China, Food, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs, Travel

Gone Over to the Dark Side

An unexpected casualty of several years abroad is that my taste in coffee is getting worse. First step is to admit I have a problem, right? So. Deep breath. Hi, my name is Amy. I like instant coffee.

How did this nasty addiction develop? It started in Georgia. Though real coffee beans were available, my host family was firmly entrenched in the instant coffee camp. They drank a Brazilian instant coffee, called Café Pele, that once I got used to it I grew to like, even love.

I left Georgia with a gigantic Yuban-style can of Café Pele. At home in California, I explored the delights of how convenient making iced coffee is with instant coffee. I found that the French Roast that had been my mainstay through grad school suddenly tasted like mud. I tried to readjust, but it just wasn’t working. In desperation, I bought a bottle of Nescafe. I know, right? Nescafe. Seriously?! But it tasted good to me. Another step down a slippery slope. By the time I left America again I was on a half brewed, half instant coffee diet, having somewhat readjusted to “real” coffee.

I came to China last year with the end of my Café Pele. When it was finished, I went out and bought a ceramic one-cup coffee filter and some ground coffee. But it just wasn’t working. Maybe if I had a real coffee pot it would work. But by the time the water had finished dripping through my coffee was usually cold. And if I wanted a second cup? Do it all over again. And me and Nescafe were just getting along so…so well! I liked the taste. I liked the convenience. It was great. My ground coffee sat in the cupboard, sad and neglected.

This past summer was a repeat of the year before. I struggled to find a drip coffee that tasted good to me. I, coffee purist, even experimented with flavored coffee. Maybe a nice mild vanilla-flavored coffee would taste good? No, though it smelled good, it tasted like chemicals. I bought a small jar of Nescafe. Used it up. Bought a larger jar. Oh dear. This was serious.

On vacation with the family, my brother gasped in mock horror at the bottle of Nescafe I’d brought along. “You’ve gone to the dark side, eh?” I couldn’t really deny it. Maybe I was a double agent. Behind enemy lines, exploring the dark side of instant coffee culture. Or maybe I was actually a triple agent, professing reluctant use of instant coffee due to present circumstances when, in truth, my allegiance had changed. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe a little.

Some communal coffee drinking with my brother weaned me off a 100% instant diet. Coffee drinking is very social, you know. As with alcohol, it’s much nicer to drink coffee with other people. No one likes to drink alone.

In defense of instant coffee, you do realize that it’s popular the world over? I have no reason to be ashamed of instant coffee drinking. America is one of the few places that scorns instant coffee for mysterious reasons. Starbucks had released its Via instant coffee in Europe long before it attempted to market it in the States. Did you know? We are the lone holdouts. American instant coffee drinkers must sip in secret lest their preferences open them up to the ridicule of their friends and neighbors. Having their instant coffee shipped in plain unmarked boxes. It’s tough. Maybe someday there will be acceptance of instant coffee drinking in America.

I don’t think I’ll be giving up instant coffee anytime soon.

You’ll still love me, right?

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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.

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Food, Republic of Georgia, Travel, Weather

Escape to Tbilisi

I escaped to Tbilisi on Thursday. It was against the wishes of my host mother, without the knowledge or permission of my school, and slightly against my own better judgment. But it was necessary.

I spent the previous four days being a sick puppy in one of two places. Either a) fetal position in my bed; or b) curled up in an armchair downstairs. It was cold. I was sick. The power kept going out. The wind was forever whistling through the window frames and rustling the curtains. Deprived even of daytime soap operas, I tended to stare straight ahead and pray for the return of electricity.

I went to the hospital finally on Monday. Enough was enough. The cold from hell progressed into week 4 and picked up some new symptoms: fever and a throat so sore every swallow, every sip, every bite of food required fingernail indentations in my hands. So it was time.

My hospital visit featured blood analysis, chest x-rays, and finally an IV. I’ve never had an IV before. I knew nothing of what was going on. I trailed in my host mother’s wake and was just grateful for whatever they could do for me. I don’t even know if the IV was antibiotics or just fluids. I figured either way it was a good thing. No complaints from me. Post-IV we picked up a bag of things from the pharmacy and headed back to the village. Tuesday and Wednesday saw gradual improvement as my drugs took effect.

