29 November 2010

According to culture shock scholars, we are now in a period of "mental isolation", or "hostility". Either way you slice it, we are frustrated. We like the country and a lot of things about it, but find ourselves complaining or frustrated a little too often for any one's good. Compound this with many weeks of failed attempts to do research trips at schools in the regions, the necessary introspection of graduate applications, planning for an uncertain future, and overall lack of employment...we're generally a mess. We are trying to hold things together, start projects, plan things, go to banya, and find the little bits of comfort that can improve a bad day. Our moods swing from ok, enjoying the company of friends, to intense anger at another car that is seemingly trying to make us part of the pavement. It's probably a good thing that our internet is spotty, otherwise we might hole up in the apartment and only come out to buy food and TP.

Sometimes good comes from being critical--Nic had a meeting with the director of the University where we spend most of our days in the library, and made outlined problems with the school and the behavior of students. All of his comments were contstructive, and the director was very receptive. Slowly, things are changing in terms of copier usage and noise levels. It's not rapid change, but it's a start. More often than now, however, our comments are not well received. We are presenting our research this Wednesday at a Works in Progress session, and are worried that what we have to say about the education sector will be difficult to digest or accept, and we anticipate some complaints from our audience. 

According to some of the graphs and literature, the way out of this isolation is humor, so here goes:  
Medical Advice in Georgia. 

Recently talking with someone here doing dissertation research, I found out more about medical advice. He had to complete a physical here in Tbilisi and went to the top clinic that we are recommended to use. At the end, the doctor told him that he was overweight, and that he should do 2 things:
1. Drink fewer than 28 drinks per week
2. Under no circumstances eat Georgian food

This is funny for two reasons. According to Wikipedia, in the US and Canada, 14 units is the recommended maximum. Sure, it's higher in the UK at 21 units of alcohol, but that's half a pint! And if weight is really the issue, he should probably have fewer than this! Maybe 28 is the smallest number Georgian doctors reasonably think they can ask men to limit themselves to.

Second, how is this guy going to avoid Georgian food as he is living here for the next 3 years?! Is he going to subsist on the expensive German imported cookies from the grocery store? How could you survive in this country without Georgian food? Why is 28 drinks the maximum they thought would be reasonable to ask, but not eating Georgian food seems equally reasonable? I laughed for quite a while about this one while we were eating a large Georgian meal that had been set before us, but without any alcohol.

My next humorous account is from last semester. One of my female students came into class complaining of leg/ankle problems. She was a particularly stubborn and inquisitive student, who would often argue with me about English grammar, unwilling to back down. She explained that she had been standing too long at church, a possible cause of injury, as they stand for the entire 2-3 hour service, if they choose to attend the whole thing. It was the next part that confused me: she explained that this particular injury occurred because she was wearing flat shoes, and as a result, her doctor advised her to stop wearing flat shoes (and only wear heels).
Now, I know that it is common for people to have foot or leg pain when they wear different types of shoes, if you usually wear heels and suddenly switch to flats, it will hurt for a while. However, my student claimed that flat shoes are bad for your feet/legs and that every woman should wear heels! I am highly opposed to this, and began offering a number of alternative explanations, but she would hear none of them. Instead, she demonstrated (as her doctor had done) with her wrist the apparent strain on the ankle from a flat shoe versus a heel. 
Your foot in heels
Your foot in flat shoes. "Doesn't this look more painful for the leg?"
The only problem is, the wrist is nothing like the ankle and the hand is nothing like the foot! We argued like this for a while until I finally gave up so that we could get to the topics we needed to cover in class that day. I have since been appalled to think that doctors are actually telling all of their female clients to only wear heels, and I have become even more convinced that I will wear primarily flat shoes for the rest of my life. If I had a nickel (or 5 tetri) for all of the bunions I saw on the metro this summer (when it was sandal season) I wouldn't have to worry about finding work in this country.
A diagram my singing coach always showed us about wearing heels.
It will be good to get home, and we are certainly looking forward to it. 

22 November 2010


I have spent the past year riding buses in Tbilisi. At first I was excited by the system, which is fairly extensive, and seemed convenient at the time. I liked not having to drive and being able to read more. Now that I have ridden an average of 5 buses per day (on working days), I am exhausted and sick of buses. Although I can can get almost anywhere in the city, it is not uncommon for me to wedge myself precariously between the automatic door and a handrail.

