Republic of Georgia, Teaching, Village Life

First Week Back

My first night back I almost cried. My bed was so cold when I got in I had to double check that it wasn’t damp. My second night back was a vast improvement. We stocked my bed full of hot water bottles. No, not the little rectangular ones that you buy in a pharmacy. These were plastic mineral water and beer bottles that ranged from 1 to maybe 3 liters. Proof again of Georgian ingenuity. We put 3 in the bed about an hour before I was going to sleep and then I took up another 2 when I was actually turning in. I slept like a baby.

My first day back in class I pretty much showed up at school and didn’t have a clue what was going on. I walked into the first class with the local English teacher. We said hello to the students. Then she turned to me and asked the infamous question: “Do you have some lesson for today?” I laughed. No, no lesson. What do YOU want to do? It’s ludicrous to me that I am doing all the planning and teaching. I am theoretically supposed to be an assistant with no actual teaching experience. I sat back and watched the chaos for about 15 minutes and then I just had to step in. Back to work, I guess.

My third day back I went to a funeral. Anyone who is here in Georgia would laugh because it’s just so . . . Georgian. Funerals take up a lot of time here. A friend in another region attended so many funerals she eventually had to put her foot down and refused to go to any more. In Georgia, there seems to be a much stronger sense of cultural obligation to attend funerals.

This particular funeral was for the mother of the school principal. In American, I do not think the teachers of a school would feel at all obligated to attend the funeral of their principal’s mother, unless possibly they were the principal’s close friends. But here in Georgia, the teaching staff rented a bus and drove to a house on the other side of the valley. We walked through the room where the casket was open and we stayed all afternoon for the luncheon. It was an all-day affair and I was beat by the time we got back.

The next day was the after-funeral. Sort of like an after-party. This also happens a lot in Georgia. All the food that was served at the funeral luncheon made a reappearance in our teachers’ room and we had a mini-supra. My marriage prospects were discussed again, as well as my ability to help people get U.S. visas. (Friends, no; spouse, yes)

My fifth day back, I went to . . . another funeral. This is a personal record for me. I’ve never been to two in the same week. Other volunteers have much more impressive statistics. This was for the mother-in-law of the Russian teacher, who I consider a friend. I went to the funeral of another of her family members in the fall. Since this was actually in our village, almost all the teachers and many of the students made their way to her house.

The custom for this type of visit is as follows: The body is always in the center of the room, possible uncovered, possibly not. There are flowers, wine, fruits, and chocolates around the casket. The walls are lined with chairs and the carpet is covered with plastic sheeting. The immediate family is always in the room, crying or at least looking very very somber. You file in, walk around the casket, kiss the family on the cheek or gently squeeze shoulders. If there is room you sit down and stay for awhile. This may initiate a fresh round of tears or vocal outbursts from the family expressing their sadness, their sense of loss, and how much they loved the person. I found this a bit frightening the first time I attended a funeral in Georgia. Funerals in American are somber, sad occasions as well. However we do not have a parallel custom of expressing our grief loudly or publicly. I think we consider that best reserved for behind closed doors. This particular funeral, we stayed for about 5 minutes and then quietly made our way out. The funeral luncheon is going to be on Sunday.

My first weekend back had initially been empty, empty, empty. However, by Wednesday there was the funeral luncheon on Sunday, and on Friday night I was informed that we were going to a fellow teacher’s birthday party on Saturday. I love having control of my calendar. Generally I don’t have anything much better planned. But still, it’s the principle of the thing!

Saturday I had thought to wake up early and either make a relatively quick trip into town for a few things (relatively, because it’s impossible for it to be truly a “quick trip”) or to try making pancakes for the family. Instead I woke up at 10:15.

I just can’t seem to get up early here. Not that I was much better in the States. I needed 45 minutes of snooze time to even be able to face the prospect of getting out of bed. I think I’m catching up on sleep. My visit home was one of the most sleepless months of my life. Between jetlag, sickness, someone sleeping in the armchair downstairs, someone coming in at all hours of the night, a yowling cat, showers at 3 AM, people using the facilities, phones, doors, and motion detector lights, etc, etc, I hardly slept at all. Sometimes in Georgia, there’s nothing to do BUT sleep. And generally I am okay with that.

Republic of Georgia, Uncategorized

The Box – Part II

I arrived back in Georgia at 4 AM. By 6 AM my group had been shuttled into the city and dropped off at a spooky looking hostel. After dragging my 100+ lbs of luggage up two flights of stairs, I was ready for some sleep. My tentative plan had been to get a few hours of sleep, get to the mysterious Customs/Post Office, put the box issue to rest, and possibly catch the martshutka back to the village. Optimistic, very optimistic.

I woke up at 2:30 and got a horrible jolt when I saw the time. So much for going back to the village that day. I got dressed and talked to the hostel owner about the best way to get to the airport. A taxi could be as much as 50 lari for the round trip. Possibly the easiest, but the most expensive option.

