Friday, February 29, 2008

Well I was born in a small town. Or: And I live in a really, really freaking small town.

Hello there, friends. It has been a week since I've mosied by. And what a week it was! I have been in the capital, Tbilisi, since last Friday, engaging in meetings, trainings, and other such shenanigans. I will be preparing a lengthy entry on these events, because they were...eventful. But, for now, to sate you, I will simply share one thing that just happened to me:

I had to go to the pharmacy, just now, because on my way back from the capital yesterday, I picked up an enormous bag I had (which was full of, by then, clean laundry, since I spent a night engaging in washing machine use at an expat's house...more details to come on how scarily excited I was about this), and apparently I did it wrong, and I wrecked my back. So, today I called the doctor, and she told me to go to the pharmacy, where I was to call her, so she could give the pharmacist instructions on my care (believe it or not, my stunning Georgian is not yet stunning enough to say, "I need 100mg tablets of your strongest painkillers, because I have strained my back muscles"). When I was at the pharmacy, hoping that the doctor was telling the pharmacist, "He needs Russian vicodin. Lots of it. Stat," the wheelchair-bound proprietor of the establishment looked at me. I do not know this man. It took me a few seconds to realize that I sometimes pass him in the street. We have never spoken, and if he's ever looked at me in a more than glancing manner, I haven't noticed it. He asked me a question. One would think that this question would be a normal, "Who are you?", or even, "Do you like Chokhatauri?", which is a question I get from people who know who I am but don't know me. Here, instead, was his question:

"Why did you shave your beard?"

I shaved my beard last week, in Tbilisi. I am, apparently, so famous that even the pharmacy manager knows my facial hair status at all times. Next time, I'll go in there for some more Vicodin, and he'll say, "I liked the sweater you were wearing yesterday better."

Small towns, friends. Small towns.

More tomorrow (the usual disclaimer about how this might be an absolute lie).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Better Know A Georgia, Part Whatever - The Alphabet. Or: Fun weekend films for the whole family.

Hello there. Normally, while apologizing for not actually posting this entry two days ago, as I promised, I would use the clever rhetorical device of giving you "zero" guesses to determine the cause of the delay. However, it occurs to me that you would all likely guess the reason to be that I am lazy and uninterested in your edification. This is not, actually, the correct reason. The correct reason is that I have been without internet for two days as a bunch of partially frozen water particles, none identical to any other, decided to make their way down from the sky at a torrid and sustained pace. But today it is clear (so far), so, without further ado:

Wait! There is an ado! An important BREAKING urgent advertisement-style PIECE OF ADO. Tomorrow, the most important piece of film in the history of cinema is being released, and you are not to come back to this blog until you have taken five or fifteen friends to go see it.

Yes, friends, Be Kind Rewind, the delightful comedy starring Jack Black, Mos Def, and about two seconds of footage worth of giant black and white photographs that I took of old cars unlesstheycutthatpartoutsinceilastsawascreeningalmostayearago, is coming out tomorrow, and I expect you all to go see it, because I have an ENORMOUS profit percentage in my contract as "Additional Production Assistant." So. There's that. And now for our feature presentation (that's a Hollywood term):

The Georgian Alphabet Entry for the G8 Future Volunteer Alternative Handbook
So, this is something I wrote for an informational CD, composed by current volunteers, that gets sent to the NEW batch of volunteers who are still in America (Flee, future volunteers! Flee while you still can! Ha ha! Just kidding! Maybe!). I thought it might be fun to post it here for a few reasons. Foremost, the Georgian language/alphabet is an ancient, historic language/alphabet, but one that almost nobody has ever seen or heard of, because of the relative closedness of the Georgian society, the small number of people who know it (estimated by Wikipedia to be only about 4-5 million, making it approximately the 120th most common language in the world -- with the caveat that it's almost impossible to have accurate numbers for such a ranking), and the fact that this country doesn't have a diaspora that does a lot of college-campus-marching, like Armenia has (there also, sadly, is no Georgian equivalent to System of a Down). So I thought it would be interesting for those of you who read this blog to see a description and an explanation of its alphabet, since, if you read this blog, it's possible that you may come into contact with this alphabet at some point. Perhaps you have received a Georgian-language postcard from me, or perhaps you are planning on VISITING HINT HINT HINT HINT. Or, perhaps you're just interested. Or, perhaps you're an actual Georgian, who has stumbled upon this blog after searching for "pictures of shakira concert," in which case this entry will perhaps have ENGLISH language educational opportunities for you (example: in a chart below, I use the word, "burrrrrrito." This is the proper spelling of this word. All other spellings are wrong.). So, without any further ado (I swear):

