Thursday, March 27, 2008

The dog days of spring. Or: Places where puppy punnery is totally inapuppriate.

[in the process of being edited for some really fun reasons that cannot be explained]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A request. Or: Hey! Hey you!

Apparently, the graphic at the top of my blog and a couple others has not been working because of some weird problem with the host site I use for it. I thought, when occasionally visited this blog myself, that it wasn't loading because of my internet connection. Hey, people -- let me know if sh#$ stops working. I wouldn't want you to think that my blog is SUPPOSED to have a giant gray box at the top. What do I look like to you? A guy who wouldn't care about something as stupid and superficial as the blog banner he has probably spent a cumulative total of at least six thousand hours tinkering with?

In my defense, I have a lot of free time at home to do stupid things like tinker with blog graphics. Don't judge me. Go watch some television, or eat some Arby's. I'm not speaking to you anymore.

March Madness. Or: Mail time.

Happy NCAA Tournament Opening Day! I hope you're all taking the day off of school or work to properly appreciate the best four-day holiday our great nation has to offer. I, of course, will be missing (at best) nearly all of it, seeing as how I'm over here on a mountain, despite the fact that my alma mater, UCLA, is loaded and the pick of many experts to win it all. I hope that they do, even though it would be pretty funny for them to lose in the Final Four two years in a row, both times with me in attendance at great effort and expense, only to win Banner 12 when I am over here on this mountain. Pretty funny indeed.

This week has brought challenges anew to my little corner of the world. My organization seems to have been struck with a case of Creativity Paralysis; there is an upcoming grant competition I told them about, and I have been encouraging them to come up with a "program" of possible projects so we can have some meetings with donor organizations, but they cannot seem to think of a single new project idea. They ask me if *I* have any ideas, and I tell them that it's all well and good if I ply them with project ideas for two years, but then what happens when I leave? They consider this conundrum, then ignore it and ask me again for a project idea. I am also encouraging them (encouraging is the wrong word; it is more like demanding in an increasingly forceful manner) to conduct needs assessment in the community -- to go out into the community, somehow, to discuss problems, issues, and ideas with the community, so the community feels like more of an active participant in the work of the organization. They flatly deny this to be possible. From their perspective, asking anyone in the community what he/she needs or what he/she would want from our organization would elicit a one-word response: "Money." "A job." "New gas pipes" (that last one is threewordsshutup). They think that it would not be at all possible to engage community members further than this. And, if they're unwilling to do this, and unable or unwilling to come up with their own ideas (which are less likely to work anyway if they're not conceived and conducted with the help and enthusiasm of the community), then we're in a bit of a pickle. You are fascinated by this, I am sure, so I shall of course update you endlessly on the ins and outs of the Exciting Saga of Whether Dan Can Do Any Work Whatsoever Here.

Speaking of doing work, I am in receipt of an email from a soon-to-be G8, who will be in the verysameown Business and Social Entrepreneurship program that I am in! Her name is Theresa Marie, and she asked me enough questions to fill a book. Instead of filling a book (I think we were told at Orientation that, if we WERE to write a book during/about Peace Corps service, that it would be the property of the United States Government. Since we're volunteers, or something. I may have this wrong. But, just to be safe, I'm not writing ANYTHING while I'm here, government! No, sir! Not writing anything! This is just like screenwriters during the Writers' Strike. What? Me? Writing? No way! Ha ha! Hey, look over there!), I replied to her email, and I thought it would be pertinent to the other G8s who have found and will find this blog to repost my answers. Don't be shy, G8s! Ask away! But, seriously, if more than, like, two of you email me, eff that. I'm not MADE of time.

Hi Daniel,
I stumbled on your blog while looking for current information about Peace Corps Georgia. I am taking you at your word and emailing you with questions.

Hi Theresa Marie. Your group will actually be getting an "Alternative Handbook" (I mentioned it on my blog) that will answer any question you have much more thoroughly, from the perspective of lots of volunteers, than I could. I don't know when you'll be getting it; the staff here should be sending it to you soon. But I can answer your questions in brief, and then if you have further questions that perhaps the AH doesn't answer adequately, I and the other volunteers can do our best to answer them. But, let me warn you from the outset -- the experience is going to be different than what you think it will be no matter WHAT you think it will be, and no matter how much preparation you do. Just prepare the best you can and learn what you can about the country, and then be ready to go with the flow once you get here. No two volunteers' experiences are exactly the same, and none of us could have predicted last year at this time what we'd be like after almost a year here. It's just the kind of experience that can only be experienced, rather than explained. But don't let that fact scare you.

I recently accepted my invitation to do business development and social entrepreneurship (or whatever the title is) and basically wanted to know what the job is in real application.

There's no one answer to this, and I'm probably the person you LEAST want to ask. All of our organizations are different, and my organization is the smallest, newest, and the one in the smallest town. My experience and my job is vastly different than, say, the BSE volunteer who works at a business consulting organization in Batumi. The things we have in common are basically that our jobs, at the broadest level, are to get our organizations to work more efficiently, effectively, and to transfer knowledge, concepts, and best practices about things like long-term planning, project design, and fundraising. How well doing so goes for you depends on your patience, drive, and the luck of your site draw.

