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.

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