30 December 2009

Batumi and an Old Year's Reflections

We returned home early in the morning from Batumi, on the Turkish border, although we did not go to Turkey--maybe next time.  The trip was well worth it and travel was not as painful as expected.  Score one more for Georgia over Russia.  We took the night train, a trip just long enough for one to fall asleep but not long enough to actually get any sleep.  After arriving home by train, then taking the metro and walking up our hill toward home in the morning twilight, one of the sweepers began to ask us where we were from, where we were going, and so on:

"We're headed home," I replied.

"What do you mean? What are you doing here?"

"We're researchers.  We live just up the street."

"Oh, students..." she said.

"In principle, yes."

Disenchanted, she copped to a passerby, "Just talking with the tourists!" 

[Do tourists come to stay for over a year?]  "I told you we're not tourists. We live here."

"Well, welcome."

"We've lived here for four months already." Half-asleep, I sneered at her.

She grunted, "Ah,"and continued into the darkness

And we tiredly climbed the stairs to our apartment, showered, and slept. 

We had spent three days there walking along the Black Sea coast, conversing, reading, and eating khatchapuri adjaruli (cheesebread adjara/local style) wherein we consumed about a hundred times the daily recommended amount of cholesterol.  This partucular dish is a baked shell with salty local cheese, a raw egg, and a lump of butter.  The egg "cooks" for a minute or two out of the oven and the filling is mixed up together, whereupon the edges of the baked crust become dipping material.  Very tasty and very bad for you:

We stayed at a hotel which was inland aways.   It was owned by Ukrainians and they were very nice.  Sora was happy, as we got to go ice skating once (which we could not acheive in Russia), went for a morning run (dirty air due to Baku oil transit, but better than Tbilisi), and enjoyed the seaside in general.  It was a much-needed rest. 

This week has been a nice break from Russian study with my tutor, as I don't feel she is much help. Although I can enjoy a short story here and there, I'm not much one for fiction, and that's all she cares about--antiquated writing and poetic exploration.  Let's not kid ourselves.  The Russian masters know their stuff and poetry is beautiful, but my goals in Russian have nothing to do with reading poetry.  They have to do with criticizing the political process, analyzing human rights, and documenting security and economic issues.

My interest/research subject is education, further complicating matters.  She doesn't have any children and has just as little exposure to them, making conversation very difficult as she is "old school" and believes such absurdities as "children younger than fifth grade don't have any interests of their own, its up to parents and teachers to stimulate them." and "there was nothing wrong with the education system before the reforms..." Not to mention she has not traveled anywhere since she was in University (to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Mexico City), and even then never in her own region, Yerevan, Baku, etc. I feel she is out of touch with the world in general, hindering me to a great extent.  

Although I don't have any formal projects right now, everything has certainly piled up.  The list goes on.  Still plenty of UGRAD (exchange program) applications left to read and I have a big chunk of data to organize for the research center I'm affiliated with. 

Aside from laundry and groceries, we must find a decent matress so that my back doesn't get any worse.  This may be more difficult than it sounds, as everything shuts down for a few days over the new year holiday as people recuperate and make merry.  It is raining at this writing, so we're not headed out to the bazzar today, meaning this will have to wait until the new year. 

We should be headed to Armenia, Turkey, or elsewhere in Georgia in a few months.  I want to visit a colleague from the embassy where I worked before he moves to a new post and Sora has a professor in Istanbul this coming summer.  Was thinking about going to Baku, but despite not having anything of interest in Azerbaijan, the Azeris feel it is a great privaledge to visit.  A visa application costs 131US$, as opposed to about 30US$ for an Armenian visa and 20US$ to Turkey.

Due to my ignorance and rushing while uploading photos of Batumi (and incidentally from a day trip to Mtskheta also), I accidentally deleted all but one photo of our trip.  It is an unimpressive shot of a section of fountains in the coastal park, pasted below.  Apologies to those who expected photos. 

