Communication, Cultural Differences, Family, Food, Social Customs, Village Life, Weather

Red Eggs, Wine and Mud

Ah Georgian Easter! I feel I owe everyone at least some description of how it went down.

Red eggs? Check.
Chocolate? Check.
Relatives? Check.
Cemeteries, supras, and wine? Check.
Food, food, and more food? Check.
An enjoyable weekend? Check.

Arriving back in the village Saturday evening, the cooking was going full speed ahead and relatives were already present in the house. Around 11 o’clock, after I’d already retired to bed, local kids came a-hootin’ and a hollerin’ up to our gate for their red eggs. I threw on my jeans and went down to watch. A short performance, but it created a sense of anticipation for what was the come.

Sunday morning, after a supra-style breakfast and the arrival of more relations, we began to walk to the cemetery. This is what you do on Easter. You go the cemetery, take a loaded basket, sit around your ancestors’ graves and have a supra. I like it. My host family seemed surprised that I didn’t know where all my family was buried and that I don’t regularly visit. I felt a little ashamed of our collective American selves.

The cemetery was on top of a steep hill and since it has rained for about the last 6 weeks the mud was pretty incredibly. Though I was wearing boots, I was worried about slipping and spectacularly sliding down the hill. Somehow, very carefully, I made it all the way to top. Hands on waist, I admired the view.

This cemetery held the graves of Vaxo’s parents and grandparents, so Tamta, Teo, and Giorgi’s great-great-grandparents. Our supra table was assembled and most of the men sat down to eat. I wasn’t hungry yet, so I went visiting with the girls. It ended up being one long visit with the family of one of my favorite students, Nino. Her mother is a teacher at my school and her older brother is a student at the other school and speaks very good English. The relatives were very curious about me, but very kind. It would have made them so happy if I could’ve eaten something, but I just wasn’t hungry. But I still left with an orange, red egg, and chocolate in my pocket. And several glasses of wine sloshing around inside. And an invitation to their house the next day.

Our time in the cemetery was not as long as I expected, but the weather was not very obliging. It had been alternating between raining and drizzling the whole time. Didn’t really encourage lingering. Yet in the attempt to leave, I ended up two pieces of cake the fuller.

I’d been assured that the way down the hill would be better than the way up. Uh. No comment. As I feared, going downhill in deep mud is much more treacherous. Wading was really the only word for it. We were making our way down when I started getting strong suction noises from my boots as I lifted them out of the mud. I wasn’t concerned until Tamta called my attention to the fact that the bottom of my boot was no longer attached. Oh dear. Almost fully unattached. I figured maybe I could sort of slide on that foot. But with the next step, the bottom came off entirely. Oh dear, oh dear. That left my foot protected in only the furry lining of the boot that remained and my sock. The furry lining was the next thing I lost. In moments I was making my way down the hill with only a sock on my right foot. And quite a ways to go. It wasn’t so much the mud I was worried about, it was then rocks covered under it. Only a sock on one foot, remember? With the help of my host sister I finally made it back to the house. Where I headed right for the water spigot. The family got a big kick out of me peering at them through my now bottom-less boot.

After cleaning up and inspecting the holes in my socks, I took a break in my room for awhile. I had a feeling the evening would be another long supra. So I was taking a rest like the rest after Christmas breakfast or Thanksgiving dinner. A few hours later I came downstairs prepared for more feasting. More guests had arrived. They looked familiar, but it didn’t come to me immediately. The bride and groom from the wedding! The one I went to in the fall. I didn’t realize that they were such close friends of the family. Supraing ensued and it followed the usual course.

Neli and Nestani were very intent on making sure the new wife ate plenty of everything. Generally I am now exempt from the intense cajoling to “Jame! Jame!” for which I am grateful. So I could sit back and enjoy the show. It’s very entertaining when you are not on the receiving end. The look of consternation when something is summarily dumped on your plate without you putting it there. Ah. Those were the days.

When our guests were stuffed to the gills, they said their goodbyes and left for home. The table was still swimming with food; it looked like we’d hardly made a dent in it. But it’s the Georgian way. Gracious hospitality. Overabundance. It would be disgraceful for a plate to be emptied and not immediately refilled. Which of course leaves plenty of leftovers for the days to come.

That was just Day One of Easter. There was still Monday and Tuesday. And there’d been Thursday and Friday before I even got home. The next two days were much the same as the one before. Supras, food, wine, and lots and lots of family. Overall the family is very welcoming to me, but I am always saddened by the language barrier that prevents me from really joining in.

Today is Thursday and stale paska is still sitting on the table. All the leftover red eggs are being diced up and transformed into egg salad. Cake pans with a few remaining squares are lingering in the hall outside my room. A few tangible reminders of the weekend.

With the passing of Easter is appears we are finally receiving our spring weather. Positively heavenly the last few days.

