Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nothing Much of Interest

There are few traditions like the Georgian road trip. We traveled down the numerous four lane freeways, stopping off for fast food along the way and dining and dashing at Dennys. There's just nothing like it.

Sometimes you just feel like gathering your friends together and Paige's younger brother Brady and go find a church roof to sit on to watch the sunset.

Segnagi is a lovely town in the west and I would recommend visiting it. For some incomprehensible reason there's a Mexican restaurant there. Actually quite tasty.

Against all logic Paige continues to date me.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


As most of you know Jen McFann is my sworn enemy. Her endless comments about my baldness and old age play like a broken record. My glasses are constantly smudged by her grimy thumbs and she constantly mentions that she’s a published author and I’m a hack. Her Georgian language skills are very impressive and she insists on mocking mine and how I get by with my pigeon Georgian and ridiculous hand gestures. I loathe you Jen McFann.

Jen’s birthday is approaching and with it she grows closer to becoming old herself. I welcome this development. I look forward to toasting her at her birthday, and I will do so with beer and I will hold it in my left hand, as this is how you toast your enemies in Georgia.

And even though I hope she gets leprosy and ends up living as a reindeer herder in the wastes of Siberia or pulling a rickshaw for pennies in Rangoon, I do have one positive thing to say about her: Her blog is really funny and you should check it out. There’s a link to it (Jen in Georgia) on my blog. I encourage you to read it and then I encourage you to leave nasty comments on it.

Someday, when Jen is appointed Secretary of State, I will go to the press with shameful stories about her. I will ruin her political career if it’s the last thing I do. That punishment is for cooking the worst fried rice I’ve ever tasted and for constantly talking about Star Trek, X-Files and the Hanson brothers. Always going on about the stupid Hanson brothers. But before I ruin her I suggest you read her blog and laugh at the humor in it just as I do.

Go to hell Jen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

English Language Competition

The run up to the language competition was one of dread and foreboding. My students generally avoided writing the essays that would make them eligible to participate. Some grades didn’t even field a single student. And the general mood of many of my best students was one of lethargy and reluctance. However, at the last moment a few more students came forward and 18 eventually attended the competition.
Last year my school had a couple 4th place finishes. But this year Dimi kicked ass. Of the 28 prizes available Dimi won six and there were even three more schools competing this year. I was incredibly proud of them, especially of Tamuna, the 11th grade winner who came out of nowhere to win 1st place.

The students were interviewed by a pair of American volunteers, from the 20 who showed up to judge the competition. They also wrote creative essays and the judges combined the scores to determine the winners. All students received certificates of participation and the winners received books as prizes. In all, it was a great success and I’ll try to remember the days like this one when I’m back in America.

Of course after anything significant we have to have a supra and so we did. I played the role of Tamada and led the table of Georgian teachers and American volunteers in the toasting. We toasted to each other, to Georgia and American friendship, to our students and counterparts and numerous other toasts. Our toasts were long and heartfelt, our glasses refilled often, and the supra was a mixture of Georgian and American traditions.

When it was over we all went back to Jeff’s house, except those of us who were dragged into a private room in the restaurant to drink vodka shots with some local men. Normally this offer is refused, but since Jeff’s host father was one of the men we gave in.

Soon we were back at Jeff’s and turned his tiny apartment into a dance party and the revelry continued until late into the night. For the 2nd year in a row the English Competition was the party of the year and definitely the place to be. If anyone from back home could have seen the day’s events you’d all be shocked by how Georgian we’ve all become.

So thanks to all the teachers and volunteers who made this day possible. And thanks especially to the students who participated with enthusiasm and skill and made us feel like our efforts are having some impact. It was a great day and one we will cherish for years.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Here in Georgia it’s like someone just hit a switch and suddenly it’s spring. One week there’s snow everywhere and the next the apple trees are budding, daffodils are blooming, the sun is shining, and Peace Corps volunteers have taken a break from beating their heads against the wall.

My host mother told me that March is like a woman. One day it is bright and cheerful and the next day it stormy and the next it’s crying. Certainly the weather will be a mixed bag, but I think the dreary days of winter are finally behind us.

But SPRING is here! And not a moment too soon. Maybe now the numbness in my toes will disappear. The sun’s rays have improved the mood of volunteers, nurtured the plants, brought light to the world, provided solar energy and much needed Vitamin D, but they have been powerless against the majority of my students and their loathing for homework and class work.