28 November 2009


After much fanfare, we were able to secure a turkey through a friend.  The magic is just incomplete without a turkey, and as I love turkey so much, I simply had to have one.  We did it up garlic-style with stuffing and boy was it good. We were able to find pumpkin the night before, and as we sacrificed the pumpkin (so it may have pleased the stomach gods), we disregarded how much work pie-making was going to be.  The pies we made turned out OK except that the crust was no good.  We could not find N. American pie pans, so we had to make do with what we had.  The filling turned out well, and that's all that people want to eat anyway, right?  Well, unless we're talking about crust in my family.  Below is a shot of Sora looking pumpkin-cidal. 

It turned out I was the one to commit pumpkincide, however.  We were both up late making pies, and as Sora's energy began to wane, I found a friend in the M*A*S*H* movie and stayed up with a pie whose filling refused to set.  At 2am it decide to start burning, and I decided I ought to call it quits while Frank Burns and Hot-lips were still ahead. 
The turkey, although a primary component of thanksgiving, is not the be-all end-all (except for some like me).  So the table had to be perfect, and the ladies did a wonderful job job making it so.

And to our dear friend, whose fate was sealed the day she was born, we thank you for feeding us.  Sorry about the rapid and border-line violent thawing measures, but we had to get you in the oven!

And as we go into this next week with turkey sandwiches and turkey soup, I look forward to the day I can make turkey again...maybe Christmas?  Thus ended the best holiday there is.  one without materialistic assumptions, religious conotations, ethnic exclusions, nor modern political scores to settle.  Though there is always a bone to pick (in this case literally and figuatively) with such a statement, Thanksgiving remains my  favorite holiday because of its inclusivity and universality among North Americans. 

13 November 2009

The Great Outdoors: Backpacking in Borjomi

The post is not very punctual, but I figured it should be written anyway.  Our October trip to Borjomi National Park was lovely, complete with wildlife, campfire, and ancient fortresses.  We began early, but evidently not early enough, as the Marshrut we needed left by the time we got to the proper metro station.  We ended up finding a place on a marshrut with a neighboring destination and proceeded west off into the morning only after an hour of waiting for the arguments about seating, why we weren't going, why the driver didn't have change, etc. to subside.  About two hours later, Dan and Liz, our neighbors, and Sora and I arrived at the ranger station.  A quick check-in and

Anyway, we left from Likani and went to Queviskhebi. After a steep initial hike, we came to a clearing suitable for camping.  we intended to climb a summit if water and daylight allowed, but stayed the night.  After breaking camp next morning and heading down out of the park, I took several photos of the mountians and flora around us.  Sora and I had to geta photo in a clearing.

On the way down we happily stumbled upon a serene meadow.  The gradiet was more preferable than the steep, loose dirt of what we came down.  
Of course, we had to get a group shot.
There we found an apple tree with some yummy apples.  Very few were wormy, which made a nice treat for lunch.  
As we went further into a system of meadows, tall pillars of rock began to rise above usfrom the surrounsign forest. 

 And on one such pillar were the remains of a fortress, a testament to the history and resilience of this region.

  We began to see more wildlife as we descended to the villiage:
And some not-so-wild life:
A great, long trip; and Dan & Liz's first!  Now if only those passing by would happen to have space for us...

06 November 2009

March of the Do-gooders

My expectations were low.  One of the few "institutions" that was carried over from soviet times successfully is that of organizers and bosses to put on shows for outsiders and talk the talk.  My experience on my first brief foray into being one of those do-gooders on the gound was quite mediocre. 

We went to and Internally-Displaced Persons (IDP) camp near Gori this past Thursday.  There we were shown some of the work that a group called Hellenicare does.  This is a travelling clinical service with several sponsors.  This first photo is of IDPs waiting outside one of the houses-converted-into a clinic.  The clinic is composed of three nurses and a doctor, a van + driver, an ultrasound machine, EKG machine, diabetic testing/solvents, simple meds.  The house is one of the many built after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war by the government.  This settlement seemed to be quite well off, with electric and gas hookups.  There was minimal running water in the buildings;  outhouses out back. 

Life seemed to continue as usual in this settlement, with standard domestic crops and animals in the yards separating the perfectly blocked-off settlement.  Here is about half the corn I saw in the yard--the other half not husked.  We saw very few children around since we were there during school, but residents in general did not seem jaded about not knowing whether they could ever go back to their homes.  Even if residents were allowed to go back home, many of their homes no longer exist. 

