Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mikheil Saakashvili

Last Thursday Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili openned a hospital in Tsnori, a town on the other side of Sighnaghi. A number of the older students, most of the teachers, and I attended the ceremony. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, after all I've never seen a president, but I didn't expect everything to unfold quite the way it did.
First of all, we rode there in style. I wasn't expecting an old-school bus. I also wasn't expecting the students to sing songs the entire ride there, but they did, even the older boys, especially the older boys. Now when I think of hospitals, I imagine some sort of grounds, but the whole idea of beautifying the outside of one's home or place of business hasn't really caught on here. Granted, it hadn't caught on in Egypt either, so I wasn't that surprised. Anyway, the brand new hospital was situated in a field of dust, and it was a windy day. It was a good thing I was wearing brown pants because my host mother's black pants turned gray in patches. The president arrived via helicopter and stirred up the dust even more, which was a shame because I had actually taken a shower that morning. (More about the showering situation later.) Mikheil gave a little speech, went inside the hospital, and then sped off.
The teachers kept asking me if I liked their president, but it's really hard to say when I don't know that much about him. All I could say was that it was nice of him to open a hospital. When I was in Tbilisi, I had the opportunity to spend one evening with some young Georgians, and a few of them really disliked him. I know that he's pro-United States, but that doesn't make him a good guy. Honestly, anything that I tell you about Mikheil is going to come from Wikipedia, so if you're interested, go check out his page. According to this article, the support at these events is all staged.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Georgian Hospitality

Today, I attempted to take a walk, and I definitely experienced the Georgian hospitality that I had read so much about. Last week I had Khatuna, one of my co-teachers, write down the words "I am going for a walk" in Georgian so that I could inform my family if my host sister wasn't around. There's always Google Translate too. Anyway, my sister was at a dance lesson--more on Georgian dances later--and the sun was shining, so I let them know that I was going and left before they had a chance to protest or insist that someone join me.
Churchkhela and tatara

I walked up the hill past some cows and men, and I saw one of my students, Eka, in her yard. We did the "hi, hello, how are you" routine, and I continued on my way. A couple houses up, the gym teacher at the school greeted me and beckoned me inside. I didn't really want to, but I followed her out of politeness. Little did I know that she'd roll out the red carpet. She treated me to American hot chocolate, dried grapes still on the vine, churchkhela, tatara, and peach preserves. Also, it turns out that she's the mother of one of my other students, Mary. Tatara is grape juice boiled down and thickened with flour. It looks a bit like caramel, but it's more gelatinous and less sticky. Churchkhela is made with tatara. Basically, a string of walnuts is dipped into the tatara, like dipping a candle, until it's the right thickness, and then it's dried. Voilà, churchkhela.

Visting with the gym teacher, who is also named Khatuna, was pleasant and confusing at the same time. I was so happy to get some fruit in my system, but the whole point of walking was to burn some calories. Also, Khatuna doesn't speak English, her son only speaks a little English, and my Georgian really isn't that good yet, so there was a lot of smiling and nodding. When I got up to leave, she packed a doggie bag for me so that I could bring churchkhela and tatara home to my host family, but that wasn't quite the end of our visit. She called me over into her neighbor's yard because she was baking bread, and she sent me away with some fresh tonis puri.

Tone oven
Speaking of puri, I watched my host mother and grandfather make some yesterday. Megi, my host mother, had a massive bowl filled with flour and salt in the kitchen yesterday morning. She added some water, mixed it up, and kneaded the dough. She let it sit for a few hours, and then we went outside to the tone, a circular oven. She rolled the dough into separate balls, and Grandpa stretched the dough and stuck it to the inside of the oven to cook. It was definitely an interesting process to watch. Maybe in the future they'll let me help although I'm rather abysmal at cooking.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Georgian Language

Georgian, or kartuli, is spoken by about 4 million people. As a point of reference, there are about 4.5 million people in the Boston metropolitan area, but in terms of size, Georgia is comparable to South Carolina. Georgian is one of those languages that developed in relative isolation, like Basque, so it isn't an Indo-European language, the most widely spoken language family. You can read more about it on the links, but basically, Georgian is in no way related to anything that we know.

