same time, and called one of the two “color revolutions” that were supposedly about eastern bloc countries attempting further independence from Russia.
[6]I knew that it was currently owned by News Corp, but did not know the “why” until I read this article. It is interesting that the former managing owner wants to retain an image of impartiality despite a pretty widespread notion, here, that Imedi is the anti-government network and Rustavi2 is the pro-government network. That’s what everyone in Chokhatauri thinks, anyway. I, of course, wouldn’t know, because I don’t understand what is said on either channel.
[7]And footnotes!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Times Are Getting Interesting. Or: I Said I Wanted to Go to Turkey on VACATION.

So, as you may have heard, the situation in this country got pretty interesting over the course of the last 24 hours (if you haven't heard, you can read about it here). I don't have time today to give a from-the-ground overview (also, the NYT article does a pretty good job), but I will try to write one soon if I am able. I just wanted to let people know that Peace Corps volunteers are safe, and that Peace Corps has some crazy delicious security policies that ensure you don't have to worry about us at all. I was, in fact, told by my Peace Corps supervisor to go home from work yesterday, despite no activity whatsoever in my village, to the general derision of my coworkers ("We'll let you know if we all get killed," they said). And we are on alert, which means that if the dirt goes downtown, we'll be whisked away faster than something that is whisked quite fast indeed. But I shall explain everything to you in greater detail soon.


Oh, and on a pretty trivial note, I have learned how to make my endless footnotes, which surely cause you consternation, into links, so you can click on them instead of scrolling all the way down manually just for a poop joke, and then hit "back" on your browser to get back to the main part of the post. Hopefully this will be helpful for you. I have edited these links into my last post, and will edit them into other previous posts as well if I have the time, but they should be in all footnoted posts from now on.

Comments on either of these developments are welcome. More later.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Weathery Wedding Weekend, Plus Bonus Better Know a Georgia - the Supra. Or: Get Comfortable and Remember to Rehydrate Often While Reading This Post.

It was, perhaps, while I was wading through a lake where the road used to be on my way to and from my tutor’s home last night, mere millimeters from certain death[1], and saved only by my fortuitous footwear felection[2] this morning[3], that I decided the tale of this weekend must be told quickly, in case this keeps up and I drown tomorrow during a walk to the shop for a Coca-Cola. You see, friends, it has been raining. Quite a lot. Almost literally without end for about a week. The only sustained dry spell since it started raining last Wednesday was, in fact, Sunday during my host brother’s weddings, which is proof positive of very little except probably global warming.[4] But it was a thankful development in an otherwise thankless week, meteorologically speaking.

And the clear of the morning on Sunday turned out to be a portent for the rest of the day, because it was one of the best days I’ve had so far in this country. Really, you’d expect it to be, since my only host brother was getting married, which in this country means not one but two huge parties. But the last wedding I had been to had turned out to be one of the worst days of my service so far, for reasons including the fact that I was trapped halfway up a mountain in absolutely no control of when I could leave and not wanting to drink for fear of getting sick on the way down, so despite my hope that this weekend would be different, I was not totally sure it would be. Turns out I had no reason to fear. It was terrific. Both huge parties were great fun. I took more than 300 photos[5], drank at least 20 glasses of wine[6], gave one extremely well-received toast in Georgian while holding a ceremonial wine-horn, and due to this toast now count dozens of new friends who, I think, are more impressed that I drank the whole horn than that I gave a speech about hospitality and real brotherhood and only had to look at a cheat sheet for a few words. But we’ll get to that part in a bit.

Because it will make the retelling of the day’s events easier for you to understand, I am going to first insert Better Know a Georgia, Bonus Section: Supras[7] into this post.[8] So let’s back up and talk about Georgian tradition for a while, because weddings are – obviously, not just in Georgia – all about tradition. In Georgia, the tradition of the supra is possibly the most important and probably the most memorable and iconic of all their millennia-old traditions. The word “supra” means “table,”[9] and that will be the first thing you see if you are ever privileged enough to attend one.[10] The second thing you see will be food covering every inch of the table, with plates literally stacked on top of each other. That is because a supra is a traditional Georgian feast, and lesson number one of the supra is that there will be more food prepared than an entire city’s worth of people could possibly eat. There will be khatchapuri, and katmis k’ortsi, and salata, and soko, perhaps kartopili, perhaps any number of a dozen other dishes, and most certainly there will be namtzkhvari.[11] There will also be soft drinks and mineral water. These beverages are for the womenfolk and/or children.[12] They are merely tests of your manhood if you have a Y chromosome. Because what you should be drinking instead is wine.

