Family, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

My Host Family

Nestani – Georgian Teacher and Mother Extraordinaire

 Nestani is my host mother. She is also a teacher and a full time mother. She’s about as tall as I am and very slim. She has nice, smooth chestnut hair (colored) that is usually pulled back with a large clip. She usually runs around the house in either a floral skirt and camisole or a red sweatsuit that reminds me exactly of what my mom wore when I was growing up (only my mom’s was light pink). Apparently all mothers wear sweatsuits. Nestani’s has a basket of flowers embroidered on it with the words “Original” arching over the top. I saw Nestani in jeans for the first time when we went to Gori; she is still a very attractive woman.

As a working mother, Nestani is usually in a hurry and is usually yelling for someone to hurry up and come “Modi, modi! to hurry up and go “Mide, mide!” or to hurry up and eat “Jame, jame!” Giorgi, her youngest child, receives a lot of affection, but is also the source of a great deal of aggravation. When upset, Nestani makes this awesome cross between an “ugh” and a “huh” that expresses her indignation at the unspeakable nerve—the cheek—of her youngest child. Sort of a grunt, but not, it is always uttered only once and loudly. It always makes me smile. I’ve never heard anything like it in the States.

 Beso – Man of All Work

Beso, my host father, is a rather quiet man. He is a man of few words, who seems to generally let his wife do most of the talking. But he has a very nice smile and is amazingly affectionate with his children. I have never seen the like. He will let his son Giorgi crawl all over him and does not blink. He hugs and kisses all of his children regularly.

In the States, physical affection between men, even between men and boys, always seems so sparse and so awkward. We seem to have this specter of “inappropriate touching” always in the back of our minds. Gruff clouts and pats on the back seem the norm, with occasional big hugs on special occasions. In Georgia, men and boys are very physically affectionate; hugs, kissing on the cheek, and holding hands are the status quo. It’s quite a difference from what I am used to, but I think it is an improvement on the American way. 

Back to Beso, I suspect that he is a little shorter than his spouse, but I am not sure. His face looks very young to me, so it contrasts a bit confusingly with his silver hair. He is very tan and has quite a large, straight nose. He is slim with quiet, dark eyes. There is something about him that I find very attractive. He is definitely a very good-looking man physically, but it is also his manner that is appealing. He and Nestani make a handsome couple.

Beso has a car and works sometimes drives it as a private taxi. Apparently this is not to be considered his full-time job though. Mostly he works around the house and usually there is plenty to do.

Beso is around, but I do not interact a great deal with him. For that reason, it seems more accurate to call him Nestani’s husband than my host father. I am sure he was not the initiator in having me stay with the family, but he is a gracious, if silent, host.

Tamta – Sweet Sixteen

 The image of her father and sixteen years old, Tamta is the oldest child in the family and the oldest girl. My reading of the family structure is that this brings with it a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. Women already have a lousy position in the Georgian social structure and being the oldest child just seems to add more pressure. So she has to set the example for her siblings AND she has to do more work than them. Tamta helps a great deal in the house and in the small store which is family runs. If the family is sitting down to dinner and something is needed, Tamta is the one who usually gets up to get it. If we are all watching TV and a customer stops by for the store, she goes to take care of it.

Tamta generally does not seem aggravated by her lot in life. I don’t hear many sighs of exasperation, very little complaining. I am not sure if she has simply been socialized into accepting this situation or if she is just a cheerful, dutiful girl. Perhaps I should slip her some feminist literature and upset the satus quo . . .

When not “slaving away” for her family, Tamta likes to use her laptop computer (some sort of prize from the President for being a good student?) and go on the Russian version of Facebook and Skype her friends. She wrestles with her little brother Giorgio and inevitably gets yelled at to stop even if he is the one who started it. She is more affectionate with him that I think he deserves, but more on that to come.

Tamta also has the (un)enviable position of being my translator and the family interpreter. A blessing or a curse, I am not sure. I know she wants to improve her English. I can guarantee that she will get plenty of practice!    

Teona – Giostari

 Teona, or Teo, is the dramatic middle child. Affectionate and sweet, she is prone to singing and dancing around the house. The second season of Giostari has just begun, the Georgian American Idol, and I love to tease her by calling her Teona Makishvili—Giostari! Teo is dark where Tamta is fair. I am not sure where she gets her looks.

 Like many middle children, Teo’s life seems more complicated than her siblings. Unfortunately she seems to suffer from very severe headaches, possibly migraines. She has been to the doctor twice since I’ve been here and they even took her to the capital, I assume to get better treatment. Teo is also a picky eater. Tamta and her both eat like birds, but if Tamta is a sparrow than Teo is a hummingbird. She is frequently being yelled at to eat, but seems to somehow always wiggle out of it (Why can’t I do that!).     

