Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Funders, stand and be recognized. Or: I can't actually see you, so you probably don't have to literally stand.

Friends, if you scroll down two posts, you will see a shameless request for money from me, relating to a project that I wrote for/with my organization to be able to purchase camera equipment so that local children can learn how to make documentaries. This project has been funded fully by.....someone. I know one of the donors (my parents.....this SOUNDS somehow like cheating, but I assure you it is not), but the rest of the funding was donated by people who have not made themselves known to me. They may have been contacted by Washington, or they may have been people I told about the project, or they may have been people who clicked on the link I provided below. If you donated to my project, please let me know that you did so. I want to make sure that I thank those who helped get the project started, and I want to make sure I know who to provide with updates on the project as it moves forward. Thanks very, very much, if you did.

And, if you did NOT donate, but were THINKING about it, I will give you half credit. If you did not donate because you clicked on the link INTENDING to donate but discovered the project to be funded already, I will give you 3/4 credit. Once you accrue 500 credits, you win a small stuffed bear.

Note: the small stuffed bear's ears have been cut off. I used them for my Halloween costume.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hi there. Or: whatever

Hi there. It seems that it has been more than two weeks since I have posted. There have been a few reasons for this; they can mostly be culled to the fact that I've been in a rather extended bad mood, and haven't felt like posting much. Hey, it happens. More frequently, one would imagine, in the winter, here, where it has been Just. So. Freaking. Cold. Everyone here says they can't remember it being colder, and they seem to be telling the truth, because when the pipes froze a few weeks ago, nobody knew what to do, despite the fact that freezing pipes would likely be a frequent seasonal occurrence if it was this cold every year. So, the pipes froze, which means that the shower that kept me warm and reasonably clean ceased to function. Friends, I don't mind sharing that I have taken exactly one (1) shower in the last two and a half weeks, at a bathhouse in another town last weekend. In between, I have washed my head twice, with hot water from a bucket. Actually, to be more specific, my host brother washed my head twice. I asked him, the first time, for some water with which to wash my hair. He insisted on coming into the bathroom with me, even after I said, "No, I know how to wash myself, thank you, I can do it." But he insisted on helping, and I was only taking my shirt off, so I bemusedly accepted his offer. And, friends, I also don't mind telling you -- it was an improvement over the normal bucket bath experience. I know how to bathe myself via bucket, having done so for more than two months in training, so I know of what I speak. Getting to scrub your head with two hands is worth the weirdness of your host brother standing over your head with a pitcher of water like you're a toddler or something. At least, that's what I tell myself.

So, it's been a pretty mediocre and mentally difficult few weeks. But, rather than sharing the non-cold-related reasons for this, I will instead share with you one of the two bright spots of the last few weeks (the other being an enjoyable weekend with friends that included a big supra to welcome a fellow volunteer's fiance as well as the aforementioned bathhouse shower). This story illustrates just how many fun things can happen to you in this country if you are American AND speak Georgian. Georgians just cannot get over it. I was in Kutaisi, a large city an hour from where I live, walking back to the station after a work meeting. When I got there, the marshutka that usually leaves for my town at around 5pm -- usually the last one that goes where I live, and one that I've never yet had a problem catching at around 5pm -- had left like an hour early for no reason. This left me with two options: (1)sleep on the floor at a volunteer's house in Kutaisi, since beds were taken up by those who were in town for the meeting and weren't leaving until the next day, or (2)wait by the side of the road for the last marshutka going to Guria from Tbilisi to come through Kutaisi, which might require waiting and not leaving the road for several hours in the approaching cold of the night. I was very upset about this. But, as I stood by the side of the road and stewed, I overheard a group of other people, standing a few feet away from me, discussing the same thing in Georgian. They were going to a town past mine, but on the same road, and were similarly stranded. I said, in my brilliant Georgian, "Are you going to Guria too?"

They said, "Yes. Are you Georgian?" Here is where I did something inspired. I said, "No. I am American."

Well. I was in like Flynn. We didn't exactly have a raucous conversation, but we made some smallchat, coagulated as a group, and looked for a marshutka. We also sent an emissary to see if we could get a taxi to take the lot of us for a reasonable price. These methods did not work. But, after a little while, a member of the group flagged down a marshutka heading to Batumi -- these marshutkas usually go around, instead of through, Guria. He said, "There are a group of us going to Guria. Will you take us?"

"We have an American with us."
I stuck my head in. "Hi."

Thus, friends, due to my brilliant ability to communicate at the most basic level in the language of this land, I and my new friends were able to procure a ride to our destinations, and were not forced to feed on the young to keep warm for the night. Great success! Otherwise, friends, the last few weeks have, in the parlance of the youth, totally sucked.


It occurs to me that I never gave you the thrilling conclusion of Dan Goes To London And Has Many Adventures That You Probably Don't Find That Exciting. My two week blog sabbatical has, I'm sure, robbed you of much enjoyment while only amplifying your desire to read the details of my final two days in London. So, with you (and only you!) in mind, here is Installment 3. Perhaps, soon, I shall find the time and the mood to post the other things I promised and have yet to deliver. Keep checking back, just in case!!!!!!!!!

