Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Romance of Paris...

Since Peace Corps volunteers are among the most shameless gossipers around (myself included) it should not have come as a surprise that other people speak about my girlfriend Paige and I. However, we were a little caught off guard to hear many volunteers were speculating that we were planning to get engaged in Paris. Last year, couples that went on vacation often came back engaged so we presume that’s how the rumor got started.

However, Paige and I would like everyone to know that we are definitely not getting engaged in Paris. Although, come to think of it, if the “two months salary” rule actually applies to engagement rings, one could save a fortune since our piddly little Peace Corps stipend adds up to very little. I could just spring for a lovely chrome washer at the local hardware store, glue a glass bead to it and call it a day. So it got me thinking, what if I did propose to Paige in Paris? I wonder how that would go? I’ll set the scene for the marriage proposal in Paris that we aren’t going to have:

After a riverboat ride along the Seine we pop into a quaint restaurant with candles and white table clothes and lots of romantic ambiance. Unfortunately, I accidentally order Paige the liver pate and braised calf's head instead of the salad with blue cheese crumbles and roast chicken because I can’t read the menu and am too ashamed to admit that I can’t remember hardly anything from my one year of college French. I order another bottle of wine despite Paige not wanting it so as to better put her in the mood to say, “Yes.” To further build the romantic mood I purchase a red rose from the obnoxious salesmen who always wander into Parisian restaurants frequented by tourists and give it to Paige as the entire restaurant lets out a collective groan of disgust.

Upon leaving, we purchase matching red berets and make our way to the Eiffel Tower. Paige reluctantly puts hers on and mutters something insulting under her breath. The moon is rising and a gentle snow is falling. Paige starts to shiver and I offer her my coat—ever the gentleman. I’ve been anticipating this moment, and have thus been wearing two coats the whole time. Paige seems to think this hollows the gesture a bit. I disagree. An argument ensues. I buy her chocolates as an apology.

Upon reaching the top of the Eiffel Tower we make our way to the guardrail and look out on the most romantic city in the world (besides Las Vegas). I ask the French security guard by the railing to take our picture and he reluctantly agrees. Just before he snaps it I get down on one knee and pull out a ring of very dubious design. The Frenchman with my camera involuntarily vomits in disgust since this is the 10,000th time he’s seen this corny routine. Paige rejects me outright for such a contrived, cliché and untimely proposal. We return to Georgia and everyone mocks me.

Actually, Paige and I were a little shocked to hear the rumor of our impending engagement. So we’re trying to spread a counter-rumor that we’re actually going to Paris with the intent to break up. I’ve listed below various scenarios of our potential break up in Paris:

1) The first morning in Paris, Paige goes to the corner bakery to buy me an almond croissant. A young circus performer with gentle features and a full head of hair saddles up beside her and invites her to sit with him. Paige has never been to France and thus didn’t know just how seductive the French accent is. She falls for him in minutes and they rush off to the circus together. Meanwhile, I sit in our apartment for a week waiting for her to return, wondering all the while if it wasn’t a little rude of me to send her out to grab my breakfast while I sat on the couch watching soccer highlights.

2) Fed by rumors I’ve heard since early childhood of “a place in France where naked ladies dance and a hole in the wall where the men can see it all,” I set out early one morning in hopes of finding it, in spite of some ominous and not so veiled threats from Paige. My search comes up empty and I return to the apartment at nightfall utterly dejected. Paige is gone. There’s a note though, but quite frankly her language and tone were abusive and crude and I refuse to repeat any of it.

3) After mistakenly thinking our waiter was mocking me at the bistro where we’re dining, I develop some unexpected and fairly stubborn patriotism and insist on ordering “freedom fries” instead of “pommes frites.” The waiter and some neighboring tables take offense, an argument breaks out, things are said that can’t be taken back, World Wars are referenced (my bad), and in the melee that ensues I’m severely beaten by a dozen Frenchmen armed with pepper grinders. Horribly embarrassed, Paige walks out of my life for good and into the arms of the man who runs the late-night falafel stand around the corner.

4) Suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by homesickness for Georgia, Paige shuns the many culinary delights of Paris and insists on eating all her meals at the one Georgian restaurant in Paris. Utterly and completely disgusted, I promptly dump her and go out for a crepe.

5) After an afternoon spent wandering through the dazzling former palace of a French king, I suddenly decide I want a life of couture, elegance, chandeliers, delicate appetizers, wine tasting, and especially velvet pants and those frilly shirts with the ruffled collars and wide cuffs. Basically I become quite a dandy and take to sauntering the streets while quoting extensively from Voltaire during casual conversations. Paige dumps me.

6) While sitting down to a three-course meal in a local bistro Paige falls in love with the lobster bisque, stuffed quail and crème brulee. Recognizing her heart no longer belongs to me, I accept my fate and wander off in search of a heavy rock to tie to my leg to so I can drown myself in the river. Goodbye cruel world.

7) While watching a mime perform outside the modern art museum I become suddenly inspired. Years of bouncing from one job to another in search of my life’s calling finally comes to an end. The vision of spending the rest of my life trapped in an invisible box I can’t escape from while wearing face paint and ridiculous suspenders inspires such immense joy in me I could burst. I attempt to express this to Paige, but not in words. Oh, no. Instead I do it silently, using exaggerated facial expressions and ridiculous body movements. Paige accepts my decision, but out of deep respect for my family she goes to a local gun shop (do they have those in Paris?) purchases a handgun and promptly shoots me dead. The jury rules it justifiable homicide and my parents send her a thank you card.

8) While we attend a Christmas Eve mass at Notre Dame I receive a divine calling and decide to become a Catholic priest. And apparently the church has some fairly strict rules about dating women, thus dooming our relationship.

9) We discover the apartment we’re staying at is near the graveyard where former Doors front man Jim Morrison is buried. It turns out Paige is a huge Jim Morrison fan and insists on holding a séance on his gravestone along with a bunch of degenerate burnouts and losers who keep a vigil there at all times. After witnessing 5 minutes of this disgusting scene I flee.

10) During our layover in Munich on our way to Paris I feel the land of my Nickum ancestors calling me. I insist we skip our flight to Paris to better explore the culinary wonders of Germany instead. Paige boards the flight to Paris and never speaks to me again. And I soon discover there are no more Nickums in Germany and that I’m not even very German at all. Still, I guess it beats discovering the culinary wonders of my Irish ancestors.

11) Being from Texas, Paige insists on putting BBQ sauce and ketchup on her fois gras and practically everything else she eats. Disgusted by her Texan ways I dump her, and then wander off into the rain wearing my North Face jacket in search of the nearest Starbucks while listening to Nirvana on my Ipod and thinking afterwards maybe I’ll join an anti-war protest.

12) Unbeknownst to me, I have a certain je ne se quois that French fashion models can’t resist. The constant attention I receive by these beauties drives Paige into a jealous rage that can’t be calmed. I try to reassure her, but my kind words are lost on her. She leaves me in a huff and I’m forced to into the arms of these “conventionally beautiful” women that I don’t really desire. Loneliness drives men to desperate measures.

13) Suddenly confronted by a mugger on the metro, I ditch Paige and make a hasty retreat to the back of the subway car so fast it would make a French soldier proud. Paige beats the mugger bloody and dumps me for being a coward. A coward? “When in Rome,” I always say. Or France.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Warmth and Caring

Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of life. Sometimes we don’t reflect enough on the sunny side of things, like when one’s day is uplifted by the boy waiting at the gate of his house for the American volunteer to pass by so he can give him a freshly picked pear. Sometimes it’s the sun rising above the neighboring hills, casting the clouds in peculiar wonder. Or maybe the sounds of children laughing... err... and sometimes it’s the care package that arrives full of pre-made Indian food, CDs, Gobstoppers, Dots, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups and a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.

