Monday, November 29, 2010

An Overdue Post

I am so sorry that this post has taken so long for me to write. I feel like this is the first free time I have had in the past two weeks; things have been dzalian giji (very crazy) on this side of the world. I hope you all had a wonderful thanksgiving with your loved ones. I was so sad I wasn't able to attend my family's thanksgiving; it is my favorite holiday and it broke my heart a little that I wasn't able to be with them on that special day. We celebrated thanksgiving here, though. A few of my friends and I went out for a nice dinner, had a few bottles of delicious georgian wine, and ordered many, many chocolate cakes. We went around the table and each said something we were thankful for. It was no thanksgiving at home, but it was enough.

Anyways, where to begin, where to begin? Istanbul was totally incredible. I went with two of my closest friends, Caroline and Elana, and we flew into Istanbul last Saturday morning. We spent the evening before our flight camped out in the airport, snuggling under artificial trees, looking up at the escalator. Not exactly relaxing, and we boarded our plane at four after the security guards had to wake us up from the other side of the glass. We got to Istanbul at 6:30 in the morning and made friends with the somewhat creepy man sitting in front of us. Dave (the creepy man) pursuaded us to come with him because, as he said, he knew his way around. Four hours later, we had taken a taxi, a marshutka, a subway, a ferry, and a tram and finally made it to Sultanahment, the region of Istanbul where we were staying. We bid Dave kargad (goodbye), and checked into the Metropolis Hostel where we would spend the next three nights. Our hostel proprietor was actually the biggest jerk in the whole world, so we didn't spend much time in the hostel because he was all negative energy. This was not a problem, however, because istanbul was AMAZING. We spent the four days shopping, being touristy (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Underground Cistern pictures to come), eating an offensive amount of doners/shwarmas, etc. One of the highlights was the Turkish bath we went to, in which we, not only the only american girls in the place, but also the only CUSTOMERS in the place, were ushered into a room of about 130 degrees and ordered to strip and lie on a heated slate of marble. after leaving us there, sweating for 45 minutes (elana and caroline looked at me and wondered why i was so much sweatier than they were....i was actually a waterfall), four naked, obese turkish women came in with scrubs in hand. They lathered us up with soap, scrubbed our bodies clean of dead skin, and basically whipped the blood into our limbs. It was interesting. Painful is a word that comes to mind. But also hysterical. The three of us were dying as we left there, trying to piece together the reason that people do this but also relishing in how truly clean we felt being doused by such an ancient method of bathing. It was an exerience. Our trip to Istanbul concluded with an amazing four hour jam session on our last night with some truly cool backpackers from the UK, hookah, and some great friends. It was a trip I'll never forget.

We got back from Istanbul at five o'clock Wednesday morning. I naturally called in sick to school (I actually really was sick though), and finished the week out just fine. This weekend all of us teachers went on a government sponsored trip to Signaghi, this beautiful little village about an hour and a half east of Tbilisi. It was a big festival with lots of food, dancing, and singing. We walked around the city for the day, buying little souveneirs, eating, and taking pictures of the beautiful wall that surrounds the small city. It was a lovely day, and we got back early enough to grab dinner, go to a bar with some friends, and to a nightclub where we danced the night away!

My experience in Georgia has been amazing, rewarding, frustrating, and difficult. This country is so new, yet so old. It is torn between a past of Soviet rule and consequently an outdated education system, yet it so wants to be considered a part of Europe. It is rooted in traditionalist beliefs about genders and races, yet it seems stubborn to welcome new ideas. It has been interesting to be a part of this culture, but it wears on someone like me. I feel as though the country is stuck in a rut, like it has to either committ fully to its Russian past or give itself completely to a new, European identity. If it doesn't move in either of these directions, it will continue to be stuck in the position it is in, and this stagnance is a large part of my reason for leaving it in three weeks when my contract is up. I don't feel like any of the things I am doing are getting anywhere, because the country maintains such ideologies as to not let it. It is frustrating to want to introduce new literature, new games and ideas to my students, to see them struggle with it and give up because they just do not have the drive or the discipline to learn. It is frustrating to be their teacher when they are so unbelievably disrespectful in class. While I have a few good classes, my students are largely horrible, and they create a  negative atmosphere in which their more driven peers are incapable of learning. It is such a shame and has become very difficult for me, for the more I invest in teaching and in providing my students with new, progressive methods of learning, the more they seem to lose interest. What can one person do in a country that is stuck in a rut between the past and the future?