The last week of April and it appears spring is finally here. Thanks, Easter.

Food, Travel

Getting to Know You, Batumi

I’m finding that in Georgia I am more susceptible to advertising. If something is advertised on television, something that I want/need, there is a good chance it will make its way into my “basket”. I have noticed this about my host family as well. Items I see on television appear in the house: a certain Russian chocolate bar, Barambo candies, Tide laundry detergent, and Blend-a-med toothpaste. So it’s not just me. In a sea of largely unfamiliar products I find myself reaching for a brand that was paraded across the television screen, succumbing to the false logic that because I saw it on television it must be good.

In this case, advertising and word of mouth led me to have higher expectations for the city of Batumi than it appears the city can make good on. As advertised on television, Batumi is all sea and sizzle: restaurants, art, night life, leisure, etc., etc. Yet after having prowled the city for four hours yesterday I was sore in foot and wondering what Jason and I were going to do for the next 2 ½ days. Only endless construction and deserted cafes here.

In fairness, I must state that April is not at all the “season” for Batumi. Batumi is a summer destination. When the weather gets hot, the city is said to be flooded by Georgians and foreigners alike. However, while many places are said to “seasonal” by nature, I feel that visiting them out of season you would still find enough to occupy your visit. Batumi, on the other hand, feels like a wasteland for the unprepared tourist. There is little to do other than wander the never-ending Promenade and stare at the gentle Black Sea.

And of course, none of this is helped by the fact that it has rained the entire time we have been here. Last night I felt like shaking my fist at the Adjaran Department of Tourism, whose advertising was responsible for luring us here, and the treacherous Powers-That-Be that had turned my Easter vacation into a soggy mess.

That was yesterday.

Today I felt a slight warming in my feelings towards Batumi. Nothing had really changed in terms of the weather or things to do, but perhaps in having shaken off the lingering influence of well-edited commercials, I was open to experiencing the Batumi-where-people-live and not just Batumi-the-tourist-getaway.

Wandering the market I enjoyed, as I always do, the piles of fresh greens. Preparations for Easter were evident in the squat towers of paska, Easter cake, and the root which is used to dye eggs red, available in either little bundles or already ground.

Back on the Promenade, which runs for kilometers along the sea, we finally found the Ali and Nino statues. Our desire to find them proof of yet another advertising success. We’d been unable to see them from the street due to a mound of dirt and several tractor-like machines. Though not as impressive as expected (sigh), I did find that there was a dry patch of rocks under the edge of the platform that allowed us to take a break for a little while. From our shelter we had an unimpeded view of the Black Sea which was quietly lapping on the shore just feet from us. Off in the distance, we saw dolphins, yes, dolphins arcing in and out of the water. A sight I enjoyed very much.

The beach is Batumi is not very beach-like by California standards. I was surprised to see that there is no sand. All rounded colorful stones, from the size of your hand down to small pebbles. Somewhat treacherous to walk on, but we were very pleased by the sound that the rocks make when the waves are pulled back out, a pleasant clatter. And I was very pleased by the amount of polished sea glass there was to be found. Both Jason and I are amassing collections.

After wandering the beach, fixedly staring at the ground for more sea glass, we moved to the lush Promenade and explored the many paths, monuments, and fountains. Picture taking a-plenty. We found a very nice café and had lunch: mushroom soup and pizza sans mayonnaise on top (a Georgian thing). I enjoyed an excellent americano and then went and bought myself a 4 GB flash drive. As I told Jason, I have now joined the 21st century. (The last flash drive I had was a whopping 40 MB. Yeah!)

So there were things to enjoy that second day: sea glass, dolphins, good coffee, and lush rainy gardens. Advertising gave me false expectation, but Batumi is working hard to show me its true colors underneath all the marketing flash.

Food, Social Customs, Village Life

Approaching Easter

Things have been picking up a bit of late. The clock is ticking and I’m realizing that some things are now or never. I’ve spent the last two weekends visiting friends in other cities, visits that I had been saving for some “future date”. Both visits were excellent. Great to see friends and also nice to take a break from the village.

Last Sunday we were walking in Kutaisi and I was noticing that many people were carrying little bundles of branches. It took me awhile to put it together, but then it came to me and I exclaimed out loud “Palm Sunday!” I’d totally forgotten. Not a lot of palms in Georgia so it appears that they substitute some other locally-available tree. Industrious people everywhere were selling “palms”, including robed altar boys outside one of the larger churches. This Palm Sunday joined the ranks of some other memorable Palm Sundays. (Jenn?)