The worst was a daily bus I took 30 minutes outside the city to reach some students for extended lessons this past summer. At 930, the temperature was already 100 F outside, and even hotter in the bus. Due to a shortages of buses on this highly demanded route, every bus was always packed, with barely any standing room. The problem was that this bus drove up a huge hill at high speeds and small stopping distances. All of the standing passengers were knocked around, trying to cling to the little bit of handrail they could reach. The bus was primarily used by nannies and other domestic workers headed to the wealthy families' summer homes. Heading back to Tbilisi in the evening was much the same.

But now...the bus routes have been changed. While some in the center of the city remained similar, all routes have been shortened to allow for the replacement of big breaking-down buses with smaller, newer buses primarily provided by the Japanese government. There are pros and cons:

-Better running buses
-Easier for ticket-checkers to demand everyone has a ticket at the main stop between our place and the center.

That's it. Now for Cons:
-No one knows the bus routes (including me! This is the one and only thing I was an expert in in Tbilisi! People used to seek out my knowledge because I knew so many bus routes. Now I feel useless.)
-It is nearly impossible for us to go into the center by bus without buying two tickets
-Buses are more crowded with only one major transfer spot and smaller vehicles
-More people asking the driver at each stop where the bus goes, thereby slowing down the route
-Disproportionately affects the people who live in the southern part of the city and must transfer 
-More disgruntled passengers (including me!)

So, we tried to switch to taking Mashrutki, which are sometimes faster, but they were already crowded before. Now they are super-crowded and we always have to stand and hold onto whatever we can find in this 18 passenger van, rocketing down the street.

When we can, we walk into the center and take a bus 3 stops to get to the library where we spend most days working. Even that seems like a waste some days, so perhaps we'll walk more. While that is good for us exercise-wise, with fast approaching graduate school deadlines, online-time is of the essence.

Starting to get REALLY excited about coming home on January 5th...

01 September 2010

Climbing Kazbegi

It's been a while...
The summer has been rather irregular for us. We had a great deal of fun being visited by family and showing them around the country, even though that primarily consisted of taking them to 20-30 churches. It became clear, relatively quickly, that most of the sites to see in Georgia are mountains which are difficult to reach for a day trip, or churches. So, apologies to our families if they were "churched out" by the time they left.

But, we had a great time hosting them! The rest of the summer consisted of Sora teaching English to kids at the American Academy in Tbilisi, and several small trips, including Nic going to DC for the Fulbright orientation, a trip to Istanbul to visit Sora's former research advisor, and several trips to the mountains, two to Kazbegi.

A few weeks ago, we went to Kazbegi to train. Nic had been planning to try to climb the mountain, and had spent the past year trying to recruit a team to climb with him. Unfortunately, a team never worked out, and the training trip was partially to plan a route, partially to see if Sora was up to the formidable challenge.

We had been on a short camping trip, past the church (but not to the glacier) earlier in the summer, and the trail is quite...steep. There is a 4-wheel-drive road from the town (seen in the picture) to the church (the two dots on the hill on the left). This portion is not too hard to walk, and is something of a pilgrimage for many visitors to the area. However, as soon as you continue past the church, things become steep, fast. I enjoy hiking, but this is a little too strenuous for me to enjoy. So, I was worried about running out of energy, or getting too sore to make it to the summit.

On our training trip two weeks ago, we went higher, to the meteo station which serves as a final camp for those wanting to climb Kazbegi. It's pretty depressing, with litter everywhere and a bit pile of trash behind one of the largest boulders in the camp site. When you arrive, the "manager" invites you in for tea, cookies, and will probably offer you vodka or moonshine, as well. It's ok, it's just that we're over 10,000 feet, no need to worry about alcohol consumption. We don't really know what the 5 lari/ night to put up our tent, goes, but we pay it. We went a little higher, up on the glacier, while training, but knew there was another 6-10 hours to the summit. I was exhausted and a little discouraged at the difficulty. I didn't want to drag Nic down, as my stamina is nothing like his. He can hike forever, it seems, while I become slower and slower as the day continues.

We decided to go for it.

Last Wednesday, we woke early to take the mashrutka to the town below Kazbegi, Stepantsminda. We reached the town around noon, bought sausages and bread, and started our ascent. The first night, we stayed halfway between meteo and the town, at a large creek and watched a spectacular full moon rise over the mountains.