I also have questions about what to pack – beyond what is specified in the “welcome book”. Aka what did you bring and where really glad you brought, what do you wish you would have brought?

I'm going to save this question for the Alternative Handbook, since it will be more extensive than I could be simply from my own recollection, and since it will have a female-specific packing list, written by a female volunteer. I will say that I'm most glad that I brought my laptop and an external hard drive -- if you're the sort of person who uses a computer with any frequency (and you may not be), you will really want to bring a laptop, and I'd suggest bringing at LEAST one large external hard drive. We use them to store the illegally pirated movie files that we swap. We would feel bad about this, but there is no other way to see American movies here, unless you enjoy old movies dubbed into Russian, or bring a lot of legally-purchased DVDs, which is not an efficient use of packing space. I wish I'd bought more music before I left, and ripped more legally-purchased DVDs to my own external hard drive. You'll have a lot of downtime here.

Anything you wish you had known before going? Any general advice?

Georgian. How to cook. Georgian. How to unfreeze pipes with my bare hands. Seriously, the answer to that question could fill a book, and would probably be totally useless until you actually get here. Sorry. This is probably not what you're looking for, but, honestly, the thing I wish I'd known is that my preconceived ideas about living here were going to be wrong. Just be ready for anything.

How often are you able to communicate with people from home? Have you been able to go home and how often/complicated what that?

If you're a BSE volunteer, you're probably going to have internet at least almost every day. It will probably be slow, it may stop working frequently, and it will be subject to whether or not you have electricity at a particular moment, but you'll (probably) have it. So communicating with people online will probably be easy. And you can Skype, if you have Skype. If not, it's expensive to get phone calls (and way too expensive to make them yourself...practice your texting dexterity), but there are things you can use to make it cheaper. I'm just not 100% sure what they are. My parents deal with it, and they're the only ones who I talk to on the phone. I haven't gone home yet -- most people don't until at least their one year mark -- but a lot of
people do during the summer of their first year. I'm planning to go back in August. It can be complicated and very expensive, but a little less so if you plan way way way way way ahead.

Also, do you know any other volunteers who would not mind answering questions (especially women doing business development so I get their feel for things)?

I will ask the women who are in BSE if they mind me giving out their email addresses, and I'll let you know.

Looking forward to meeting you and everyone else in June. Thank you so much!!!

For sure. Not a problem. Good luck in your preparations, stay away from expectations, and spend your last few months eating a lot of different kinds of food, preferably ethnic cuisine, because once you get here you will eat the same thing every night for two years. Oh, and pack multiple pairs of really good long underwear, top and bottom. You won't take it off ever during the winter, and you'll want to be able to rotate one into the wash occasionally.

Theresa Wilson
Miami University

When I decided to write this post, I had a couple of other things I thought of that I wanted to have said in my email. Now I forget what they were. Maybe I should drink less wine.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Better Know A Georgia, Part Stupid Internet List. Or: You know you've been coming to this blog too long when...

Usually I really hate these "You know you're ______ when" lists, but I found this randomly on Facebook, posted by some expat or other (hence the Tbilisi-specificness of it, since expats mostly live in the capital), and thought it was amusing. I also thought it would be pertinent as a Better Know A Georgia entry, because while, obviously, Georgians and volunteers would understand the jokes immediately (although, really, "jokes" is giving even an amusing version of this sort of list too much credit), most of you will not, and as such I get an opportunity to explain things, while subtly mocking the merely-amusing-ness of the "jokes"! Hooray! Let's begin:

You can distinguish between Kazbegi and Argo in a blind taste test.
Kazbegi and Argo are Georgian beers. They taste the same. Hence, the joke is that you have been here too long if you can taste the microscopic difference between them. See? This is fun.
You recoil in horror if somebody punctures a khinkali.
Khinkali is sort of like Chinese dumplings, served piping hot. You are supposed to pick them up by the "knob" of the dumpling with your fingers, and put them into your mouth whole. But I'm more of a puncturer.
You find nothing romantic in candle lighting.
See, because if you have candles lit, that means there is no electricity.
You never go anywhere without a small flashlight.
This is true. I carry my crank flashlight with me everywhere. Usually, I go home from work after dark, and the streetlights on my street UNTIL RECENTLY were never turned on. So, the first night, I ended up inching my way along in pitch blackness, triangulating my position by my distance from the tops of the trees on either side of the street, which were barely visible against the starlight, and also trying to figure out whether I was in immediate danger from any of the 50 barking dogs I could hear but not see. Since that night, I've carried my flashlight everywhere. But, a couple weeks ago, they started turning the streetlights on. Here's a personal addition to the list: you know you've been in Georgia too long when you find yourself sincerely grateful that streetlights are turned on.
You consider amoebic dysentery to be a weight loss strategy.
I know a volunteer who has lost 30 pounds due to different stomach ailments.
You actually believe that Borjomi water has curative properties.
Also curative: spending time in Bakhmaro, a mountain town in Guria, which apparently has a "healing mixture" of mountain and sea air.
You think you can get a cheaper fare if the taxi driver doesn't notice your accent.
You do need to project a certain air of native-ness with taxi drivers, or they'll overcharge the hell out of you, since most Georgian taxis are "freelance" and not metered. Thus, you need to either agree on a fare before you get into the cab, or try to pay him what you feel is appropriate at the end of the journey without asking his opinion, and hope that he doesn't lock the car doors and drive you to Russia. A good technique for cheaper fares: when negotiating with the driver, say, "I know that's too much," and slam the door. He will, almost without fail, drive five feet, stop, open the passenger door, and ask for less money.
You don't mind eating dinner or showering in complete darkness.
I haven't showered in complete darkness, but I have showered by candlelight. You never shower more quickly than when it's (1) below zero, (2) you're naked in a room with no heat source but the hot water, (3) your glasses are several feet away and the room is covered in water, and (4) you have no idea whether too much steam extinguishes a candle. I spent the entire maybe two minute shower envisioning having to stand naked and shivering in the dark until the sun came up.
You get annoyed if the waiter doesn't change your plate every 5 minutes, or doesn't take empty bottles off the table within 30 seconds.
They like clean plates here. At supras, your place includes a plate on top of a plate, so that partway through, a hostess can take the top plate, leaving you with a clean one. I never want to make the hostess do more work, so usually I tell them I'm ok with continuing to eat off the top plate, even though it has a couple chicken bones on it. This confuses everyone.
You can't drink a glass of wine without a toast even when dining alone.
It, literally, was kind of weird to sip wine with my family when I was in London. Georgians do not sip alcoholic beverages. Ever. You wait for a toast, and then down the entire thing. Occasionally, if there is a mini-supra at my office, and I'm trying to do work, I will accept a glass of wine, but sip it at my desk instead of downing it at the table with everyone else. They don't like it when I do this.
You are not taken aback when a complete stranger at a supra kisses you and professes that you are his best friend.
I have lost track of the number of times this has happened.
You appoint someone tamada even when dining with foreigners.
Volunteers do this when we're eating Georgian food and celebrating an occasion. It seems weird not to.
A few shots of chacha don't even give you a buzz.
Tchatcha is the Georgian word for homemade vodka. As I mentioned in my supra post, it nearly always tastes like pure jet fuel. I think even Georgian men accept this, so it's not culturally insensitive to say it.
You're at an expensive restaurant and don't even notice the guy at the next table yelling into his cell phone.
Georgians answer their cell phones whenever, wherever, and conduct phone conversations by yelling. To be fair, Americans do this too. I read a story recently that the official announcement-making-woman for the London Underground got fired after joking on the PA system, "To our American friends, yes, you probably are talking too loud."
You have grown used to the picture quality of pirated DVDs.
Pirated movie files, more accurately.
You find sit-down toilets uncomfortable.