Mkhedruli Script
So far, I've found the language more challenging to pronounce than Arabic because it has many non-aspirated sounds, but I'm getting better. My sister likes asking me to say the word frog, which is baqkhaqkhi. Trust me, it's impossible, but it gives everyone a good laugh. I'm only just beginning to conjugate verbs, but it reminds me of Arabic in the sense that you add prefixes and sometimes suffixes to verbs.

I used this video at the end to learn to write the Georgian alphabet. It's pretty handy. The Georgian language has its own alphabet, the Mkhedruli script, which was developed between the 11th and 13th centuries. There were two earlier alphabets, but they're obsolete. I originally thought that I would be learning Cyrillic, but that didn't turn out to be the case. The modern alphabet has 33 letters, and it's phonetic, which makes my life a lot easier. There are also no capital or lowercase letters, so that's another plus. During orientation week, anyone who knew some of the alphabet was placed into the advanced Georgian class. By the end of the class, I felt pretty comfortable with the alphabet, but I don't think that we learned any more vocabulary than the other classes. We just covered the basics: Hello, How are you?, My name is Caitlin, Where is the bathroom?, etc. I have a long way to go before I'm anywhere near having a real conversation with my host mother, Bebia, and Babua.

Friday, March 9, 2012


I found out my placement the afternoon before I was supposed to go home with my host family. I am in the village of Nukriani. It's near the town of Sighnaghi in the Kakheti region. I received the following information about my family and their home: "Two-story house with indoor Western-style toilet and bathroom. Family members are grandparents, their daughter, and two grandchildren: a 15-year-old girl and a 20-year-old boy. Internet not available." TLG posted maps of each region, and I was happy that a) I found my village and b) it was near a town. I was somewhat apprehensive that I would have a similarly-aged host brother because TLG spent a decent amount of time warning women about sexual harassment and assault.

The next afternoon, all of the volunteers packed up and congregated in the hotel lobby. The members of our host families had a quick orientation, and then they joined us. The volunteers lined up on one side of the lobby; and the Georgians on the other. Tamara, our orientation leader, called out our names, and we met in the middle. I had had butterflies in my stomach all morning, and I was relieved when I finally met my host mother. We took a taxi to a marshrutka, or mini-bus, station, and while we waited for it to leave, I showed her a picture of my family to break the ice. We then used a Georgian phrasebook and lots of pointing at questions and words to communicate. She asked me all of the typical questions: How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you a Christian? Are you a Catholic? Do you have siblings? I found out that she is 39 years old and teaches justice/law/public education at the school. I also discovered that her son is a student in Tbilisi, so he doesn't live at home.

The marshrutka ride was two hours, if that, and the ride was very pleasant. I didn't want to advertise that I was a foreigner, so I didn't take pictures of the mountains, but believe me, they're breath-taking. When I arrived at the house, I met Bebia, grandmother, and Babua, grandfather. My room is actually bigger than the one I have in the States. It has a large bed, a small table, four chairs, a bureau, a wardrobe, a mirror, two windows, and a little stove. I was excited to see that my family has a modern washing machine, but I was a little stressed when I discovered that the Western toilet doesn't have a seat or toilet paper and is only for peeing. Number one and number two mean the same thing in Georgian as they do in English. There is a Turkish toilet in a little outhouse with toilet paper.

My first evening with my host family was stressful. No one spoke any English, and I was counting on being able to communicate with the son, who was in Tbilisi, and the daughter, who was absent. The family was welcoming. They made sure that I had enough to eat and that I was warm enough, but on the inside, I was freaking out. In all honesty, I cried the first night and wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.

The next morning was a little better because I triumphed over the Turkish toilet. My biggest fear was peeing on my pants or shoes, and that didn't happen. Huzzah! Also, I finally met my host sister in the afternoon. English had never sounded sweeter, and I knew that everything was going to be okay when she put on an Eric Clapton song. We spent the whole day listening to music, watching traditional Georgian dances, and just getting to know each other. Yesterday was actually International Women's Day, so we didn't have school.

Today was even better. The school is only five minutes away, and I walked there with my host mother and my sister. The school has three floors and 205 students. I met all of the teachers, and they were very welcoming. I spent most of my time with the English teacher, but in the middle of classes Babua took me, my host mother, my sister, and three of her friends to Sighnaghi for a Magti modem. Now that I have the Internet and a few people to speak English with on a daily basis, life is good.

I'll post more about my home, toilet, village, and school later, but this was the fastest way to update everyone.