Campus Life, China, Communication, Family, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Village Life

Airing the Laundry

Many things are easier in China than they were in Georgia. Fortunately, laundry is one of them.

The laundry situation in Georgia was tense. Or at least it felt that way to me. My host family had recently purchased a washing machine. In the village, this was quite significant. Though a television was always a given, there was no guarantee that the average family would have a refrigerator or a washing machine, much less indoor plumbing. I felt quite lucky because my host family had two out of three. Indoor plumbing AND a washing machine. But no fridge.

In the absence of a washing machine, other volunteers were doing their laundry by hand, Oregon Trail style. Can you imagine washing your blue jeans by hand? Scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing them out? A truly unpleasant affair. To be carried out with disturbing regularity to every item of clothing you own, including all your unmentionables.

I was sure of my good fortune having been placed with a washing machine-blessed family; though there were many times I wondered if I would’ve rather had a refrigerator. It’s like one of those semi-impossible decision scenarios: what two things would you take to a desert island, rescue from your burning house, etc.

Nevertheless, the washing machine was there, waiting to be used, to fulfill its purpose in the world. However, the family seemed reluctant to put it to work. They seemed to regard it a little warily—the new technology. Laundry was carried out with gravity. With due reverence and ceremony I would make a petition for use of the glorious machine and the presence of its devoted attendants that were required for its operation. I was not deemed capable of operating the new technology unsupervised. And, following the example of my family, it was communicated to me that its use should be limited. We wouldn’t want to tire it out, now would we?

The realization that I was drawing near to a time when I would need to do laundry was always accompanied by a sinking feeling. There were a number of factors to consider: time of day, weather, the use of the WM by other family members, the use of the kitchen for other purposes, would I be available to immediately remove the clothes from the washer, was washing powder available, was someone available to get the surge protector from the shop, was there water, was there electricity, estimated drying time due to weather conditions, and how quickly I needed the clothes clean and dry.

I am not pulling your leg. This was my reality. I learned from experience to take all of these factors into consideration. Do not assume anything. Do not assume there will be washing power. Do not assume there will be water. Do not assume there will be electricity.

Laundry had a psychological and emotional toll. There was the preparation to ask, the asking itself, the material preparation for laundry (getting the surge protector, attaching the water hose to the sink, inserting the waste hose into the drain, and filling buckets with water for the family’s use while the machine was in use), the actual washing, the immediate removal of laundry from the washer, hanging, drying, folding, and then finally rest. It was an all day affair.

Was I making this more difficult than it had to be? Being overly considerate to my host family? Reading too much into body language and tone of voice? It’s one of those things that I will probably never know. I felt it was a huge inconvenience for me to do laundry as I could not do the whole process myself. And I could not expect that the people who I needed to help me would be available when I wanted them. And I could not be sure that even if the people were available that all the required facilities would be available. It was maddening. I developed a laundry psychosis. I wished I didn’t have to do laundry. Ever.

My solution to this issue was to do my laundry as infrequently as possible. I usually did one gigantic load of everything I owned every 10-14 days. Surely they could not begrudge me one load of laundry in that time frame? I don’t know.

I didn’t enjoy doing laundry in Georgia. Far too emotionally fraught it was.

China is much better. Independence in doing laundry, as in other things, is very important. Materially the situation has not changed. I have a washing machine and I air dry my clothes. But everything is on my terms. Laundry: as often as I need it and whenever I want to do it. If I spill something on my clothes—no cause for concern! I can pop it in the wash as soon as I get home. I can do laundry at a time of day that is convenient to my work schedule, not just when I can count of the aligning of the multitude of factors that are out of my control. No one is pounding up the stairs 2 second after the cycle finished, telling me that I need to come immediately to get my clothes. Nor am I sitting around waiting for the perfect moment to ask if I can use the washing machine.

For those living in an apartment building, the balcony becomes the center of all laundry operations. The washing machine is usually located here. For drying, there are a number of convenient devices that make the most of the available space. Installed on the balcony ceiling is a drying rack, which requires a little pronged pole to lift your clothes on hangers up to it. It’s fun. Just don’t drop your wet clothes on the dirty, dusty balcony floor. I also have a clothesline which I use for heavy items like jeans and towels. A portable drying rack is used for shirts and other small items. Widely popular for socks and underwear is a little double hoop with dangling clothespins that can be hung on the clothesline or from the upper rack. It’s very space efficient.

So on my little balcony I have enough places to hang a fair amount of laundry. The only challenge is drying our dismayingly white sheets. This requires a complex operation involving a lot of hangers, clothespins and most of the upper drying rack. It also obscures my view completely until they are dry. But it gets the job done. And I feel the usual feelings of domestic tranquility as I bring in my laundry to fold it and put it neatly away.