For weeks, I’d been planning to go to Tbilisi with friends for the coming weekend. I was depressed all week just thinking about having to stay home. Wednesday I was still feverish and my throat was still tender. It seemed a terrible idea to take a trip when I was still recovering. What would my mother say?

But it would be WARM in Tbilisi, there would be electricity, I could cook good food (protein!). I marshaled these arguments for my phone call to my mom. But in a surprising turn of events, my mother was totally in agreement with my pro-Tbilisi position. Go, go, she said. I was shocked, but grateful. This gave me the additional ammo I needed to thwart my host mother and just go without making a big deal of it with my school.

So Thursday I packed my bag with extra socks, lots of hooded sweatshirts, my hot-water bottle (just in case), all my drugs and made my way to town. I felt a little guilty as I left, but knew that it was for my physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Plus my mom had my back.

I was still a little feverish Thursday and Friday. But my throat feels almost 100%. I had scrambled eggs for breakfast yesterday, pancakes for breakfast today, and I WILL have scrambled eggs for breakfast tomorrow. On the basis of that alone, coming to Tbilisi was absolutely the right decision.

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Food, Republic of Georgia

Food Update

As suspected, winter is turning out not to be the best time food-wise.

When I arrived in September, the garden out back was still producing loads of tomatoes, onions, and fresh greens. In October and November, grapes, apples, and quince were plentiful. December saw the advent of mandarin season.

February, however, is desolate as far as fruits and vegetables. Mandarins are still available, but they are shrunken and squishy. Some fruits and veggies can be bought in the market, but seemingly at a premium as they are never served at home.

In the absence of fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates and starches now account for 99.9% of all food consumed in my house. Oh, make that 90%. Let us not forget the fat.

Fat. Yes, fat. The pig which used to wander the side of the house was slaughtered sometime in January. While I missed out on all the good parts it might have offered, his presence remains in the form of slabs and slabs of frozen fat. Fat, which is making its way into almost every dish served, sometimes as the central ingredient.

I have had eggs fried up with chucks of fat. Soups with fat. There was a stir-fry that was tomato-based with chopped onions, greens, and what I thought were large chunks of potato. Oops, no, fat again. Biting into a big chunk of fat was a low point of that day. And there is always raw fat available. You can pop a nice chunk into your mouth anytime you want. Mmmm. Just what I need.

So it’s bread for breakfast with the possibility of jam or butter. Tea. Lunch is generally some soupy, tomato-y, fatty affair. Dinner is bread or leftovers from lunch. I usually get a cup of black coffee and cookie at school. That’s all folks. Oh, I have some chocolate in my closet for emergencies. And emergencies are seeming more frequent of late.

But the good news is I am much for resigned to it all now. Not sure anything they serve could surprise me at this point. And I am now generally allowed to serve myself. A tremendous victory. So at least I can control my serving of the daily delights.

I cannot say that I look forward to meals a great deal. Unless it happens to be lobio. But on the whole I think it’s a healthy change. Eat to live, yes?

A trip to Tbilisi is planned for next weekend though and top on my list of things to do is cook some familiar food at our hostel. I’m thinking scrambled onion cheese eggs, pasta with meat sauce, and maybe a delectable sandwich or two. Can’t wait.

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Communication, Language, Republic of Georgia, Social Customs

Kai Gogo

I’ve been meaning to write on this for a long time. I thought about writing about the snow. Been there. Or whining about my cold some more. Done that. No, this time I want to talk about something that I’ve found very interesting in Georgia: kai gogo-dom.

Sometime in December I took a dislike to my lackluster blog name and wrote a short entry about it. I asked people to give me ideas for a better blog name. I got some very thoughtful and entertaining suggestions:

–          From Georgia with Love (James Bond tribute)

–          Greetings from the OTHER Georgia

–          An American in Georgia

–          Too Close to Russia for Comfort (a particular favorite)

–          A Year in the Life of an Idiotic Egomaniac (read the post if you’re wondering why)

–          Amy’s Georgian Rants (play on Georgian chants)

All very good suggestions that cheered me immensely. However none quite seemed to fit the ticket. Then I had a flash of inspiration: I should call my blog “kai gogo”! An expression that seemed to encapsulate my experiences to a certain extent. But then I hesitated. Why? It’s complicated.