Frustrations aside, however, it has been an amazing two weeks. Istanbul and Signaghi were two of the highlights of my time here for sure. I have three weeks left here--I'll be sure to make it count!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Life as a Georgian Movie Star....Well, Sort of

Hello, Hello!

Well, big and exciting news. I am officially a Georgian movie star. Well, kind of. I was on television this past weekend. The local news channel came to my school and did an interview with me and my kids, and then they came to my house to watch me interacting with my host family. Here is the link:

Click on the 14 of November, and set the timer to 11:14. I have my own little two minute segment! My kids were all like, "Ali! You were on television!" And the ones who couldn't speak English just mimed television. Oh, Georgia.

Not a whole lot has happened other than my television appearance. My children continue to be challenging, as do the lack of resources in the school. The kids' behavior is abysmal; they do not know the meaning of discipline and they never listen. Some of my friends here have taught in Korea in a program kind of similar to this one. My friends Caroline and Amanda are seriously considering going there next!

In other news, I am going to Turkey this upcoming weekend with two of my closest friends. I will have more updates for you in my next blog post. I apologize that this one is so short--but my computer battery is dying and I have to send a few more emails. Will update when I get the chance, but I wanted to share with you the link to the television segment. Kargad!!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Marshutka Friends and Other Thoughts

I am going to update my blog a day early because tomorrow is bringing a real treat: I’ve been asked to be on television! Yes, that’s right. A news crew is coming to my school tomorrow to tape me teaching, and they are coming back to my house tomorrow afternoon to film me at home, interacting with my host family. I don’t know why they picked me, but I OBVIOUSLY agreed. I will let you all know how it goes and will send you a link to the segment if it airs.

This week brought with it many adventures, namely a hilarious trip to a suburb of the city. Last Tuesday, my friends and I went on a trip to Rustavi, a city about 30 minutes outside of Tbilisi. We picked up our marshutka on the outskirts of Tbilisi, in the town in which my friend Amanda lives. We thought we were really suave because we were able to read the marshutka sign that said “Rustavi” in Georgian script, and we piled onto a smelly bus whose upholstery resembled a grandmother’s living room. To make a long story short, we obviously got on the wrong marshutka and ended up in the backroads of god only knows where, passing sheep, chickens, cows, and horses roaming in front of us. We passed village women with mounds of flour to bake their weekly food…and we were unable to ask about our whereabouts because no one spoke any English—and our Georgian is really not that great. We somehow made it into Rustavi, but definitely not the way we were supposed to. When the marshutka stopped at what appeared to be its final destination and all the passengers got out, we played charades (our favorite game here in Georgia) with our marshutka driver and his friend. They decided that they loved us, and then they took pictures with us and gave us fruits. They became our personal cab drivers for the next twenty minutes, communicating with our friend’s Georgian host brother until they dropped us off at the bar where we were meeting our fellow Rustavi teachers. What an experience. Needless to say, the ride home was much more normal, and we actually went on a highway without chickens.