 The sisters seems to get along well enough through they do not seem particularly close. Teo and Giorgio are frequently in altercations and Teo seems to get more sympathy than Tamta ever does in regards to Gio’s depredations. Teo also does a fair amount of work around the house, but her headaches seem to give her a frequent “out”.

 Teo is easy to love and I do love her. She is just one of those sweet, sunny personalities that you are instinctively drawn to. And our relationship is not complicated with the issues of translation and interpretation.

 Giorgi – The Boy King

 Giorgi, Giorgi, Giorgi. This toothy eight-year old is a non-stop talking machine. He is extremely active and extremely loud. His volume starts at “fortissimo” and just goes up from there. His boyish screech can be hear no matter where I am in the house, usually followed at regular intervals by bellows from his mother, father, grandma, or grandpa when he finally crosses some line or another. On those occasions he might get his ear yanked, the skin on his arm twisted or a smack on the head. I usually quietly cheer when this finally happens. I think he deserves far more of them than he gets. You might sense I am not Giorgi’s number one fan.

Nestani spends long nights going over his homework with him, making him read aloud and correcting his mistakes. This usually involved a fair amount of yelling back and forth between the two of them. I cannot believe they let him talk to adults the way he does. Free from helping around the house, Giorgi roams the neighborhood with his young cronies, generally up to no good. He is first at the dinner table and loudly demands a good seat on the couch. I should probably not be so hard on Giorgi—he is only 8—but today I am just not feeling that forgiving.

There is also Neli, the grandmother, and Vakho, the grandfather. More on them later.

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Communication, Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Shotis Puri

 The other day was one of those days. A long morning with another carb-filled breakfast and gloomy skies. One hour of teaching followed by an agonizing three hours of sitting in the teachers’ lounge with nothing to do. A nearly interminable wait until “lunch” was served after 5 PM. (Breakfast had been at 8:30.) Coming ravenous to the table only to find that “lunch” looked completely unappetizing: soup with large chunks of bone and cartilage containing small bits of an unidentified meat. Oh man. I miserably picked through it and said “no” to seconds much more firmly than usual. Normally I’m a big push-over.

 The family was trying to communicate something to me, but I was just not getting it. “Ver gavige, I don’t understand,” I said wearily. Teona, the second daughter, simplified the matter by gesturing towards the door and saying “Ts’avidet” or “Let’s go”. We picked our way through the muddy backyard out to the . . . tone. And here my day changed for the better.

Shotis Puri – Flat, long bread with narrow ends, wide at the center, baked in a tone, an earth oven dug deeply into the ground

 I became aware some time after I arrived in Korbouli that my family makes their own bread. That is very cool stuff to me. The family is mildly amused by my enthusiasm, probably thinking, “What? Don’t you have bread in California?” Yes, we do. But it is not homemade and not nearly as good.

All the Laura Ingalls Wilder of my childhood, especially Farmer Boy, gave me a fascination for this sort of self-sufficiency. It’s just so uncommon in the States. Okay, actually we have a lot of hippies and “natural food” types in California who probably do make their own bread. But I bet that they have a bread machine and bake it in the oven. They cannot possibly be baking in a tone.

So out in the backyard, Grandma Neli is baking shotis puri in her homemade tone. She has already got her fire burning and now she banks it by laying down pieces of what look like terracotta roofing tiles with a pair of large tongs. Then she turns to the board where she has all her dough ready to go. She cuts each round in half and flours it. I had been looking at the tone, which is a round, deep oven, with no racks inside, wondering where exactly the bread goes. Silly me. Neli turns and slaps the dough onto the side of the tone. Ah. Mystery solved. She proceeds to apply dough down all sides of the tone, without any mitts or gloves, seemingly unconcerned by the heat or the possibility of burning a finger or two. A total pro. I make little sounds of amazement the entire time. When she is done, she removes all the tiles and then covers the tone.

My Georgian is inadequate to express how impressed I am or why I am so impressed. But I want Neli to know how cool I think it is. So I tell her, “Dzalian magaria, Neli! It is very cool!” and repeat it a few times. Who can resist such wide-eyed, guileless appreciation of their work? Neli looks faintly amused, but I think also quietly pleased. All her work making bread for the family is probably something more taken for granted than applauded. Neli is my inspiration. Someday I too will bake my own bread.