Kai gogo means “good girl”. Kai is a shortened version of “kargi” which is “good” and gogo is Georgian for girl. “Kai gogo” has been ringing in my ears since I arrived in the village. It’s a compliment, really. I should be proud to be a “good girl”. Certainly in this situation, as a guest teacher, I wouldn’t want to be labeled a “bad girl”.

But there’s just something about it that I don’t like.

Perhaps it has to do with being called a girl. The use of “girl” can be used in a very condescending way in English. A belittling fashion. As in “don’t be such a girl” or “you hit  like a girl”. I’ve sworn off expressions that make negative statements about girls and women.

In Georgian I believe the expression should be taken at face value. There is nothing tricky about it. They are saying that I am a good girl. But maybe I don’t want to be a good girl. Maybe I want to be a good . . . woman?

Being called a woman at least would at least seem to grant higher status. Recognition that I am not a child or an adolescent. But here we could be getting into Georgian culture. When do you become a woman-grown in Georgia? When you marry? When you menstruate? When you have six children? I don’t know.

Aside from the “girl” issue, there remains the “good” part. What does it mean to be “good”? In Georgia, I am a “kai gogo” because I am generally cheerful and kind, I show up to work on time and prepared, I do my best for my students, I attend funerals, weddings, and birthday parties, etc. etc. etc. Nothing wrong with any of that. Those things say to me that I am professional in my work, respectful to my community, and neither a burden nor a bane to those around me. All “good” things.

In English the word “good” seems to me a more loaded term, especially coupled with “girl”. “Good girl” can mean a naïve, doe-eyed innocent. “Good” can be someone who in the eyes of the world is “inexperienced,” “sheltered” or, God-forbid, “chaste”. While Eliza Doolittle bawled “I’m a good girl I am” as she was being hauled off to a bath, in modern day being “good” in that way seems much less desirable that it should be.

So I find kai gogo-dom complicated. I always smile whenever it is again bestowed upon me, but I am forever trying to pinpoint what it is exactly that bothers me about it. My relationship with “kai gogo” is such that I could not in good conscience make it my blog title. Something I realized as soon as I gave it a minute of thought.

So I’m still in need a better blog name. I had a second flash of genius when I was home for Christmas. But I didn’t write it down and now I can’t remember it.

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Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Cold, Round Two

Ughhhhhh.

That was how I felt all day yesterday and the feeling continued through today. My cold, which I smugly thought I had put down with massive vitamin C intake, among other things, took a turn for the worse. From a nasty cough it morphed into a something approaching a sinus infection/strep throat.  Or at least that’s what it feels like.

It crept on rather gradually. So I was dismayed last night when I could suddenly hardly swallow. I thought going to bed was the best thing to do, but it ended up being a horrible sleepless night. What my sinuses were producing in the morning decided me. No school. I texted my English teacher and went downstairs to tell my host family.

I felt sort of bad about not going to school. I could probably power through it. That’s what I would usually do. In the last few years with work and grad school, I’ve attended both in far from peak condition. I just felt exhausted and the idea of standing in front of my classes did nothing to energize me. But today, I decided not to push it. I would stay home, sleep, drink fluids, and take vitamin C. Georgia is not the place to be sick for any extended period of time.

I went back to bed and slept/rested for the morning. Grandma Neli, who’d gone to town, got back around 1 and wanted me to come down to eat. Jame, jame. I told her I’d come down in awhile. Not hungry. I went back to contemplating my ceiling.

Sometime after 2 I crawled downstairs and sat on the outside sofa. It was sunny. Amazing. It’s been snowing or overcast for quite a few days. I’d made a brief appearance in the kitchen before coming out, so Neli knew I was up. I was scolded for sitting outside and told to come eat. I wasn’t ravenous, but I felt I should probably eat something. Apparently there was still borscht left. Not real Russian borscht, Georgian cabbage soup, which they call by the same name. Ugh. But better than cheese soup. Cheese soup the smell of which makes my stomach turn over at the slightest whiff. So I ate my soup and ever-present bread and drank my tea. Then I went upstairs to sleep some more.

I feel like I usually have a cold through most of the winter, even in the States. Kleenex are my constant companions. Georgia does not seem to have changed this. Other than that the severity of the cold has increased unpleasantly. Sure hoping that this one tapers off soon.

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