Aghdgoma, Easter, is this coming Sunday, as I’m sure you all know. There is a very nice vacation padding Easter in Georgia, with no school the Thursday and Friday before it and the Monday, Tuesday after it. Man, which we had that in the States. It is truly an ideal time to take a trip somewhere and I think the vast majority of teachers will be going somewhere. However, as I missed Christmas, New Year’s and Three Kings’ Day, I really wanted to be in the village for Easter. So I am taking a trip for Wednesday through Saturday and will be back in time for Sunday.

My friend Jason and I will be going to the largest city on the coast, Batumi, which has a rep for being the most Westernized, resort-like place in Georgia. This really isn’t the best time to go weather-wise, but I can’t imagine staying the village for that many days with nothing to do. And I’ve wanted to see the Black Sea since I arrived. I know I’m invited on a school excursion to Batumi in June, but that will likely be a rather structured trip where I will not be free to do what I want. So if nothing else, this trip should be relaxing. I’m really hoping we get at least a little bit of sun.

In talking with my host family and students, the number of traditions surrounding Easter continues to surprise me. There is egg dying, but all eggs are dyed red. No Easter Bunny and no Easter baskets. Families go to the cemeteries and picnic there around their ancestors’ graves on tables and chairs installed there expressly for this purpose. Eggs are rolled on the gravestones in a sort of game. There is church for those who choose to attend. One devout girl told me EVERYONE goes to church. I was highly skeptical and sought confirmation from other students. As expected they vigorously shook their heads and said that SOME people go to church. I’ve heard mention of a bonfire on Saturday as well as a tradition of children going house to house singing and dancing in return for red eggs. There is the cracking of eggs, something I saw in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but don’t really understand. My students taught me the greeting and response used on Easter which is a direct parallel to the He is risen/He is risen indeed we say in the States. On and on and on.

So from what I understand, Easter is a sort of Day of the Dead, plus Easter, plus Halloween.

Should be interesting.

Communication, Cultural Differences, Village Life

Snip, Snip

The spaying and neutering of animals in American came up in conversation last night. An exceedingly strange conversation to have with Georgians.

While talking to my mom on Skype, my cat had wandered into the room and, of course, has been lifted up to the camera so I could have the pleasure of seeing her from afar. I was reporting this to my host sister and how I was always a little worried that she would get sick while I was gone. My sister asked if my cat had kittens. So that if I happened to lose the mother, at least I might have a next generation to enjoy. No, I explained. She had been spayed before I got her. This was a very surprising piece of information to my family. Really? Why?

This was followed by a long, broken explanation that seemed to involve an exponential growth in cats, all the bad things that could happen to all these cats, and the expense of feeding and caring for them. A person could not keep so many cats. They would be homeless, no family.

There was some head-nodding. Some of my points struck a chord. But this act of surgery still seemed to overwhelm them a bit. Expensive, yes? And all for a . . . cat?

I realized that this conversation was more me trying to justify the American institution of pet-dom than the concept of animal population control. And not just pets, but also our anthropomorphologizing of animals in general. I tried to explain that our animals are like family: we give them special food, take them to doctors, let them sleep on our beds, some even clothe their animals. Grandma Neli’s forehead became more and more furrowed as this explanation continued. Everything I’m saying is probably supporting already established ideas of Western decadence. Dogs wearing clothing? They’re mad! All of them!

Pets, with everything that means in America, does not seem to exist in Georgia. A sweeping generalization, I know. It’s possible this anti-pet sentiment is a village thing or a regional thing. Maybe city people have pets. I don’t live there so I don’t know. Probably it’s just nowhere near as common as it is in the States. A safer statement, for sure. Now that I think of it, I seem to recall walking past a veterinary office in Tbilisi.

It’s just that I haven’t met a single animal I would consider a “pet” by Western standards.

I understand the detachment of villagers towards their cows, sheep, and assorted poultry. After all, these are animals intended for eating. And we eat them regularly. But there seem to be few warm emotions for canines and felines. Cats are exceedingly rare in my village. I know of only three. Dogs are fairly common, but they do not sleep inside and are not caressed or cooed over. The average Georgian seems to react with distaste and fear if a dog approaches them. They are angrily shooed away. A few students have dogs they seem to genuinely care for.

I think I had never really realized how different our perceptions of animals were until that moment. Standing in my Georgian kitchen, trying to understand why I would not want my cat to breed freely, why I felt so responsible for her well-being, and why thinking of the possibility of her death brings me to tears.

Worlds apart, baby. World apart.

Village Life, Weather

Second Winter

The snow began falling Monday night. It snowed all day Tuesday and most of the day today. Looking at the windows at school today felt almost surreal. Once again a beautiful snow-covered landscape.

I just thought we were done with this.

Prior to this fresh snowfall we had two days of cool, but sunny, weather. I was thrilled and spent as much time outside as possible. I was still wearing about three layers, but it was bearable. However, it did not last. Those two days were followed by two solid weeks of clouds and rain.