The Georgian Alphabet Entry for the G8 Future Volunteer Alternative Handbook

Congratulations on accepting your invitation to serve in Peace Corps Georgia! I am sure that, while you were making your decision, you thought of many benefits to serving in the Peace Corps. “Learning a new language” was probably among the benefits you thought of. It was certainly one of mine. “I will be able to use this new language that I learn, later in life, to great benefit and acclaim from my peers!” you are probably thinking to yourself. You will be tickled and delighted, then, to discover that Georgian is approximately the 120th most widely used language in the world! There are perhaps five people in the entire world, outside the borders of Georgia, who can speak this complex, ancient, and fascinating language! But do not fret, volunteer-to-be; there will be rewards for your seemingly meaningless toil. For instance, I just wrote a bunch of postcards in Georgian to my friends back in America, because I know that they will be very impressed to see something in the mail that they cannot read. “What the hell is this?” they will say, when they receive my postcard. “Did he accidentally sneeze ink? Are these words?” Friends, the Georgian alphabet can be as confusing to look at as a parrot wearing mittens. If you have ventured to find it already, perhaps on the internet, you have already discovered this. If you have not, please consult this chart, before reading on:

Now, now. Put the sharp implements down, and take a deep breath. We will get through this together. You can now probably see why the Armenians say that the Georgian alphabet looks like someone threw a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Some volunteers prefer to say that it looks like “Elvish.” But it’s not as difficult as it looks at first. It just takes practice. It’s much easier, for instance, than remembering the hundreds of different versions of each verb. Stop! Please put the implements down. Thank you. Anyway, you will get to verbs in due time, but it is the opinion of most volunteers here that, language-wise, the most important way you can prepare for your departure is to learn the alphabet. If you learn the alphabet before you get on the plane, you will start your first language lessons at least being able to understand what is being written down by your language instructor, and you’ll have that much more of a head start on learning the actual words. Past the very basics (“gamarjoba,” “nakhvamdis,” “madloba,” etc.), it is very difficult to learn anything about this language when you are not here, being taught by an exceedingly competent teacher (trust us – the language teachers are amazing; you’re in good hands). Buy a language book if you want to, and study as much as you like, but any head start you get with actual words is likely to be minimal. However, I recommend in the strongest possible terms (and most volunteers agree) that you learn the alphabet before you get here. It’s doable, and it will make it easier for everyone to get started.

So – how to learn it? The internet can be a good resource for you, but when I did my research before leaving America, I never had any idea how reliable the information was on the few websites I found. Some of it was contradictory. So, since the alphabet is such an important first step, I have compiled the Absolutely Unassailably Correct Pre-Departure Future Volunteer Alphabet Guide for you, so that you can feel reasonably confident that you are learning what we learned. I do not require your thanks; merely that someone bring me a Taco Bell Burrito in some sort of thermos when you get here from America. Thank you.

Now, then. As you can see from the first chart, the Georgian alphabet is made up of 33 letters. Some of the sounds contained in these 33 letters basically do not exist in English, and some of them sound exactly the same as other sounds, to our ears, but are in fact different. Differentiating sounds, and being able to identify the proper letter when you hear sounds that are not in English, will end up being a much more difficult task for you than just memorizing which squiggles correspond to the sounds you CAN hear. It is still hard for volunteers who have been here a long time. I will do my best to explain these sounds for you, but it will take arriving in-country for you to really grapple with them. Let’s start with an alphabet chart, and then parse it further from there:

One thing that does make learning the alphabet easier is the fact that the sounds never change with context, like they do in English. There aren’t several different sounds represented by the letter for “a” – there’s just one, so all you have to do is learn the sound for each letter, and it will always sound like that. This frees your brain to try to recognize the letters that sound, to English speakers, exactly the same. But we’ll get to those in a minute. First, the easy ones. These 16 letters have English equivalents; except, as I mentioned, each letter has only one sound that never changes. This chart tells you which English sound is used for the equivalent letter in Georgian:

Of these, all are very commonly used except for the last two; “j” is used infrequently, except in the word “gamarjoba,” and “h” almost never, except in the word, “ho.” This is fortunate, because they can be difficult to write.

Next, there are five letters that do not have an EXACT equivalent in English, but are either pretty close, or combine a two-letter sound that we DO have in English. These are also easy letters:

Of these letters, the letter “zh” is not used particularly often, but the others are very common.

Finally, we come to the twelve letters that will be the most difficult for you to learn. These twelve letters consist of six sounds in English, each with two variations that will be very, very difficult for you to hear at first. It will get easier for you to sometimes hear the difference between these sounds as you spend more time here, but you will continue to make mistakes, and if you have annoying coworkers, they will laugh and try to get you to make sounds that you cannot (for instance, they LOVE to try to get volunteers to say “bakh’akh’i,” which means frog, and twice uses what is generally considered to be the most difficult sound for Americans to say). When this happens, my best advice is to say the word, “faith,” which combines three sounds that don’t exist in Georgian, and are thus just as hard for them as “bakh’akh’i” will be for you. Ha ha! Cultural exchange is fun.