Interestingly, I wrote at the end of this entry that I was not sure whether I'd quickly readjust to Georgia after my trip, or not. It seems pretty clear that I did not happy right up, but that really had less, perhaps, to do with the readjustment and more to do with other things. But enough getting ahead of myself! Here it is:

Dan Goes To London, Part Three
My family left for America the next morning; direct flights from Heathrow to Tbilisi don’t happen every day, so I wasn’t leaving until the 3rd. I said goodbye to my family and went to go meet a volunteer friend, who was coincidentally also in London on vacation. After going to the British Museum, only to find out that it wasn’t open on New Year’s Day, we ventured down to Piccadilly Circus, where I wanted to investigate a sports bar that I had heard might be showing the Rose Bowl Game[27], in America, which was to pit the University of Illinois[29] against the University of Southern California[30]. I found out that, indeed, the bar would be showing the game, and after that my friend and I got lunch and looked around the West End halfheartedly for sweaters to protect us against the bitter Georgia chill before we headed up to his friend’s student apartment to prepare a special dinner they had planned.

By “prepare,” I mean that my friend, his friend, and some of his friend’s roommates prepared it. I am not a cook, so my total contribution to this meal[31] was to peel some hard-boiled eggs. I feel badly about this. But any further contribution would have been a complete disaster. This is why I, as opposed to other, more progressive-thinking volunteers, allow my host family to cook every meal for me. I am barely to be trusted in America, where I can go to the supermarket and purchase a pouch that will become a three-course meal in the microwave. Here, the supermarket – unless you live in a city – consists of picking cuts of beef from hooks and selecting live chickens and bags of grain. I would be literally incapable of creating a meal for myself in this country. Anyway. The meal was great, and my friend’s friend and his roommates are very nice people, and we had some very nice conversation. One of them was even Lithuanian. I cannot stop meeting Lithuanians, it seems. They are EVERYWHERE.

I excused myself from the meal when we were finished and everyone was sitting around talking, because I wanted to see the Rose Bowl. So I went down to this bar and watched what turned out to be a close game, for a while, before a couple unfortunate breaks allowed Satan to pull away. At the bar, I exchanged pleasantries with the man seated next to me, who said he’d grown up in Chicago. Next to him was a woman who I thought was his wife. She seemed a little drunk. At one point, she smacked him in the shoulder quite hard, while giggling. I believe she found it funny that I had gotten up to go to the bathroom and come back. Anyway, as the game was winding towards its conclusion, the man got up himself to go to the bathroom. The woman slid over next to me at the bar, stuck her nail in my cheek, and pointed her other hand at the television. She slurred in a British accent, “Why are you rooting for the men in UNDERPANTS?” I didn’t really know what to say to that – apparently, she felt that white football pants looked like underwear, whereas yellow ones were totally fine – so I didn’t say anything. Then she screamed at me again. “You shouldn’t be rooting for the men in UNDERPANTS!” With this, she sort of slid off her stool, grabbed her purse, and stumbled out of the bar. I guess she wasn’t this guy’s wife. If she was, he should probably go find her.

The next day, my flight back to Georgia and Reality As I Had Known It For Six Months was at 9pm, so I had most of a day to finish up what I wanted to do in London. I met my friend and his friend in SoHo, where we spent about an hour shopping for guitars. I had wanted to learn the guitar for a while – my father bought me one when I was about 11, but it was too big for my fingers and I didn’t like practicing so I gave it up pretty quickly. That guitar is still in my house, I think. One of my fellow volunteers brought his guitar with him, which re-piqued my interest, for whatever reason. Then another volunteer bought a guitar in Tbilisi. Finally, my friend who was in London told me he’d be buying one there, and I thought, “why not?” So I went guitar shopping with them. After wandering into several stores, we came upon a store that sold only acoustics, and had a slightly beat-up 3/4 guitar[32] with pictures of cowboys on it and the painted words, “Sundown Serenade” across the front. It was cheaper than any of the guitars I’d seen in Tbilisi, after calculating exchange rates, and it had “Sundown Serenade” written on it. Also cowboys. Come on. I had to buy it. So I did, with only minor trepidation about how difficult it would be to get it back to Chokhatauri.[33]

I still had some more shopping to do, for family and coworkers in Georgia, so I took leave of my friend and walked through the West End, looking for souvenirs. I was sort of running, because I also wanted to see the British Museum, which had been closed the previous day, write postcards to some friends in America, and do the inevitable repacking that a guitar and souvenirs would require.[34]. I could have had more time to do these things if I’d gotten up early that morning, but I am incapable of this. The result of my extra two hours of sleep was a sprint through Leicester Square, grabbing presents for family and coworkers, before I sprinted to the British Museum. This is a museum that holds many of the most prized and important archaeological treasures of the world. Books recommend anywhere from four hours to an entire day in this museum. This museum holds the Rosetta Stone. This museum holds the Elgin Marbles, a controversial collection of sculptures from the eaves of the Parthenon. This museum holds 66 mummies from ancient Egypt. This museum held me for…about an hour. I really wanted to see some of its exhibits, so I went despite the absurd lack of time I had, but I was forced to only see the things I really wanted to see. I actually stood still at the Rosetta Stone and at different parts of the Elgin Marbles. I walked slowly through the mummy exhibits. I walked much more quickly through what I am sure were stunning historical exhibits on Greek and Roman sculpture, the Abyssinians, other ancient cultures that I’m starting to forget already, and the entirety of the first and second millennia AD. I think I saw 2000 years of artifacts in about five minutes. I am not proud of this. But at least I went and saw it.