On a serious note, one of the most difficult things that I am experiencing is the task of trying not to judge the people I meet as ignorant and prejudiced, specifically as racist, sexist, or homophobic. The other day, my host mom told me that TLG had initially offered her and Dato a black girl, and she told me that she “didn’t want a black girl living in my house.” When talking about attractive people, she told me that Caucasus people (the people living in the Caucasus region of the world…Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc) were very attractive, but that Chinese people were not because of their eyes. The racist nature of these remarks were difficult to swallow, as are the numerous instances I see and hear in which other Georgian people make known that they do not like those who are different. Stories of host families kicking their teachers out of their home because they are “too fat” or gay or “weird” abound here; and the gender binary is stronger here than I have ever seen it in the states. My host mother waits on my host father hand and foot—he doesn’t even put his dishes in the sink, never mind help around the house. Women are expected to be virgins until marriage, but men are expected to be experienced sexually before they wed---I’m still trying to figure out how that works out. These ideologies are germane to Georgia, and I can understand and try to respect that. But it is difficult to swallow comments that display a culture rooted in extreme dislike of the different. While I understand that it may not be “intolerance,” it often seems that way, such as when one of my students told me that it is bad that I am not Christian Orthodox, because that is the only way to live. The traditional nature of Georgia and its stark contrast to many things I believe in make for very frustrating interactions. Each time I hear a racially insensitive comment, I struggle to not judge the person as racist—and try to better understand the culture that created these racially/sexually/disability/etc-insensitive ideologies. But make no mistake, this task is not easy. I often find myself wanting to yell at the parents, the teachers, the taxi drivers who use the n-word, who talk about gay people as abominations, who dislike anyone who is not of their religion. But how do you explain to someone that these ideologies are exclusive to many wonderful people, that maintaining such ideologies prevents them and the rest of the world from attaining peace---when you can barely talk about what you had for lunch today?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Friends and Field Trips

Well, it is officially fall here. Scratch that, it is officially winter. November came with a vengeance, and we plunged from beautiful 70 degree, sunny days to cold rain and--slightly drunk after the supra last night-- what felt like snow. Turns out it was just white in the pavement, but hey, it could happen.

Anyways, what a week it's been. Lets start from the beginning. I make friends everywhere I go. The Georgian people are so unbelievably warm and friendly. You get them talking (even if it is with my broken Georgian, and/or their broken English) and you have made a best friend ten minutes into your marshutka ride to work. The other day, Caroline (one of my closest friends) and I went to get manicures ($3.50 manicures, ladies!) at this salon, and were a little nervous because the women there didn't seem friendly. Two minutes into conversation, we became best friends. On the way out, we all hugged, one of them walked us out to our marshutka and kissed us goodbye like family. Then, on the marshutka, we met two schoolgirls who told us about the best shopping areas and the proceeded to take us there as though they had nothing else they would rather do. The people are so kind, and so giving...they make me feel at home in a country that once felt strange and unnerving. They have helped set my internal clock to Tbilisi time, in all senses of that phrase.

School has been going well. I feel like I am actually making some difference in my schools...I see my students actually beginning to learn and it feels incredible to realize that I am a part of that. From the smallest detail (pronouncing the -th sound,which they do not have in Georgian and seems impossible for georgian children to replicate sometimes) to understanding what subject-verb agreement entails, I see my students learning everyday. They are, for the most part, enthusiastic, excited, and always happy to see me. Every time i pass by one of them in the halls, I'm greeted by hugs, smiles, loud hello's, and sometimes even presents. They are just so cute! My favorite student so far, however, has been little Mari. She is like a cute little sponge, and she picks up everything so quickly. The other day I was teaching her the conjugation of the verb "to be," which she was having trouble understanding. Then, all of a sudden, she said, "You are Ali. I am Mari. We are silly." I almost fell out of my chair. I am so proud to be making an impact on her, and she (though she doesn't know it) is teaching me, too. Here are two pictures of us...these were taken when we went to Mtsketa, one of the oldest cities in Georgia.
This weekend brought with it Halloween parties, movie nights and an amazing excursion with my class. With no Halloween holiday here, us Americans partied it up US style and decked ourselves out at a bar downtown. The georgians probably thought we were crazy walking down the streets in our hats and outfits, but it was great and total shenanigans.
The best part of the weekend (and maybe the most amazing part of Georgia thus far) was the excursion I went on with my students on Sunday. Excursions here in Georgia are like school field trips, and many students and parents participate in them. On Sunday morning, bright and early, I got to school by 9 and boarded the bus with 15 seventh graders and their parents, my english co-teacher Tina, and we left for Gori, a city located about one hour west of Tbilisi. Winding through mountains and teeny-tiny neighborhoods, we suddenly saw this beautiful view in the town of Ateni.
Naturally, we stopped to take pictures!