Thursday, we trekked up over moraine fields to meet the glacier, cross part of it, and go up to the meteo station. The picture above is taken at the meteo station, with Kazbegi behind us. The Friday we took a rest/acclamation day, as is customary, to get used to the altitude. We laid low, read books, and stretched our already sore bodies. There were several other groups there, Georgians, Ukrainians, and groups from Poland or the Czech Republic were most common. Some hire Georgian guides, but we were told it was not necessary.

At 2am, Saturday morning, we peeked out of our tent to check the weather--a clear night with an almost full moon, so we set out on the trail. It was cold, but the moon was bright and the mud was easy to walk on. Later in the day, it became much more of a hassle.

The sun rose as we reached the plateau of the glacier. A beautiful sight to behold as the stars dissipated and rows of mountain peaks became visible. We weren't tired yet, but knew there was a long way to go. Another group, 8 people including guides, was also making a summit attempt that day and we were able to follow their route when we were uncertain. From the point where the above picture was taken, it was straight up the mountain. With the sun up, and everything heating, it became more tiring to trudge straight up the slope in the snow. I tried to keep a steady pace, to take few breaks and keep momentum, but it became harder as we went higher and the air became thinner. I started to sing songs in my head to keep a rhythm to my movements, but the songs became slower and slower.

Finally, the summit was in sight again, but our time was running short. We had decided to be heading down by noon, as the snow would be softer and harder to manage. It was almost noon, and we had to get up this:
I was a little terrified at first, but quickly found that with crampons (mountain climbing super-cleats) and my mountaineering axe, it was very manageable. It almost felt safer than some other walking we had done earlier, with the ability to sink all that metal into the ice and move slowly up.

Just after noon, we reached the summit. Sadly, clouds had begun to move in, so we couldn't see the sprawling terrain you would expect from an altitude of 5,033 m/16,512 ft. In the above picture you can see, in the far distance, 3 peaks. The widest of these is Mt. Elbrus in Russia, the tallest peak in Europe. We were quite proud of our accomplishment, however, and celebrated for a couple minutes with toasts of water before we had to start our descent.

As the snow was hotter, our descent took a long time, and we became more and more exhausted. We finally arrived at the meteo camp around 5:45pm, which means our whole day consisted of around 15.5 hours of hiking. This is a little longer than normal, which can be attributed to my slow speeds, but the other group climbing did not go too much faster than us, which was a comfort to me. We were so sore that we took Sunday as another rest day, and finally came down to town Monday morning, and had to fight locals for our spot on the mashrutka home.

Looking at the route down from the Meteo station

Overall, it took approximately 33.5 hours of hiking to reach the summit and return to town, over six days. We're very proud, feeling accomplished, but sore from poorly fitting boots and heavier-than-usual packs. Yesterday we spent the whole day washing clothes, sleeping bags, everything. Today, things are finally returning to normal, and we have a lot to catch up on, but we feel grateful for our good fortune, and that everything went smoothly and safely.

Now it's time to jump head first into graduate applications. Maybe this recent accomplishment will help us with our endurance.


11 April 2010

Holy Week: Easter

As this is the last day of Easter, I should post this final part in the series about Easter Week. We did not attend a vigil mass on Easter Eve the way that many Georgians do. Devout Georgians go to church in the evening for a long vigil which includes a litany of the saints. Around 11 pm we could hear bells at the churches around us ringing intermittently for this litany. At midnight, we heard a barrage of bells from all of the nearby churches, and could see processions of people walking around the major churches. It was a beautiful sound, hearing all the different church bells and faint sounds of singing far away.

We managed to get to sleep, and on Sunday morning awoke to celebrate both Easter and Nic's birthday. We went to church to find dozens of bouquets of flowers and a huge crowd of celebrating people looking their Easter best. Above is a picture of the alter at St.s Peter and Paul church on Easter Sunday. We bought some of our own lilies as you can see at the top of the blog. It was rather confusing, however, as we tried to buy 3 lilies which were wrapped up, we were quoted 10 lari. We asked instead the price of an individual flower: 2 lari. Needless to say we did not buy the wrapped flowers, but carried two large, individual, unwrapped lilies home. While we were going to church, many Georgians were just coming home from church with their Easter new fire.
I asked this couple for their picture in the metro. They have fashioned these devices to protect the fire so they can get it home. I saw huge numbers of Georgians in the metro with these same plastic beerbottle or waterbottle protectors. Georgians will often stay at church all night for the Easter Vigil and come home after the sun has risen. When they get home, they usually sleep for several hours. As a result, there is not always a large meal on Easter. Often just the eggs colored on Friday and Paskha.