Leaving the British Museum, I ventured back to my hotel to write postcards and to stuff my crappy guitar bag with sweaters so my new guitar wouldn’t break on the way to my village.[35] Then I took the Tube to Heathrow at rush hour, an experience that may be as close as the western world ever comes to replicating what it’s like to cram into a marshutka or the metro[36] in Georgia.[37] My flight back to Georgia was just as uneventful as the first one, but I spent much of the time wondering how I would feel when I got back. I had hoped, in London, that I’d come back with nothing but a renewed vigor for doing good work in my town and at my organization. I wasn’t sure what the re-readjustment would be like – whether it would be just like it was when I left, whether it would take a while to stop pining for the city, whether I would readjust quickly but linger on the feeling that I’d rather be where I’d just left. I really wasn’t sure. Obviously there’s a similar sort of spectrum of possible feelings when you return from a normal vacation to a more normal job. But, like everything in the Peace Corps, it’s exaggerated here, because the difference is so much bigger. Not only was I going from not-having-to-work to having-to-work, but I was going from a world capital where most people speak my language to a village on a mountain where four people do. From actual toilets to outdoor latrines.[38] From where it’s warm whenever you go inside to where it’s so not.[39] Maybe I’d get back and decide I wanted to go straight back. I really wasn’t sure.

In truth, it’s been sort of in-between. My flight got in at 6am, and I took a taxi, a shared taxi, and a marshutka back to my village. It wasn’t the most pleasant of road trips, but I think I was just too tired, and too excited to bring people their gifts, to reflect much. The next day[40], having rested up on sleep and handed the presents out, I did start thinking about it. I’m excited about the work I have for this year, but I don’t feel like I’m as excited about it as I was during my trip. Oddly, I wasn’t much excited about it at all right before I left Georgia – I was tired, and in need of a vacation – but while I was in London, my conversations about my work left me excited about the possibilities for 2008. I was excited to continue helping my organization craft its strategic plan, and start to look for funding to fulfill it. I was excited to do research for ECO Project, and to be a big part of seeing it through to the new level we hope it will reach. I was excited to continue my documentary club, to finish one school year of the club with at least one documentary video made by the students, and to start work on a comprehensive curriculum that my organization and maybe even other organizations could use starting next year. Since I’ve gotten back, I feel like I’ve been less motivated to do these things. I feel like I am waiting for my next vacation. I feel less patient than I know I must be in this life and in this job.

Some of it may be the cold. Some of it may be the fact that I haven’t actually gone back to work yet – my office has been off since I got back, for New Year’s and Orthodox Christmas. Some of it may be that I haven’t seen any volunteers, besides the one in London, since I left, and I think I feed off the enthusiasm of my peers. So it may just take a few more days to get my feet back under me.

We shall see.

[27]Presented by Citi, who wishes you to forget that they have lost all of their assets because they thought that lending houses to people with no credit was a swell idea.[28]
[28]Please don’t email me to tell me that I am completely misunderstanding the subprime crisis. I will freely admit this.
[29]Where I come from, if you did not know this.
[30]Which is Satan, if you did not know this.
[31]Roast duck with stuffing, salad, and deviled eggs, if you were wondering, which you weren’t.
[32]Despite no longer looking cherubic, I do still have very small fingers. This is odd, because my feet are actually relatively large, and such things are supposed to correlate. This makes it more difficult for me to play a full-size guitar. So I went for the 3/4. Don’t judge me. I’m more of a man than you will ever be, even with little gnome fingers, unless you are a woman, in which case I suppose this remains true but becomes sort of an odd thing to brag about.
[33]Very difficult, it turns out.
[34]The initial packing job, that morning, turned out to be a delightful turn down Nostalgia Lane, as the extra space I had given myself when leaving Georgia turned out not to be enough even for just the winterwear my family had brought me and one or two presents. Every time I thought I had stuffed the last of it into my backpack, I’d turn, see my hiking boots or something equally bulky still on the floor, start swearing profusely, and fondly remember doing this before leaving for the Peace Corps in the first place.
[35]While doing this, I was having vivid memories of my Bearinacage Halloween costume, which was kneed and nearly destroyed in a marshutka two months ago.
[36]Although the Tbilisi Metro ride I attempted after the Shakira concert in December will probably never be topped in the list of places where I have most strongly felt that I might die due to body compression. Imagine a Metro car that already cannot handle one single more person aboard, pulling into an unimaginably crowded station of mostly Georgian youth. The doors open, and none of them EVEN PART TO LET THE PEOPLE INSIDE GET OUT. The unlucky ones, inside, who need to get out have to simply fight their way out as people fight their way in. And here is how you fight your way into the Tbilisi Metro: you push as hard as you can on the back of the person in front of you. You hear this about other subway systems at rush hour, but they’re never ACTUALLY this bad. This experience actually was. I was standing one foot from opening metro doors for two consecutive trains, and I did not get on because I was outpushed by others. At that point I gave up and took a taxi that cost ten times as much.
[37]Even though this Tube train at rush hour was terribly crowded, here is an amusing fact about London that might have been even more shocking to my system than the whole everyone-speaks-English-here thing: even at the height of rush hour, even when 400,000 people are leaving New Year’s on the Thames and Tube trains/stations could not be any more crowded, people FORM A SINGLE FILE LINE ON THE ESCALATORS. Because there is a sign that says, “Please stand on the right, walk on the left.” I was admonished at one point for not doing this. HALF OF THE ESCALATOR IS NOT BEING USED. I can’t decide if I admire this or not. I really should have taken a picture. That wouldn’t even happen in America.
[38]Although the Burger King at Piccadilly Circus blurs this line more than any other toilet I’ve ever seen in the western world.
[39]I don’t know whether it’s just that much colder this week than it was before I left for London, but I have been So. Freaking. Cold. since I got back. My family’s gas heaters don’t seem to be heating the room as much as they did before, and the temperature in my bedroom has been unfathomable. It may be an issue of tolerance; I’d withstood the entire spectrum of temperatures downwards since fall, and had perhaps just gotten used to being cold all the time more than I thought I had. Maybe nine days in a place where it’s warm every time you go inside ruined my tolerance for cold, and it’ll just be a while before I get it back. It’s only going to get colder for the next two months before it starts to get warmer. I am terrified of this. Even with my new long underwear.
[40]I’m no longer writing this on the same day as the beginning of this post. Even I couldn’t write this much in one evening.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

VERY IMPORTANT POST READ THIS. Or: I know what I said a while ago. I lied.