It was stunning. We went to a church that had been built in the 9th century and lit prayer candles. My co-teacher understands that I'm not very religious, and so she explained to me as she gave me the three candles that I could simply make wishes and that I didn't have to pray if I didn't want to. She told me that the church was the godmother's church and that she felt that the godmother was there, in the ancient church, right at that moment. Looking around at the old walls and paintings and listening to the nun's songs, I believe that there was a godmother there--maybe not Jesus' mother, but one who is more important to nana. So I lit a prayer candle for her and then another one for peace.
...and then the children began buying me religious relics. I now have quite a collection of paintings of Jesus, Mary, and many saints. Oh boy.
Anyways, we then went to this rock temple in Gori that boasted some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. Our tour guide explained to us (in georgian, and my co-teacher translated for the less georgian-inclined) that the temple ruins that sat atop the rocks were built before the year these rocks were from well before the Christ era. We're talking O-L-D. What is even more amazing is that much of the temple's outsides and the accompanying church were still intact, despite the fact that much of it had been destroyed by the Mongols. Unbelievable.

After the cool rocks we had a picnic up on a mountain with lots of food (it was basically an outside supra) and wine. Apparently one of my favorite students, Sandro (his classmates call him "dwarf" because he is so small!) got his hands on two glasses of wine and was walking around, playing with the cows and lighting fires. Gotta love my georgian children.

I am learning so much from these experiences. Yes, my trips to Gori and Ateni were unbelievably informative, and I love hearing about the history of these places. But what I find most interesting, and most important in my own life, are the stories from the people, from the students and my friends. A seemingly silly conversation with my co-teacher turned serious on the car ride home as she, in her broken English, explained to me that there are few real problems in life. Running late, being sleepy or tired--these are not real problems. "Cancer is real problem. Death and pain are real problems. Everything else, not problem. It can be done another time. No worry." It's amazing the kind of perspective you can get when you least expect it.

A perfect end of the trip was the sign that I saw on the marshutka home. On the opposite side of the highway, written in both Georgian script and in English, I read two simple words: Happy Journey.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Teaching, Yarn Making and Cha Cha