Not uncomfortable yet, just weird, if it's been a while. I'm also becoming quite proud of my Turkish toilet form. I'd show you, but, you know, you're...over there. Where you are.
You think you speak Georgian fluently.
If I ever once think this, I need to not only leave Georgia, but seek medical care, because something bad will have apparently happened to my brain. I do, however, sometimes think that my Georgian is better than it is. For instance, I get annoyed when I am in Tbilisi and I say something to someone -- a waitress, say -- and they answer me in perfect English. I think, "what, you think your English is better than my Georgian?" Of course, it is. But it pisses me off that they THINK it.
You can't put a proper sentence together in your native language.
I can't put a proper sentence together in ANY languages now. Some people speak several languages fluently. I speak zero.
You automatically bring your own toilet paper when you go to the bathroom.
You get burned enough times, it becomes a reflex. You don't really want to hear more about this.
It is no longer surprising that the only decision made at a meeting is the time and venue for the next meeting.
I wish our meetings were this productive. If I tried to obtain this information at a meeting, I would be met with the question, "Why do we need to have another meeting?" Now, I do not mean to rag on my coworkers. They are motivated and (often) hardworking (at least as often, for instance, as I am). But, today, I was trying to tell them that they didn't have to wait for an suggestions from a woman in Tbilisi to start asking townspeople what they wanted from our organization. I said, "Don't wait two days for her response. Just go out and do it." They asked me, "Why?" I said, "So you're not sitting around for two days not doing anything." The response: "What's wrong with that?"
You no longer wonder how someone who earns $400.00 per month can drive a Mercedes.
Answer: because it's the frame of a Mercedes on the body of a 1976 Soviet Lada.
You honk your horn at people because they are in your way as you drive down the sidewalk.
I would probably be doing this if we were allowed to drive. I have, for instance, been IN a vehicle that drove onto the sidewalk to avoid two stopped cars that had just hit each other.
Other foreigners seem foreign to you.
It took maybe two weeks in this country before we started looking at the tourists who occasionally visit Gori, where we were, with an expression of superiority.
You consider McDonald's a treat.
You ask how much people are making and expect to hear an answer.
I don't, myself, do this. Because anything more than "zero" beats my salary. Also, when you live in a small town in an economically struggling region, you don't ask what people do, because they might not do anything, and that would make you feel awkward. At least, it would make ME feel awkward, because I am an American. The recipient of the question probably wouldn't feel awkward at all, but would instead start telling me about the job he had back in Soviet days.
You ask fellow foreigners the all-important question "How long have you been here?" in order to be able to properly categorize them.
In the case of the new G8s, I will KNOW how long they've been here. I'm looking forward to perfecting the inflection of my dismissive, "Pff. Wait until February."
Smoking is one of the dinner courses.
We were just recently discussing this. Nobody could think of a volunteer who had ever smoked in America -- no matter how long ago they'd quit -- who did not resume smoking here. If there are G8s reading this: if you have ever been a smoker, you will be a smoker again when you get here. It is inevitable. Prepare yourself mentally.
Georgians stop you on the street to ask for directions.
I don't know if other volunteers ever get asked for directions, but I'm told I could pass for Georgian, so perhaps that is why it happens to me with relative frequency. Just like when waitresses speak to me in English, it really pisses me off if the directions-asker decides my Georgian isn't that good and moves on. "WAIT," I think. "DAMMIT I COULD HAVE HELPED YOU IF YOU'D WAITED TEN SECONDS FOR ME TO COMPOSE THE SENTENCE IN MY MIND."
You get homesick for Georgian food when away from Georgia.
This will probably be true.
The word "salad" first brings to mind mayonnaise.
Mayonnaise on anything doesn't even really bother me anymore. Salad. Pizza. Hot dogs. Whatever.
You don't notice your gastrointestinal problems anymore.
It's not that you don't NOTICE them. You just start planning around them naturally.
You give a 10% tip only if the waiter has been really exceptional.
As far as my understanding goes, tipping here is 100% optional unless it's added into your bill automatically. If it isn't already in the bill, we only tip if doing so makes a more even number. I am going to come back to America, totally forget about this at a restaurant, walk out on a $100 bill, and get beaten to death by seven enraged waiters.
You change into slippers and wash your hands as soon as you walk into your apartment.
I change into my "home sweatshirt" and sometimes my slippers, but I wear my slippers out to the toilet, which you're not supposed to do. But, I mean, come on. I'm not gonna go upstairs to put my shoes BACK ON. The changing thing is more critical in the summer, when it's disgustingly hot out, and you don't want to get one more second's worth of sweat on your work clothes. So you put on a t shirt and shorts, and you wear that same t shirt and shorts whenever you're home. It's a nice little system. Note: only Americans do this. Georgian people never, ever, ever wear shorts.
You know more than 20 Tamunas, 30 Ninos and 60 Giorgis.
These are very common Georgian names. There aren't that many Georgian names, it seems. During training, my host mother told me, "it's big Giorgi's birthday today." I thought she meant fat Giorgi, down the street, as opposed to skinny Giorgi, my host brother, or little Giorgi, my host cousin. Turns out she meant my host brother, and I was late to his birthday supra. I felt really bad. But, as you can tell, it wasn't my fault.
Your sister writes to you about the best prime rib she's ever had and you can't remember what it looks or tastes like.
What is prime rib?
You catch yourself whistling indoors and feel guilty.
I whistle sometimes. Nobody looks at me funny or says anything, but I always wonder if secretly they think I'm doing something repugnant. If you have insight to shed on this, please let me know.
You never smile in public when you're alone.
You don't smile at men, anyway. You can still smile and nod at women, if they're not too old, or kids. Men will just stare at you blankly if you don't know them but do the American smile-nod thing. Which is weird, because "in public" is the operative phrase here. Ref: the earlier mention of complete strangers kissing you at supras and declaring you to be their best friend.
You are no longer surprised when your taxi driver tells you that in Soviet times he worked as a rocket scientist.
This doesn't happen to me very often, but last week I was in a cab in Tbilisi and the driver spent the entire time telling me Georgia was going down the tubes and that he missed the Soviets because he used to have a job in a refrigerator factory and the kids these days are terrible and what's with their baggy pants and their music etc etc etc. It puts you in an awkward position, having to defend a person's own country while he insults it. "No, Georgia is improving! The economy is doing very well! I know a lot of motivated kids!"
You consider holding a supra to celebrate the purchase of a new TV set.
I'd consider holding a supra if our current TV set suddenly got a new channel.
You specify "no gas" when asking for mineral water.
I don't understand the sparkling water thing. At all. Why is it preferable? Getting those bubbles down your throat is like work. Why do I want to work when I'm drinking a glass of water?
You think a bus with 200 people on it is "empty".
And then you are shown just how empty it is when the driver of the bus/marshutka stops to let fifty more people on.
You walk down the street holding hands with your buddy.
I mean, I don't do this, but Georgians do.
You start believing that you can blend into a large crowd of Georgians.
Until I pull my bright blue iPod out of my expensive American backpack.
You answer "ho" even when speaking English to non-Georgian friends.
"Ho" means "yeah." I can see how this might cause potential problems down the road.
You swear at a taxi driver for stopping at a red light even when there's nobody coming.
I think I did this, at least in the back of my mind, in America.
You notice that your wallet has been stolen and your first thought is that, come to think of it, the guy behind you on the bus sort of looked Armenian.
Georgia and Armenia do not like each other. I've been told that the Georgian word for "hell" is actually the name of a village in Armenia. This would be really funny if it was true, but I do not know whether it is. Very funny, that is, with the requisite caveat that xenophobia is totally lame etc etc etc.
You take foreign guests around Gori and feel compelled to point out that Stalin really liked small children.
I'm looking forward to taking guests to the Stalin Museum. Which, if you are new-ish to this blog, is located on Stalin Street in Gori, at one end of Stalin Park, at the opposite end of which is a large statue of Stalin in front of City Hall, which is one of maybe seven Stalin statues in Gori.
You order food at most restaurants without looking at the menu.
I mean, they all serve the same thing.
You answer your phone "Allo?" even when outside of Georgia (or 'gisment').
"Gisment" means, I think, "I'm listening to you." "Allo" is, I think, just a theft from English that means nothing in Georgian, which is interesting. Although I could be totally wrong about that. If you know the person who is calling, another acceptable salutation is, "Batono!" which means, "Sir!" I favor this last one. I might bring "Batono!" back to America.
You tell others your phone number in two-digit sequences: i.e. ninety-nine, seventeen, forty-three.
Georgian phone numbers have a three digit code and then six numbers. They give those numbers to you this way. It is really, really hard to process phone numbers this way, especially in a foreign language, when you're used to the American way. I mean, you'd confuse someone in America if you recited a phone number in anything other than the proper "DA-DA-DA (pause) DA dum (pause) DA dum" inflection, let alone in number combinations.
You try to bargain over the price of tomatoes while in a grocery store back home.
I still suck at bargaining. I was at a bazaar over the weekend, at a stand selling undershirts. The woman offered them to me for four lari each. I didn't think to bargain, and decided to go look around for other stands because I thought the sizes she had might be too big. But she thought I was trying to do the taxicab pretend-to-leave thing, so she said, "OK OK OK, three fifty." I'm at the bargain-by-accident stage.
You feel self-indulgent and pampered checking into a flight during the daytime.
Wouldn't know. Haven't done it in nine months. And I felt pampered and indulgent checking into a flight at all, when I went to London. "You mean I get a seat entirely to myself?"
You end English sentences with "ra".
"Ra" means "what," and is a common slang-y sentence ending. I try to talk slang-ily sometimes, often to derision from my coworkers. But I stick with it, what.
You turn off your car engine at stoplights to save fuel.