I turned 32 last week, an age that awards me even more insults and teasing from the younger volunteers. The Georgian tradition of treating your elders with courtesy and reverence has failed to rub off on my fellow volunteers apparently. I celebrated my advanced age by playing grownup. Paige and I cooked meals at a friend’s apartment in Kutaisi, including a delicious BBQ chicken pizza. We drank coffee in the morning, sipped our wine and dreamed of the day we’d be at Target purchasing kitchenware. This may not sound exciting to all of you back home, but an apartment with a hot shower, a sorbet maker and an oven that works is pretty cool to us.

Paige made the mistake of putting my birthday candles in an apple crumble fresh out of the oven and it melted the candles. The bits of wax did little to take away from the flavor and I’ve forgiven her.

As any of you who have spoken to me in recent months are well aware of, my mood has been at an all-time low. School has been less than inspiring of late. There seems to be little overall change on the horizon, but I was awarded one reassuring moment when one of my favorite students won 2nd place for our region in a nationwide essay contest. Little Ann Gorgodze’s essay on why girls are better than boys won over the judges. Her arguments were sound and persuasive apparently, much to the detriment of my gender. Ann was one of the few students from my school who participated in the contest.

I literally couldn’t wait to get to school to tell her the news. She’ll get a certificate for a prize, but I also gave her a leather journal and a small poster. I don’t know if you can read the writing on the white board behind her, but it says, “Ann Gorgodze is cool!!!”

While so many of my students have literally stopped doing any work, Ann and a handful of students in her class have continued to buck the trend and it’s their enthusiasm that keeps me returning to school day after day. Today they even sang me a belated happy birthday and I’m a sucker for such gestures.

This Saturday some of my students will be participating in a regional language competition that was created by a fellow volunteer and myself. We have 19 volunteers coming to serve as judges, which is about how many students who will be participating from my school. Last year my school did not place very high, but I’m hoping this is the year we clean up. I’m not saying we’re going to. I’m just hoping.

I’ve been having my students write essays in preparation. One 7th grader wrote a wonderful essay today. The topic was “Invite a famous person to visit your village.” Young Giorgi chose to invite Brittney Spears, despite my explanation that she’s totally crazy and would make a poor houseguest. In his letter, Giorgi offered to show her his school and village and lend her his rubber boots so she could feed the cows and slop the pigs. He offered to grill some ribs for her as a symbol of his love. I was oddly proud.

I’ve dropped a few of the classes in which no one seems to want to participate. I’ve focused my energies on the classes in which the students are eager or willing to participate and this has kept walking to school in the morning from being soul destroying.

Frequent reassessments as to how to direct one’s efforts are a constant for us volunteers. Recently I was hanging out with my friend Jeff, a volunteer in the neighboring village, and we came across some files from our first year here and practically split our guts laughing at our naiveté. There were careful outlines for a youth center, after school sports programs, various summer camps, an NGO, and a local wine festival to attract tourists. What enthusiasm! What idealism! What... the hell were we thinking? So we’ve lowered the bar a bit and are using new barometers to measure success. This should curb our disappointment.

So time seems to be moving along a little faster here (127 days to go hopefully). There has been a lull in the supras in my village, which is a welcome reprieve. Of course, just as I write this there’s a lively group of men outside my gate clamoring for my host father and I to come with them so I might have spoken too soon... never mind. I’m in the clear. My host father told him it was not the night for revelry.

In local news, the chickens of the neighborhood have been decimated by area hawks. Proper disposal of the carcasses turns out to be stuffing them in the wood stove. This comes as quite a surprise when you go to stoke the fire and discover a half charred chicken staring back at you.

But despite the death of local chickens, things here are much improved. I spent much of the day chopping firewood, an activity that gives me a sense of accomplishment. Not sure about the timing of chopping firewood now that the weather’s turned warm, but what the heck.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and hope on the horizon, and winter has turned to spring, and various other metaphors that symbolize a much-improved existence. My parents and brother will likely be visiting soon and it will be fun to show them Georgia, introduce them to my friends, fellow teachers, students and host family, as well as show them what I’ve been doing for the past 20 months.

The Legend of Omari

Omari gives a toast while drinking wine from a bowl.