The easiest way to think about these sounds is in pairs of letters, one with a “soft” sound, and one with a “hard” sound. The soft sound is closer to the way the letter sounds in English; for these sounds, you should be letting air escape your mouth. For the hard sounds (marked here and in many language guides with a ‘), make the same sound as before, but stick your tongue back in the roof of your mouth, and force the sound through it, without letting air come out. A good way to test whether you are saying the sound properly is to put your hand in front of your mouth; if you feel breath, you’re saying the soft sound, and if you don’t, you’re saying the hard sound. Let’s give it a try:

Of these letters, the general consensus is that the most difficult is “kh’,” or the letter that looks like a “y” (I have to describe it, instead of typing it, because you probably don’t have Georgian font drivers installed on your computer yet – find a driver online, if you can). It’s hard enough to say the soft version of this sound, especially when you haven’t had a glass of water in a while, but the hard version can be very, very difficult. The best piece of advice I heard for pronouncing it is to tilt your head back as far as it can go, and look at the ceiling. Then say the soft, “khhhh” version of the sound. That should produce the proper, harder sound.

It will be hard to know if you’re getting the sound right until you’re here, in your language classes; your language teachers will do an excellent job of trying to teach you the sounds, but you still won’t be able to tell them apart in conversation-speed speech for a while. But don’t really worry about it. Georgians will understand you, even when you say the sounds wrong, and to my knowledge there aren’t any extremely embarrassing words that sound exactly like a more innocuous word, only with one sound pair switched. It ends up being mostly a spelling issue; you will NOT be a good speller in Georgia. Just trust me on that one.

So, now that the alphabet is laid out for you, how can you practice it so you know it backwards and forwards once you get here? What I did was to write the letters over and over and over, just like kindergarten all over again. This allows you to start putting sounds with squiggles, and gets you more comfortable with writing the letters more quickly (although don’t try TOO hard with j, t’, ch’, or ts’ – there are handwritten versions that are easier than the typewritten ones). There is also an excellent website that has a small alphabet game, where you are shown either a Georgian or an English letter, and have to select the proper equivalent in the other language. A combination of these techniques, along with any other materials that you find on the internet (although be careful with these, because as I said before, I found a lot of contradictory information online; the sources usually have the alphabet right, but often have differing explanations of the sounds) or that Peace Corps might send you, in whatever way you think works best, will work out fine for you.

So, that’s it! I am sure you will arrive here with the alphabet in the palm of your hand. Eventually, though, you will have to wash that off, and actually learn it. And it isn’t so hard, with practice. Trust me. The time you spend pre-departure on the alphabet is time you don’t have to spend on it here, when you will need every word you learn immediately, in order to be able to communicate at the most basic level with your host family and with people in the community. The Georgian language is a fickle mistress, and you must do your homework if you wish to tame her. Good luck.

Monday, February 18, 2008

F#$%^ing February. Or: Comments on comments, with some added alliteration for your amplified amusement.

First, comments on a couple comments. I am attempting positive-commenting-reinforcement, since there are STILL LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO COME TO THIS BLOG AND DO NOT COMMENT. This blog is a LEARNING tool for you, dear readers. A learning tool so that you can know More About the Peace Corps and More About the World and More About Important Things. It should be a conversation! Nobody enjoys me talking endlessly to myself (Except me. I enjoy this immensely). So, I shall respond to the most recent comments. Ruth commented on the post that questioned the Meaning of Everything:

Hey you got your wish to start a band by going to Georgia! Congrats. Will you do a Georgian version of the sandwich song? Was it "Make Me a Sandwich"?
You'll probably start to feel better when the weather improves. Being cold really ruins attitudes.
Realizing you don't know everything is a sign of maturity. I don't think anyone expects you to have figured out too much at this point in your peace corp career. At the end of 2 years though, watch out! (kidding). I think we're all just impressed that you went and you're trying your best in a difficult situation. Maybe someday you'll be able to sum up neatly what you've learned, but even if you can't I don't think that means you have changed or learned anything.
To clear up any confusion, "Make Me a Sandwich" was not the name of a song, but instead the name of my band, which is on hiatus until we can all learn how to play instruments and write songs and do heroin ambidextrously. Rest assured, MMAS fans: my new band, Mzis Chasvlis Sikhvarulit Momgherlebi, is more of a side project, and our album Bakhakhivit Mgherian will not affect the recording schedule of MMAS' debut album Pastrami on Rye, which is still on target for its "never" release date.

