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.

1 comment:

ruth said...

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.