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.

Village Life

Make Way for Ducklings!

A few weeks ago some tiny bundles of yellow fluff were introduced into our household. They lived in a box under the kitchen stove when they were not being scooped up for cuddling. The cutest little yellow and black ducklings, complete with little duck feet and bills. The quiet quacking sounds coming from the kitchen were a constant source of pleasure.

Had I written this post when our ducklings originally arrived, it would have been nothing but awws and oohs. However, the realities of life have been strongly present among my ducklings. Of the original seven, only four are still with us. And I fear that that four will soon become three.

The first two hatchlings did not survive the first few days. Then there were five and all seemed well. The little quintet was moved out to the porch where they nervously explored their new environment and tried to stay out of the way of the gawky adolescent chickens. Little thugs, I swear. And then one day the smallest duckling was just . . . gone. Grandma Neli was asked for his whereabouts and she just shrugged her shoulders with the shrug of an experienced, toughened farmer. Just didn’t make it. End of story. Tamta and I consoled each other. The little duckling had been our favorite.

And then to the dwindling numbers of our duckling family a new tragedy arrived. One of the ducklings has become lame. Accident or injury, I don’t know, but now this little guy is attempting to make his way around the yard on a single leg with a great deal of lurching and flapping as his nest mates unconcernedly waddle ahead. Though I might hope that this little guy could make it, game leg and all, I think the reality is that he will eventually fall prey to another animal or perhaps even a quick, potentially merciful end via Grandma Neli.

This is when my American anthropomorphologyizing gets me in trouble.

It’s been raining all morning. Very duck appropriate weather. From my window I can see the little foursome wandering the yard, drinking rainwater from puddles and throwing back their heads in that peculiar ducky way. The little fourth guy is hanging in there. Looks like he is getting better at getting around on just the one leg.

Soooo ducklings. Yeah. I will just have to cherish my remaining ducklings and cheer the fact that even some of them will make it to maturity. And maybe my fourth duckling’s leg will heal. It’s possible, right? I can’t help but hope.

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, 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.