As to Ruth's other points: being cold does seem to be affecting me more than I thought it would. We heard, from G6 volunteers, that February was the worst month, in terms of morale and motivation. One volunteer (the one and only Tom Schreiber) told me that, at one point last February, the hot water went out while he was showering, and, if there had been anyone else in the bathroom, there might have been a homicide. This despite the fact that last year was, apparently, an unusually warm winter. Not only has this winter not been unusually warm, it has been the coldest winter, at least in Chokhatauri, that anyone can remember. A coworker of mine just complained to me that, usually, there is one big snow per winter. This year, I have lost count of the big snows. There have been at least five, probably closer to ten. I knew, from the aforementioned G6 warnings, that the winter would be difficult. I didn't anticipate it being this difficult. Either the other things that are making this month difficult are making it really, really difficult, or the winter is affecting me more than I thought it would. I'm not totally sure which it is. I'd prefer to attribute it to the winter, though I know that the winter is not entirely to blame. I suppose what I am saying is: perhaps home, office, and automotive climate control are more of a factor in the economic success of the western world than one would think. It's hard to be productive when you're cold and/or really hot, and most of the world is one of these things most of the time. But, whatever the case may be, Ruth: I appreciate the encouraging words. The difficult thing, for me, is my tendency to conflate success with effort. If something doesn't work, I feel like somehow I have failed in my effort, and I wonder whether I'm trying hard enough. Maybe I am, and I just have to accept that what happens, happens. Or, maybe I'm really not. Who knows? It is February, after all. I think I am going to rechristen it, "f#$%$%ing February," because I enjoy both bad language and alliteration.

The second comment comes from "Linda," which is the nom de plume of my mother, regarding the post about the criticism of Peace Corps in a New York Times op-ed:
The Peace Corps is a very large organization working in a very large number of dissimilar countries throughout the world. A world that is changing very quickly. That PCV's need to be better qualified for some of the posts that they are sent to is a point well taken and I believe accurate. However, there are also many areas where PCV's are not only useful but a great benefit to their host country, city, town. It's a matter of fit and some rethinking of some of the more technical posts that PCV's are sent to.
I can't really speak to some of the more "technical" posts that PCVs are sent to in many countries; in a lot of countries, PCVs work in forestry, agriculture, medical, and other quite specific and technical fields. I hope that the volunteers sent to work in these areas have the experience to make a difference in their host sites, but I have no idea whether or not this is actually the case. Georgia is not a Peace Corps post with highly technical programs; volunteers here either teach English, or work as consultants at business or social organizations. Some volunteers here are highly qualified for their work; some of us are either directly or recently out of college, and got all of the specific knowledge for our work from two months of training. I don't know a great deal about how other volunteers feel about this, but the conversations I have had about it lead me to think that they feel much like I do: when things are going well, it seems like what we thought before coming here is true -- that merely coming from a good educational background in America allows us to transfer knowledge and ways of thinking that the people here really need, but have had little access to. When things are not going well, we think something else: what am I doing here? Why me? How can I help this town and this organization? And I suppose such thinking is inevitable. It is, again, f#$%#ing February. My program manager said something to me recently, in an email. She said, "You may not be seeing the results of this yet but you have changed [the members of your organization, local youth, and the town in general]... and trust me it is a change for the better." Slow change can sometimes seem like no change, or not enough change, and that can make a person think, "perhaps someone else could be doing this better." And perhaps someone else could. Hopefully, at least, I'm doing enough. Maybe ask me in March.

Speaking of "someone else" -- not of someone else instead of me, but rather of someone else in addition to me -- I would like to acknowledge a crazy reality: there are going to be new volunteers here pretty soon. We have been here for eight months, now, and in a little less than four more, there will be a whole new batch of idealistic trainees who have no idea what F#$#$%ing February 2009 (this sounds like the theme of a bar crawl) has in store for them. It's hard to believe we've been here for this long. Regardless, these volunteers will soon be finding our blogs and reading what we wrote for an informational CD that Peace Corps will be sending them, and they will start to ask us questions about stuff. This is frightening and exciting at the same time. I am sure that it is obvious to those of you who know me and those who do not alike: I enjoy being seen as a person who Knows Something. But the responsibility is daunting. What if they read this blog and think that all volunteers do is complain about the weather and talk about toilets? Could I live with myself, knowing that 60 idealistic still-in-America pre-trainees have such a correct notion of what is in store for them? Maybe I should start writing about how I've taught everyone in my town to recite Shakespeare in English and how we built a community center with no materials except sweat, companionship, and increased intercultural understanding.

Oh well. If any newly-invited American is happening across this blog, feel free to email me with any questions you may have. I will try to be as idealistic as possible in my response. And, for your edification as well as that of anyone else who might be interested, I think I may post my contributions to the alternative handbook (that informational CD) on this blog, because they were on the fascinating topics of the Georgian alphabet and supras. Also because I have already written them, and it would be a shame not to pad my post count with things that have already been written for another reason (I may also post something or other from the January edition of The Tamada, the volunteer-written satirical attempt-at-a-publication, because I know people love reading collections of inside jokes that they may not find at all amusing). I am happy to be a resource for you almost-almost-volunteers in any way that will be helpful. But, a warning: I might, if I were you, either wait until the weather warms the #$%^ up, or take any response with five or thirty grains of salt.

It is, after all, f#$%#$ing February.

Tomorrow: my Alternative Handbook 2008 article about the Georgian alphabet. Finally, after all this time (I am too lazy to look up exactly how much time): a new installment of Better Know a Georgia! Dream happy dreams until then, friends.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tom Schreiber. Or: Welcome, searchers!