Sitting in the kitchen around the stove, incredulously looking at the falling snow, my family cheerfully regaled me with stories of snow in May. Thanks guys. I told my host mother that if it was snowing in May I was going back to California. My host sister walked in on the end of it and worriedly asked me why I was leaving. A laugh all around.

But seriously. Having only California weather as a frame of reference has made me less than patient with this lingering winter. It’s April. The daffodils haven’t even bloomed here yet. They were just about to, but then a bunch of snow fell on them. The only significant difference I have seen between winter and spring so far is I can no longer see my breath in my bedroom and some nights it’s possible to go without my hot water bottles.

Snow is certainly very beautiful. Watching it fall is very enjoyable. Especially when contrary gusts of wind make it appear that the flakes are just floating mid-air. I love how it rounds everything. I understand the attraction. But I am just really ready for some sunshine.

I have been remiss in not posting any snow pictures. I will get on that.

Communication, Family, Food, Social Customs, Village Life

Potatoes and the Second Coming

I thought maybe I’d missed it today—the Second Coming. Returning home from school around 3:30, the house was empty. This in itself was not particularly surprising, but by 4:30 I was wandering around downstairs wondering where everyone was. The girls should have been home from school by then and it was very rare for Nestani to stay at school that long. Grandpa Vakho could usually be spotted somewhere around the house and Boy Giorgi I should normally be able to just hear. Neli was in Tbilisi and I thought Beso must also be there doing a job. It was just really strange to home alone considering that with me the household now numbers 8 people. How likely was it for 7 to be gone all at once?

The second problem was I was ravenous. Breakfast was at 9:30 and it was the usual serving of simple carbohydrates. This was supplemented by a cookie and coffee at school. Seven hours later I was hungry, hungry, hungry. An understandable reaction I think. And there was nothing to be had in the kitchen except bread. Whenever Grandma Neli leaves us for any amount of time we definitely suffer on the food side of things. No hot lunch waiting when we all get home from school. Instead poor Nestani walks in the door and has to immediately start cooking. This was the third day since Neli had left and we had used up the usual stockpile of leftovers. Just empty pots remaining.

The situation seemed ridiculous to me. Perfectly competent cook starving in a house with food stores that simply need preparation. So I decided to cook my own lunch. And since I didn’t want to use up any special supplies, I decided to go with the all-time Georgian favorite: fried potatoes. Fool proof recipe and plenty of potatoes in the pantry.

Although I attempt to assist with food preparation on occasion and have prepared a few dishes/desserts for my host family, I believe they still labor under the impression that I don’t know how to boil water. I knew that them coming home (assuming the Rapture hadn’t truly occurred) and finding me cooking would be gossip for our neighbors and all the teachers for a week. And there would be all those ridiculous surprised expressions and congratulatory exclamations like Maladetz and Ho-cha, as if this was a remarkable event. So the goal was to work quickly. If I could be nonchalantly eating my potatoes when they walked in the door, there was much less for them to talk about. The deed would be done. Caught in the act would mean they would check everything I did and most likely enact a coup on the acting chef—me.

Peeling potatoes with a knife if much harder than it appears. This I have learned in Georgia. The peeler is a marvelous invention. I almost brought one back with me to Georgia so I could help with all the peeling that goes on. But it seemed so sissy that I decided not to. So I struggled through my potatoes, nervously checking out the window for approaching family members the whole time.

Grandpa Vakho was the first to spot me. His comment was that Tamta would be home soon. Yeah, make the 17 year-old cook for the 26 year-old. Love that. I shrugged my shoulders and said I was hungry.

By the time Tamta showed up and I got all the expected exclamations and furtive looks at my progress, all the potatoes were peeled and were being cut into the pan. Yes, I can peel potatoes and cut them. I didn’t feel there were enough potatoes to satisfactorily feed 7 people so I was cutting a few more. Everyone minus Neli would be showing up sooner or later and there was nothing else to eat. Tamta didn’t feel this was necessary and gave me this strange look that made me feel like was 6. I found this rather irritating and, slightly sharply, told her to talk in English. This was unnecessary retaliation. In my defense, it’s hard being treated like a child by someone 10 years younger. And would it really kill us to have some leftovers sitting around? Plus I was planning on eating a significant amount of potatoes. Starving, remember?

By 5-ish or so we were finally sitting down to potatoes. It was only Tamta, Vakho and I. The fewer witnesses the better. The potatoes tasted like . . . potatoes. The only thing I noticed was my peeling job hadn’t meet with Georgian standards. Some bits of peel and potato eyes were being left on the edges of plates. My mother would say that’s where all the vitamins are.

An interesting day altogether. Glad I got a chance to work on my potato peeling skills. Obviously need more practice as my fingers and wrist were aching when I finished. Forget using a keyboard. Potato peeling is carpal tunnel waiting to happen.