Lesson numbers two through thirty-seven of the Georgian supra concern drinking. Basically, they can all be summed up by saying that you will be drinking. A lot. Drinking is the main activity and the main purpose of a supra. And there is a strict protocol for what you drink, when you drink, and why you drink. The supra is built around the traditional Georgian toast; you only drink when you are toasting to something or someone, at which point you drink “bolomde,” which means, “to the end” of your glass. It is considered rude to drink wine when you are not toasting. It is also, incidentally, considered rude to toast with beer or with your left hand.[13] It is also rude to toast out of turn. This is because the toasts at a supra are led by a man[14] called the “tamada.” The tamada is in charge of giving the first toast during every round of toasting, which usually means he will end up talking for five or fifteen minutes, gesticulating wildly and throwing his vocal pitch around like a boxer throws punches, on the particular topic of the toast and anything that could possibly relate to it, before thrusting his glass into the air and saying “gaumarjos!” which means, “cheers!”[15] Then, at a smaller supra, people around the table each say their own version of the toast before clinking glasses and downing their own. At a larger supra – like a wedding – people do a more informal version of this with those in their immediate table vicinity. After everyone drinks, the “merikipe,” who is the sort of second-in-supra-command, is entrusted to refill everyone’s glasses with wine, to await the next toast. At larger supras – like, again, weddings – there is no one merikipe[16], so you grab the nearest of about 500 liter jugs of wine and refill your own glass.[17] Then the tamada starts his next toast, and you do it all over again.

You will do it all over again many times. At least ten, or it’s not even a decent supra. A really involved supra, over the course of several hours[18], can involve literally dozens of toasts – after each of which, of course, you are expected to make a concerted effort to drink to the bottom of your glass. There is also a general order to the supra, which is changed only slightly depending on the occasion. The first toast is nearly always “Mshvidobas” – to peace. The second is usually “Sakartvelos” – to Georgia. The third, in my experience, is often “Sakartvelos da Amerikas megobrobas” – to friendship between Georgia and America. Although I doubt that this toast is as prominent when there isn’t an American guest present. I haven’t been to enough supras to have the subsequent order memorized yet, but there will be toasts to parents, to children, to ancestors, to neighbors, to love, to God, and to the people sitting at the supra. At a special event, there will be more specific toasts – a wedding supra will include toasts to the groom, to the bride, to love, to long life for the couple, and often to their future offspring. A toast given by a good tamada will usually go on for several minutes. I wish my Georgian was advanced enough to give you a quasi-verbatim example, but it is not. Usually, I listen to a tamada say a bunch of things I don’t understand, then, when he's done, I turn to the person sitting next to me, I raise my glass in the air, and I say, “Ras?” which means, “to what?” and the person summarizes the toast in one or two words.[19] I consider it my goal to figure out the general point of a toast before it is summarized for me, and I consider it a great success if I can sort of understand some of the tangential points the tamada is making. Like all things having to do with language, this is easier when I’ve been drinking.

So that is the basics of the supra.[20] The importance that drinking and toasting hold in this culture can be seen in other parts of life[21], but it all comes together at a supra, and it all comes together most spectacularly at large “event” supras. Wedding supras may be the biggest of them all. The word Georgians use for these events translates into English as “wedding,” but it isn’t a wedding in our sense of the word. In America, the most important part of a wedding is the formal ceremony, which is the part that’s actually called the “wedding.” In Georgia, the formal ceremony is not emphasized.[22] For instance, I have no idea if my host brother even had one. If he did, it’s likely that nobody but the best man and maid of honor were invited, if that. He simply showed up already wearing a ring after the three-week-long vacation he took[23] with his bride. In Georgia, the “wedding” is what we would refer to as the reception, and there are two of them: one at the bride’s family’s house, and then another at the groom’s. At my first wedding supra here, a couple months ago, I looked around at about 200 people and remarked to a coworker, “This is bigger than I was expecting it to be.” He assured me that it was a very small wedding and that we’d go to “better” ones later. These are big parties.

