Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Well, I gave up at around 1 am but I was reliably informed that the party to welcome Aka home went on until nearly 3. What I saw and experienced though was wonderful! I’ve never seen everyone so happy...and it made me happy just to be able to stand back and watch.

At 6, Nino, Tamaz, Beka and some family friends headed off to the airport to pick him up. Eka, Juju and I stayed behind to continue with food preparations and household duties. When they came through the front door Nino poked her head in the door to the kitchen/living room and motioned for Eka to come. I saw a mass of bodies in the foyer but watched as Eka kissed and embraced her son. She came in, misty eyed, with him and the rest of the family crowded around him. The next few minutes were a blur as he came in, greeted Juju and then me and ran off to see how his room had been overtaken by Nino since his departure. As he left I turned around to see Juju drying her eyes. Not only did it make me so happy to see all of them so thrilled that he had returned home, I also knew that I could empathize, with Nino especially. I know exactly what it feels like to have your brother return home and the feeling that you could just burst with emotion at his homecoming...even if it’s only for a short time, is something so precious.

Now having met the older brother, whom I have heard so much about over the past few months I’m excited to get to know him...and not just because he’s another English speaker in the house. He seems every bit as good-natured and fun-loving as Nino has made him out to be.

...I just have to get through this week at school to be able to enjoy Christmas break with the rest of the family.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Good Eats - The Aftermath

Well, yesterday marked a first, and hopefully last experience here...a trip to the doctor.

(cue daunting music)

Sadly, I've not been feeling up to snuff the past week. It started last Wednesday when my tummy started to make some rather vehement protests. The actual culprit still remains a mystery but it started after lunch at school that day. Every meal after that one seemed to trigger something and left me less than happy. Sparing the particulars, the worst came yesterday and kept me home from school. Since I had been complaining of tummy troubles for several days Eka and Tamaz decided that a trip to the doctor was the next step for me.

Now, I don't like the phrase "under developed" in reference to countries. Since these labels are created by the self-named "developed" countries it smacks of a certain level of an ethnocentric superiority complex to me. Or maybe I just spent too much time in the 18th century and got really tired of visitors saying "They didn't know anything back then." After years of hearing it I finally put it and my cultural anthropology classes from college together and realized that they were exhibiting all the signs of an ethnocentric frame of mind only this time it was time/technology based. Nevertheless, the idea that you are superior to someone else just because you have something they don't just makes me mad. When you get down to it, saying that you are better, or more advanced, than another group of people or another time period shows an incredible inability to look beneath the visible surface. If you only look at another culture from your perspective then you are bound to be at odds with it. So you have to look at how the people who live in it react to the things that you deem "different." In the end, they may still be different, but at least you will have the added perspective and understanding.

With that mindset firmly in place, I went to the...I think it was the...hospital, yesterday. And with the understanding that things would be different than I anticipated, I left hoping that I would never have to go back. Now the doctors were great. The experience of trying to explain what was wrong with me with only Eka to speak for me was interesting to say the least. In spite of it all, I was rather pleased with myself in that I knew what Eka and Tamaz were saying for me, I just couldn't have expressed it myself. At one point we got Nino on speakerphone to answer some particular questions that the doctor had for me...poor girl is probably scarred for life. After the preliminary consultation it was down to the lab. As we walked through the halls I imagined myself on some kind of horror movie set where the characters face terror (and a gruesome end) in an old, run down hospital...and I don't even watch horror movies. But Eka and Tamaz seemed unphased, and more to the point, what earthly good would it have done me to react negatively to my surroundings? So I kept walking, and proceeded to have a laugh to myself about my surreal situation.

We went to the sonography lab where we proceeded to just open the door and go in...despite the fact that there were about a dozen people waiting outside the door. There was a mild protest but I just followed Eka when she said, "Come" and we left Tamaz outside (to presumably deal with it). All these years, I've been imagining that I would have to be a mommy-to-be to have my first ultra-sound. Not so. They laid me down, scanned me, printed out the results and we were off to do some blood tests. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the whole experience. In the U.S. you have your blood taken in one place and then it is sent off to the lab for tests. Well, why not just cut out the extra room and have your blood taken in the lab. True, this lab, and the equipment therein, reminded me of what I had worked with in our low- budget lab at college...but if it works? I do believe my favorite part was the pot of coffee that was brewing on the hot plate in the middle of the floor. After my tests it was back to the doctor. Eka walked in to the office...past the crowd that had been waiting prior to our arrival and got the information that she wanted and we were off.