They do this here. Does anyone know if this actually saves fuel?
You have ten different responses to the question, "Do you like Georgia?"
If you are speaking to a Georgian person, there is only one acceptable response: "Yes."
The lady in your local corner shop stops asking when you are going to get married.
This will never happen. Just yesterday, I was walking to work and a woman I don't recall meeting (although I'm sure I have) said hi to me on the street. She asked if I missed home. I said, cheerfully, "Hey, my home is here!" She said, "Great! So, when are you going to find a Georgian wife?" Tricked again.

Well, that took way too much time and probably broke a record for worst content/useful information ratio. Just what you've come to expect! You know you've been coming to this blog too long when [fill in funny end joke].

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rest in peace, buddy.

In dog heaven, you'll never get in trouble for pooping on the kitchen floor.

Friday, March 7, 2008

I know spring is coming because my back is acting up. Or: A spine-tingling time at the theatre

Friends, would eight or fifteen groups of singing and dancing girls, boys, and old people lie to you? I don't think so. This must mean that spring is upon us, because I have just returned to my office from attending a variety show at the local cinema slash theatre, which was put on to celebrate the onset of spring, as well as Mothers' Day, which was this past Monday (I don't really know how Mothers' Days work; is it like a country by country thing, or is it pretty unified and either America or Georgia is bucking the trend, or...what?). So the town jammed itself into the cinema, with people sitting on the armrests between chairs and packed like sardines into the aisles, to see various singing and dancing acts, separated by the giving of gifts to distinguished mothers of the community, picked apparently at random. Maybe there was a mother raffle.

Now, the last time I attended anything at the cinema, I ended up sitting through a three and a half hour play of which I understood maybe five words. Also, during the play, a man started yelling and lifted a woman up onto a chair (I suppose I should clarify that this happened on stage, not in the audience, which would probably have made just as much sense). So I was hoping this variety show would not take that long. And, it didn't -- it took about an hour and 45 minutes. But it started half an hour late, and we had to get there early to be Seat People and not Sardine People. So I was sitting in there for about two and a half hours. Improvement! Perhaps I can introduce the cultural idea of an intermission. When we got there, they were handing out flowers at the door, as a crush of dozens of people all tried to shove their way through a single door at the same time. I didn't get a flower, but I did get a chance to look around. The stage was decorated with some sort of curtain and the words "Chven gazapkhulze gepatizhebit," which means, as far as I can tell, "We with invitation in the spring _______." I cannot identify a verb, or any indication of WHAT, exactly, we do with invitation in the spring. Perhaps it is meant to be a subtle philosophical postulation that nature, cruel mistress that she is, invites us to do NOTHING, EVER, and that we must TAKE what we want from her, especially when she has just subjected us to four months of torturous weather. ECO Project or no ECO Project -- when I am put upon by nature as much as I have been put upon this winter, I'm going to cut something the f#$% down.