After visiting the IDP camp we traveled back to Tbilisi to see an orphanage, in part supported by Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, an organization my family has long been involved with.   The Group supports families who have and who wish to adopt, as well as sponsors direct aid projects which benefit orphans and related infrastructure.  This third photo is one of three siblings who were orphaned.  The oldest was able to speak Russian with me, as he lived in Russia for a time, but in general the children could not understand me nor I them.  

The fourth photo here is some of the kids at the entrance.  Despite the great intentions of such projects, I cannot help but question the utility of giving kids a sack each with some sweets, a set of paints, and some pencils.  It pains me to see a seventeen year-old guy receive a sack with such meaningless things as heart-shaped stickers and a small notebook...and then a large stuffed animal later.  

For the most part, kids were happy, and the sacks were appropriate for the ages of students there.  They were happy with attention and the occassional flash of a photo.  Just being visited goes a long way to putting a smile on a face. A boy helps us with our heavier boxes upon our arrival:

Some of the kids gather around an American nurse drawing hearts for them:

01 November 2009


Every year there is a festival in the capital called Tbilisiva (Tbilisi Day).  Last weekend many streets were closed as crowds swelled in our part of town around performances, vendors, and folk attractions. In old town, a stage was set up below the mosque and trademark old homes with multiple balconies.  Group after group performed, each representing a different ethnicity found Georgia.  The group in the photo is a Ukrainian women's group.

 Our landlord, Justani, was also in attendance with his nephew, Luka.  Here is a photo of them together with Sora, festivities in the background.

The bridges were packed and people were everywhere milling about and enjoying the music and festivities.  here is a shot of the bridge nearest our house with the presidential mansion in the background. I think he was going for a Reichstag/White House/Greek-Asian fusion, but time will tell how architechture schools feel about this new interpretation of the executive image. 

All in all, a wonderful weekend--but by the end of it, one is Tbilisova-ed out.  There are even more photos:

Kabob fodder in a van and wine in the foreground.  
The classic painting re-enacted; a supra on a raft.  Our neighborhood in the background.
And one more from our front door:

21 October 2009

Why learn English?

I have been teaching English in Tbilisi for over one month now, and am beginning to establish a pattern for teaching privately and for groups of students. While all my students are very different--they have different abilities, tendencies and preferences when learning English, they all have one of two reasons for learning English: They want a good job in Georgia (and this requires a knowledge of English) or they have contacts in the USA/ UK and want to travel with ease. 

Whereas with my Russian students, they all hoped to learn English so they could leave, many of my Georgian students are learning English because they want to stay. I am currently learning Georgian, and trying to dust the cobwebs off of my Russian and French. While I easily recognize the need to communicate in other countries as an impetus for learning a language, I cannot fully comprehend the need to learn a language to have any type of employment. While it is helpful in the U.S. to speak Spanish for specific jobs, there is no prerequisite to speak anything other than English to be a waitress--and yet, I have been to many restaurants and cafes where English is required of the servers.

That said, the level of English is less important than the fact that you know some basic English. Even though most of my group students say they need English to get a good job, they do not  study as much as they should to be successful--they kind of ride it out. I can understand that. Time moves quickly here, with public transportation, long working hours, and other delays, it is time for bed before you know it. I myself have arrived rather unprepared for several Georgian lessons. But if it really was essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of English for regular employment, I have a feeling the majority of students would be more dedicated. I think it is more of a boolean stystem: Do you speak English (check one)? OYes  ONo.

An acquaintance pointed out the other day that while restaurants insist upon having English menus, there are always mistakes. The same is true of signs on stores or casinos. I always enjoy seeing the "Beauty Saloons" that are pictured in an earlier post, and there is a casino I see when I ride the bus to Vake which publicizes its very own "Clot Club." 

I am always a little ashamed that my language was chosen to be so universal (how is that fair?). But I sense that the national dedication to learn English is only half-hearted, and strictly limited to the capital and surrounding regions. Perhaps it is too early to tell. We may see some advertising grammar corrections even while we are here.