The prescription...some meds and a bland diet for the next few days.

The cost...15 lari (about $8)

The good news...tests came back today and I'm fine. Tomorrow I go back to school.

Yay adventure!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Backgammon Philosophy

Tonight, as Tamaz and I sat down for our (almost) nightly ritual of backgammon and began to play, I came to realize something...I'm really not very good at it. Which wouldn't be such a problem if he didn't get so visibly (and vocally) frustrated with my performance...and you haven't really heard anything til you hear this man yell. Tamazi's exact words had me pinned as a tsudi mostsavle (bad student) and let me say, coming to the conclusion that you are struggling with something is one thing...being told by someone that you are, in effect, not trying very hard is quite another. You would think after weeks of observing experienced players and playing my fair share that I would have learned something in the process. Maybe I have; maybe my current slump has more to do with the fact that I am experimenting with different ways to play to find out what my unique strategy is. And maybe that's just a big fat excuse that serves only to mask the real reason I thought I was doing so well...the pure dumb luck of the dice.

So, of course, in my typical self analysis I have taken this small incident to look at my overall character. Because, let's face it, backgammon isn't the real problem here.

I am drawn to Tamazi's evaluation: bad student. Now I know that he says it because he wants me to improve myself but I have to ask myself, am I a bad student because I only pursue those things that I perceive to be interesting at first but when I find out how much hard work they really are I tend to slack off? Or worse, do I just deem those things that I find unimportant in the grand scheme (i.e. backgammon) to be not worth troubling over and write them off? What, if anything, has really ever been my passion?

Or is it just the blunt force honesty that hits so hard? As usual I equate criticism of me (however constructive it is meant) to be dislike of me. I think it upsets me so much partly because I'm worried that he thinks that my poor performance in backgammon betrays the same character flaw I see and thinks less of me for it. Which then only serves to make me more frustrated with myself.

So on one hand...if my self analysis is correct I am a directionless wanderer unable to identify what is important to me chiefly because I am so worried about pleasing everyone around me that I have lost sight (if I ever had any to begin with) of who I am.

On the other hand...it's just a game! Sheesh!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

While I was studying abroad in London during my senior year in college I discovered the peculiar homesickness that suddenly springs on the otherwise happily relocated American when their cherished national holiday comes around in late November. I think the chief reason for this is that Thanksgiving is primarily a family holiday; a day when you gather around with your family and friends to celebrate and share a meal. When you think about it, that simple action isn't really all thatremarkable. In fact when I wastrying to explain it to Georgians here I realized how truly unremarkable that all is, since that particular description of events happens about every week here. But beyond just a gathering of family for a recognized day ofthankfulness it is the knowledge that all of your neighbors and their friends and people across your country are partaking in the daytogether. Maybe I'm just overly sentimental about traditions but I like to see special days celebrated in a special way. Andknowing that Thanksgiving is supposed to be a special day it goes hard on me to see it passed by unrecognizedby the people around me here.

So I resolved to do something about it.

Though preparing a meal on the actual day was an impossibility (seeing as I had school all day), I had to settle for the next best thing...which turned out to be a most appropriate American alternative: Thanksgiving Day, Observed. The date being set for the Saturday after, all I had to do come up with a menu and invite the guests. Both proved fairly easy. Thankfully I am a pack-rat and keep everything...including the recipes from the Thanksgiving dinner I prepared for my mom and brother last year in California. They were nicely sitting, waiting for me in a file folder labeled "Thanksgiving recipes." Win. The task of inviting people was also easy. Since all of my friends are teachers I thought it would be considerate to double check with Nino to see if she was ok with having a bunch of teachers come over for dinner, since I do have to live with her. She thought it was a great idea, but made two exceptions. Sadly, Nana and Valeri, my Georgian teachers and two of the people I most wanted to share this with, were on the black list. Although I felt terrible having to leave them out (and would have happily explained if only I could communicate that thought!) I went ahead and asked around at school. I have never had such a fabulous response to invites...everyone was available and thrilled to come. Win.

I had a few things I wanted to prepare for the feast so the night before I was busy making party favors and place cards. You would think after working for 4 years in a living history museum and constantly striving for historical accuracy that I would not succumb myself (or others) to the stereotypes of the history of Thanksgiving. Not so. What could be more American than brainwashing unsuspecting students with the historical cliches that make up our national holiday identity. So it was all there. Pilgrims. Indians (Native Americans). Plymouth Rock. Turkey...yes that fabulous one that we all make in 1st grade that we draw with our hands. And some fun turkey facts.