I had no idea what the show was to consist of. It turns out that it consisted of a lot of singing and dancing. As you may have gleaned from other posts of mine, Gurians LOVE to sing and dance. It is endearing and entertaining. Slightly less so after two hours of it, but endearing nonetheless. Old women and old men sang traditional songs. Youngsters danced traditional dances. The ladies who run the local music school sang a couple nice songs (I am probably obligated to point out, in case anyone with a Cho Connection reads this, that the wife of my supervisor was the very best of the trio). An opera singer even brought the house down with some soprano aria or other. All in all, the performances were pretty impressive. And, in between the performances, there were curious presentations of presents to local mothers. A man would stand up, say something that sounded nice that I didn't particularly understand (when Georgians aren't speaking to me specifically, it's much harder to understand them...this is probably too obvious a point to even mention), and then everyone would clap vigorously, and then a coworker of mine would lean over and say something like, "that woman was in the war," which it turns out means World War II. So I suppose that's pretty impressive. There was also a present for a woman who my coworker claims is 102 years old. This woman, after being helped to the stage, took the microphone and said something that sounded to ME like, "I have 47 children!" which was met with a raucous roar from the crowd. She must have meant children AND grandchildren AND great-grandchildren. But the number still seems high, since Georgian families tend to be pretty small. Maybe she was utilizing metaphor.

So, anyway, the other thing that happened this week was that I (drumroll...) utilized the healthcare provided by the American government for the first time! Those of you who hate your health insurance provider, close your eyes and imagine this scenario (if you actually close your eyes, your computer will sense it and begin reading aloud to you): you have what seems to be a severely strained back. You are on (what you hope is) powerful Russian medication. You call your doctor, and she calls you into her office for a followup appointment (your doctor's office is five hours away, which I suppose isn't too farfetched if you have an HMO). At her office, your doctor tells you that she is going to order a "precautionary" MRI, even though you probably have nothing seriously wrong with your back. She also orders an X-ray. You get the MRI, you get the X-ray, and your doctor gives you her diagnosis, which is that there is nothing seriously wrong with your back. This costs you........absolutely nothing! Which is good, because you make about 150 dollars a month. Those of you who have fainted because an MRI in America costs 11 trillion dollars might want to call my doctor. She's awesome. You will have to spend two years here working on a mountain. But it might be worth it.

MRIs and opera singers, friends. The ancient signs of spring. Tonight I am going to attempt to sleep without my long underwear on for the first time in four months. Hopefully Jesus doesn't punish my rashness with fifty-seven feet of snow.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Better Know A Georgia, Part Whatever Plus One: The Supra. Or: Seriously, you want to come to this country.

I am not one who usually lacks for words, and yet I keep trying to start this piece on the Georgian supra, so that you, the fresh-faced new volunteer, will be properly informed when you finally get here, and I keep drawing blanks. Once you have been here for a while, the word “supra” and the word “Georgia” just fit together so naturally that it is hard to imagine one without the other, and just as hard to describe the both of them in a way that fully captures what the supra is to Georgia, and to Georgian people. While Georgia is rapidly modernizing, it is and always will be primarily a land of traditions. There are traditions here for every time and for every occasion. But paramount of these, not only in the perceptions of volunteers but in the perceptions of the Georgian people themselves, is the tradition of the supra.

The supra combines the most cherished and most legendary characteristics of the Georgian people: they love hospitality, they love to party, and they really love wine. So a tradition in which a person will open his or her home to others for what could nearly be termed an orgy of food and wine – perhaps to celebrate an occasion, and perhaps for no reason at all – could not be more suited to their sensibilities. It is said that the supra is intended to evoke the Last Supper; indeed, Georgians treat each supra like a Last meal, and this is what makes a supra so enjoyable, but also so problematic, on some occasions, for volunteers. Excess is the name of the game at a supra, and if excess is not something you are comfortable with – especially when it comes to alcohol – you will have to stand your ground amidst people who, at least at first, will be confused that you are rebuking their hospitality. But if you know what you’re getting into, and you stay smart about your limits and your surroundings, then it is entirely possible that you will take nothing but excellent memories away from the supras you share with friends, family, and coworkers here. At the very least, it is likely that supras will dominate your anecdotes for friends and family back home. “You drank what out of what?” will probably be a frequent question. “Something out of a big ceramic horn,” you will say. “I don’t remember what or why. It was six hours into the supra.”

I am sure you have read or heard something about supras by now, and know the very basics. Supras can involve as few as two and as many as hundreds of people; everyone comes together to eat and drink (usually wine, occasionally liquor of some variety, but never beer, which is only for informal occasions) and give elaborate toasts for everything from peace to friendship to relatives. The supra is run by a man (always a man, unless it’s a female-only supra – this is, after all, a country governed by tradition) called the “tamada,” who decides when, and to what, each toast will be. Since a guest is always given special treatment at a supra, and you will always be a guest in this country, you may sometimes be offered the position of tamada, despite your initial lack of language ability and knowledge of supra customs. You are absolutely free to beg out of this. However: know that it is tradition, when the tamada is being chosen, for the person who is asked to be tamada to refuse several times before relenting. So, if you are asked and do not feel comfortable leading the supra, you will have to refuse more forcefully than perhaps you might think.