The bread, puri, bakes for only about 15 minutes. Then the tone is uncovered and all the loaves are now crispy and golden brown. Neli expertly removes them and stacks them on her table. Pretty as a picture. She takes one loaf and breaks it in half, giving a half to me. This is the warmest, softest bread ever. A perfect crispy outside, wonderful insides. I eat my half. Then I eat another half. I am full of fresh shotis puri. The disappointments of the day and the horror of lunch are only a memory, disappearing into the distance.

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Communication, Food, Republic of Georgia

Sanctuary! Sanctuary?

Generally speaking, the meat in Georgia makes me wish I could claim the sanctuary of being a vegetarian. I’m squeamish about meat and admit it. I am not big on chewing on bones (no ribs, thank you, or legs or thighs either). I do not like skin, fat, or cartilage. I am a boneless skinless chicken breast kind of girl who just might not survive in Georgia.

 Georgians eat everything, down to the marrow. One lunch, I watched in sick fascination as a little boy proudly devoured his meat, eating anything and everything, stacking each perfectly cleaned little bone on the table. A model citizen. I, on the other hand, was trying to hide all the skin, cartilage and bones under my spoon and did not make eye contact with grandma Neli when she picked up my bowl.

Meat is not served everyday thus making it that much more of an occasion when it is. And I, as a guest, am on the receiving end of Georgian hospitality which dictates that I be given a generous amount of anything being served. Woe is me. I am always conscious of this and gamely try to make my way through my plate. But it’s always a bad show on my part. I cannot choke down the skin or the cartilage. My gorge rises at the sight of what look like large arteries or almost identifiable pieces of animal anatomy. I dislike having to handle all these little slippery pieces of meat, getting my fingers slimy and/or sticky in the process. Ugh.

At present, I think my host family thinks I do not like meat. I do like meat! I do! I tried to tell them that I eat meat, just not very much, but I think the message did not make it. I am, of course, reliant on my limited Georgian and the assistance of the oldest daughter. I am pretty sure she told them I don’t like meat because all their faces fell. I tried to say I only like to eat a small amount again, but I think it’s all over. They will probably be forever convinced that I don’t like meat. Which means maybe it will not be served as often. The confusing part is this: I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

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Educational System, Republic of Georgia, Teaching

Exam Day

Our 7th grade class took a test this morning. Both the process and the results were appalling.

– The process: Rampant cheating, whole-scale copying of other people’s answers
– The results: 100% of the class failed, even the really earnest girls in the front row

Exam Day also did not go well as almost everyone forgot their exam book.

In Georgia, textbooks are not provided by the school. Teachers select a textbook and then the student must purchase whatever is required. Like how we do it in universities. There is usually the student’s book, a workbook, and an exam book. There is also mention of a vocabulary book, but I have yet to see one so I am not sure if that is an actual book or just a notebook the students keep.  

To put your minds to rest, these are not like the heavy, hard-back textbooks we had in school. They are all paperback and generally not very thick. However, considering the economic conditions of Georgia, it surprised many of us in my program that the families had to buy them. Well, let me tell you, the re-sale book business, especially of textbooks, is booming in Georgia. Students are bringing the most intensely dog-eared, broken-spined, re-used books I have ever seen. I am not sure that many of them could be resold on Half.com or Amazon Used Books even ranked as being in “poor” condition. I’m impressed at the families’ resourcefulness, but less amused when all the exercises have already been completed. In pen.

I think that the cunning 7th graders thought if they did not bring their books that the test would be cancelled. To no avail. I volunteered to write some of the test on the black board so that they could take the test in their notebooks. I wanted to see how they would do.

The entire time the test was being taken there was talking. Test books were being handed back and forth between students. Students were discussing questions with one another. Desks were shoved together, for more effective cheating. Some students stared out the window the whole time.

I was disturbed. I kept an eye on the teacher to see her response. No response. She sat down at the desk and worked on something. I remained standing and made eye contact with the most blatant cheaters. I think I need to work on my teacher glare. It seemed to have no power. I walked around, indicating for students to turn back to their own desks, to look at their own papers, to stop talking. I made the rounds again, glancing up at the teacher to see it I was overstepping my role. No response. I was very grateful when the bell rang and class was over.

We graded the tests. Everyone failed.

Hoo boy, it’s going to be a long year.

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Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Pelamushi

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One Georgian food that I must mention is pelamushi.

Is that not an appetizing name? It can also be called “tatara” but I am not sure if that is any better.

I have now had pelamushi three times. In short, pelamushi is grape juice, sugar, and flour. I would also suspect corn starch, but that is not something I am going to be able to ask in Georgian. It is a purple and gelatinous. It can be made into bars, but it also seems to be more commonly poured onto saucers where is solidifies (or congeals) into something approaching very solid jello.