Then it was on to food prep work. I made up a grocery list...on in Georgian for Eka and one in English for me. And Eka told me that she would add some dishes of her own to fill out the meal. Perfect! It would be just like when the Pilgrims and Indians came together bringing their two cultures together in a feast...or something like that! :) I had to go and proctor a Georgian exam in the morning on Saturday...more on that exercise in absurdity another time...so I got started around noon. Eka and I had more than a few obstacles to overcome. We are having some water problems, so no running water. That explained the pots of water that were on the counter when I got home from school. Interesting.

Knowing that the most time consuming parts of my part of the meal would be my two pies I got started making the crusts first. That's when it happened. While trying to cut into a tub of frozen butter the knife slipped and I stabbed myself in the hand. Oops. Not to worry, Dr. Eka was on hand. We rinsed the flour and butter out and Eka gave me a piece of bread...not to eat to boost my blood sugar after blood loss, but to actually put on the wound to stop it bleeding. Oddly enough it worked. Which was good because it was a really awkward place for a band-aid. And so keeping pressure on my piece of bread in one hand I cut butter into my pie crust dough with the other. This happy arrangement got me through not one, but two pie crusts...one for my apple pie and one for my pumpkin pie.

After crusts it was on to chopping and cooking the pumpkin for the pie. This caused quite a bit of concern as I have never made a pumpkin pie with real pumpkin and was not sure what instructions to give Eka on how to cook our pumpkin...or in fact what to say at all. Confusion ensued. (Ah the joys of having a sous chef who speaks a different language than you!) Thankfully Google was there to help and I figured it all out.

While the pumpkin cooked it was on to peeling carrots and potatoes and prepping the stuffing. That when the second wound of the day happened. While grating some carrots, I accidentally nicked my fingers on the grater. After a few seconds they stopped bleeding so no bread was necessary.

After that things started to move pretty quickly. The pumpkin pie went into the oven and the stuffing followed (which I burnt my finger on...wound count:3). I mashed the potatoes and then prepped the apple pie as the carrots cooked. I just had time enough to change before the guests arrived. Sopho gave me a call to say that they were close and I stepped outside to greet them and was thrilled to see everyone walking up the sidewalk together! What's more, they had brought chocolate and wine! :)

As we all sat down around the table to eat I couldn't help feeling a little nervous as my home life and school life met for the first time. But soon everyone was chatting away and laughing and having a great time! One thing that I found particularly odd was how everyone still spoke in Georgian. When I was planning this the thought had occurred to me that when we would gather the majority would be able to speak English...and I got excited at the prospect that I would finally be able to partake in conversation at a meal! That turned out to be only partly true. The only difference between this meal and all the others was that if I spoke up there were, at least, people other than Nino present who could understand me.

Upon reflection it was a wonderful fusion of an American Thanksgiving and traditional Georgian supra. I shared with everyone that on Thanksgiving we typically go around the table and say what we are thankful for. We did that, but we also still had all the toasts that you have a typical Georgian meal. Sentimental as I am, I teared up a bit as I told them all how thankful I was to share my holiday with all of them and gave a toast to my family and friends, in America, and my newfound ones in Georgia. I had prepared a slideshow ofthe history of Thanksgiving...including its road to becoming a National holiday as well as typical Thanksgiving Day traditions: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and football. I informed everyone that it was most appropriate that there had been a rugby game on earlier in the afternoon (Georgia vs. USA....I didn't even know we had a rugby team) as Thanksgiving is not complete in America without football. And since rugby is as close as you get here, the fact that our Georgian Thanksgiving had the Georgian equivalent of a football game on was fantastic! Then it was time for a little party game of our own and I handed out Thanksgiving word search puzzles for everyone! A big hit!

The other big hit was dessert! I had, of course, made, (the now traditional Georgian rectangular) apple pie and (a normal round) pumpkin pie and everyone loved the apple pie! Nino, Tamaz, Eka and Beka all declared it to be better than the last one I had made and Irma said that it was the best she had ever had! Oddly enough, the dish I was most excited about...pumpkin pie, was not a huge success. Though dismayed that one of the staples of the Thanksgiving table had failed where cranberry sauce, creamy mashed potatoes and stuffing had so admirably succeeded earlier in the evening I was pleased that that meant more for me!!