We interrupt the sequence of promised posts for this breaking bulletin. I know I said last time I mentioned my documentary project that I didn't want to use this space to pimp it any more, but I lied. Or something. HERE YOU SHALL FIND the summary of my project on the Peace Corps website, and directions towards donating to it online. If you click on the link at the bottom, it will take to you a large list of volunteer-written projects such as mine. Scroll down to mine, since the others are lame justkidding, and enter your donation into the box. I do not know what happens after this, since obviously I cannot donate to my own project to test it out. Probably this is tax-deductible, or something, but I do not know the rules about this. I can find out, if you would like me to. Please please please please donate to my project, and do so quickly, because the necessary materials are, well, necessary soon for the success of the club. And the kids are really into the club. I am proud of them.

I would, however, like to get them to at least slightly diversify their thoughts -- there has been a successful ECO club here for a few years, so when I asked for essays on what they thought could be improved in their community, I got six essays on cleaning up litter and one on people who sit in the park all day. And, I mean, that's terrific, but hopefully we end up with fewer than six documentaries on litter, and more than one on anything else. ANYWAY. Donate to my project, and I will love you forever (this is a nonbinding agreement).

Thank you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dan's Trip to London, Part Two. Or: I'm boring myself, too.

Friends, it is SNOWING here. Hard. This is a picture of my front yard from this morning:

...and it has continued to snow all day. The internet was not working most of the day, due to snow on the satellite (I would like to know who went up to the roof to get it off; this person deserves an extra coffee!), so I am glad that I am able to share PART TWO with you at all, in between repeated short bouts of hypothermia. By now you may already be wearying of my London adventure; rest assured that I am not, and may in fact spring 47 new installments of Dan Goes to London on you, if I Feel Like It.

Also, a note: those of you who are spamming my comments sections: stop. Those of you who are not commenting in my comments sections: start. Unless your comments have to do with get-rich-quick websites or enhancement cream.

We felt like we had one more day of tour-based tourism in us, so the next day we took a bus full of other tourists to Stonehenge, which I can describe in one word:[17]. Also, it is literally right next to the highway. This is something you don’t see in photographs. You’re driving along, assuming that it will be a bit of a trek to Stonehenge from the actual road, and then you approach it and bam it’s just right there, like a rest stop Wendy’s. But first, we visited the Roman baths at Bath. That visit got off to a good start when our tour guide started making snide remarks at an employee, and got better when we realized that there was a building built really weirdly around the Roman ruins. Like, the signs and audio tour would tell you to imagine that there wasn’t a wall bisecting the ruins of the Roman courtyard, when really they could have just not built a wall down the middle of the ruins of the Roman courtyard. Also, there were little sprinklers everywhere – perhaps stones need to be damp to look authentic when they’re covered by walls and a roof for no reason. Also, the building that awkwardly contains the baths is in the middle of a smallish courtyard in the town of Bath. On one side of the courtyard are the baths, on one side is a very nice looking church, and on the other two sides are strip malls. You could throw a 1,500 year old stone from a Roman ruin and hit a Burger King.

Wanting something more nakedly historical, we rode from Bath to Stonehenge, where my brother and I scrambled out of the bus [18] and were immediately knocked down by a wind nearly as stiff as the famed English upper lip. So we sort of ran around the path that circles Stonehenge, taking arty pictures, and then jumped back on the bus. But it was nice nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed the audio tour, which, since nobody has any idea why Stonehenge was erected, consisted mostly of the voices saying things like, “Look how big THAT rock is! It’s huge! How could anyone have picked it up?” and discussing the various myths of Stonehenge, like that Satan stole the rocks from an old woman. This is where the term, “getting your rocks off” comes from. [19]

After one more stop on Stonehenge Day, at a 750 year old church in Sheffield, we got back to London quite tour-ed out. My mom and youngest brother wanted to go back to our hotel, but I convinced my father and my two other brothers to come out to dinner with me somewhere in the city. This was an excellent idea, except for the small fact that the restaurant I was trying to lead them to, which was discussed in our guidebook, apparently does not exist. For an hour, we circled the part of the city that was supposed to contain the particular street we were looking for, even asking a few people if they knew where this street was, and got nowhere. Eventually, about to be the cause of a family mutiny, I decided to allow the others to just pick a place, and we found a perfectly acceptable pub. While eating, drinking, and listening to my little brother complain that everyone was staring at him because he doesn’t “look 18,”[20] I realized I didn’t have my wallet. I never wear a wallet in Georgia[21], so always making sure I knew its whereabouts was not as automatic an action as it had been when I lived in America. Panicked that I’d left my wallet on the bus, I remembered that our tour guide was a crotchety old man who had yelled at a Roman Baths employee, and I became certain that this old man would steal my money. I sprinted out to a pay phone to call my mother, back at the hotel. While I was fumbling with the coins for the phone[22], my father came out of the pub with a smile on his face. My oldest brother had apparently picked my wallet up from the bus, and had been carrying it around for an hour and a half. He says he “forgot” he had it. And somehow he still thinks I owe him money for drinks.

