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 na├»ve 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.

1 comment:

ruth said...

Footnotes are working!

That does sound like an eventful week. I'm glad it ended well.