And with big parties come big preparations. Amazingly, these preparations did not start until Friday, two days before the wedding, when an army of relatives descended on my house to start setting up (the men) and cooking (the women). I missed the Friday activity, because I was at work, but much of it consisted of setting up a large nylon tarp along the side of the house, to act as a tent to hold all the people.[24] These tents are de rigueur at Georgian weddings, for whatever reason, but for my host brother’s wedding the tent was to be a vital necessity, because it had been pouring for days. The tarp went up and immediately started gathering pools of water on top of it, which my host brother and I spent a large amount of time Friday evening trying to get rid of, either by catapulting the water off the tarp and into the neighbor’s yard or by scooping it out with buckets. I enjoyed this activity, because it seemed like bonding, and because I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to help with much else in the way of wedding preparation.

Saturday the relatives were back to continue setting up. The women busied themselves preparing an utterly unconscionable amount of food – whole chickens, turkeys[25], pigs, and a cow, along with even more things that were not meat – and the men busied themselves with the rain issue. The constant rain had raised the water table so high that, even protected by a tarp, the lawn where the guests were to sit had been reduced by foot traffic to a muddy mess. Things did not look so good, but everyone kept working. It was pretty impressive, and I wasn’t allowed to help with any of it, because I am the American guest. Also probably because it would have been more trouble than help to figure out a way to explain any instructions to me in Geornglish. So I busied myself taking photos, and became a passing amusement to all the relatives, some of whom I hadn’t met before.[26]

Sunday morning, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the sun was out and things were looking up. The men carted in many wheelbarrowsful of gravel to cover our yard with[27], and people started showing up to the house in suits. I realized that, when I was packing for Peace Corps in America, I had packed my only suit with the rationalization that, “I won’t be able to get this cleaned in Georgia, but I’ll bring it in case I need to wear it for a wedding or something.” So I grabbed it out of the closet for the first time since we swore in as volunteers, and put it on over my long underwear.[28] It was the same reason I carried my camera around all weekend – I only have one host brother, and he was only going to get married once, so this was going to be a one-of-a-kind moment in my service, and I wanted to treat it accordingly. And it was a good idea, because I look really spiffy in all the photos I’m in.

Then we had to wait for my host brother to get dressed – he’s a traditional sort of guy, so he decided to wear a traditional Georgian costume. I am not 100% confident of my knowledge of Georgian traditional costumes, so I am not sure what the exact origins of this costume are, but it is worn during exhibitions of Georgian traditional dance, for dances that represent traditional courtship of a woman by a man. What happens in one of these dances is that the man does a lot of shuffling dramatically in circles around the woman, often doing a ballet-like move on his tiptoes, and swinging his arms around. It’s a very powerful tool for arousal. I might start using it on first dates.

Once he was dressed and everyone was ready to go, we got in the cars to head to the bride’s house for the first wedding supra. The part of the wedding day where you’re getting from one place to another combines Georgians’ love of outsized expression with their love of doing dangerous things in automobiles to form an often truly harrowing experience. My first encounter with this was when I was invited to a wedding by my language instructor during training; we were waiting for the wedding party to show up, and when it did, the lead car came within maybe five inches of running me over. Since then, I had heard these wedding processions in various places several times. This is because a wedding procession, in Georgia, consists of a bunch of cars driving very fast, in a tight bunch, blinking their lights and honking their horns so everyone looks at them. Often, the cars will circle the same place many times before moving on to the actual destination. We did not circle the town square multiple times, but on the way from wedding supra one back to my house, two cars did get in an accident and the car I was in decided that it’d be fun to drive on the sidewalk for a while. So.

After an accident-free first leg of the day’s journey, we arrived at the bride’s house, where there was a nearly identical tent-and-long-table-rows setup in the yard. We proceeded upstairs, to where the bride and groom traditionally hold court before the supra starts. They stand in a line with the best man and the maid of honor, accepting congratulations from people, near a table that shows off the wedding cake and also includes a few bottles of champagne and some champagne flutes. You can stand at this table and give a personal toast to the bride and groom, if you want to start drinking early so as to get a secret head start on everyone who stays downstairs. It was here that I first discovered, to my relief[29], that I was not in fact the best man for the wedding. If you recall, one night last week my host brother pointed to a word in the dictionary that – according to the dictionary – translates as “best man,” and said, “that’s you.” I said, “really?” and he said, “yes,” which apparently in Georgian means, “no.” Perhaps he was attempting to make an affectionate statement that I am like a brother to him and the word was mistranslated. Or perhaps he found another guy to do it two days later. Who knows. Either way, it did not matter that I was not the best man – people came up to congratulate me during the meet-n-greet anyway. Apparently one is supposed to congratulate the family of the bride and groom, and I am close enough. That was pretty cool.