Well, after pie came the inevitable goodbyes. As my friends departed those that remained turned to the last great Thanksgiving tradition...the clean-up. And I have got to say that 5000 miles of difference doesn't make that job any more fun, especially when you don't have a dishwas

her. When we finally finished drying the last piece of silverware I was about to fall over I was so tired.

I am so thankful to have been able to share a part of me with my friends and family here, after they have shared so much of their lives with me. This is certainly a Thanksgiving I will never forget!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Good Eats - Chai

It seems only fitting as I sit here drinking a cup of tea that I write about the marvelous beverage. I have always been a lover of tea. From an early age I was drawn to it. Yes, in my formative years this love sprang from a detestation of tea's longstanding counterpart, coffee. And though my love of coffee has matured as my tastes have, I think that my heart has always belonged to tea. I think there is something inherently social about it. Friends gather together around a pot of tea while a cup of coffee is often pictured as a solitary ritual. Perhaps that's why tea is the hot beverage of choice here in Georgia.

It is fortunate that I love it so much as I literally drink it morning noon and night. When I get up in the morning a cup of tea is waiting for me at the breakfast table. When I get to school, the break room coffee pot (a staple in any American break room) is nowhere to be found but is replaced by a teapot. Throughout the day I usually have at least 2 or 3 cups. And that's not including the instances when they serve tea at lunch to the kids, like today, when I get an extra cup. When I return home between 2 and 4, after we eat dinner, we put the kettle on and make a fresh pot. Then, of course, there are the early evening and late evening cups. Happily one of the first things I learned to understand in Georgian was the question "Chai ginda?" (ჩაი გინდა?) (Do you want tea?) To which the answer is always, yes!

Though I can keep up with the average Georgian for total consumption, how I take my tea differs considerably from the norm. I usually take about one level teaspoon, give or take a pinch, in my cup. Most Georgians take two of three heaping spoonfuls and some of those are loaded into very small cups. Which brings us to teacups. There is the traditional cup and saucer option and there is the Turkish glass. The latter is a tiny glass cup, usually without any handles. You are supposed to delicately hold it where the glass curves and sip. Now, I have not found out how to hold said cup without scalding my fingers yet as tea here is served at boiling point. So I hold on to the rim but my thumb gets in the way and so I am forced to awkwardly twist my wrist around so that a clear path is revealed before I raise my whole arm to drink. Clearly, I lack some practice.

As the perfect compliment to almost anything, and though perhaps not good "eats" it ranks as one of my favorites.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to document a kidnapping. Today, Nino and I were pulled from school for a day trip into the country.

Our destination: Tamazi's home village, Patarzeuli (პატაზეული).

The reason: the annual pig slaughter and subsequent mtsvadi cookout!

I never really figured out the exact reason why we were killing said pig, but Nino said that it happens every year at this time. Never one to question tradition I was happy to go along, and it's not like I had much choice anyway. Tamaz had told me on Sunday that a sudden "virus" was going to grip the household on Tuesday, incapacitating Nino and I, and making us "too sick" for school. (The coolest part...he said all this in Georgian and I understood it! Progress!) Thankfully no lie was needed to get us the day off, just a phone call from Eka to the school on Monday afternoon to say that we wouldn't be there. There is a 3-day Turkish holiday going on this week which means half of the students are missing anyway, so it turned out not to be a big deal. So a win-win situation for me: a free day off from school, a journey out into the countryside (which I've been longing to see) and all the fresh meat roasted to perfection on a skewer I could eat! Win!

We left the house at around 11 and made our way out to Kakheti (კახეთი), the region in Georgia where Tamazi's village is. It was only about 25 minutes away but it didn't take long for the landscape to totally change. Living in the city I haven't really seen a whole lot of trees and countryside. I know that its autumn because it's November, but I didn't realize that I've sort of missed out seeing the changing colors this year until we started driving through Kakheti. It was really beautiful. Rolling green hills dotted with orange trees; clear blue skies and grey mountains in the distance. And the crisp cool air made for a perfect fall day.