Friends, I don't pretend to understand the internets. It may be a connected series of tubes. It may be run by gnomes, or the French. All I know is that the internets are wonderful. All eleven of them. I sometimes mention in this space that my favorite thing about this blog is getting to see what random people, all over the world, were searching for when they stumble upon my blog. I discovered a while back, to my surprise and bemusement, that Google, in its infinite wisdom, puts my blog on its search results pages for all sorts of queries to which my blog provides absolutely no answers. Most mornings, when I get into work, I check an internet tool that allows me to see, among other things, all the search queries that led to "hits" the previous day. Here, for example, are some of the best ones from the last few weeks:

  • "Reginald wood stove"
  • "It is time to look sooooooo good."
  • "shirt off" "my host"
  • "can you take a photo of us"
  • "cramps in hands at night"
  • "find a map of where the war on terror is at"
And, I swear to God:
  • "a greek Mythological sculptor reputedly able to make sculptures that could walk and talk"
I checked Google about this last one; it turns out that this blog is on the FIFTH PAGE of results for this search query. If the person who searched for this has returned to this blog and is reading this, please let us all know why you (a) searched for this in the first place, (b) scrolled through five pages of results before finding something to click on, and most importantly (c) what in God's name compelled you to click on THIS result. If you answer, I will award you fifty credits. But try not to hurt yourself when collecting them.

Google not only presents odd search results; it also ranks them via a mysterious formula. The only person who knows this ancient and powerful formula is not even a person. It is a dragon who lives in a cave on a mountain. His name is Albee the Racist Dragon. We volunteers have recently come to discover that this search result formula is also a formula for fun; a volunteer named Tom Schreiber (that's Tom Schreiber, if you didn't hear the first time) realized that, when searching for his own name (his name being Tom Schreiber), Google returned another volunteer's blog post ABOUT him (him = Tom Schreiber, in case I'd lost you already) above his own blog (that is, Tom Schreiber's blog). We became curious about what would happen if other volunteers started posting about Tom Schreiber; sure enough, a couple other volunteers' posts have ALSO jumped Tom Schreiber's own blog on the Google results page if you search for his name (type in "Tom Schreiber").

Now, you may be wondering if I am going to be joining these volunteers in this experiment. I am not. I refuse to write a post about Tom Schreiber. I am certain that this blog, behemoth of the online community that it is, would not only supercede Tom's blog on Google, but would literally make Tom's blog cower in fear and run to an uninhabited, poorly-lit corner of the Internet, to the unfindable realm currently occupied by the "Nudie Photos of George W. Bush" blog, the "Black People Support Hillary!" fanpage, and the Armenia National Tourism Board's official website. I do not wish to embarrass Tom's blog in this manner, because Tom is a very nice man, a friend of mine, and a seventh degree black belt in a martial art that he invented himself because he thinks that karate is "for sissies." So do not think that this post (the one titled, "Tom Schreiber") is an attempt to engage in this activity. It is merely my discussion of the activity, and my musings thereon. I do not wish to "beat" Tom Schreiber. That is all.

Tom Schreiber Tom Schreiber Tom Schreiber Tom Schreiber Tom Schreiber.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A letter to Jesus. Or: Acts of the a-frosted.

Dear Jesus,

Hi. It's Dan. I don't ask you for a lot of things. I try to keep to myself. You're probably pretty busy. That said, I have one teenysmallrequest for you. Here it is.

Make it stop snowing. Right now. It is snowing very hard. This displeases me. This makes me think you don't like me very much.


Indubitably yours,

PS I still have your toothbrush.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Something to chew on. Or: Besides pigeon meat.

So, first things first: I know there are Georgian readers of This Blog. Occasionally, I pick up a straggler from the internets, someone in Tbilisi or Rustavi who has been searching for "lyrics to misha magaria" or "where is shakira concert" or some other query for which this blog provides no help. I also know that at least a couple of the Georgian staff members at the Peace Corps office stop by from time to time. Ostensibly, they do this to make sure I am not saying anything that would reflect poorly on the Peace Corps (they will particularly enjoy part two of this post), but the real reason is, of course, that they cannot resist my mirthful musings.

Part one of this post, thus, is a question: what is up with the bird meat? Obviously, I would not be able to get an answer to this question from those I work with, since they hardly speak English (they are clustered around my desk right now, going through an English textbook, saying English phrases like, "I live at school," and, "kidney beans," and looking at me for approval). But today I was exhorted to consume what appears to be pigeon meat for the second time in a week, and I just don't really get it. Like I said before, it tastes fine, but it is tiny and thus very difficult to consume. Why bother? I'd imagine that it is difficult to shoot pigeons. My mental picture of doing so involves a Georgian man, standing on his porch with the shotgun one uses to fire shells at random into the air on New Year's Eve, luring pigeons into the yard with cornmeal before emptying a beltful of .22s in their general direction. I'm not 100% sure why everyone seems so excited when there's bird meat to be had. You have much larger birds in the yard! And you don't have to shoot them! Someone please edify me.