The tamada will decide when to raise glasses, and in some places or situations may decide what the subject of the toast is, but the order of toasts in a supra is actually relatively fixed (some volunteers claim that it is rigidly fixed, but, in my experience, this order is a little more variable than tradition would technically dictate). Once you learn what the usual order is among those you tend to supra with, this fact will make keeping up during the supra much easier, since you will only need to hear and successfully decipher one or two words in someone’s toast to know generally what is being said – which is good, because when drinking is involved, usually difficult-to-understand Georgian men become impossible-to-understand, slurring, shouting Georgian men. The first toast is always, “Mshvidobas” – to peace. But the tamada will not simply say, “Mshvidobas gaumarjos” (“Cheers to peace”). He will spend between 30 seconds and five minutes talking. I wish I could tell you what he will talk about, but you’d have to have amazing language ability to follow the many digressions and explications in a typical Georgian toast. Victory is understanding the one- or two- word subject of the toast (it is also, incidentally, the literal translation of “gamarjoba,” and the root of “gaumarjos,” which translates colloquially to “cheers” but technically means, “may he be victorious”). The tamada will talk for five minutes, sometimes with theatrical arm gesturing and shouting, and then often you will ask what the toast was about, and receive a two-second answer (“He was toasting to your brother.”). Subsequent toasts will include: a toast to the occasion of the supra, if there is one; a toast to the guests, if there are any (which there always will be, if you are in attendance); a toast to Georgia and Georgian people; a toast to parents; a toast to siblings; a toast to children; a toast to ancestors; and a final toast to the tamada himself. There also may be toasts to God, to spouses, to love, or to other things; the more formal the supra, the more toasts there are likely to be. There is also a strong likelihood, due to your attendance, that there will be toasts to America, and to its friendship with Georgia. Once the tamada has made the first toast, everyone around the room gives their version of the same toast. It is considered rude to skip a toast; make sure that, if everyone is toasting and also keeping an eye on you, that you raise your glass in turn to say something. Especially at first, you will not be expected to say much more than, “gaumarjos,” but toasts are a good place to practice your Georgian. Everyone is drinking, so they won’t care if you mess up, and they will be riotously pleased with your effort.

When you finish talking is where it gets hairy. It is tradition that your wine glass, after each toast, must be consumed bolomde – to the end. I’ll let you count the number of possible toasts I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and I’ll also say that it’s probably not a real supra unless there are at least seven to ten. Now I’ll let you imagine yourself after ten glasses of wine. There are ways – sneaky and not – out of drinking bolomde, but the fact remains that you will end up drinking a lot of alcohol at a supra if you either do not set ground rules for yourself, or drink enough that you forget them. Wine consumption, on even the personal level, is not even usually measured in glasses – it is measured in liters. As in: “He didn’t drink that much last night. Only a liter and a half.” Thus, rules number one through, well, eleven, of Safe Supra-ing: always know, before beginning a supra, how much wine or liquor you are willing to drink. If you do not want to drink at all, say so at the very beginning, and don’t budge. You will be begged. Begged. “Just one.” “Why not?” “It’s ok, my family made this wine. It is very delicious.” If you relent, and drink one, “just one” will turn into “just eight.” I was at a small supra a few weeks ago where four straight toasts were promised to be “the last one.” And this was with vodka, not wine (an important note: homemade Georgian wine, while it varies in strength, is usually relatively weak, despite its fun vinegar taste. Homemade Georgian vodka also varies in strength: from fire-down-below to pure jet fuel. Be advised, and be careful). If you’re not drinking, don’t drink. People will eventually take you seriously. If you don’t want to drink very much, start drinking less than bolomde from the very first toast; you will, again, be exhorted to finish your glass, but if you refuse for long enough, you will be left alone. A good excuse is, “I’m an American, I can’t drink as much as you Georgians can.” They will take this as an immense compliment.

This is a good point to mention the gender difference at supras. As a male volunteer, I have not had much opportunity to witness how American females are treated at supras, but from what I have heard from other volunteers, it is relatively easier to beg out of drinking heavily. Also, there are apparently all-female supras, where there are no men who must be tended to, which are evidently loads of fun. I wouldn’t know. But I do know that, if you are a man, you will either drink a lot, or say, “No” a lot. Georgian men drink, and they drink a lot. They will want you to drink a lot with them. They will want you to drink a lot the morning after you drank a lot, because this is the best way to cure hangovers. They will want you to drink a lot when the electricity goes out, because this is the best way to pass the time when you don’t have electricity. They will want you to drink a lot at 11 o’clock in the morning in the office of the school principal, because this is the best activity to engage in while in the presence of children. It is a fact of life in this land, and it is one you will get very used to very quickly.

Your endurance will be tested at supras in ways even beyond your tolerance for alcohol. Full-blown supras usually have vast arrays of food; every traditional Georgian dish will be present, and there will be a lot of it. On the table, plates will be stacked on top of plates that are already stacked on top of plates. You may never have seen as much food in one place as you are likely to see at big supras (weddings, for instance). Partly because your Georgian hosts will be wanting you to drink an unfathomable amount, they will want you to also eat an unfathomable amount. You will hear a lot of, “Tchame, tchame” (“eat, eat,” if you haven’t yet encountered this most ubiquitous of phrases in other parts of this handbook). Pacing yourself is an important part of the supra experience. Do not succumb to the temptation to eat all of the delicious-looking things that you see immediately, even if you do not get these foods at normal meals. You will immediately feel tired and finished, and you will have many hours yet to go. Georgian supras can be prodigious in length. A normal supra will probably last a few hours, a supra for a special occasion can last much longer. I have heard stories about volunteers who have left supras, gone to sleep, and woken up the next day to discover the supra still in progress. Besides knowing your limits in terms of alcohol, and how to stick to them, knowing your exit strategy is the most important thing you should think about during supras. There are lots of strategies. Try to sit near an exit, and to not get blocked in by other guests. Sit with people who will be sympathetic if you wish to leave – friends and coworkers, perhaps – rather than with over-enthusiastic hosts. Text a friend, and tell him or her to call you; then, when the phone rings, pretend that your mother is calling, which is an acceptable excuse to get out of anything. You can even just wait for everyone to get so drunk that they won’t notice or care if you slip out the door. This sounds like a joke to you right now. It will not six months from now, when it’s 1:30am, nobody is showing any signs of stopping, and you have to wake up to teach class or go to work in the morning.