Before going to the cookout we stopped by to say hi to Tamazi's mother. Stepping into her house was like stepping back in time. The more and more I see life in Georgia the more it reminds me of everything that I have read about life in the 18th century. It's not to say that they are "behind," they just don't have all of the extra amenities that we usually associate with "modern" life. And Tamazi's mother was awesome. She came to greet us from the garden, where she had been taking care of the chickens. (When we came back to say goodbye on our way back into town she had killed and plucked two of them for us!) She was like those women that you always read about in books or see in National Geographic pictures; weather-worn by years of hard work but clearly a strong woman, full of love and still beautiful (even at 80).

By the time we got to the cookout they were already well underway. The pig had been killed and the men were busy cutting it up. (Warning: if you are squeamish move on to the next paragraph.) The head was hanging by the stairs up to the balcony, and the liver, lungs and other vital organs were suspended nearby. When we came into the gate a jiggling wheelbarrow full of intestines was being pushed away. I'm still not sure where that ended up and I had know idea that pigs had that much intestine!

They were finished the butchering in less than 15 minutes after we arrived. Then it was simply a matter of skewering the meat and putting the mtsvadi over the hot coals. What wasn't skewered was put in a huge pot over a roaring fire to be boiled in a traditional Kakhetian dish called hash lamba (ხაშ ლამბა). In minutes we were eating some of the best meat I have ever had! I knew that freshly killed meat was supposed to have a better flavor than the stuff you get at the store but I never realized how good! And seeing as the only things seasoning this meat were a touch of salt and the smoke from the coals, that's saying something about its natural flavor. We ate and ate until we couldn't eat anymore...although the cooking continued.

In the midst of all of this I had moved in status from stranger to guest and was being encouraged to tend the meat on the fire and drink toasts to homeland, friends and family! (My protests against drinking Georgian vodka...which I'm sure is wearing a small hole in my liver right now...that early in the day, fell on deaf ears.) It was little wonder that after all of this, when I sat down on a bed in the house I was asleep in just a few minutes.

I can't think of any other way that I would rather spend a perfect fall day than by gathering around a table with family and eating a great meal! My only regret is that it only happens once a year!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Good Eats - Puri

A dedication to bread has been here long overdue. It is a truth universally acknowledged (by all who have tasted it) that if you actually want good bread in America you have to either find an authentic european bakery (preferably French or Italian) or research artisanal breads and learn to make them yourself. Sadly most Americans have never tasted real bread, preferring instead to partake of the store bought variety. This, of course, comes to you "bakery fresh" in plastic bags and with enough preservatives in it to keep it safe in said plastic for inordinate lengths of time. The true tragedy here is not that Americans have never tasted real bread, but that they are blithely oblivious to the fact. I say all of this not to condemn but out of a heartfelt sympathy for my fellow countrymen, and as a recent convert to the world beyond Wonderbread.

I could literally eat Georgian bread, or puri (კური) all day. Here at home we eat a type called lavishi (ლავაში). It's oval-shaped and rather flat, no more than 3/4 of an inch in its dense center and growing to only double that wher

e big air bubble form within. It kind of looks like someone took pizza dough and stretched it longways a bit too far. But it's oh, soo much better than pizza dough. I have been trying to think of a way to describe this bread that would do it justice but I'm afraid I lack the skill. So, knowing that you really just have to taste it to know, I'll venture to do my best.

The first bite is what grabs you. There is the slightest hint of something sweet, a faint taste of something like cinnamon. From there, there is a subtle buttery flavor that defies you to stop eating. You can't, of course. Eaten alone, or with butter, honey or jam, or used to soak up the savory juices of whatever you are eating, it is practically perfect in every way. Good thing it's served at every meal. Piled high on a plate we just grab a slice, tear off a piece and enjoy!

The other variety of this classic Georgian staple is called shoti (შოთი). It is baked in the boat shape seen before in the ajarulian khachapuri and can be acquired, freshly baked, on nearly every street. In fact, you can't go too far down the street without running into someone carrying one, or more of these strange loaves tucked up under their arm. My favorite is seeing hundreds of these loaves packed into the back seat of a car (not as uncommon a sight as you'd think), clearly making their way from some remote bakery to be sold in town.

And just when I thought that Georgian bread couldn't get any better, I had nazuki (ნაზაქი) tonight with tea. It had all the wonderful characteristics that make lavishi so amazing (the texture, the shape, the yummy air bubbles...yes, air bubbles can be yummy) but this was the sweet bread version. It was spiced, had raisins, and to top it all off, it was glazed with honey! It was gone in minutes.

Whatever way it comes, lavishi, shoti, or nazuki, Georgian bread (kartuli puri) is wonderfully good eats.