We finished eating at this pub, and my father decided he wanted to go see Trafalgar Square, which was within walking distance. So we started walking down towards it, and someone had the idea to turn the trek into a pub hop. This was an excellent idea. We walked to Trafalgar Square, then down to Big Ben, London Bridge, and the Thames, which looks even cooler after you’ve had a couple drinks, and then walked back up to Piccadilly Circus, where we took the Tube back to our hotel. We didn’t stop at very many pubs, so my father and I weren’t affected much, but my younger brothers can’t hold their liquor. So it was an enjoyable family evening all around. I just wish someone had vomited into the Thames. Maybe next vacation.

With three more days of family togetherness time, we set off around the city to do as much as we could. For instance, we went to Harrods, the famous London department store, where I bought the aforementioned overpriced scarf, as well as a sweater and English tea for my host family. Speaking of tea, my mother wanted us to have traditional English tea that afternoon, since Harrods has a very nice dining room on its top floor. The tea was very sophisticated – we had scones and finger sandwiches and like five teapots – but I really just can’t help myself, so I spent the entire time making dirty jokes while being hushed. I did a lot of dirty-joke-making, in London. I think I just can’t help it when I’m around family. It doesn’t matter how mature the activity I am doing AWAY from my family is; when I am around my parents and brothers, I seem to revert to a role. If I win a Nobel Prize, and my family comes to celebrate with me in Sweden, I will probably start the first conversation off by mentioning a disgusting sexual act. And then my mother will shush me, and they’ll take away my medal.

Along with going to Harrods, we went ice skating, where I remembered that I am not very good at ice skating[23], and to see Spamalot on the West End, where I remembered that I had already SEEN Spamalot. Twice. We also went up on the London Eye, which is a huge thing across the Thames from Big Ben that looks like the love spawn of a ferris wheel and the Millenium Falcon. It takes you on something like a 20 minute ride, the entirety of which you spend fighting with other tourists to be in the best photo-taking spot in your “pod.” It is quite a nice view at the top. An interesting occurrence before we got our tickets: I got a Diet Coke with lunch and realized, to my delight, that the writing on the label was inexplicably in Georgian. I showed the others, but nobody shared in my delight, because they wouldn't know interesting bottling factoids if one hit them in the face. One of their bottles was also in Georgian - if anyone knows how Coca-Cola bottling works, and why they would send bottles or labels written in a language that 4 million people speak to one of the capitals of the English-speaking world, feel free to let me know. When we got our tickets for the Eye, we still had a wait, so we stopped into a Salvador Dali exhibit, and saw a bunch of statues of women with drawers sticking out of them. Apparently this symbolizes the revelation of the feminine mystique. Also, there was an elephant with giraffe legs holding up a pyramid. It must be nice to be a surrealist.[24]

On New Year’s Eve, after visiting an aviation museum near Cambridge, we came back to London for the festivities. We ate dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, and then headed to the Thames, hoping to see the fireworks that were reputedly millions of pounds in the making. Now, I’m going to preface this by saying that I never have good New Year’s Eves. I think that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who don’t have good New Year’s Eves, and people who lie. Nobody ever has a great New Year’s. This is because New Year’s is built up to be the best, most drunken, most debaucherous, most fun-filled night of the year, and when it inevitably is not, it always feels like a disappointment. New Year’s and Valentine’s Day are the two most overhyped holidays in existence. So you will not be surprised when I tell you that we did not really see the fireworks over the Thames. What happened was, we got to the closest open Tube station to the waterfront at about 11, and could do nothing but simply drift towards the river with the masses of other people doing the same thing. The spot we ended up was a fair distance from London Bridge, the Eye, and Big Ben, which was where the festivities were centered. People close to that area had been waiting for hours. Where we were, it was raining, and you could just barely see boats under London Bridge festively spewing fire into the air. We waited for about 45 minutes, getting pushed around in every direction but trying to retain our spots, until midnight struck. And: nothing. We were apparently too far away to hear Big Ben. Then the fireworks started! And they were coming from the Eye, and there were lights, and everything was awesome! For about two minutes! Because, friends, at that point, the smoke from a million British pounds’ worth of fireworks started to drift down the river. Towards us. Within minutes, it was completely impossible to even SEE the Eye. The smoke did not dissipate until the fireworks were over. And thus was New Year’s 2008 for me.

It wasn’t as bad as it would seem. I mean, if I lived in London, it probably would have sucked. But getting to be there on New Year’s was pretty cool in itself, even if the whole fireworks thing didn’t exactly work out. Probably one of my most memorable New Year’s Eves even without fireworks. I can only remember a few of the New Year’s Eves I’ve had. That’s how mediocre they tend to be. So this one was right up there. And, if you take it with the trip as a whole, which was awesome, I’d put it at #1. My #1 New Year’s ever. And it consisted of standing in the rain and not seeing fireworks.[26]