It’s a real improvement for me here. This thought crossed my mind last weekend as I was putting a new load in and taking down a load that had dried. I have not changed my mind about Georgia. I still love it and am actively plotting my return. However, it was very, very complicated living in a host family, in a village, and working at a school where you cannot truly communicate with people, where no one speaks your language. The effort required for laundry is perhaps representative of so many of my struggles there. The longer I’ve been in China, the more I’ve been amazed at what I survived in Georgia. China has been a cake walk in comparison.

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.

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.

Communication, Family, Language, Village Life

Present Reality

My time in Georgia has entered a strange in-between stage. I’m finding it difficult to describe. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that I simply live here now. The daily routines of my host family are now my routines as well.

But there are days when I feel a complete stranger. When I feel I will never be reconciled to the isolation I experience here. Is that the right word? Isolation? I don’t want to overstate my case. Is it isolation or just loneliness? My Microsoft Word thesaurus tells me they are synonyms, which makes sense. However, there are those slight differences in meaning I instinctively feel. For me, isolation is physical; loneliness is an emotion. It’s possible to be isolated, but not lonely. And it’s equally possible to be lonely, but not isolated. Lonely in a crowd, yes?

I am not a Georgian and never will be. My Georgian is passable for daily necessities. I have “communication strategies” that involve a great deal of hand gestures, facial expressions, and intonation. My Georgian grammar is almost non-existent. I can communicate what I need to communicate and a little beyond, but not much. I can brokenly report amusing and/or frustrating incidents at school, but I cannot understand stories being told around the dinner table or in the teachers’ room. Usually I can pick up a bit, but only enough to give me a vague idea of what’s going on. Supras, when everyone is cheerfully toasting and talking, are a special sort of agony. I can maintain my party manners for an hour or two, but by the second hour it’s all a façade. All I want to do is get the hell outta there.

In such a setting when a joke is told, someone’s eyes will usually flash up to meet mine, looking for that sense of shared camaraderie. But as soon as their eyes meet mine they seem to recall that I don’t speak Georgian, eyes then flick awkwardly down and away. I’ve learned to keep a polite smile lightly on my face because it’s especially jarring for them when they are looking for that shared laughter and instead see a blank and/or unhappy look on my face. Then I start getting “What’s wrong?” questions. (Nothing’s wrong, other than the fact that I am linguistically locked-out from fully participating in the festivities)

This situation repeats itself frequently. Sometimes I don’t even get the eye flickers. Sometimes I just sit there like a statue, feeling like I don’t exist.

I understand. Really, I do. It’s hard to speak to someone who doesn’t fully understand your language. It’s aggravating, I know. And Americans are some of the worst in their attitudes towards immigrants. All those “lazy” ethnics “refusing” to learn English. At least I don’t get sort of reaction here.

But there is certainly the expectation that I learn Georgian. One certain uncle in my host family feels I have not made as much progress as I should have. No comment. And in my village, where only the English teacher and two students can communicate to any degree, it’s a little silly to expect them all to accommodate me by learning English. So much easier for me to learn Georgian! Never mind the fact that my sole purpose here is to teach English.

I have tried to learn Georgian and have been successful to a reasonable extent. But even if I had been burning the midnight oil, I’m not convinced it would have resolved the underlying issue. Being a non-native speaker is really a bitch.

So there are days when all is well with my Georgian world. I am at peace. Life is good. I am happy. Then it will be brought to my attention again, my inability to communicate or understand. And I feel it again. That familiar sense of isolation. Like a little smack that always stings. Sometimes loneliness follows, but not always. Irritation or irrational anger is a more likely response. Yeah, that’ll show those Georgians. Get mad at them. Uh-huh, Amy. Good one.

Frustrating? Hell yes. I feel that Calvin’s father (of Calvin & Hobbes fame) would tell me that it “builds character”. While my previous experiences with Spanish, the DR, and working with Spanish speakers at the plant had already made me very sympathetic towards language learners, my time here has turned that into an outpouring of empathy for them: immigrants, exchange students, even the oh-so-despised tourists. Actually, no. Scratch the tourists from the sympathy list. They’re only in it for a few weeks and then they’re back home.

On occasion I am genuinely lonely, spending time on Facebook, looking for friends to chat with, checking for emails, etc. But more often than not I am just keenly aware of my isolation. Just me and my English speaking self. In a village of monoglot Georgians.

Family, Social Customs, Village Life

Women: 1; Men: 364

March 8th was International Women’s Day. Did you know?

I only became aware of IWD two years ago when I was working in Human Resources. It was part of my job to arrange displays in the hallway of things like Veteran’s Day, Hispanic Heritage month, Black History month, etc. We bought a poster in March for International Women’s Day. I’d never heard of it before. I wasn’t sure whether I should be pleased or insulted. At least we get one day, I guess.

International Women’s Day is celebrated in Georgia. A good thing. Really. The place of women in Georgia is strange for me. Gender roles are very traditional here. The whole check-the-sheets-on-the-wedding-night bit. Women are traditional and both some of the men and women are very proud of it. I attended a supra where there was someone who was able to translate the toasts for me. The toast to women curled my hair. Well, curled it a bit more. Not everyone here is eager for “liberation”. In fact liberation, especially of the sexual kind, is bound to be repressed.