Care packages are awesome, as I think I might have mentioned a few times on this blog. And Luther Hubbard’s care package hit the mark in a way I can’t begin to explain. It was happiness in a box. And I wasn’t totally selfish with it. I passed out some peanut butter cups to the other volunteers, shared my beef jerky, and even parted with a few precious packets of Indian food. And despite Paige eating all the macaroni and cheese she received in the mail after promising to share it with me, I still gave her the box of instant red beans and rice (although she forgot it at the Peace Corps office).

When I first flew to Georgia I purchased two small bottles of Jack Daniels at the duty free store at the airport. My plan was to give one bottle to my training host family and then one to my permanent host family. I followed through on the first part, but after I noticed they just put it in a display case and never drank it I decided not to risk wasting the next bottle on my permanent host family. Instead I shared it with an American volunteer I knew would appreciate it—Heidi.

So it was with trepidation that I poured my current host father a glass of the Maker’s Mark handcrafted bourbon I received in my care package. It’s not that he doesn’t know alcohol or can’t appreciate it—that could NOT be further from the truth. It’s just that he hasn’t reacted enthusiastically to imported alcohol in the past. I brought a bottle of wine back from Greece thinking it would be a kind gesture to share it with him, as he is a man with an appreciation for wine. He took it as an insult. “Ryan, why did you buy this wine? How much did this cost? We have a storeroom full of wine. Why did you waste the money?” But he took a sip, grunted, glared at me and left the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how he would respond to whisky. He could hate it, or he could really like it, and if the latter happened, I know he could polish a fifth of 45 proof booze in the time it takes me to brush my teeth and he wouldn’t show so much as a buzz. He’s like a Superman with no kryptonite.

So I gave him a glass and explained that, silly Americans that we are, we generally sip our bourbon instead of pounding it one big gulp. He nodded suspiciously and drank half the glass in a gulp. He eyed it with a cold, judgmental stare and then returned to watching TV. “Do you like it?” I asked him. “Uhmmrrrrghhh,” he replied. Granted a long description of his impressions would be beyond my pitiful Georgian, but a simple “yes” or “no” is something I could decipher. My guess is “no,” but I suppose it’s better for me that he doesn’t care for it. And that’s mainly because it’s really cold here and I have no heat in my room. And I’ve discovered a shot of bourbon in one’s post dinner coffee does an incredible job of warming oneself. I mean it really does the trick. It’s positively lovely. Wait... that sounds kind of bad. Mom, if you’re reading this, please know I do recall how Grandpa got sort of carried away with the bourbon/coffee combo for a good number of years there and wandered off into something a medical professional might have called “alcoholism.” Don’t be startled. I haven’t made it a morning drink.

So for the coming weeks I’ll be enjoying a little bourbon in my coffee, Indian curry on my piroshkies, and listening to the latest MOP album. Thanks Luther (and everyone else in Seattle who contributed to the care package). And when the contents of it are all gone, I’ll be on my way to Paris for Christmas break and that’s the best care package I can even begin to imagine.

In addition to bourbon, I have another aid in keeping me warm here in Georgia, and that’s my Filson jacket. It’s wool. It was expensive, but it was well worth the cash. I sent them a letter of thanks and I included it below.

Dear Filson,

I’m writing to express my appreciation for the wool jacket I purchased in May of 2006. I’m currently a Peace Corps volunteer working as a schoolteacher in the Republic of Georgia. It’s a little known former Soviet republic that rarely appears in the news. Scenically located in the shadow of the mighty Caucus Mountains, winter here is bitter cold and there is simply no escape from its miserable bite. I mean it is really cold.

The infrastructure here is dilapidated and poverty is a constant problem, especially in villages like mine. This means there is no heat or insulation in the school where I work. I teach class in freezing weather and the concrete walls and single pane windows do little to keep the cold out. This jacket has been my best friend.