I knew there were buses, but I had no idea which one or where to catch it. A solution presented itself in the person of a lady from my area who offered to go with me. She was at loose ends and needed something to do. She knew how to get to the airport. Fantastic! Off we went. We took the metro to a bus station and caught the correct one shortly after.

One thing I love about Georgia is how incredibly helpful people are. Georgians will really and truly go out of their way for you. Possibly even more so because of my obvious foreigner status. I didn’t know where we were going, just that it was somewhere in the vicinity of the airport. As we neared the airport, Marlene asked me if I knew where to get off. ‘No, I’ll just ask someone’ was my response. I turned to a sturdy looking matriarch sharing our bench, held out the notice I’d received, smiled and asked “Posta? Posta?” She glanced at my paper and then boomed out the question to the entire bus. Heads turned in our direction. A few voices discussed the issue and then suddenly the situation was resolved. The bus stopped and a man gestured us out. Posta? I asked, just to make sure. He nodded and we set off.

A short walk led us past what was obviously the old airport and into an area with various cargo offices. The man pointed us down the road to a building which had the Georgian Post logo. Effusive “didi gmadloba”s followed.

Now we got down to it.

In the Georgian Post I handed the lady in a little shabby office my notice which went on top of a pile of similar notices. She typed the parcel number into her computer and spent some time sorting through a number of Excel spreadsheets. I shifted anxiously from foot to foot and tried to gauge what the news was going to be. I checked her desk for Dove or Tootsie Roll wrappers, which would indicate the fate of my box, which was long past the 20 day pick-up period.

The lady, who spoke a little English, questioned the fact that the box was addressed to the Education Resource Center, sort of like a district or county of education office. I explained that we thought that would be safest since I live in a village. She commented on that fact that there were books in the box. One book, I said, a novel. There was chocolate. Just a few bags, I explained, for my students and my school. She was noncommittal. More clacking of the keyboard.

Finally she turned to me and told me that I had to pay 100 dollars. One hundred dollars?!? I was incredulous. I tried to get an explanation. Why 100 dollars? Our communication began to break down. All I understood was that the food items seemed to be causing problems and the fact I had addressed it to the ERC complicated the issue. I tried to explain that the contents were not worth $100 and that if I truly had to pay that then I would just walk away. May you choke on my kids’ Tootsie Rolls!

She mentioned the ERC again. I decided to call my contact at our local office. Fortunately she answered the phone, but didn’t understand why I was calling. I thrust my phone at the office lady and decided to let her explain the problem. I listened to this one-sided Georgian conversation and couldn’t make any sense of it. Next thing I know, the conversation is over and my phone is handed back. Huh? The lady tells me that I should be getting a text with a number. Sensing that some progress had been made I waited. The phone rang and I handed it back. A number was repeated and then entered in the computer. Typing, lots of typing. Then forms being printed. I am gestured back to the counter with a finger. Take these forms to the girl at the next window. I move on.

At the next window, which was actually an office, I forked over my passport. I signed papers and waited for the final verdict. I had to go to the Bank of Georgia in the new airport and pay . . . 9 lari. What a change from $100! I was laughably relieved. Sure I’ll give you 9 lari. I’ll even give you 10! I’ll give you 20! I felt like throwing the contents of my wallet up in the air and doing a little dance.

BUT, it was 5:10 and we had to get back with the receipt that I paid my 9 lari before 6. Otherwise I’d have to come back the next day. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen. We powered out of the office and down the road. I thought I remembered taxis hanging out. Yes sir, there they were. We got ourselves a taxi, rode to the airport, paid my bill, and, gauging the time, quickly walked back.

Back in the office I proudly presented by receipt and was led upstairs to the special package room. I signed 2 forms and a clipboard. Then the man disappeared down an aisle and came back with two packages from . . . Hong Kong. Ara, I said. Erti, one. Amerikidan, from America. He looked doubtful, but left and came back with a white Priority Mail box with the address written in my mom’s familiar hand! Hip hip hooray!

Clutching my liberated box I left the Georgian Post, never to return.



And now for a bad limmerick! Draw closer, my dears.

There once was a little white box
That Customs put in a room with a lock
For all its screams and its shouts
It just couldn’t get out
For bureaucracy is better than Fort Knox

Yes? Yes? Fantastic, wasn’t it. I’m considering a haiku encore.

Republic of Georgia, Uncategorized

The Box

It all started last semester. I had been deeply disappointed when I heard through the grapevine that I would not be able to receive any mail in Georgia. Georgian Post was not reliable and special carriers (UPS, DHL) were sell-your-sister expensive. Care packages are a cherished family tradition. I was sad to think I couldn’t get nary a one over the course of an entire year.

So when I heard (oh, you grapevine, you!) that people were getting boxes sent good ol’ USPS with no problems, I jumped at it. Within a few weeks a care package was theoretically winging its way to me. I had only to wait.

And wait I did.

I had no illusions about the time frame. I am in Georgia. I’d been warned the post was slow. And I am all the way in Sachkhere. (When I told someone in the capital that I lived in Sachkhere, she laughed. Bad sign.) But I was a teeny bit disappointed (understatement) when we got to the week before I was leaving to come home for Christmas.