The taste? It is not bad, but neither is it something that satisfies my particular sweet tooth. It tastes like sugary, slightly flour-y, grape cake. Think grape Turkish Delight.

The Georgians are eager to know if pelamushi exists in California. No, I say emphatically, it does not. There is nothing in California like pelamushi. We have grapes. We have grape juice. But we do not have pelamushi. They are eager to teach me the making of pelamushi that I might share this treat with California, no, the rest of America! I am not opposed to learning to make pelamushi. Apparently it is something only women make. Teach me this secret Georgian womanly art of pelamushi!

Then I will force feed it to all of you when I get home!

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Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Ferdinand

 I’ve been woken by the incessant quaking of ducks since I’ve arrived in Korbouli. Every morning they start at about 6:30 and continue their chorus for about an hour. I think there are less than a dozen of them, but they create quite a clatter. In addition, of course, to the already noisy cattle, pigs, and chickens. I’ve thought wistfully that it might be nice to decrease the noise level a bit in the mornings.

Well, today I got my wish. We had Ferdinand for lunch.

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Religion, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Waiting for the Patriarch

On Friday, the entire village of Korbouli was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Patriarch. Classes were cancelled and it was clear to me that this was a Special Occasion of note.

What and who the Patriarch was remained a mystery for some time. I assumed he was the businessmen who paid to rebuild my school and was also responsible for paving the road and bringing electricity to our area—a sort of benefactor. When I checked my assumption with the English teacher, she answered in the negative. No, not the businessman. How irritating. We “negotiated interaction” in both English and Georgian. Eventually something she said made me ask “eklesia?” or “church?” and got a huge head nod in the affirmative. Ah-hah, mystery solved. The Patriarch is the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church. I indicated an appropriate level of awe and said that of course I would like to meet him.

However, I did not know how much time this would involve. I arrived at school at the usual time, a bit before 9 AM. I stood around waiting for someone to tell me what I was supposed to be doing. After awhile it dawned on me that there would be no classes; this was the sole event of the day. Both teachers and children had brought bouquets of flowers and spent time arranging them to their best advantage. After two hours of waiting I was thoroughly bored.

We finally began walking at around 11. I now assumed that we were walking to a church. No, we were just walking to the main road. Apparently this majestic personage would just be passing through. We lined up on both sides of the road. It seemed the entire village had turned out for this. Georgian flags began to appear, as well as St. Nino’s Cross, a cross where the horizontal beam is bent down. Martshutkas and other cars pulled in and out. The priest and his altar boys appeared in full regalia, carrying icons from the church and a large cross. I saw two other teachers from my program. No one seemed to know when the Patriarch was going to appear.

The sun beat down. We shifted our feet and walked around. Flowers brought for the Patriarch began to be used as weapons, either to tickle ears or thwack heads. I met some 12th grade students who spoke very good English. It was nice to be able to ask some of the questions I’d been storing up and have them answered. The younger children from my school circled around and I tried to learn some names. I checked my phone. 1 PM. Incredible. However, I was content to be making friends with the students. I was not bored. Yet.

Just before 2 PM I had honestly given up on seeing this personage. I was happy just to be standing in some shade. The 12th graders I was with indicated, with typical high schooler disinterest, that they did not care to see the Patriarch. I agreed. Moments later people began running back to the road. We turned to see the beginnings of a motorcade, led by a police car. I indicated with my head that I was going to walk back to the road and the students nonchalantly strolled in my wake.

However, there was little to see. The motorcade rolled past, about 15 cars total and did not pause at all. The Patriarch was apparently on a schedule and was unswayed by the number of faithful who had turned out to greet him, by the signs, the flags, his priest, or the now tattered flowers of the children. I turned to one of the students and asked, “Wasn’t he going to stop?” It was not a matter of personal interest to me, but I could not help feeling a little put out for the people of my village who had been waiting all day. “We are a very small village,” he responded, “perhaps not important enough for him to stop” I expressed a little indignation. I dislike the semi-servile relationship between major religious leaders and their followers.

With the last cars of the motorcade disappearing over the next hill, people turned to one another, philosophically shrugged a shoulder and headed home. The remaining flowers fell forgotten to the ground. Of all the faces I saw as I too turned to begin the long walk back to my home, the face of the local priest caught my eye. He looked a little forlorn, a little lost, his eyes following the motorcade over the hill, as his altar boys looking questioningly at him, icons in hand. But eventually his eyes returned to the present, he shouldered the cross brought out from his church and started on his way.

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