While you're ruminating about that, I have a far less frivolous topic for this post. I was talking to my mother a little while ago, about various things, and I mentioned an op-ed that had been written in the New York Times a short time before, and that had been circulated amongst volunteers. Basically, in the op-ed, a former Peace Corps country director in Morocco expresses his displeasure with the way Peace Corps works, who it sends where, and how effective volunteers can be in the situations in which they're placed. Our country director here sent us, after the email was circulated, another link, to a published set of letters to the editor, responding to this op-ed, including one from the current Director of the Entire Peace Corps, Ron Tschetter. I told my mother I'd email her this article, but I decided that I am interested in whether anyone reading this has thoughts about it. Of course, nobody posts comments on this blog despite there being quite a number of readers (I have conniving ways of finding out who you are), but I will put this out there anyway, because it touches on themes that I think about every day. This blog, for better or worse, is an "out there" document of the Peace Corps, so I'm going to refrain, I think, from discussing the article in detail, what I think about it, and why. I will say that I think many of the author's points are very, very wrong, but some of them are undeniably right. Life is complicated and hard to figure out, friends. That's the sort of penetrative, insightful, and original commentary you come back to this blog again and again for.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The creation of a family band. Or: Von Trapped in existential hell

I’ve been trying for a few days now to come up with something mindblowing, a stunningly prescient conclusion or learned lesson, after looking back on the one year of my life that I’ve known anything about this country. I am not having a lot of success. Really, there should be something I could say, right now. The Peace Corps brochures are full of glossy pictures of volunteers, all gazing maturely at the camera, their smiles an expression of confidence and wisdom and clarity. “Look at us,” they say. “We joined the Peace Corps, and we totally figured everything out about the world.” The kind of people who come back to America, work for a Boys & Girls Club, and spend their weekends volunteering in soup kitchens, lecturing people about harmful stereotypes. The kind of people who start every story with, “You know, I once learned something powerful about mankind, when I spent two years among the indigenous tribes of mountainous Peru.”

Am I that person? I don’t think so. Not yet, at least. While it is true that I am no longer capable of starting or contributing to any conversation without saying, “In Peace Corps…,” this is less a manifestation of grand lessons learned than, well, the fact that conversations with people in America wouldn’t be any fun if I couldn’t engage in wicked games of one-upsmanship. You thought it was a little cold the other night? I live on a mountain and must carefully weigh the decision to change my pants or take a shower against the possibility of immediate frostbite. You were annoyed that some guy was tailgating you on the freeway? I travel in seat-belt-less death chariots that contain nine seats but 20 people, and the only thing keeping my mind off the image of T-boning a cow at 70 kilometres per hour is that I must keep constant vigil for pickpockets. I win! All the time!

Of course, life is not as hard as I make it seem – at least, not for those reasons. It’s just fun to say that it is. But these are the things I talk about, because what else is there? I have no life lessons to impart upon you, friends. The last year has been, it almost goes without saying, the most eventful year of my young life. I have moved to a new country, learned a new language, lived with two new families, and tried to accomplish things in a culture and a profession that I had no prior experience with. Have I learned anything about the world? Not much. In fact, I think that the most constructive thing that has happened, vis a vis the world and me, is a decrease in knowledge. I have learned just how much about the world I don’t know, and maybe just how much is not knowable. Perhaps it’s a product of living in such an insular culture; Georgia doesn’t have too big a presence on the world stage, and the people here don’t seem to mind too much. They’ve lived basically among themselves for millennia. But coming to a place of which you knew so little, beforehand, really just makes you realize, “Jesus. There are like 190 other countries, scores more distinct cultures within those countries, and just a buttload of stuff about those people that you not only don’t know anything about, but have never even thought to consider the existence of in the first place.” If there are so many people in a country I’d barely heard of a year ago, how many other people are there? It's kind of a weird thing to think about, but we never really stop to consider just how large a number six billion is. There are just a buttload of people who have never heard of you, and of whom you have never heard. Is that a life lesson? Maybe. Would they put it in a Peace Corps brochure? Probably not.

I suppose I’ve probably learned a lot of things about myself, but such progress is hard to measure, even for someone who resides so far inside his own head that he should put a futon in there. I’ve certainly experienced more difficulty than I ever have before. I’ve certainly done things that I never would have done before, acted in ways I never would have before, and I feel more mature than I did a year ago (these are the sorts of things people who live in their own heads say). But I suppose I thought that I would spend my time here achieving a sort of zen about life; instead, I have discovered that sheer perseverance is as much of a victory as one can sometimes hope for. On Saturday, another person from my group will Early Terminate, in Peace Corps parlance, and head back to America; after surviving almost miraculously intact through training (which is rare), losing a few volunteers right before swear-in (more typical), and remaining intact for the entire first four months of our service (unheard of), our group will have lost two volunteers in the last month and a half. Both are close friends of mine. Both decided they didn’t want to be here anymore. Perhaps the act of staying, in and of itself, is an act of personal growth. I did not expect this, when I got here. I knew, from books that I’d read, that former volunteers always describe the experience as a series of peaks and valleys; one book cautioned, “You will feel some of your highest highs, but also some of your lowest lows.” This has proven true. But I don’t think I expected this experience to be such a constant mental trial; I thought that the difficulty would be in adjusting to a new way of life. That, frankly, has been a breeze. I squat in an outdoor latrine, I eat foreign-looking and foreign-tasting foods, and I can read a crazy squiggle language (note to HCN Peace Corps staff: an ancient and beautiful squiggle language! Seriously. It’s nifty looking, and I am always pleased with myself when I write in it).