The legend of my host father Omari reaches far and wide. He’s not only known throughout my small village and neighboring towns, he’s also got a reputation in the neighboring city of Kutaisi. Suspicious people stop me and ask me where I’m from, what I’m doing here and where I live. I fumble through my well-rehearsed answers and they eye me warily, but once I mention who my host father is the suspicion wanes, they take a step back and sheer awe envelops my inquisitors. There eyes light up. “Omari? Ahh! Omari svams bevri!” And it’s true. My host father can drink a lot. According to local legend, 16 liters in a single supra.

My host father is the go to guy for wine and everything associated with it. He makes the good stuff. He’s the first choice to be tamada (toast master) at a supra. People have given him furniture out of gratitude for his ability to lead a supra. And he can out drink anyone. ANYONE. And the amazing thing about his ability to drink is that he does it with such ease. While many area men spend their free time practicing the art of drinking daily, Omari doesn’t. At home he simply works in the yard, eats his meals and watches television. He gets up at 8:00 and goes to work. He doesn’t party alone or at home. He has what one might call “restraint.” However, when a supra calls, and it calls often in my village, Omari steps up, throws down and leaves the locals in his wake. It’s truly a sight to behold.

My host mother teases him when he returns from a supra, or three. “You keep drinking wine like you do and you’re going to die!” Omari stands up straight, stretches his arms out and explains that he’s too strong for death.

Death does not want to knock on Omari’s door. Omari will whip its ass. Or challenge it to a drinking contest. And if Death accepted then perhaps there would be no more death and we could all live forever. My money’s on Omari.

Many a supra has been had where the participants have fallen asleep at the table, slunk off to bed or otherwise cried uncle. And all the while Omari drinks from the big cup and maintains the appearance of total sobriety. At most supras everyone is yelling and talking while the tamada tries to lead the toasts. But when Omari demands silence everyone at the tables grow quiet—except for his wife, who is just as large a personality and the tamada for the women’s supras. Whatever power Omari possesses to silence a crowd, I wish I had it for class.

Omari gives a taste of wine to his grandson at his baptism supra.

My first day in my village Omari and I walked down the road to a neighbor’s house. Omari does not talk very much, unless he’s leading a supra, so we walked in silence. My road is dusty and potholed and appears to be something out of an old western. And as Omari walked in slow measured steps the western motif grew. Walking down the road with him is like walking beside a gunslinger at high noon. Children who are yelling and playing grow silent. Dogs ambling up the road dart into the bushes. Cows stop their grazing. Neighbors bow in reverence. Omari commands respect.

In Georgia, everybody has a “patroni,” somebody who is responsible for your wellbeing and safety. It can be any male relative and having a good patroni means people are less likely to mess with you. My patroni is Omari and the world seems a lot safer knowing that this man has my back. I wish I could take him back to America with me. I still have some grudges from high school that I would like his assistance in resolving.

Recently, my friend Cuttino was at a restaurant in Kutaisi with his fiancé (a Peace Corps volunteer from Jordan) and a dozen other volunteers. It was the first time anyone had met Cuttino’s fiancé and they were holding a supra in her honor. I couldn’t come because I was attending other supras with Omari (he’s a hard guy to say “no” to). However, as we drove through Kutaisi I asked if we could stop at the restaurant briefly to make a quick toast and say hello. Omari approved so we stopped at the restaurant and Omari and I went in.

Omari is a giant. He’s well over 6 feet tall, which is huge for Georgians. But it’s not just his height, it’s his whole presence. The guy seems ten feet tall. So Omari and I walked into the room. A former restaurant owner himself, Omari is all class and he immediately went up to the waiter and explained that these Americans were his guests and he’d better take good care of them and not rip them off. Then he ordered two pitchers of wine, mocked the waiter for the high price and returned to the table to toast the soon to be bride and groom. He also told the other girls at the table not to worry, they were all very pretty and would be married soon. Toast completed, he tilted his glass back, drank it to the bottom, told them goodnight and gave me the nod that meant, “We’re out of here.” We didn’t have a lot of time. Omari was needed in a neighboring town to lead another supra. Weeks afterwards, volunteers who were at the restaurant were still talking about Omari. “That’s your host dad? Man that guy is so cool!”

There are those people in your life who will always stand out and take up a bigger piece of your memories simply because their presence is so large, their personalities so huge. Omari will always be one of those people for me. Not only is the guy as hell, but he’s also a responsible and caring man, a good husband, host father, father and grandfather. Dude is larger than life and he’s my patroni.

Omari drinks a horn of wine.