In winter, the family I live with heats only one room via a small wood stove. It’s also the room with the television and they pass their time watching Latin American soap operas dubbed in Georgian. And since I can’t stand soap operas, warmth comes at a price I’m deeply reluctant to pay. Your jacket allows me to sit outside under a balcony and read my history books while watching the snow come down without discomfort. The neighbors come over and shout at me to go inside before I catch my death, but I’m plenty warm in my Filson jacket. I would like to note that many locals also believe sitting on cold concrete causes infertility, luckily my jacket comes down far enough that when I sit I'm sitting on wool and my potential offspring are protected.

When I trudge through snow or rain to my school 20 minutes from my house, my jacket keeps me warm and dry, my notebooks secure in the rear map pouch (unfortunately the pouch also protects some of the learning materials we are forced to use, some of which should really be burned in a ritual ceremony to the patron saint of education, whoever that might be.

This coat is also a Godsend when I cross the yard to the outhouse, where on occasion I've squatted over a hole for hours as I suffered the horrid effects of the stomach parasites that riddled my digestive system, but all the while my Filson coat keeps me from shivering with aching cold. If only you would expand your efforts to cover medication to combat Giardia.

I’ll spare you ALL the details of the horror of diarrhea, but I sincerely wish I had purchased those oil skin pants because the ricochet off the outhouse bowl tends to splatter the calves and Lord knows it would be much easier to wash off the oil skin pants than my khakis. I’m sorry for the ugly picture, but it’s my reality.

Also, when I exit the cold-water shower (hose draped over rafter of bathroom ceiling) on a sub-freezing morning, my jacket immediately allows me to regain a good portion of my body temperature.

This coat was by far the best purchase I made before leaving for the Republic of Georgia. My other clothes have become dingy and torn, a result of harsh conditions and from hand washing them in cold water with “Barf” brand detergent. My jeans have blown out at the knees, the cuffs on all my pant legs are shredded, my sweaters and socks are riddled with holes, my shoes have quite simply given up, and even my Carhardt work pants have let me down. And not only is the blue wool of this jacket fairly fashionable, it also hides the wine stains that come from people slopping it on me at ritual feasts.

If I could do over all my pre-Peace Corps shopping I would do it exclusively at Filson. I passed on many of your products because of the high prices, but I have repaid those costs in suffering and the actually money spent replacing my destroyed clothes with inferior items from the local bazaar. Do you make underwear? I don’t recall seeing those in your shop, but could really use some boxer shorts.

In today’s throw-away-culture, quality and durability are rare features in anything we buy. I’m glad there are still companies like yours that continue to produce products that are built to last. And I can’t even begin to express my thanks for keeping me warm. That may sound kind of trivial, but day after day with no escape from the chill it really means something significant. It’s so damn cold here. At times it feels like a camping trip in the snow that will never end. They don’t sell hot chocolate in stores in my village and I don’t want to substitute the vodka they sell in its place.

So keep up the good work and thanks again. You guys truly rock.


Ryan Nickum

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Making scalloped potatoes.
After many weeks confined to our sites, as we waited for the political situation here to calm down, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I were finally freed from captivity and traveled to a hotel complex on a lake near Tbilisi. The purpose was our safety and security conference, but I’d be lying if I said my primary focus was our Thanksgiving dinner.

The whole thing was a lot of fun. It gave us a chance to catch up with all our friends, as well as get to know the new group of volunteers a little better. We were able to use the hotel’s kitchen to cook Thanksgiving dinner in accordance with our American customs and traditions. That meant the turkeys were baked instead of boiled, the potatoes were garlic mashed and scalloped instead of fried, and the pumpkin wasn’t served boiled and salted.

The hotel staff looked on with a mixture of curiosity and horror as we cooked, scorched pans, started grease fires, and slopped food on the floor. However, I suspect most of the judgment was reserved for the many vegetarian dishes being made. Normally, vegetarians are guaranteed to ruin Thanksgiving with their tofurkeys and boiled sprouts and brown rice. Vegetarianism is less a product of principles and stems more from the inability to appreciate texture and flavor. However, our vegetarians managed to make tasty side dishes instead of bland crap so I should probably take back all the nasty things I said about them.