I grudgingly resigned myself to having my box waiting for me when I got back. Which made it almost pointless. I would be fresh from the US of A and would not be in need of any small luxuries.

My last day in the village, in the midst of rehearsals for the Christmas foreign language concert, the English teacher slipped me a half sheet of paper. She’d attempted to translate it for me, but it was a no-go. But the essentials were there: parcel, Customs, 20 days to claim, Tbilisi. I couldn’t imagine how my box managed to attract the attention of Customs. In the midst of a stressful last day, this was not the news I needed. I chanted soothing phrases to myself: it’s just a box, it will be okay, don’t stress yourself out. But it was just so IRRITATING!

I got this news at 11 AM on a Friday. With concerts, farewells, and a supra, there was nothing I could do until 4:30. Thirty minutes before all the government offices would close for the weekend. And I was leaving the country at 5 AM, Monday morning. I was totally and completely _______ (fill in whatever, to you, best expresses this hopeless situation).

I called everyone I could think of to call, up to and including the US Embassy (which was a complete waste of time. They were having a Christmas party). I discussed notarizing someone in my host family to pick it up for me, but there was just no time to arrange that. My family came up to my room to bring me some gifts and I happened to crack at that exact moment. Tears, lots of tears. Not for the box. Just for whole situation in general: end of semester stress, packing, traveling, etc. Picture a very weepy me and a very alarmed host family. Had to work for some damage control then. Managed to convince them that I would just deal with it when I got back.

In Tbilisi, I consulted our very articulate hostel owner. He did what he could, but when he too realized it was hopeless he began to crack jokes about how I could just wander through the bazaar and buy my stuff back. I was less than amused.

Back in California, I commiserated with my family and wrote increasingly testy emails to my program. They never responded. Thanks a lot guys.

My mom told me, as I’d been telling myself, that it was just things, easily replaceable, not worth getting stressed out over. But there was just something so GALLING about having to give up as lost this box. It had a new pair of jeans ($50), a warm pair of socks (REI, $20), a novel ($15), nylons ($5), Mapeline ($5), coffee creamer ($3), and an unknown amount of sweets to distribute to my host family, school, and students. Plus there was the shipping cost ($50) and the time it took my mom to gets all these things together. Altogether this felt like quite a loss, both in terms of time and money. Wouldn’t you agree?

I’d almost made my peace with my lost box when I remembered the warm Merino wool socks (REI, $20) and got upset all over again.

The unresolved issue of my box was heavy on my mind as I made my way back to Georgia.

Stay tuned for Part II

Republic of Georgia, Travel

Georgia, Round Two

A nice thing about traveling to Georgia again is the absence of the fearful and/or excited anticipation that was my constant companion the first time. I more or less know what to expect.

What was not so nice was having to say good-bye to my family and cat for the second time in less than 6 months. Rough, very rough.

The good-bye to my darling cat was the worst. I’m trying to have a meaningful and affectionate leave-taking and she wants nothing to do with me. Eventually I got her to sit on my lap for a few minutes.

Saying good-byes to the family was done in stages. Hugs at the ticket counter. Hugs at the top of the escalator. Hugs before security. Blown kisses when I made it through security and could still see the tall figures of my dad and Jenn. This seemed to catch the eye of the TSA agents, so I blew one last kiss and that was it.

I was surprised at how emotional I felt about leaving. Once it’s done, it’s done. Over it. But the moment of physical separation is always slightly heartbreaking.

The Georgians always asked if I missed my family and I usually could very honestly answer ‘no’. I talked to my mom on a fairly regular basis and with the others on-and-off. And I was generally happy, or at least quite content in Georgia. A little bored on occasion, but that was really the worst it got. Some cultural things were challenging. But, again, at least I more or less know what to expect.

My flight to Chicago was uneventful, all seems a little foggy now. Survived my first long lay-over and finally boarded the flight to Istanbul. Bumped into some other teachers I had met traveling home in December which occupied the rest of the time.

The long flight to Istanbul went by faster than I ever could have anticipated. I did some semi-sleeping, not real sleep, but sort of sleep. Turkish Airlines has this amazing system where every person can control what they want to watch or do. Each seat has a screen and their own remote and there is a vast library of movies and TV shows to choose from. But I was strangely uninterested. I did watch about a movie and a half, but considering I had 11 hours to waste I don’t feel I really took advantage of what I had.

Still have 4 hours to kill before we take the last flight to Georgia. We’ll arrive at 4 in the morning. Trying to figure out why an airline would even offer a flight as such an awful time. It leaves Istanbul at 11:30 and arrives in Georgia at 4. What can possibly be the demand for such a flight? Be interesting to see how full the plane is.

My time home for the holidays was very relaxing. I loved seeing all my friends and family. So awesome to have such wonderful people to come home to. All the SJSU friends. Folks from ALFC. Extended Drury and Van Gundy clans that I got to see. My immediate family, of course. My cat. Loved seeing each and every one of you! Thanks for your interest in what I am doing! I will endeavor to continually inform and entertain you with my exploits in Georgia.

Much love!