Georgians have a special cake they only make for Easter called Paskha (the Russian word for Easter). From what I can tell, it is heavy on the butter and eggs with raisins and dried fruit, and difficult to make. I am told that to make it properly takes 12 hours, so people rarely make it themselves—they buy it from a store or special bakery but then they complain that not all the ingredients are used. Some people even sell it on the street out of the back of their cars (like almost anything you can buy on the street: whole chickens, fruit, cheese. This is common). As you can see, the cakes are light colored and rather tall.
During Easter week, I tried both homemade and store bought Paskha, and could appreciate that the homemade was a little better. It is a sweet, spiced cake but with no overwhelming flavors.

I was also pleased with the eggs, and found that although color choices are limited in Georgia, there are ways to "spice up" and decorate the eggs with these plastic pictures. Below you can see two that our landlady gave us. In the one on the right, you can see cartoon animals bringing paskha to each other. The one on the left is in Russian with a church. I also heard a new story about the eggs, but only from one source. A student told me that eggs are also related to as story of Thomas, the disciple. According to her, he made a comment of non-belief in Jesus' resurrection, and said something like "I'll believe when these eggs I have turn red." And then they did. I'm still a little shaky on the details.
Before you eat the eggs, the tradition is for two people to crack them, by hitting them one on top of the other. The one which does not crack is supposed to have good luck for a year. Especially children love this tradition, and will take eggs to school and compete with one another. When one of my students was younger, he remembers competitions at school, and the year when he had the luckiest egg. Another year, a boy brought an egg which seemed immortal--it could never be cracked! Then the owner dropped it on the ground...and it had a distinctly wooden sound. What a cheater!

Nic wanted eggs, but not paskha for his birthday picnic. We specially ordered a chocolate bundt cake (which I thought we had a picture of but I cannot find), I made chicken salad, and we took some wine and fruit to the botanic gardens, which were particularly quiet. With a couple other guys, we celebrated Nic's birthday in a beautiful setting with tasty food and cake.
We rested on Monday, a much needed day off, but Georgians were out at the cemeteries visiting their relatives who have passed on. This is the most important Easter tradition, portrayed in this picture by the famous Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (you can see the little ghosts flying with the birds). It is essential to visit graves because it is believed that spirits of lost relatives return to their grave on Easter. If you don't come to visit them, they will feel sad and unloved, especially seeing every other grave visited by family. The tradition is to bring little paskha cakes, red eggs and a candle to the grave. Family often makes a toast with wine to the lost member, and drinks only half the glass of wine. The rest of the glass is poured on the grave in a cross-shape for the spirit to drink. I have heard that the foods brought to the cemeteries are not only an offering to the dead, but to the poor as well. Supposedly, hungry people are allowed to eat the food left on the graves--the most important thing is that the dead relative was visited and loved.


05 April 2010

Holy Week: Good Friday (or "Red" Friday)

This is a the second post in a multi-part series on Easter traditions in Georgia.

During lent, devout Georgians fast much more American Christians. They give up all meat, dairy and oil dishes, leaving only a few options of fish, vegetables and some bread/ bean dishes. It seems rather extreme but everywhere you go you can find “fasting” alternatives: cookies, ice cream, sour cream, mayonnaise and yes...donuts. I don't fully understand how that works, but one of my teenage students told me that some less devout women use fasting as an excuse for extreme dieting, but with so many alternatives, they often gain instead of lose weight. Some priests are more strict than others in consulting parishioners on Lenten rules. Some pregnant women are allowed to have dairy products everyday except Wednesday and Friday, and some people with medical conditions are given special exemptions. Unfortunately, many Georgians don't really like vegetables or fish, and end up eating a lot of lobiani, beans with dough wrapped around it, or just a pot of beans (lobio). Although I have noticed a lot of more sickness in public (common colds and flu) during lent, no one seems to be starving themselves to the point of danger.