After a short time, everyone went downstairs to start the supra. The wedding supra is set up much like an American wedding reception – the bride, groom, best man, and maid of honor sit at a dais in front of everyone, there’s a dance floor, and there’s also always a DJ. However, DJs in America simply play music, whereas DJs in Georgia ARE the music. They usually have a synthesizer, a drumbeat machine, and a bongo, and they play versions of songs you hear on Georgian radio, except they sing the songs. And they sing really, really loud. The quality of this DJ-karaoke is variable. The guys at this particular wedding, thankfully, were pretty good. There was eating, and dancing, and much toasting, and then, after a few hours, it was on to my house.[30]

The party at my house was a curious dynamic. The second wedding goes exactly like the first, so court was held upstairs, which happens to be where my room is. So there were a bunch of people standing right next to my room. And some of my coworkers hadn’t been to my house before, so they asked where the bathroom was.[31] It all felt like I was much more a member of this household than you would think, me having only lived there for two months. After the meet-n-greet, the party again moved downstairs, and there was yet more eating and drinking. I did my share of drinking, and I met an orthodox priest who is apparently good friends with a coworker of mine, and I took a bunch more pictures, and then I got called up to do a toast.

Ordinarily, this would have freaked the hell out of me. It would be quite difficult, at this point in my language development, for me to ad-lib a toast in Georgian in front of 400 people. I would have ended up saying something like, “I like Tamazi and Tamazi’s family and I hope Irina was in my family in the future.” But, since I thought I was going to be the best man, I had prepared a toast in advance. I wrote it out last week and sent it to a translator I know who works in a friend’s NGO, and then printed out her translation and underlined the difficult words I didn’t know. This was, as they say in the business world, a killer move on my part. So I went up to the front, and stumbled only a little bit[32], and spoke mostly from preparation, only having to look at the paper a few times. My toast, as verbatim as I can recall, went like this: “Tamazi is my host brother, only for two years. But I feel that he is my real brother. He and his family have shown me such hospitality. I am glad that Irina will be in our family, and I hope that she will be a real sister to me, like Tamazi is my real brother. Happiness and long life to you both. Congratulations. Gagimarjot.”[33] After I finished speaking, I drank the entire ceremonial wine horn.

I was a celebrity for the rest of the night. People were congratulating my toast left and right, although as I mentioned earlier, it seemed they were more impressed – fittingly – by my drinking ability than by my toasting ability. People called me “brother,” and clapped me on the back, and offered me more drinks. Which I drank. When in Rome, you know.

I finally went to bed after most people started to leave, around 2am. When I woke up, Tamazi and a man I didn’t know were sitting downstairs, eating supra leftovers[34] and, of course, drinking. I declined to join them in the morning, but after I had spent an entire day at work doing absolutely nothing[35] – the Georgian term for “hung-over” is “pakhmeliaze,” and it is used frequently – I came home to discover…even more drinking! That’s right – there is yet a third part to a wedding ceremony, called the “second day,” and it is when the bride’s parents come to the groom’s house[36] to cut the wedding cake. I missed this part while I was doing nothing at work, but I arrived home to find another mini-supra taking place, and this one I joined in at until I was too tired to continue, at which point I snuck out when I didn’t think anyone was looking.[37]

So that was my weekend, and that was Tamazi’s wedding. It was a really great time, and I’m glad I got to experience a wedding from a family’s perspective, and I’m glad my toast wasn’t a disaster, and I’m glad that Irina seems to be a really cool person. This last part is especially important, of course, because she now lives in the room next to me. I was not expecting there to be an addition to my host family during my service, but I’m glad there was, because my host family was only three people before, and it’s nice to have one more around the house. Also, Irina knows how to play the guitar, so I think I have my winder doldrums activity. Now I just have to figure out how to learn how to learn the guitar in a whole different language.

I hope you packed enough provisions at the beginning of this post to last you the whole way, friends. That is all for now. There are many more iterations of Better Know a Georgia on tap, and I may be going to an actual club[38] for a friend’s birthday and then watching the Illinois-Ohio State football game in Tbilisi this weekend, so there are plenty of fun stories ahead for you. Until next time. Stay warm. And, seriously, go say thank you to your central heating system. It does such a thankless job. And it never gets enough credit. Also your indoor plumbing. Winter’s such a gas.