It occurs to me that I have probably either excited you immeasurably or terrified you beyond words. But, whether you’re texting your friends to tell them, “dude, peace corps is gonna be awesome, wait til you hear how much they drink there” or having terrible visions of a bottle of Merlot chasing you down a dark tunnel screaming, “tchame, tchame” (of course, I am kidding – homemade wine, which is what you will always be drinking, is to Merlot what a go-kart is to a Mercedes), realize that the volunteer experience is highly variable. Some volunteers rarely have supras. Some supra multiple times per week. It depends on your host family, where you live, and your willingness to take part. As long as you stay in control, you will be totally fine. Gaumarjos!

Turning a new leaf. Or: That is, if the leaves start coming back.

So I spent the last week in Tbilisi. It was a very difficult week, punctuated by several different sources of stress during the day and then, as young people are wont to engage in, various means of releasing that stress in the evenings. Let me just say, as an illustrative example, that any beverage entitled, "The Kiss of Death," is not something about which you should contemplate, "I wonder what that will do to me tonight and tomorrow morning."

Much of what made the week difficult was that I was spending three days working with two members of my organization, on really important things like time management and long-term planning and project design. These are crucial themes for them, and I felt a really heavy sense of responsibility to be doing the best I possibly could in helping my coworkers to understand them, and to somehow correct the situation if they didn't. The first half of the training was centered around the creation of a "practice project," which for us was actually not a practice project but a real project that we will be attempting to get funding for very soon. It's an integration project where we take children from a nearby boarding school for orphans and handicapped children to a camp, where they would plan a school-year long set of further integrat...ive activities for other children. So, basically, it felt like if I f#$%ed something up, I would be causing the ruin of orphans and handicapped children. Oh, and I have not yet mentioned: I was doing the entire training in Georgian. This is something the other volunteers at this training did not have to do. Their counterparts speak at least pretty decent English (except for the one who can talk to her counterpart in Russian, which is just unfair). Mine do not, so I had to struggle through discussions of things like, "we have to make our objectives and action plans more concrete," and, "what other resources will we need to have in the budget?" in Georgian, with minimal help. I'm glad that it, seemingly, worked out, and that both me and my "counterparts" were able to communicate our ideas most of the time, but it was one of the most mentally exhausting things I can recall ever doing. People kept complimenting me on my Georgian during the trainings; obviously, it's nice to be complimented, but it would be nicer to have the sort of successes that are only possible when you can communicate your ideas in English to someone who will understand them.

Thankfully, it was a very successful week. I'd been struggling to find directions to move my organization in, recently, and this week solved those problems. We have a lot of work to do now. But it will be up to me to help my coworkers do that work. And the week did little to pull me out of the (at this point comically) extended funk I've been in. I'm sure you're all (perhaps using an open-ended, plural term to categorize my audience is overly optimistic) getting a little tired of how I have been utilizing this space recently -- basically as a limitless forum for my own complaints and whining. And I'm hopeful that I'll come back to my winter posts at some happier time (say, June) and be dismayed at how snively I have been sounding these last two months. After all, today is the first day of March, the first day of the first month in which nature begins to rouse itself from months of slumber and stupor. Spring is around the corner, friends, and perhaps with it a solution to the things I have been unable to solve purely through personal willpower. I may snap out of my troubles the first day I wake up to the sight of something other than my sleeping bag. I may begin to skip again when doing so will not result in landing in a puddle of slush, dirt, and the motor oil from a 1974 Lada sedan. I may resume posting flowery treatises on the idyllic things I see every day here once I am finally able to stop ignoring them, lost in my own head.

This would be a preferable scenario to, say, realizing that not even spring could make what I'm dealing with easier. Which is just as plausible. You can't shit a shitter. Not that I'm calling myself a shitter. I have forgotten my point entirely, here.

What I am saying is, my apologies for the woe-is-me vibes. But, at the same time, I promised a more lengthy, amusing entry on the Week That Was, and I don't really feel like writing it. So, instead, I am going to post directly after this post the other Better Know a Georgia segment that consists of an entry I wrote for the G8 Alternative Handbook: The Supra. I have already laid out for you some information about supras, in my post about my host brother's wedding, but you can never get too much supra, in Georgia. I, for instance, had a supra two nights ago, and will have another one tomorrow! Hooray! Of course, if you are reading this post in the normal way -- on the actual blog page, instead of through some fancy feedreader or whatnot -- you know what the next post is, because you have already read it! Because it is above this one! On the page! But I wrote this first! ... You have stopped caring. I know. You can't, after all, shit a shitter.