Tomorrow: PART THREE. Maybe.
[18]Not because we were itchin’ to see more stones, but because we were sitting behind a seemingly German couple who were not taking our repeated knee-based hints to put their seats back up. I will never stop railing about this practice. If you are a person who puts their seat back on airplanes or buses or whatever, just get out of this blog right now.
[19]Ok, I made that second sentence up. But the myth did apparently exist, at some point, if you’re to believe cheery audio tour recordings.
[20]He doesn’t. But you’ll get there, buddy! Keep your chin up! I only feel license to mock this because I was downright cherubic until I was about 19. My host family really enjoys looking at old photos of me and laughing. I was expecting it to be other parts of Peace Corps service that would require therapy.
[21]I almost never require more than ten lari in a day, so usually I just stuff between four and ten lari in my pocket when I wake up in the morning, and leave the rest at home. It’s easier than wearing the Peace Corps-issued travel pouch and enduring questions about why I look pregnant.
[22]British money is absolutely ridiculous, by the way. The lowest-denomination note they have is five pounds, so you have an enormous mass of coins in your pocket, and they’re all different shapes and sizes; these sizes do not correspond to their value at all. A 50p coin can be so small it’s hard to find, but you could eat dinner on a 2p coin. Also, some coins have multiple sizes. Can we check what’s in the afternoon tea at Her Majesty’s Mint? It’s just ridiculous. I feel very strongly about this.
[23]I didn’t fall, though. That was my goal. There are at least two ice rinks in Georgia – one in Batumi, and one in Tbilisi – so I wanted to practice before getting back here, so I could perhaps go with volunteer friends and not make a total fool of myself.
[24]Not to “diss” Salvador Dali, who I will admit was an artistic genius[25], but really you could find meaning in anything. I could fill a marshutka with cucumbers and power tools and claim that it symbolizes how the world is dominated by male paradigms. It would still be stupid. But you’ve stopped caring about this.
[25]Despite his surrealist film, “Un Chien Andalou,” which consists of ants crawling out of a guy’s hand and someone slicing an eyeball with a razorblade and is a total piece of crap despite what film professors say.
[26]For instance, New Year’s 2007 consisted of me and two friends at a bar in my hometown, and me being upset that I was not at another bar with a girl. I went to find the girl after midnight, since I didn’t want to leave my friends before midnight, and it turns out she wasn’t there but had been looking for me. Hooray! Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dan's London Adventure, Part One. Or: This blog contains many dirty jokes. If you are a small child or my boss, proceed with caution. Thank you.

Hello, all. Happy New Year. I am finally back at work, after more than two weeks off. Feels a little odd, but getting back into it. There are developments in the political situation, after the elections on Saturday, which I will briefly catch you up on, but first: I have written a blog about my travels to London that could qualify as a novella, due to its length, so I am breaking it up, and will release it to you, the waiting public, in segments of three over the next three days. I am sure you are very excited. I also wish to share with you picture posts entitled, "A Year in Pictures," which will be a story-based adventure, and, "The Best of 2007," which will be my favorite arty photographs, suitable for printing and framing in your very own home. But before getting to those, since I have work to do today, I will first merely share with you Part One of Dan's London Adventure. Enjoy.

So it’s 2008. Feels a lot like 2007. I’m sitting in the kitchen of my house in Chokhatauri, typing on my computer, which is what I was doing at approximately this point in the evening almost every evening of the last few months of 2007. Village life at this point is very much a life of routine, and I doubt mine is going to change drastically just because the calendar has turned. Although I do have some New Year’s resolutions that will hopefully shake up the monotony.[1]

However, some things are different. There are two festive New Year’s trees in the kitchen, livening up the mood, and my host family is currently having a great time checking out some things I brought back from London – gifts for them, and a new guitar for me. Most of these items were purchased yesterday, in a whirlwind of a last few hours in London, before I jumped on a 9pm flight back to Georgia to begin calendar year number two of Peace Corps service. It appears I simply cannot escape the night travel.

London was terrific; it was not without its warts – no lengthy family vacation is – but I had a great time seeing my parents and brothers and getting to know the city. Despite the trifling fact that I live in a village on a mountain, I remain very much a city person, and I really enjoy finding my way around a new city, trying to rely less and less on maps as my time there goes on, and – I especially enjoy this – learning the city’s subway map. I was in London for nine days, 7.5 with my family and 1.5 without, which was plenty of time for me to start feeling, in a completely facetious and exaggerated way, that I “knew” the city. My family probably did not enjoy the way in which I would self-assuredly charge off towards where I thought we were going, only to sometimes be incorrect. Also, I led my father and two of my brothers on an hour-long search for a restaurant that seems not to exist.[2]

The vacation started off on a challenging note – my flight out of Tbilisi was delayed an unfathomable seven hours, without any explanation whatsoever. I arrived at the airport at 10am to find it, because this is Georgia, nearly deserted. Flights don’t tend to arrive or leave at normal times, here. Nobody was standing at any of the check-in counters, despite a small crowd of people who were there to board some of the few daytime flights. I sat around for a while, looking for employees of the British airline I was taking, until I finally found one walking around as another plane’s passengers were finally allowed to start checking in. I asked him where I was supposed to go for the London flight, at which point he said, straightforwardly, “That flight is delayed until 6pm. I can arrange cab fare for you into the city.” There had been no announcements of this, and the flight was not on the departure board until after this exchange. This is Georgia – time just works differently.[3] But, amusingly, since these were Georgians working for a British airline, I was handed a pamphlet, after not even being notified of a seven hour delay until I sought out an employee who was neither at the check-in counter nor at the airline customer service desk, that laid out my compensation rights with detailed explanation of how they were affected by the length of the delay and the length of the flight. If I’d been flying Georgian Airways, perhaps I’d just have been given five lari and sent on my way. To the employee’s credit, he helped store my bags in a back room and found me a taxi, which I took back into Tbilisi whence I had come, and spent two hours designing a Christmas card at McDonald’s.[4] When I got back to the airport again, the passengers were allowed to check in, but there was nobody in the departure area upstairs, forcing me to mill around and eavesdrop on the crew of the plane, which was killing time in the duty free shop, asking each other why the doors to the gate were locked, and where they could find someone with the keys.