So sorry for the delayed update, things have been going so well over here and I haven’t had much time to unpack (literally and figuratively).
I have successfully finished my first week of teaching! Whew! My school is, well, interesting. It’s a large block plopped in the middle of a neighborhood that is about a ten minute bus ride from my house. The school is large—the teachers don’t know how many students are in the school (?) but it seems to be quite large. The classrooms are relatively well equipped—some better than others. All have desks and chairs, and most have blackboards. All the walls are covered in grafitti, some more graphic than others—I would imagine its quite distracting, and the school is equipped with some lovely squatter toilets (more on that to come…)
I teach every grade (yep….) and am teaching about 23 classes per week. I work with five other English teachers of varying abilities (both in terms of their English speaking and their overall teaching effectiveness), but all of them are very sweet and have made me feel loved and appreciated at school. I teach with all of them at some point during the week…and I have some more classes with some than others.
            My kids are overall pretty wonderful. In every class there is, per usual, several students of clearly higher abilities and to counteract those kids, the trouble kids who never bring their books and who throw spitballs in the class. This is to be expected, naturally, but it is definitely frustrating when trying to teach a class of such mixed levels. I have three favorite classes: my third grade class, my 11th grade class (all girls…talk about angelic), and one of my eighth grade classes.
           The third grade kids are totally out of control, speak little to no English, have the attention span of goldfish, but they are so absolutely adorable. One kid is so small he actually managed to lodge his legs in his desk and then lost his balance and fell out of his desk during the ABC’s. I almost died laughing. The have barely learned the alphabet and don’t know any verbs besides “to be”—and even that is rocky. Thus, whenever we talk about family, they say “I am one brother” and “you are one sister?” and then my co-teacher yells at them in Georgian to pay attention. It’s totally out of control and hysterical.
My 11th grade girls are lovely and so driven to learn English. They ask me to take pictures with them and go to McDonalds to hang out (to which I scrunch my face and tell them that in America, a lot of people don’t like mcdonalds, or fast food in general). They are so sweet and I feel like I might actually make a difference with them.
My eighth grade class is enormous and half out of control. The back of the classroom doesn’t give a damn, and they just sit there—but I manage to get their attention sometimes, and I always have the attention of the front 2/3 of the class, including my favorite student who resembles a caterpillar with his unibrow. He speaks horrible English and always talks excitedly to me in Georgian---and he tries to hard in class. He always raises his hand and wants to participate, but he makes so many mistakes and more often than not is never even on the right page, or he repeats the answer that the person before him said. But he tries and is good and has a unibrow. Gotta love him.
            The toilets in school are holes in the floor. It took some getting used to, thats for sure. It turns out I was standing the wrong way for the first two weeks, hence my difficulty using them. My friends died laughing when I told them that I was having such a hard time, and things have been much easier from then on. It still doesn't smell good, but I bring my handy hand sanitizer and have become quite a pro.
           One of the most difficult things about school is the lack of resources in the classrooms and amongst the teachers. Some of the classrooms don’t even have blackboards, and so there is no possibility for us teachers to write anything down for the kids to see. Without tracking classes, kids are lumped together by age and not by ability—and it turns out that many kids in my school have transferred from other schools and speak absolutely no English. In my first class this morning, I had a girl who was almost fluent in English, and a boy in the back of the class who couldn’t even introduce himself. It’s very frustrating.
Georgia, like America, displays an enormous economic disparity. While there certainly are many wealthy students, many of mine cannot afford textbooks, and thus they have no way of keeping up with the lessons. Also, teachers here do not make lesson plans, and all read directly from textbooks and do only the activites in the books. There is little room for creativity, no projects, and it seems no papers. I have so many ideas and so much I want to do…but I have no idea what level the kids are at, because I teach every grade and my English teachers will just point to the book when I ask what the kids are learning. The teachers leave school at 2:30 or so and it seems do not make any plans for the next day (again, no plan... no problem--but it is a problem for me!); they just come in the next day and read more of the textbook, or, as happened today, just tell me to “teach.” Teach what? How? What do they know? It’s incredibly frustrating trying to teach kids when you don’t know what they’ve learned and have difficulty ascertaining that information. We will see what I can muster I made up a tongue twister on the spot because it seems none of my kids can pronounce the sound "th." They all say "ze book" or "zhey ate," so I made up this rhyme on the spot and told them to memorize it for the next class. We'll see what happens...and I have a feeling I'm going to be doing a lot of making things up on the spot over the next two months.

            In other news, I went to the Khakheti region (the cradle of Georgian winemaking) this weekend with other TLG teachers. It was raining, but as our hosts said, “no problem.” We drove an hour and a half outside of the city and went to this lovely farm/vineyard for the afternoon where we had a class in making textiles, wine, cha cha (Georgian vodka…oh god is all I have to say about that), taking care of the farm animals, etc….and then of course we had a supra! God, I love this country. It was so beautiful and picturesque working with these Georgian farmers with hands covered in dirt, laughing as we made yarn together. We couldn’t understand each other, but we somehow still did. Pictures to come! Nachvamdis!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Hello, hello friends and family!
This blog has been a long, long time coming. I apologize for the delay in getting it up and internet here in georgia has been spotty, at best. Anyways, here is a recap of my life. Seriously.