But, friends, I don’t mind telling you – the new year has been kind of a bitch so far. No longer can I fall back on the idea that, “oh, it’s just the first few months, it’s supposed to be hard.” It’s no longer the first few months, but it’s still hard. I sometimes feel very isolated, despite daily internet access (perhaps, even, partly because of it, but that’s a rumination for another time). I’m always tired, despite many days when I have almost no work to do (again, perhaps, because of this fact). I often feel overwhelmed by the task before me; I am a young, inexperienced consultant for a young, inexperienced NGO that exists in an environment that may not be able to support it at much more than a subsistence level. I don’t have the experience to teach them more than basic concepts, but these basic concepts often confuse them. I can help them find funding (maybe), but I can’t help them attain a real sense of sustainability. Unless they hire a fluent English speaker, they will revert to exactly what they were before I came as soon as I leave. I temper my expectations, but then mentally berate myself for falling into a trap of laziness. I spend days with no work to do, then use “not having work to do is okay” as a crutch for not doing any when I actually have some. Have I had successes? Yes, I think so. Have I had as many as I hoped to have? No. Am I okay with that? I’m not sure if I like either answer to that question. And none of this is even grazing an issue that has consumed my thoughts but about which I will absolutely not write on this blog (I only mention it, shrouded in mystery, to remind myself I was thinking about it when I come back, weeks or months from now, to reread this post).

So, where does that leave me, a year after receiving my invitation to do this? I don’t know. Have I learned more about the world? I’ve learned a lot about a place I knew nothing about, before, and I’ve learned how many parts of every other culture out there I am ignorant of. Have I learned more about myself? I’m sure I have, but I couldn’t really tell you what or how much. What have I learned?

Well, I have started to learn how to play the guitar. I have – I don’t wish to brag – become modestly familiar with putting my fingers on the strings, and changing their arrangement thereon at a modest pace. Great success! Now, I am learning my first Georgian song. It is called, “Tbiliso.” Apparently it’s one of the most popular. If Georgia was 50 Cent (and, oh, how its teenage boys wish this was so), “Tbiliso” would be “In Da Club.” My host sister-in-law, who as it turns out is a sadistic and maniacal music teacher, openly mocks my mistakes, and demands I start over from the beginning (“Shetsdoma! Tavidan!”), despite asking me to (1) remember the chords, (2) play and change them at the proper tempo, (3) read words she’s written in Georgian by hand, and (4) sing them. I have not yet successfully played the song and sung the song at the same time (one could argue I also have not done these things successfully when attempting them separately. Why doesn’t one just shut your damn mouth). Perhaps this skill is beyond me. Or perhaps it’s merely weeks of practice away. However, tonight produced an important development: we have decided to start a (host) family band, once I stop sucking so hard. My new band will consist of myself, my host brother, and my host sister-in-law. We will be called, “Mzis Chasvlis Sikhvarulit Momgherlebi,” which (sort of) means, “Sunset Love Singers,” because that’s the closest translation I could come up with to the phrase, “Sunset Serenade,” which is written on my guitar. Our first album will be called “Bakhakhivit Mgherian,” which means, “They Sing Like a Frog.” Once I stop sucking so hard, I will use my laptop’s sophisticated studio equipment to record our hit first single, which will be, coincidentally, “Tbiliso.” Then I will put it on the internets for you to download. I am 100% serious about all of this. Above is a tentative picture of our first album cover.

So, if you have skipped straight to the end of this post, looking for the answer to the question, “What has Dan learned in the one year since he received his Peace Corps invitation and started this blog?”, here are your answers:

1) ????
2) The song, “Tbiliso,” if by “learned” you count “must still read the words and chords from a piece of paper.”

Don’t all email me with congratulations at once. I’ll need the inbox space for the Peace Corps people, inviting me to write an introduction for their next brochure.

Addendum: boy, are the counters at the top of this blog ugly (at least, the one with the turkey). If anyone knows of better ones, or smaller ones, please let me know.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Anniversary! Or: Wheeeeeeeee.