The flight turned out to be uneventful, not even a decent test of my hypothesis that six months of Georgia have turned me into a traveler of steel, because there were few enough people on the plane that nobody else was in my aisle, and I was not left wanting for space in any way. Also, I had forgotten in the six months since our last flights how superior the service on an international carrier is to that on an American carrier – I was not only given a glass of wine to start the flight, but given a second one at the same time, in case I ended up wanting it with dinner.[5] Needless to say, I enjoyed the flight, though I did find it occasionally distracting that some people near my aisle were speaking to each other in English, which is something I hadn’t seen two strangers do in quite a while.

This was, of course, a much larger problem in England, but only for a day or so. It was pretty cowing the first night I was there, though; not just the fact that suddenly everything was in English[6], but the mere juxtaposition of everything. My family was out at a nice dinner when I got to the hotel, since I’d been so delayed, so I sat in the hotel room watching television until they got back. When they finally walked in the door, I would have expected myself (and they probably expected me) to jump off the bed, give everyone a big family hug, and start chatting excitedly. In fact, what I did was look up from the TV and go (I believe this is verbatim), “Um, hey.” I think my brain sort of shut down. I talk to my parents at least every couple of weeks when I’m in Georgia, so it’s not like it had been months since I’d spoken to them, but actually seeing everyone, in a place that’s relatively America-ish, was pretty strong mental whiplash after adjusting as fully as I was able to a situation that is so different. I was pretty quiet that night and the next day. You shouldn’t do things like this to your brain. My mistake was not spending several days working my way across Europe, carefully calculating the degrees of change, like I was a deep-sea diver. A cultural depressurization chamber, if you will. At least I wasn’t in America; perhaps the confusion of “bangers and mash,” serving beer at room temperature, and driving on the left was what kept my brain from just kissing the world goodbye and exploding.[7]

But, after a day or so, I was fine, and I really, really, really enjoyed England. I’d wanted to see London for a long time; I tried to set up a study-abroad semester there with a friend in college, but it didn’t work out, and then I took an internship with a company in LA that had a London office, excitedly – also stupidly and naively – thinking that maybe somehow I could parlay my internship into a job there, which of course didn’t work out, because it was a stupid idea. So I was excited to see if the city lived up to my image of it. It did. I could move right back there. Um, if I wasn’t so committed to the work I’m doing here. Also, if I had a large trust fund or was otherwise extremely wealthy. Because it was very expensive. All of the prices look similar to American prices for things, except the pound is twice as strong as the dollar, meaning that everything basically costs twice as much as it would in the United States. I paid what would equate to 70 American dollars for a nice scarf. Tickets to touristy attractions regularly approached what would be 30 dollars. My brother accidentally spent the equivalent of 100 dollars at a bar one night as he started feeling the effects of his double Jack and cokes and kept ordering more rounds for BOTH of us without counting how much money he was spending.[8] 100 dollars is more than half what I make in an entire month. I tried not to think much about this fact when I was there. It would just have made my head hurt.

Other than the expense, though, London was great. We got off to a bit of a slow start; our first full day there was Christmas Day, during which the entire country shuts down. It was pretty interesting; in America, we celebrate Christmas while trying to pretend like we’re not, because we must respect the heathens who don’t believe in Jesus. So we have “winter break” at schools, and “Happy Holidays” on all the billboards, and many businesses are open. In England, NOTHING is open on Christmas. The TUBE isn’t open on Christmas. And none of the signs say “holidays” or anything like that. You probably wouldn’t think that this would be weird until you actually see it. Anyway, since 2/3 of my family does believe in Jesus, we went to Midnight Mass the night before, where the Jesuit priest spent the homily railing against atheism, which was fun for the 1/3 of my family that does not believe in Jesus. The next day, Christmas day, we spent the entire day at our hotel, exchanging presents and eating all of our meals there, because there was literally almost nothing else open, even for food. The rest of the family had already exchanged their presents, in America[9], so by “exchange presents” I basically mean that everyone gave ME presents. And by “gave me presents,” I mean that one of my brothers gave me a hat, and my parents gave me enough long underwear to choke a camel.[11] This long underwear was a terrific present – I’d only brought one pair of long underwear to Georgia, which was a mistake, and I had been wearing it for about two months straight, without removing it except to shower and, very occasionally, when I didn’t need it to sleep. It’s so funky by now that I should probably just burn it. They also gave me a spindle of DVDs that they recorded from their Tivo – UCLA and Illinois basketball and football games, which made me just as happy.

The next day, Boxing Day[12], we rescued ourselves from the Christmas Day inertia, and took a ride in a stranger’s van. This is something I do occasionally in Georgia, but was not expecting to do in England. However, it turns out that the man did not offer to take me to his house for shots of homemade vodka. Instead, he was the tour guide my family had hired to take us to Warwick Castle, which is a very famous castle in the English countryside. We got there, expecting to see a dignified castle with exhibits displaying its importance to English history and such. What we actually saw was a holiday carnival in the courtyard, complete with quite undignified carols blasting from a fake carnival organ, as well as what seemed like a Halloween version of “A Christmas Carol” in one of the castle’s towers, in which various characters jumped out of curtains and things to scare the female visitors. We learned a lot more from the tour guide in the van. After the castle, we visited Stratford-upon-Avon to see various places of Shakespearean import and to eat “bangers and mash” (sausage and mashed potatoes) at a local pub called the Dirty Duck, which is apparently a favorite[13] of actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have covered its walls with signed headshots. It’s like Pink’s Hot Dogs on La Brea in Los Angeles, if Pink’s served beer at room temperature and changed their name to “Pink’s Bangers.”[14] On our way back to London from Stratford, we stopped by Oxford to see the university. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – a bunch of really old Gothic buildings with spires. Interestingly, according to our tour guide, Oxford was spared Luftwaffe bombing during World War II because Hitler fancied setting up shop there when the Germans took over. I don’t know why he’d want to live there. It seems like a weird place to spend all your time. Wouldn’t it be weird to live and study or work in buildings that are many hundreds of years old and very Gothic? It seems like it’d be kind of depressing to be around all those spires and such, despite the prestige and grandeur of it. Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton spent his time there not inhaling.