The lake by our hotel.
After many hours of work we sat down to a huge feast, complete with a turkey on every table. We ate and we ate and we ate and we were very thankful. Our director even kept the kitchen open late so we could come back at midnight for turkey sandwiches.

In addition to the traditional food, but we even pulled together a traditional touch football game. Peace Corps volunteers are just as athletic as you can probably imagine, and even washed up and out of shape ex-jocks like myself failed to prove any athletic prowess. However, the game came as a huge relief after almost a year of no physical activity whatsoever and despite all the dropped passes and bumbling it was competitive and fun. The rutted field was challenging, but one could screen a defensive back off the pine trees that blocked much of the field. I even managed to get a mild black eye when I crashed into another guy while tripping over someone. So I added that to a big scratch on my head incurred when I tripped over a chair when I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, as well as some weird lump on my hand that probably will have to be surgically removed in the coming months. I’m starting to look sort of scary

Nicholas tries to act indifferent to Lyssa and Paige dumping an entire container of cloves into the pumpkin pie filling.

When my girlfriend Paige wandered over with friends to watch, the other guys I was playing with even let me make an interception to impress her. It did not. But while I relived my high school glory, Paige chose to pass on hers and refused to offer up any cheerleading cheers despite everyone egging her on.

Thanksgiving provided the perfect opportunity to unveil the 2007 Dimi vintage and in a taste test against bottled Georgian and Spanish wine I felt strongly that mine was superior. So either my taste buds are deteriorating rapidly or else they’re influenced by my pride as an amateur vintner. Nobody else agreed that my wine was the best, but everyone thought it tasted pretty good.

Tilling the Land

Stacking corn stalks for winter cow feed.

Some days school can be discouraging. There’s only so many times you can chastise an entire class for cheating or encourage them to do their homework and participate in class. Sometimes it just feels like there are no tangible results for all your work. So when you walk home and wonder, “What did I accomplish today?” you feel just a touch of despair and helplessness. And that’s why it’s a welcome change when there’s manual labor at home. It takes a lot of begging to be allowed to help since even though I’ve lived her for over a year I’m still considered a guest in many ways.

Today I used a two-man saw to turn logs into firewood. A heavy snow had brought down numerous branches in a nearby forest so my host father and a friend had brought a bunch back. It felt good to break a sweat on a cold winter day. My host mother came home while we were taking a break and she good-heartedly chastised her husband for being tired. “Oh, you say you’re a strong man because you can drink more wine than anyone, but you saw wood for ten minutes and you’re exhausted. You are not a strong man. You’re a woman.” He countered back by threatening to plant an axe in her skull. This banter continued for the next two hours while we worked. I should mention that they are both really funny and this is just sort of how they flirt.

Me and Omari shelling beans by the wood stove

A neighbor came over and saw us working and commented, “You are giving your American a lesson in Georgian village work. Very good.” And I suppose it was. And maybe I should be more sympathetic to my students, because even after a few hours of work I was still screwing up the timing of the two-man saw and bending the stupid thing at horrible angles that made my host father cringe.

These lessons in Georgian village life make up much of my favorite parts of living here. Making wine, chopping wood, stacking corn stocks, shelling beans, all are welcome breaks from the general monotony. My host family is really resourceful and they make brooms from shrubs tied around a long stick. Showers are made from bits of hose tied up to hang from the rafters. Wild herbs are gathered and dried and high grain alcohol is cooked up in a still from the dregs of our wine making. And my host family is continually perplexed by my interest in this. The marvel at my electronic gadgets and I at their ability to can food and pluck a chicken.

Paige getting a tutorial in churchilla making from my host mother Lela.


Five inches of snow recently dropped on beautiful downtown Dimi.

Walking to school along my rutted, puddle filled road requires a careful eye to keep from stepping in puddles and cow pies. It gets a lot harder when everything is covered in snow. It's like a minefield.

The snow gave the Stalin statue in my village a lovely makeover and he took on the look of a Polynesian warrior. I got a dirty look from a local guy while I took the picture.