So I was thinking, to myself -- which I do modestly often: "It's been about a year since I found out I was coming to Georgia." I checked my blog archives, to see if I had ever mentioned a more exact date for the receiving of my Peace Corps formal Invitation (notice how I have indicated its formaltude by Capitalizing it). And, it turns out, that today is a much more IMPORTANT anniversary! Today is the One Year Anniversary of this blog, which as far as I'm concerned is the REAL date of importance, in terms of the beginning of this Grand Adventure. Yes, friends -- this blog, and along with it the Chronicle of Record of my years as a Peace Corps volunteer, is one year old today. Go ahead and scroll back, in the archives, to my first post. I'll wait.

How stupid was THAT post, huh? Full of lame jokes and a total lack of information. The staggering difference between that post and my current posts is an indication of just how much this experience has changed me, and just how much I have matured (poop). I have not had time to compose a lengthy entry at home, musing about the things that have changed in my life in just one year. Perhaps I will write one tonight. But, for now, I will give you a haphazard and just-now-thought-of list of things that are true now, but were NOT true on February 5th, 2007:


  • I now know what pigeon meat tastes like. At least, I'm pretty sure I do. Last night I went to a supra at my host sister-in-law's family's house. They were very excited to have, as they termed it, "bird meat stew." They encouraged me to eat some. The bones and the meat parts were very small. It wasn't so bad, really. But it wasn't good enough to warrant killing a pigeon and then trying to gnaw a cubic millimeter of meat off a tiny bone.
  • I could, as any regular reader of this blog knows, now talk about different kinds of toilets, and the various merits and demerits of each, for hours. I took toilets very much for granted, on February 5th, 2007. I think at one point I said that I would leave Georgia immediately if it did not have western style toilets. If there is a Jesus, He/She has a sense of humor, because I have only seen one (1) western style toilet in my town, and the toilet at my office would have been the most disgusting thing I'd ever seen, if I had seen it on February 5th, 2007. Now, of course, it is at best the fifth most disgusting thing I have ever seen.
  • One year ago, I would never have considered that either (a)washing myself from a bucket or (b) washing, sometimes, once a week could ever leave a person actually clean. Now, I have considered it, and: no, such a person is not at all clean. But sometimes that person doesn't care anymore.
  • I now know that you can, indeed, survive on a diet consisting, entirely, of: pasta, bread, potatoes, cheese, eggs, mandarins, and occasionally the meat that you can glean from a chicken that has not been shot up with steroids but has instead been living in your yard, near the latrine. You will, however, burp a lot more often. This is in stark contrast to America, where I lived entirely on sandwiches, fast food, frozen chicken patties, and cottage cheese, and did not burp particularly often.
  • In America, I lived (most of the time) in a place that was basically 70 degrees 24/7/365. Occasionally, it would rain. Now, I live in a place where it is obsequiously hot in the summer (ten credits to the first person to look this word up and realize that I have used it in a flagrantly incorrect manner), constantly raining in the fall, and colder than the Devil's genitals in the winter. Thus, I now know: boy, it's a lot easier to live where it's always 70 degrees. I'm getting pretty sick of having difficulty swallowing a pill in the morning, due to the shivering of my hands. Also, my sleeping bag is starting to smell bad (see bullet point #3).
Well, friends, that is all the time I have for right now, but I will try to post a follow-up tomorrow. Stay tuned! And, happy anniversary, to me! Mailing me a gift in appreciation of this anniversary will earn you eleven credits.

Oh, and speaking of gifts, I almost forgot: a gift from myself, to this blog, in appreciation of our first anniversary together! As I am sure you have noticed, there are additions to the blog above this post. These are fun flash timers. One of them shows, pictorally, the 24 months of my Peace Corps service, and where I stand in it, linearly. I have selected a turkey to mark the Where I Am part because, well, the website had some pretty stupid choices, and I have been known to have turkeys in my yard, until we ate them all. Underneath this timer is a timer showing how long it has been since I have been in America. I was thinking about this this weekend; all volunteers have things that they miss, not being in America, that they regret. A volunteer here, from the group ahead of ours, had never even heard about the unbelievable Boise State - Oklahoma football game from two Januaries ago, until we described it to him, and he was very chagrined. Another volunteer, from Cleveland, missed LeBron James' Crazy Playoff Game last June where he scored 11,456 points in six minutes playing one-on-five (you cannot possibly be surprised that male volunteers rue missing sporting events instead of, say, weddings or baby births or discoveries of important lifesaving medicines). This weekend, I missed the Super Bowl, which turned out to be the Greatest Football Game of All Time, Mostly Because the Patriots Totally Blew It Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. Peace Corps Officials: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make Super Bowl Monday at 4am a volunteer holiday. I beg you. I know others have begged you. I missed the Greatest Thing That Has Ever Happened to Humanity because it was not.

Anyway, I got to thinking that, boy, I haven't been in America for a while. So I made another timer to show, numerically, just How Long it has been SINCE I have been in America. Note: in a New Breaking Development, I may be coming BACK to America in August. Note this on your iPhone iCalendars!!!!!! So this timer will probably reset before the one above it.

Okay, that is all. More tomorrow (offer not binding).