School was actually cancelled on Women’s Day. A real holiday. I was impressed. There was a small concert at school the day before. The children recited long poems and/or speeches about women. A few girls performed traditional dances. I understood like 5% of course. I suspect that the speeches and poems affirmed, rather than challenged, the traditional roles of women in Georgia. But if nothing else, women were given a little recognition for a day. It’s something.

And how do Georgian women celebrate this most auspicious of days? With a supra of course! Possibly even a women’s only supra, such as the one I attended with my host mother on the eve of International Women’s Day.  

Now a women’s only supra indicates one thing for sure: plenty of drinking. In my experience, Georgian women do not drink any significant amount in the presence of men. That wedding supra I went to? I had maybe 2 glasses of wine and stopped lest I garner myself the label of “foreigner lush”. I’ve learned, however, that when Georgian ladies are alone the alcohol flows much more freely. Much. So I was not surprised that drinking played a central role of our Women’s Day supra. Drinking and toasting, followed by dancing and loud singing of traditional songs.

The ladies were adamant that there be no witnesses to their fun. Faces kept appearing in the windows all night, small faces that were shrieked away when they were noticed. Mama wants to let it all go, but privately, amongst close friends and neighbors. Not that Georgian children are innocents when it comes to drinking and its effects. Their papas are likely under the influence on a fairly regular basis.

Another quirk was how militant the ladies were about their drinking. If they are going to drink, everyone is going to drink. I’m telling you; women here have to do everything together. Lots of checking on the level of each other’s glasses. Loud demands for bolomde, if anything was remaining. The ladies down the table had their limonate bottle confiscated because the tamada was sure they were drinking that and not wine. I myself was not exempt from having bolomde called on me, though I was usually game for it.

I have no idea how late the drinking and carrying on continued. By 1 AM I was falling asleep in my seat. I attempted to make a break for it, but was caught and forced to dance to 2 more songs. Then I literally RAN out the door before anyone could stop me. Unfortunately the hostess still followed me, got down on her knee, and begged me to stay 5 more minutes. I knew if I went back in there, it would be another hour at least. So I stayed firm, thanked her profusely and walked off into the dark, snowy night. For their sakes, I hope the ladies partied it up all night.

Educational System, Family, Republic of Georgia, Village Life, Weather

Snow Day

It snowed like crazy yesterday. The result being that we woke up to about 4 feet of snow. Pretty fantastic for this California girl. Even babua grudgingly admitted that it was “pretty big snow”. Not sure I want to witness “really big snow”.

The fallout of this was that school was cancelled for the day. I was totally fine with that when I peeked out the gate. I live right next to the school and even for me it would be a knee/thigh deep trip. And there are teachers and students who live at least 30 minutes from the school. Nope, not gonna happen.

So we hung out in the kitchen. I went on a foray into the village to get cigarettes for babua Vakho. We built a tremendous snow bebia, complete with hat and scarf. Snowmen are called “tovli babua” in Georgian, “snow grandfather” but ours was definitely female. That is probably the first real snowman-building experience of my life. Good times.

Not sure what the rest of the day holds. Power was off all last night and this morning, then come on and went off again within a relatively short period of time. It’s a little after 3, so I am getting a little rumbly-in-the-tumbly.

Heard a horrible rumor that school being cancelled means that we have to make it up on Saturday?!? Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t they have provision for “acts of God” in the school schedule? Even the Collective Bargaining Agreement at my old job had that!

It all makes me think of Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes fame. How ecstatic he would’ve been to have a snow day. In his honor, I’ll try to do the day right.

Family, Republic of Georgia, Village Life, Weather

Georgian Winter: First Thoughts

Snow. Lots of snow. Still a novelty for me. But not so cute when it cuts out the power. And I don’t like the accompanying ice. The stairs to my room are now a hazard that I approach with extreme caution. Already slid down several once. Don’t tell my host family. They’d lock me up downstairs.

I do like taking snow walks. And I like putting my snow gear to the test. Happy to report that my snow boots and pants, and all the warm underlayers, are proving their worth.

Overall doing okay with the temperature. Generally hovers around freezing, a little warmer during the day. With my hot water bottles, I do okay at night. By day, I linger downstairs more and more. Right now I am stubbornly hanging out in my room, under all the covers, with hat, scarf, and fleece on. (I’m not going to go into how many layers of clothing I have on. Guess). The privacy of my room is something I am not eager to forfeit. Even for a stove. Upstairs is quiet; downstairs can be a madhouse. The nameless beast lurks there. You know the one I am talking about.

Today the winter looks bearable. Yesterday I was not so sure. What’s the difference? The power is back on today. It was back on this afternoon after having been off for about 36 hours or so. Since Monday night. It’s Wednesday afternoon. No fun. We’ll just have to see how much the winter weather messes with the power supply.