[1]Not to mention extreme foot soakage and general discomfort.
[2]In days of yore, they used to write s’s like f’s. When this aids in alliteration, the creation of which is the primary priority of my prose, do not think I won’t take advantage. And do not think that I won’t ignominiously ignore the fact that s’s were usually written like f’s only at the end of wordf.
[3]It was raining, and my work loafers, which are bewilderingly and yet life-savingly water-resistant, are still dirty from the weekend, so I selected the winter boots I purchased for Peace Corps and had yet to wear, because they are water-proof hiking boots and because my only other option was decidedly un-waterproof cross-trainers.
[4]My mother thought I was going to say Jesus there, but she cannot prove that it was not instead Neptune, God of the Sea, who approves of my host brother’s nuptials.
[5]Most of the time, I exaggerate numbers, but this time I have not. I haven’t been great about taking photos since I’ve been here, since I have a large camera with many fun features and it is often cumbersome to carry it around, but I realized that this was going to be a unique weekend in my service and that the chance to record it was not going to come around again, so I had my camera with me all weekend and took 343 photos. You can see the best 60 in the “Best Of” album, linked to in the sidebar, and more than 100 other good ones in the other two wedding albums (once I get a chance to upload them).
[6]This number, unlike the previous one, is completely made up, because I have no idea how much I drank. I assume it to have been more than 20.
[7]Or: Where we measure consumption in liters, not in glasses. Or: Let’s put it this way. You probably won’t be going to work in the morning.
[8]Which will now be so large I should probably insert chapters and release an audiobook version.
[9]Although it’s always used to mean the traditional feast I’m about to describe, and never to describe an actual table.
[10]I mean, you could come visit, and then you’d surely see one. Not that I am stressing this, nor do I mean to imply that anyone who visits me will be showered with candy and gifts and food and anyone who does not will probably die penniless and sexless.
[11]I will leave the translation and description of these dishes to the post on food, because this post will already be too big.
[12]Although women can and do drink the wine during big mixed-sex supras at which they are guests.
[13]An occasional pastime, especially at a bar, is toasting to one’s enemies with a beer in your left hand.
[14]This is a country with still-developing modern gender roles, so this person is always a man unless the supra is women-only. Although, really, the role requires a pretty excessive capacity for bloviation, so it’s probably more suited for men anyway, just like ultimate fighting and getting into major traffic accidents. Let’s be honest about these things.
[15]Because I’m certain you were wondering and because you must be equipped with the necessary tools if you would like to come visit Georgia for yourself: this is only the form of the word used if the thing/person being cheered is in the third person and not being addressed. “Cheers to us!” is, “gagvimarjos!” and “cheers to you” is, “gagimarjos.” Please write this down.
[16]Although usually there is still only one tamada, who uses a microphone to bellow toasts to the masses. There can also be two or three tamadas who rotate toast-giving duties.
[17]After, of course, refilling the glass of any women around you, because chivalry is not dead and because God didn’t make women to lift heavy things.
[18]Outside of a wedding, which is two separate parties and takes many hours, but which is also quite large and thus not as full of pressure to drink and do untold numbers of toasts, I have not been to any mega-supras. But I have heard stories from other volunteers of being trapped in a supra for 5+ hours, with few enough people that there is nowhere to hide when you don’t want to drink anymore. At this point there are various strategies. One that I have heard is to text a fellow volunteer and ask them to call you immediately, at which point you pretend it’s your mother calling, which is a good excuse to get out of anything. I have even heard stories that involve successfully getting oneself out of a supra, going to sleep, and then waking up to discover that it hasn’t ended yet.
[19]Hypothetical example: the tamada spends ten minutes talking about love, and true love, and how Georgia was built on love and how Georgians cherish love, and how important it is for the future of the country and indeed for the future of the entire human race, and maybe how all wars would end if we could all remember to love one another, and this is all by way of saying that the happy couple really loves each other, and this will serve them well in this life and in the next, and will lead to many happy progeny, and the continuation of the man’s line forever. The summary for me: “cheers to the bride and groom.”
[20]Supposedly, at the end of a supra, one gives a toast to the tamada before leaving, but this is purely theoretical, because nobody has ever provided evidence that supras actually end.