I don't have much information on Holy Thursday, except that it is called "Big Thursday" and most Georgians go to church, but devout Georgians go to church every day of Holy week anyway. I have also been told about a non-Christian tradition on Holy Wednesday. Children and young adults run through and jump over a bonfire in order to make bad things (spirits, illness, bad luck?) go away. Today it is more of just a fun tradition for kids than anything else.
On Good Friday (which Georgians call "Red Friday", there is an early morning church service for Mary, Jesus' mother, and another service in the afternoon. In addition to the services, people dye eggs red near dusk to symbolize when Jesus' blood was spilt. The egg dye comes from a plant which has a rich red color in the branches.
Georgians buy these branches, boil them and mush them up and then let them sit for 12-24 hours before boiling the eggs with it. It produces either a rich red or purple color on the egg, and I am told that the egg tastes different...we shall see.

My neighbor was kind enough to let me dye eggs with her after my mass on Good Friday. She did all the hard work crushing and boiling the branches, but let me join in for the fun part.
Once the dye was ready, we carefully placed the uncooked eggs into the pot and boiled them for a while--until we thought the egg was cooked and we liked the color.
We were able to put them directly into cold water to facilitate peeling without losing the color. Really quite easy, and produced a beautiful result.
The service I attended at the catholic church was a little different this year--it was in Russian and Georgian, because they did not have enough people for an English service that day. It was difficult to follow with my limited knowledge in both languages, so I read English versions of prayers and readings during most of the service. At one of the shrines, they put up a beautiful skrim with flowers and a crown of thorns attached to the fabric.

More to come soon about Easter...Sora

02 April 2010

Holy Week: Palm Sunday

I was talking with one of my students the other day about Easter, and she made the comment that one thinks of some traditions as universal until you are confronted with someone who does something different. This is common knowledge, but sometimes we still forget it when it comes to things like holidays which are shared among countries. My student is from Poland, and she thought that everyone celebrated Easter Monday by throwing water on each other. Let me specify: the tradition used to be that boys would throw a small amount of water (like a glass of water) on a girl if they liked them. It has turned into a slightly more dangerous event, and these days, people try to stay home on Easter Monday morning in order to avoid being doused with huge buckets of water by “hooligans.” I have never heard of this before, but my student grew up thinking everyone did this on the day after Easter.

So, I have been investigating some of the differences between my own Easter and Holy Week traditions and Georgian traditions. This year is uncommon with Orthodox and Catholic/ Protestant Easter falling on the same day. Usually, due to different calendars, they are on different weeks.
As luck would have it, when I was celebrating Palm Sunday last week, so was Georgia. Georgians follow a similar tradition of having foliage blessed by a priest on this day, but instead of palms, they use boxwood and pussywillow branches (at the Catholic church we attended, they used olive branches), even though there are palm trees all over the country. A Georgian told me that they believe that Jesus was greeted by palm branches according to their bible, but yet boxwood has become the tradition.
As a way to display the branches, they are often sold in little baskets which make it easy to put the branches on a table in your home and dry for the whole year.
It was beautiful to walk around all day and see people selling branches and baskets (very inexpensively) and see others carrying huge bundles around.
My polish student also told me about the palms they use on Palm Sunday in Poland. Highly artistic, they are supposed to be saved for one year and discarded, but as you can see, they are so nice many people keep them for several years. There are palms involved in the construction but clearly other materials as well.

These last two are not my pictures, but give you the idea of how different traditions can be.

More to come soon...Sora

18 March 2010

Blustery March and the Shift into High Gear

With generally warming but unpredictable weather, I finish my Russian study grant and move into the research phase of of the Fulbright.  There are many ideas I have to pursue and so much I could write up just now, but I feel I cannot do that until I have had my on-the-ground time in schools.  Everything up to now has been hearsay. 

And so off it goes...

This next week I will be in Akhalkalaki, Akhalsikhe, and the surrounding areas surveying the Armenian community (in Georgia) for language perception.  Hooray for traveling somewhere I've never been.

Map from http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/georgia_map2.htm

The study?  I am undertaking it with a friend and another acquaintance.  In short, what people think of someone speaking a given language based on where the speaker and listener are from and which language is being spoken.  So, what do Georgian Armenians feel about a Georgian speaking Armenian and vice versa, versus an Armenian speaking Armenian or a Georgian speaking Georgian.  I know...gripping research!  But, it does have importance when it comes to educational inclusion in language minority areas and governance.  So, it is a start on some broader themes I am interested in.

In the following weeks I will be making direct school contacts, doing interviews with aid agencies that work in education, data mining, copy-editing an archive's journal, applying for visas to Armenia and Azerbaijan, making travel plans to both those countries, and planning some domestic travel.

A big few months ahead of me, but exciting indeed.