12 October 2009


I have often been asked by astonished parties "why on earth would I go to the end of the earth?"  There are many answers--adventure, discovery, learning, ... but one of the most important is freedom.  Freedom to do laundry.  See below just a snippet of how asinine America has become.  We don't have a clothes-dryer; gosh we must be poor.  And those apartments below ours, with the outhouses in the courtyard, we should outlaw those...


10 October 2009


There isn't any here in the city.  I have been receiving word from family and friends that the resorts are opening back in Colorado and that the ski season is off to an earlier than normal start (at least compared to the past decade or so).  We can see these snow-capped peaks from home, weather depending.  

Sora and I have been busy this past week despite being ill.  She has been substituting full-time at the international school for a teacher that went back to the US for his son's birth in addition to keeping her English-teaching schedule at the language school and with private students.  I have kept up on my Russian lessons while getting out to the library scene a bit and attending some academic talks.  We have also been to an art show and the ballet Don Quixote.  The performance was great and the theatre also beutiful.    
The entertainment is rarely finished in Georgia.  On the way home we walked past this chic hair place.  I imagine that this "salon" gets a very interesting type of client.  More to come...

23 September 2009


The past few days have been rainy.  Our roof has developed a noticeable leak in our kitchen, making us aware of a faint moldy smell above our ceiling, which we had until now excused as just the background smell of the place.  Our landlord assures us that he is on the leak, but I am now not surprised that I wake up in the morning with coughing fits.  When it rains, it pours, I suppose. 

I have titled this post "buckets" not only because it has been rainy, but because I have had a handful of realizations that have left me sopping with the chilly aftermath of discovery.  In a small way, that is. Below are the aforementioned lessons, questions, and frustrations. 

Gypsy children  
It hurts when I see children as young as five toddling car to car on the squealing metro as lights flicker, singing and begging for loose change--alone.  They are not orphans but slaves to their Roma parents.  I refuse to give money because I know it does not go to them but to their managers.  Filthy children with raggedy clothes who are school-age, must want something, and are denied the first and basic step of elementary education. 

I have come close to striking one of them on the street as they address me with an informal "you" (considered rude to an elder) in Russian (sometimes) and block my path, cornering me with some of their friends.  I wonder where this hatred of mine comes from.  I am not scared of being cornered by three small children; I am scared of their children and what a continuation of this means.  Or is this freedom that they teach to their children?  Independence?  Perhaps they enjoy the pain on my face when they hold up a filthy baby and an empty hand?  Walking on by is a difficult but necessary thing to do.  When I go out in the future I will try to take small portions of fruits and candies along to give instead--I am more comfortable feeding a child than quenching its parents' thirst. 

Plural "you" 
On a lighter note, "Y'all" is a word which has long made me cringe with images of naive, lumbering Texans in Colorado tourist towns.  Though I have spent considerable time abroad, I have never been of such a strong opinion that English needs a plural-form "you."  While "y'all" still makes me tense-up, perhaps this is a natural and needed development in English.

Blast.  Why couldn't it have been a word with the letter "Z." Z-words are so lovely.  Or maybe "Q".  "J"?  We have so few words with such pretty letters and sounds.  Oh well, I suppose we have to give the Texans more than the Alamo, ... y'all. 

Traffic laws and a few antitheses thereof 
I have begun to fear vehicles here more than any other place.  There are the ubiquitous things one expects in a capital city--signal lights, traffic circles, and police waving drivers on--but all this seems like a waste of resources.  Signal lights seem to be for decoration, traffic circles look more like creaky erector sets, and the police have to do something for exercise as they stand in the middle of streets and yell at drivers.

Sidewalks provide no refuge for walkers, as parking is often achieved by plopping the vehicle halfway on the street and halfway on the sidewalk.  Extra points for running over pedestrians in the process.  This secretive point system encourages drivers of more nimble vehicles to go for bonus levels by pulling up right behind bipedal travelers beside busy streets and leaning on the horn so as to 1) make deaf or 2) scare to death.  Both options are not optimal because in the first instance the rash, offending pedestrian cannot hear the subsequent cursing of the driver and in the second, dead pedestrians do not yield desirable parking for low-clearance vehicles. 