[21]For instance, my earlier anecdote about being encouraged to take shots, which can substitute for wine as a toasting vehicle if there are only a few people present and/or if you’re with a bunch of men who are intending to get housed beyond comprehension, of cognac in an elementary school before noon.
[22]An example: I was invited to the ceremony part of a Georgian wedding once, during training, by my language instructor. We arrived at the church a few minutes before we were told that the ceremony would start. Nobody was there, and none of the people at the church seemed to have any idea what we were talking about. 20 minutes after the ceremony was supposed to have started, the cars of the entire wedding party screeched up to the front of the church. By this point, another group had swooped in for a different wedding. So our wedding party stood around in the courtyard, waiting and taking pictures of each other, until a priest came out and said that this other wedding was going to take a little while and that after that the priests were busy and didn’t feel like marrying our bride and groom today. Nobody seemed to be too upset at this turn of events, and they all got in their cars to find another church. Whereas, in America, this turn of events would cause a minimum of four fatalities.
[23]During which I found out, from someone else, that he was even getting married in the first place, but that’s a different story. Georgians aren’t really into planning things or alerting you of events in advance.
[24]It also consisted of hanging a cow carcass up on a hook near the door to the bathroom. Talk about things that are fun to see as you’re rounding a corner unexpectedly in the dark.
[25]My family keeps their chickens and turkeys in the back, in the area where the latrine is. Needless to say, my walks to the latrine have been far lonelier this week than they were before. It’s eerie. I half expect to see tumbleweed and a solitary chicken in the corner, chewing on some thistle, muttering about having seen it all coming.
[26]And almost none of whose names I knew. When you’re dealing with a language barrier and all sorts of other issues, it’s impossible to remember names, and even more so when you meet so many people. I now find myself in the difficult position of having met a truly large number of people whose names I don’t remember. And, of course, none of them have forgotten my name, because I am the American, and everyone in town knows my name whether I’ve met them or not. The game is not fair, and I am not looking forward to the first time, however many months from now it may be, when a person who thinks of me as his American brother realizes that I don’t know his name or why the hell I know him.
[27]…forever dashing my dreams of starting a croquet league in the backyard. The grass will never grow back. Scotts Turf Builder has yet to make its way to the developing world.
[28]I had resisted breaking out the long underwear to this point, because it hadn’t been that cold and because older volunteers advised us to keep our uber-cold-weather wear in reserve until we couldn’t stand it any longer, so we didn’t deploy all our weapons too early. But I put it on because the suit is thin and I knew I’d be up to the late hours of the night, and it turned out to be a great decision. For that night, at least, because it’s so comfortable that I’ve been wearing it ever since, and I am truly dreading the day in February when Neptune, god of the sea, blows an extra cold front across the country just because he gets off on that sort of thing, and I have nothing left with which to combat the chill that will find its way to the very depths of my soul.
[29]But, let’s be honest, also to my secret disappointment.
[30]By way of a sidewalk, as mentioned earlier. Also, this was after I ended up waiting in some guy’s car for a completely unexplained 30 minutes. Sometimes you just have to wait, in this country. I wish I had a Game Boy, or something.
[31]The answer to this question, in America, is never, “in the yard, by the chickens.”
[32]It might be even harder to read Georgian in front of 400 people than to say something spontaneously in Georgian in front of 400 people.
[33]I don’t like to brag, but that’s the best toast ever given by anyone who can barely speak a language. I am confident of this. Do not even attempt to dissuade me.
[34]I will be eating these leftovers for the next six weeks. And people don’t have microwaves here, so it will all be cold. It was delicious the first morning-after, like morning-after pizza, but for the next six weeks it will be like eating six-week-old pizza that has not been in the refrigerator.
[35]You try working the morning after drinking an uncountable number of glasses of wine.
[36]Which, after the wedding, is the bride’s house. People live with their extended families in Georgia, and houses are retained by males, so a new bride will go immediately after the wedding day to live with her new husband’s family.
[37]When people have been drinking for three days, it’s easier to catch them not paying attention.
[38]What “dance club” actually ends up meaning, here, is probably going to be pretty funny. We will have to see. This particular club is owned by a member of a Georgian soccer team who I met during training and who has become a good friend of my friend back in Gori. I have been promised a spot on the “VIP list” at this club for my friend’s birthday party. You cannot make these things up.