On the 27th, after checking to make sure the English weren’t celebrating another holiday, we toured the Tower of London, which I’d highly recommend as a place to take a date. You can take your sweetheart through the various places where kings have beheaded their wives, or smothered their rivals, or had their 10 year old nephews killed! And you can point out to your sweetheart a suit of armor worn by Henry VIII, who figures quite prominently in the history of the Tower of London, which had a codpiece the size of a cucumber.[15] This armor was apparently designed to impress Henry’s final wife, who was 20 years younger than he. And you can show your sweetheart the Crown Jewels, and perhaps have a conversation like this:

You: Look at these jewels, dearest. I will buy you finery just as gaudy, heavy, and expensive, once I am promoted to shift manager, because you are the light of my life, and you deserve things made for a queen.
Your sweetheart: You’ve been promising that you’ll get promoted to shift manager for five years.
You: I will! I am next in line for the throne, if you will.
Your sweetheart: (bitter pause) You’re a bigger tool than Henry VIII’s codpiece.

Then you, in an unfortunate moment of anger, might make a tasteless sarcastic joke relating to the famous Tower of London caretakers, who are called the “Beefeaters.” Then your sweetheart will leave you for an Englishman, because their accents make them sound really sophisticated. But the date will probably have been very educational.

We left the Tower of London with all of our appendages intact, and from there we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Under English law, I am not allowed to mention St. Paul’s Cathedral without also mentioning that it is considered the masterpiece of famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren. Seriously. I don’t think I saw a single mention of the name of the cathedral that was not followed by such a clause.[16] It was, admittedly, a very nice cathedral, and I went with my father and two brothers to the top of the cupola, 100 meters up. It was pretty cool, although it was very cloudy – perhaps the vista was not as spectacular as it was atop St. Peter’s in Rome, which my only other cupola-related travel experience, and it wasn’t really as cool as the London Eye, but it was still cool. And, it will live on in history as the location of the last known photograph of me with an enormous beard, unless I grow another one.

To Be Continued! Part Two of Dan's London Adventure to follow tomorrow (hopefully). Same time same place!

[1]I say monotony, which is a word with a negative connotation, despite the fact that said monotony hasn’t yet bothered me that much.
[2]But that night ended in a pub crawl, and I don’t think I should be blamed for something that ends up being excellent. Even if it was in no way my intention.
[3] Ref: post on this blog, Every single other.
[4]If you did not receive this Christmas card: Facebook has a limit on the number of people who can be “tagged” in a “note,” I suppose to ensure that I don’t flood your News Feed with penile enlargement cream advertisements. This limit is very low. If you did not receive my festive Christmas card, send me a short note, and I will decide whether I love you enough to extend this extra effort. I mean, I’ll send it to you. Is what I mean. Although, admitting that you read this blog might reflect poorly on your taste, and the card may not be worth it.
[5]A note for those of you who have not traveled the skies with a non-American company: they have these things called meals, which they feed you on long flights, for free. This is not the same as American Airlines’ “bistro bag,” which is a cold sandwich and a bag of chips for which they charge you $37. International carriers also routinely come through the cabin to offer you more bread or drinks, instead of just throwing a pack of pretzels at you and yelling at you to stow your tray table and turn your iPod off. For an illuminating look at the difference, please reference THIS true story from a friend of mine’s blog, who has in no way approved this link.
[6]Although my hotel was in a Middle Eastern neighborhood of the city, so at least the signs included SOMETHING that I didn’t understand. This was strangely comforting.
[7]If someone wanted to play a really sick experiment on me, they’d wait two or three months from now, drug me in the night, and take me back to the US. If I went to sleep in Georgia, and woke up in my parents’ house in America, I would probably need to be hospitalized.
[8]If you are reading this, Michael, I do not owe you any more money.
[9]They are apparently too selfish to carry all their presents to London and back so their volunteer son can have a real Christmas.[10]
[10]Um, just kidding, mom.
[11]Do not bother trying to analyze this simile; it is as confusing as a parrot wearing mittens.
[12]The English take another holiday the day after Christmas; the vibe seems similar to the day after Thanksgiving. According to our first tour guide, Boxing Day is so named because, in the days of the aristocracy, the day after Christmas was the one holiday of the year for one’s house servants – obviously they had to clean up after you ON Christmas – and was the day on which you would present them with their Christmas boxes. One box on one day a year probably made up for having to clean up horse poop the other 364.
[13]Favourite, perhaps.
[14]If you were expecting to see a joke here on a blog that my boss reads, you’re crazy. But MAN are there some good ones. It’s a shame. Back to the blog.
[15]If the cucumber was horizontal relative to the floor, and not vertical. In case you were wondering.
[16]I think the tube stop near St. Paul’s is even called, “St. Paul’s, Masterpiece of Famed English Architect Sir Christopher Wren.” Also, there’s a tube stop called, “Cockfosters.” Remember when I mentioned that my boss reads this blog? What am I even doing, here?