President Misha has done well, I hear, eliminating corruption in the police system and increasing the force to suitable levels (there are police posted at all times at the tops and bottoms of all metro stations and nearly every major intersection).  Imagine if this police force were to suddenly and uniformly enforce a few choice traffic laws.  I would choose only three goals at first to ensure the system were not overloaded: enforcing red lights, prohibiting aiming for young mothers and their offspring, and liberating the sidewalks for pedestrians. 

It ain't so bad, y'all
For all my griping here, Georgia has still been the smoothest post-Soviet country I have visited.  Russian language works OK, no visas are needed for Americans, and I am finding that a great deal of people are interested in my research. While my research plan did not include looking at teachers' pay, it may improve the system to pay teachers more then 180 Ge Lari / mo (aprox. US$90 / mo).  Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it could probably snag a few teachers and make sure that they have something to eat. 

More to come...buckets to come. 

21 September 2009

Two Weeks On

After two weeks, I still feel as if I have just arrived.  Much of what Sora and I set out to accomplish in these past two weeks--we have.

Sora is sorting through a handful of teaching offers, we are already juggling regular Georgian lessons, we have joined a Georgian folk choir, I have joined a men's banya group, and our main concern now is finding time for...anything else.  In addition, I have visited with my research organization and begun regular Russian lessons. Before I eleborate on any of this, know that "teaching offers" can evaporate here, the Georgian lessons are beneficial but not magically informative, the choir is an expatriate group which loves wine perhaps too much, and the banya group is simply addictive.  We are now very well settled in. 

This past weekend we took part in a choral performance in Khobi, Samegrelo region.  It is about 5 hours from Tbilisi, on the other side of the country, near the Black Sea.  We stayed in a guest house, attended several (singing) supra parties, and the Patriarch of the Georgian Church attended.  The performance started late, at 21:15 or so, because the Patriarch was late.  It ended at 23:30 and then we still had the supra to attend, so we were up late.  Our group sang with astounding mediocrity.  During the first song everyone started cheering and the Patriarch was pointing at us. We thought because we were doing well, but it was actually because a stray dog had wandered on stage.

Below are a couple videos of our afternoon rehearsal which were broadcast on National TV.  The man being interviewed in the second video is our neighbor and fellow Fulbrighter, Dan, a former Peace Corps volunteer and excellent foreign speaker of Georgian.  I am sitting in the back on the right with the basses and Sora is in front-left. 


There are also some photos from our trip:

All in all, a great weekend. Coming back from Samogrelo, we passed the South Ossetian border on our North.  It was strange feeling so close to "Russia," with their troops still in the hills on our left.  We couldn't be that close, though...things have been...working.  Visas, transport, etc. 

More to come...

07 September 2009

Old Tbilisi

The view from our bedroom window. The fortress is is called Narikala. Fortifications date from the 4th - 17th centuries. We can see no fewer than 12 ancient churches from our windows and balcony, plus the modern national cathedral and the president's house. We are located in Old Tbilisi, just uphill from the ancient sulfur baths/banyas.

As is evident from the photo, we have safely arrived and moved into our new home. A friend; neighbor; and fellow Fulbrighter, Dan; arranged to have us picked up at the airport by our kind landlords, Tamriko and Justani, as well as their children Sophie and Alex. We were wisked away to a restaurant shortly thereafter to enjoy some authentic Georgian-Ossetian food and wine.

Just as my lovely wife, Sora, and I are beginning to recover from our 10-hour jet-lag from Denver, I fall ill. This of course gives me ample opportunity to stay home and catch up on the more computer-intensive things--like writing this first posting. Before falling ill, Sora and I had enough time to run errands and explore just a bit. The fortress which dominates our amazing view was a natural choice for our first adventure (besides securing cell-phones at the city bazaar). The view below is looking from the fortress back on the baths district/old town and our apartment door is visible. I was able to paste a tiny red arrow pointing to our roof which may not be very visible.

The city is beautiful and there is much exploring to be done. However, our tasks for this week are many--finding both Russian and Georgian teachers, teaching job for Sora, registering at the embassy as well as passport renewals there, confirming meetings with my research center, and errands for the house.

Posts to follow will hopefully include more entertaining information and a few silly stories, but for the time being we are working on getting settled. For freinds or family from back home who wish to visit, we assure you that even if you were not planning on visiting us, the trip would be well worth it. Until next time...