My flight from the States to Georgia was on October birthday. My special day began with my dad and I sitting at the airport, begging the Delta and American Airlines crew to give me a flight out of boston. Five hours of pleading and re-working, I had a flight to JFK, and a whole new itinerary. Stressful for somone who loves (read: needs) a plan. My flight to JFK went smoothly and there I had some time to meet my now close friend Caroline, with whom I was to be traveling to Kiev, Ukraine. Turns out there were many other TLG friends on the plane, and we all met in Kiev after our 8 1/2 hour flight in which I befriended both the cute Russian girl next to me in order to understand the menu choices and the large man behind me who kept waking me up with his goings to the bathroom. Lovely.
Anyways, we arrived in the Ukraine for just a quick layover, and quickly got ready for our much smaller plane bound for Tbilisi, Georgia. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and claustrophobic sitting next to two large Georgian man, on the back of the plane, squished up against the widow eating what appeared to be a small piece of turkey  (but we really dont know). However, when we started flying over the Caucasus mountains, I forgot all my worries and just revelled in how stunningly beautiful this part of the world is. It really looked like it did in pictures.....enormous, majestic snow capped mountains laying the ground for green, rolling hills. It was BEAUTIFUL. suddenly, this random trip seemed less random and more determined.
We landed in Tbilisi aroud 5 30 pm, met our TLG leaders, other TLG members (TLG is the organization that runs my stands for Teach and Learn with Georgia--google that!!!) and were whisked away. Where? We didn't know. No one decided to tell us anything, so imagine our suprise when we pulled up to none other than the Sheraton hotel. One week in a five star hotel with pool and hot tub? BYE. Couldn't have been a better birthday present. We were thrilled, I hopped in the pool, we ate dinner, and went to sleep early.
The following week was comprised of training....for roughly ten hours a day. Four hours of Georgian language lessons, four hours of Georgian cultural lessons, hours of teaching methodologies, and meetings with doctors, bank represetatives, and group leaders made a week fly by, yet despite the crazy schedules, I managed to make some wonderful friends. Everyone on this program is so different and interesting, and they come from all over the world. We all bonded so much in just five days, and though most of us are clustered in or around Tbilisi (the capital), it was hard to leave each other at the end of training.
The day we met our families was like a really twisted and anxiety-provoking game of red rover. The teachers stood on one side of the room, the expectant families on the other side. It was WEIRD, and felt like we were eyeing the "good" families, and they the "good" teachers. My name was called and I met my host mother, took my bags and got in a cab to start my new life here.
To make a very long story short, it didn't work out with my first host family. They were absolutely lovely (mother and son), but the living arrangments and set-up were not what I was expecting and not what had been arranged in my contract. After nights of not sleeping and feeling ill, I finally called a TLG team member, and he came to my home that night to take me away. He literally whisked me into a hotel (I was a sobbing, bubbling mess by this poit) and promised to find me a new host family within three days. Thus, I spent the next two days and nights in a lovely hotel with a room all to myself, and even met a few other teachers who were at the hotel, also waiting for a new host family. I made best friends with them (obviously), and we scampered around the city and shopped and became more and more acquainted with this amazing country. One afternoon (Thursday?) I got a call from Giga, the man I had talked to, saying that he would be by to get me at 6 o'clock that evening to bring me to my new host family. A brief freak out moment later, I raced home to pack my bags, and was brought by TLG to my new home, where I am now.

I now live in Saburtalo, which is a district in Tbilisi. There are various forms of transportation that I can take...and while I'm learning how to get around and where to go, what the names of the streets are, etc., I am definitely rising to meet this challenge. I'm speaking more and more georgian with the bus drivers and marshutka drivers (and obviously my family), and have taken getting very lost on the outskirts of tbilisi (ie last night) in stride. This is a big challenge for many of you know, this is my first time out of the country, and moreoever, my first time traveling ALONE. It has been very, very difficult at times, and I have thought about coming home and giving up. But I think about why I came here, and how it is that we grow into more mature beings, more in touch with ourselves--and I realize that it is experiences like getting lost on a bus on the outskirts of tbilisi that we come to better know ourselves. This is hard, but it's also incredibly amazing and rewarding and I think will be transformative in ways I didn't think possible. "We grow only through discomfort," is a quote that I read the other day. It has proven to be true thus far.

My host family here in Saburtalo is wonderful; I have a mom (deda), a dad (mama), and a da (sister), named Mari. They are lovely--the parents are in their 30s, and Mari (who I call 'chemi kartopili' (my potato)) is nine. I love them, and their house is comfortable and I feel safe in it...which is all I needed. They give me my space when I need it but also encourage me to be with them and obviously want me to spend time with them, and they me. I feel so incredibly luck to have them.

Anyways, I need to go take a nap because I didn't get to bed until late last night. On the way home from meeting some friends for dinner, I got a call from one of my Georgian friends asking if I would please come to his birthday "supra," or a big, big party with lots of drinks and food. Last minute? Yes. But i wasn't passing up supra....for the Georgians, it seems, no plan, no problem!!!